Ancient history

The Marquise de Brinvilliers

Marie Madeleine Dreux d'Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, born on July 2, 1630, made famous by the Poison Affair, was tried on July 16, 1676 and executed the next day for the crime of fratricide1 by poisoning.

Brilliant years

The marquise is the eldest of the five children of Antoine Dreux d'Aubray (1600-1666), lord of Offémont and civil lieutenant of the Châtelet of Paris at the time of the Fronde (he appears as such in the Memoirs of the Cardinal de Retz), and Marie Olier († 1666). Through her mother, she is the niece of Jean-Jacques Olier, an eminent member of the devout party, as founder of the company of priests of Saint-Sulpice.

Orphan of a mother who died in childbirth, she was raped by a servant at the age of seven. His sulphurous reputation then lends him, without the slightest proof, to incestuous relations with one of his brothers from the age of ten.

Richly endowed with two hundred thousand pounds, she married on December 20, 1651 Antoine Gobelin, Marquis de Brinvilliers, mestre de camp, who commanded the regiment of Auvergne, and gambler. Contemporary testimonies present her to us at the time as a pretty bit of a woman with a disarming air of innocence. Coming from the nobility of the robe, she received a good education:Marie-Madeleine became a fairly educated woman if we look at her writing according to certain sources of the time. It makes few spelling mistakes and has good syntax. This is not negligible at a time when a majority of women (also in the nobility) can neither read nor write and are even unable to sign by name. She would become the mother of seven children, four of whom were illegitimate. The Brinvilliers couple lived in a mansion, rue Saint-Paul in Paris.

The marquise became a (false) friend of Pierre Louis Reich de Pennautier, treasurer of the states of Languedoc, businessman, who in 1669 became receiver general for the clergy.

She becomes the lover of Godin de Sainte-Croix, a cavalry officer passionate about alchemy, who is introduced to her by her husband. Spending lavishly to satisfy her luxury tastes and those of her lover, embarking on adventurous investments advised by Pennautier, she would live brilliant years without ceasing to be on the verge of ruin. Antoine de Brinvilliers cares little about his wife's relationship with Sainte-Croix, maintaining several mistresses himself and spending his fortune on gambling.

The secret of poisons discovered at the Bastille

Dreux d'Aubray, irritated by the conduct of his daughter, imprisoned the seducer in La Bastille in 1663 by a letter of cachet. Sainte-Croix becomes the friend of his cellmate, the Italian poisoner Exili, who had already committed numerous poisonings. The knight has already been trained in this art by following the courses of Christophe Glaser at the Royal Plant Garden.

On his release after 6 weeks of imprisonment, he finds his mistress and teaches her the art he has just learned. Having become an expert and certainly under the influence of her lover, Marie Madeleine bought vials from Glaser and, according to legend, would have exercised her "talents" on patients at the Hôtel-Dieu and on her maid, writing down everything ( doses, symptoms, length of agony), noting with satisfaction that doctors always conclude that deaths are natural. She succeeded in successively poisoning her father (September 10, 1666), then her two brothers and her sister, six months apart (in 1670) in order to remove the obstacles to her affair and to touch alone the inheritance which turns out to be derisory. The poisoning of the first brother in 1670 coincides with the death of Henrietta of England, who was not poisoned, contrary to popular opinion (probable acute intermittent porphyria or biliary peritonitis).

Her husband, suspicious and fearing for his life, prefers to withdraw to his lands in 1670.

The tape with the accusing content

In order to blackmail the marquise and continue to extort money from her, Sainte-Croix locks up proof of guilt (confession written by her own hand in her diary, the 34 love letters of the marquise, two bonds of money subscribed by her after the assassination of her father and her two brothers, as well as vials of poison) of her mistress in a casket "to be opened only in the event of death prior to that of the Marquise". And unfortunately for her, Godin de Sainte-Croix died accidentally on July 31, 1672. Burdened with debt, her creditors wrote to the king's attorney to claim their due, so much so that an inventory of her property was ordered. It was on this occasion that the red leather box was found and opened on August 8. The Marquise was sought after and fled successively to London, from where Colbert tried to bring her back by force to France, then to the United Provinces and to a monastery of regular canonesses of Saint Augustine, the manor of Melkhause near Liège.

The servant of Sainte-Croix, La Chaussée, who had helped the Marquise, is arrested. Subjected to the question, he makes a full confession.

She herself, condemned in absentia in 1673, was found in a convent near Liège and brought back to France in 1676 by the ruse of a police officer disguised as a priest, François Desgrez. His suicide attempt fails. During her long trial (April 29 - July 16, 1676), she refuses any confession despite the question (water torture her executioners would have made her drink 28l of water). She was sentenced to an honorable amende, that is to say that her execution was made public.
Driven to Place de Grève in a homespun dress, she was beheaded, blindfolded, to the sword, by the Paris executioner André Guillaume, who then carried his body to the stake. Then the executioner takes the still bandaged head and throws it into the fire in front of the jostling crowd. The executioner's servants disperse his ashes in the Seine as well as all the vials and powders found while his property is confiscated

The mystery of the popularity of a parricide

The reasons given for these repeated, cold-blooded murders were varied, none of them sufficient:taking control of the family inheritance, desire to emancipate from his family, enormous need for money for his lifestyle, or quite simply a taste for murder. Her vindictiveness against her family and her terrible past were evoked:from the age of seven, she was raped by one of her servants and around the age of ten she "gave herself" to her young brothers Antoine and François, as she recounts in a handwritten confession.

The use of poison is common to most killers who avoid the physical act. The marquise used mixtures including many products, including arsenic, which she skillfully dosed, depending on the time she had. It was the time taken to poison his father that appalled the most. Madame de Sévigné would later write:“Murder is the surest (...); it is a trifle in comparison with being eight months killing her father, and receiving all his caresses and all his sweetness, where she only responded by always doubling the dose. »

At the same time, her courage under torture and her extraordinary piety in prison moved many of her contemporaries, who saw her as a “saint”.

After her death, a reputation as a saint

His lawyer, Maître Nivelle, pleaded the lack of evidence and the absence of a confession. It was only after her trial, pending her execution, that she agreed to confide in a confessor, Father Pirot. Edmond Pirot, theologian, was appointed by President Guillaume I de Lamoignon to assist La Brinvilliers in order to obtain the information that justice had not been able to obtain. She was impressed by the man of God and dared to ask:“Father, are there irremissible crimes? “No,” he answered, “so great is the mercy of God”. On this word she was converted and died on the scaffold in faith and peace. Pirot will say that he had had a saint in front of him and that he would have liked to have been in the Marquise's place.

During the execution, on July 17, 1676, his piety impressed the crowd, yet his body was burned and his ashes scattered.

Her trial, her conviction and her execution are reported in the Crimes Célèbres of Alexandre Dumas and in the correspondence of Madame de Sévigné who wrote:“The next day we were looking for her bones, because the people said she was a saint. ". A saint who was said to have wanted to punish the Franco-English alliance of 1670 by poisoning Madame Henriette of England, just as an attempt had been made in 1658 to prevent Mazarin's alliance with a heretical power19. Currently, many authors, including Agnès Walch, have reconsidered the trial of Madame de Brinvilliers. Without removing the responsibility for his crimes, they think on the one hand that the Chevalier de Sainte-Croix had taken the initiative in the murders, and on the other hand, that the Marquise could hardly defend herself during her trial. If we take the testimonies of Father Pirot, his judges especially wanted to know the names of his accomplices. Taking into account the political intrigues of the time, some would have liked, for example, to see the receiver of the clergy Pierre Louis Reich de Pennautier compromised. But Marie-Madeleine de Brinvilliers never accused him of complicity. Moreover, certain abusive testimonies of his former servants have contributed to reinforcing a dark legend around the character.

The poison used several times at the same time

According to historian Michel Vergé-Franceschi, it is very likely that the marquise's poisons were used to assassinate Madame Henriette of England on her return from England, which seems invalidated by the recent discovery of a rare blood disease, 13 days after the marquise murdered her brother, without being able to claim the family inheritance because the other brother and her sister are still alive.

Cousin of King Louis XIV, Henriette of England contributed to the Treaty of Dover, sealing the rapprochement between her brother Charles II (restored in 1660) and Louis XIV and preventing France from supporting Spain. Two weeks after her return from London Madame, aged 26, was seized with violent pain after drinking a glass of chicory, which obviously does not prove the signature of the poison. His agony lasted barely a few hours, on the night of June 30, 1670, at the Château de Saint-Cloud.

The Marquise's poisons would have also been ordered by the Venetians a year earlier, during two attempts to poison Colbert:

just before the King appointed him Secretary of State for the Navy, on February 18, 1669
during his visit to Marseilles with the King, on May 5, 1669. At the same time, the 2 May 1669, the friend of the Marquise Pierre Louis Reich de Pennautier is accused of having poisoned the former Receiver of the Clergy of France to be able to take possession of his office, which he actually did on June 12, 1669, i.e. only one month later. In any case, this is what Mrs. Hanivel de Saint Laurens, the receiver's widow, accused him at trial.

In both cases, according to the historian, the chronological proximity of the poisonings is explained by the use of the same product, difficult to manufacture and preserve, the first assassination making it possible each time to check whether the dosage is sufficient.

The first attempt to poison Colbert dates from February 17, 1669, the day before his appointment and the date of the document linking Pennautier and the Marquise. The second, operated by the Venetian Giafferi, according to the correspondence of Madame de Sévigné, resulted in stomach aches for the minister for several months.

Colbert was already suspected of betraying the papacy and its ally Venice in their long fight against the Turks, the clergy forcefully demanding the expedition to Candia (Crete) to restore the authority of the papacy, but also to strengthen the influence of the French in the Vatican.

Louis XIV sends 6,000 men and 42 ships to fight in Candia under the Pope's banner to hide his double game from his Ottoman allies, but on August 21, 1669 the French fleet and the allies weigh anchor for the return. On September 6, signing of a treaty between the Venetian military leader Morosini and the Grand Vizier Ahmed Köprülü:the Venetians are defeated and lose Crete, the last possession outside the Adriatic.

At the end of June 1669, at the beginning of the expedition, the party of devotees then began to orchestrate a campaign to make Colbert the sponsor of the death in battle of the Duke of Beaufort François de Vendôme.


To get rid of her father's surveillance of her morals, the marquise began to test various poisons under cover of the night in the hospitals, according to unverified rumours:the patients whom she approached and to whom she distributed biscuits more or less impregnated with poison, would soon have succumbed to horrible suffering. However, nothing proves the veracity of these facts, which seem to be fictional. The Marquise's trial saw many witnesses pass by whose testimony was not always credible.

On June 13, 1666, his father had been suffering from strange ailments for several months. Asking his daughter to join him at his Château d'Offémont, he suffered terrible vomiting which continued until his death on September 10 in Paris, despite the best doctors. The Marquise will admit that he was poisoned 28 or 30 times, by her or by her lover's lackey, La Chaussée, whom she had hired by her father.

In 1670, his two brothers were poisoned by the same La Chaussée, the first on June 17, 1670, only thirteen days before the death of Henrietta of England, and the second in November 1670. During the autopsy, " suspicious traces” were detected, but the matter ended there. The marquise had a sister, who had wisely chosen not to see her again after the deaths of the brothers.

She tried to attack her husband, her confessor tells us, by multiplying the minute doses so that we believe that he suffered from a swelling in his legs. But her lover, sensing that he himself was in danger, administered an antidote to the husband to save him.

The Marquise had no interest in killing her ex-lover, but in recovering the evidence kept by this blackmailer, who distanced himself from her and locked up in a cassette the acknowledgments of debts, the love letters of the marquise, several vials of poison and an accusing letter.

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