Biographies & Memoirs

Part Six

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

UNFORTUNATE PRINCESS

“Unfortunate Princess! My marriage promised her a throne; now, what prospect does it offer her?”

LOUIS XVI ON THE EVE OF HIS DEATH, 1793

From the moment of the King’s death onwards, Marie Antoinette remained bowed down with a grief that went too deep for words. It seems, according to the sympathetic Commissioner Lep"tre, that she had still had some hope of a reprieve for him; instead, they had “let the best of Kings” perish.1 “The Widow Capet” was now her official designation, varied more crudely with “the woman Capet” and the frankly contemptuous “Antoinette”; the traditional Habsburg prefix in honour of the Virgin Mary was not for revolutionaries.

The widow’s first wish was to see Cléry, who had attended Louis XVI’s last hours in the Temple and who might therefore be expected to bear some message from him to the stricken family. Madame Elisabeth and Marie Thérèse also privately believed that the shock of the encounter might provoke “a burst of sorrow” that would relieve the Queen from her state of silent, suppressed agony. In fact, Cléry had more than messages; he also had the King’s gold wedding ring, engraved M.A.A.A. 19 Aprilis 1770 (for Marie Antoinette Archduchess of Austria, the date being that of the proxy wedding in Vienna). Louis had told Cléry to say that he only parted with it with his life. Then there was a little parcel containing locks of his family’s hair, “so precious to him” that the King had preserved them with great care in a silver seal that broke into three parts.2

Permission for the visit was, however, refused. After a few weeks the faithful servant was released from the Temple without either giving or receiving the consolation of a visit. He left the keepsakes behind him in the Tower, sealed up. Nevertheless they reached the royal family in the course of time by a circuitous route. One of those responsible for the prisoners, François Adrian Toulan, a Jacobin from Toulouse in his early thirties, had been won over to their cause by the spectacle of their plight; Marie Antoinette, with her love of nicknames, called him “Fidèle.” It was Toulan who daringly broke open the seals and conveyed the keepsakes to their proper destination, leaving the municipal officers to think that a thief had been attracted to the royal arms on the silver.3

Marie Antoinette’s other request met with more immediate success. She wanted suitable mourning clothes to which, as the widow of a King of France, she attached much symbolic importance; she could at least make this appropriate sign of respect for her late husband as she would have done during the previous regime. Marie Antoinette asked for a black taffeta cloak, fichu, skirt and gloves, all to be made up in “the simplest possible way,” as she told the municipal officer Goret; and she supplied the name and address of the right person. This was agreed although a request for black curtains and a black coverlet was refused. A dressmaker, Mademoiselle Pion, was allowed to come to the Temple and fit the mourning, also for the other ladies, over two days. A municipal officer had to be present at all times as she worked, but Louis Charles sprang about and with his childish play provided cover for some conversation.4

Otherwise the widow could not eat and would not even take the air because the route to the gardens meant passing the King’s door. Seeing her pitiable state, her pallor and her emaciation, Goret remonstrated with Marie Antoinette in a kindly way on her duties to her children. He also arranged for seats in the circular gallery of the Tower so that Marie Antoinette could get some fresh air without making that traumatic journey. Nevertheless Marie Antoinette’s condition was summed up by her daughter: “She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished between life and death; sometimes she looked at us with a kind of compassion which was quite frightening.” In the midst of her own suffering, Marie Thérèse was even relieved to have to report a cut foot on 25 January because it gave her mother the need to care for her.5 Rejecting the prison doctor, Marie Antoinette managed to secure Brunier, the established doctor to the Children of France, along with the surgeon La Caze. After a month the girl was cured.

This explicit description of Marie Antoinette’s original near-catatonic state by her daughter makes it unlikely that the Queen ceremonially hailed her son as King Louis XVII immediately on the morning of his father’s death. Marie Thérèse, the prime witness, does not mention it.*107 Goret and Turgy, whose recollections were published after the Restoration in a newly joyful royalist atmosphere, referred more plausibly to Louis Charles being given in time “the rank and the pre-eminence which the King had had” and his sitting on a special seat with a cushion and table—although that of course may have been due to his small size.7 Open recognition of the boy as King would have been an astonishingly dangerous act on his behalf by Marie Antoinette on 21 January 1793 in a country where the monarchy had been abolished and his father had just been killed.

The title of Louis XVII, “the little King,” was of course accepted instantly abroad in royalist circles. At the same time the Comte de Provence seized the opportunity for which he had long been angling. This was the moment, as he saw it, to proclaim himself unilaterally as Regent of France for his seven-year-old nephew. He did so “by right of birth” and according to the fundamental laws of the kingdom. Nevertheless the move aroused angry controversy. Some of the émigrés were shocked and the Austrians similarly frowned on it, believing that the claim neglected the superior one of Marie Antoinette, whatever her current situation. Other foreign powers followed Austria’s lead in refusing to recognize his new status. Count Mercy d’Argenteau was certainly quick to point out that the new Regent’s rights were in fact much less well founded than those of Marie Antoinette.8 It was, after all, only the Civil Constitution of 1791 (now suspended) that had divided the roles of Regent and Guardian; the ancient practice of France would have united them both in the person of the Queen Mother.

Ironically enough, existence in the Tower actually grew easier now that Louis was dead. “The fury of the regicides was assuaged for the moment,” wrote Turgy. The municipal officers gave up their frequent visits, conversation among the Princesses was unsupervised, and they were able to give Turgy orders without indulging in subterfuge. Via Turgy, Hüe managed once more to contact them. The truth was that the guards at least believed that their prisoners would soon be exchanged with Austria for prominent French captives and so were correspondingly gentle.9

Lep"tre gives an account of a musical evening on 7 February in which the “young King” sang a lament on the death of his father, called “La Piété Familiale,” for which Lep"tre provided the simple words and Madame Cléry, an accomplished musician, composed the music. The municipal officers listened in silence, tears in their eyes, to the boy’s voice accompanied by his sister on the harpsichord:

Tout est fini pour moi sur la terre

Mais je suis auprès de ma mère.

(Everything is fled from me on earth

But I am still at my mother’s side.)

To his aunt Louis Charles also addressed a verse saluting her as his second mother.10

Such Temple servants as the Simons, husband and wife, were, at this juncture, no more than uncouth. Antoine Simon, a prominent member of the Commune, was despatched to be a general factotum at the Temple. A brusque uneducated cobbler whose business had failed, Simon was in his fifties, heavily built and already rather deaf. But the Municipal Goret bore witness that Simon took some trouble to fulfil the wants of the royal ladies, going from one to the other in his deliberate way: “What is it that you need, Madame?” His wife Marie Jeanne, a cleaning woman, was no more cultivated, but she did have nursing skills, having gained prominence on 10 August by the “rush of patriotism” with which she attended to the wounded.11

Goret overheard the Queen saying: “We are very happy with our good Monsieur Simon who gets us whatever we ask for,” and this must have been at least partially true in early 1793. Marie Antoinette had, of course, a tradition of gracious behaviour towards her servants and the manners of the former regime did not die away so easily. In the high summer Madame Tison, always highly strung, would break down altogether, weeping and screaming and accusing herself of dreadful crimes towards the Queen and Madame Elisabeth. Needing eight men to hold her down, Madame Tison was carted off to the hospital, the Hôtel Dieu. Even then, at a time of great personal unhappiness, Marie Antoinette continued to send messages of enquiry about the welfare of “poor Madame Tison.”

As to the Queen’s future, an exchange of prisoners was a practice with a historical precedent. So was the reclamation of foreign princesses by their native country. In December, Count Mercy had recalled the case of the English Princess Caroline Matilda, divorced by the Danish King for adultery, who was reclaimed by her brother George III. For a short while Mercy played with the idea. Fearing for Marie Antoinette’s assassination either in public or private, he believed that “her august family” should apply to retrieve the former Archduchess of Austria from “the vile brigands.” There was, after all, that marriage contract, which Mercy had investigated as long ago as October 1789, giving her the right to stay or go after her husband’s death. But by 2 February 1793, Mercy had relapsed into the view that “we should remain passive in this horrible crisis,” for fear of making things worse, as he told the Comte de La Marck.12

Certainly there was no foregone conclusion about the fate of Marie Antoinette. There was no tradition of queen consorts, the weaker royal vessels, being tried and executed in history, whatever the tribulations of their male counterparts. (Mary Queen of Scots, executed in the late sixteenth century, was a queen in her own right.) The extremist Stanislas Fréron, a member of the “Mountain” and editor of the outrageous L’Orateur du Peuple, had suggested before Louis’ death that Antoinette should be dragged through the streets of Paris at the tail of a galloping horse, the fate of the seventh-century Brunhilde at the orders of the Frankish King. Or perhaps she should be torn to pieces by dogs like Jezebel? Such suggestions belonged to the culture of demagogic violence rather than political statesmanship. At the end of January, Fersen, harrowed by reports of the Queen’s “much altered” physical state, held a conference with Quentin Craufurd, the Comte de La Marck and the veteran Russian Minister Jean Simolin, a keen admirer of the royal family. Should not the Emperor Francis II be persuaded to seek his aunt’s release “as a private individual”? In the end they held back for fear of provoking the Queen’s trial. But by 9 February these apprehensions appeared to be groundless: “I am beginning to hope a little,” Fersen wrote.13

So what did the “villains” propose to do with their widowed captive? In one of his final conversations with his counsel Malesherbes, Louis XVI had pondered aloud on the same problem: “Unfortunate Princess! My marriage promised her a throne; now, what prospect does it offer her?” There had been frequent rumours that Marie Antoinette would be put on trial ever since the return from Varennes; for example, the English royal family heard that “the poor unhappy Queen” rather than Louis XVI was in danger of death from “that tiger nation,” and Earl Gower, the departing English ambassador, reported that the Queen would “immediately be tried” after the attack on the prisons of 2 September.14 But these gloomy predictions had not been carried out.

During the trial of Louis XVI, Robespierre had invoked Marie Antoinette’s name only to make the point that she had no special status: “As for his [Louis’] wife, you will send her before the courts, like all other persons charged with similar crimes.” Jean Baptiste Mailhe, a lawyer from Toulouse and part of the more moderate “Plain” group in the Convention, as opposed to the radical “Mountain,” put across the same point: “Of Antoinette we have said nothing.” The ci-devant (former) Queen of France was no more sacred or inviolable than any other rebel or conspirator, and if there was a case to be made against her, it must be sent to an ordinary tribunal. Of this process, however, in the tense weeks following the King’s execution, there was no sign. Meanwhile it was relevant that one of the options considered at length during Louis’ trial had been banishment, including Paine’s enterprising suggestion of exile to the United States. “The banishment of all the Bourbons” was a revolutionary proposal, the reclamation of the former Archduchess a dynastic one, but they amounted to the same practical step: the departure of Marie Antoinette from France.15

In short, there seemed a real possibility that this humane procedure would take place. When Louis XVI, shortly before his death, had asked what would happen to those he left behind, he was told, reassuringly, that “the nation, always great and always just” would concern itself with the future of his family. In the first week of February, Claude Antoine Moëlle, a member of the Paris Commune who was one of the Temple’s commissioners, escorted Marie Antoinette up to her airing at the top of the Tower. She took the opportunity to ask him what the Convention intended to do with her. She would probably be reclaimed by the Emperor her nephew, replied Moëlle: “any new excess”—he meant her death—would be “a gratuitous horror” and contrary to policy.16 The execution of the King had provided the Convention with closure in its need for purging bloodshed. This conversation, at which Marie Thérèse was also present, allowed for hopes to rise, not only that there would be no trial but that the Queen would be freed.

The poor health of the Queen gave an added impetus to the idea of mercy. This did not improve as the immediate shock of her husband’s death wore off. Kucharski, who had been responsible for the portrait begun in 1791, now produced a yet more haggard image of the Queen in her widow’s weeds; he may have made sketches in the Temple from life before reproducing the portrait in many versions. Tuberculosis was rife in her family; it had killed her eldest brother and her elder son, among other relations; she may have been in the early stages of it. But the Queen was also unquestionably suffering from haemorrhages, which had been part of the pattern of her troubled gynaecological history for many years and which now increased in frequency. There are various alternative explanations for this. She may have been experiencing the early onset of the menopause (Marie Antoinette was thirty-seven); she may have been suffering from fibroids; third, and most plausibly in view of her deteriorating physical condition, she may have been exhibiting the first signs of cancer of the womb. Marie Antoinette, whose health had for some years worried the ladies who were her intimates, was certainly by now an ill woman.17

In May, Doctor Brunier had to be called to Marie Thérèse who was “at an age decisive for her sex.” (In her fifteenth year, Marie Thérèse was almost exactly the same age as Marie Antoinette had been when the latter reached puberty.) But the doctor also had to attend to the Queen, who was suffering from frequent “convulsions” and fainting fits.18 Whatever the cause, Marie Antoinette was not by now what would be termed a good life, let alone a threatening one.

ornament Unfortunately, there were several elements that militated against the merciful release of Marie Antoinette. First and foremost must be listed the indifference of the young Emperor. Even the Emperor Joseph II—who really loved his sister—had made it clear as long ago as August 1789 that it was in his own interest “to be perfectly neutral in this business, no matter what may happen to the King and Queen.”19 For his part, Francis II was simply not concerned over the fate of the unhappy aunt he had never met and who, as an agent of Habtx1urg dynastic politics, it had to be said, had not fulfilled her function. It did not help the Queen’s cause, at home or abroad either, that the war now escalated. In the course of February crusading revolutionary France declared war on England, Spain and Holland. The tide, which had surged forward so strongly for the revolutionary armies under Dumouriez in the previous autumn, now turned in favour of the allies. The French had to evacuate Aix-la-Chapelle and abandon the siege of Maestricht, while the Austrians recovered Liège. It was inevitable that lethal political infighting in the Convention would, like the war itself, escalate. In such struggles between the Jacobins and the Girondins, Marie Antoinette was once again a miserable pawn.

Private plans of escape, irrespective of the Emperor’s intentions, were still afoot. One scheme involving the whole family was organized by “Fidèle” Toulan and Lep"tre inside and the Chevalier de Jarjayes outside. Contact with Jarjayes had never been entirely broken; there were letters in which, for example, “Roxane” stood for “la Reine,” “Lucius” for Jarjayes, “Fatime” probably for Madame Elisabeth and “the old friend Mercinus” rather more obviously for Mercy himself. The scheme planned for early March involved the smuggling in of padded military overcoats to disguise the women’s figures; wigs and battered and ragged trousers were intended for the children. The coasts of Normandy and England, once dismissed by the Queen, now promising salvation, were to be the target. The guardian Tisons, man and wife, were to be rendered insensible by narcotics mixed with their tobacco. Whether this latter-day “Varennes-type” scheme had any feasibility at all was never tested; first Lep"tre lost his nerve and muddled the process of obtaining false passports. Then agitation due to the bad news of the war and food riots in Paris caused the city’s barriers to be closed.20

The conspirators were left trying to persuade the Queen to escape alone, on the grounds that the rest of the family was not in danger. This Marie Antoinette resolutely refused to do, as she had always refused. “We had a beautiful dream and that was all,” Marie Antoinette told Jarjayes. “The interests of my son are the only guide I have, and whatever happiness I could achieve by being free of this place, I cannot consent to separate myself from him . . . I could not have any pleasure in the world if I abandoned my children,” she wrote, adding, “I do not even have any regrets.”21

Instead of attempting to flee herself, Marie Antoinette made a noble gesture of renunciation in favour of her two brothers-in-law. She despatched secretly via Jarjayes the silver seal with the lockets of hair to “Monsieur, Comte de Provence” (no mention here of “Regent”) with a note signed M.A. This had a touching postscript from the two children “M.T.” and “Louis” (the simple name by which a monarch would sign himself). The girl wrote it “on behalf of my brother and myself.” Both embraced their uncle “with all their hearts,” Madame Elisabeth adding her own initials at the end. Comte d’Artois got the engraved wedding ring; he was asked by Marie Antoinette to receive it as a symbol of their most tender friendship, Madame Elisabeth adding to her brother: “How I have suffered for you.”22

Jarjayes had a second clandestine mission: to take an impression of the Queen’s seal to “the person you know came to see me last winter from Brussels” and to tell him at the same time that “the device has never been more true.” This was Count Fersen who had spent that single night at the Tuileries in February 1792. The motto was “Tutto a te mi guida”—All things lead me towards you. The device was a pigeon in flight, which, Fersen noted in his Journal intime, was a mistake for his own arms which actually showed a flying fish. It took Jarjayes many months to get the impression to Fersen, and when he did receive it, it was, by coincidence, on the first anniversary of the execution of Louis XVI, a tragic memory that for Fersen would “never be effaced.” However, the text of the message, surviving in two virtually identical versions—the Queen’s letter to Jarjayes, and Fersen’s notification of it in his Journal intime—make it clear that the bond between them, dependent and romantic on her side, romantic and chivalrous on his, had not been broken. This was the language of Julie to Saint-Preux in La Nouvelle Héloïse: “Our souls touch at all points . . . Fate may indeed separate us but not disunite us.”23

Lep"tre, Toulan and others were interrogated for over-indulgence of the royal prisoners at the end of March on the word of the Tisons; Toulan was dismissed from the Tower. In other ways, the regime tightened. There were sudden night-time searches, intended to take the family by surprise but actually causing great fear and inconvenience. Not much was discovered beyond religious objects—pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a prayer for France. The man who led the searches was Jacques Hébert, founder of the newspaper Le Père Duchesne, which was the leading organ of the extremist Cordeliers. He, however, was a formidable adversary, and not someone to whom the Queen’s plight or that of her children was likely to appeal.

On 18 March the Austrian army, under the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, inflicted a terrible defeat upon the French at Neerwinden, north-west of Liège. As a result the Austrians were able to retake Brussels and drive the French back out of the Austrian Netherlands. At the same time the Spanish crossed the French borders in the south. And in the Vendée the recent royalist rising was spreading rapidly. Nine days after Neerwinden, Robespierre in the Convention focused once more on Marie Antoinette’s continued presence in the Temple—and the unresolved question of her punishment. It was manifestly intolerable that one “no less guilty” than the late Louis Capet, “no less accused by the Nation,” should be left in peace to enjoy the fruit of her crimes out of some residue of superstitious respect for royalty.24 Robespierre suggested to the Convention that the former Queen should be brought before the new Revolutionary Tribunal, which had been set up on 10 March, for her crimes against the state. Such notional crimes of “the Austrian woman” were given further prominence when General Dumouriez, no longer the victorious revolutionary leader but the defeated general, absconded to the Austrians. Antoinette in the Tower was smeared by association.

On 6 April a new Committee of Public Safety was set up. Limited at first to nine members (including Danton) and meeting in secret, it would with time take over the conduct of the war. The next day Philippe Égalité and his third son, the ci-devant Comte de Beaujolais, were arrested. With other aristocrats, Orléans’ sister—“Citizeness Bourbon”—the Prince de Conti and Orléans’ second son, Montpensier, they were sent to prison in Marseilles. It was as well for his own sake that Orléans’ father-in-law, the Duc de Penthièvre, whose “noble bearing” and “loftiest virtues” had made him the last living link with “the glory” that was his ancestors, did not live to see this day. This surviving grandson of Louis XIV had had his heart broken by the death of his beloved daughter-in-law the Princesse de Lamballe. It was a fate that he was said to have offered in vain a fortune to avert. But the shameful vote of his son-in-law for the death of the King was the ultimate blow and he never recovered, dying on 4 March.25

The events of the end of May, which led to the overthrow of the Girondins as a party and the arrest of their leaders, had their impact on the Temple in the shape of yet greater security. Bars were put on the windows and shutters that were not always opened; the searches were increased. In spite of this, there was a pitiful if valiant attempt at rescue in June. It was instigated by the eccentric Baron de Batz, a man brave or foolhardy enough to try a last-minute rescue of the King on the scaffold, with the help of one of the police administrators of the prison, named Michonis. It failed when Simon was tipped off to the possibility of Michonis’ treachery and paid an unscheduled late-night visit. Michonis talked his way out of trouble, suggesting that the whole incident had been a joke played on Simon.26

Attempts at exchanging Marie Antoinette for some of the French prisoners—four commissioners of the Convention—who had been brought over to Austria by Dumouriez when he fled to the allied side were no more successful. The imperial heart was not in it and by the beginning of August no progress had been made. Although the first-hand evidence vanished later for political reasons, it seems that Danton, a member of the Committee for Public Safety, also tried to negotiate some kind of deal with Francis II. But the latter was not prepared to make any concessions in return. In the meantime Marie Antoinette herself refused to consider a release that did not include her son. Maternal anxiety was interpreted by Danton as dynastic ambition and so that plan—insofar as it ever existed—collapsed.27

ornament In mid-June the Pope announced the late King of France to be a royal martyr, killed purely for his religion: “O triumphal day for Louis! . . . We are sure that he has exchanged the fragile royal crown and the ephemeral lilies for an eternal crown decorated with the immortal lilies of the angels.” Two weeks later the real-life martyrdom of Marie Antoinette commenced. On the night of 3 July, commissioners arrived at the Tower and brusquely informed the Queen that her son was to be separated from her. They read the decree that the Convention had issued to this effect the day before, which had been spurred on by reports—without substance—that there was a plot to abduct the “young King.” He was now to be removed to “the most secure apartment of the Tower.”28

Louis Charles flung himself into his mother’s arms, giving loud cries, and for her part Marie Antoinette behaved like a tigress whose cub was being taken away. For the next hour she absolutely refused to release her son. Threats to kill her left the Queen unmoved; only threats to kill Marie Thérèse produced some kind of reaction. In the end there was no way she could resist such an array of force any longer. Marie Antoinette no longer had the strength to dress her son—that was done by Marie Thérèse and her aunt—but had to be content with wiping his tears away.29

Louis Charles was aged eight years and three months; he had spent nearly half his life in captivity of one sort or another. He had become unnaturally circumspect and, above all, anxious to please. The rude “peasant” health of which Marie Antoinette had once boasted to Princesse Louise was beginning to deteriorate in the confining conditions of the Tower. He had suffered from a fever in May and in June he was found to have a hernia in the groin. The celebrated truss-maker Hippoy Le Pipelet was allowed to bandage him. Pipelet noted that Louis Charles had also suffered an accident, which seemed insignificant at the time, if painful, but was to have grim consequences. He reported to the Temple authorities that Louis Charles, using a stick as a hobby-horse, had managed to bruise one of his testicles.30

That night and for many nights to come, the family left behind listened to the boy’s sobbing, still audible from where he was kept. Marie Antoinette became obsessed with the prospect of having just one little glimpse of Louis Charles as he passed on his way to his exercise. There was one position in their apartments from where, by craning her neck, she could just see him as he passed. She spent whole days trying to do this. As Maria Carolina expressed it to her daughter, the wife of Francis II, just when “time and resignation” seemed to have formed “healing scars” following the King’s death, Marie Antoinette’s wounds had been “torn open again.”31

Like all separations of children from parents in the name of ideology, this aim to retrain—or brainwash—the former Dauphin was heart-rending for his family. Mayor Chaumette had declared the previous year: “I wish to give him [Louis Charles] some education. I will take him from his family to make him lose the idea of his rank.”32 The carrying out of this policy meant that Marie Antoinette’s chou d’amour, petted, protected and loved in the way that few eighteenth-century children were, was given over to the altogether rougher care of the cobbler Simon. The new guardian was supposed to toughen up the little Capet and this he proceeded to do. The boy was beaten for crying so after a bit he ceased to cry. He was given wine, became tipsy and amused his jailers. He was taught their rough language, their obscenities, and, since it pleased them, took on such a way of talking as his own. This was simply the brutal way that the children of the people were tamed, and Louis Charles was thought to be a prime candidate for taming.

Marie Antoinette’s own turn came a month later. It was once again the direction of the war that provoked a new official move against her. Many of the French soldiers were distracted in the west with the rebels of the Vendée. On 23 July the Austrian alliance recaptured Mainz. Then three days later they took Valenciennes, a victory that meant that Paris itself, too easily reached down the valley of the Oise, was in danger. On 1 August, Barrère, president of the Convention and a member of the Committee of Public Safety, deliberately established the lethal connection. Was it “our over-long forgetfulness of the Austrian woman’s crimes . . . our strange indifference towards the Capet family” that had given the nation’s enemies a mistaken impression of its weakness?33 If so, that could be remedied, and remedied immediately.

The security for the transfer of Marie Antoinette to the prison known as the Conciergerie was prodigious. All the doors of the Temple were checked during the day and the guards were told to regard themselves as being in a state of siege. At eight o’clock in the evening, the artillery in the courtyard was instructed to hold itself in readiness. It was a very hot, stuffy night, almost exactly a year since that hot night preceding a red dawn when the Tuileries had been stormed.

As a further precaution, they came for Marie Antoinette at the dead hour when humanity’s resistance is at its lowest, two o’clock in the morning. The Queen had undressed. As a foretaste of what was to come, she was not allowed the luxury of dressing in private; the municipals, headed by the once compliant Michonis, insisted on being in attendance, as though this frail, unarmed, middle-aged woman could somehow elude them. Marie Antoinette listened to the decree of the Convention against her without any visible emotion. She was then permitted to make up a little bundle of necessities, including a handkerchief and some smelling-salts. Marie Antoinette’s last instruction to Marie Thérèse was to obey her aunt in all things and treat her as a second mother. On her passage downwards—Madame was finally coming down from her Tower—Marie Antoinette banged her head hard on the last and lowest beam. She was asked whether she was hurt. The former Queen replied blankly that she felt no pain at all.34

So the heavily armed party crossed the silent Temple gardens and went back into the palace itself, where that uncomfortable dinner had taken place on the first night of their imprisonment on 13 August 1792, a moment when Marie Antoinette still believed this princely residence was to be their prison. At the steps of the palace, there were two or three ordinary hackney carriages waiting and a body of soldiers. Marie Antoinette was conveyed as part of a strongly guarded cortège through the sleeping city, over the Pont Notre-Dame into the Conciergerie itself, beside the Palais de Justice. Her guards knocked loudly on the door with their bayonets.

It was the turnkey Louis Larivière who answered. He was extremely sleepy but even so he recognized the former Queen, all in black and dramatically pale, since as a boy he had once worked at Versailles as a pastry-cook. The jailer-registrar either did not or would not perform a similar feat of recognition. It was his duty to admit “Prisoner no. 280,” accused of having conspired against France. When he asked the new inmate for her name, she simply replied, “Look at me.” One assumes that this answer sprang not so much from hauteur, as from the former Queen’s inability to frame a suitable reply. Was she to be Marie Antoinette d’Autriche et Lorraine? Cidevant Queen of France? Or Antoinette Capet? The first two answers would have been unacceptable to her jailers, the last to herself. The heat was growing as the dawn began to break and Marie Antoinette had to wipe the sweat from her face with her handkerchief.35

Inside the prison her reception was more respectful. Madame Richard, the wife of the jailer, had been warned of her arrival during the previous day. After dinner she told her young maid Rosalie Lamorlière in a low voice: “Tonight, Rosalie, we shan’t go to bed. You will sleep on a chair. The Queen is going to be transferred from the Temple to this prison.” In order to prepare a suitable cell, General de Custine, who had commanded the French army in the Rhineland but was now accused of treachery, had to be turned out of the former Council Chamber. The two women did, however, manage to get hold of some good linen and a lace-edged pillow. With this they tried to soften the grim impression of the cell, brick-floored and quite damp, with its table and prison chairs; a warder had merely added from the prison store a canvas bed, two mattresses, a bolster, a light coverlet—and a bucket.36

Some time after three o’clock in the morning, Madame Richard hastily aroused Rosalie in her chair: “Hurry, hurry, wake up, Rosalie,” she said, pulling at her arm. Trembling, the girl went down the long dark corridor and at the far end found the Queen already in Custine’s cell. She was looking round at its spartan contents and then transferred her gaze in turn to Madame Richard and Rosalie. The latter had brought a stool from her own room. Marie Antoinette proceeded to climb on it and with the help of a convenient nail already in the wall, hung up her gold watch—a watch that Maria Teresa had given her.

The Queen then proceeded to undress. Rosalie offered to help. “Thank you, my child,” replied Marie Antoinette. “But since I no longer have anyone [of my household] with me, I will look after myself.” She spoke pleasantly and without any undue arrogance, according to Rosalie. Daylight grew stronger. The two women extinguished their torches and left. Marie Antoinette lay down alone on the bed, which the sympathetic Rosalie at least thought “unworthy of her.”37

ornament The Conciergerie was now the vast antechamber to the Revolutionary Tribunal, a warren full of people of all sorts who had incurred the suspicion of the state. On the Quai d’Horloge of the Seine, it had once been a sumptuous royal palace hailed as more beautiful than any yet seen in France, taking its name from the concierge or keeper in charge of the King’s residence. Since the late fourteenth century it had, however, been a much less comfortable prison. The Conciergerie’s proximity to the river meant that most of its cells were damp, and given the age of the predominantly Gothic structure, most of them were also dark.

With the constant arrival and departure of prisoners, lawyers, hopeful or disappointed visitors, the general commotion of the Conciergerie was in complete contrast to the seclusion of the Temple with its tiny band of prized captives. In the case of Marie Antoinette, she was no longer a grand lady in Madame’s Tower but an ordinary prisoner who would, like the rest of the occupants, soon be brought to judgement. But, of course, the widowed ci-devant Queen was also a figure of tragic celebrity—or notoriety, according to the point of view. With the connivance of good-natured jailers, intent on pleasing the public where possible (for money), Marie Antoinette now became one of the sights of the Conciergerie. Asked later whether she had recognized any particular individual, she was able to shrug and say with some plausibility: “There were so many . . .”38

The Tower, before the King’s death, had brought a kind of private family life of which most royal parents only dreamt; now the Conciergerie, in another reversal of expectations, removed all Marie Antoinette’s privacy. The gendarmes were in the outer section of her cell day and night.*108There was a half-curtain four feet high, which enabled her to wash, perform her natural functions and carry out her very limited toilette, for all of which the guards allowed her “no liberty.”39 But, of course, the public access, whether based on sympathy or ghoulish curiosity, together with the existence of fellow prisoners nearby, brought certain advantages undreamt of at the Temple.

It was relevant, for example, that there were many former nuns in the Conciergerie, imprisoned for their faith. Marie Antoinette saw one stretching up her hands, evidently in prayer on her behalf, out of the low barred window that looked on to the Women’s Courtyard. Then there were non-juror priests inside the Conciergerie, and other clandestine priests who were still at liberty might be able to visit the former Queen in disguise. Saying the Mass required very little in the way of equipment; the forbidden pastors, as in all countries where a religion is proscribed, were becoming expert at organizing it. The presentation of an already consecrated Communion wafer was an even simpler matter. The eminent Abbé Emery was one of those known to have done this. The former Superior of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice was imprisoned at the beginning of August, and, with the help of loyal clergy who brought him hosts wrapped in white handkerchiefs, continued his mission.40

In this context the story of a certain Mademoiselle Fouché—that she brought the non-juror Abbé Magnin into the prison to solace the Queen—is perfectly plausible. Mademoiselle Fouché was a young woman from a respectable family in Orléans; Magnin was the former Superior of the Little Seminary at Autun, now living in Paris disguised as a Fouché uncle under the name of “Monsieur Charles.” Mademoiselle Fouché told of smuggling him in on several occasions; at one point Magnin spent an hour and a half with the Queen, courtesy of Richard and his “good gendarmes”—plenty of time for confession and Communion.41

Marie Antoinette’s religion had become increasingly important to her over the years as her ordeal intensified. The laughing girl, who had protested to the Abbé de Vermond that nothing would make of her a dévote, had developed into a woman who was markedly pious, much as her mother had been. At Easter 1792, still in the Tuileries, the Queen had got up at five o’clock in the morning to attend a secret Mass celebrated by a non-juror cousin of Madame Campan.42 Her close relationship with her sister-in-law, ending in months of exclusive companionship, was also significant; political differences were forgotten, and at the Temple it had been back to the affectionate intimacy that the two had enjoyed when Marie Antoinette first arrived at Versailles, and Elisabeth became her little protégée—except that, where religion was concerned, Madame Elisabeth was now the leader.

The other possibility that this semi-public access presented was not so much spiritual nourishment as physical escape. It is difficult to estimate the seriousness of the various private attempts made to free the Queen while she was in the Conciergerie. However, unlike the 1791 flight, which might have been achieved but failed for extraneous reasons, one suspects that none of them had any real practical chance of success. In the case of the best-known attempt, the so-called Carnation Plot of late August and early September, the issue is clouded rather than clarified by the arrest of the conspirators and the subsequent testimonies, where everyone concerned tried to exonerate or protect themselves.

The plot took its name from the flower that a certain Alexandre de Rougeville dropped at the Queen’s feet in her cell. Rougeville had formerly been part of the Comte de Provence’s military establishment. He had plucked the carnation from the garden of his landlady Sophie Dutilleul. Rougeville had been introduced into the Conciergerie by the ever assiduous police administrator Michonis; the idea was for Marie Antoinette to be spirited away in a waiting carriage to the château of Madame de Jarjayes and so to Germany. Trembling, since she recognized a former Knight of the Order of Saint Louis, Marie Antoinette picked up the flower. Inside the petals was concealed a tiny note, which the Queen attempted to answer by pricking out a message with a pin. Hüe heard that her response was “negative.” But if she did indicate her readiness to escape, this plan foundered when Gilbert, one of the gendarmes who was in regular attendance in the Queen’s cell, gave the game away.43 Either he betrayed Marie Antoinette’s confidence, envisaging danger to himself if she escaped, or he simply deduced what was going on from Rougeville’s repeated visits and decided, for similarly self-preservative reasons, to have no part in it. Nevertheless one cannot help being sceptical as to how far the Queen really got on the path to freedom on this occasion.

The same sad scepticism must attend the Wigmakers’ Conspiracy a few weeks later, in which a group of Parisian professionals whose work had depended on the lifestyle of the old regime, including pastry-cooks and lace-workers and lemonade-makers as well as the eponymous wigmakers, paid touching tribute to the Queen who had been their patroness and plotted to free her. The wigmakers and their colleagues were, however, betrayed. Another plot, in which the Baron de Batz was once more involved, was discovered thanks to an informer in the prison, Jean Baptiste Carteron.44

In later years, of course, it would be romantic to talk of trying and failing to free the tragic Queen of France. An example of this kind of enterprise (for which there is no independent corroboration) was provided by Charlotte Lady Atkyns, the pretty wife of an English baronet who had once been an actress at the Drury Lane Theatre. A friend of the Princesse de Tarante, she had formed a devotion to Marie Antoinette during her visits to France and conceived the idea of smuggling the Queen out of the Conciergerie. Putting both her thespian talents and her husband’s money to good use, Charlotte Atkyns bribed a National Guard with 1000 louis to let her in, wearing his uniform. She then tried in vain to persuade the Queen to change clothes with her. Madame Guyot, head nurse at a hospice, had a similar plan—and a similar failure. She wanted to get the Queen transferred to her care, on the grounds of her health, whereupon she would be smuggled away to freedom, disguised as a young pregnant woman, Madame de Blamont.45

What is quite clear, however, is that these and other well-meaning private ventures were in marked contrast to the supine behaviour of Marie Antoinette’s Austrian relations. The little people could get in, thanks to their obscurity, but practically speaking they could not get the Queen out. The great people with their armies and their treasuries had a much better chance of success—but showed no real signs of making the attempt. Two of the Queen’s supporters in Brussels, Count Fersen and the Comte de La Marck, were both driven frantic by the caution—or was it sheer indifference?—with which any idea of liberating the Emperor’s aunt was greeted. Fersen, the man of action, suggested riding in from the Belgian frontier with a troop of gallant men and simply lifting the Queen from the Conciergerie. Mercy gave this idea a “freezing” reception. Mercy’s own notion, put to the allied commander, the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, was for some more measured military initiative. It was Coburg who poured cold water on this idea. The Queen might even be dead by now; besides, “To menace savage men when you cannot do anything about it, is to make them yet more ferocious.” But perhaps the key sentence in Coburg’s response was this: he had to think not only of the Queen, but of “the real interests of the [Austrian] monarchy.”46

There was still the question of the four commissioners of the Convention brought over by Dumouriez. The Prince of Coburg did moot the possibility of an exchange with them in a postscript to a letter to Mercy in Brussels of 16 August. In his reply two days later, however, Mercy described such a plan as “very delicate and not to be undertaken lightly.”47 He proposed to reflect on it. And there the matter rested.

The Comte de La Marck supported what was, frankly, always the most promising approach. Marie Antoinette’s freedom should literally be bought—and at a high price. The finances of the revolutionary government were in no better state than those of the former regime, thanks in both cases to the dangerous extravagance of financing foreign wars. By a law of 10 June, the contents of the royal palaces—“the sumptuous furniture of the last tyrants of France” and “the vast possessions which they reserved to their pleasure”—were now being sold off in aid of “the defence of liberty.” This was often done at a loss: for example, a commode, two corner cupboards and a desk that had belonged to Louis XVI went for 5000 livres, whereas the desk alone had cost nearly 6000 in 1787. Urgency did not lead to good business practice. At the two-day August sale at the Petit Trianon of the former belongings of “the woman Capet,” including “suites of furniture . . . escritoires, consoles with marble tops, chairs with stools covered in damask and silk velvet . . . glass and china for both pantry and parlour use,” it was made clear that these objects could be transported to “foreign parts” without any duty being paid. In a gesture that seemed to indicate that time now stood still at a deserted Versailles, all the Queen’s clocks there were sold.*10948

Like the precious objects with which she had once surrounded herself, “the woman Capet” might have had considerable value to the Revolution as a hostage to be ransomed. La Marck reported to Mercy that a banker called Ribbes who had lent him 600,000 livres had contacts, including a brother, in Paris. He was prepared to go to the frontier and negotiate, possibly with Danton. For a moment, Mercy hesitated . . . Then at the last moment he decided that the offer of money was unnecessary; it would be enough to offer a free pardon to the revolutionaries in the name of the Emperor once victory was achieved. In vain La Marck beseeched the diplomat “not to wait for a response [from Austria] which may be too late,” but to despatch another courier. His letter of 14 September was full of despair: “They must understand in Vienna how painful, I might even say how amazing, it would be for the imperial government if history could say one day that forty leagues away from formidable and victorious Austrian armies, the august daughter of Maria Teresa has perished upon the scaffold without any attempt being made to save her.”49 But nothing happened.

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