Madame Élisabeth, the martyred princess of France

20 March 2012

I’ve put together all of the links from a series of articles I wrote about the life of Madame Élisabeth, the youngest sister of Louis XVI a couple of years ago.

Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène de France was born at 2am on Thursday, 3rd May 1764, the daughter of the unusually devoted royal couple, the Dauphin Louis of France and his second wife Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, who was affectionately known as ‘Pépa’.

The royal couple were unusual for their domestic harmony and frank and open adoration of each other in a court where it was considered bad form to be openly affectionate towards one’s spouse. The Dauphin was a complicated character: he wrote to a friend that his soul was ‘always gay’ and indeed there was a liveliness and cheerfulness about him that made his company much sought after. However, he had also inherited the morbid nature of his parents, Louis XV and his devout Polish wife, Marie Leczinska and was obsessed with death and dying. His mother kept the skull of the delightful courtesan Ninon de Lenclos on her desk, garlanded with flowers and grinning toothily upon a velvet cushion. She called it ‘Ma chère Mignonne’…’

The infancy of Madame Elisabeth.

It is recorded that in the early days of their marriage, the young Saxony princess Marie-Joséphe had been horrified to witness her new husband and his sisters spending evenings dressed in black and walking slowly around the dim candlelit room murmuring ‘I am dead, I am dead, I am dead’ in a continuation of a favourite game from childhood. It was unacceptably morbid to a healthy young princess who adored dancing, laughter, being outdoors, having fun and celebrating life…

A Versailles childhood.

The orphaned children of the Dauphin and Marie-Josèphe de Saxe were a diverse bunch. At the time of their mother’s death, the eldest was the twelve year old Dauphin Louis-Auguste, a serious, sombre boy with low self esteem and a diffident manner. Next was the eleven year old Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, Comte de Provence, already overweight with a cruel, sarcastic yet indolent nature. Next was the nine year old Charles-Philippe, Comte d’Artois, the only one of the trio of boys to have inherited his handsome grandfather, Louis XV’s good looks, in particular his sparkling dark eyes, inherited from his mother Marie-Adélaïde de Savoie.

The two girls followed: seven year old Marie-Adélaïde-Clotilde-Xaviere, who was known as Madame Clotilde, an overweight child with a sweet, endearing nature and a genuine love of music who was known at court as ‘Gros Madame’ (Madame Fatty) and then finally, the baby of the family, two year old Madame Élisabeth…’

The arrival of Marie Antoinette.

The betrothal of her eldest brother, the Dauphin Louis had been a source of intense interest at court for quite some time as preparations went on for what was to be one of the most magnificent wedding spectacles ever held at Versailles. Excitement had reached fever pitch by the time his bride, the fifteen year old Archduchess Marie Antoinette arrived at the palace at 10am on the 16th May 1770 and Madame Élisabeth, as the youngest member of the royal family must have been quite beside herself by the time the beautiful new princess, dressed in her splendid travelling costume of blue and white silk arrived in the royal apartments.

Madame de Marsan, who Marie Antoinette had been warned against and who she was to take one of her quick and unyielding dislikes to, was quick to push her favourite pupil, Madame Clotilde forward but the young Archduchess immediately knelt in front of the smallest princess, Élisabeth and gave her a quick hug…

An adolescent princess at Versailles.

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.’

Beautiful Montreuil.

Élisabeth’s life at Montreuil was marked with its simplicity and goodness. She loved to spend time with her friends, either picnicking in the grounds, gardening, working her printing press, doing embroidery or doing good works in the neighbourhood, where she was hailed as a saint by the local people who all had reason to be grateful to her charitable ways and sweet natured friendliness. Élisabeth was naturally very thrifty and would often refuse to buy things because she reasoned that the money could be better spent on helping the poor…’

The early days of the Revolution.

Change was in the air but life at Versailles carried on much as it had always done with the inhabitants doing their best to ignore what was happening outside their privileged bubble. The wife of a labourer who had been assisted by Madame Élisabeth requested a private interview at the end of September 1789 and told her that the people of Paris suspected the King of plotting to escape with his family to Metz and were planning to prevent this. Alarmed, Élisabeth immediately went to tell Marie Antoinette, who refused to believe that it was anything more than rumour and exaggeration.

On the 5th October 1789, Élisabeth was at Montreuil when then news arrived that an immense crowd of women were marching on Versailles. She left her house immediately and returned to the palace to be at the side of her brother and sister in law. The royal family gathered together, unable to escape the shouts of the mob that had gathered in the courtyard below them but assured that it would be impossible for them to actually get inside…’

The Tuileries.

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…’

The Temple.

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.’

Execution, 10th May 1794.

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…’


Recommended further reading:

Madame Elisabeth. Days at Versailles and in prison with Marie-Antoinette and her family

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