Louis Charles, the future King Louis XVII, was born on 27 March 1785 as the second son of King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. Upon the death of his elder brother Louis Joseph on 4 June 1789, he became the Dauphin of France.
As the situation around the French Revolution spiralled out of control, Louis Charles was moved with his family from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. For the next three years, they were to live under surveillance at the Tuileries. Marie Antoinette asked the Marquise de Tourzel, who had replaced the Duchess of Polignac as his governess, to watch over Louis Charles at night. The young boy was terrified by the noises from the crowds outside.
On 10 August 1792, a revolutionary government was established, and soon 20,000 armed citizens were on the streets of Paris. After a terrifying night, the family fled to the Legislative Assembly, where they feared for their lives. Louis Charles clung to his mother as the Legislative Assembly debated over what to do with the family.
They were eventually taken to a former medieval fortress known as the Temple. They were settled into sparse rooms with folding beds. Louis Charles had one room with the Marquise de Tourzel, and Marie Antoinette slept in the next room with Marie Thérèse. The Princess of Lamballe slept in the antechamber while the King and his valet were in a room on the third floor. Finally, Madame Elisabeth and several waiting women slept in the kitchen.
They had arrived at the Temple with virtually nothing, but over the next few weeks, they were able to buy items to decorate their rooms. By then, they had been stripped of their attendants, including the Princess of Lamballe and the Marquise de Tourzel. Louis Charles couldn’t be alone, so he would now sleep in his mother’s room. The family now began to hope for rescue, which seemed like the only way out. Unfortunately, on 2 September, they were disturbed during their daily walk, and that night an angry mob stormed the Temple. When the King asked what was happening, the guard responded, “Well, if you want to know, it is the head of Madame de Lamballe they want to show you, for you to see how the people avenge themselves on tyrants.”1 The Princess of Lamballe had been hastily brought before a tribunal, and she was lynched by the mob. Both Louis Charles and Marie Thérèse were sobbing at the horror of it all.
Following the horrors, the family tried to keep a routine in the Temple. Louis Charles received lessons from his father, while Marie Thérèse received lessons from her mother. They were permitted to take walks in the compound and exercised there as well. Nevertheless, Louis Charles suffered from nightmares and was often visibly distressed and nervous. Finally, in September 1792, the monarchy was abolished, and France was proclaimed a republic. In October, the family was moved to the other tower. The King and the Dauphin were on the second floor, while Marie Antoinette, Marie Thérèse and Elisabeth were on the third floor.
On 11 December, Louis Charles was taken from his father to his mother, and he certainly sensed that something was wrong. The King’s trial had begun, and he was told he could see his children, but only if they did not see their mother or aunt as long as the trial lasted. Thus, he refused. The trial continued throughout December and early January. The vote for his execution ended with 361 in favour – a majority of just one. Due to this close majority, another motion for a reprieve was made, which was rejected with a majority of 70. On 20 January 1793, he was informed that he would be executed within 24 hours. Later that day, he was finally reunited with his family. He told Louis Charles directly to pardon those who were putting him to death. He also told him and Marie Thérèse to always be close friends and support each other and to be obedient to their mother.2 He gave them their blessing but refused to spend the night with them. He promised to see them in the morning, but their sobs still echoed as they left him. He was executed the following day without seeing his family again to spare them the agony.
“Shouts of joy” reached the ears of Marie Antoinette and Madame Elisabeth, the latter of whom exclaimed, “The monsters! They are satisfied now!”3 Marie Antoinette was unable to speak, but she, Elisabeth and Marie Thérèse curtsied deeply for the new – titular – King – the seven-year-old King Louis XVII. Marie Antoinette devoted her life to Louis Charles and took over the lessons. The stifling conditions were bad for Louis Charles’s health, and he began to suffer from headaches, convulsions and a worm infestation. His mother and sister dutifully nursed him through the worst.
On 3 July 1793, Louis Charles was forcibly separated from his family. He “flung himself into my mother’s arms, imploring not to be taken from her.”4 Marie Antoinette refused to give him up for over an hour, telling the guards they would have to kill her first. After being threatened that all would be killed, Marie Antoinette finally gave up.
Marie Thérèse later wrote, “At last they threatened my mother so positively to kill him and us also that she had to yield for love of us. We rose, my aunt and I, for my poor mother no longer had any strength, but after we had dressed him, she took him and gave him into the hands of the municipal herself, bathing him with tears and foreboding that she would never see him again. The poor little boy kissed us all very tenderly and went away in tears with the municipal.[…] She was overcome by the separation, but her anguish was at its height when she learned that Simon, a shoemaker, whom she had seen as a municipal, was entrusted with the care of the unfortunate child. She asked incessantly to see him but could not obtain it; my brother, on his side, wept for two whole days, never ceasing to ask to see us.”5
It was decided that Louis Charles should be re-educated into a good citizen. The horrors that would be inflicted on him were unspeakable and would eventually lead to the young boy’s death.