The future King Louis XVI of France was born on 23 August 1754 as the second surviving son of Maria Josepha of Saxony and Louis, Dauphin of France, who in turn was the elder and only surviving son of King Louis XV of France and Marie Leszczyńska. He was initially titled Duke of Berry, and his older brother was the Duke of Burgundy. Four more younger siblings survived to adulthood, the future King Louis XVIII of France (then known as the Count of Provence), the future King Charles X of France (then known as the Count of Artois) and Princesses Marie Clotilde (later Queen of Sardinia) and Elisabeth.
The future King Louis XVI received the names Louis Auguste from his father, who had named him after Saint Louis, King Louis IX. His mother later told him, “What a King Louis IX was! He was the arbiter of the world. What a saint. He is the patron of your august family and the protector of the monarchy. May you follow in his footsteps.”1 Louis Auguste and his siblings were sometimes referred to as the “Dresden knickknacks”, though only Louis Auguste inherited the fair complexion and bulging blue eyes.2 In his early years, he lived in the shadow of his elder brother, who was adored by their parents.
Until the age of seven, Louis Auguste was in the care of the Countess of Marsan, who also preferred his elder brother as he was the heir. She was also more affectionate towards the Count of Provence. Louis Auguste was later “put in the care of the men”, which meant the Duke de la Vauguyon, the former official playfellow of his father.3 Under the Duke’s supervision, various tutors were employed to undertake Louis Auguste’s education.
By this time, the Duke of Burgundy was seriously ill, and Louis Auguste had started his education early to be a companion for his brother. For seven months, he acted as a companion to his brother, but the Duke of Burgundy ultimately died of tuberculosis on 22 March 1761 at the age of nine. This left Louis Auguste as his father’s heir. His parents were devastated by the loss of the Duke of Burgundy. The Dauphin began to closely monitor the education of all the children and personally examined them every Wednesday and Saturday.
Louis Auguste excelled at mathematics, physics and geography. One of his tutors dedicated a book to him and wrote, “…the pleasure you found in the solution of the majority of the problems it contains and the ease with which you grasped the key to their solution are new proofs of your intelligence and the excellence of your judgement…”4 He was 14 years old at that time and was known to be timid and reserved.
The Dauphin would not live to see his son complete his education. He died of tuberculosis on 20 December 1765 at the age of 36. Louis Auguste became the new Dauphin at the age of 11. The youngest sibling, Elisabeth, was not even two years old yet. Their mother, Maria Josepha, went into elaborate mourning and cut off her hair. She commissioned a mausoleum for her husband in the Cathedral at Sens. The Duke de la Vauguyon took the new Dauphin to a portrait of his late father and told him to return to it every day to “meditate before his image” and “propose… one of his virtues to imitate.”5
Maria Josepha also became ill with tuberculosis and died on 14 March 1767 at the age of 35. Young Louis Auguste had just started keeping a diary and wrote, “Death of my mother at eight in the evening.”6 His parents were buried together in the mausoleum Maria Josepha had commissioned for her husband.
The death of Louis Auguste’s parents brought him and his grandfather, King Louis XV, closer together, and they wept in each other’s arms. The King later wrote to the Duke of Parma, “Destiny has given me another son who seems sure to be the happiness of my remaining days; and I love him with all my heart because he returns my love.”7 It certainly helped that Louis Auguste took the initiative to ask to be invited to the hunting suppers organised by the King’s mistress, Madame du Barry.
On 16 May 1770, Louis Auguste married Archduchess Maria Antonia, better known as Marie Antoinette, making her the new Dauphine of France. Despite the rocky start, it was to be a happy marriage. They became King and Queen of France upon the death of Louis Auguste’s grandfather on 10 May 1774. Louis Auguste was still only 19 years old.