Madame Élisabeth – the Temple days

27 February 2010

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.’