Madame Élisabeth – an adolescent princess at Versailles

23 February 2010

On the 11th June 1775, Louis XVI was crowned in Rheims cathedral in the presence of most of the court as well as his family. His younger siblings were all present and his young sisters, Clotilde and Élisabeth were seated at the side of Marie Antoinette, who was so moved at one point that she had to leave her seat in order to hide her tears. ‘I could not resist it,’ she wrote to her mother. ‘My tears began to flow in spite of myself.’

Shortly after this, on the 13th of August 1775, Élisabeth was to receive her first communion, which must have been an intensely moving and significant occasion for such a sensitive and devout young girl, who was to gain enormous consolation from her faith. It took place in the chapel at Versailles and Madame de Marsan and her niece, the Princesse de Guémenée held the housel cloth for her.

A few weeks later, she was to draw on her faith to sustain her when her adored elder sister, Madame Clotilde was married to the Prince of Piedmont, brother of the two Savoie princesses who had married her brothers and travelled to Turin to live with him. It was a terrible blow to Élisabeth, who loved her sister deeply and knew that princesses who married abroad very rarely came home again. She was devastated when the time came to say goodbye and Marie Antoinette, who had herself experienced the misery of saying goodbye to two beloved sisters when they went away to be married, had to coax her to let go and then console her when Clotilde’s coach had vanished out of view.

After Clotilde’s departure, Madame de Marsan decided that the time had come to retire from her position as royal governess and so handed in her resignation to Louis XVI, who at her recommendation immediately appointed her niece, the Princesse de Guémenée to replace her. This was not 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. Marie Antoinette, beginning to become bored and restless thanks to her cloistered life at Versailles thought that she was marvellous but Élisabeth was rather less keen.

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.

As well as the parties, Élisabeth now began to attend the cosy little family suppers that took place in the lovely apartments of the Comtesse de Provence, which overlooked the rue de la Surintendance. These suppers were the envy of all the court and most of the courtiers would have loved to have been invited. However, they were strictly for family only, which is lucky as history records that the group of sisters in law loved to sit and gossip about everyone while the three young princes wrestled on the floor, knocking precious china flying.

Marie Antoinette wrote to her mother: ‘I am enchanted with my sister Élisabeth, on the occasion of her sister and in several circumstances, she shows charming sensibility and right feeling. When one is so perceptive at eleven, that is very precious. I will see her more now that she will be in the hands of Madame de Guémenée.’

As she grew older and lost some of her typically Bourbon puppy fat, Élisabeth’s good looks began to be much admired with Madame de Mackau saying that she was ‘as fresh as a rose’ and the catty Horace Walpole describing her as ‘very pretty and genteel’. High praise indeed.

The Princesse Élisabeth may have been pretty and charming but there was never so much as a whisper of a handsome prince appearing on the scene. There was a rumour at one point that she might marry Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Emperor Joseph but it all came to nothing. Instead she devoted herself to her gentle friendships with young girls of the court that she had known since childhood, such as Angélique de Mackau, who married the Marquis de Bombelles on the 23rd of January 1778. She also devoted a great deal of time to her hobbies: gardening, reading, painting and, somewhat surprisingly, mathematics which she seems to have been very fond of.

On the 17th of May 1778, there was a big change in Madame Élisabeth’s household when the Princesse de Guémenée left her post as governess in order to take care of the forthcoming baby expected by her brother and Marie Antoinette. If Madame la Princesse’s morals were hardly above reproach, she must have seemed absolutely virtuous in comparison with her replacement as head of Élisabeth’s household: the ugly, malicious tongued, witty and rapacious Comtesse Diane de Polignac, who was appointed thanks only to her relationship with the Queen’s favourite, Madame de Polignac.

It can’t have been much of a surprise to anyone, even Marie Antoinette who was determined that everyone should adore her favourites as much as she herself did, that Diane and Élisabeth did not get along. Élisabeth did her best to ignore and avoid her new lady in waiting and for her part, Diane did her best to humiliate the Princesse by making fun of her hobbies and appearance, a bit like a spiteful school bully.

On her sixteenth birthday, in May 1780, Élisabeth moved into the new grown up apartment that her fond brother and sister in law, Marie Antoinette had prepared for her at Versailles. The princess had never made any secret of her wish to be allowed to become a nun like her aunt Louise, and as the years went by without any sign of a suitable husband, it is probable that her brother and those who loved her began to worry that she too might take flight in the middle of the night and run away to a Carmelite convent.

Her new rooms overlooking the Orangery were in a complete contrast to the tiny nun’s cell that her soul desired. She had eight rooms to herself: two antechambers, a reception room, a bedroom (hung with green Lyons damask in the summer and crimson silk velvet in the winter), a grand cabinet, a billiard room, a library and then a private boudoir, all of which were furnished with the most exquisite taste and luxury.