Elisabeth was born on 3 May 1764 as the daughter of Louis, Dauphin of France and Marie-Josèphe of Saxony in the Palace of Versailles. She was a frail child, and there were fears that she would die in infancy. When her father died the following year, her brother Louis Auguste became the new Dauphin. She and her siblings, Louis Auguste, Louis Stanislas, Count of Provence, Charles Philippe, Count of Artois and Clotilde, were orphaned in 1767 when Marie-Josèphe died from tuberculosis.
Elisabeth and Clotilde were raised by Madame the Marsan, Governess to the Children of France. The two sisters couldn’t be more different. Clotilde had “the happiest disposition, which needed only to be encouraged and aided” while Elisabeth was “proud, inflexible, passionate and had intolerable defects.” Nevertheless, they were quite close, and Clotilde taught her sister the alphabet. The Abbé de Montégut, canon of Chartres, was appointed to tutor the children in 1774 and he instilled in Elisabeth the religious sentiments that would never leave her. When Elisabeth was 10, her grandfather King Louis XV died, and he was succeeded by her elder brother, now King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, barely out of their teens. For now, Elisabeth would remain at her studies, but Clotilde was destined to marry. The sisters were parted for the first time when Clotilde married the future King Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia. Marie-Antoinette wrote to her mother, “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 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.”
Soon Elisabeth too would be considered for marriage. She seemed destined to marry a Portuguese Prince, but those negotiations were eventually broken off. Her hand was also sought by the Duke of Aosta and by Marie-Antoinette’s brother Emperor Joseph II. None of these ever came to anything, and Elisabeth soon joined the court at Versailles. Nevertheless, she remained at her studies, declaring, “My education is not finished. I shall continue it under the same rules; I shall keep my master, and the same hours will be given to religion, the study of languages, belles-lettres, instructive conversations and to my walks and rides on horseback.” In 1781, Elisabeth received her own residence at Montreuil from her brother. It gave her some freedom, and she often received visits from her brothers there. Elisabeth often visited her aunt Louise, a nun at Saint-Denis and daughter of Louis XV and Maria Leszczyńska, which worried her brother the King. “I am very willing that you should go and see your aunt, but only on condition that you will not imitate her. Elisabeth, I need you.”
On 5 October 1789, the very day that the Parisian mob marched to Versailles and compelled the King to go to Paris, Elisabeth left Montreuil never to return. From her terrace, she could see the first coming of the mob, and she had urged her brother to stand firm. “It is not Paris, Sire, that you should go. You have still devoted battalions and faithful guards to protect you. I implore you, my brother, not to go to Paris.” As her carriage pulled away from Montreuil, she bent forward to look at the trees. Her brother asked, “Are you bowing to Montreuil, sister?” She answered, “Sire, I am bidding it farewell.”
Elisabeth joined her brother and his family in the Tuileries, where some semblance of social life was kept up. She and Marie-Antoinette supervised the education of the Dauphin and Madame Royale. In June 1791, she accompanied her brother and his family on their unsuccessful escape attempt, where she was disguised as the children’s nurse. Just one year later, she was mistaken for Marie-Antoinette by a mob and was “exposed to the vilest of insults” for several hours. She was warned, “You do not understand, they take you for the Austrian”, upon which she replied, “Ah, would to God it were so, do not enlighten them, save them from a greater crime.” She also turned aside a bayonet against her breast, “Take care, monsieur. You might wound me, and I am sure you would be sorry for that.”
Elisabeth’s brother was executed on 21 January 1793, and this left Marie-Antoinette, Elisabeth and Madame Royale in the Temple. The Dauphin, now Louis XVII, had been separated from them. On 2 August 1793, Marie-Antoinette was removed from the Temple to the horror of Elisabeth and Marie-Antoinette’s daughter Marie-Thérèse. Marie-Antoinette wrote a last letter to Elisabeth before her execution, but the letter never reached Elisabeth. They were not informed of Marie-Antoinette’s execution. In September, they were deprived of their servants. Initially, Elisabeth was not considered for execution, but on 9 May 1794, she was transferred to the Conciergerie. Elisabeth embraced Marie-Thérèse and assured her that she would return to her. Just two hours later, she was brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal and was accused of having participated in the secret councils of Marie Antoinette and of having entertained correspondence with internal and external enemies, among other things. After her interrogation, she was brought to a cell. She was tried the following morning and she, and 24 others were declared guilty as charged. She was condemned to death by guillotine the following day.
Elisabeth asked to be taken to the common room where the others were waiting. She spoke to them calmly and “seemed to regard them as friends about to accompany her to heaven.” The following day, Elisabeth was cruelly placed on a bench nearest to the execution site, but she was to be the last to be executed. Elisabeth continually spoke the De Profundis. As the women passed by Elisabeth, they curtseyed and asked to be allowed to kiss her. Elisabeth replied, “Willingly, and with all my heart.” As the men passed by her, they bowed. She told them, “Courage, and faith in God’s mercy.” Finally, it was Elisabeth’s turn.
As she was fastened to the plank, her neckerchief came loose and fell to the ground. She asked, “In the name of your mother, monsieur, cover me.” They were to be her last words. Her body was taken to the cemetery at Monçeaux and flung naked into a mass grave. It is likely that her remains eventually ended up in the Catacombs of Paris.
Marie-Thérèse, the only one of the family to leave the Temple alive, wrote of Elisabeth, “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.”1
- Read more: The Life and Letters of Madame Elisabeth de France, Sister of Louis XVI and Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter