Louis XVII, France's Little Lost Prince, (1785-1795)
Marie Antoinette en famille
Before his death at the age of 10, Louis XVII, France's uncrowned king, endured horrific abuse by his jailers after the French Revolution deposed his father, the 16th Louis.
Following his father's execution, royalists proclaimed the dauphin or crown prince Louis XVII. But he was king in name only, while Revolutionaries governed in his stead.
In the purple prose of libelles, pornographic pamphlets and forerunners of tabloids today, the Revolutionary Tribunal that condemned Marie Antoinette called her “immoral in every respect, a new Agrippina” after a radical French newspaper accused the deposed queen of sexually abusing her son, who was eight at the time of the queen’s trial that preceded her execution.
A Grotesque Confession Extorted from an Eight-year-old
According to the dauphin’s confession extorted by means of political indoctrination and alcohol, a series of “news stories” reported that Marie and her sister-in-law, Madame Elisabeth, made the boy sleep between them “in which situation he had been accustomed to the most abominable indulgences” including masturbating the prince until his penis was sore.
The false allegations nevertheless possessed a grain of truth. The dauphin had bruised his testicles while riding a hobby horse.
According to libelles, the abuse was not only for the pleasure of the boy’s perverted mother and aunt, but to weaken their son with “the rigors of sexual abuse” and gain power over France’s new king in a monstrous regency dominated by Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law.
Marie Antoinette finally had had enough of her own abuse by the tribunal’s prosecutors and media libelles. The queen almost gained her freedom by her response to the court’s accusations.
“I appeal to all mothers who are present in this room — is such a crime possible?”
Her heart-felt appeal briefly melted female hearts in the courtroom, who demanded the “Widow Capet’s” release. The tribunal, however, was not going to free its most valuable bargaining chip and hostage.
Marie and her son were invaluable pawns against the Bourbons monarchy’s foreign allies who had invaded France and were approaching the capital after the excesses of the Revolution horrified reactionaries across royal Europe.
The Well-Intentioned Threat that Killed the King and Queen of France
The Duke of Brunswick, the Allied warlord-in-chief, threatened to level Paris if one hair on the heads of the king or queen were disturbed. The threat backfired and had the opposite effect, the trial and execution of Louis XVI and his wife.
The corpse of the their son was said to reveal evidence of savage beatings and burn marks. Allegations that the corpse also showed signs of abuse presumably inflicted by the Dauphin’s jailers if true and not Royalist counter-libelles still have the power to horrify some two centuries later.
Scrofula or tuberculosis of the neck killed the dauphin. Before his death, he was allegedly subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse. Claims of abuse may represent nothing more than Bourbon martyrology,
The historical consensus says the youth enjoyed relatively comfortable accommodations in the Temple where he was not, also according to another Bourbon myth, kept in a cage-like cell with no light or air, fed food through a grate, and plied with alcohol by his jailers to extract the perjured testimony that Louis-Charles had been sexually abused by his mother and aunt, Madame Elisabeth.
When confronted by his sister Marie-Thérèse and Elisabeth, who denounced Louis-Charles’s allegations, the ex-dauphin stuck to his story.
The boy may have been an early victim of Stockholm Syndrome, in which a captive identifies with his captors out of self-preservation not conviction.
Tales of the Dauphin’s Rescue Were Probably True
The tragic Lost Prince may have been spirited out of his imprisonment at the Temple in Revolutionary Paris, never to return to his homeland or claim his father’s throne.
The historical consensus believes that the ex-dauphin survived, but that claimants to his throne were dupes or frauds.
A Pantheon of Royal Pretenders to the Throne of Louis XVI
Was Louis XVII the son of Mohawk Indian parents in Wisconsin in the early 19th century?
Was any of more than 100 claimants a male Anastasia, most famously Anna Anderson? DNA testing finally put the nail in the coffin of Anderson, a Polish factory worker’s claim that she was the long lost daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.
Was a Native American Heir to the Throne of France?
The life of another pretender, Eleazar Williams, dramatized in a 1937 short produced by MGM, inspired this article.
Williams was a reluctant claimant. A missionary of Mohawk Indian descent in Greenbay, Wisconsin, Williams never pressed his claim.
But he may have believed his own press, corroborating the story of his royal parentage. Historians believe Williams was an innocent naïf duped by royal genealogists and Bourbon partisans.
In 1993, DNA testing also disproved the claim of a 19th century German clockmaker, Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, to be the long-lost prince.
Whose Heart Is Buried in Louis XVII’s Tomb?
DNA testing in 2000 proved that the preserved heart of the dauphin at the St-Denis Basilica in Paris belonged to Louis XVII.
Louis-Charles’s mother’s bones and tissue samples from living descendants of Marie Antoinette’s younger sibling, Queen Maria Amalia of the Two Sicilies, prove the provenance of the dauphin’s embalmed heart.
Will the Real Pretender Please Shut up?
In the early 19th century, Charles de Bourbon, Baron Richemont, claimed that he had been smuggled out of imprisonment at the Temple in Paris by the sympathetic wife of his abusive jailer, the alcoholic cobbler Anton Simon. Eyewitness accounts backed up Richemont claim, which has never undergone DNA testing.
Historians believe that someone, possibly a deaf mute or wooden statue of the youth, was smuggled out of the Temple where the ex-dauphin spent his last, miserable days. Whether or not it was Richemont remains a subject of debate.
The current pretender is the mysterious Comte de Paris, éminence grise of a royal restoration, introduced himself to me as the Duc d’Orleans when we bumped into each other at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the 1980s. I didn’t recognize his alternate ducal title as belonging to the Comte de Paris, whom I did know was the current pretender.
The count’s ancestor, Louis-Philippe the Last, king of France, was popular among his subjects who called him their “citizen king” until famine and an economic depression led to his ouster in 1848.
Louis-Philippe was replaced by Napoleon III, the first Napoleon’s nephew and heir. Napoleon III’s incompetence and ego led to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
Had Napoleon III ignored Bismarck’s insulting Ems Dispatch or Telegram and refused to avenge the insult by declaring war on Prussia, which France lost, Prussia would have been unable to force Germany’s petty princelings into a united nation. Without a dominant Prussia, there would have been no World Wars.
A weak Prussia would not have been able to wage the First World War that led to 20 million dead. An unified Germany of many impotent sovereign states would have never had the means of starting World War II. The Second World War’s 50 million casualties would have been avoided.
In a parallel universe, there would have been no Holocaust. No Cold War threat of nuclear Armageddon
The current pretender, the mysterious Comte de Paris, claims to be the heir of Louis XVI. In the 1980s, I met him at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he introduced himself as the Duc d’Orleans.
I didn’t recognize the name as an alternate title for the Comte de Paris, whom I did know was a pretender. The duke is the direct descendant of an earlier Orleans duke, Louis-Philippe, also France’s citizen and last king
The idea of an alternate universe with no Kaiser Wilhelm or Adolf Hitler continues to intrigue anyone interested in the past and its effects on the present and future.
Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Herold, J. Christopher. The Age of Napoleon. New York: Harmony Books, 1962.
Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Up next: The Emperor's Prisoners: Napoleon vs. the Papacy
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