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17th Century 18th Century Animals French History History Museums Royal History Uncategorized

Strange Meetings: The Royal Menagerie at Versailles – an Extract from Vintage Script Magazine

Royal Menagerie at Versailles

This month, you’ll find a piece I’ve written in Vintage Script, a new magazine dedicated to all things vintage, historical and retro. What’s most delightful about it is the range of different historical periods, as well as the different approaches taken to bringing them to life. In this month’s edition you’ll find stories on the history of tea time, flapper girls of the 1920s, Durham Cathedral and the truth behind the Scarlet Pimpernel. It really is well worth a read, so do please visit the web site and take a look.

Versailles Menagerie by D'Aveline

The Versailles Menagerie during Louis XIV’s reign, by D’Aveline.

In an attempt to whet your appetite, here’s an extract from my article on the history of the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. You’ll have to take my word for it, but the stuff I’ve cut out here is stupendous, so you really should get the magazine!

We take up the story from Louis XIV’s death. Before the Sun King, the French Royals had not had a permanent menagerie but instead contented themselves with a band of exotic or entertaining animals which followed them around their various royal residences. Louis XIV established two permanent menageries – one at Vincennes and one at Versailles, each with a different purpose and personality. The Vincennes menagerie was used for dramatic fights, such as the battle between a tiger and an elephant staged to amuse the Persian ambassador in 1682. The Versailles menagerie, on the other hand, was a model of order and rationality, where the far more fortunate animals were intended for peaceful display and, as all things at the palace, to augment the glory and prestige of the king. The conflict between these two very different styles of menagerie reflected the conflicts in Louis’ personality and style of leadership, but by the end of his reign the Versailles style had clearly won out, and the Vincennes zoo was closed.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746 (via Wikimedia Commons), with the location of the menagerie highlighted. Below, the former site of the menagerie today, from Google Maps.

[cetsEmbedGmap src=http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=versailles&hl=en&ll=48.804772,2.09502&spn=0.013143,0.033023&t=h&z=16 width=598 height=400 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no]

In some magical way Versailles transformed itself to match the character of the king at its heart, so when the Sun King died and was succeeded by his grandson Louis XV, everything changed. Louis XV was more interested in hunting animals than observing them in his menagerie, and his taste for exotic wildlife restricted itself more or less to Madame de Pompadour and his seraglio of royal mistresses. Animal gifts kept coming from every corner of the ever-expanding French trading empire, but the king lacked both the funds and the inclination to give them much of a welcome. When an elephant arrived in 1772, it was forced to walk more than three hundred miles from the coast to Versailles.

One can imagine the elephant was quite miffed about the debacle (but must have created quite a stir in the towns and villages along the road) and things got no better once it arrived at Versailles. The pond dug for the exotic birds to wade in was full of silt. The wall enclosing the rhinoceros which arrived two years earlier was literally crumbling (not a good thing, as the rhino was no doubt angered by visitors who laughed at its absurdly wrinkled skin). Even the animals in the once beautiful paintings which lined the walls of the observation room were faded and peeling. The elephant stuck it out for as long as possible, but in 1782, broke free of its enclosure and rampaged round the grounds of Versailles. Next morning, a strange new elephant-shaped island was found floating in the Grand Canal.

Sadly, the elephant died too late to witness the last gasp of the royal menagerie. Louis XVI had ascended the throne in 1775, and found a financial and political situation as neglected as the menagerie. Unlike his grandfather Louis XV, Louis XVI could not rely on winning charm to see him through – he had none. He was therefore much more attuned to symbolism, and strove constantly, in the face of an ever-deepening crisis, to project an image of undimmed power and royal prestige.

Although they never knew it, the animals of the menagerie were a perfect instrument for this. The very fact that they were there at all spoke eloquently of the scope and scale of the king’s influence. Overcoming the difficulties of finding and catching such rare and beautiful creatures, overcoming the problems of long distance travel and communication, overcoming the self-interest of every captain and sailor along the way who might have sold his precious cargo, the king had commanded that animals be brought, and they had come. The strength of his will even seemed to overcome death itself: such animals were notoriously difficult to keep alive on long voyages. Exotic birds especially had an irksome habit of dropping down dead when cannon fired, or simply pining away. Whispers began to circulate that the most beautiful birds of all simply could not live without their liberty.

Louis sent out a shopping list to his representatives around the world. “An elephant; 2 zebras, male and female; mandrill and baboon monkeys; 6 guineafoul”. Perhaps Louis wished to tame the zebras and teach them to draw his carriage, as some of his more flamboyant contemporaries did. But Louis was never to receive an elephant and only got one of the zebras he asked for, though the menagerie did benefit from an influx of new inmates, including a lion, a panther, some hyenas, a tiger, some ostriches and several kinds of monkey.

The popularity of the menagerie was also boosted by great vogue for the study of nature that flowered during Louis XVI’s reign. Naturalists had grown tired of studying the dusty tombs of Cabinets of Curiosity, where brown pickled fish bobbed in vinegar and faded birds stood stuffed in a peculiar imitation of life that seemed to startle the thought of death into everyone who looked at them. There was now, prompted by the bestselling work of Buffon, a desire to observe living animals. Now then, the animals of the menagerie had a new torment, as fashionable men and women toured the menagerie, staring deep into the eyes of monkeys and, with a pained expression, wondered aloud “What is it to be human?”. Nobody ever seemed to wonder what it is to be monkey.

As it turned out, of course, even if Louis had managed to obtain a hundred zebras to draw his carriage, they couldn’t have saved him from the coming of the Revolution. Perhaps the animals noticed a glow of torchlight up at the palace on the night in October 1789 when a crowd of thousands arrived to remove the royal family and take them back to Paris (henceforth to be caged and regarded with the same mixture of awed and disgusted curiosity that the inhabitants of the menagerie had been).

The menagerie must have been a sad and dispiritingly quiet place for the next couple of years, as history was written elsewhere, and the fate of a dwindling bunch of pampered pets was of no importance. But, in a perverse way, the violence and inhumanity of the revolution was to foster a new concern for these animals. After a few years, with the Terror in full flow, the bourgeois leaders of the Revolution began to grow concerned that the populace was becoming too accustomed to blood, too wild. They needed to be brought back to the civilising influence of orderly society – and what better way to demonstrate its advantages than through the example of these wild animals. If even a lion, when it is well cared for by enlightened rulers, can be tamed and made gentle, then there’s hope for anyone. This attitude to animals was extraordinary: in 1794, the Paris Commune received complaints about ‘disgusting displays’ of animals in the Place de la Révolution, but none about the twenty guillotinings that took place in the same square every day.

At the last minute, the few remaining animals of the royal menagerie, which had been due to be killed and stuffed, were saved, and made a part of plans for a new state menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Following a ban on animal shows, the authorities had sent out agents to round up all wild animals being kept or sold in Paris for this purpose. The only problem was, there was nowhere to put them except the basement of the museum at the Jardins des Plantes.

The wrinkly rhinoceros died before it could make the journey (run through, according to legend, by a revolutionary’s sabre), but the lion from Versailles was taken to Paris in 1794, and found itself in a room full of the motliest collection of animals since the Ark. Here was a leopard, there a sea lion. Perched on a crate were three eagles, bleating in the corner were three sheep with various lurid deformities, and god-knows-where was what had been promised to be a sea lion when the harassed zookeeper agreed to take it on, but was discovered on arrival to be a polar bear. There were in total 32 mammals and 26 birds.

Gradually a permanent, if very basic, home for these forlorn creatures was put together, and, amid trumpeting revolutionary rhetoric that the animals would “no longer wear on their brows, as in the menageries built by the pomp of kings, the brand of slavery”, its doors were opened to the public. This new, state menagerie was intended to be a pacifying haven of contemplation and rational study. It didn’t quite work out that way. As soon as the doors opened, the citizens of Paris made a beeline for the old lion from Versailles. They pulled at his fur, and shouted abuse when he tried to sleep, and spat at him because, they said, he used to be a king too.

The lion bore his torment for a short while, but in the famine-frosted winter of 1795, when there was no money for food and none to buy anyway, half the animals died, the lion probably among them. After this time, conditions at the menagerie slowly improved, and with the conquests of Napoleon, it was repopulated with inhabitants from new outposts of empire.

Today, there’s no trace of the menagerie beneath the impeccably manicured lawns of Versailles, but a piece of it survives. If you go to the Jardins des Plantes, past the small zoo which still survives and into the Natural History Museum, you’ll find a large glass case, containing a leathery rhinoceros, the first to ever be stuffed and preserved. Today people file by and study him quietly, as civilised and dispassionate as they were always meant to be, save perhaps for the occasional chuckle at his absurdly wrinkly skin. But this is an extraordinary survivor, called across the sea by the last pulse of royal power from France, witness to the end of an era, one of the last beings ever to truly live at Versailles, victim of the violence of the revolution – and yet, here he is. Through all the storms of history and politics, the revolutions and counter-revolutions, monarchies and republics, wars and peaces, the rhinoceros has stood safe in its glass case. Even today, the Versailles menagerie is drawing long-severed worlds into strange meetings.

Louis XV's Rhinoceros

Louis XV’s rhinoceros, at the Natural History Museum in Paris.


The rhinoceros was recently featured in an exhibition at Versailles, ‘Sciences and Curiosities at the Court of Versailles, which I’m bereft at having missed. This nice little video was made to coincide with the exhibition.

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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 French History Historical Places Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: A Contemporary English Account to Read Online

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Marie Antoinette, it’s that unfortunate cake remark (which, of course, there’s no reason at all to believe she ever said). If there’s a second thing, it’s that she got her head chopped off. A lie and an ending – the foundations of our conceptions of the entire life of a woman. So much is left out of that dessicated biography – good and bad, edifying and embarassing, important and trivial. But frankly, even when you do begin to learn more, even when you read one of the excellent biographies (even the superlative one by historian heartthrob Antonia Frasier) she remains a pretty enigmatic woman, almost impossible to pin down. So much about her life and character seems so contradictory, and to vary so wildly in different accounts, that it’s very hard to emerge with any feeling of knowing her.

There are though a few pivotal events in her life where her character suddenly crystallises before your eyes, and she practically seems to walk into the room. Her trial is certainly the most powerful of these moments, but frustratingly it’s probably one of the least known elements of her life story. In all the hoopla of ‘Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off’, it’s easy to lose sight of basic questions like how that came to happen or precisely why. For this reason and many others the trial record makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the real Marie Antoinette, and more widely anyone interested in the Revolution as a whole. You might say I’m a bit of a fan – so much so, in fact, that I wrote a play about the trial a couple of years ago.

I’m going to write more about the trial in my next post, but for now I wanted to simply post this English account of the proceedings at the trial, published in 1793, the year after the trial, which I’ve scanned from an existing copy. I’m very excited to make this available, as I’ve been unable to find an English account freely available online, and it’s a document that deserves to be available to all.

http://cultureandstuff.com/Authentic_Trial_at_Large_of_Marie_Antoinette_via_Cultureandstuff.pdf

Click here to download the file as a PDF.

Although, as you’ll see, the preface and epilogue added to the record in this edition make the compiler’s sympathies for Marie Antoinette perfectly plain, the account of the trial itself tallies well with other published versions, and this one is most likely based on the accounts which appeared in English newspapers at the time. It is, as far as all my research shows, an authentic account of the proceedings. Also included are a brief  biographical sketch, the ‘secret interrogatories’ (questioning of Marie Antoinette that occurred in private before the trial itself), a description of her execution and events after the trial was closed, and a lamentation for the dead Queen.

I’m biting my tongue to stop myself talking more about it, because it’s remarkable enough to speak for itself and that’s what I want it to do. But I’ll be back next week with more details on the story of the trial, its more extraordinary moments, and its cast of characters.

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18th Century Biography French History History

Marie Antoinette and her Children: The mystery and the history of Louis Charles in the tower. Part 2

Marie Antoinette's Son Louis Charles: death and reappearance

In part 1 of this story, we followed the rapidly deteriorating fortunes of the young Louis Charles, son of Marie Antoinette, as his family faced imprisonment in the forbidding tower of the Temple, his father, Louis XVI, was sent to the guillotine, and he was wrenched away from his mother and placed under the tutelage of the bitter zealot, Simon.

The story of Louis Charles was already tainted by more suffering than most people will have to endure in a lifetime, but Louis Charles was, in 1793, not yet nine years old. In the two years that remained to him, more pain would enter into the tale, and even his death marked not the end of his story, but merely the end of one chapter in what would become an epic tragedy.

Since we left him languishing in his cell him at the end of part one, the story has already got considerably more complicated. As described in this post, Louis Charles had become the pawn of Jacques René Hébert, who, in order to strengthen the fairly flimsy case against Marie Antoinette, had concocted a vindictive story that Marie Antoinette had sexually abused her son.  Hébert had managed to persuade Louis Charles to sign a document supporting this allegation, and had even made the boy confront his sister and aunt with the tale. Hébert unveiled this accusation with showmanly flourish at Marie Antoinette’s trial, and though it had not had quite the galvanising impact he had hoped for, the Queen was inevitably found guilty anyway and went to her death in September 1792.

The situation had never been worse for Louis Charles. The deaths of his father and mother had established the clear precedent that royalty was to be totally purged from France. The very idea of royalty ran counter to everything the revolution stood for and was therefore extremely and actively dangerous. And at this moment the last vestige of royalty – of all its crimes and excesses , of its history and myth, of its awkwardly persistent mystery and power, and, most pressingly of all, of its ancient bloodline – resided in the increasingly frail and filthy body of the young Louis Charles. Yet, as we saw in part 1, things weren’t quite this simple. Revolutionary France suffered from something of a PR problem, with most of Europe deriding the revolution as obscene and bestial, and several key areas of France itself engaged in open and bitter revolt. It just wouldn’t do to add child-murder to the list of the revolution’s more unsavoury habits, especially when the child in question had in the past proved effortlessly but powerfully capable of winning the sympathy of the public.

There was, however, a clear justification for keeping this king-in-waiting under lock and key. Exiled monarchist sympathisers would flock to fight under the banner of the would-be Louis XVII if he was ever allowed to go abroad and the revolution would have another enemy to fight. No, the only option was to keep him in prison. And as everyone knew, the prisons of Paris were brutal, squalid holes, where death by natural causes deprived Madame Guillotine of many cherished appointments. Here then, was the plan. Louis Charles’ milk-pale body was made for mirrored palaces and manicured gardens, not prisons. There was no need for a messy murder. Left alone, purposefully neglected, Louis Charles would soon sicken. Nature would do the job herself.

Initially, the plan worked just as it was supposed to. Since Louis Charles was now of very little use to political manipulators such as Hébert, he was largely ignored. Even Simon, Louis Charles’ former guard and co-conspirator of Hébert, left the prison in early 1794 to focus on his post at the Commune. Now, even the project to ‘re-educate’ Louis Charles in revolutionary ideals was abandoned, and the sole priority was to prevent any escape or rescue. He was placed in solitary confinement, probably in the very room where he had last seen his father. The room had always been cold and dark, and was now modified with the addition of strong bars and grates. His sole contact with any human being was when his meagre food was shoved into the room through a small slot. There were no openings to allow Louis Charles to glimpse the world beyond the ten foot thick walls that surrounded him, and at night he was allowed no candle to break the darkness. In May 1794, Robespierre visited the prison to inspect conditions. Louis Charles’ sister Marie-Thérèse desperately handed him a note, begging to be allowed to look after her brother. The request was ignored.

Louis Charles was now to all intents and purposes forgotten, as events outside the prison reduced the Prince to an irrelevance. The Terror reached its chaotic pitch, as first Hébert. then Danton, then Robespierre himself were overtaken and sent to the guillotine. Lurking somewhere in the group of prisoners who climbed the scaffold with Robespierre was Simon, his revolutionary career having proven to be only the last in a long line of failures. Throughout these turbulent months, Louis Charles endured an animal existence in the shadows.

In the wake of Robespierre’s downfall, a flicker of humanity briefly illuminated the boy’s plight. General Barras, who was now placed in charge of the royal children, paid a visit to the Temple and was shocked by what he saw. In Louis Charles’ cell he found a truly broken child. His limbs were swollen with angry tumours and he was covered in sores. His eyes seemed empty and dead, he could not walk and would not speak. He spent his days huddled in a tiny cot, presumably to put some small distance between him and the filth that was piling up on the floor of his cell.

Barras seems to have been moved to help the boy, and eventually a new guardian, Jean-Jacques Christophe Laurent, was appointed. can you drink ivermectin injection orally Laurent was a young Creole from Martinique, whose compassion and kindness stands out in this otherwise inkily grim tale. He was determined to bring Louis Charles’ sufferings to light, at some risk to his own prospects, insisting the Commune examine his case and demanding the right to be allowed in to clean Louis Charles’ cell for the first time in many months. Louis Charles was also washed, and his lice-ridden hair and claw-like nails were cut. Though he was allowed very limited time with the boy, Laurent was kind to him, calling him ‘Monsieur Charles’, rather than the barrage of insults he had been used to. After so many months of cruelty and isolation, Louis Charles recoiled suspiciously at this treatment, asking him ‘Why are you taking care of me? I thought you didn’t like me’, before retreating once again into silence.

By February 1795, it was becoming clear that Louis Charles was dying, yet still it was three months before any doctor was permitted to see him. Finally, Dr Pierre Joseph Desault arrived at the Bastille on 6 May. Despite the danger of doing so (two journalists had recently been arrested for speaking out about Louis Charles’ treatment), Desault was from the start free in his condemnation.

I encountered a child who is mad, dying, a victim of the most abject misery and the greatest abandonment, a being who has been brutalised by the cruellest of treatments and whom it is impossible for me to bring back to life… revectina serve para pulgas What a crime!

He insisted that Louis Charles be allowed to take air and exercise, and provided him with toys. signs of ivermectin toxicity The pair seem quickly to have formed a trusting, even, in its muted way, affectionate relationship. Then, after a public dinner, Desault complained of severe stomach pains, and died three days later. Rumours rapidly circulated that he had been poisoned, which seemed all the more likely given that two of his assistants also died suddenly soon afterwards.

Though another doctor was appointed, it was too late for Louis Charles, who died in the night on 8 June 1795, at the age of ten. The story is a squalid one; a simple tale of neglect with all too much cruelty and all too little heroism. But, like the long lines of kings before him, the death of Louis Charles marked merely the passing of history into legend, and before long rumours began circulating that Louis Charles had not died at all, that he had somehow been smuggled out of the Temple and had not suffered that ignominious end. A far more palatable romance quickly took the place of the sordid reality, and before long, a string of claimants to the throne of Louis Charles would start to emerge in the unlikeliest of places. For that story, come back next time.

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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.