Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Affair of the Poisons - Louis XIV

In my novel there will be scenes that take place in 17th century France, at Versailles, etc. The affair of the poisons was probably over by the time of the novel, but it is useful background information to have.

From: The Affair of the Poisons, by Anne Somerset.


There were several different units of currency employed in France at this period. In addition to the livre, which was the basic unit of currency:

1 écu = 3 livres
1 pistole = 10 livres
1 gold louis = 24 livres

… a succession of entertainments were devised, in which his courtiers enthusiastically participated. Every evening there were plays, concerts or carriage rides or, alternatively, a nocturnal gondola trip on the newly enlarged canal to the palace’s western side might be followed by a torchlight picnic supper. In the afternoons the courtiers were kept amused by gambling sessions in the King’s upper apartment, an imposing suite of rooms, which had only recently been completed [July 1676]. In these ornate surroundings they hazarded their luck at the newly fashionable game of reversis and, since the minimum stake was 500 louis, huge sums were won and lost.

Prominent at the gaming tables was the Marquise de Montespan, who had been the King’s mistress for the past nine years and had already borne Louis five children. She was universally agreed to be a great beauty… She had recently lost weight after a visit to the spa town of Bourbon and was dressed in the height of fashion, wearing a gown lavishly adorned with exquisite lace. Her blond hair was arranged in a mass of curls, becomingly topped by black ribbons, and at her throat she wore jewels that might have been borrowed from the Maréchale de l’Hôpital, but which were finer than any the Queen possessed.

It is a truism that life at Versailles, so grand in many ways, was also pervaded by squalor. In an age of primitive sanitation this was, of course, a problem common to all large buildings where many people congregated. When touring Fontainebleau in 1677, John Locke noted that the back stairs leading to the apartments of the King’s brother smelt like a urinal. In 1675 a report on the Louvre claimed that ‘on the grand staircases…behind the doors and almost everywhere one sees there a mass of excrement, one smells a thousand unbearable stenches caused by calls of nature which everyone goes to do there every day.’

The King had been supremely successful in ensuring that the life of the French aristocracy resolved around the court, even while he denied them a role in central government. Despite their effective exclusion from political power, other forms of advancement were open to the nobility and they pursued these assiduously. They came to court to negotiate advantageous marriages, or in hopes of obtaining preferment in the army and Church. Others craved positions in the royal household, which not only conferred prestige on the holder but brought with them tangible benefits. The King might reward loyal servants with financial favors such as pensions or grants on monopoly… Contact with King afforded opportunities to present him with direct requests, as well as to intercede for others who did not enjoy such close proximity to the monarch.

Inevitably the court was beset by jealousy and spite. A Paris doctor named Gui Patin declared in 1664, ‘The court is full of intrigue, ambition and avarice’ and he stigmatized it as a place where people would rather repudiate their closest companions than to see them prosper. The Duc d’Antin confirmed this by observing that, at court, ‘One should, as a fundamental principle, render ill services to everyone, for fear of seeing someone elevated.

The Marquis de Sourches recalled, ‘As few people had money, everyone sought ways of getting it. Whenever an attractive opportunity arose, people of both sexes at court could be utterly unscrupulous about pursuing it.

Rank and precedence were of paramount importance in court society and provided fertile ground for quarrels. The passions stirred up by such matters may now seem strange but people at court were conscious that they provided the criteria by which they were evaluated. It was not vanity alone that led court notables to expend such energy on struggles over precedence, for their standing at court defined them in the eyes of the world. It even affected the prestige in which they were held in their local communities, for visitors who came to court from outlying areas were capable of judging the nuances of etiquette, and their esteem for the individual nobles varied accordingly.

… Distinctions such as the right to wear a hat in the presence of foreign ambassadors, or to kneel on a certain sort of hassock in church, gave rise to bitter controversy. Duchesses were entitled to sit on stools known as tabourets during audiences with the Queen, but many of them coveted the honor reserved for ladies of still higher rank, which could occupy a chair with a back or, better still, an armchair. Dukes and peers were accorded the jealously guarded privilege of having both double doors opened for them as they passed through rooms at court…

La Bruyère wrote: ‘The court does not make one happy; it prevents one from being somewhere else.’

Besides the regular amusements which punctuated the court’s social calendar, still more spectacular entertainments were periodically put on for the courtiers. These fêtes lasted several days and were of an opulence and extravagance that left observers gasping. Their object was by no means wholly frivolous, for the King believed they filled a valuable propaganda purpose. He told his son that when foreigners saw that substantial sums were being lavished on ‘expenses which can be considered superfluous,’ it ‘made a very advantageous impression on them of magnificence, power, riches and grandeur.’

They started on 4 July [1674] with a feast, which took place in a glade in the gardens of Versailles. As music played softly, guests took refreshments at marble tables that had been set up in leafy enclosures overlooking a specially constructed pond. In the center of this was a realistic artificial tree cast in bronze, from whose branches water spurted. Jets also gushed from bronze bowls set in the centers of the tables, carefully designed to minimize splashing. Interspersed among the porcelain tubs full of flowers which surrounded the tables were ice figures of various shapes and sizes, a particularly impressive sight in high summer in an age where refrigeration was unknown. Having eaten their fill, the guests returned to the Chateau, where every window was illuminated with candles. A performance of Alceste then took place in the marble courtyard, converted for the evening into a sumptuous theater, decorated with orange trees in tubs on marble pedestals and lit by crystal chandeliers.

Five days leater a concert was held in the gardens of the Porcelain Trianon, an enchanting pavilion made of Delft tiles that the King had originally constructed for trysts with Mme De Montespan. On 28 July the King gave a supper for the ladies of the court in the octagonal menagerie and this was followed nine days later by an open-air feast in a specially constructed amphitheater. The enclosure was bordered by grass terraces, ascending in tiers, and was bedecked with apple, pear and apricot trees in tubs, all laden with fruit out of season. A ‘sumptuous collation’ was provided, concluding with crystallized fruits and sorbets, with every sort of liqueur being served from crystal carafes. The evening terminated with an opera and a firework display over the canal.

The final offering in this triumphal cycle of entertainments took place ten days later in another grove in the gardens of Versailles. A circular table twenty-four feet in diameter had been set there with the usual array of delicacies. Around its circumference were placed pyramids of fruit, topped with golden balls and linked with festoons of flowers. Afterwards the King and Queen drove by carriage to see Racine’s Iphigenia performed in the orangery, where a temporary—albeit exceptionally elaborate—theater had been improvised. To approach this structure they passed down a path bordered with grottoes and fountains, and entered through a marble portico, supported by pillars of lapis lazuli. After the play, the guests again congregated in the gardens to see a firework display and illuminations on the canal.

For this final tableau vast figures, artfully lit, were placed on stone pedestals embellished with bas-relief friezes. On one of these, captives were depicted huddled at the feet of a triumphant Hercules, who was being crowned with flowers and laurels by little children… the fact that during the following year the oppressive weight of tax resulted in a series of revolts in various parts of France, tends to support the Abbé de Choisy’s observation: ‘The people were in penury while we talked of nothing but fêtes, ballets and diversions.”

The games played at court in the King’s reign were hoca, (a precursor of roulette), reversis, basset and lansquenet. The Lieutenant-General of the Paris Police, Nicolas-Gabriel de La Reynie, considered that hoca was especially pernicious as it afforded numerous opportunities for cheating. On his insistence in 1671 it was banned in Paris on pain of death but, as he lamented, the fact that it continued to be played at court meant that it was difficult to enforce this prohibition.

Towards the end of the 1670-s basset replaced hoca as the current craze, but its effects were scarcely less destructive. Indeed, it would seem that the reason why the King—who until that point had himself been a keen gamester—virtually ceased gambling was that he was sickened by the extent that people close to him became addicted to it. Not only was his mistress Mme de Montespan a frenzied gambler but in 1678 the King’s brother, known as ‘Monsieur,’ lost so much that he had to pawn his best jewels.

Curiously, it was not considered unacceptable to show wild excitement during gambling sessions. Those who maintained their dignity such as the Comtesse de Soissons or the Marquis de Beaumont (‘who lost 10,000 pistoles and fell into poverty without uttering a single word’), were the exceptions. Most people were completely uninhibited when playing: they swore, tore at their hair, pounded the table or stamped their feet, and the Duchesse de Bouillon, sister to the Comtesse de Soissons, would turn on onlookers, accusing them of bringing her bad luck.

Gambling provided one absorbing occupation for the court’s leisured elite, but time was still apt to lie heavy on their hands. As a result they were invariably on the lookout for novel diversions and were not always too particular about how they alleviated boredom. Fortune-tellers and those supposedly gifted with powers of divination offered excitements that many people at court found intriguing.

As Voltaire remarked of this period, ‘The former habit of consulting diviners, to have one’s horoscope drawn, to seek secret means of making oneself loved, still survived among the people and even in the highest of the kingdom.’ Such credulity so angered Bishop Bossuet that he attacked it in one of this sermons…

According to Voltaire the French court was characterized by a “singular politeness,” taking its tenor in this from the King who was described by one acquaintance as “the most polite man in his kingdom.”

The French court instilled in its inhabitants an overwhelming sense of superiority, for it was taken as self-evident that the world of Versailles represented civilization at its height. The Abbé de Saint-Réal noted wryly, “Their contempt for anything that is not of the court is unimaginable, and goes to the point of extravagance. There is nothing well said or well done except what is said or done among them.” In his opinion, however, the luster of the court was largely superficial. He wrote caustically, “The people of the court…are not all men of intelligence but they are possessed of an admirable politeness that serves them in its stead. They are not all worthy men but they have the air and manner that makes one think them such.”

Although great importance was attached to correct behavior, the courtly code of conduct was much less strict when it came to fundamental morality. La Bruyère commented that at court one saw “vice reign equally with good breeding” and the curé of Versailles, Hébert, claimed that never before had there been a court “so given up to every sort of vice.”

Primi Visconti was surprised to see that many aristocratic married ladies lived separate existences from their husbands, which he believed was conducive to “a great liberty of morals.” Even in cases where marriages had not completely broken down, infidelity was rife. The King’s German sister-in-law, Madame, stated, “It is an acknowledged fact that men have affairs and scorn their wives,” and after studying the period Voltaire formed the impression that “all the married women were permitted to have lovers.”

Ladies had to exercise care in committing adultery, for husbands whose wives too blatantly overstepped the bounds of decorum had the right to incarcerate them in a convent…

At times the fawning and sycophancy surrounding the King reached absurd levels. Once, when the Abbé de Polignac was walking with the King in the garden of Marley, Louis’s private retreat near Versailles, it started to rain and the King expressed concern that the Abbé’s cassock afforded him little protection. “Sire, that makes no difference, the rain is not wet at Marley,” the Abbé simpered. The Duc d’Uzès professed in equally strong conviction that the forces of nature were in thrall to the King. When Louis asked him on what day his wife’s baby was expected, he answered, “Sire, the day it pleases your Majesty.” The Duc de Richelieu was scarcely less effusive, declaring on one occasion, “I would rather die than go two months without seeing the King.”

The elaborate ritual that governed the serving of the King’s food was partly designed to protect him from poisoners. When the King ate his midday meal, a table was set up near his own where the food was tasted before being offered to him. His own Maître d’hôtel and écuyer also rubbed small pieces of bread on his napkin, plates and cutlery (not forgetting the royal toothpick), and then ate the bread to see if it had been contaminated by poison.

Since the King’s grandfather, Henri VI, and the latter’s immediate predecessor, Henri III, had both been assassinated by solitary fanatics, it was understandable that there were fears that Louis himself might fall victim to a similar attack. However, the harsh treatment meted out to individuals who merely voiced sentiments hostile to the King excited some criticism. In July 1668 a woman whose son had been killed in a fall during construction work at Versailles presented the King with a blank petition and then started shrieking abuse. Startled, the King asked her if she was addressing him; when she said yes, she was seized and condemned to be whipped “with extreme vigor”… A few days later a man aged about sixty was arrested for having uttered “similar extravagances”, albeit not in the presence of the King. He had burst out that Louis was a tyrant and that France needed virtuous men like Ravaillac (the assassin of Henri IV) who could set matters right. He was sentenced to having his tongue cut out and then to serve in the galleys for the remainder of his life. This caused murmurs of disapproval for, though the customary punishment for blasphemers was to have a hole bored in their tongue, cutting it out altogether was not an established penalty. It was felt that in their eagerness to please the King the Grand Provost and his colleagues in the criminal courts had resorted to arbitrary measures.

As Mme de Caylus remarked, it was the Queen’s misfortune that the King seemed to love all women save his own wife. Saint-Maurice declared that this was not just because they afforded him physical pleasure but also because Louis genuinely enjoyed their company… With so many women vying for the same goal, the atmosphere at court sometimes became unpleasant… But it was not just the ladies who thought that a love affair with the King would be a rewarding experience. Primi Visconti declared, “The worst thing is that their families, fathers, mothers and even certain husbands would take pride in it.”

Between 1661-1680 the King always had a maîtresse-en-titre but he slept with many other women during those years. He had a voracious sexual appetite so it is impossible to estimate the total number of partners. The ladies whom he was said to have bedded included the Princesse de Monaco, the Comtesse de Gramont, Mme de Soubise, Mlle de Theobon, Mme de Roquelaure, Mlle des Oeillets and Mme de Ludres. Almost certainly he had in addition numerous encounters. The King’s sister-in-law recalled, “Often he took gallantry to the point of debauchery. Nothing came amiss to him as long as it was female—peasants, gardener’s daughters, ladies of quality. They need only pretend to be in love with him.” According to her, “He has slept with women he didn’t know at all” and the Marquis de Saint-Maurice provides further insights on his promiscuity. Having informed the Duke of Savoy that the King had recently slept with Mme de Saint-Martin he confided, “He uses those sort of women like post horses, that one mounts once and never sees again.”

[The King’s] faith may have been unsubtle, but it was robust and he regarded himself as subject to God. Since he did not believe he was exempt from divine retribution, he was uncomfortably aware that indulging his lust carried a risk of eternal damnation.

In his twenties the prospect seemed so remote that for most of the time the King had little difficulty shrugging off this unpalatable thought. At Whitsun 1664, when the King’s love for Louise de La Vallière was at its height, he was not only prepared to forgo the consolations of religion rather than renounce his mistress, but he scoffed at his brother, who apparently saw no contradiction in interspersing his bouts of sodomy with receiving the sacrament. Scornfully he told Monsieur that “he would not play the hypocrite like him, who went to confession because the Queen Mother wished it.”

Although few people at court dared reproach the King for incontinence there was at least one brave churchman who did his best to awaken his conscience. In early 1662, a few months after Louis had started his affair with Louise de La Vallière, the great orator Bossuet preached a sermon before the King on the theme of David and Bathsheba. Later that Lent he told Louis in another sermon that it was essential that a sovereign should embrace both the royal and the Christian virtues. “We cannot accept that he lacks a single one, no, not a single one,” he pointedly claimed.

Clearly, the King had not found it easy to forget Bossuet’s admonition and at Easter 1675 he experienced a major crisis of conscience. Despite the fact that he was still in love with Mme de Montespan he attempted to break with her although, in the end, he proved incapable of doing so. However, during the next four years their interludes of passion were disrupted by regular estrangements. Sometimes the difficulties were caused by the King’s attentions to other women, but at Easter different problems arose, for the knowledge that it was incumbent on him to confess and communicate meant that, around this time of year, the King became particularly conscious that his addiction to sensual pleasure was endangering his soul.

All this meant that when eminent people at court were implicated in the Affair of the Poisons the King had to contemplate the possibility that, indirectly at least, he was in some way responsible. His own carnality and sinfulness had contributed to the court’s corruption and moral decay, undermining its spiritual welfare to a point where evil flourished.

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