The childhood of Louis XVI


Louis XVI, painted by Duplessis. Photo: Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

Today marks the anniversary of the birth on the 23rd of August 1754 of Louis Auguste de France, who would succeed his grandfather Louis XV as Louis XVI in May 1774. I feel really sorry for Louis actually, as one tends to when dealing with men who find themselves eclipsed by their more glamorous and outgoing wives. However, while I think that under different circumstances the rather shy, awkward and introverted Louis would have been more than happy to let Marie Antoinette completely dominate, as King of France, his diffidence and the enhanced prestige of his wife were to have devastating consequences.

Louis was the fourth child and second surviving son of the unusually devoted royal couple, the Dauphin Louis of France and his second wife Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, who was affectionately known as ‘Pépa’.

The Dauphin Louis by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. Photo: Louvre.

The royal couple were unusual for their domestic harmony and frank and open adoration of each other in a court where it was considered bad form to be openly affectionate towards one’s spouse. The Dauphin was a complicated character: he wrote to a friend that his soul was ‘always gay’ and indeed there was a liveliness and cheerfulness about him that made his company much sought after. However, he had also inherited the morbid nature of his parents, Louis XV and his devout Polish wife, Marie Leczinska and was obsessed with death and dying. His mother kept the skull of the delightful courtesan Ninon de Lenclos on her desk, garlanded with flowers and grinning toothily upon a velvet cushion. She called it ‘Ma chère Mignonne’.

It is recorded that in the early days of their marriage, the young Saxony princess Marie-Joséphe had been horrified to witness her new husband and his sisters spending evenings dressed in black and walking slowly around the dim candlelit room murmuring ‘I am dead, I am dead, I am dead’ in a continuation of a favourite game from childhood. It was unacceptably morbid to a healthy young princess who adored dancing, laughter, being outdoors, having fun and celebrating life.

It didn’t help of course that the young Dauphin had been married once before, to the pretty Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain, who was four years his senior. The court had giggled behind their spangled and painted fans at the young bride’s unfashionable red hair, but the Dauphin had fallen immediately in love with her and was thrilled when she became pregnant. ‘I can hardly believe that I am so soon to be a father!’ he wrote to a friend, his delight echoing that of every young father throughout the centuries.

Maria Teresa gave birth to a daughter, Marie-Thérèse, on the 19th July 1746 and died four days later. Her young husband, just sixteen years old at this time, was genuinely devastated with courtiers likening his grief to that of ‘an inconsolable child’, which in many ways he was.

The little princess, his only link with his deceased love, was to live for just two years and would die in April 1748 after being given an emetic in an attempt to alleviate the pain of teething. The court doctors had struck again.

Marie Josèphe de Saxe by Liotard in 1751. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

No one knew quite what to expect when the Dauphin was married again, this time to Marie-Josèphe, and she must have been quite perturbed when on their wedding night he collapsed in tears into her arms and sobbed about his dead wife, which must have been somewhat awkward to say the least. You can imagine how the Versailles courtiers must have laughed when the news spread about the Dauphin’s wedding night. ‘That’s no way to woo a pretty young girl,’ they would have tittered to each other.

The marriage seemed doomed to failure until the Dauphin caught smallpox and his little wife insisted on nursing him back to health herself. It is said that she took such great care of him that a short sighted doctor, unused to the court said to the Dauphin: ‘You have an excellent little nurse there. Never get rid of her.’ The Dauphin made a full recovery and filled with gratitude, he fell in love at last with his wife.

The young couple enjoyed a blissful life together, almost a second honeymoon and were to be seen daily at their devotions together in the Versailles chapel before taking the air together on the terrace by the Orangerie. They shared the same tastes exactly – for music, reading and gardening and loved to spend their time together. The Dauphin was a talented musician and played the violin, organ and spinet as well as singing in a very fine baritone. In common with his father’s mistress Madame de Pompadour (known as ‘Pom Pom’ by her lover’s children) he was also a talented actor, capable of reducing an audience to fits of uncontrollable laughter with his comedic roles.

Their lives were not just devoted to pleasure however. Both were keen philanthropists, who loved to assist the needy and were generous givers to charity. They gave instructions to their children’s tutors that the princes and princesses should be taken to the houses of the needy so that they could see for themselves how the poor lived. ‘They must learn to weep. A prince who has never shed any tears cannot be good,’ the Dauphin explained. He was also very fond of taking his sons to view the baptismal register of the parish of Versailles, where their names were written alongside those of more humble infants. ‘Look, my children, look at your names written after the name of a pauper. The only thing that can establish any difference between you is virtue,’ he would say. One can imagine the effect of all this on the young Duc de Berri, who would later become Louis XVI, although at this time he was the second son and was not expected to succeed.

Louis Auguste, Duc de Berry and his brother, the Comte de Provence, painted by Drouais. Photo: Museum of Art, Sao Paulo.

When Louis Auguste was born in the Dauphine’s bedchamber on the ground floor of Versailles in the broiling summer of 1754, the royal nursery at the palace was already home to Marie Zéphyrine, who was born on the 26th August 1750 and Louis Joseph, who was born on the 13th September 1751. Another son, Xavier, had recently died in February 1754 at the age of six months.

Typically, Marie Josèphe was determined not to make a fuss when she went into labour at around four in the morning and, believing she simply had colic, had got up and spent the next few hours alone before waking her husband who in his turn alerted the servants. Their new son was born at quarter to seven and immediately passed into the care of Madame de Marsan, who was already governess to his elder brother, the Duc de Bourgogne and a most imposing presence at court where she was one of the few granted the rare distinction of being allowed to sit in an actual chair in the presence of royalty and also, steady now, use an oval silver chamber pot instead of the usual round one. Lucky lady.

The birth of the Duc de Berry, August 1754. Photo: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

The baby’s grandfather was away hunting at his nearby estate at Choisy when the news arrived that his daughter in law had delivered a child and immediately rushed back to Versailles to inspect the baby. There had been some concerns about the healthiness of the Dauphine’s progeny as her three earlier babies had all apparently inherited her own rather sickly constitution, however this new boy delighted everyone by being gloriously plump, healthy and loud. According to court protocol, he was immediately baptised, presented with a tiny blue watered silk sash of the Order of the Holy Spirit and given the title of Duc de Berry which was always used instead of a Christian name – it was the custom at the time for royal sons to only be known by their titles (which could be recycled if they died in infancy) until they were christened later on. In Louis’ case, he was not to be christened until he was seven years old when he had to share the ceremony with his two younger brothers, Artois and Provence and their eldest sister Clotilde.

The end of what must have been an exhausting day for all concerned, but most particularly the Dauphine, was marked by the little Duc being taken off to the nursery by Madame de Marsan as the King himself stepped out to light the fuse for a splendid firework display over Versailles.

The Duc de Bourgogne as an infant. Photo: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Everything augured well for this new princeling, however it didn’t take long for problems to arise when it soon became clear that his wet nurse wasn’t providing enough milk to satisfy the child. Everyone was in a panic about this and it should have been easy enough to sort out as the boy had six reserve wet nurses waiting to take over. However, the change never seemed to be made despite Madame de Marsan’s pleas to Louis XV. Eventually it turned out that the unsatisfactory wet nurse was actually a mistress of the Minister of the Household, the Comte de Saint-Florentin and he, not unsurprisingly, was somewhat loath to give her the sack, therefore she had remained and the prince had gone hungry as a result. All was well though in the end when Saint-Florentin’s subterfuge was discovered and the lady was kicked out of Versailles and replaced with someone else.

Louis Joseph, Duc de Bourgogne by Frédou in 1760. Photo: Château de Versailles.

The first six years of Berry’s childhood passed as normal, all under the strict but loving care of Madame de Marsan who adored all of her royal charges. There was the usual discussion, fuss and official recording of such usual infant events as weaning, teething, learning to walk and small childhood illnesses, of which Berry remained mercifully virtually untouched. However, at Versailles where everyone still shuddered to remember the terrible weeks when the King’s family was all but wiped out by small pox leaving him orphaned and without siblings, any sign of illness was regarded with suspicion and dread so that the royal children must have felt ridiculously fussed over at times.

The Dauphine Marie Josèphe and her eldest son, the Duc de Bourgogne, painted in 1761 by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. Photo: Musée Antoine Lécuyer.

However, during these early years of Berry’s life, the succession must have seemed not just secure but also in exceptionally good hands – his father was the very picture of health and his elder brother, the Duc de Bourgogne was considered by all to be a very promising child indeed. Bourgogne actually sounds completely annoying but there is no doubt that he was an extremely precocious little boy – we are told that at the age of seven he presented Louis XV with a book of geometry problems that he himself had worked out.

However, at the age of nine, Bourgogne became ill with tuberculosis of the bones, which would later return to haunt the sons of his brother and Marie Antoinette. It soon became clear that he would not survive and so it was decided that his younger brother, who was then aged six, should leave the nursery a year early and begin the lessons and training that would make him ready to take his place as heir. Up until this point, Louis had worn dresses as was traditional and had been cosseted and fussed over by Madame de Marsan, now however he was to dress like a miniature adult, live with his brother in their own splendid apartment and would be raised under the care of his new governor, the Duc de la Vauguyon.

Poor Berry was completely miserable as he was now expected to spend all of his time with that miniature egotist, Bourgogne, whose already sharp nature had not sweetened one whit during the rapid onset of his illness. Quite the reverse in fact – he had become even more difficult and imperious and had also become terrifyingly pious, which can’t have been much fun to be around.

Louis Auguste. Photo: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Not entirely unexpectedly, Berry became ill too at this point but managed to recover. However, his brother died shortly afterwards casting the entire court into mourning. Difficult, haughty and often irritatingly precocious though the boy had been, there is no doubt that his family and much of the court saw in him a great hope for the future of the Bourbon dynasty, regarding him as a prospective king in the mould of the great Louis XIV.

For his younger brother, the sudden rise to prominence was devastating and confusing. Whereas Bourgogne had been flattered, admired, encouraged and adored from the moment of his birth, Berry had been regarded very much as ‘the spare’ and had received no such adulation, although his parents were affectionate towards him. Furthermore, he had been raised to consider himself in all ways inferior to his elder brother (French Kings seem to have a nurtured suspicion of younger brothers) so when he suddenly took centre stage, he didn’t know how to act and certainly didn’t have the carefully fostered and promoted high opinion of himself that Bourgogne had. This awkwardness and lack of confidence would remain with Berry for the rest of his life, balanced by what were considered to be his less than princely attributes of a warm heart, sensitivity and, eventually, uxoriousness.

At the end of 1761, a momentous year that had seen the death of Bourgogne on the 22nd of March and thus the effective beginning of Berry’s new and not altogether welcome prominence at court, the four surviving children of the Dauphin and Dauphine were christened together in an opulent ceremony in the chapel at Versailles. It was at this point that Berry, dressed to impress in silver brocade that twinkled and gleamed in the light shed by the candle he held during the ceremony, was now formally given the name Louis Auguste, the same name as that of Saint Louis whose memory was venerated by the royal family. To his parents, still mourning the departed and much regretted Bourgogne, who watched fondly as their children were formally received into the church, it must have seemed like a promising augur for the future prospects of this most unlikely princeling who at the time wasn’t expected to mount the throne for several decades to come but was in fact destined to become King of France at the age of not quite twenty in May 1774.

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3 thoughts on “The childhood of Louis XVI

  • Helen Wake

    I feel terribly sorry for him as well. If people had been kinder to him from the beginning and given him the self confidence the rest of the family seemed to possess, there might not have been a Revolution. Thank you again for your revolutionary book reccomendations. Three down so far and enjoying every one!

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