Small Talks from Versailles #2: 5 creepy things you don’t know about Marie Antoinette and her family

My little column about French monarchs continues with some more information about Marie Antoinette. This time, since we are in the mid of Dark October, I will share 5 creepy things you probably do not know about Marie Antoinette and her family.

1- THE QUEEN’S HEAD – The French Revolution hit the imagination of many people in Europe. Everyone was talking (and gossiping) about the gruesome events that took place in Paris. Books were published by escaped aristocrats or questionable figures like Jeanne de la Motte Valois and in early 19th century common people were ready to learn more, to see more. They finally had their chance when a new exhibition opening in London displayed an extremely look-alike and quite upsetting wax statue of Marie Antoinette. It was way too resemblant for a simple traveling carnival… How was that possible? The answer is: ask to Madame Tussaud! Former wax artist at Louis XVI’s court, during the French Revolution Marie Tussaud was “hired” to reproduce, in the most realistic way possible, the severed heads of the most famous people taken to the guillotine – among the others the king, the queen and even Robespierre! When she was finally free to move to London she decided to bring with her the death masks she made after the executions and rumours had it that she created the images of the French royals directly from them. This, of course, was a legend but it was enough to create high expectations in the audience especially because, at least from 1860s, that was not the only one. Madame Tussaud museum in effect housed something way more creepy: in the chamber of horror there it was, the severed wax head of Marie-Antoinette… was that the original one, the one made after the real Marie-Antoinette’s head as Madame Tussaud wrote in her “Memoires”? No-one knows and no-one can tell but that portrait, including a facial feature usually photoshopped in official portraits (the traditional “Habsburg” lower lip), was so resemblant that, for once, the doubt was, and still is, legitimate.

2- THE QUEEN’S BODY. Concerning the real head of Marie Antoinette, it was buried along with her body in the Madeleine cemetery, in a mass grave without names to avoid any possible private or public celebration and to erase her memory from every royalist heart, if any was left in Paris. Still, if you want to pay a tribute to the unlucky queen today, you should not go there because where once was the cemetery now stands a little church. In effect when the Revolution was over and Napoleon was finally defeated the French royal family returned to France and among the first decisions taken by the new king Louis XVIII there was the order to find the bodies of his brother Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette to give them a proper burial in St. Denis basilica where all the French monarchs were resting in peace before the revolution. After a little research, on a freezing Jan. 18th 1815, at the presence of many influent notables, the remains of Marie Antoinette were found under a weeping willow planted in the cemetery by a royalist in order to remember exactly where the queen was buried. Apparently it was not difficult to recognise her. The bones were then taken to Saint Denis, where today you can see Marie Antoinette’s funerary monument and her tomb, respectively in the main nave and in the crypt. The cemetery was then transformed in 1816 in an expiatory chapel (Chapelle Expiatoire) to allow all the Parisians to ask God forgiveness for their sins. And what about Louis XVI’s remains? Another weeping willow was supposed to mark the king’s grave but finding him was not so easy… unfortunately that is another story.

3- THE QUEEN’S HAIRS. If it’s ever happened to you to read a romantic novel written between the 18th an the 19th century or if you’ve ever seen a movie set in that period you probably know that sending locks of hairs to friends and loved ones was a quite common habit, like putting them in rings, bracelets and lockets. For this reason it can happen to you to find, in museums or private collections, Marie Antoinette’s hairs preserved in jewels or little frames. Some of them are authentic, other not really. Many of these “charms” were actually forged after the Restoration when aristocrats and royalists were collecting memorabilia of the Royal family and the market of Marie Antoinette’s supposed last possessions was flourishing. Among the most famous locks we can consider authentic there are the ones displayed in a sort of reliquary now housed in the Conciergerie. In this beautiful box you can see locks of Marie Antoinette, her husband and her children. If you are auction lovers you also probably know that jewels with Marie Antoinette’s hairs have been on the market in recent times too. They belonged to her heirs so it is quite certain they also were authentic. What about their colour, where they blond or white? All the locks we have are blond as the queen was blond but there is a legend telling that Marie Antoinette’s hair turned completely white in one night. Madam Campan, her lady in waiting, wrote that it happened after her ill-fated flight to Varenne while others said it happened the night before her execution… we don’t know if that is true but it is true that today there is an alleged condition named “Marie Antoinette syndrome” referring to it.

4- HER CHILDREN. Despite the notorious difficulties experienced at the beginning of their relationship (yes, the history of the unconsummated marriage is true) Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI had 4 children. Unfortunately only one survived. Marie Therese de France, also known as Madame Royale or “the Temple’s orphan girl” (l’orpheline du Temple) as she was nicknamed during her imprisonment after her parents’ death, was the first daughter of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. After spending few years in prison she was finally sent to Austria thanks to a prisoners’ swap. She spent almost all her life out of France, even if she became queen on France for just one day in 1830. Her baby sister Sophie-Helene de France who had been born premature in 1786 died in 1887 while her older brother Louis-Joseph, the official heir to the throne, died at the beginning of the revolution in 1789, likely from tubercolosis of the spine, leaving his parents heartbroken. Louis-Charles met the worst fate. When his father died in 1793 he was automatically recognised by the royalists as the new king Louis XVII and that put him in a very difficult position, especially because he was only 8 years old. After being separated from his mother and sister he was locked in a fetid chamber and abused by his jailers who poisoned his mind in order to have him testify against his own mom. After the death of Marie Antoinette he was eventually locked away and almost forgotten. He died aged 10, in 1795, likely from tubercolosis due to his mistreatment.

5- HER SON HEART. After Louis-Charles death the physician Philippe Jean Pelletan was called for the autopsy. Following a very peculiar French tradition he removed the heart of the young king to preserve it and manage to smuggled it out of the prison. Once at home he put it in a vase and hid it in his library, where it was forgotten for years. The mummified heart was then stolen by a student and sent to the Spanish branch of the Bourbon royal family. It returned to France only in the 19th century and ended up in Saint Denis Basilica in 1975. The proper funeral mass was only celebrated on June 8th 2004. A legend tells that the heart you can see today does not belong to Louis-Charles but to another unknown child for the young boy managed to escape from his prison and survive the French revolution… unfortunately today DNA studies leave little to no space to romantic stories.

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