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18th Century Biography French History History Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 1

To coincide with the English account of Marie Antoinette’s trial I uploaded last time, today I begin a guide to reading what can be a confusing and obscure document, and understanding this fascinating event in context.

The background to the trial 

To some extent ever since the Royal Family had been forcibly removed from Versailles and taken to Paris in October 1789, and much more urgently since the failed attempt by the family to escape the city in June 1791, the fate of monarchy in France had been one of the Revolution’s more awkward unanswered questions. When the family was captured at Varennes during the botched escape and returned to Paris, the crowds that lined the streets to watch greeted them in total, uneasy silence – forbidden to make a sound either to cheer or harass the captives.

The return of the royal family to Paris after Varennes

The return of the Royal Family to Paris, after the disastrous flight to Varennes. By Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur, 1791.

Marie Antoinette in 1791

Marie Antoinette in 1791, painted by Alexandre Kucharski. Already a sombre-looking figure, legend has it her hair turned white overnight during the return from Varennes.

From this point on, the king was in reality no more than a figurehead in what was still technically a constitutional monarchy. Then on 10th August 1792, large crowds stormed the Tuileries Palace (then located next to the Louvre), and the Royal Family was forced to flee to the protection of the Legislative Assembly. The next day, Louis and Marie Antoinette sat in the Assembly and listened as the country was declared a republic and the position of king and queen ceased to exist. They would henceforth be known as Citoyen and Citoyenne Capet (a title both objected to as being inaccurate, Louis being of the House of Bourbon not the extinct medieval dynasty of Capet).

The Assault on the Tuileries Palace

The assault on the Tuileries Palace, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, 1793.

Inevitability is such a tasty spice to season history with, though often it tends to overwhelm the subtlety and complexity of the other flavours always present. In this case though, it seems accurate to say that the fate of the former king and queen was sealed during that session of the Legislative Assembly. العاب طاولة محبوسة Stripped of their powers, their necessity to the state and their mystique, every plausible scenario had to end in their death. Alive, they simply posed an unacceptable threat to the stability of the Revolution, and they could never have been allowed into exile, where they could regroup with the existing counter-revolutionary forces.

Despite this, the decision to execute Louis was not an easy one to take, even with the disastrous Brunswick Manifesto, a statement by the invading Imperial and Prussian powers which threatened to wreak ‘an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction’ unless the royals were released unharmed. Louis’ trial was held before the full convention, and most observers agreed that he acquitted himself with affecting dignity, even if it was somewhat shabby and increasingly sad. The guilty verdict on “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety” was assured from the start, but the vote on the sentence was surprisingly close. 361 voted for immediate execution (plus a further 72 for a delayed execution), 288 against.

The Execution of Louis XVI

The execution of Louis XVI.

The king’s death in January 1793 removed any legal, constitutional, or practical obstacle standing in the way of executing Marie Antoinette too. The sympathy that the king was still able to engender was not to be a factor in proceedings against the queen, who was widely and bitterly reviled by the population at large, and held to be actively working against the Revolution. For this reason, many of even the best biographies of Marie Antoinette tend to dismiss her trial simply as a sham, affording it a couple of pages, perhaps, but otherwise seeing it as a blip in her inexorable descent towards the guillotine. This fails to do the event justice, as though it quite clearly was a sham in the sense that the verdict was never in doubt, that doesn’t make it any less interesting, both as a penetrating insight into the character of Marie Antoinette in this final stage of her life, and into the attitudes of the revolutionary authorities who were to try her.

In the time between the execution of the king and the trial of Marie Antoinette, significant developments radically altered the atmosphere in Paris and gave an added sense of urgency to the Revolution. The Reign of Terror began, which saw rapid and violent strikes against the forces of counter-revolution both within and outside France, as well as seismic shifts in political power away from Danton and towards Robespierre. قوانين لعبة اونو The Vendée rose in revolt against the revolutionary government; a revolt which was so firmly suppressed that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 lives were lost on both sides in the fighting. During the summer of 1793 Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon were all in conflict with the Convention, and the port of Toulon surrendered to the British. In July, Marat was assassinated.

The War in the Vendée

The fighting in the Vendée, a later (1853) painting by Jean Sorieul.

As summer turned to autumn, a kind of hysteria prevailed throughout France. The revolutionary authorities were almost entirely focused on securing control, and sealing off France from the chaos that surrounded it and threatened to eat it up from within. With so much confusion, the trial of Marie Antoinette suddenly seemed wonderfully controllable and powerfully symbolic – a chance for uncomplicated, visceral, unifying vengeance against a clear enemy of the revolution, and to sever one of the last remaining links to the ancien régime. العروض الترويجية

In August, Marie Antoinette was moved from her prison in the Temple Tower to the Conciergerie prison on the Ile-de-la-Cité, the home of the Revolutionary Tribunal. There she waited, never sure of what was happening, until on 13th October 1793 she was informed that her trial would commence in one day’s time.

Next time: The Trial Begins

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18th Century Biography French History History Royal History

Marie Antoinette and her Children: The shocking accusations at Marie Antoinette’s Trial

Marie Antoinette's trial before the revolutionary tribunal

The most striking thing about reading the record of Marie Antoinette’s trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal in October 1793 is realising what an astonishing mess the whole thing really was. In most other accounts, revolutionary justice always seems so swift, so merciless, so ruthlessly efficient. Many of those who stood trial before the Tribunal had few real crimes to answer for, and yet they were quickly exposed as monsters and condemned to die by public guillotining. So, on the balance of things, you would have thought Marie Antoinette – a figure universally despised by a populace which had been spoonfed wild propaganda and grotesque fantasies about her since before she even came to France – wouldn’t have presented many problems.

And yet as you keep reading the account of her two day trial, one question increasingly plays on your mind – is this it?

The king’s trial and execution had turned out to be a painful and awkward affair. Louis argued his case with a quiet dignity, and the final vote to decide his fate revealed the extent of lingering doubt and latent sympathy for the former king. 361 deputies voted for Louis’ immediate execution, but 288 voted against the death penalty. On the streets of Paris, where public executions had become something of a spectator sport, Louis’ end brought its share of rejoicing, but somehow failed to offer the hoped-for catharsis, the line in the sand between the old regime and the revolutionary future.

If Louis’ execution had the atmosphere of a funeral, Marie Antoinette’s was expected to have more in common with a rowdy wake. The people had never hated Louis as much as they had come to despise Marie Antoinette, indeed in the popular version of events Louis was usually cast as a hapless, blundering but essentially good puppet being manipulated by the calculating Marie Antoinette for her own nefarious ends. Until she was removed from the equation, the revolution could never feel entirely secure.

The trial was presided over by Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, President of the Tribunal. He oversaw all the key trials of the period, and had earned a reputation as one of the revolution’s most fearsome figures. Ruthless and single-minded in the pursuit of revolutionary justice, rumour had it that he was terrified of the people, sleeping with an armed guard at his door and a hatchet under his pillow. One can only imagine his feelings as he received word that Marie Antoinette was finally to stand before his court. Here was an opportunity for a spectacular showpiece, a chance to reaffirm and reenergise the revolution. All that was really necessary was to provide a reminder of the crimes that the majority of people were already convinced Marie Antoinette had committed.

Marie Antoinette was given just two days to prepare for her trial, unlike her husband who had been afforded months tucked away with his lawyers at the Temple. As per the rules of the Tribunal, her lawyers would not be allowed to speak for her during the trial itself, so she alone must respond to all examination.

On 14th October, when the galleries had filled with expectant crowds (including the diehard groups of women who attended so many trials and executions that they now brought their knitting with them to do while they watched), the trial commenced. As expected Foquier-Tinville began with a lengthy, vitriolic speech in which he outlined the charges, and placed Marie Antoinette in a long line of infamously wicked women ‘like Messalina, Brunhilda, Fredegund and Medici’. He described her as ‘the scourge and the blood-sucker of the French’, and in language reminiscent of witchcraft accusations talked of the ‘creatures’ and ‘midnight meetings’ she employed.

From the outset then it was clear that the trial was to proceed along familiar lines of character assassination, the rationale seemingly being that proving Marie Antoinette’s complete moral degeneracy would show her capable of committing any crime, thereby absolving the need to prove her guilty of actually committing particular ones. Anyone with a bad word to say about Marie Antoinette, however unilluminating, is roped in to the court. Thus, Jean Baptiste Lapiere, a former guard at the Tuileries, testifies that he was on duty on the night the royal family made their escape, ‘but not withstanding his vigilence he had seen nothing’. Pierre Joseph Terrason observes that when the family had been captured and returned to the Tuileries, he saw Marie Antoinette “throw upon the national guards who escorted her, and likewise upon the citizens in her way as she passed along, a most vindictive glance; which suggested to me the idea that she would certainly take revenge; in reality a short time after the scene of [the massacre at] the Champ de Mars took place”. Rene Mallet, a former maid at Versailles, even goes so far as to relay a rumour she had heard that Marie Antoinette had conceived a plot to assassinate the Duke of Orleans, keeping two pistols secreted in her skirts in case any opportunity to carry out the murderous plan should present itself.

Evidence like this dominates the trial in part because of the corner the revolutionary authorities had backed themselves into. Most of the people who ever had any real contact with Marie Antoinette had long since fled France, or had already faced the Tribunal themselves. A few such associates were found for the trial, but Fouqier-Tinville is so keen to establish that they too are guilty and odious that he is forced to demolish their credibility and render their testimony next to useless. Jean-Frederic Latour Dupin gave evidence on the second day of the trial. As an ex-Minister of War he initially claims to know nothing of any of the charges laid against Marie Antoinette, and rather than pressing him on this, Fouqier-Tinville devotes much time to scrutinising Latour Dupin’s actions as minister, many of which have little or no bearing on Marie Antoinette. Even when he eventually does prompt Latour Dupin to concede that Marie Antoinette had asked him for military details, which he duly supplied, Fouqier-Tinville quickly becomes distracted by questions over whether she ‘abused the influence you had over your husband, in asking him continually for drafts on the public treasury?’. The crucial point of whether or not Marie Antoinette betrayed the armies of France (so pivotal to the charge of treason at the centre of the trial) is therefore never satisfactorily resolved.

The trial often falls into a pattern, with Fouqier-Tinville throwing accusations at Marie Antoinette without any tangible evidence, and Marie Antoinette sticking to what must have been her planned approach of giving short, unemotional responses – usually one word answers, or simply stating that she had no knowledge of what witnesses alleged.

Given the motley crew of witnesses assembled for the trial and the paltry store of evidence, the revolutionary authorities must have known that it had the makings of a repeat of Louis’ confused and messy hearing. What they needed was a piece of killer evidence – some new juicy scandal that even the rumour-weary people of Paris had never heard before – to turn this trial and execution into the triumph they needed it to be. And in searching for someone to take on the role of showman/muck-racker, they didn’t have to look very far.

Jacques René Hébert was one of those deliciously intriguing personalities that make studying the French Revolution such a joy. As editor of the incendiary (and, even today, shockingly foul-mouthed) newspaper Le Père Duchesne, Hébert had achieved great influence among his hundreds of thousands of readers, and had already made repeated calls for the destruction of Marie Antoinette, ‘the Austrian bitch’. Hébert himself was a figure riddled with contradictions. His newspaper was peppered with obscene language and visceral, violent imagery, and he adopted the persona of the archetypal sans-culotte; yet he himself came from a bourgeois background, dressed finely and, in some accounts, was in private a remarkably ordinary family man. And while his huge popular following made him the envy (and, latterly, the enemy) of figures as powerful as Robespierre, Hebert was never able to win a major elected position, and his attempts to do so ended in frankly embarrassing results.

He was, however, able to secure a position as the second substitute of the procureur of the Paris commune, and in this position he shared responsibility for the imprisonment of the royal family in the Temple. In this capacity he was privy to every detail of the actions of the family, shared responsibility for the decision to separate Louis Charles from his mother (as examined in a previous story) and from then enjoyed a powerful influence over the boy. For a man like Hébert this was a golden opportunity. All he had to do now was figure out how to use it.

Marie Antoinette’s personality had been assailed on almost every front – her wild extravagance was well known and unquestioned; her supposedly perverse and numberless sexual proclivities had been the stock in trade of pornographers and gossips for years; and at one and the same time she was dismissed as intellectually vapid and reviled as a cunning, Machiavellian enemy of the revolution. But through all this, one positive light had continued to shine on Marie Antoinette: the glow of motherhood. This aspect of her role was especially important to Marie Antoinette herself; in part because it had taken her so agonisingly long to become pregnant, in part, perhaps, because of the epic example of motherhood provided by her mother the Empress Maria Theresa, and in part simply because of her own naturally maternal personality. The image had been deliberately fostered through public events and in official portraits, especially those of preferred painter Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun. That it had a profound impact on the public was powerfully demonstrated in October 1789 when the crowds who invaded Versailles called for Marie Antoinette to appear before them on a balcony. When she attempted to come out with her family, the mob yelled ‘No children! No children!’, as if wanting to strip her of the cushioning aura of her motherhood.

If there was one thing Hébert knew it was how to whip up the people, and so he quickly arrived at a plan to destroy the one last vestige of humanity left in the public image of Marie Antoinette, and speed her on her way to the guillotine. At some point, it was mentioned to Hébert that when Louis Charles was frightened Marie Antoinette would comfort him and let him sleep in her bed. This planted the seeds of an idea. Hébert decided to frame a story that Marie Antoinette abused her son sexually, teaching him to masturbate and making him sexually dependant upon her. There has been some speculation that in order to provide this story with a foundation, Hébert ordered Louis Charles’ guard Simon to encourage him to masturbate, and even bring prostitutes into his cell. Certainly, Louis Charles was subject to all manner of physical abuse by his jailers, and there is no way of knowing how far this extended. However, it is clear that Hébert knew better than most men that truth was far less important than what people could be made to believe. He operated in the realm of words rather than action, and would have seen that subjecting the boy to actual sexual abuse was unnecessary for the plan to succeed. Louis Charles was, anyway, a vulnerable and easily-led boy.

In early October 1793 Hébert visited Louis Charles in the Tuileries, and got him to sign a pre-drafted confession. Most cruelly, Louis Charles was also made to confront his sister and aunt (who had not seen him for 3 months) with the accusations, and they too were then interrogated. Though only 15 years old and unable to understand the full weight of the accusation, Marie-Thérèse knew enough to recognise it as an obscene lie, and was profoundly upset by the incident. Aunt Elisabeth refused even to respond to the questions.

Armed with this coup de grâce, Hebert arrived at the great hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal on 14th October for Marie Antoinette’s trial. When called to give evidence, he began unremarkably enough, with recollections of finding counter-revolutionary symbols belonging to Marie Antoinette, and insinuations about Lafayette’s role in the escape plan. Is it too much to detect a little nervousness in Hébert’s opening remarks? He’s certainly watching his language, and there’s something hesitant, stumbly in his hotchpotch accusations. Finally though, he gets to the point, and the wind floods back into his sails.

In fine, young Capet, whose constitution became every day impaired, was surprised by Simon in practices destructive to his health, and at his period of life very uncommon; he was asked who had instructed him in these practices; he replied that it was his mother and his aunt.

Hebert went on, keen to prove that Marie Antoinette could not even engage in child abuse without some still more sinister motive.

There is reason to believe that this criminal indulgence was not dictated by the love of pleasure, but by the political hope of enervating the constitution of the child, whom they supposed destined to sit on the throne, in order that they might acquire ascendancy over his mind.

The court fell silent as the accusations landed, then an ambiguous murmur rippled round the crowd. Fouquier-Tinville hastily asked Marie Antoinette what she had to respond, Marie Antoinette replied “I have no knowledge of the facts of which Hebert speaks”. Even Fouquier-Tinville now seems unwilling to delve any deeper into this appalling line of questioning, and instead begins asking questions about some of Hébert’s earlier, more mundane accusations. He is interrupted by a member of the jury, who demands that the Queen answer the accusations about her son.

Suddenly the bricked-off, emotionless, almost robotic Marie Antoinette of the rest of the trial disappears.

If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to answer such a charge laid against a mother.

Standing to face the assembled crowd directly, she challenged them.

I appeal to all mothers here present – is it true?

Hébert’s time as witness here ends abruptly and the trial swiftly moved on. As far as it is possible to tell from the accounts, the reaction to Hébert’s revelation was not what he had expected. There was at best dismay and at worst a wellspring of sympathy for Marie Antoinette, especially from the mothers to whom she had appealed. Not that it mattered, of course. The trial ended the next day, and the following morning Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine.

Few figures in history have suffered as much as Marie Antoinette from the distorting influence of myths and lies. The very first thing that most people will say if you mention her name is ‘Let them eat cake!’, a cold-hearted and idiotic comment that almost certainly never passed her lips. But at least the last great lie in her story has never taken hold, and the myth of Marie Antoinette as child abuser was seen for just what it was. Revolutionary karma had an ironic sense of humour, and the old adage ‘what goes around comes around’ has never been truer than in this case. Less than half a year after Marie Antoinette’s execution, Hébert fell foul of Robespierre and was himself tried at the Revolutionary Tribunal. Legend has it he responded with far less dignity than Marie Antoinette, throwing his hat at his judges and trembling on the scaffold before a crowd clearly relishing every drop of irony. Fouquier-Tinville too fell from grace in 1795. He protested that “It is not I who ought to be facing the tribunal, but the chiefs whose orders I have executed. I had only acted in the spirit of the laws passed by a Convention invested with all powers.” His trial lasted 41 days, but ended in in the same journey to the guillotine endured by so many of those he had judged.

It is too easy to dismiss Marie Antoinette’s trial as an empty sham, too tempting to gloss over its details in the rush towards the tragic finale of her story. But to do so is to miss out on a rich insight both into Marie Antoinette’s character at this final stage in her life, and into the mentality and operation of a revolution spiralling rapidly out of control. Marie Antoinette remains a polarising figure, but whichever side you take, the squalid details of her trial and final days, and the unnecessary attempts to blacken the character of a woman already certain to die, serve as a chilling example of human cruelty.

Sources

Infuriatingly, there is no published account of the trial available in English. For this story I relied on a contemporary account published in The Times in 1793, and printed as a book under the title Authentic Trial at Large of Marie Antoinette, Late Queen of France, Before the Revolutionary Tribunal at Paris, published by Chapman&Co 1793. This is available to request at the British Library.

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Marie Antoinette and her Children: The queen’s adopted family

Marie Antoinette's adopted children

From the day she arrived at Versailles at the age of only fourteen, one question loomed larger in the life of Marie Antoinette than any other. Versailles was so used to gossip that Whisper was practically its official language, but amidst the idle wagging of tongues and scurillous muck-raking, this question had extremely serious consequences not just for the young Dauphine and Dauphin, but also for the Court, the country and the future of European politics.

Why wasn’t Marie Antoinette pregnant?

Doubts began to germinate on the morning after the young royal couple’s first night together, when their sheets were examined (‘privacy’ being an entirely foreign concept at the palace) and nothing, clearly, had taken place. Weeks turned to months, months to years, and nothing changed. Pressure mounted. Marie Antoinette’s mother, the awesome Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, kept up an unending barrage of questions and criticism on the subject by letter. Every month, messengers raced across the continent to inform the Empress on the coming of Marie Antoinette’s periods, and her continued, growing failure as a Dauphine. The market women of Paris, taking advantage of their peculiar right of access to Versailles, confronted Marie Antoinette directly, demanding of her when she would give France what it needed. Finally, Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Emperor Joseph II was dispatched on what must have been a mortifying visit to Versailles for the young girl, in which he spoke frankly with Marie Antoinette and Louis about the ins and outs of royal duty.

Opinions differ on the precise cause of the delay and its possible physical or psychological components. Essentially though, the problem boiled down to the extreme awkwardness of two people who were by our standards very young and, by nature, shy. Louis especially suffered from an almost crippling lack of confidence and a pronounced sense of his own inferiority. Knowing, as they did, that every detail of whatever happened between them in that vast and imposing royal bed was being talked about – laughed about – by all of Europe, it is unsurprising that intimacy took time to develop.

And though hosts of people seemed to think Marie Antoinette needed constant reminders about the importance of this particular duty, it seems unlikely that anyone felt more strongly about the situation than she did. All commentators on the girl agreed that she had a deep and genuine love of children, which must only have been given added heat by her own inability to become a mother. When the Duchesse de Chartres gave birth to a stillborn child, Marie Antoinette wrote, poginantly, that she would have been happy to have given birth to any child, even a dead one.

Finally, Marie Antoinette delivered her first child, Marie Thérèse, in 1778 – eight long years after her arrival in France. But even before this momentous event took place, it would not be entirely accurate to describe Marie Antoinette as ‘childless’. For though she may not have had children of her own, she became guardian, even mother, to a surprising number of adopted children. This is a topic which many of Marie Antoinette’s recent biographers have overlooked or glossed over, but it is an area that sheds important new light on her character.

From very early on at Versailles, Count Mercy (an Austrian minister charged by Maria Theresa to keep Marie Antoinette in line) complained that the Dauphine kept almost constant company with a 5-year-old boy, the son of her chief femme de chambre, the evocatively named Madame de Misery. Soon, de Misery’s 12-year-old daughter joined in the fun, coming to live with Marie Antoinette. This happy arrangement came to an end following complaints over their extremely noisy games, and the resulting torn clothes and broken furniture. Though stories such as this one were gifts to those who wished to portray Marie Antoinette as empty-headed, frivolous and immature, it is worth remembering that Marie Antoinette, at only fifteen, was pretty close in age to the 12-year-old girl. It is true that her own childhood, during which she was never expected to fill the pivotal role of Dauphine, had included at best a patchy education, and only last-minute attempts at preparing her for the task ahead. She certainly was not ready to engage with adults on their level, especially such forceful personalities as the Royal Aunts, and representatives of the other factions at Versailles which sought to win her favour. Though Marie Antoinette’s retreat into childish behaviour during her early days at Versailles was an extreme reaction, it is in many ways an understandable one.

On another occasion, it is said that Marie Antoinette was travelling in her carriage when the horses ran into a young boy. He was, miraculously, uninjured, but the queen held him in her arms and (so legend has it) declared ‘I must take him. He is mine’. Handily, it turned out that the boy’s mother had died, and his grandmother willingly agreed. He was whisked away to Versailles, and his whole family was placed under royal protection. The boy (called Jacques or Armand, depending on the version of the story) was cared for by Marie Antoinette, who often shared her food with him. His brother Denis was provided with a thorough musical education, becoming Cellist to the King in 1787. Marie Antoinette is even said to have found a way to send Denis money to allow him to embark on his promising musical career after the monarchy fell. Armand’s two sisters were provided with a regular allowance and, according to the marriage contract of one of them, were left a large sum of money following Marie Antoinette’s death.

Armand stayed with the queen until the birth of Marie Thérèse, when he was sent to continue his education, still funded by Marie Antoinette. The tale, however, does not end there, and when the Revolution began, Armand apparently rebelled against his adopted mother, becoming an ardent revolutionary, joining the armies of the Republic and dying, heroically, in battle.

Something has always struck me as a little odd about this story – perhaps it’s the lack of clear, reliable sources for the information, perhaps it’s because so few biographers have made much of what is by any standards a remarkable incident in the life of Marie Antoinette. It has something of the ring of those delicious, intoxicating rumours that Marie Antoinette inspired – a young peasant boy, as good as kidnapped by the childless Queen, scrubbed, dressed up and paraded around the gilded palace, given everything he needs, but who ultimately bites the hand that has fed him so richly. But there is enough evidence both in the story itself and when set in the context of Marie Antoinette’s known history of adopting children to suggest that at least the basics of this story are correct, and these children should rightly be considered a part of Marie Antoinette’s extended family of foundlings.

This family did not stop growing even when Marie Antoinette at last began having her own children. Madame Royale, as Marie Thérèse was known, was a famously difficult child, and it was perhaps in an attempt to soften her intractable character that Marie Antoinette provided her with a companion, in the shape of Marie Phillippine Camriquet, the daughter of one of Madame Royale’s maids. Renamed Ernestine for her new role, the girl initially spent her days with Marie Thérèse before returning to her parents at night. However, when her mother died in 1788, Ernestine was moved into Marie Thérèse’s apartments, and given an almost identical room to the princess. She wore similar clothes and took lessons alongside Marie Thérèse.

Marie Antoinette seems to have been particularly sensitive to the thought of any child being orphaned, and it was usually the impulse to take care of such children that prompted her to bring them into her household. On hearing of the death of one of Louis’ gentlemen ushers and his wife, leaving three orphan girls, it is said that Marie Antoinette immediately declared (much as she had done with Armand) ‘I adopt them!’. The two eldest girls were placed in a convent, but Jeanne Louise Victoire (at 3, the same age as the Dauphin) was installed in the royal apartments and renamed Zoë. She became the companion for the Dauphin Louis-Charles.

In 1787, Marie Antoinette was presented with an unusual gift from the famous traveller Chevalier de Boufflers, who had recently returned from Senegal. He offered the Queen a parrot (to join the vast and rowdy crew of pets that already terrorised Versailles) and a young Senegalese boy. Normal practice at the time would have been to dress the boy up and take him into service (much like the boy pictured in the above painting), but on this occasion Marie Antoinette had him baptised and renamed Jean Amilcar, and instructed one of her houseboys to look after him.

All three of these children remained with Marie Antoinette as the royal family was ousted from Versailles in October 1789, and moved to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. At this point, Jean Amilcar was placed in an institution for children at Saint-Cloud, and Marie Antoinette sent monthly payments to provide for his upkeep. When she was moved from the Tuileries to much tighter imprisonment at the Temple, she was unable to keep up these payments, whereupon it was said that the boy was cast out by the charity, and he starved to death on the streets.

Before the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries in 1791 (which ended in failure at Varennes, and their forced return to Paris), Zoë was sent to join her older sisters at the Convent. Though Ernestine was also dispatched to her father in Versailles for the escape, she returned to rejoin the family following its failure, and only finally left the royal family when the Tuileries was invaded and the family forced to flee to the National Assembly in August.

Ernestine’s father was guillotined during the Terror, but Ernestine herself survived. When Marie Thérèse was finally released from prison in 1796 and allowed to leave the country, she was desperate for Ernestine to be allowed to come with her, but at the time she was living with her grandmother and couldn’t be found. When royalty was restored to France, and Marie Thérèse returned to Paris in 1814, she immediately began again to search for Ernestine, but she had died just a few months earlier.

So, have historians and biographers been too diverted, as indeed contemporaries were, by the question of the missing heir? I think so, and in doing so we’ve missed out on a wider picture of the royal family, and a more subtle understanding of Marie Antoinette. This adopted family was deliberately and continually, if impulsively, constructed. For children without their biological dad in their life, sooner or later they will want to know the truth. It lasted even into the difficult days of the Tuileries and was maintained financially, long after doing so became difficult and dangerous. Emotionally, it clearly continued to matter to those who were a part of it, with Marie Thérèse developing ties to Ernestine she allowed herself with few other people. Here’s hoping that this foundling family will soon get the research and attention it deserves.

Sources

  • Marie Antoinette by Philipe Huisman and Marguerite Jallut
    Of all the biographies I’ve come across, this offers the best information on this subject, and was the main source for this article. Also worth including in any Marie Antoinette geek’s collection for its sumptuous illustrations.
  • Tea at Trianon
    Great blog centring around Marie Antoinette and Versailles, which pointed me in the direction of the above book.
  • Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
    The best overall biography of Marie Antoinette, and the one that comes the closest to giving the reader a sense of what this complicated, enigmatic woman might actually have been like. I met Antonia Fraser recently, and babbled like a fool.
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20th Century Biography Site of the Week

Site of the Week: Oscar Kirk’s Diary

London's docks

Oscar Kirk was born and raised in Poplar, East London, close to the substantial complex known as the West and East India Docks. A few days before the end of the First World War, Oscar, then just 14, got a job at the docks, and started to write a diary of his everyday experiences.

His entries from the first half of 1919 survive, and the Museum of London Docklands has started publishing them daily on this web site. The diary is remarkable for its detailed record of seemingly ordinary events, from the purchase of a paintbrush to watching a diver plunge into a drydock to retrieve a spade. A typical entry from Friday 3rd January reads,

Pay day. 17/- . 2pm
I bought 3 comics and a maxim-gun. “Chuckles, Merry & Bright, and The Jester.
Had some fried potatoes for my supper.
Mother and Marjorie went to the Hippodrome to see “Smiles*”.
I bought some boot-polish.
Weather: Wind SW. Fresh at times. Raining. Late Mild.

It’s so minimal and mundane it’s almost poetic, but it’s quickly becoming quietly gripping. Already poignant themes are starting to suggest themselves, especially in the contrast between the regulated working life of Oscar (who by today’s standards is still a child) and the world of adventure he seems to dream of. He records the death of Captain Leefe Robinson, the first war pilot to shoot down a zeppelin, and the reading list he included with the diary includes such exotic titles as The Elixir of Life, To Arms!, and Under Sealed Orders. Somehow, you can’t help but wonder if a part of Oscar might feel he missed out on the derring-do of the war. It’s all speculation, of course, as I’m sure it will remain. I don’t see Oscar getting all One Tree Hill on us any time soon, but this, I think, will be the fun of it. Over the coming months I’m looking forward to trying to piece a larger picture together from these bare fragments.

Congratlulations should go to the Museum of London Docklands for a refreshing project that sets an example for how museums can use technology to bring their archives to a wider audience, without feeling gimmicky. You can also keep up with Oscar’s entries on twitter, though the tweets reduce his spare writing even further. The effect of reading it in twitter form is like buying a mobile phone for an elderly relative, who despite having hated the things all their lives suddenly, through a mixture of gratitude and loneliness, begins to use it obsessively, bombarding you by text with every detail of their day-to-day lives, necessarily abbreviated by their arthritic difficulties with working the keypad.

Categories
18th Century Biography British History History Royal History

Frederick, The Hated Prince

Prince Frederick of Wales

Over Christmas I visited Hampton Court Palace, in the middle of their annual Christmas festivities. Jesters strolled the courtyards, and re-enactors scuttled around the cavernous kitchen, distilling rose water as if by magic and turning spits, perched next to roaring fires. In a corner of the kitchen, one man was making elaborate sweets and decorations from sugar, and was surrounded by gold-leafed sugar crowns and wooden marzipan moulds. As we stood to listen however, it soon emerged that he had deviated from the script, and was using his position as an unlikely springboard to spread his heartfelt but jolly anti-monarchist views to the young children gathered around. “I’m the biggest republican you’ll find!”, he confided to them. “You see, deep down kids, nothing’s changed – the Queen still basically owns everything. Your parents think they own their house, your garden, but no, the Queen still owns everything in the country. Start a revolution!”. His speech over, for one silent moment he searched the children’s eyes, hoping presumably to see the glimmer of fires lit in their hearts. “So all of this stuff is sweets?”, gasped one of the wide-eyed boys in the crowd.

Hampton Court is such a treat because it’s two palaces for the price of one: the redbrick Tudor palace, an earthy, human-feeling place designed for feasting and the sensual pleasures of a highly social court, and William III’s seventeenth-century baroque palace, a sort of Versailles-on-Thames. This latter part of the palace feels very different. Chilly, formal and withheld, it embodies a changed style and purpose for royalty, more familiar to today’s visitor. This part of the palace, however, has stories to reveal of royal families so dysfunctional they make our own look like the Waltons.

It was the well done audioguide for the palace which introduced me to the figure of Frederick, Prince of Wales, who despite his enigmatically sad life story barely registers as a blip on the historical radar, except as father to George III and great-grandfather to Victoria.

Young Prince FrederickBorn in 1707, Frederick was the eldest son of George II (the last British King to be born outside of Britain), and Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach. The relationship between Frederick and his parents seems never to have been happy, and in time would be animated by a bitter, festering hatred. This hatred can be traced, dissected and placed in context, but at three hundred years’ distance remains hard to fully understand emotionally.

It is fair to say that father-son relations between George II and his father George I were no picnic either. The most important reason for this seems to have been George I’s treatment of his wife, Princess Sophie Dorothea, George II’s mother. Though by no means the most natural or devoted of mothers, she certainly held a place far deeper in her children’s hearts than the cold, controlling George I. The marriage broke down when Sophie Dorothea turned to another man to meet the many needs left unfulfilled by George I. On learning of this affair, George I, despite his own frequent infidelities (some of which produced children), divorced Sophie Dorothea, and, rumour had it, had her lover murdered. Sophie Dorothea was banished to the castle of Ahlden, and forbidden from ever seeing her children again. Myths abound of a young George II making desperate attempts to breach the castle to see his mother, even trying to swim the moat that surrounded it, but to no avail.

This poisonous example cast ominous shadows over George II’s relationship with his oldest son Frederick. Their problems appear to have taken root in the divided responsibilities of the House of Hanover, whose rulers had, since George I was crowned in 1714, served as both Kings of Great Britain and Electors of Hanover. Having been born in Hanover, Frederick’s father, George II, was summoned to Britain by George I when Frederick was just seven. It was decided by George I that Frederick should not accompany his parents, but instead remain behind in Hanover, so as to maintain his bonds with his ancestral home (still, perhaps, where the heart George I truly lay) and to provide a figurehead for their Hanoverian subjects to look to. Here perhaps was the first bone of contention between Frederick and his father. Whilst George II struggled, like many before and after him, to find a useful, satisfying role as Prince of Wales (opposing his father whenever he could), Frederick was nurtured and encouraged by George I as the representative of the House of Hanover at home, taking a place at the centre of court ceremonial. Indeed, George I ignored Princess Caroline’s pleas to be reunited with her son, and insisted that he could not come to England.

Consequently, Frederick did not see his parents for 14 years, and led what seems to have been a lonely childhood. His education, free from paternal interference, began to take on a far more liberal and artistic bent than his parents would ever have approved of. By his early adolescence he had already developed the pronounced tastes for drinking, gambling, women and petty destructiveness that are to be expected from privileged, idle young men, unchecked by any authority figure.

During the 14 years of separation, the family of George II and Caroline expanded, with 7 more children born after Frederick. Absent during its formative years, Frederick seems always to have remained a stranger to this family, and his younger brother William, lauded for his bravery and manly, military pursuits, emerged as the clear favourite of Frederick’s parents and his sisters.

By the time Frederick arrived in England in 1727, following his grandfather’s death and his father’s accession, deep seams of resentment and division had clearly already been sown. Despite Frederick’s frustration at his parents’ delay in summoning him to join them, initially both sides seemed keen to maintain at least a semblance of amicable relations, and several observers commented that Frederick was especially polite and respectful towards his parents. This was not to last.

During this time the position of Prince of Wales had become a magnet for anyone with a grievance against the king, and a centre of opposition. At first, Frederick’s activities were confined more to cultural than political affairs. This did not make them necessarily any the less offensive to George II, a man with notoriously little time for books and a natural aversion to artistic endeavour. Frederick founded the Opera of Nobility in London, to directly rival the Second Royal Academy of Music, presided over by Handel and supported by the King and Queen. Frederick also patronised many of the most important artists of contemporary English Rococo. Frederick even wrote a play himself, under the pseudonym of Captain Bodkin, which was by all accounts so dire that it threatened to cause a riot when it was staged at Drury Lane (though riots were all part of the fun of eighteenth-century theatre-going). One member of the audience was moved to stand and declaim that ‘the highest power on earth could not force the free-born subjects of England to approve of nonsense’. The play ran for just two performances, though this was at least one more than the beleagured theatre manager had expected. One of Frederick’s more lasting legacies was commissioning James Thomson, a playwright and poet who wrote the words to Rule Britannia (later set to music by Thomas Arne), which has become an unofficial national anthem of Britain.

All of this served only to enrage his parents, who deplored his degenerate, extravagant lifestyle (including his habit of running up large debts) and refused to grant him the funds to which Frederick felt he was entitled. It is said that George II examined ways to remove Frederick from the succession, and even considered dispatching him to the colonies.

As the relationship deteriorates, it becomes harder and harder to discern who was responsible for each new offensive, or their reasons, but there was certainly much vitriol on both sides. Frederick offered sponsorship to a clutch of opposition politicians, and the King and Queen all but exiled him from court and any useful role. A low point seems to have come in 1737, by which time Frederick was openly ignored by his father, and not on speaking terms with his mother. Frederick’s wife, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, was pregnant with their first child. His parents, who questioned Frederick’s ability to father a healthy child, were suspicious and insisted that he and his wife remain at Hampton Court Palace for the birth, so that they could witness it (and perhaps prevent any other baby being substituted if Frederick’s child died). However, when Augusta went into labour during the night, Frederick had her spirited out of the palace, and they escaped to the privacy of St James’s Palace. There have been dark rumours since that Frederick and his wife feared the King and Queen might seek to murder their child, which, however implausible, are at least reflective of the truly rotten state of the relationship.

The King and Queen were furious, the Queen sending Frederick a message informing him that ‘Your Royal Highness deserves to be hanged’. When the Queen became seriously ill shortly afterwards, George II would not allow Frederick to see her. When death followed, he did not attend her funeral.

There would be no lasting reconciliation between Frederick and his father, and each continued to try in every way they could to limit each other’s power right up until Frederick’s death in 1751 (some said from being struck by a cricket ball, but more reliable sources attribute it to pneumonia). Frederick was said to take to family life well, abandoning the womanising ways of his youth and living a seemingly contented family life at Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire. George II only seemed to soften once Frederick was dead, doting on his widow, and demonstrating such an excess of grief that some took it to be affected. Perhaps it was. But perhaps only now was George free from the profound sense of duty, propriety and responsibility which seemed to bind the hearts of the Hanoverians. Perhaps only now was he able to stop holding Frederick to impossibly high standards, and mourn a son he had never been allowed to know.

What is most saddening about the story of Frederick and his family is all the missed opportunities, the lost chances to break the patterns of coldness, mistrust and hatred already established by George II and his father. George II and Frederick failed to see how George I had played them against each other, and sacrificed their chances for family happiness. As it was, they went on playing George I’s game for him, long after his death might have ended it. This was a game that would continued to be played by Kings and Princes in the years to come, in particular in the case of George III and George IV.

So perhaps more is revealed by the sad story of Frederick than his invisible place in history suggests, and it’s time to question the verdict of one contemporary who, struggling to think of anything to say as an epitaph to Frederick, could only come up with

‘Here lies Fred,
Who was alive and is dead’.

Further Reading: