On this day in 1680, Madame Monvoisin—known as “La Voisin”—was executed in Paris for her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons. This affair was one of the most sensational criminal cases of 17th-century France since it involved several fortune-tellers and members of the aristocracy, who were accused of witchcraft and poisoning.
The origin of the Affair of the Poisons dates back to 1675, during Louis XIV’s reign, right after the trial of the Marquise de Brinvilliers. The Marquise was accused of having conspired with her lover, captain Godin de Sainte-Croix, to poison her father and two of her brothers in order to inherit their states. Even though she fled after the accusations were made, she was later arrested in Liége, Belgium. After she confessed to the crimes, she was tortured and beheaded, and her body burned at the stake.
The trial was so sensational that it drew attention to other mysterious deaths of influential members of the French nobility, who had died unexpectedly and close upon one another during the last years. As a result, prominent figures, including Louis XIV, started to fear that they might be poisoned.
Investigation of the Affair
The outbreak of the affair was in February 1677, when Magdelaine de La Grange, a fortune-teller, was arrested on charges of forgery and murder. She claimed to have information about other crimes of great importance related to members of the aristocracy and both the chief of the Paris police and Louis XIV were informed about it. The subsequent investigation of potential poisoners led to accusations of witchcraft, murder and more.
During the following months, authorities interrogated several fortune-tellers and alchemists suspected of selling poison. After being tortured, they confessed and provided lists of clients, who allegedly bought poison to kill their spouses and rivals at the royal court. Among the most scandalous arrests was that of fortune-teller Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin. She in turn implicated several prominent members of the court, including Olympe Mancini, Countess of Soissons; her sister, the Duchess of Bouillon; François Henri de Montmorency, Duke of Luxembourg; and the best known of them all, Madame de Montespan, official mistress of Louis XIV. Concerning the latter, La Voisin claimed that Montespan had acquired aphrodisiacs and participated in black masses in order to remain in the king's favour against other rivals. La Voisin was sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning and burned at the stake on 22 February 1680
By that time, fear was out of control at the royal court, and the king had no choice but to establish a special tribunal, the Chambre Ardente, to investigate these murders. Nicolas de La Reynie, whose investigation took three years, headed the inquiry.
End of the Affair and Consequences
During the investigations, 442 people were charged with crimes related to witchcraft and poisoning. The trials were put to a stop following the claims about Montespan, with the aim of ending the humiliating rumours about the king being poisoned with love potions by his mistress. After a few months, the Chambre Ardente continued, but this pause stripped away some of its fiery intensity since most of the key players had already been executed or arrested. In April 1682, La Reynie acknowledged that it might be time to let go and the king agreed to shut it down and burn all the documents related to it.
Even though life at the royal court returned to normal, its reputation was heavily damaged, as it had changed from a sophisticated and refined place to one of vice and murder. Inside the court, people of high status were arrested and many others fled and never returned to France. Among these people was the Countess of Soissons, whose son, Prince Eugene of Savoy, would nurture a profound grudge against the king and enter the service of the Habsburgs, one of France’s enemies. This can be considered one of the most important consequences of the affair since Eugene would, in time, become one of the greatest generals of that time and one of the reasons that prevented Louis’ hegemony in Europe.
- 17th century
- louis xiv
- french court
- la voisin
- eugene of savoy
- house of savoy