The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers

The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers

Natasha sheldon - July 22, 2018

On the 16 July 1676, a French noblewoman was ignominiously executed in front of a vast Parisian crowd. Transported to the scaffold in a dung cart, Marie-Madeleine Marguerite d’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers had been found guilty of murdering her father and two brothers by poison. She had also confessed to the attempted murder of her husband and her daughter. Lust, greed, and vengeance were the Marquise’s motivations. However, the way the authorities conducted her trial suggested something more than simple justice was behind her execution.

Fear of poison was rife in the aristocratic circles of seventeenth-century France. It was even rumored to be behind the death of Henrietta of England, King Louis XIV’s sister in law and the sister of Charles II. King Louis took a close interest in the Marquise’s case, negotiating her extradition from England after she fled arrest. Her execution proved to be just a prelude. For two years after the marquise’s death, the Affair of the Poisons began. Over a period of five years, the King executed thirty-six prominent French aristocrats on charges of poison and witchcraft. So what was the link between the life and crimes of the Marquise and these broader charges?

The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers
Madame de Brinvilliers. Picture Credit: Enciclopedia1993. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Madame de Brinvilliers and Godin de Sainte-Croix

Marie- Madeleine -Marguerite D’Aubray was born around 1630, the eldest child of Antoine Dreux d’Aubray, the Civil Lieutenant in charge of law and order in Paris. The d’Aubrays had a long history of service to the crown. Antoine D’Aubray’s father had been treasurer of France. The family was aristocratic, wealthy, and respectable. Through the ties of marriage and kinship, they were related to some of the most important families in France.

In 1651, Marie-Madeleine married Antoine Gobelin de Brinvilliers, the Marquise de Brinvilliers. The match was an auspicious one. The young Marquis had an income of 30,000 livres a year, on top of a lump sum he had received from his father five years previously. As for Marie-Madeleine, she came with a dowry of 150,000 livres and a personal fortune of 50, 000 livres. The new Marquise was young and acknowledged to be pretty, charming and intelligent. However, things swiftly began to go wrong. For the couple’s fortune rapidly began to disappear through gambling and extravagance.

In 1659, the Marquis introduced his wife to one of his gambling friends. Godin de Sainte-Croix, also known as the Chevalier de Sainte Croix. Sainte Croix had no notable pedigree. In fact, all he had to his name were debts and a bad reputation. However, he was handsome and talented, and Marie-Madeleine fell for him. The pair became lovers. This affair did not bother the Marquis de Brinvillier as it left him free to pursue his own. When he fled France to avoid his debtors, he left Marie-Madeleine behind to carry on an unchecked affair with Sainte-Croix.

The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers
Eastern facade of the Bastille c.1790. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.


The scandal of Marie Madeleine may not have bothered her husband. However, it reflected poorly on the position of her father. So, in her husband’s absence, Antoine D’Aubray applied to the king for an order of arrest or “letter de cachet” against Sainte- Croix. The King complied quickly because of D’Aubray’s position and in May 1663, Sainte Croix was arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille.

While he was in prison, Sainte-Croix made the acquaintance of another prisoner, an infamous Italian poisoner named Exili. Exili was a known assassin in the pay of Queen Christina of Sweden, and he was being kept under lock and key while the authorities investigated his reason for being in France. Sainte Croix became his cellmate and so to pass the time, Exili began to instruct the young officer in the art of poisoning. These lessons were paid for by the Marquise de Brinvillier who kept her lover well supplied with cash. When he was eventually released, Sainte Croix and Marie Madeleine began to put his new knowledge to ‘good’ use.

The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers
The Laboratory by John Collier 1895. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The Poisonings Begin

Sainte Croix set himself up as a reformed gentleman. He married, took a house and began to develop a much quieter reputation as an alchemist and a scholar. However, his affair with Marie Madeleine did not end. Instead, she joined him in his laboratory where the couple was instructed in the art of poisoning by Swiss chemist and professor of Chemistry to the royal court, Christopher Glaser. Poison was quite the thing in aristocratic circles and “Glaser’s Receipt” in particular was used by impatient heirs to speed along their legacies.

So there was profit in the poisoning business for both Sainte Croix and the Marquise. Sainte Croix had the know-how and Marie Madeleine, the connections amongst her society acquaintances. It was possible for the pair to quickly- and discretely- find customers. However, they had a more immediate aim. Sainte Croix had already encouraged his mistress to separate her affairs from that of her husband to preserve what the remainder of her fortune. Now the pair began to plot to acquire the whole of the d’Aubrey fortune.

Marie Madeleine began by testing their poisons on unsuspecting victims. She primarily used the impoverished patients of Paris’s public hospitals whose untimely deaths no one would suspect. She may even have used it on her servants. Marie Madeleine’s maid, Francoise Roussel complained that she felt as though “her heart was being stabbed” after the Marquise fed her poisoned fruit. Then, in 1666, the dress rehearsals were over. Marie Madeleine’s father fell ill. By this time, Antoine d’Aubray believed he and his daughter to be reconciled. So he had no qualms about asking her to come and nurse him.

The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers
La Marquise de Sévigné by Claude Lefèbvre c. 1665. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Marie Madeleine agreed and gave every appearance of being the dutiful daughter. In fact, she was patiently dosing her father with Glaser’s Receipt. Finally after 27 doses, d’Aubray senior was dead. Marie Madeleine had had her revenge for her lover’s imprisonment. Now there was just the small matter of her two brothers, Antoine junior and Francoise, who stood between her and the entire fortune. So, in 1670, Marie Madeleine installed Sainte Croix’s faithful servant Jean Hamelin, known as La Chausse as the unmarried Francoise valet. She then paid him to poison to his new master. He even doctored the food of both brothers when they dined together. By September 1670, Antoine and Francoise were dead.

Antoine’s widow Marie Therese had her suspicions but no proof, so she removed herself safely out of Marie Madeleine’s way. However, Marie Madeleine’s dark reputation was well known. The Marquise de Sevigne, a well-known society letter writer, commented on how Marie Madeleine’s husband was only alive because he carried antidotes to her poisons. However, it seems there was a line even the murderous Marquise would not cross. When she attempted to poison her daughter, she had a change of heart and saved the child. It was, however, only a matter of time before the authorities discovered the Marquise’s reputation.

The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers
The torture of the Marquise de Brinvillier. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Trial and Retribution

Marie Madeleine and Sainte Croix became estranged after the death of her brothers. Then, quite suddenly, in 1672, Sainte Croix died. In debt and without heirs, his possessions were impounded pending a review by magistrates and his creditors. Discovered amongst them was a small red leather casket. When the box was opened, inside was a note requesting the case and the contents be returned to “Madame the Marquise de Brinvilliers …… as all that it contains concerns her alone.” These contents included incriminating letters from Marie to Sainte Croix. They were accompanied by poison.

The evidence implicated Marie Madeleine in the poisoning of her family. La Chausse was arrested, and a warrant issued for the apprehension of the Marquise. By the time officials came to serve it, it was too late. Marie Madeleine and her maidservant were in London. However, the thought of such a highly placed poisoner alarmed Louis XIV. The Marquise’s relationship with the court chemist, Glaser (who had also disappeared) had by now been established. What implications did this have for his court? Louis was therefore anxious the Marquise should be found- and questioned. However, by the time he had negotiated her extradition with Charles II, Marie Madeleine had fled again.

The Marquise found her final refuge at a convent in Liege, Belgium and there she may have safely stayed. However, in 1676, a policeman named Desgrez, disguised as a priest, managed to lure her out. The marquise was taken back to France under heavy guard, along with “a little casket of papers and letters of which she has the key, and which has not yet been examined.” The Marquise had claimed that the box contained her confession and “begged” for it to be returned to her. It was read instead and found to contain a full admission of her crimes.

The Life and Crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers
Sketch of the Marquise de Brinvillier on the way to the Scaffold by Charles Le Brun. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Realising she was doomed, Marie Madeleine tried to kill herself several times. In between these acts of desperation, she dropped heavy hints that she could implicate half the nobility of France in her poisoning scandal. “But I will say nothing” was the only other thing she would say. It was these enigmatic ‘others’ that Louis XIV was particularly interested in. The Marquise was condemned for the deaths of her family from the moment the evidence came to light. However, the King wanted the names of her associates before she paid the price for her crimes.

So, while Marie Madeleine ostensibly waited for the verdict, she was assigned the Abbe Pirot as her confessor. Pirot was also tasked with collecting other names; information he only agreed to pass on after the marquise dead. However, while the Marquise finally admitted her guilt, she protected her associates. “Half the people of quality are involved in this sort of thing, and I could ruin them if I were to talk,” was all she would say. As a result, the court ordered her torture before her execution. Again, she did not break. The secrets of the Marquise de Brinvillier burnt with her decapitated corpse. However, her crimes had opened a Pandora’s box. The inquiry into the misdeeds of France’s nobility had only just begun.


Where Do We get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Marie-Madeleine-Marguérite d’Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers, Encyclopædia Britannica, November 2, 2011

Madame de Brinvilliers and her times 1630-1676, Hugh Stokes, John Lane Company, 2015

Affair of the Poisons, Encyclopædia Britannica, December 17, 2010