Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2003; Phoenix Press 2004; St Martin’s Press 2004

The Affair of the Poisons, as it became known, was an extraordinary episode that took place in France during the reign of Louis XIV. When poisoning and black magic became widespread, arrests followed. Suspects included those among the highest ranks of society. Many were tortured and numerous executions resulted.
The 1676 torture and execution of the Marquise de Brinvilliers marked the start of the scandal that rocked the foundations of French society and sent shock waves through all of Europe. Convicted of conspiring with her adulterous lover to poison her father and brothers in order to secure the family fortune, the Marquise was the first member of the noble class to fall.

In the French court of the period, where sexual affairs were numerous, ladies were not shy of seeking help from the murkier elements of the Parisian underworld, whose fortune-tellers supplemented their dubious trade by selling poison. Having started to probe such matters, the authorities came to believe that Louis XIV himself was at risk from these practices. Rumours abounded, leading the King to order that a special commission must be set up to investigate poisonings and bring offenders to justice. No one, the King decreed, no matter how grand, would be spared having to account for their conduct.

The royal court was soon thrown into disarray. The Mistress of the Robes and a distinguished general were among the early suspects. But they paled into insignificance when the King’s mistress was incriminated. If, as was said, she had engaged in vile Satanic rituals and had sought to poison a rival for the King’s affections, what was Louis XIV to do?

Drawing on original sources, letters and judicial records, Anne Somerset has produced an enthralling account of a bizarre story which encompasses the glittering world of Versailles and the Parisian backstreets. She exposes the superstition, cruelty and vice at the heart of Louis XIV’s court, while casting new light on the criminal subculture of his capital, whose occupants’ eagerness to pander to aristocratic excesses led to their fates becoming intertwined with some of the grandest people in France.
BOOK Reviews

‘The court of the Sun King, Louis XIV ... was this book intriguingly shows, a pit of superstition, sorcery, spells, love potions, black magic and poisoning... Anne Somerset follows the labyrinth of suspicions, accusations, confessions and retractions like an admirably cool and sceptical sleuth’. Peter Lewis, Daily Mail

‘Enthralling important evocation of the world in which these events were taking place’. Antonia Fraser, The Times

‘It is readable, judicious, thoroughly researched and beautifully produced...As well as providing an excellent narrative of the Affair, Anne Somerset also emphasises its wider significance’. Munro Price, Sunday Telegraph

‘An engaging account of the affair… Somerset describes well the atmosphere at Versailles, where families and factions competed for advancement’. Hazel Mills, Guardian

‘Anne Somerset’s scrupulous and grisly account of the Affair of the Poisons in 17th Century France is an instructive tale of state paranoia ... [She] tells this tale of needless suffering with the mischievous detachment of a crime writer’. Graham Robb, Daily Telegraph

‘A dazzling amount of detail. With a cast of 130 principal characters, the text is a masterpiece of research, all the more to be admired because the source material for the period is scattered and often unreliable. This is a remarkable study of a fascinating period in French history when the court’s champagne lifestyle suddenly turned very sour indeed’. John Hinton, Catholic Herald

‘Somerset superbly evokes the miserable circumstances of life at that time... Fascinating, and Somerset uses original sources well ... A perfect textbook for study of the French revolution’. Carmen Callil, New Statesman

‘The book gives a clear sense of how La Reynie, the chief of police, gradually became a Joseph McCarthy-like obsessive, and of the way the internal politics of Versailles changed with each further revelation... The book is a top-down narrative of intrigue around the King’s bed, most insightful’. Jane Stevenson, Observer

‘Anne Somerset has succeeded in evoking not only the horrors of this affair and the panic it produced in a hard-hearted, selfish society, but the desperate, seedy, Parisian underworld, the contemporary disregard for truth and justice and the extraordinary gullibility of the public. A whole unsettling world is here’. Teresa Waugh, Spectator

‘A beautifully researched account of this extraordinary case. The habits and mindset of Louis himself are revealed alongside the scandal that rocked his world to its corrupt core. With her customary intelligence and lucidity, Anne Somerset meticulously unravels this complex, fascinating affair and presents an informed opinion on what really happened’. Lucy Moore, BBC History Magazine