The Princesse de Lamballe – The best friend of Marie Antoinette (Part two)

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In the first part of this article, we discussed the early years of the Princesse de Lamballe, a young widow who became best friends with the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Here we will continue on with what happened to the Princesse de Lamballe while France was in the midst of the revolution.

We have not space here to discuss the full events of the French Revolution, but what is important for the context of the Princesse de Lamballe’s story is to know that during the period of 1787 to the late 1790s France was changed entirely. The monarchy fell, and a republic was proclaimed after a drawn-out period of political struggle. France was placed under martial law, which resulted in the execution of around 17000 people and large numbers of deaths in related massacres and wars. There are many great books and articles available on the French Revolution for those wishing to find out the full details.

In the Princesse de Lamballe’s earlier years she was one of the highest-ranking women at the court of France, and there were many people that were jealous of her friendship with the Queen. From 1789 onwards, however, being the favourite of the French Queen was no longer an enviable position. The royal family witnessed many of their friends and relatives flee from Paris in the years that followed, to save themselves, forgetting their loyalties to their monarchs. The Princesse de Lamballe was amongst the friends and staff who stayed with the family until the very end.

On the 7th of October 1789, the Princesse de Lamballe returned from a trip away from the court. She had heard about the revolutionary activity in Paris and headed back to her position running the Queen’s household. By this stage, the royal family had been moved to the Tuileries Palace under house arrest and were no longer keeping court at Versailles. For some time life carried on in a somewhat normal manner, with the Princesse de Lamballe organising events for the family, playing cards with the Queen and rallying support for the family. The Princesse de Lamballe became much more protective at this time, interrogating members of the Queen’s household to find out if those surrounded the Queen were truly loyal to her. By late 1789 many members of the royal family and friends such as the Duchesse de Polignac had left for a life in exile. This meant that a lot of public hatred began to be directed at the Princesse de Lamballe, who became a symbol of the old regime and was often ridiculed in pamphlets during this period.

On the 20th of June 1791, the royal family fled from Paris towards the Austrian border where King Louis XVI was assured of loyalty from troops. Unfortunately for the family, they were caught in a town called Varennes and brought back to Paris. At a time when the National Constituent Assembly was in the process of trying to create a constitutional monarchy, the attempted escape was a disaster for the royal family who was widely distrusted after the event. The Princesse de Lamballe was not told about the escape attempt until afterwards. After hearing of the failure of the plot, the Princesse de Lamballe busily visited England, the Austrian Netherlands, Brussels and different parts of France meeting with diplomats and royals where she must have been mustering support for her dear friends. It was a tough time for the Princesse de Lamballe as it was unclear if she was more useful to her Queen outside of France or by her side.

In October 1791 the Queen was ordered to arrange her household and remove any staff not in active service under the rules of the new constitution. Marie Antoinette wrote a letter saying to the Princesse de Lamballe that she must choose to either return to the family or resign. Upon receipt of this, the Princesse de Lamballe said “I must live and die with her” and returned to Paris with haste. The Princesse de Lamballe must have truly believed this statement as she organised her will before leaving.

The Princesse de Lamballe was said to have been most shocked to see the Queen again as she looked worn out with sunken eyes and completely white hair as though she had aged by decades. The family and their few remaining staff members had to get used to being constantly watched and living in greatly reduced living conditions. The Princesse de Lamballe continued in her role managing the Queen’s household at the Tuileries and tried to encourage nobles to return to France to support the royal family. At this time the Mayor of Paris and the Legislative Assemblies’ Committee of Surveillance were watching the Princesse de Lamballe’s apartments in the belief that she was hosting an Austrian committee who would destroy the work of the revolution.

After the attack on the Tuileries Palace on the 20th of June 1792, where the Princesse de Lamballe protected her Queen from an angry mob, the grip tightened around the royal family. The Princesse de Lamballe was moved with them to a number of locations before they settled into the cramped confines of the Temple. After being unwell and briefly leaving the family to recuperate in this period, the Princesse de Lamballe returned to her post once again despite being urged not to by her Queen. It is said that Madame de la Rochejaquelin visited the Princesse de Lamballe in this period and was told by her “as the danger augments, I feel more strength. I am ready to die”.

A week after the family was imprisoned in the Temple, a number of their remaining attendants were removed by the Paris Commune. The Queen fought to keep the Princesse de Lamballe with her and wept while she knelt at her feet and kissed her hands. The Princesse de Lamballe was taken away and imprisoned in la Force prison, a dingy place which usually held prostitutes. We have records of what happened to the Princesse de Lamballe in this period, from the diary of Louise-Élisabeth de Croÿ de Tourzel who had been governess to the royal children and was also imprisoned in la Force with her daughter Pauline.

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Pauline de Tourzel was rescued and smuggled out of the prison, but her mother and the Princesse de Lamballe were too well known for anybody to be able to rescue them in this way. The prisons were more terrifying than usual in this period as mobs began to attack prisons where they created their own tribunals. These ‘people’s tribunals’ were often opposed to by the prison staff, but they were powerless to stop the mobs. The makeshift courts would ask the accused a few questions and either let them go or release them to a mob outside. These killings were known as the September massacres.

On the 3rd of September 1792, after weeks in prison being interrogated, the Princesse de Lamballe and Louise de Tourzel were brought before a people’s tribunal. De Tourzel was released as many other household members and staff had been, but the Princesse de Lamballe seemed to become the exception. It is believed that her fate was sealed from the moment she entered the prison as her name was underlined in the register. There are many different stories of how the Princesse de Lamballe’s trial and final hours panned out, some of which were exaggerated tales produced for propaganda. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to separate the stories from the facts in some cases.

What we do know is that the Princesse de Lamballe was brought in front of a tribunal and asked a series of questions which included asking her of her knowledge of certain plots, to which she responded that she did not know of them. Then she was told to “swear to Liberty and Equality and hatred of the King and Queen”, the Princesse de Lamballe said that she would agree to the first part but not the second as “it is not in my heart”. After this, agents of her father-in-law told her to swear the oath so that she might be spared, but she refused to do so and reportedly said: “I have made the sacrifice of my life”. If the Princesse de Lamballe had denounced her friends and shouted “Vive le nation”, perhaps she would have been released, but instead, she was led out to the street to a group of men. There was to be no swift execution for the Princesse de Lamballe. Instead, she was brutally murdered by an angry mob, many of whom took their hatred for the Queen out on her.

Most of the sources state that the Princesse was first struck with a pike on the head which began to bleed, before being set upon by a group of men who beat her and stabbed her repeatedly before throwing her body on a heap of corpses and cutting off her head. Other stories include tales of rape or extended hours of torture, but we cannot be sure if any of these things happened. We can be sure however that the kind, devoted Princesse de Lamballe met a horrifying end.

After her death, the head of the Princesse de Lamballe was taken to the Temple to be shown to the Queen at the window. The Queen did not see the head but cried all night long upon hearing about her dear friend’s death. The Princesse de Lamballe’s body was never found despite her father-in-law searching desperately for it.

A year later, the Princesse de Lamballe’s best friend, Marie Antoinette, was also dead after being guillotined by a Revolutionary Tribunal.1

  1. Sources
    * Madame de Lamballe by Georges Bertin (UK & US)
    * The Princesse de Lamballe; A Biography by B.C Hardy (UK & US)
    * The French Revolution 1789-1799 by Peter McPhee (UK & US)

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