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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Two Sides to Every Story: Madame de Montespan, Guilty or Innocent?

Two Sides

Today I have the opportunity to welcome Kate Braithwaite, author of Charlatan, to The Maiden’s Court with another contribution to the Two Sides to Every Story sseries.  Today we travel to the world fo the French court of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.  I hope you will enjoy this as much as I have!

Fully-Fledged Poisoner or Dabbler in Love Potions? Madame de Montespan, Guilty or Innocent?

In 1680, a prisoner in the Château de Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris, alleged that Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the long-time mistress of Louis XIV had used her connections to an underworld of fortune-tellers and poisoners to attempt to poison the King and his new mistress Angélique de Fontanges. The informant was Marie Montvoisin, daughter of Catherine Montvoisin, a woman suspected of involvement in several poisonings, an illegal abortion business and even of using black magic and satanic rituals to satisfy the demands of her wealthy clientele.

Marie Montvoisin was not the only one to accuse Athénaïs. Other prisoners – part of the scandal known as the Affair of the Poisons – joined in, describing infant sacrifice, plots to kill the king with poisoned parchment or murder Angélique with poisoned gloves. Marie claimed that Athénaïs had been her mother’s client for years and trial records showed that she had been named as a client of another fortune-teller, a man called Lesage, as far back as 1668.

Angélique de Fontanges died in on June 28th, 1681 aged only nineteen. Poison was immediately suspected although autopsy records suggest she may have suffered from lung disease or possibly from complications from a miscarriage. Versailles was rife with whispers about which courtiers were involved with the prisoners in the Château de Vincennes and several noblewomen were arrested and tried for their connections to Catherine Montvoisin, Lesage and many others.

Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, however, was never arrested or interrogated. Louis XIV instructed his investigators to record any mention of his famous lover separately. All the papers related to their investigation of her were hidden from the public record. Whatever rumors there were of her involvement with the Affair of the Poisons, gradually dissipated over the years. In 1709, Louis requested that all the records of that investigation be brought to him and he burned them one by one. He did not know, however, that his investigator, La Reynie, had kept another copy of the documents and in the 1870’s these papers were published by François Ravaisson in Les Archives de la Bastille.

Athénaïs’ guilt or innocence has been a subject of debate ever since.

Madame de Montespan
Photo Credit: Pierre Mignard [Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Who was Athénaïs?

Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the famously beautiful and witty maîtresse-en-titre of the Sun King Louis XIV, was born in Lussac in 1640. She was the third child of the Duc and Duchesse de Mortemart, one of France’s most noble families.

At the age of twenty, Athénaïs arrived at court to take up a position within the household of Queen Marie-Thérèse where she became known for her beauty, intelligence and virtue. Although highly marriageable, it wasn’t until three years later, in 1663, that she married the Marquis de Montespan. Together they had two children, but the marriage, arranged in haste only a week after Athénaïs’ previous fiancée was forced to leave Paris after a duel, did not last. Montespan was a gambler. His family connections weakened Athénaïs at court and they quickly found it impossible to live the lavish life she demanded – and needed – to succeed in the Queen’s household.

That the marriage ended bitterly is evidenced by the fact that Montespan tried to attack her at the Château de St Germain and threatened to visit brothels with the express purpose of contracting a disease he could pass on to his wife. Eventually he was forced by the King to retire to his estates in Gascony with their two children where he held a full-blown mock funeral for his wife.

Of course the King’s intervention was self-motivated. Athénaïs’ relationship with Louis most likely began in 1667 as he tired of his then mistress, Louise de la Vallière. Louise had to remain at court, however, and provide cover for her friend Athénaïs even as she supplanted her. The double adultery (as both parties were married) was considered far more scandalous than Louis’ affair with the unmarried Louise, and as a result, they were separated by the Church for a year in 1675.

In the hey-day of their love affair though, Athénaïs and Louis appeared to be the perfect match in wit, beauty and creativity. They both loved ballet and theatre and loved to perform themselves, as well as support artists like Racine and Molière. It was during this period that Versailles was developed as the center of Louis’ court. Athénaïs and the King made love and bathed in the Appartement des Bains, held gondola parties, built fountains, designed gardens and filled Versailles with the baroque paintings and sculptures for which it is famous. In 1676, the now divorced Athénaïs’ suite at Versailles comprised of twenty rooms on the second floor, right next to the King’s. The Queen, in comparison, only had eleven rooms. Between 1669 and 1678, Athénaïs gave birth to seven of Louis’ children.

But maintaining the attention of the King through seven pregnancies was not easy. Louis had notable dalliances with other women including the Princesse de Soubise (until she fell and knocked out a tooth and much of her charm with it) and Isabelle La Ludres who may have feigned a pregnancy to try to prologue her affair with Louis. For nearly ten years, Athénaïs saw off all challengers but, in 1678, a beautiful young woman called Angélique de Fontanges arrived at Versailles and Louis, aged 40, was instantly smitten. Although he still visited her every day, Athénaïs as a lover was clearly put to one side in favor of Angélique who soon fell pregnant. Unfortunately for Angélique, her child died at birth and she never recovered physically. She died in 1681 and at the time many observers believed she had been poisoned - by Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan.

Was she guilty?

The most commonly held view of modern historians is that Athénaïs was guilty of extensive use of love potions in her attempts to maintain her position with Louis, but not guilty of the wilder accusations made against her by the prisoners in the Château de Vincennes. Louis’ behavior towards her, after the Affair of the Poisons was concluded in 1682, is held to be the best indicator of her innocence. Although their love affair was over, the King continued to visit his former mistress and the mother of so many of his children. She was promoted to the post of Superintendent to the Queen’s household, a high honor, and she remained at court until 1691 when, in a fit of temper over not being consulted about her children’s education, she asked for permission to retire. Before she could change her mind, Athénaïs’ apartments at Versailles were re-allocated. Athénaïs spent the next sixteen years travelling and doing charitable works, until her death in 1707.

Further Reading/Sources

The Affair of the Poisons, Murder, Infanticide and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV, Anne Somerset, 2003.

Love & Louis XIV, The women in the life of the Sun King, Antonia Fraser, 2006.

The Real Queen of France, Athénaïs & Louis XIV, Lisa Hilton, 2002.


Kate Braithwaite is the author of Charlatan, a historical thriller about the Affair of the Poisons that sent shockwaves through the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Charlatan was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Award in 2015.  You can find her on her website, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter.

Buy the Book: Amazon

Book Blurb:

1676. In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of Louis XIV.

Three years later, Athanais, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamourous mistress, is nearly forty.  She has borne Louis seven children, but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year old Angelique de Fontanges.

At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and prisoners operating in the city.  Athenais does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin.


So, what do you think about Madame de Montespan?  Have you read any good books about her?  I would love to hear your thoughts!!


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