While Madame Élisabeth busied herself with her books, her painting and her daydreams of happier days spent hunting or riding her beloved horses (Élisabeth was an amazing horsewoman and like her brother, the King, she was said to look her best when mounted on a horse), her brother and sister in law, Marie Antoinette were scheming to get themselves and their family away from France. They were frustrated by their imprisonment at the Tuileries and increasingly disillusioned with the Revolution and the National Assembly, which was becoming increasingly distanced from the needs of ordinary people.
Plans had been laid for months until finally everything was ready from the enormous travelling berline that lay in wait at the house of the handsome Swedish nobleman Axel de Fersen to the huge travelling toilette that had been delivered for the Queen, who couldn’t possibly travel without looking her very best.
Élisabeth was not informed of their imminent departure until the very day that it was due to take place – the 20th of June 1791. Margaret Trouncer wrote – ‘When she had been told, Élisabeth went to her room and locked the door, saying she wanted to rest. Quietly she got out her maps and plotted the route to Montmèdy, eastwards, near the frontier and near Luxembourg. First, the porte Clichy, then Claye, Meaux, Fromentières, Chaintrix, Châlons, Pont-de-Somme-Vesle, Sainte-Menehould, Clermont, Varennes and then… Montmèdy. Se had no diamonds to pack, as she had already sold them for the benefit of persecuted priests. What a blessing it would be, to practise one’s religion freely again. And who knows what good things would follow, when the King had put a great distance between himself and that National Assembly, which, as she so wittily said to a friend, loved liberty so much that it thought it was its own prerogative.’
‘She had been told by the Queen to take nothing, not even the smallest parcel: ‘I can lend you anything you need from my trunks.’ She put into one place with her wardrobe, a large grey travelling hat trimmed with a falling gauze in the manner of a veil and a simple morning dress. She packed a supply of handkerchiefs into one of the inner hanging pockets of her petticoat. Then, to prepare for a broken night, she lay down and went to sleep.’
At nine that night, the royal family had their supper together before retiring to the Queen’s drawing room. As soon as the doors were closed and the servants dismissed they fell to whispering about their plan. Élisabeth bade a sad farewell to her brother, the Comte de Provence who was also escaping with his wife the same night but had made different and much simpler plans for his flight.
At ten, Marie Antoinette went upstairs and woke up the children, who were then dressed by their governess, Madame de Tourzel. Madame Royale wore a brown dress patterned with white and yellow flowers, while the little Dauphin was dressed as a girl. The children were taken to the Comte de Fersen in one of the courtyards before the Queen returned to the drawing room as though nothing had happened.
The family went to bed at their normal time. Élisabeth was accompanied to her rooms in the Pavilion de Flore by a National Guard who left her at her door. He later attested to hearing her push the bolts across. Élisabeth prepared for bed as usual, reminding her maids to wake her at eight in time for Mass before getting into bed. As soon as they had all gone, she crept out of bed again, hastily dressed then used a secret exit to leave her rooms, running down a deserted corridor then down some stairs to the street.
It was the first time in all her life that Princesse Élisabeth had ever walked alone in the streets of Paris and we can only imagine how terrified she must have been. Fersen was keeping watch for all of the members of the royal party and spied her sitting in her veiled hat on a stone bench in front of the Hôtel de la Vallière. He pretended to walk past her and hissed: ‘You’re expected’, which was the signal for her to get into the cab which he had waiting nearby. Next was the King and then finally, heart stoppingly late was the Queen who had almost been seen by Lafayette’s coachman and had then got lost in some alleyways by the Place du Carrousel.
They drove to the Saint Martin barrier at two in the morning and changed from the cab to the magnificent berline, which was furnished with every possible comfort including a delicious packed lunch. The carriage moved slowly and had frequent stops. It’s frustrating to read about the royal fugitives’ journey through France – they were often recognised and allowed themselves to be hailed and surrounded by loyal subjects, they also got out to pick flowers and allow the children some exercise. You can’t help but cheer them on, while knowing that alas, capture was inevitable.
The carriage was surrounded by armed men in Varennes and the royal family were apprehended and seized to prevent them travelling further. We are told that the King was first indignant and then resigned, while his wife and sister ‘sulked’ and wept bitter tears, knowing that they were to be sent back to Paris and even closer imprisonment. The first stages of the return journey were hideous as a huge crowd formed to harangue and insult the beleagured royal family.
The arrival of envoys from the National Assembly, Barnave and Pétion, brought further distress as they climbed into the coach and travelled back with them, keeping them under close scrutiny. Pétion wrote afterwards: ‘I noticed simplicity and a family air which pleased me… there was ease and domestic bonhomie. The Queen calledd Madame Élisabeth ‘ma petite soeur’. Madame Élisabeth did the same … The Queen danced the prince up and down on her knees.’
Cazotte, a young guardsman who had protected the family in Epérnay when a mob had turned violent wrote: ‘It was Madame Élisabeth who kept up the conversation. To the reproaches which the deputies made about some proceedings at court, her answers were so clear, so candid, so sincere and showed so much instruction, so much energy, so much affection for the people in a princess in whom Barnave had seen until then, only a proud and ignorant woman, that the opinions of this deputy underwent a powerful revolution.’
Barnave was to become a supporter of the royal family at this point, convinced that they had been woefully misrepresented and that they could, with support, still have a place in the republic of France. Pétion however, had more base thoughts on his mind, having convinced himself that Madame Élisabeth had developed something of a crush on him. He wrote, oh dear: ‘Madame Élisabeth foxed me with melting eyes, with that languishing air that unhappiness gives and which inspires a lively interest… The moon began to shine softly… She sometimes interrupted her words, in such a manner as to agitate me. I replied…with a kind of austerity… She must have seen that the most seductive temptations were useless. I noticed a certain cooling off, a certain severity, which women often show when their pride is wounded.’
Margaret Trouncer – ‘When Élisabeth’s arm touched his in the overcrowded carriage, he imagined that she was overcome by tender emotions which she did not even take the trouble to conceal. Weber tells us that he then began making ambiguous remarks. Élisabeth pretended that she had not heard them.’
The carriage with its unfortunate inhabitants arrived back at the Tuileries at 7o’clock on the evening of the 25th of June. The fugitives returned to their own apartments to have baths and rest after their ordeal, while Élisabeth sent Madame de Tourzel a coded message in the form of a book: ‘Meditations on Death.’ It was clear that she believed that they were doomed from the moment that they were returned to Paris.
If life before the ill fated escape attempt was uncomfortable and constrained, it was doubly so now as the family were more closely guarded than before and treated even more harshly.
Élisabeth consoled herself by keeping up a correspondence with her favourite brother, the Comte d’Artois, who had surrounded himself with schemers and counter revolutionaries and was plotting with foreign powers to overthrow the revolution. It’s not certain how far Élisabeth went – some believe that she was also a key figure in the counter revolutionary plots but others think that her nature was too conciliatory and peaceful for this to have been possible. It may never be known for certain. Marie Antoinette wrote about Élisabeth: ‘She is so indiscreet, surrounded by intriguers, and, above all, dominated by her brothers outside (France), that it is impossible for us to speak to one another, or we would quarrel all day.’
The days must have dragged slowly at the Tuileries, marked by the petty rows and simmering disagreements that are usual when a group of people are forced into inhabiting a relatively small space. There was drama on the 20th June 1792, when a mob broke into the Tuileries in search of the royal family and determined to wreak havoc. Élisabeth remained at her brother’s side and was mistaken for Marie Antoinette, which turned the rage of the mob upon her and could have resulted in her being injured or worse had not someone had the presence of mind to tell them that she was not the Queen after all.
The royal family went to their rooms that night, exhausted and frightened but also relieved that it was all over. Little suspecting that worse was around the corner and that on the 10th August, the Tuileries would be sacked and life as they knew it would never be the same again.
The night of the 9th of August was horribly hot and the royal ladies were disturbed by the incessant ringing of the tocsin that echoed across the still, humid Paris air. Margaret Trouncer wrote: ‘At one o’clock in the morning, the Queen said: ‘Let us go and rest on a sofa in a little closet overlooking the courtyard’. Madame Campan relates: ‘… Madame Élisabeth loosened several garments which hampered her, in order to lie down on the sofa; she had taken from her neckerchief a cornelian brooch, and before putting it on the table, she showed it to me and told me to read a device engraved on it, around a sheaf of lilies. I saw these words: ‘To forget offences, to forgive injuries.’ ‘I greatly fear’, added this virtuous princess, ‘that this maxim has little influence amongst our enemies, but for that reason it must not be any the less dear to us.’
As the tocsin continued to ring, dawn rose on that long hot day. ‘Élisabeth gazed at the sky which was very red. She said to the Queen who was kissing the Dauphin in his bed: ‘Ma Soeur, come and see the sunrise.’ The Queen joined her. How far away seemed that day when Marie Antoinette scandalised Mesdames Tantes by watching the sunrise at Marly with her gay young friends. This was the last sunrise they were ever to watch from the Tuileries, or indeed anywhere, for the windows of their next prison were barricaded with planks. That crimson presaged all the blood that was to be shed that day – blood of all the Swiss Guards, blood of all the young noblemen, blood of all the servants left in the palace. There was one chestnut tree in the Tuileries gardens whose roots were so soaked with blood that, every spring, it always bloomed earlier than its fellows.’
‘The King, the Queen and Élisabeth all visited the defence posts in the interior of the château. We are told that the Queen choked her sobs with difficulty. ‘Her Austrian lip, her aquiline nose… gave to her face an air of majesty, difficult to picture unless one had seen it at that moment.’ As for Élisabeth, everyone admired her ‘presence of mind, the nobility and intrepidity which she showed in her least words.’ This angelic soul was full of sisterly tenderness. Her very glance inspired courage.’
As the day progressed, it soon became clear that the royal family were no longer safe in the palace and they were persuaded to seek refuge in the meeting hall of the National Assembly, which was a short walk away. Madame de Tourzel wrote: ‘Consternation was general when the King was seen to leave for the Assembly. The Queen followed him, holding her two children by the hand. By their sides were Madame Élisabeth, Madame la Princesse de Lamballe, who, as a relation of their Majesties, had obtained permission to follow them.’
Madame de Rochefoucauld was to recall: ‘From time to time she (the Queen) wiped away her tears and tried to assume a radiant air which she kept for some minutes. However, as she leant for one moment against my arm, I felt her trembling all over. Madame Élisabeth was the calmest; she was resigned to everything… Madame de Lamballe said to me: ‘We will never return to the palace.’
The family walked through a hostile crowd who shouted insults, shook their fists in their faces and even stole the Queen’s purse. The little prince it is said, amused himself by kicking up the autumn leaves that fallen upon the path. ‘The leaves are falling very early,’ his father sighed with a melancholy look.
When they finally arrived at the National Assembly, the door was closed against them and they were kept waiting for half an hour in a corridor while a debate raged inside as to whether they should be allowed to enter. Finally, the doors were opened and they walked inside – the Queen with every appearance of dignity and serenity, determined to give no sign that she was either insulted or afraid.
The royal family were crammed in the tiny and uncomfortable ‘loge du logographie’, which was used by the editor of a newspaper to record details of the debates. They remained there for sixteen long, hideous hours with no food and very little to drink, while outside the screams of the attacked and dying filtered into the hall. A huge mob had invaded the palace, slaughtering the 300 Swiss Guards who had protected the royal family then rampaging through the rooms, killing anyone who stood in their way and looting anything that came to hand. The air at the Tuileries, now so serene and tinged with an aroma of Gauloises and Chanel scent reeked of blood, burning, gunpowder and death as a battle raged in the gardens and neighbouring streets.
Finally, at ten o’clock at night, the royal captives were taken to the former Feuillants monastery nearby, where they were to spend the night. Margaret Trouncer – ‘The royal family crossed the garden through a sea of pikes still dripping with blood. Their way was lit by candles placed in the butt end of rifles.’ It must have been utterly terrifying and the little Dauphin was utterly distraught about the unknown fate of his pet dog, Citron, who had been left behind in his room.