Élisabeth of France (1764–1794)

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Servant of God
Vigée Le Brun - Élisabeth of France, Versailles.jpg
Born (1764-05-03)3 May 1764
Palace of Versailles, France
Died 10 May 1794(1794-05-10) (aged 30)
Paris, France
Burial Cimetière des Errancis, Paris (first)
Catacombs of Paris (final)
Full name
Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène de France
House Bourbon
Father Louis, Dauphin of France
Mother Duchess Maria Josepha of Saxony

Élisabeth of France (Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène de France;[1][2] 3 May 1764 – 10 May 1794), known as Madame Élisabeth, was a French princess and the youngest sibling of King Louis XVI. She remained beside the king and his family during the French Revolution and was executed at Place de la Révolution in Paris during the Terror. She is viewed by the Roman Catholic Church as a martyr and a Servant of God.[3][4]


Early life[edit]

Élisabeth as a child by Joseph Ducreux, 1768

Élisabeth was born on 3 May 1764 in the Palace of Versailles, the youngest child of Louis, Dauphin of France and Marie-Josèphe of Saxony. Her paternal grandparents were King Louis XV of France and Queen Maria Leszczyńska. As the granddaughter of the king, she was a Petite-Fille de France.

At the sudden death of her father in 1765, Élisabeth's oldest surviving brother, Louis Auguste (later to be Louis XVI), became the new Dauphin (the heir-apparent to the French throne). Their mother Marie Josèphe died in March 1767 from tuberculosis.[5] This left Élisabeth an orphan at the age of just two years old, along with her older siblings: Louis Auguste, Louis Stanislas, Count of Provence, Charles Philippe, Count of Artois and Clotilde, ("Madame Clotilde").

Élisabeth and her elder sister Clothilde were raised by Madame de Marsan, Governess to the Children of France. The sisters were considered much dissimilar in personality. While Elisabeth was described as "proud, inflexible, and passionate", Clothilde was in contrast estimated to be "endowed with the most happy disposition, which only needed guiding and developing".[6] They were given the usual education of contemporary royal princesses, focusing upon accomplishments, religion and virtue, an education to which Clothilde reportedly willingly subjected herself.[7] They were tutored botany by M. Lemonnier, history and geography lessons by M. Leblond, and religion by Abbe de Montigat, Canon of Chartres, and they followed the court between the royal palaces with their days divided between studies, walks in the Park, or drives in the forest.[6] While Clothilde was described as a docile pupil, "who made herself loved by all who approached her", Élisabeth long refused to study, stating that "there were always people at hand whose duty it was to think for Princes", and treated her staff with impatience.[6] Because of their difference, Madame de Marsan, who was not able to handle Elisabeth, preferred Clothilde, which made Elisabeth jealous and created a riff between the sisters.[6] Their relationship improved when Elisabeth fell ill and Clothilde insisted upon nursing her, during which she also taught her the alphabet and gave her an interest in religion, which prompted a great change in the personality of Elisabeth, and she came to be both her friend, tutor and Councillor.[6] After this, she was given Marie Angélique de Mackau as her tutor, who reportedly had "the firmness which bends resistance, and the affectionate kindness which inspires attachment", and under whose tuition she made progress in her education, as well as developed a softer personality, with her strong will directed toward religious principles.[6]

In 1770, her eldest brother the dauphin married Marie Antoinette of Austria. Marie Antoinette found Elisabeth delightful and reportedly demonstrated too openly that she preferred her to her sister Clothilde, which caused some offence at court. [8]

Louis XVI[edit]

On 10 May 1774, her grandfather Louis XV died, and her elder brother Louis Auguste ascended the throne as Louis XVI.

In August 1775, her sister Clothilde left France for her marriage to the crown prince of Sardinia. Upon the departure of Clothilde from France, the farewell between the sisters were described as intense, with Elisabeth could hardly tear herself from the arms of Clothilde, queen Marie Antoinette commenting: "My sister Elisabeth is a charming child, who has intelligence, character, and much grace; she showed the greatest feeling, and much above her age, at the departure of her sister. The poor little girl was in despair, and as her health is very delicate, she was taken ill and had a very severe nervous attack. I own to my dear mamma that I fear I am getting too attached to her, feeling, from the example of my aunts, how essential it is for her happiness not to remain an old maid in this country."[9] "She shows on the occasion of her sister's departure and in several other circumstances a charming good sense and sensibility. When one has such right feeling at eleven years of age, it is very delightful. . . . The poor little dear will leave us perhaps in two years' time. I am sorry she should go as far as Portugal, but it will be happier for her to go so young as she will feel the difference between the two countries less. May God grant that her sensibility does not render her unhappy."[6]

On the 17th of May 1778, after the visit of the court to Marly, Madame Élisabeth formally left the children's chamber and became an adult when she, upon the wish of the king her brother, was turned over to the king by her governess and given her own household, with Diane de Polignac as maid of honour and the Bonne Marie Félicité de Sérent as lady-in-waiting.[9] The ceremony was described: "Mme Elizabeth accompanied by the Princesse de Guemenee, the under governesses, and the ladies in attendance, went to the King's apartments, and there Mme de Guemenee formally handed over her charge to His Majesty, who sent for Mme la Comtesse Diane de Polignac, maid of honour to the Princess and Mme la Marquise de Sereat, her lady-in-waiting, into whose care he gave Mme Elizabeth." [6]

Several negotiations was made for a potential marriage for her. The first suggested marriage partner was the Infant of Portugal, Prince of Brazil and heir to the throne of Portugal. She made no objections to the match, but was reportedly relieved when the negotiations were discontinued.[6]

Secondly, she was proposed by the Duke of Aosta (future Victor Emmanuel I of Sardinia), brother of the crown prince of Savoy and brother-in-law of her sister Clothilde; however, the court of France did not consider it proper for a French princess to be married to a prince of lower status than that of a monarch or an heir to a throne, and thus, the marriage was refused on her behalf for matter of status.[9]

Finally, a marriage was suggested between her and her brother-in-law Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, who had a good impression of her from his visit to France the previous year, and commented that he was attracted by the "vivacity of her intellect and her amiable character."[6] However, the anti-Austrian party at court viewed an alliance between France and Austria as contrary to the interests of France, and by 1783, the plans were finally discontinued, and no further suggestions of marriage were made.[9] Élisabeth herself was not discontent to remain unmarried, as it would have to be to a foreign prince, which would force her to leave France: "I can only marry a King's son, and a King's son must reign over his father's kingdom. I should no longer be a Frenchwoman. I do not wish to cease to be one. It is far better to stay here at the foot of my brother's throne than to ascend another."[6]

Madame Élisabeth did not play any role prior to the revolution; she viewed the royal court to be decadent and a threat to her moral welfare and acted to distance herself from it, and she attended court only when her presence was absolutely necessary or when she was explicitly asked by the king or queen.[6] When she left the royal children's chamber and formed her own household as an adult, she reportedly resolved to protect herself from the potential moral threats from court life by continuing to follow the principles set by her governesses and tutors during her childhood; to devote her days to a schedule of religious devotion, study, riding and walks, and to socialize only with "the ladies who have educated me and who are attached to me", and "my good aunts, the Ladies of St. Cyr, the Carmelites of St. Denis".[6]

She was engaged in the school of St Cyr and often visited her aunt the nun Louise at the Carmelite convent of St Denis, and the king, who was somewhat worried that she should become a nun, once said "I ask nothing better than that you should go to see your aunt, on condition that you do not follow her example: Elizabeth, I need you."[6] A staunch believer in absolute monarchy, Élisabeth had great respect for the position of her eldest brother the king and regarded it her duty to stand by him.[6] On a personal level, she was deeply devoted to her second brother, the count de Provence: "My brother the Comte de Provence, is at the same time the best adviser and the most charming conteur. He is seldom mistaken in his judgment of men and things, and his prodigious memory furnishes him in all circumstances with a never ending flow of interesting anecdote."[6] Her youngest brother, the count of Artois, was dissimilar to her and was sometimes given an "affectionately lecture" by her for his scandals, though he came to admire her.[6]

Her relationship to queen Marie Antoinette was complicated, as they were quite dissimilar. Marie Antoinette reportedly found Élisabeth delightful when she first entered court as an adult: "The Oueen is enchanted with her. She tells everyone that there is no one more amiable, that she did not know her well before, but that now she has made her her friend and that it will be for life."[6] Élisabeth, however, was very close to her aunts the Mesdames de France, who were members of the anti-Austrian party at court, noted for their animosity toward the queen and deeply opposed to her informal reforms in court life,[10] and the later view was shared by Élisabeth who, as a monarchist, regarded the queen's disregard of etiquette as a threat to the monarchy, and once remarked in connection to it: "if sovereigns descended often to the people, the people would approach near enough to see that the Queen was only a pretty woman, and that they would soon conclude that the King was merely the first among officials."[6] She also attempted to criticize the queen's behavior in this regard, but never did so openly, instead asking her aunt Madame Adélaïde to to it for her.[6] Regardless of these differences, she did occasionally visit Marie Antoinette in Trianon were they fished in the artificial lake, watched the cows being milked and welcomed the king and his brothers for supper "in white cotton dresses, straw hats and gauze fichus", and she did at least on one occasion accept to participate in one of the queen's amateur theater performances.[6] She became devoted to the children of the king and queen, in particular the first dauphin and Marie Thérèse of France. Élisabeth became the godmother of Sophie Hélène Beatrix of France in 1786, and the same year, she participated in the centenary of St. Cyr, a school she was very engaged in.

In 1781, the king gave her the villa Montreuil (fr) not far from Versailles as a private retreat, and the queen presented it to her with the words: "My sister, you are now at home. This place will be your Trianon."[6] The King did not allow her to spend her nights at Montreuil until she was twenty-four, but in practice, she normally spent her entire days there from morning mass until she returned to Versailles to sleep. At Montreuil, she followed a schedule that divided her days in to hours for study, exercise by riding or walks, dinner and prayers with her ladies-in-waiting, inspired by the schedule set by her governesses during her childhood. Élisabeth took an interest in gardening and engaged in charity in the nearby village of Montreuil. Her former tutor Lemonnier was her neighbor at Montreuil, and she named him her almoner to distribute her charity in the village: "There grew up a constant interchange of interests between them. The learned Professor shared his botanical studies in his garden with the Princess, and even his experiments in his laboratory; and Mme Elizabeth in return associated her old friend with her in her charities, and made him her almoner in the village."[6] She imported cows from Switzetland and the Swiss Jacques Bosson to manage them; upon his request, she also brought his parents and his cousin-bride Marie to Montreuil, married Marie to him and installed her as her milkmaid, and arranged for the Bosson family to tend her farm at Montreuil, producing the milk and eggs which she distributed to the poor children of the village.[6] This was regarded by the court as a picturesque idyll, and Jacques Bosson was the portrayed by Mme de Travannes in the poem "Pauvre Jacques", which became very popular and was set to music.[6]

Élisabeth was interested in politics and a staunch supporter of absolute monarchy. She attended the opening of the National Assembly at Versailles on 22 February 1787 and commented: "What will this famous Assembly do for us? Nothing, except to let the people know the critical position in which we are. The King acts in good faith in asking their advice; will they do the same in the counsels they will give him ? The Queen is very pensive. Sometimes we spend hours alone without her saying a word. She seems to fear me. And yet who can take a more lively interest than I do in my brother's happiness? Our views differ. She is an Austrian. I am a Bourbon. The Comte d'Artois does not understand the necessity of these great reforms; he thinks that people augment the deficit in order to have the right to complain and to demand the assembly of the States-General. Monsieur is much occupied in writing; he is much more serious, and you know he was grave enough already. I have a presentiment that all this will turn out badly. As for me, intrigues tire me. I love peace and rest. But I will never leave the King while he is unhappy."[6]


Élisabeth and her brother Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois, were the staunchest conservatives in the royal family. Unlike Artois, who, on the order of the king, left France on 17 July 1789, three days after the storming of the Bastille,[11] Élisabeth refused to emigrate when the gravity of the events set forth by the French Revolution became clear.

On 5 October 1789, Élisabeth saw the Women's March on Versailles from Montreuil and immediately returned to the Palace of Versailles. She advised the king to "a vigorous and speedy repression of the riot"[6] rather than to negotiate, and that the royal family should relocate to some town further from Paris, so as to bee free from any influence of fractions.[6] Her advise was countered by Necker, and the retired to the queen's apartments. She was not disturbed when the mob stormed the palace to assassinate the queen, but awakened and called to the king, who was worried about her. When the mob demanded for the king to return with them to Paris, and Lafayette advised him to consent, Élisabeth unsuccessfully advised the king differently: "Sire, it is not to Paris you should go. You still have devoted battalions, faithful guards, who will protect your retreat, but I implore you, my brother, do not go to Paris."[6]

Élisabeth accompanied the royal family to Paris, were she settled with them in the Tuileries Palace rather than to to live with her aunts, mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire, at the château de Bellevue.

During this time, she corresponded with the exiled comte d'Artois. One of her letters, in which she expressed her view that a foreign intervention by the exiled French royalists and foreign monarchies was necessary to restore the old regime, was intercepted by the National Assembly. She was loyal to the royal couple, but was more unyielding toward any compromises in the limitation of the powers of the Church and the monarchy.

In February 1791, she still chose not to emigrate with her aunts Adélaïde and Victoire, but accompanied the royal family on its unsuccessful escape attempt of 20 June 1791, which was stopped at Varennes.

During the Demonstration of 20 June 1792 at the Tuileries Palace, she showed herself to the crowd, who initially mistook her for the queen.

On 10 August 1792, when insurgents attacked the Tuileries, she followed the king and his family, seeking refuge at the Legislative Assembly, where she witnessed, later on in the day, her brother's dethronement. The whole family was transferred to the Temple Tower three days later.

After the execution of the former king on 21 January 1793 and the separation of her nephew, the young "Louis XVII", from the rest of the family on 3 July, Élisabeth was left with Marie Antoinette, and Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, Madame Royale, in their apartment in the Tower. The former queen was taken to the Conciergerie on 2 August 1793, and executed on 16 October. Marie Antoinette's last letter, written in the early hours of the day of her execution, was addressed to Élisabeth, but never reached her. Élisabeth and Marie-Thérèse were kept in ignorance of Marie Antoinette's death.

Trial and execution[edit]

Élisabeth was not regarded as dangerous by Robespierre, and the original plan had been to banish her from France.[12] She spent her last days with Marie-Thérèse, comforting and looking after her niece, who later wrote of her: "I feel I have her nature . . . [she] considered me and cared for me as her daughter, and I, I honoured her as a second mother".[13] On 9 May 1794, however, Élisabeth was transferred to the Conciergerie and brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. She was accused of assisting the king's flight, of supplying émigrés with funds, and of encouraging the resistance of the royal troops during the events of 10 August 1792. During her trial, she replied, when addressed as "The Sister of a Tyrant": "If my brother had been what you call him, you would not have been where you are, nor I where I am". She was condemned to death and guillotined the following day.[14] In the notes of the trial of Nicolas Pasquin, her valet of the chambers, she is referred to as the sister of the tyrant Capet. Pasquin, at the age of 36 years, was executed for his own alleged part in the conspiracy of 10 August 1792, and executed on 6 February.[15]

Madame Élisabeth was executed along with 23 other men and women, who had been tried and condemned at the same time as she. A devout Roman Catholic, and the highest ranking among them, in the cart taking them to their execution, and while waiting her turn, she helped several of them through the ordeal, encouraging them and reciting the De profundis until her time came.[16]

At the foot of the guillotine, two of the women who were also in the cart asked to kiss her before their execution. Élisabeth gladly did so, and then was forced by the executioners to remain in the cart and watch the others being executed, before she herself was finally taken up to be guillotined.[17] While she was being strapped to the board, her shawl fell off, exposing her shoulders, and she cried to the executioner “Au nom de votre mère, monsieur, couvrez-moi. (In the name of your mother, sir, cover me)”.[18]

Her body was buried in a common grave at the Errancis Cemetery in Paris.[19] At the time of the Restoration, her brother Louis XVIII searched for her remains, only to discover that the bodies interred there had decomposed to a state where they could no longer be identified. Élisabeth's remains, with that of other victims of the guillotine (including Robespierre, also buried at the Errancis Cemetery), were later placed in the Catacombs of Paris. A medallion represents her at the Basilica of Saint Denis.

The Cause of Beatification of Élisabeth was introduced in 1924, but has not yet been completed.


Élisabeth, who had turned thirty a week before her death, was executed essentially because she was a sister of the king; however, the general consensus of the French revolutionaries was that she was a supporter of the ultra-right royalist faction. There is much evidence to suggest that she actively supported the intrigues of the comte d'Artois to bring foreign armies into France to crush the Revolution. In monarchist circles, her exemplary private life elicited much admiration. Élisabeth was much praised for her charitable nature, familial devotion and devout Catholic faith. There can be no question that she saw the Revolution as the incarnation of evil on earth[citation needed] and viewed civil war as the only means to drive it from the land.

Royalist literature represents her as a Catholic martyr, while left-wing historians severely criticise her for extreme conservatism, which seemed excessive even to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette[citation needed]. Several biographies have been published of her in French, while extensive treatment of her life is given in Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette and Deborah Cadbury's investigative biography of Louis XVII.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Achaintre, Nicolas Louis, Histoire généalogique et chronologique de la maison royale de Bourbon, Vol. 2, (Rue de l'École de Médecine, 1824), 168.
  2. ^ Diderot & d'Alembert Encyclopédie méthodique: Jurisprudence, Paris, 1786, p. 159 [1]
  3. ^ "1794". faithweb.com. Retrieved 10 May 2017. 
  4. ^ "Bienvenue sur le site de la paroisse Sainte-Élisabeth-de-Hongrie". sainteelisabethdehongrie.com. Retrieved 10 May 2017. 
  5. ^ Évelyne Lever, Louis XVI, Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris (1985), p. 43
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Maxwell-Scott, Mary Monica, Madame Elizabeth de France, 1764-1794, London : E. Arnold, 1908
  7. ^ Woodacre, Elena: Queenship in the Mediterranean: Negotiating the Role of the Queen in the Medieval and Early Modern Eras (2013)
  8. ^ Hardy, B. C. (Blanche Christabel), The Princesse de Lamballe; a biography, 1908, Project Gutenberg
  9. ^ a b c d Princess of France Elisabeth, Elisabeth The Life and Letters of Madame Elisabeth de France, Sister of Louis XVI, Versailles HistoricalSociety, 1899
  10. ^ Joan Haslip (1991). Marie Antoinette (in Swedish). p. 79-80. ISBN. 
  11. ^ Castelot, André, Charles X, La fin d'un monde, Perrin, Paris, 1988, pp. 79-80, ISBN 2-262-00545-1
  12. ^ With Barere on the day of Mme Élisabeth's execution: — He had tried to save her, he said to Barère, but Collot had insisted on her death.
    Thompson, James M. (1988). Robespierre. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p. 218. ISBN 0-631-15504-X. 
  13. ^ Nagel, Sophie (2009). Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter. p. 144. 
  14. ^ Trial and execution (French): de Beauchesne, Alcide-Hyacinthe, La vie de Madame Élisabeth, sœur de Louis XVI, Volume 2, Henri-Plon Éditeur-Imprimeur, Paris, 1870, pp. 199-205, 219-250.
  15. ^ (in French) Liste générale et très-exacte des noms, âges, qualités et demeures de tous les Conspirateurs qui ont été condamnés à mort par le Tribunal Révolutionnaire établi à Paris par la loi du 17 août 1792... 10 mars 1793, Marchand 1793, p. 11.
  16. ^ Beauchesne, p. 249.
  17. ^ Nagel, Sophie (2009). Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette's Daughter. p. 144. 
  18. ^ Beauchesne, p. 249.
  19. ^ de Rochegude, Félix, Promenades dans toutes les rues de Paris, VIIIe arrondissement, Hachette, Paris, 1910, p. 46.


Primary source[edit]