Princess Élisabeth of France

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Princess Élisabeth of France : biography

3 May 1764 – 10 May 1794

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

Élisabeth was not regarded as dangerous by Robespierre, and the original plan had been to banish her from France. 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". On 9 May 1794, however, she 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.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.

She 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.Beauchesne, p. 249.

At the foot of the guillotine, two of the women who were also in the cart asked to kiss her before their execution. Elizabeth 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. While she was being strapped to the board, her shawl fell off, exposing her shoulders, and she cried to the executioner “’ (In the name of your mother, sir, cover me)”.Beauchesne, p. 249.

Her body was buried in a common grave at the Errancis Cemetery in Paris.de Rochegude, Félix, Promenades dans toutes les rues de Paris, VIIIe arrondissement, Hachette, Paris, 1910, p. 46. 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 has been introduced in 1924, but not finished yet.

Assessment

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 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. 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.

Sources

Primary source

  • (from the autograph manuscript; see in particular Part 3)
  • , (1823 English translation of a slightly redacted French edition; see in particular Part 3)