History Love: Pet Bears and a Secret Room

I usually get excited about March. I know there are going to be some cold days and some snow, but we're bordering on cruel here in Ontario. In like a lion and out like a lion. 

 Cozied up with a tea, blanket, and interesting history. Is there anything better in winter?

Cozied up with a tea, blanket, and interesting history. Is there anything better in winter?

In other news, I've been poring over Anne Somerset's The Affair of the Poisons:  Murder, Infanticide & Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV  (with a title like that how can I not read it?!) for awhile. I'm doing some final research for the last few rooms of my Versailles guide. I can go down the research rabbit hole with a little too much gusto! This one has been an especially deep rabbit hole. 

The book is about the famed Affair of the Poisons that swept through Paris and Versailles in the late 1600s. It began with a case involving the Marquise de Brinvilliers. She and her lover, an army captain named Godin de Saint-Croix, poisoned her father and brothers so they could secure the family fortune and estates. Eventually they were caught, put on trial, interrogated, tortured, and put to death. 

Portrait of Catherine Montvoisin, aka la Voisin via Wikimedia Commons

The Brinvilliers case, however, was just the beginning. Further investigations revealed what seemed to be a whole poisoning network that penetrated into the upper echelons of society. Even King Louis XIV's mistress, Madame de Montespan, was implicated in visiting the infamous accused poisoner and "divineress" called la Voisin in a desperate attempt to win back the favour of the King.

It was salacious, it was scary, and it gripped the court at Versailles. At least until the next big thing came along. But it's another story for another day. 

Way to leave you hanging, huh? What I want to share today is a strange tidbit from the book that stuck with me. 

Portrait of Madame de Montespan (1640-1707) via Wikimedia Commons

The basic backstory is that Louis XIV's mistress Athénaïs de Montespan was no longer his favourite. She, naturally, wasn't very happy about this and contributed to rising tension between the lovers which didn't really help rekindle the romance.

Meanwhile, Louis XIV began another affair with a woman named Marie-Angélique de Scorailles, aka Madamoiselle de Fontanges. Louis tried to hide it, especially from Athénaïs, but his attempt at secrecy backfired spectacularly. 

Here's what Somerset writes: 

The King was said to be frantically in love with Mlle de Fontanges but he took great pains to conceal it. In public he took no notice of her, reserving his affection for their private meetings. To ensure these went undetected, a small suite of rooms was constructed for Mlle de Fontanges above the King's bedroom at Saint-Germain, connected by a hidden staircase. Few people were aware of this until, bizarrely, two pet bears belonging to Mme de Montespan found the door open and 'avenged their mistress' by devastating the apartment. 

I don't know about you, but that might be one of my favourite historical images. One mistress's bears destroying the other secret mistress's secret apartment. It's just so wonderfully "fact is stranger than fiction."

Engraved portrait of Marie Angélique de Scoraille de Roussille, duchesse de Fontanges (1661-1681) via Wikimedia Commons

I know it was somewhat common for aristocrats to have exotic animals, but it doesn't help my modern mind from having so many unanswered questions. In stream of consciousness style here are a few:  Bears?!? Why and how did she have pet bears? (Sidenote:  Don't Google image search pet bears. Depressing.) How did they live day to day? Like pet dogs but. . .bears? Who took care of them? Why did she even want them? Were they a gift? What kind of gift is a bear? Why were these bears just wandering around unescorted long enough to find a secret room and destroy it? If bears could find this room, how secret was it really? Is this story even true?

Just so, so many questions. Hopefully I'll find some time to look into it further and update at a later date.

I just hope that it gave you a little interesting diversion from the winter doldrums that it gave me.