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.