When most people think of the ladies of Marie Antoinette’s court, they think of a pampered, indolent, frivolous, probably rather stupid women covered in patches, with towering white hair, sumptuously gorgeous dresses and a spoiled pug dog under their arm. A bit like Paris Hilton at Halloween, except every day.
Of course, for the main part, the reality was very different but it has to be said that the Princesse de Guéménée, governess to the royal children was every bit the epitome of the aristocratic grande dame and every bit as flamboyant, exquisite and extravagant as our fevered imaginings could possibly conceive of.
Madame la Princesse was born Victoire Armande Josèphe de Rohan at the gorgeous Hôtel de Soubise at 60 Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais district of Paris on the 28th of December 1743. Her father was Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise and her mother, his second wife, Anne Thérèse de Savoie (daughter of Victor Amadeus, Prince de Carignan). Thanks to her father, she was a member of the powerful, disgustingly wealthy and influential Rohan clan, while her mother, who was a cousin of Louis XV, the Princesse de Lamballe, the Comtesse de Provence and the Comtesse d’Artois. bestowed upon her a link to the ruling house of Sicily.
Sadly, the Princesse de Soubise was to die in childbirth at the Hôtel de Soubise on the 5th of April 1745 at the age of twenty seven, leaving Victoire motherless at the age of less than two. Her father soon married again, this time to a seventeen year old German princess, the Landgravine Anna Victoria of Hesse-Rotenburg. The marriage was to be childless and also exceedingly unhappy as both spouses cheated on each other. Finally, in 1757, Victoria ran away from Paris with her lover, Monsieur de Laval-Montmorency, which would have been scandalous enough had she not funded this elopement with 900,000 livres worth of jewels that she had stolen from her husband.
The errant pair were arrested at Tournai by order of Louis XV and Victoria was sent packing back to her parents in Germany. We can only wonder what effect all of this had on her young step daughters, Victoire and her elder sister from her father’s first marriage to Anne Marie Louise de la Tour d’Auvergne (a granddaughter of Louis XIV’s first great love, Marie Mancini), Charlotte Élisabeth.
Of course, Charlotte was already married by the time her father’s third marriage had begun to flounder. Thanks to her mother, she was a great heiress with titles in her own right and at the age of sixteen, on the 3rd of May 1753, she was married to Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, a great grandson of Louis XIV and Athénaïs de Montespan. Their wedding was held in the chapel at Versailles before all of the court and the young bride brought an enormous dowry of 20 million livres to her husband. Sadly, Charlotte was to die on the 4th of March 1760, aged just twenty two.
The younger girl, Victoire was to be married at seventeen, on the 15th January 1761 to a second cousin, another Rohan, Henri Louis, Duc de Montbazon and Prince de Guéménée, who was two years younger than his bride. The good looking, fabulously wealthy young couple subsequently took up residence in the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée at 6 Place des Vosges.
The new Princesse was lively, clever, extravagant and rather too fond of gambling, which of course that she got on famously at Louis XV’s court when she was presented at Versailles after her wedding. With the Rohan millions at her disposal, she dressed in fabulously gorgeous clothes, gave in to every whim no matter how expensive and lost thousands at the card table. She became famous for her amazing balls and also, less amazingly, her gambling parties where genuine croupiers from the casinos of Paris would deal the cards.
Madame la Princesse was not above courting scandal either as she offended Louis XV by getting up and walking away when his mistress Madame du Barry sat next to her at Marly. The King, who saw an insult to Madame du Barry as an insult to himself, was incensed and sent the Princesse away from court for a while to teach her a lesson.
She did not neglect her matrimonial duties in the midst of all this hedonistic pleasure seeking and presented her husband with five children: Charlotte Victoire (17th November 1761), Charles Alain (18th January 1764), Marie Louise (13th April 1765), Louis Victor (20th July 1766) and Jules Armand (20th October 1768).
In 1775, after the coronation of Louis XVI both of the couple were promoted to official appointments at court with Henri Louis becoming Grand Chamberlain of France, while Victoire was appointed to the post of Governess to the Royal Children after her aunt, the Comtesse de Marsan, decided to retire after her favourite pupil, Princess Clotilde had got married. At this point, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had not yet had any children, so Victoire’s sole charge was the young Princess Élisabeth.
Lillian C. Smythe wrote: ‘The Royal Governess was the Princesse de Guemenee, who received this appointment by virtue of her relationship to Madame de Marsan, the function of instruction being considered vested in the family of de Rohan. There was no doubt that the Princesse de Guemenee was capable of instructing upon many matters. She was a great lover of little dogs, and invariably appeared surrounded by a multitude of them. “She offered to them a species of worship, and pretended, through their medium, to hold communication with the world of spirits.” She had been convicted of cheating at cards on several occasions. She was distinguished for the urbanity of her manner towards the ladies honoured by her husband’s preference, paying the most delicate attentions to each in turn ; thus she compelled admiration for her exemplary fulfilment of a wife’s highest duty. She entertained magnificently, royally, outshone the whole Court by her dress, and paved the way for the greatest bankruptcy known in France— the failure that affected all classes of society and plunged France into ruin; for all, from dukes to poor Breton sailors, had invested their moneys in the house of de Guemenee. “Only a King or a Rohan could have made such a failure,” was the consoling sentiment of the Princesse, as she contemplated her bootmaker’s bill of 60,000 livres [£2,400], or the amount of 16,000 livres [£640] owed to her paper- hanger. And the ruin of the Rohans hastened the Revolution.’
The princess was rather dismayed by the change in governesses. Madame de Marsan had been strict and rather unpleasant and Élisabeth had heartily disliked her but Victoire, Duchesse de Montbazon was a whole different kettle of fish. This may not have been the best choice, considering Élisabeth’s peaceful, virtuous nature and way of shrinking from any court intrigue that may come near her as the Princesse was a typical Rohan drama queen, prone to having messy love affairs, squandering a fortune on fripperies, leaving a trail of debts and was also rather too fond of gambling. The shy princess who had a very strong sense of morality would have been well aware of her new governess’ wayward reputation and extravagant behaviour and must have braced herself for the worst.
In the end they seem to have got along fairly well. Victoire seems to have had an affectionate, fun loving nature which young people really responded to. For her part, Madame la Princesse thought that her aunt, Madame de Marsan had been too strict with her charges and that Madame Élisabeth was too unassuming, pious and serious minded. What she needed, the rakish Princesse decided, was to have more fun and so she encouraged the girl to attend her parties and balls in an attempt to make her more sophisticated and frivolous. It didn’t really work as Élisabeth was also exceedingly stubborn.
One happy thing about the new arrangement was that Victoire often took Élisabeth to her new house at Montreuil, close to Versailles. The princess, who preferred a simpler style of life to the ostentation of Versailles was enchanted with the chåteau and fell madly in love with it.
Margaret Trouncer described it: ‘The house, built in 1776, was a white, semi-circular, two-storied building, with the stables on one side and the kitchen offices on the other, quite far away from the dining room. On the ground floor, a circular chapel occupied the centre. The principal rooms were the boudoir, with wainscoting and a cupboard decorated with arabesques, the library with bookcases paned in clear glass, the buffet warming room paved in white marble, the dining room, the billiard room, the music room, the drawing room and some ante-chambers. Some of the old floors in small parquet squares were still there. Upstairs, twenty one panelled rooms. On the other side, French windows looked on to a park. One could walk straight out of the drawing room into the garden. On the right hand side was the alley of lime trees on the top of the terrace, whose wall separated the estate from the Avenue de Paris. On the left, hidden by trees and quite a distance away, an orangery, a dairy, cow sheds, farm buildings and the gardener’s cottage. There were also kitchen gardens and hot houses.’
There were more changes in 1778, when Victoire took charge of the new baby princess, Madame Royale, the first child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, while the detestable and rapacious Comtesse Diane de Polignac took charge of Élisabeth. To be in charge of Madame Royale and her subsequent siblings was a great honour and we are told that after the Queen had given birth, Victoire, proudly beaming as though she herself had given birth to the royal infant would be carried in a chair from Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber to the royal nurseries on the ground floor of Versailles, the baby on her lap while all of Versailles paid homage.
In private though, things were not quite so rosy. Victoire had fallen in love with one of Marie Antoinette’s best male friends, Auguste Gabriel de Franquetot, Comte de Coigny, who had been widowed in 1775 and left with a six year old daughter, Aimée who Victoire was raising alongside her own children and who would later become the Duchesse de Fleury and brief muse of André Chénier. Victoire and Augustin became lovers and were apparently devoted to each other. Meanwhile, her husband had fallen in love with one of Marie Antoinette’s circle, the lovely Thérèse Lucy de Dillon, Comtesse de Dillon, who was mother to the future Madame de la Tour du Pin.
Sadly Thérèse Lucy was to die in 1782 at the age of thirty leaving all who knew her devastated and shortly afterwards the Prince de Guéménée declared himself bankrupt, with debts of over 33 million livres. It was to be an enormous scandal. The extravagance of the royal family and those close to them was already under some scrutiny and was beginning to be more loudly criticised so to have two key members of their household be in so much debt was considered shocking and also a justification of the criticisms of frivolity and wastefulness that were leveled at the court of Versailles.
Let’s not forget that it wasn’t just the Guéménée couple who were ruined but also countless tradesmen and others who were left with unpaid bills and vast sums of money owed to them that they might now never see. The ripples caused by the Prince’s bankruptcy were to be widespread and devastating.
Marie Antoinette, who had spent many many ruinous hours gambling at the Princesse’s notorious card parties where it was said that the young people didn’t emerge for days on end, did her best to help the couple. She and the Princesse had never been best friends – Victoire was older than Marie Antoinette and rather too sophisticated for her tastes – but they got along well enough for her to want to help in some way, which she did by securing a loan for the Prince and also arranging for Louis XVI to buy their estate at Montreuil for Princesse Élisabeth.
The couple were to remain at the fringes of court life for the rest of the 1780s until the Revolution began in 1789 and they fled with their children to Austria after the fall of the Bastille. The Guéménée family eventually settled at Sychrov Castle in Bohemia, where their family remained although Victoire was to die in Paris on the 20th September 1807 at the age of sixty three.
On this day in history, Madame Élisabeth, the youngest sister of the deposed and executed king Louis XV was guillotined on a scaffold erected on the Place de la Nation in Paris. The Princess was aged just thirty years old, having had her birthday only a week earlier on the third of May.
‘As the guillotine did its work, Élisabeth kept her gaze resolutely forward, showing no sign of fear and reciting the De Profundis as she waited her turn. Finally, there was no one else left and the executioner came for her. She refused his hand and instead went by herself up the steps to the scaffold.
Just before they tied her to the grisly plank of wood that would tilt her beneath the guillotine’s blade, her fichu of fine Indian lawn slipped from her shoulders, revealing the silver medal of the Immaculate Conception and tiny pocket book, which she had tied around her neck with a silken cord.
We are told that one of the executioner’s assistants, Desmarest, tried to remove the fichu, probably to steal it for his own but that Élisabeth stopped him, crying: ‘In the name of your mother, Monsieur, cover me!’ These were to be her last words.
It is said that as the blade fell down, ending the life of Madame Élisabeth, the square was filled with the beautiful scent of roses.’
I have already written at some length about the final days and execution of Madame Élisabeth here.
Margaret Trouncer – ‘The bereaved family went into mourning. The Queen and Élisabeth had become so thin that they were almost unrecognisable. Little Marie-Thérèse’s body was covered in ulcers, and she was threatened with grave ill-health. Goret, the kindly guard, finding them in this state of great affliction, discovered that they had not been out to take any exercise for some time. He made them see the necessity of getting fresh air, particularly for the sake of the young princess. ‘We don’t want to pass by the door which my husband crossed for the last time,’ said the Queen. Goret thought for a moment. ‘I know! There is a circular gallery at the top of the tower. I’ll have some chairs put there. It’s narrow and there’s a parapet, but at any rate, you will see the sky.’ They agreed, although heads appeared at all the windows around, and groups of staring people formed in the streets.’
‘Meals were less splendidly served that in the King’s time. Men who had done guard-duty at the Temples, and had not complained (largely because of the good food), now started lamenting at the waste of their time. One man publicly protested that it was ridiculous to see men elected by the people of Paris serve as valets to Madame Capet.’
‘As the King’s rooms were sealed, the prisoners and their guards – eight people in all – had to crowd into four small rooms. The constant proximity became quite nerve wracking. Four small rooms on the third floor. The Queen and her two children in one room. Élisabeth in another, the Tisons in a third and the two guards in an ante-chamber, where they remained day and night.’
It was a horrible life, reminiscent of that suffered by the Romanov family in later years – kept in close quarters, watched constantly by hostile, insolent guards and putting their faith in God and the possible promise of rescue. I don’t know who is more to be pitied though – the Romanovs for at least being allowed to perish together or the Bourbons for being separated and dying without the consolation of each other or of knowing the fates of their relatives. I have, I have to admit, some small sympathy with the revolutionaries but I struggle to maintain it when I read about the horrible and inhumane way in which Louis XVI and his family were treated. It seems incomprehensible that anyone would treat fellow human beings in such a vile and unfair way, no matter how embittered or ignorant they may have been.
The dark, long, miserable days in the Temple were lightened by the hope of rescue when in February, one of the sympathetic guards, Toulon, came up with a plan for an escape involving subterfuge and dressing up as a group of regular visitors to the Temple complex. The escape was planned for the 8th of March 1793 but alas it was postponed by an uprising in Paris on the day before, which had led to the royal family being more closely guarded and an increased level of control on passports issued by the authorities.
Frustrated and depressed, the royal ladies took solace in their books and also embroidery. Élisabeth worked on a morbid device of a pansy on violet silk, in the shape of a death’ head and with ‘Elle est mon unique pensée’ (This is my sole thought) embroidered underneath.
I’ve taken some time to get round to writing about what happened next because I find it so upsetting and unbearable to read about. The remaining members of the royal family must have thought that there was little that could hurt them now that Louis XVI had been taken away from them, but they were sadly wrong as on the night of the 3rd of July 1793, official commissioners arrived at the Temple and amidst many threats of violence, forcibly removed the young Louis XVII from his mother, aunt and sister. The unfortunate boy was taken away and given into the care of a vile, evil and revolting creature called Simon, who tortured and beat the child.
Marie Antoinette was understandably devastated by this. Louis-Charles had been her favourite child, her adored chou d’amour and life without him was bleak indeed as they had no idea where he was or what was happening to him and did not even know if they would ever see him again.
Margaret Trouncer – ‘One day, Élisabeth said to the Queen and her niece: ‘You know the little staircase which leads out of the garde-robe? There is a small window on that staircase which looks out on to the garden.’
The Queen looked up, still not understanding. ‘Yes, ma soeur?’
‘I’m going to keep watch. Who knows, we might get a glimpse of Charles playing in the garden.’
The poor mother turned pale and faint. She whispered: ‘We will all go, we will all go and watch. Oh, for just one tiny glimpse of him, and then I could live.’
And she started weeping.’
The poor woman would spend many hours standing at the tiny window, weeping copiously and keeping watch for a glimpse of her little boy. She was often rewarded but he was so badly treated that she must have wished that she had not seen him at all.
Those final days at the Temple must have been a torture to all of them, with both her husband and son gone, Marie Antoinette sank into a deep depression that her sister in law and daughter could not rouse her from, although both felt sick at heart also. No one knew what was to happen next but they almost certainly knew that they were doomed.
At two o’clock in the morning of the 2nd of August, the prisoners were woken by a loud hammering on the door. It was a large group of officials and soldiers, come to remove Marie Antoinette to the Conciergerie. Madame Élisabeth leaned against the door and refused to let them in until they were all up and decently dressed.
Finally, the three women had with shaking fingers and many tears managed to dress each other and the door was opened. The officials read out a decree of transfer, which must have meant nothing to them and then searched Marie Antoinette’s pockets before starting to escort her out. Madame Élisabeth, whose face registered her ‘contempt, grief and indignation’, begged to be allowed to share Marie Antoinette’s prison, recognising that her sister in law was in grave danger, but her request was refused.
Marie Antoinette, doubtless knowing that she would never see them again, embraced her daughter most tenderly and told her to keep up her courage and take care of her health and then left. As she walked out of the Tower for the last time, she struck her head on a doorframe. ‘Never mind,’ she is said to have murmured. ‘Nothing can hurt me now.’
Margaret Trouncer – ‘And thus for Élisabeth, in this world, concluded a friendship which had begun one May morning during her childhood. How long ago it seemed since that mad game of hide and seek, which the young Rouget de Lisle had watched from his hiding place. (And now, they were singing his ‘Marsellaise’ in the streets.) And those donkey-rides at Trianon, under Madame de Marsan’s very nose, or those mornings spent trying on Rose Bertin’s new dresses, or those glorious days hunting together. Though Élisabeth’s tastes and friends had been very different from the young Queen’s, all the same, she had loved her, for she was generous and gat and charming, and every passing year had increased her need of affection. Élisabeth was one of those women who are most closely drawn to their friends when they are in need.’
After the departure of Marie Antoinette, Élisabeth and her niece, Marie-Thérèse were understandably unconsolable and spent the next days in tears, desperate for news and afraid at the same time. Élisabeth tried to ensure that the Queen’s special Ville d’Avray drinking water be sent on to her in her new prison but this was refused. She then did the only thing that she could and packaged up Marie Antoinette’s personal effects herself to be sent on to her: a collection of stockings, bonnets, ribbons, chemises and dresses.
Élisabeth and Marie-Thérèse were now utterly alone, and recognising that she may very well be next to go, Élisabeth did her best to prepare the desolate young girl for life alone by making sure that she ate the meagre meals that were brought to them, took some daily exercise in her cramped cell and knew how to make her bed, keep the room clean and tidy and also dress herself, things that a Princess raised at Versailles would not have known how to do.
On Sunday, the 6th of October, both Marie-Thérèse and Élisabeth were cross examined by Chaumette, Hébert, David and other members of the Convention about allegations allegedly brought against them by the young Louis-Charles. They did not know that this was all part of the preparation for Marie Antoinette’s trial in a few days time. The little boy was drunk and stubbornly asserted that he had been abused by his mother and aunt and that there had been treasonous activities also. Marie-Thérèse, barely understanding what he was talking about, had reacted with disgust and confusion to the allegations, as did Madame Élisabeth when they were later put to her also. In fact, she called her nephew a ‘monster’.
The prisoners in the Temple were not told about the trial and execution of Marie Antoinette, and Élisabeth was never to know that her unfortunate sister in law had addressed her final letter to her, writing: ‘In our misfortunes, how many consolations our friendship has given us! And in happiness, one’s enjoyment is doubled when one can share it with a friend; and where can one find one more tender and more dear than in one’s own family?’
Life at the Temple became unbearable as the Terror became all the more violent and hatred of the aristocracy in general and royal family in particular became more endemic. Élisabeth and her young niece were insulted daily by their guards and were subjected to regular searches, during which their belongings were ransacked and removed, leaving them with very little. Food was meagre and unappetising so that both began to lose a lot of weight and became weak and sickly. In the end they were also deprived of candles and so were forced to go to bed at twilight as it was too dark to do anything else. In order to pass the time, they would talk about their old lives at Versailles and the friends and family that they had not seen for such a long, long time.
Élisabeth, knowing that she would soon be taken away also, continued to do her best to teach Marie-Thérèse how to look after herself when she was left alone in the cell, ensuring she took what small exercise she could and kept her room clean and tidy. She also gave her instructions to request that a woman come to keep her company and to ensure her safety. She also told her to ensure that she was dressed at all times in the presence of the guards and if they came at night, as they had a fondness for doing, then she should refuse to let them in until she was out of bed and fully clothed.
The terrible event that both had expected, occurred at 9 o’clock on the night of the 9th of May 1794, six days after Élisabeth’s thirtieth birthday. The two women were preparing for bed when there was the dreaded hammering on the door, so hard that they thought that the door would give way. The two women looked at each other in fear and dread then scrambled into their clothes.
‘Citoyenne, come with us,’ the men ordered Élisabeth.
‘And my niece?’ she asked, her first thought being of Marie-Thérèse.
‘She’ll be dealt with later.’
Élisabeth embraced her trembling, terrified niece and assured her that she would be back soon.
‘Non, citoyenne, you won’t be coming back again,’ the men interposed cruelly. ‘Get your bonnet and come with us.’
Élisabeth gave Marie-Thérèse one last kiss and was trying to whisper one final piece of advice (or maybe the identity of the man in the iron mask?) in her ear when the men shouted insults and caught her by the hair and dragged her out of the room. At the bottom of the stairs, she was surrounded by soldiers and searched, having several personal items, including her watch, taken away from her.
The doors were opened and Élisabeth was led through heavy rain and without so much as a cloak to a carriage, which was to take her to the Conciergerie. She must have been terrified for her poor young niece, just fifteen years old, who had been left behind to who knew what insults and fate. At the same time she must have been hopeful that she might be reunited again with her beloved sister in law, Marie Antoinette as she was still unaware that the Queen had been guillotined almost seven months earlier.
They finally reached the Conciergerie and after one brief glance upwards through the rain at the looming, forbidding towers of the Medieval palace turned prison, Élisabeth was hustled inside through the low wicket gate and then past the concierge, Richard before being taken to the clerk’s mean little office, which was divided into two by iron bars with one half for the clerk to register the details of arriving prisoners and the other inhabited by the condemned as they waited to be taken out to the tumbrils.
Élisabeth did not have to wait long before she was taken to the Tribunal, which met in the Palais de Justice, attached to the Conciergerie and was cross examined about her allegedly treasonous correspondence with her brothers and friends, about the flight to Varennes, about the various escape attempts from the Temple and about the whereabouts of her diamonds, which had been sold to assist the ventures of her brother, the Comte d’Artois.
Finally, after hours of tiring questioning, she was taken to a small cell with Richard keeping guard next door. She was not to know that her bed had previously been inhabited by her rakish, dissolute cousin, the Duc d’Orléans but Richard was afterwards fond of telling people that ‘Here, one after the other, vice and virtue have slept.’
Keen to know what had happened to Marie Antoinette, Élisabeth asked after her to be told by Richard that: ‘She is very well and lacks for nothing.’ With this, Élisabeth had to be content.
The Papal Nuncio wrote about that night: ‘That whole night, she appeared anxious. All the time, she kept asking Richard what time it was… She rose early. Richard was already up. She again asked him what time it was. Richard took out his watch to let her see the time and made it chime. She said: ‘My sister had one almost like it, only she did not wind it…’
‘She took a little chocolate, then, towards eleven o’clock, she went to the entrance of her prison. Many great ladies who were going with her to the guillotine, were already assembled there. Among others, there was Madame de Sénozan, sister of Malesherbes the minister, the King’s defender; she was the best and most charitable of women. Madame Élisabeth charged Richard to present her compliments to her sister (the Queen). Then, one of these ladies, whose name I have forgotten, a Duchess, I think, spoke: ‘Madame,’ she said to her, ‘your sister has undergone the fate which we ourselves are facing.’’
It must have been a terrible blow to Élisabeth, carried on by hope against hope that her sister in law was still alive and allowed to carry on in that hope by the cruelty and malice of the guards and officials that surrounded her.
Margaret Trouncer: ‘The roll call followed: the turnkeys, often drunk, and accompanied by dogs, roared the names of the accused with such mispronunciations, that they were rarely recognised by the victims. No answers. A volley of oaths, in voices so thunderous, that they struck terror into the listeners. At last, they were herded into the great hall.’
‘On May the 10th, Chauveau-Lagrade’s (the lawyer nominally assigned to defend her) surprise was very great when he suddenly caught sight of Élisabeth among the other people accused before the Tribunal: she was standing on the top tier of the benches. They had placed her there before all others, on purpose, to set her more in evidence. There she was, in her white dress, dominating the whole assembly, and looking perfectly calm.’
‘There were fifteen jurymen in this travesty of a trial. They were nicknamed ‘solides’, because they had been hand picked for this great occasion, and could be trusted to condemn. Indeed, hardly had Élisabeth’s name been read out, but all the jurymen cried: ‘That’s enough; death! Death!’
‘Dumas sat down and gave one glance at his chief victim. There she was, very proud in the way she bore her golden head, and quite unmoved, for her cheeks were still rosy. (Several witnesses have testified that she did not turn pale that day.) He tried to quell her with a look, but she merely glanced at him with vague contempt, and turned away.’
The trial was harrowing and dragged on for several hours as they questioned Élisabeth and various witnesses about her supposed treachery. The result was inevitable and no one present had any doubt that it was a sham trial and that her sentencing to death was a forgone conclusion. The jury went out and pretended to deliberate for a few moments but soon returned and gave their verdict – that all the prisoners, who were mostly aristocrats were guilty and consequently condemned to death, while their belongings, including all property, was confiscated by the state.
Margaret Trouncer: ‘After the sentences, seeing that Élisabeth had not even turned pale, but still held herself proudly, Fouquier-Tinville said to Dumas: ‘One must confess, however, that she has not uttered one complaint.’ To which Dumas replied with ironic gaiety: ‘Of what then should she complain, Élisabeth de France? Have we not formed for her today a court of aristocrats worthy of her? And nothing will prevent her from thinking herself still in her drawing rooms of Versailles, when she will see herself at the foot of the holy guillotine, surrounded by all that faithful nobility.’
Élisabeth’s final and inevitable request to see a priest before dying, was just as inevitably refused and there was nothing to do but file out of the room with the other prisoners.
Margaret Trouncer writes most movingly about Élisabeth’s final hours:
‘The prisoners filed into the room reserved for those sentenced to death: this room was long, narrow, dark, separated from the clerk’s office by a door and a glass partition. Candle-ends, meshes of hair and faded ribbons trailed on the wooden benches which lined the stone walls. At once, Élisabeth was surrounded. Even in that dreadful place, she held her last court, and her companions placed her on the pedestal to which she belonged. And here, as ever before in her life, she forgot herself and lived only for others. She saw the pale faces before her, some of them quite unresigned, and several unrepentant, cut off in the very blossom of their sins, and she pitied them. She spoke to them with great sweetness and gentleness. And her own face was so serene, that she renewed the courage of her fellows.’
‘Élisabeth went from group to group, an angel of consolation in her white gown, wiping away tears, exhorting to courage and faith, pointing to the joys of eternity.’
The executioner and his assistants roughly pulled away the collars of the men and cropped the hair of both sexes. After her hair was cut off, Élisabeth took a kerchief and tied it over her hair, knotting it beneath her chin. After this her hands were tied behind her back and she was led to the Cour de Mai, where the tumbrils were waiting.
The news had spread like wildfire through Paris that the blessed Élisabeth, sister to the King was being taken to the guillotine that day and after some initial shouts of joy, people remembered Élisabeth’s goodness and charitable nature and found that they could not be pleased about this execution. It seems that Robespierre had always been opposed to her death, thinking that such was her reputation that it could do them no good to make her into a martyr. He was right, as it was the executions of such dignified, beautiful and patently innocent young women as Madame Élisabeth and later, the beautiful Émilie de Sainte-Amaranthe that began to disgust the populace against the daily display of carnage in the centre of Paris.
According to Trouncer, Monsieur Jumard recalled afterwards that ‘her features were calm, and sometimes her beautiful lashes covered her gentle gaze. She was singled out among the others by her inexpressible dignity. She spoke during almost the whole journey, and never tried to hide from the gaze of the crowds. He noticed the slight toss of her head, for, her hands being tightly and painfully pinioned behind her back, the meshes of her golden hair escaped from her kerchief and kept falling forward over her face. A revolutionary witness noted that she seemed as if she were going to lead this cohort to Heaven. He adds: ‘I’ve heard it said to a famous revolutionary that, as she passed, there were great numbers of bouquets of roses in the Place Louis XV, so that the air was impregnated with their perfume.’ He concludes: ‘Nothing could paint this for you, as I saw it all. The same emotion was felt around me.’
Moelle, a member of the Convention, recalled that ‘I left my home, and found myself on the downward slope of the Pont Neuf, on the side of the Quai de l’Ecole, at the moment when a white handkerchief which covered the princess’s head, came undone and fell at the feet of the executioner at her side; he picked it up; when the princess refused to have it put back on her head, I saw him seize this sacred relic and appropriate it.’
‘Bareheaded and by this fortuitous circumstance, distinguishable from several women who shared her fate, nothing could conceal from the multitude, the modest calm and the pious serenity of Madame Élisabeth going to her death.’
‘I try in vain to be noticed by the princess and to show her my grief. I follow her to the scaffold. There, the satellites and the victims stop. Unfastened at once from the plank to which she had been tied during the journey, and the first to stand up, the august virgin, until then, withdrawn into herself, smiled angelically at her companions in death, raised her eyes to Heaven, lowered them (on the victims) and told them thus that it was in Heaven that they would meet again.’
It is impossible to imagine Madame Élisabeth’s feelings on that last journey from the Conciergerie to the place of execution. Don’t forget that the Princess had been incarcerated with her family in the Temple since August 1792, almost two years earlier and had been kept in the gloom, seeing very few people during those long months. It must have been shocking to her to find herself outside again, surrounded with thousands of people and the terrible noise and tumult of the Parisian mob. Added to this she had only just learned of the fate of her sister in law and this must have occupied her thoughts at that time. ‘Is this how it was for her? For my brother?’ she must have thought as the crowds screamed and shouted around her, jostling the tumbril as it struggled through the crowded streets.
It must have been bittersweet for Élisabeth as she was taken through the Parisian streets, surrounded on all sides by familiar sights such as Notre Dame, the Rue de Saint-Honoré and then finally the Tuileries. She must have known also that she was following in the direct footsteps of people who were dear to her: her brother and sister in law.
When the cart finally came to a halt at the foot of the guillotine, the condemned gazed up at its remorseless blade glittering in the chill, May air and then quickly looked away again. Élisabeth was the first to get down from the cart and took her place on the wooden bench at the bottom of the scaffold. She was to be the last victim of the day.
Madame de Crussol was called first and rose, curtseyed to Élisabeth and requested the honour of kissing her. ‘Very willingly and with all my heart,’ was the response. After this each of the female prisoners curtseyed and kissed the princess in farewell before going up the steps, while the male prisoners bowed gravely.
As the guillotine did its work, Élisabeth kept her gaze resolutely forward, showing no sign of fear and reciting the De Profundis as she waited her turn. Finally, there was no one else left and the executioner came for her. She refused his hand and instead went by herself up the steps to the scaffold.
Just before they tied her to the grisly plank of wood that would tilt her beneath the guillotine’s blade, her fichu of fine Indian lawn slipped from her shoulders, revealing the silver medal of the Immaculate Conception and tiny pocket book, which she had tied around her neck with a silken cord.
We are told that one of the executioner’s assistants, Desmarest, tried to remove the fichu, probably to steal it for his own but that Élisabeth stopped him, crying: ‘In the name of your mother, Monsieur, cover me!’ These were to be her last words.
It is said that as the blade fell down, ending the life of Madame Élisabeth, the square was filled with the beautiful scent of roses.
Margaret Trouncer: ‘On August the 10th, Monsieur Berthélemy, the Keeper of the Archives of the Order of Malta in the Tower of the Temple, had heard the cannon of the Tuileries, but as he was a very selfish little man, ensconced in his creature comforts, like a snug angora cat, he did not allow it to trouble him unduly. True, the times were troublesome, very troublesome, but when a man had the privilege of occupying the little tower left empty by the death of the Prince de Conti, who had used it for his assignations with actresses, he does not allow revolutions to disturb his sleep. Monsieur Berthélemy furnished the three floors with exquisite taste – marquetry work, and gorgeous silk damask. His large study on the first floor, next to his library, was hung with yellow silk bordered with crimson. The drawing room on the floor above was hung with azure, and the armchairs – ‘les fauteuils à la reine’ – were in blue and white silk damask, the footstools heart shaped, the larger armchairs or bergères were ‘couleur prune de Monsieur’ (fortunate Monsieur who had escaped to Brussels). His bedroom, next to the drawing room, was draped with white stuff embossed with flowers. He had a boulle bureau, and a writing table in rosewood. He had collected some charming though slightly risqué engravings – ‘Diana’s bath’, ‘The Coucher’ of Van Loo, ‘La Chaste Suzanne’ and on a marble console, a delicate biscuit de Sèvres group, ‘Venus whipping Cupid with a bunch of roses’. On the third floor was his pièce de la résistance of which he was justly proud – a bathroom, entirely surrounded with mirrors, in which the circular sofa was covered with lilac taffeta trimmed with fringes.’
‘Everywhere were light coloured carpets, decorative porcelain, rosewood corner cupboards, and heavy silver candelabra. His windows looked on to a vast park. The sun flooded his bedroom in the morning and his drawing room in the evening. Yes, with such a pied à terre, an expert cook and many beautifully bound books, a man could not complain. Not that Monsieur Berthèlemy was a hermit. Oh, no. He enjoyed his intimate little supper parties in well chosen company, when he and his guests would sing gaily until the small hours of ‘l”oeil vif et fripon de Catherine’ – the bright and rougish eye of Catherine and such like carefree ditties.’
‘So, on August the 10th, the honourable Keeper of the Archives heard the cannon of the Tuileries, and no doubt congratulated himself on being quite safe. On Monday, the 13th at eight in the evening, he noticed some workmen; on enquiring who they were, he was told curtly that they were preparing the royal family’s supper in the main building, which was called the Prior’s Palace. ‘Yes, no doubt,’ he said to himself, ‘they have had to move from the Tuileries.’ If they were going to stay in the palace, he would probably go and pay them his court. He remembered that the last time the Queen had been on the premises was when she had come to Paris to give thanks at Notre Dame for the birth of her last little boy. The Comte d’Artois, who made the palace his pied à terre when he was in Paris, had entertained her there in the evening, much to the scandal of the pious.’
‘Two hours later, at ten o’clock at night, Monsieur Berthélemy heard a noise of footsteps on his stairs. ‘You must evacuate from here within an hour.’ ‘Why, what’s happening?’ ‘You’ve got to move.’ ‘To move?’ ‘The Capet family is coming here.’ ‘For one night?’ ‘For ever – prison perpétuelle.’ ‘But the palace is the Temple.’ ‘The palace is not secure enough.’ The little man tried not to have hysterics. In a few moments his precious carpets were covered in filth, for it was raining outside. Some of his furniture was put out in the rain before being hurled helter skelter into the disaffected Temple church. Alas, in that brief hour, he only had time to move the contents of the first floor and the wine cellar. He was trying to push his way upstairs to get to the second floor when he was thrown back by the inexorable guard. He saw the royal family and their suites enter his lair. But he didn’t think of them very much; he wandered about all night, trying to borrow a bed and some linen… he read in the morning newspapers that Louis XVI was reading the books in his library and sleeping in his bed. Then he heard that the King had taken down his engravings, as he thought they were unsuitable for the eyes of his young daughter.’
The royal family were depressed, exhausted and thoroughly demoralised. They had spent three days at the Feuillants monastery, with nothing but the clothes that they were wearing until the Countess of Sutherland, wife of the English ambassador sent them fresh linen. All of their clothes and belongings had been looted by the mob – the Queen’s famous collection of clothes now dispersed throughout Paris, where it was worn by the women of the streets.
When they were told that they were to be taken to the Temple palace, Marie Antoinette whispered in dread to Madame de Tourzel: ‘You will see, they will put us in the tower, and they will make it a veritable prison. I have always had such a horror of that tower, that a thousand times I begged the Comte d’Artois to have it pulled down; it must surely have been a foreboding of all that we would suffer there… you will see if I am not mistaken.’
They were taken away from the Tuileries for the final time at quarter past seven in the evening on the 13th of August, the coachman making sure to go via the Place de Vendôme so that they could look at the once proud statue of Louis XIV which had been pulled from its plinth and now lay in pieces on the ground.
At first they thought, understandably, that they would be lodged in the main palace, which was still luxurious and quite beautiful but after supper they were taken instead up the narrow spiral staircase to the apartments in the tower. On the ground floor there was a porter’s lodge; on the first floor: an antechamber, dining room and library; on the second floor there were rooms for the Princesse de Lamballe, Madame de Tourzel and the Dauphin and also the Queen and Madame Royale as well as a privy and guard room. On the third floor there was another guard room, a kitchen where Élisabeth and Pauline de Tourzel slept, a room for some servants, the King’s bedroom, a study and a room for the King’s valets. Once Mesdames de Lamballe and Tourzel had been taken away, Élisabeth moved down to the Dauphin’s room, which she then shared with Madame Royale and the little Dauphin moved in with his mother.
Monsieur Berthélemy’s cook must have been a terrible slattern as the kitchen was in a terrible state when Élisabeth went up to sleep. There were filthy utensils lying around and filth everywhere. She must have sat down on her narrow camp bed and stared about her in disbelief – it was so very different from her beautiful rooms at Versailles and Montreuil.
The prisoners did not know what to expect next and spent the next few days awaiting more drama. It came at midnight on the 19th August when the guards arrived in their rooms and took the two Tourzel ladies and the Princesse de Lamballe away to La Force prison, to an unimaginable and unknown fate.
Margaret Trouncer: ‘Élisabeth’s timetable was as follows. She rose at six. She and her niece helped each other to dress. Élisabeth tried to teach Madame Royale to be independent of help, and this literally saved her life, when she was later condemned to solitary confinement. Hué came and did their curls. At nine o’clock, they all went up to the King’s room for breakfast. At first, this was opulent – coffee, chocolate, double cream, cold syrup, barley water, milk, bread, fine white rolls, sugar. The King did not take anything, and he did not sit down. The remains of the breakfast went to fifteen other people… The royal ladies wore morning dresses of white bombasine or dimity, and simple linen bonnets, trimmed with narrow lace edging. At ten o’clock, they all went down to the Queen’s room. The King taught his son his lessons (Corneille, Racine, geography, maps). The Queen instructed her daughter. Élisabeth gave Madame Royale lessons in drawing and arithmetic, music and religion. A soldier peered over the child’s shoulder when she did mathematics, thinking she was inventing a code for plots. At midday, the ladies went into Élisabeth’s room to change into day clothes – brown linen dresses patterned with flowers. Once or twice, they were unable to change, because a soldier would come in and refuse to budge. At one o’clock, they all went into the garden for exercise. At two, luncheon, of which they ate most soberly. The Queen drank only water from Ville d’Avray, the King always added much water to his wine and only had one glass of liqueur. He never failed to put Clèry’s meal aside in the antechamber stove, pointing out the best dishes to him. Luncheon was followed by a game of piquet or backgammon. At four, the King had a snooze, while the princesses read quietly, so as not to disturb him. When he woke, Clèry gave the prince his handwriting lesson. Afterwards, this good devoted took him to Élisabeth’s room for a game of ball or shuttlecock. Then they all gathered together around a table and, until eight o’clock when the Queen or Élisabeth read aloud something which would amuse and interest the children. At seven, they would pause a little to hear the news cried in the streets.’
‘During the five months that he was at the Temple, the King read 257 volumes. The ladies read, among other things, ‘Cecilia’ and ‘Evelina’. The King ordered the 14 volumes of the Paris Missal and the Breviary, and Élisabeth 14 prayer books. The children had their supper in Élisabeth’s room, while the King asked them riddles from the ‘Mercure de France’, which he’d found in Monsieur de Berthélemy’s library. Cléry undressed the Dauphin, the Queen heard his prayers – he would pray for Madame de Tourzel and Madame de Lamballe in a whisper if a guard was listening. At nine, the King supped, while the Queen and Élisabeth stayed in turns with the Dauphin. After supper, the King took his wife’s hand and his sister’s, as he wished them good night, received the kisses of his children, and would go to his closet and read until midnight. The royal ladies retired to their rooms.’
Life was ordered and intimate and as at the Tuileries there must have been a small amount of ironic pleasure for the royal captives in the fact that they had finally been granted the quiet family life that they had always craved while on show at Versailles. The Dauphin in particular is said to have flourished thanks to this sudden closeness to his parents, who had always been more distant, glittering figures at court.
It wasn’t all idyllic though – the royal family had very few possessions and had to order new clothes and shoes to replace the ones lost in the sack of the Tuileries. Their sheets had terrible holes and the royal ladies had to spend a great deal of time darning and mending, when once they had idled away their time embroidering roses and cherubs. Their guards were a problem too and were often rude and menacing to the prisoners – blowing smoke in their faces, making crude jokes and staring at them in an insolent manner.
Élisabeth sought solace in prayer at this time, adapting a favourite ‘The perfect adorer of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ by Gabriel Nicollet to her own purposes at this time: ‘What will happen to me today, O my God? (I know not). All that I know, is that nothing will happen to me which you have not foreseen from all eternity. That suffices me, O my God (to be at peace). I adore your eternal designs. I submit to them with all my heart: I want all, I accept all, I make a sacrifice of all to you. I unite this sacrifice to that of your dear Son, my Saviour, asking you by his sacred Heart and by his infinite merits, for patience (in our ills) and the perfect submission which is your due, to all that you want and permit.’
After the prison massacres in September 1792, during which the Princesse de Lamballe perished, life became much harder for the royal family. On the 4th of September a large delegation came to them to announce that an official decree had abolished the monarchy in France but if the revolutionaries had expected a reaction to this news, they were sorely disappointed as the King continued to read his book and the Queen and Élisabeth continued their embroidery, without so much as looking up.
Hoping to break their spirits even further, the royal family were moved on the 26th of October to the Great Tower of the Temple, which was far less comfortable than their snug little apartment. It was a horrible place with thick bars on the windows, thick, slimy damp covered walls and few comforts. There were large rooms on each floor, which were partitioned into four smaller rooms to accomodate the prisoners. Élisabeth’s room was on the third floor, next to a privy which also held a staircase which led up onto the roof.
There was another terrible winter that year and the Temple prison became even more damp and unhealthy so that all of the prisoners fell ill with colds, fevers and inflammations. Madame Élisabeth was stricken with a terrible toothache. In the end the National Assembly was sufficiently worried to send a doctor, Le Monnier, Madame Élisabeth’s former botany teacher to treat the invalids.
During that December, Louis XVI was separated from his family and put on trial, at the end of which he was inevitably condemned to death. The news broke in Paris on the morning of the 17th January, with his family hearing the terrible news second hand from the street criers outside the Temple.
Still they were not allowed to be together until the evening of the 20th of January, the night before his execution when the King waited in the tower’s small dining room for his family. They were allowed to spend almost two hours together, a time that must have been devastating for all concerned as the princesses sobbed in Louis’ arms. The Dauphin sat on his father’s knee, while Madame Royale leaned against him.
Finally, at around half past ten, the King stood up to leave, while the Queen half fainted against him, hardly bearing to let him go, the husband that she had come to as a young girl of fifteen all those years ago. He left assuring them all that he would see them again in the morning before he left for his final journey. His daughter, Madame Royale fainted into her aunt’s arms as the door closed behind him.
That evening, Élisabeth and her niece pulled their mattresses into Marie Antoinette’s room so that she would not be alone on that dreadful night. It is impossible to know how any of them must have felt as the hours went by – the royal ladies distraught because they were never going to see Louis again and wondering what was to be their own fate and Louis himself, alone in his rooms, having presumably already resolved not to put them through the ordeal of another farewell.
They waited in vain for him the next morning, but he did not come and so they sat in silence until the distant sound of cannons firing and a wave of cheering through the streets announced that the King was dead.
Margaret Trouncer: ‘At about ten o’clock, the Queen wanted the children to take a little food, but they refused. Soon after, they heard the guns. Élisabeth looking heavenwards exclaimed: ‘The monsters, so they’re satisfied now!’ Then the beating of drums, and the frenzied cries of the Temple guards drowned the sobs of the Dauphin and the piercing screams of his sister.’
‘The boy was clinging to his mother’s knees. Gently she disengaged herself, and following ancient and immemorial custom, she curtsied to the new King, Louis XVII.’
"You'd find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair," said Anne reproachfully. "People who haven't red hair don't know what trouble is." - Anne of Green Gables.
I am Melanie Clegg, an authoress of novels of POSH DOOM, history geek, Versailles obsessive, Paris lover, historical fiction writer, Victorian Prostitute re-enactor, Art History graduate, committed vegetarian, GIN taster, curry lover and Pimms addict living in deepest darkest Bristol with my family.
I'm a member of the Whitechapel Society and London Historians and also a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society.
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To know her was to love her...
Born in the very heart of the dangers of the English Civil War, smuggled out of the clutches of Parliament as a toddler and then raised in near penury in exile in France, the charming and beautiful Princess Henrietta-Anne Stuart, youngest daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria is the original Cinderella, waiting breathlessly and with some trepidation for the moment when her family’s fortunes will be restored and she can reclaim her proper place in the world.
The first book in my two part series about Minette, the youngest and favourite sister of Charles II is now available from Amazon US and Amazon UK.
The Secret Diary of a Princess
My first book The Secret Diary of a Princess: a novel of Marie Antoinette, about the early life of Marie Antoinette and her transformation from a gawky Austrian princess to the fashionable, elegant Madame la Dauphine is OUT NOW and available to buy rather thrillingly as a Kindle book from Amazon UK or Amazon US.
My second novel, Blood Sisters was inspired by the stories of several intrepid, courageous and amazing women who lived through the upheaval of the French Revolution, in particular the Princesse Joseph de Monaco, Emilie de Saint-Amaranthe, Princesse Rosalie Lubomirska and Lucile Desmoulins, all of whom followed very different destinies.’
‘The French Revolution was a period of political upheaval, and of terrifying and appalling violence. I wanted to interweave that political background with my story so my heroines weren’t just passively sitting at home waiting for men to do everything, but getting out there and making history themselves.’
Blood Sisters is an historical epic with a romantic, adventurous edge, and out now for Kindle from Amazon US and Amazon UK.
Blood Sisters will be available as a special edition paperback from the 15th of April but you can preorder copies now! Hurray! The first forty will be signed so don't delay if you want one that I've scribbled on!
Before the Storm
My third novel of POSH DOOM and iniquity is a tale of passion, woe, betrayal and true love based on The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and played against the glittering, exciting and yet often dangerous backdrop of Georgian London, Versailles and Revolutionary France.
'Lush, dreamy historical detail with a slightly punk rock aesthetic...'