Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Louis XVI's cravat

Here is yet another item of royal clothing ...a scarf (foulard) worn by Louis XVI during his imprisonment in the Temple, auctioned on the anniversary of his death, 21st January, in 2004. The sale was handled by the Touraine auction house of Philippe Rouillac and took place in the relatively modest venue of the salle d'honneur of the town hall in Loche.  Interest was keen and rival telephone bids escalated the final sale price to a massive 70,000 !  (The reserve was a mere 5,000 )  The lucky buyers are said to have been an American family of French descent who made their purchase in order to draw attention to the part played by Louis XVI in bringing about American independence.  They wished to remain anonymous and  have done so pretty successfully - I certainly haven't managed to find any clues.

The scarf itself is a plain piece of white muslin, 160 cm by 76 cm, yellowed and badly darned - maybe by the hand of Marie-Antoinette herself. In eighteenth-century terms, it is not really a scarf, but a cravat: as M. Rouillac explained,  "It was worn as a jabot [frill], after being knotted several times around the neck, and could also be tied at the same time around the neck and the waist, with the material going up the back".

A royal gift 

It is worth reading the evidence about provenance carefully as the summaries in the various news reports are not very accurate. A note attached to the scarf as part of the lot, gives this slightly misleading information:

Cravat which belonged to king Louis XVI. He detached it from his throat on his departure for execution and gave it to Monsieur Vincent as a keepsake and reward, having nothing else in his possession. Mr Vincent too died on the scaffold.

It is easy to assume from this that the cravat was the one Louis XVI is reported to have taken off together with his jacket at the very foot of the guillotine and that "Mr Vincent" was present in the crowd.  This is not the case.

A reference in Cléry's journal situates the incident exactly and identifies Vincent. He was one of the "muncipaux", the rotating set of commissioners of the Paris Commune, four at any one time, who were in  attendance on the Royal Family throughout their captivity in the Temple.  It was the morning of the 27th December, during the King's trial, and Cléry was helping him to dress.  On the previous day, the 26th, Louis had appeared for the second time at the bar of the Convention.  Cléry mentions that the commissioners on duty, Toulan, Vincent and Cailleux had performed the small kindness of going to warn the Queen of his departure.  Louis now requested that they take copies of his defence, which had been printed, to his wife and sister.

The Commissioner, Vincent, a builder, who had rendered every service in his power to the Royal Family, undertook to convey a copy of it secretly to the Queen.  When the King was thanking him for executing this little commission, he availed himself of the opportunity to ask His Majesty for something which he might keep as having belonged to him.  The King untied his cravat, and made him a present of it. 
Cléry Journal (English version, London: 1798), p.200

Following Vincent's death, his widow remarried and the relic remained in the family, annotated and carefully preserved under glass, down to 2004, when a dispute over inheritance precipitated the decision to sell.

Jean-Baptiste Vincent (1758-1794) - compassionate Revolutionary

Miniature portrait of Vincent,
included in the lot with the cravat
There is not a lot of information available about Jean-Baptiste Vincent but what little there is confirms the plausibility of Cléry's account.  He was an Elector of 1792 and a member of the General Council of the Commune of 10th August, representing the section de  l'Indivisibilité, formerly the section des Fédérés which covered the northern Marais. He himself specified that he had taken the place of a fellow citizen who had been killed. In 1793 he was listed as a native of Mouthier St-Jean, in the département of the Côte-d'Or, as 36 years old and as currently residing at 65 rue des Tournelles. His office is variously given as entrepreneur de bâtiments and agent de la grosse artillerie. He was in fact the mason in charge of  the construction of cannon foundries in the Place des Vosges  (Place de l'Indivisibilité), a major project since no less than sixty-four forges were to be sited around the grille of the 17th-century square.  It is clear that Vincent was neither a Revolutionary ideologue nor a militant sans-culotte, but, like the printer Baudouin, a professional in the service of his country.

In October 1793 Vincent's kindness towards the royal family  brought him into danger when he was named as a suspect in the conspiration de l'oeillet, an abortive plot to rescue Marie-Antoinette from the Conciergerie.  He was arrested and taken to La Force where he was held in a dungeon for five days before being transferred to the Luxembourg to languish for a further month.  His house was searched and his papers placed under seals.  His colleague at the Temple François-André Toulan was implicated in the affair and executed. Vincent maintained desperately that his own indictment rested solely on the word of  "the young Capet, an infant without discernment". The National Archives preserves letters both from Vincent himself, his pregnant wife and from Bernard Poyet, the architect overseeing the foundries, all asking that he be granted access to his work schedules and allowed to give the necessary directions.  The Committee of Public Safety reiterated his importance for the production of arms. Nonetheless, Vincent must have counted himself fortunate to be acquitted.

Sadly, Jean-Baptiste Vincent was not to remain alive for long. He was soon to be caught up in Revolutionary events. He was among the seventy-one members of the Commune executed on 11th Thermidor in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Robespierre.  It is noted that on the night of the 9th-10th Thermidor he emerged reluctantly from his bureau, and only briefly entered the Commune where he signed the list of those present, the ninety-first and last name.  He returned home and gave himself up the next morning to the Committee of General Security; he was sent to the Conciergerie "without regard for explanations" and went to the guillotine on the 11th.

And so it was that, like the affable Louis, "Mr Vincent too died on the scaffold".


Albert Soboul, Raymond Monnier, Répertoire du personnel sectionnaire parisien en l'an II (1985) [extracts on Google Books]

Répertoire général des sources manuscrites de l'histoire de Paris pendant la révolution française, vol. 10


Sale notice: Maison Rouillac, "Souvenirs historiques de la Maison de France", Wednesday 21st January 2004 at the  Hôtel de Ville, Loches.

"Le foulard de Louis XVI mis aux enchères" (Revue de presse)

"Le foulard de Louis XVI vendu 70.000" (AFP notice)

 The Scotsman must win some sort of prize for garbled reporting with this:
"Louis XVI gave the scarf to a fellow prisoner, Monsieur Vincent, on 21 January, 1793, as he was leaving his cell to be led to the scaffold for execution in what is now the Place de la Concorde. Vincent, a Paris councillor and owner of a building company, met the same fate a month later after he was accused of hiding the royal relic."

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