At the start of August the hot, dusty streets filled with hundreds of troops from Marseilles and their catchy and bloodthirsty marching song, la Marseillaise was soon to be heard on all lips. At the same time ‘insurrection’ became the mot du jour and the Assembly and fashionable salons were all abuzz with talk of the planned assault on the Tuileries and overthrow of the monarchy. No one knew quite when it was to happen but it was expected that the blow, when it did fall, would be bloody and decisive.
The ninth of August started much like any other day with attendance at the once thronged but now sadly quiet and depleted Queen’s lever and then a long, dreary Mass in the shabby Tuileries chapel. The prevalent mood at the palace was never very cheerful, especially since the royal family’s ill fated and ultimately humiliating attempt to escape the capital a year earlier and so when I entered the Queen’s rooms and saw that everyone was looking pale and anxious, I thought nothing of it and quietly went about my duties as usual. I tried in vain to amuse the downcast, tearful Queen, played with the two royal children and took Marie Antoinette’s spoilt little dogs for a walk in the gardens before returning to the palace for a strained, silent dinner with the other ladies in waiting. I thought wistfully of my own home and family as I dispiritedly spooned in some weak, brown soup and listlessly crumbled a hard bread roll onto my chipped and slightly grubby plate. There had been a time, long ago, when we had all laughed joylessly together about how very different it all was to Versailles, but those days were long gone now.
The afternoon was spent doing needlework and idly listening to the stale gossip that still floated around the bored court before I heard from Madame Campan that there was talk of an attack on the palace in the next day. At first, I did not know whether to panic or dismiss the news as yet another false alarm – there had been so many after all.
‘Are you quite certain, madame?’ I asked incredulously, hardly bothering to look up from my embroidery. ‘There is talk all the time of yet another assault on the Tuileries.’
Madame Campan looked rather affronted to have her word doubted and roughly jerked her head in the direction of the window. ‘See for yourself, Madame la Duchesse,’ she said. ‘The troops are already massing in front of the palace.’
The Comtesse de la Châtre, Vigée-Lebrun, 1789. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
I sighed and laid aside my embroidery, then made my way to the window which overlooked the Cour Royale, where I was astonished to see that hundreds of soldiers had gathered with both the blue of the national guards and the red of the King’s famous Swiss guards in evidence. I wondered if my sister’s lover, the Vicomte de Barthèlmy was somewhere amongst the throng – his own regiment had been recently been disbanded as a result of being considered ‘too aristocratic’ but regardless of this, he had vowed to fight for his King. This was much to Cassandre’s dismay as she wanted him to remain safely at her side instead of risking his life for what she believed to be a lost cause.
I turned back to Madame Campan, feeling quite shaken by the sight and now wondering if this time the end really was coming for us all. ‘What happens now?’ I asked, trying my best not to sound afraid.
‘Now?’ Madame Campan gave a grim smile. ‘Now, we sit and wait.’ She shrugged in the superior way that made her so unpopular at court. ‘You are of course at liberty to return to your family but I prefer to remain by the side of my Queen.’
Never before had time slipped away so slowly. The Queen’s state coucher, when she prepared for bed, was more sparsely attended than I had ever known it with only a handful of yawning, distracted ladies in attendance. This struck me quite forcibly as it used to be one of the central acts in the great drama that was Marie Antoinette’s official day and the fact that there were so few people there on what could well be our last day in the palace made me feel both sad and alarmed in equal measures.
Afterwards, I went with the other ladies to one of the huge, shabbily elegant palace salons, where we threw ourselves down on the threadbare pink and gold sofas and talked quietly amongst ourselves. Darkness fell upon the palace and its grounds and the liveried footmen walked silently around the room, carefully pulling the heavy brocade curtains closed and lighting the cheap wax candles in the tall candelabras that stood on every surface.
Bored with the endless chatter, I stood for a while by one of the windows, staring out across the city and wondering where the people I loved best were at that very moment. I had managed to send a messenger to the Hôtel de Saliex with a note for my husband and another to the Hôtel de Saint-Valèry for my father, Cassandre and Adélaïde but had hesitated over the third note, to Cousin Sébastien that I ended up kissing then hiding inside a drawer. There was nothing I could do now but pray that I would see them all again soon.
I was dozing on one of the sofas with my head on Madame de Tourzel’s pretty daughter Pauline’s shoulder when the church bells began to ring out across Paris. I immediately jumped to my feet and ran to the window, from which I could glimpse the little orange fires that marked the soldier’s makeshift camps but nothing else, thank God. I turned back to the room, where the other ladies in waiting were beginning to sit up, smoothing down their crumpled, petal coloured silk skirts and patting their messy hair. As the terrible, discordant, urgent sound of many church bells filled the air, we stared at each other in horror and knew with a sudden certainty that we were doomed. The Princesse de Lamballe, melodramatic as ever, immediately dropped to her knees and began to pray.
The Attack on the Tuileries, Jacques Bertaux, 1793. Photo: Château de Versailles.
The sky was a vivid blood red when dawn finally rose over the sleepless city and we were all up and watching anxiously from the windows when at five o clock the King went out to inspect the troops
and defences of the palace. I turned away, unable to watch when he hastily retreated indoors after being greeted with catcalls and jeers from the national guards.
‘How dare they behave in such a way?’ Marie Antoinette muttered as she watched her husband come up the grand staircase, which was now swarming with troops – he looked crumpled and defeated with his wig slightly askew, his green waistcoat unbuttoned and a shadow of stubble on his chin. ‘We are all lost. It would have been better if he had not shown himself at all than be exposed to such indignity!’ She turned and swept away, not bothering to greet her husband, who watched her go with tears in his eyes.
I stood for a long time with Pauline de Tourzel at an upstairs window, watching the angry populace as they screamed abuse up at the palace and fired shots into the air. There looked to be several thousand people outside and I felt almost sick with fear as I looked down into their angry, hate filled faces and recalled the events of October 1789. I wished with all my heart that Cassandre was with me, but at the same time was glad that she was almost certainly safe in her own house on the Rue Saint-Honoré.
Little Pauline, a pretty girl with beautiful brown eyes and long chestnut coloured hair shyly slipped her hand into mine. ‘Do you think that we are going to die, Madame la Duchesse?’ she asked in a timid voice. The girl was only sixteen and had everything to live for.
I swallowed down my own dread and forced a brave smile. ‘No, I don’t.’ I squeezed Pauline’s hand. ‘Let’s come away from the window and see if we are needed elsewhere.’ We walked through rooms filled with soldiers; brave men who were fully prepared to lay down their lives for their monarch and his family. I looked anxiously for tall, dark haired Alexandre de Barthèlmy, who always strode so confidently in the midst of the other men but couldn’t see him anywhere. Perhaps he had got out in time and was with Cassandre in the house that they discreetly shared, far from the prying eyes of gossips of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
Discussions raged in the royal apartment as their advisers tried to persuade the stubborn Louis and Marie Antoinette that it was in their best interests to vacate the palace as quickly as possible and seek refuge in the Assembly, whose meetings in the ménage were only a short walk away. However the Queen had a complete and almost romantic faith in their brave troops ability to defend the Tuileries and was determined to remain despite everyone’s advice to the contrary.
‘Madame, do you really want to make yourself responsible for the massacre of the King, your children, yourself, to say nothing of the faithful servants that surround you?’ the deputy Roederer, who was Procurator General of the Paris region, was demanding of the Queen as Pauline and I quietly entered the room. The younger girl immediately shrank back with a small cry, frightened by the blunt language but I pulled her close and hugged her tightly until she had quietened, imagining for a moment that she was my sister, Adélaïde, who was hopefully safely at home on the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois.
The Queen flushed crimson at the harsh words. ‘On the contrary, what would I not do to be the only victim,’ she retorted in a low voice, her blue eyes burned with emotion and sincerity. Roederer pressed on with his attack, this time turning to the King. ‘Sire, your Majesty has not five minutes to lose. There is no safety except in the National Assembly. The opinion of the Department is that you go immediately. You do not have sufficient men in the courtyards to defend the palace and besides they are not well disposed. The gunners have even unloaded their guns.’ He sighed, as had done many others when faced with the taciturn stubbornness of Louis XVI. ‘Sire, they have twelve cannons and several thousand men coming from the faubourgs of Paris. You are vastly outnumbered. There is no option but to go to the Assembly.’
Finally, the Queen capitulated and it was agreed that the royal family would leave the Tuileries and place themselves under the protection of the National Assembly. There was an audible sigh of relief as the King stood up and announced their decision before vaguely waving his hand towards the door. ‘Let us go. There is nothing further to do here. Marchons, marchons.’
‘What about us?’ Pauline whispered, voicing what was uppermost in every mind at that moment. ‘Do we go with them?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, my heart pounding alarmingly in my breast. We could hear the clamour of the mob outside and it took every ounce of self control not to turn and run screaming from the building as it was only a matter of time before they broke in and then who knew what would happen?
‘We are to remain here,’ Madame Campan said to us with a curt nod. ‘Only Madame la Princesse de Lamballe and Madame la Marquise de Tourzel are to accompany their Majesties to the Ménage.’ She looked in her short sighted way at Pauline who went pale when she heard that her mother was leaving her and going with the royal family. ‘You will be remaining here with us, child. We will take good care of you.’
Unfinished portrait of Marie Antoinette, Kucharski, 1791.
There was crying as Marie Antoinette embraced each one of her ladies in waiting and said goodbye. ‘We will be back,’ the Queen said, smiling through her tears as she kissed my cheek. ‘We will all be reunited soon. If the King’s downfall is decreed by the Assembly, he will accept it and then things will continue as they have always done.’
I nodded mutely, not knowing what to say. It was so clear that they were never going to come back and at that moment I doubted that I would ever see the Queen again as there was such an air of martyrdom and hopelessness about her as she moved slowly around the room.
Those who remained stood aside as the pitiful little procession left the state apartments and made its way downstairs. It seemed incredible and unbelievable that the French monarchy could end in such a way – shabby, downtrodden and hounded by its own people.
‘We are never coming back,’ the Princesse de Lamballe whispered, echoing everyone’s thoughts as she walked past. Her long blonde hair was escaping from its pins and falling in profusion down her back and her eyes were black with exhaustion.
We, the final, shattered remains of the once huge and magnificent court all watched in weary, frightened silence until the slumped and defeated royal party vanished out of sight then turned to each other in panic, not knowing what to do next, while all the while the palace began to fill with the noise of hammering, stamping, screams and shouts as the mob broke inside…
Excerpt from Blood Sisters.
An excellent factual book about the dramatic events of the 10th of August 1792 is Threshold of Terror: Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution.