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Marie Antoinette and her Children: The mystery and the history of Louis Charles in the tower. Part 1

Louis Charles mystery Marie Antoinette

On the morning of 11th August 1792, an exhausted and increasingly sweaty royal family sat in the reporters’ box of the National Assembly, a stone’s throw from the Seine in Paris. The night before, the Tuileries (the 16th-century royal palace near the Louvre which had been their residence since they were removed from Versailles in 1789) had been invaded by the people, and a chaotic and brutal battled ensued. The king had been forced to flee the palace and seek refuge with the Assembly.

As debate raged around them over the future of the monarchy, one thing was already clear. The Tuileries was no longer a suitable residence for the royal family, and an alternative must be found urgently. And so it was that on 13th August, Louis, Marie Antoinette and their children were transported to the Temple. This would have come as no great surprise to Marie Antoinette, indeed she had predicted that they would ultimately be moved there several months before it came to pass. But it was nonetheless a frightening development. Marie Antoinette had always disliked the Temple – a complex of buildings including a rather lovely seventeenth-century palace and the far more ominous Tower, a decaying hulk of a building constructed by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Earlier in her life, Marie Antoinette was even said to have suggested to her brother-in-law (then owner of the palace) that the Tower should be knocked down.

The Temple, Marie Antoinette's prison
The Temple Tower

The prospect of life in the Temple was very different to the one they had known in the Tuileries. Though certainly well past its best, and a precipitous step down from Versailles, the Tuileries was at least a royal palace, and while they had been tucked away there, a sort of calm had descended, allowing questions over the exact status of the royal family to be conveniently postponed or half-answered. The family had enjoyed considerable independence in the Tuileries, where there was space to walk outside and to house supporters, and enough leeway for many of the traditions and rites of Versailles to continue in some form or another. Security had even been lax enough to allow the royal party to make its ill-fated escape attempt earlier in the year.

The Temple, it was clear to everyone, was to allow none of this ambiguity. In moving to the Temple, Marie Antoinette and her family were being imprisoned, physically and psychologically. Though their quarters were cramped, damp and cold, there were still touches of luxury in their furnishings, meals continued to be lavish, and the King was allowed his own study. What made the real difference was that the King and Queen were now strictly monitored and controlled by jailers who openly disrespected them, and clearly enjoyed inflicting what Antonia Fraser calls ‘petty humilations’ on them whenever possible. What’s more, any chance of escape, except in the most fervid daydreams of die-hard monarchists and paranoid republicans, had now well and truly passed. Most painful of all for the king and queen must have been the dawning realisation that they were now powerless – locked out of the way whilst their fate, and that of France, was being decided elsewhere.

From now on, events moved rapidly. On 21st September, the National Assembly declared France a republic, and abolished the monarchy – adding new urgency to the question of what should be done with its former monarchs. In October, Louis was separated from his family in preparation for trial. His jailers presented him with a choice – he could be allowed to see his children during this time, or they could be left with Marie Antoinette, but it must be one or the other. They would not be allowed to see both parents. Louis chose to leave the children with their mother, and he would be reunited with his family just one more time, on the night before his execution on 21st January 1793. He bade them a tearful farewell, but promised to see them again the next morning before he was taken away.

Louis was fascinated by history, and had spent much of his life reading history books. Some observers had wondered why, because the king had never seemed to learn much from it. But recently he had been fixated on the story of Charles I of England, and in particular the fearless and noble way he met his own execution. It was said that Charles had secretly worn two overshirts as he stepped onto the scaffold that January morning, so that his people would not see him shiver from cold and think him afraid. Louis was determined that his people should not see him shiver, finding, as he faced his death, a resolution and strength he had so often lacked in life.

This newfound resilience called upon all of Louis’ emotional reserves, so when dawn came, he found himself unable to face the strain of of seeing his family again. He broke his promise. Marie Antoinette and her children waited in the Tower, unaware of what was going on. It was only when they heard drums and a huge cheer echoing round the streets that they knew Louis was dead. Later, some would claim that in that instant Marie Antoinette turned to her son Louis-Charles and said ‘The king is dead, long live the king’, expressing the tradition that monarchy itself never dies – kings come and go, but kingship passes down a divinely-ordained and unbroken ancient line.

The comment seems emotionally out of place, but whether or not Marie Antoinette actually said it, it was true that, with French law forbidding a woman to hold the crown, for those unwilling to accept that monarchy in France was a thing of the past, the seven-year-old Louis Charles had suddenly become King Louis XVII.

Louis Charles, son of Marie Antoinette
Louis Charles, painted in 1792 by Alexander Kucharsky

Louis Charles can’t have remembered much of life before the revolution, and in one way or another conflict had overshadowed his whole life. Portraits of the boy show an angelic and spirited but delicate looking child, and this matches well with the reports of everyone who knew him. He was said to be loyal and loving, and his stubborn pride was certainly forgiveable (indeed, almost a requirement) in a dauphin of France. He was adored by his parents and his sisters, and proved capable of charming even his most implacable enemies. The revolution would severely test the boy, and though he endured numerous terrifying episodes in which he and his family could easily have been killed, he did not emerge unscathed. These experiences seem in particular to have reinforced a pair of key character traits which Marie Antoinette and others had noted despairingly even before the upheavals of 1789. Firstly, Louis Charles had always been easily scared. At Versailles, more often than not it was the sound of dogs that startled him, but by 1793 his nerves had become so frayed that he cowered at almost any disturbance. Secondly, Louis Charles, like many young boys, had a tendency to repeat things that he had heard too freely, adding his own invented details to enhance the telling, without consciously meaning to lie. This it seems was a symptom of a more general desire to please, and to be loved.

This particular combination of character traits, though not exactly unusual in a boy of his age, was to prove disastrous in the new phase of Louis Charles’ life that was now beginning. With his father dead and mistrust and hatred for Marie Antoinette as widespread as ever, it was decided that the boy should be separated from his mother. This was done in June, without warning. When men entered to take him away, Marie Antoinette clung to her son for over an hour, refusing to release him even when her life was threatened. Only when the guards shifted tactic and threatened her daughter did Marie Antoinette finally relent.

Louis Charles now posed a problem for the revolutionary authorities. He was too young to be tried like his father, and he could certainly not be allowed to go into exile, where he would provide the counter-revolutionaries with a potent figurehead. And though the problem of his father had been solved by killing him, doing the same to this cherubic, innocent boy would present a most unpleasant image of the revolution to the world, and could inspire a backlash of monarchist sympathy. So, it seems to have been decided, the only thing to do with Louis Charles was to keep him out of sight of the public and hope that in time he would be forgotten. More deliciously for some, a close, solitary imprisonment even presented the tantalising possibility that Louis Charles might be made to forget himself. The Commune, which oversaw the imprisonment of Louis Charles, spoke explicitly in terms of a ‘re-education’, and the ultimate hope was that the boy should ‘lose the recollection of his royalty’, in the words of Jacques-René Hébert, and become a revolutionary.

The man chosen for this ‘re-education’ would be, in any other circumstances, an unlikely tutor. Antoine Simon was one of life’s failures, making a mess of everything he tried his hand at. Training initially as a shoemaker, nobody was interested in buying his wares, and his cheap tavern by the Seine proved equally disastrous. His luck seemed in when his first wife died and by some miracle he managed to attract another who came with a hefty dowry attached, but this too was soon frittered away. Rather than accepting that his own laziness and lack of business acumen had been the primary cause of the string of failures that riddled his adult life, Simon became increasingly angry and bitter, blaming anyone but himself for keeping him from the success he richly deserved. The Revolution was a gift to Simon, dovetailing nicely with his paranoid conspiracy theories, encouraging him to paint the aristocracy as being responsible for keeping men like him in their lowly stations. Even in the midst of this revolution, dominated by legendary characters and awesome personalities, Simon’s commitment and zeal marked him out, and he was soon noticed by those in authority. Simon was a man who would put the revolution above anything, and would not allow sentiment or affection to prevent him from following orders. Consequently when Jacques-René Hébert and his superiors at the Commune were searching for a man to watch over Louis Charles and break his royal spirit, Simon was a natural choice. One can only imagine Simon’s feelings on discovering his new destiny. He had spent his life railing impotently against the aristocratic Hydra laying waste to his hopes and dreams. Now one of its last remaining heads was his to control – and destroy.

Louis Charles’ re-education could not begin immediately as for the first few days he simply huddled in a corner, weeping uncontrollably, terrified by the slightest noise. Eventually though, things began to settle into a routine, and at least in this early stage, Louis Charles was not treated too badly. He was washed and his clothes were cleaned, he was given toys and sometimes even got to play with the laundry woman’s daughter. He was allowed outside into a small garden for air, and on one of these occasions Louis Charles found the courage to demand of some officials who had come to see him ‘I want to know what law you are using that says I should be separated from my mother… Show me this law, I want to see it!. Louis Charles’ short walk to the garden took him directly past Marie Antoinette’s cell, and if she craned her neck to a certain crack in the wall she could catch the merest glimpse of him as he walked by. Marie Thérèse wrote later that her mother would stand for hours with her eye crammed against that crack, waiting to see her son – ‘it was her sole hope, her sole occupation’.

In these early days of his isolation, there seems to have been some uncertainty about what exactly was to be done with Louis Charles. Simon didn’t like uncertainty, and resolved to clarify the situation. In July he went to the Commune, demanding what their intentions were for the boy. Their answer was clear and unequivocal – ‘We want to get rid of him!’.

From this point on the life of Louis Charles took a far more sinister turn.

Click here for part 2 of this story >>

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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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Marie Antoinette and her Children: A new, multi-part series on Culture&Stuff

In 1786, Marie Antoinette and her children posed for a portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (click the image above for the full version). At first glance, the resulting picture presents a happy image. Madame Royale gazes lovingly up at her mother, the infant Duc de Normandie bounces on her lap, and the Dauphin looks every inch the angelic heir to the throne of France. This is an image of the family Marie Antoinette always longed for, and a vision of the Queen as she wished herself to be seen.

But look closer and all is not quite as it should be. The young dauphin points so proudly and so invitingly, but leads our eye to a gaping hole at the centre of the picture. When the portrait was first painted, the crib was occupied by another baby, Marie Antoinette’s most recent child, Madame Sophie. Less than a year later, Madame Sophie was dead, and thoughts of her wretched life and early death caused Marie Antoinette so much pain that Sophie was painted out of the picture.

The image that was left is a haunting and somehow apt visual metaphor for Marie Antoinette’s deeply troubled relationship with children. العاب كازينو مجانية From the first days of her own childhood to her execution, and even beyond in the murky waters of her reputation, children – both absent and present, real and imagined – seem peculiarly to have defined Marie Antoinette. It is this sometimes joyous but more often painful relationship that I will examine in the next few weeks in a series of new posts, focusing especially on the lesser-known aspects of Marie Antoinette’s story. ارقام حظ برج الدلو Posts will include…

  • Marie Antoinette’s adopted children – the extraordinary story of the children Marie Antoinette took into her family, and what happened to them when the Revolution began.
  • The treatment of the dauphin Louis Charles when separated from his mother in the prison at the Temple.
  • How the image of Marie Antoinette as a mother was dramatically subverted and used against her in her trial. كم عدد بطولات مانشستر سيتي
  • The Legend of Louis Charles – though the official story holds that he died in prison in 1795, persistent and increasingly wild rumours emerged that he had escaped, and many figures popped up all over the world claiming to be the true Louis XVII.
  • Aftermath: The story of Marie Thérèse, the eldest of Marie Antoinette’s children, and the only member of the immediate family to survive the revolution.