Friday, 28 February 2020

Louis XVII - Excavations at Sainte-Marguerite

The various exhumations and investigations at the Cimetière Sainte-Marguerite are worth considering in a bit more detail:

Possible burial sites

Already there is much uncertainty and contradiction.  The possible options are as follows:

1. In a fosse commune somewhere in the church yard.
This is the modern-day official position.

2.  In a separate grave near the West wall of the cemetery
Étienne Lasne, who had been present, insisted to Alcide de Beauchesne that the coffin had in fact been buried in a separate grave.  He identified a position eight or nine feet from the enclosure wall and the same distance from the little house, at one point a schoolroom,  which still stands today on the rue Saint-Bernard (Beauchesne, p.336-7)  His testimony  is confirmed by the procès-verbal signed by Dusser, Lasne and Bigot, reproduced in Lucien Lambeau's report of 1904, which states that the body had been buried "near the fosse commune, close to the wall" (p.83).  In the course of police investigations carried out in 1816,  Dusser  himself again attested that he had ordered the burial "in a separate grave and not in the common grave"  (p.88).  There would seem little reason to doubt that this was indeed the case.

3. Near the chapel door on the South side of the cemetery
In  1815 the widow of the gravedigger Pierre "Valentin" Bertrancourt revealed that, on the night of the burial, or shortly after, her husband had reopened the common pit and transferred the coffin to a secret site under the church wall.  The spot was situated to the left of the door of the Communion Chapel in the North Transept. She specified that the coffin had been placed perpendicular to the wall, half outside and half under the wall itself;   Bertrancourt's close friend Decouflet later confirmed this testimony and added that the spot was marked by a cross. The story was widely credited at the time; indeed the 1816 investigations recommended that excavations should start "in the place pointed out by Decouflet and the widow Bertrancourt".

4. In a third location in the cemetery
In February 1816, Étienne Voisin, who had acted as guide to the funeral procession,  then aged 75, contradicted the testimony of  Bertrancourt.  He claimed that he himself had dug the grave, that it was six-feet deep and that coffin was about five feet long since the young king "was tall for his age".  When taken to the cemetery, he pinpointed a location between the church and the fosse.  In June 1816, however, Voisin sent a second deposition  to the architect Bellanger, then secrétaire des Menus Plaisirs du Roi. in which he indicated a different spot, this time not far from that specified by Lasne.

5. In the Cimetière  de Clamart
In June 1816, planned exhumations were been halted when Louis Antoine Charpentier, Head Gardener of the Luxembourg Palace, came up with yet another story.  He maintained that he had been ordered secretly to reinter a coffin, presumed to be that of Louis XVII,  in the Cimetière  de Clamart  near the Jardin des Plantes. The possibility existed that the boy king was not at Sainte-Marguerite at all!

Subsequent history of the Cemetery

The cemetery was closed in 1804 and in due course replaced by the gravelled courtyard we see today. By the early 20th century much of the original site, included the burial place suggested by Lasne,  was made inaccessible by the erection of a nursery school along the rue Saint-Bernard.

In the course of two centuries the total number of burials had been huge.  In 1763 there were  thirty-four fosses communes, each of which  could accommodate 800 bodies.  During the Revolution the cemetery served the 5th,  6th,  7th and 8th arrondissements. In 9th-12 June 1794 alone the fosses communes received the bodies of 73 men and women guillotined on the place de la Bastille.

Even after the official closure, Sainte-Marguerite continued to serve several hospitals until 1819.  This apparently minor point is significant, since it greatly increased the likelihood of other corpses in the cemetery which had undergone autopsies.
Eglise Sainte-Marguerite, on Le Piéton de Paris

The church of Ste-Marguerite today from Google Earth:

Plan of Ste-Marguerite showing possible burial sites (from Lambeau, 1904):
Key:   1. Location indicated by Voisin in March 1816
            2. Second location indicated by Voisin in June 1816
            3. Location indicated by Bertrancourt and Découflet, 1802-16.
            4. Location indicated by Lasne to Mr de Beauchesne.
            5. Location where the remains were reinterred in 1846, having been excavated from location (3) 
            These remains were re-examined in 1894 and returned to the same place.

Photographs of the Cemetery:

This set of official photographs, published in Lambeau's report,  were commissioned by the CVP in 1904, just prior to the building of the nursery.  

Cemetery wall from the rue Saint-Bernard, 1904

West wall (onto the rue Saint-Bernard)
North wall, 1904
Chapelle des Charniers and East side of the cemetery, 1904
Chapelles des  âmes and Ste-Marguerite, delineating the southern boundary of the cemetery, 1904

Exhumations of 1846 and 1894

The two 19th-century investigation were not official initiatives.  In 1846 the abbé Haumet used the pretext of building works to excavate in the location suggested by Bertrancourt; in 1894 further analysis of the remains was instigated and entirely financed by the lawyer and politician Henri Laguerre.

The results were inconclusive. On one hand, the skeleton was found in the general location indicated by Bertrancourt, and bore the marks of an autopsy.  The 1846 investigators also found signs of a "scrofulous disposition":  decay of the left knee joint and a "disproportion in the limbs suggesting a feeble constitution".  Whilst this did not correspond in detail to the autopsy findings, it seemed  broadly consistent with the royal family's history of tuberculosis. 

On the other hand, there remained the puzzle of the strange metal sarcophagus.  Moreover,  the skeleton was judged to be that of a child aged at least fourteen; in the view of the doctors in 1894, that of an adolescent of 18-20. Both investigations concluded categorically that this could not  be the ten-year-old dauphin.  Unfortunately a hypothetical substitute could not be ruled out.

Pictures of the 1894 excavation published in L'Illustration for 16th June 1894:

1. The site of the fosse commune, where according to the offical procès-verbal, Louis XVII was buried on 10 June 1795.
2.The position where Voisin declared that he had buried the body.

The remains in the storeroom adjoining the church

Facade of the church Ste-Marguerite, facing out onto the precinct.
+ Site where the remains of LXVII were discovered in 1846.

The tomb of Louis XVII.  Georges Laguerre and the sacristan of Ste-Marguerite
[Pictures from ebay]

In 1894 a brick crypt was built to hold the box containing the remains of the skeleton. It was sited on the wall of the chapelle des  âmes du Purgatoire to the left of the original location of the remains.

Louis XVIII had intended to erect a mausoleum which was never completed; today a simple monument with the inscription "LXVII 1785-1795" and a quote from Lamentations still marks the spot where the remains were re-interred.

Excavations in 1866-67

In La Revue de la Révolution française  for January 1904 Lenotre reported that excavations had taken place in the cemetery in 1866-67 (p.551-2). Workmen had been seen opening many tombs and piling the contents along the church wall.  Eye-witnesses recalled children playing with the bones.  It is unclear whether this activity was part of the search for Louis XVII or just a general clearance, but it serves as a caution against the likelihood of finding any one corpse intact and in its original position.

Excavations of 1904

In 1904  a new investigation was undertaken by the Commission du Vieux Paris, of which Lenotre was a member at the time.  Excavations took place at the location specified by Voisin in March 1816, just to the left of the Calvary.  A big pit was dug - five metres long,  five metres wide, and at least six feet deep.  It can be seen clearly  in the 1904 photographs.

The effort proved entirely fruitless.  Lenotre warned that Voisin's site had already been excavated under Charles X in 1826, and only an empty coffin found.  The 1904 investigations yielded no further remains of any sort.

Members of the Commission du Vieux Paris in February 1904

North wall of the cemetery in 1904. The excavation site is visible to the left of the picture

Excavations in 1970 and 1979

After seventy years of inactivity, in 1970 and in again September 1979, further attempts were made to find the location described by Bertrancourt.  Although later officially sanctioned, these investigations started out as a unauthorised initiative by Paul Pascal-Sol,  a friend of the Naundorffist  historian Philippe Boiry.   In October 1979 a commission of experts was formally appointed to analyse the finds.  Among them, as we have seen, was Dr Pierre Thuillaud.  A cynical person might conclude that the authorities were engaged in a damage-limitation exercise.

On 10th December 1979 Michel Fleury, Vice-President of the CVP, formally reported the Commission's findings.    His conclusion was categorical:  none of the remains recovered and submitted for examination could be those of Louis XVII.  In front of the small West door of the sanctuary, investigators had uncovered a step with a tiled base, which contained the bones and leg-bones of an person of 18 years and disordered bones from at least four other individuals, none of whom was a child.  Neither here, nor in front of the former North door of the transept, excavated in 1970, had anyone found the cavity where Bertrancourt claimed to have placed the coffin. 

It should be emphasised that, despite slightly misleading official statements that the 1979 excavations "proved" the skeleton was "not LXVII", the crypt was not on this occasion opened.

Report in Le Monde ,17.12.1979.

In an article published  in 1987 Fleury stated unambiguously that Bertrancourt must have fabricated his story:
As the reports and photographs show, the survey undertaken in 1970, on my authority, by Mme Quétin, an engineer with the C.N.R.S. covered the entire area indicated by Bertrancourt.  The church foundations revealed absolutely no trace of any opening or blocked up area.
We must therefore conclude that Bertrancourt lied: the material evidence on which he based his claims is false.  As often happens, a fraud has been embellished with all sorts of details, which could not be verified at the time. It is not important whether he lied through boastfulness, fantasy, or in the hope of gain "when France is happily reborn in the family of her former king". 
What is important is that his false witness is established and thus falls "all real tangible and scientific proof" that a substitution took place and that the child who died in the Temple was not Louis XVII.
Quoted in Charles Barbanès, Louis XVII Autopsie d'une fausse vérité

Facial reconstruction in 1994

In 1994 Marseilles anthropologist Pierre-François Puech published a facial reconstruction based on the photographs of the skull taken in 1894.   Among the particular characteristics,  Puech noted  the narrow cylindrical form of the base of the nose and the prominent constricted front teeth, suggestive of a bowshaped mouth. He confirmed a likely age of thirteen to sixteen. There were a lot of imponderables but it has to be said that Puech did come up with an image strikingly like the Vien portrait. (In Puech's view both the portrait and the remains represented the elusive "substitute")

.Tara Patel,"The boy who would be Louis XVII", New Scientist, 15.07.1995.

Excavations in 2004

At the end of September 2004, Le Parisien reported that archaeologists from the Ville de Paris had been seen excavating near the wall of the church where a drainage ditch was under construction.  This initiative had caused great displeasure to royalists. Since excavations began in June,  Frédéric Bouju, vice-president of the Institut Louis XVII had repeated asked for an exhumation and DNA analysis: "We want to know if the crypt really contains the remains of Louis XVII" .

Christian Charlet, historian of the cemeteries of Paris, told the paper that the Parisian authorities did not want to get involved in the dispute over Louis XVII. The excavations have been carried out in secret to avoid the issue arising.

Signs of fresh cement on the tomb had caused particular concern.  François Loyer, in charge of the excavation, gave his assurances that it had simply been sealed, without even looking inside. A trench of two metres-by-thirty, dug to a depth of a metre had already yielded 800 skeletons.

Eric Le Mitouard, "La tombe de Louis XVII a-t-elle été fouillée ?" Le Parisien, 30th September 2004.

Letter from the Mairie to the CEHLXII

In December the Cercle d'Etudes Historiques sur LXVII elicited a formal letter of clarification from the Parisian authorities:

Drainage works were being undertaken on the north side of the church  to preserve the interior of the chapelle des âmes du Purgatoire  with its frescoes by  Brunetti, which were classified as a Historical Monument. The excavations followed a clear formal protocol: any bones recovered would be examined in order to investigate sanitary conditions and epidemiology under the Ancien régime.  The remit did not include the tomb of the "enfant du Temple".  The crypt had been left in place and sealed with concrete to prevent "degradations or profanations"

Several additional exhumations had already been carried out (1894, 1904, 1979); the last had "brought certainty" that the remains in the tomb were not those of a child of 10 years but an adolescent of about 18, and could not therefore be those of the child in the Temple.  

The possibility of finding a corpse which might be that of the dauphin had not been excluded. For this reason, the excavations were being carried out with extreme care, and there was a possibility that DNA tests could be requested if the remains of a child were found.

 Lettre du Directeur du Cabinet du Maire de Paris du 21/12/2004

Two pictures showing the crypt in 2004:

See: "Fouilles clandestine" (Institut Louis XVII)

"Fouilles sainte-Marguerite" on the archived CRIL17 website
The second photo is possibly from the published excavation report - it isn't quite clear. You can clearly see head of the coffin, which was dismantled and deposited in the grave with a box containing the skeleton.

2006 Documentary 
The 2006 TV documentary "Louis XVII Querelles pour un trône" (by Jean-Charles Deniau and Madeleine Sultan)  included an interview with the two archaeologists involved in the Ste-Marguerite excavations:

Françoise Lagarde confirms that they did not find any other skulls which had been sawed open during a postmortem. There were very few young people.  What they did find, movingly, were lots and lots of babies: they must have arrived in sackfuls from the hospitals and were often buried only 20 centimetres or so beneath the surface.

François Loyer, the conservateur du patrimoine in charge of the investigation, offers a sage piece of reflection.  He has worked out some rough figures.  The life of the cemetery, which was opened in the 17th century, spanned five generations; if it contained 34 fosses communes at any one time, holding 800 bodies, this represent something like 140,000 individuals.  It is not surprising that archaeologists have failed to find Louis XVII, one set of remains among so many.

Jean-Charles Deniau and Madeleine Sultan, Louis XVII Querelles pour un trône [2006 documentary]  21:23-23:12.  

An Information Plaque

The hardening of the official viewpoint is evident in the new  plaque erected at Sainte-Marguerite (in 2011?). 

The wording is odd;  it seems to imply Louis-Charles was never buried here at all:

Louis XVII, mort en 1795 au Temple, y avait été inhumé, selon une légende dont des fouilles récentes sont venues démontrer la fausseté.

"Louis XVII, who died in 1795 in the Temple, was buried here, according to a legend, the falsity of which has been shown by recent excavations."


It is probably a little impertinent to offer opinions, but here is my view:

1. The burden of proof is on those who wish to revise the official historical record.

2. There was no "substitution". 
  • There is no real evidence for a government "conspiracy".Robespierre's involvement goes against all that we know about his personality and politics. The English agent was misled.
  • Louis-Charles' apparent dumbness and other inconsistencies in behaviour were the result of the trauma he had endured.
  • The high security at the Temple made a successful substitution inherently unlikely.

3. There was no "cover up"
  • The security measures of 1795 are explicable without a hidden agenda
  • The doctors died of typhoid

4.   Louis-Charles died in 1795 from complications associated with chronic TB. The autopsy results are consistent with what is known of his previous medical history.

5.  The body was buried in the cemetery of Sainte-Marguerite, probably close to the West wall, near but not actually in the communal pit.

6.  Louis XVII was not reburied under the church wall as indicated by Bertrancourt:
  • The skeleton found in 1846 was not that of LXVII or any substitute child autopsied in 1795, since the individual is too old. It looks like a deliberate fraud: apart from the location and the sawn-off skull, none of the details are right. The bones may not even belong to a single body.  
  • Extensive investigations in 1970 and 1979 failed to find any other sign of the location specified by Bertrancourt.

7. We are unlikely to find the real remains of LXVII given the large number of burials in the cemetery and the fact the western part has been built over.

8.  The heart at Saint-Denis almost certainly belongs to LXVII; it is a nice relic but not a crucial historical "proof".


F. de Backer et M. Bilhaut, « Les ossements de L ... XVII », Annales d’orthopédie et de chirurgie pratiques, 1894, vol. VII, p. 161-176,

Régis de Chantelauze, Louis XVII, son enfance, sa prison et sa mort au Temple d' après des documents inédits des archives nationales, 1895.

Lucien Lambeau, "L’ancien cimetière paroissial Sainte-Marguerite , Procès-Verbaux de la Commission du Vieux Paris, 11 février 1904, p. 55-118, plates & plans.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Louis XVII - the burial of a prince

Here is the moving account of the burial of Louis-Charles's reconstructed from the recollections of those involved by the great 19th-century historian Alcide Beauchesne:

Funeral convoy of the Son of Capet, June 1794.  From a contemporary watercolour
[Illustration from Lenotre, Le roi Louis XVII et l'énigme du Temple]
On the 22nd Prairial (Wednesday, 10th June), at six o'clock in the evening, citizen Dusser, police commissary, accompanied by citizens Arnoult and Goddet, civic commissaries of the Temple section, presented himself at the tower of the Temple, in order, conformably with a decree issued by the Council of General Safety, to proceed to the official verification of the decease of the unfortunate little Capet, and the interment of his remains.

They went up with the keepers to the second story of the tower.

 A ray of sunshine gleamed through the window, and fell on the blood-stained sheet which covered the remains of the descendant of Louis XIV, now stretched on a wooden bedstead, without any mattress.

The sheet being removed, the victim was seen by the new commissaries, bearing the traces left by the professional men; the scalpel of science had mutilated that body, already disfigured by suffering, but it had respected the pale emaciated face, on which an expression of indescribable calmness and purity had succeeded to that of pain.

His lips, so far from being contracted by death, wore the appearance of mildness and serenity; his eyes, not closed by mortal hand, had closed of themselves; or rather, one might have said, that since the fatal couch had been deserted by man, an angel had breathed on that little head, which, youthful and delicate as it was, had yet borne the crown of thorns like the rest of his family.

The mortuary register was drawn up: this paper, which has been up to the present day so little known that its existence might have been denied, seems to us sufficiently interesting to be reproduced here:


After having signed this document in the next room, the commissioners again approached the fatal couch.

I know not what sentiments may have been awakened in their minds by a spectacle so extraordinarily mournful, but they looked on it for some time, mute and motionless.

At length, breaking this long silence: "Is not all ready?" asked one of them. "What is the man that was sent for about?" "I am waiting," replied a deep voice from the shadowed part of the room; it was that of the man employed in interments, who was standing near the door, with a coffin under his arm,

"Come nearer, and let us make haste."

And the undertaker put down his boards on the floor. He took the body of the royal orphan, and laid it naked in the bier, for he who had been cradled in purple had not a winding-sheet in which to be interred. "Stop, here's something to put under his head," said the youngest commissary, presenting his handkerchief; and his colleagues looked on him with a dubious glance, astonished at his weakness, perhaps at his boldness and reverence for the dead. This example gave encouragement to the good-natured Lasne, who hastened to bring a sheet to serve as a shroud—I would say, a royal mantle—for this last King of the monarchy; for it is only in this indigent and humiliating winding-sheet that his corpse will appear in history.

And the fir planks were fastened down with four nails, while the sound of the hammer on the coffin of the child shook the floor of the old room, and awoke the slumbering echoes in the feudal tower.

The bier was taken down into the first court, laid upon tressels, and covered with a black cloth. As they left the threshold of the deserted room, where so much unknown suffering had passed away, poor Gomin said to Gourlet, who was walking behind the others: "You have no need to shut the iron door now!" He was right, the prisoner was free—the prison was to remain mournful and silent—human depravity had done its work, and retired!

It was seven o'clock when the police commissary ordered the body to be taken up, and that they should proceed to the cemetery. It was the season of the longest days, and therefore the interment did not take place in secrecy and at night, as some misinformed narrators have said or written; it took place in broad daylight, and attracted a great concourse of people before the gates of the Temple palace. One of the municipals wished to have the coffin carried out secretly, by the door opening into the chapel enclosure; but M. Dusser, police commissary, who was specially entrusted with the arrangement of the ceremony—to the great satisfaction of Lasne and Gomin—opposed this indecorous measure, and the procession passed out through the great gate. The crowd that was pressing round was kept back, and compelled to keep a line by a tri-coloured ribbon, held at short distances by gendarmes. Compassion and sorrow were impressed on every countenance.

 A small detachment of the troops of the line from the garrison of Paris, sent by the authorities, was in waiting for the procession, to serve as an escort. They departed. The bier, still covered with the pall, was carried on a litter, on the shoulders of four men, who relieved each other two at a time; it was preceded by six or eight men, headed by a Serjeant.  Dusser walked behind, with Lasne and the civic commissary before-mentioned; Damont, who was on duty the day of the death, 20th Prairial; Darlot, on duty the 21st; Guérin. the 22nd; and Bigot, who was to have been so next day. With them were also Goddet, Biard, and Arnoult, whom the Temple section had appointed to assist Dusser in making the official report of the decease, and superintending the interment. Then came six or eight more men and a corporal. They proceeded along the streets of La Corderie, Bretagne, Pont-aux-Choux, Saint-Sébastien, Popincourt, and Basfroid, and entered the cemetery of Sainte Marguerite by the Rue Saint-Bernard.

The procession was accompanied a long way by the crowd, and a great number of persons followed it even to the cemetery. Those few soldiers round a little bier attracted the attention of the public, and called forth questions all along their way. In particular, there was a marked movement of interest in a numerous group that had formed at the corner of the Boulevard and the Rue Pont-aux-Choux, and which was mainly composed of women. The name of "Little Capet," and the more popular title of Dauphin, spread from lip to lip, with exclamations of pity and compassion. Further on, in the Rue Popincourt, a few children of the common people, in rags, took off their caps, in token of respect and sympathy, before this coffin, that contained a child who had died poorer than they themselves were to live.

The procession entered the cemetery of Sainte-Marguerite, not by the church, as some accounts assert, but by the old gate of the cemetery. The interment was made in the corner, on the left, at a distance of eight or nine feet from the enclosure wall, and at an equal distance from a small house, which subsequently served as a class-room for a Christian school. The grave was filled up—no mound marked its place—the soil was restored to its former level—and not even a trace remained of the interment! Not till then did the commissaries of police and the municipality withdraw. They departed by the same gate of the cemetery, and entered the house opposite the church, to draw up the declaration of interment. It was nearly nine o'clock, and still daylight. The air was clear, and the aureola of luminous vapour that crowned that lovely evening, seemed delaying and prolonging the farewell of the sun.

Two sentinels were posted, one in the cemetery, and one at the entrance-gate, to prevent any person from attempting to carry off the body of Louis XVII. This precaution was taken for two or three nights

Alcide de Beauchesne, Louis XVII: his life - his suffering - his death, translated by William Hazlitt (New York: 1853),  vol. 2: p.333-337.

Sunday, 23 February 2020

The death of Louis XVII - Shadow of a doubt?

This post  summarises the second half of Franck Ferrand's very thorough 2014 TV documentary on "the son of Marie-Antoinette" in the Ombre d'un doute series. I am not sure there really is much "doubt" about the fate of Louis XVII, but Franck makes the most of a good mystery - partly because the "survivantistes"  are so vociferous, partly, no doubt,  because it makes for better television.

The death of a King 

Louis-Charles, Louis XVII of France, died on 8th June 1795; he was ten years and two months old.  He had been in fragile health for some time, with tubercular knee joints which meant he could not stand.  The warders assigned to him after Thermidor,  Laurent, Gomin and Lasne, were well-meaning but could do little to alleviate his suffering. Witnesses said he was so traumatised that he had become completely mute.  The surgeon, Joseph Desault (1738-1795), who was appointed by the Convention to treat the young prince, admitted privately that he could no longer recognise him as the child that he had known before the Revolution.

Joseph Baume, Louis XVII in the Temple.  Painting of 1868.

By order of the Convention, a postmortem was carried out on the day following the death, 9th June 1795, amid rumours of substitutions and poisonings.  There were four doctors involved: Philippe-Jean Pelletan, chief surgeon of the Hôpital d'humanité,  Jean-Baptiste Dumangin, of the Hôpital de l'Unité  together with professors Pierre Lassus and Nicolas Jeanroy.  They did not make any formal identification. However they confirmed:  “We found in a bed the corpse of a child who seemed to us to be approximately ten years of age, that the commissaries said was the deceased Louis Capet, and whom two of us recognised as the child to whom they had administered treatments for several days.”  Death was attributed to an acute gastric complaint, combined with a “long-term scrofulous defect”, that is to say a form of non-pulmonary tuberculosis. In the course of his investigation Pelletan, acting on impulse, carried out the unauthorised removal of the child's heart.

Auguste-Jacques Régnier, The Cemetery of Ste-Marguerite in 1856.
 Musée Carnavalet
On 10th June  the corpse was buried in a communal grave in the parish cemetery of the church of Sainte-Marguerite in the rue Saint-Bernard. The gravedigger Bertrancourt later claimed that he had removed the body and reburied it in a location to the left of the door of a chapel in the North transept.

The emergence of a pretender 

In the years following Louis XVII's death, there were many rumours concerning his survival and many individuals came forward claiming to be the lost boy king.  Franck Ferrand's programme, however, concentrates exclusively on the German pretender Naundorff, whose descendants still pursue his claims today.

[lhr:03] On 29th  August 1831 a newspaper in Cahors, the Constitutionel, translated an article from the Leipziger Zeitung  which stated that the son of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI was alive and living in the town of Crossen in Saxony, under the name of Karl Wilhelm Naundorff.  On the face of it, Naundorff, a penniless Prussian clockmaker who scarcely spoke French,  was an unlikely candidate for the Bourbon throne, but he rapidly gained a considerable following, due to an strange combination of royalist wishful thinking and his own evident charisma.

The new Louis XVII was encouraged to make his way to Paris where he began to make contact with former members of the royal household. On 26th May 1833 he met with Madame de Rambaud, the 68 year-old former nurse to the royal children, who became totally convinced that he was genuine. He passed every test: presented with a precious relic, a little blue suit which had once belonged to Louis-Charles, he was able to recognise correctly that he had worn it only once, not at the Tuileries as Madame de Rambaud hinted, but in Versailles.

In Tours with Hughes de Bourbon

[1hr:06] The programme now travels to Tours to meet Hugues de Bourbon, Naundorff's modern descendant, a engaging man in his late thirties, who is an antiquarian book dealer.  Hugues presents a precious family document, an original deposition by a leading supporter, Jean-Baptiste-Jérôme Brémond, who had been  Louis XVI's personal secretary.  Brémond was impressed that Naundorff seemed to know the whereabouts of the"cachette" in the Tuileries - the famous armoire de fer - where the King had concealed his papers.  When the Louis had hidden it, only his son had been present.

Clearly Naundorff was capable of ostensibly remarkable acts of clairvoyance.  However, despite the support mobilised for his cause, the one person that really mattered, the Duchess of  Angoulême,  steadfastly refused to meet him.  Franck speculates on the reasons behind her resistance; but it seems, on the whole, that she was simply unconvinced by the evidence.   A letter in the Cahors archives  justifies her reservations:  it relates that Naundorff had sent certain of his partisans on a wild goose chase to Crossen  in search of documentary proofs; they  failed totally to find the promised papers despite having "torn the bureau apart".

More background on Naundorff

It seems that Naundorff had first claimed to be Louis XVII in 1825 when he had been imprisoned in Brandenburg for counterfeiting money.  He elaborated the story of his evasion in detail. On 3rd July 1793, the day of his separation from his mother, he had been removed from the Temple tower by Robespierre personally.[? I can't find where Naundorff says he was rescued by Robespierre]  He had then spent several years in Portugal pursuing his education and learning horology.  In 1807 he had been approached by Napoleon as potential heir but, with the birth of the King of Rome, this came to nothing and he settled permanently in Prussia.

[1hr:12] According to the writer and journalist Jean-Baptiste Rendu we know almost nothing about the real Naundorff, not even his age or where he came from.

Franck's team goes on location to the parish of Spandau in Berlin, where Naundorff lived. The local archivist shows us Naundorff's marriage certificate, dated 18th November 1818, which gives his profession as "watchmaker" and his age as forty-three.  The age is clearly a stumbling block:  Louis XVII would have been ten years younger, only thirty-three, in 1818.

Franck summarises: Naundorff was at first tolerated by the French government but in 1835 he committed the tactical error of instigating legal proceedings against the Duchess of Angoulême. The government of Louis-Philippe had him arrested and imprisoned. On 12th July 1835 he was expelled from France and moved to London, where he continued to embroider his story. Thanks to a  bizarre fascination with pyrotechnics, he contrived to patent a clockwork "Bourbon bomb";  sold it to the Dutch minister of war and was allowed to settle in Delft.  In 1845 Naundorff  became ill and suddenly died, as it happened on 10th August, the very anniversary of the fall of the Bourbon monarchy.

[1hr:15] In Delft we are shown Naundorff's death certificate: on it he appears as Charles-Louis de Bourbon, duc de Normandie, Louis XVII; it is also stated that he had been born in Versailles in 1785.  Permission to use the name Bourbon had been given to Naundorff by the King of Holland. It was even permitted for "Louis XVII" to be engraved on his tombstone.

The case for substitution

Records from the British Archives

[1hr:17] The balance of doubt would seem to be against Naundorff;  but now Franck springs his big surprise, some "incredible documents" from the British archives:

Olivier Blanc is on hand in the British Library to explain.

The records in question are from a British secret service dossier, and are dated 10th May and 21st  June 1794.  An informer relates that Robespierre intended to send the royal child to "a southern country" and use him to negotiate peace.  The second report claims that on night of 23rd/24th May Louis-Charles was actually removed and taken to Meudon; the affair was known only to members of the Committee of Public Safety.

This intriguing revelation is not really discussed, more left intriguingly hanging in the air.....

[In fact, however, these manuscripts are nothing new. They are among the so-called "Dropmore Papers", published in the 1950s.  Aulard long ago dismissed the account of the supposed evasion as a "bizarre invention".]

Witness testimonies 

[1hr:20] A "shadow of doubt" also still hangs over the identity of the prisoner in the Temple.

Following the replacement of Simon, all Louis-Charles's former custodians were removed.  A strict rota of commissaries of the Commune, chosen by lot, was put in place - seemingly designed to ensure that he could never be seen twice and recognised.

Naundorff's partisans are convinced that Louis-Charles was replaced by a handicapped child.  

The main spokesperson in this part of the programme is Michèle Dumont:

She observes that individuals who saw the boy after his isolation have left troubling accounts. On 19th December 1794 the deputy Jean-Baptiste Harmand de la Meuse reported that the child could not be Louis-Charles since he did not have the same hair colour and appeared to be deaf and dumb. Desault admitted that he did not recognise his former patient.  It was widely rumoured that the doctor was about to denounce the affair to the Convention when, on 1st June 1795, he himself conveniently died.  His colleague Chopart swiftly followed and a third doctor was so unnerved by talk of poisoning that he fled to the United States.

In the end, however, Franck has to admit that, although it makes for a good story,  the speculation about Desault is unfounded.  Desault's famous report was never found; and his postmortem concluded that, far from being poisoned, he had died of typhoid fever.

[Who is Michèle Dumont?  I find her introduced elsewhere as "author of the only university thesis on Louis XVII".  Clearly, her interpretation revives old conspiracy theories: apparently not only the doctors but also the men who carried the coffin to the cemetery died in mysterious circumstances, seven deaths in all, though the official account mentions only Desault and Chopart.]

The formal identification 

Again according Michèle Dumont, there are problems with this. The day after Louis-Charles's death the commissaries and guards of the Temple filed passed the body and confirmed that they recognised the child from the Tuileries. To Michèle Dumont, they seem to be parroting a set formula; why did the authorities not do the obvious thing, which was to let his sister Marie-Thérèse identify her brother's body?


With Philippe Delorme in the Cimetière Ste-Marguerite

Everything would be much simpler if we could only find the body!

[1hr:26] At this point we meet the writer and historian Philippe Delorme, the leading expert on Louis XVII and his fate.  Philippe is on location at the church of Ste-Marguerite, in the courtyard on the site of the old cemetery; in the 1795 there would have been four fosses communes in this area.

Philippe explains that a first exhumation of remains was carried out by the abbé Haumet in 1846. By the chapel door, where Bertrancourt had indicated, a curiously shaped coffin was uncovered,  made of metal sheets.  Inside was the skeleton of a child with red hair and a skull which had been sawed open in a postmortem.  Examination of the bones confirmed the presence of osseous tuberculosis. However, the doctors Milcent and Récamier were convinced the remains were those of an older child.  Milcent in his book La Question Louis XVII, concluded "The skeleton of the child, buried in the Cimetière Ste-Marguerite, cannot be attributed to a subject of less than fourteen years old. It cannot in consequence be that of the dauphin."  A further exhumation in 1894 confirmed the initial findings: the leading paleopathologists of the day now put the age of the individual as high as 18-20 years.

Exhumed coffin purporting to be that of Louis XVII. © Albert Harlingue/Roger-Viollet
The coffin was discovered in 1846; the photo shows it reconstructed in 1894.

1979 investigation

[1hr:29] So where was the body of Louis XVII?  In 1979 the Commission de Vieux Paris tried to advance the question by excavating in other parts of the cemetery. Dr Pierre-Léon Thillaud, paleopathologist with the Société Française d'Histoire de la Médicine, was sent three boxes of bone fragments to analyse. He explains that they represented  four or five different individuals, most of them adults, but, alas, no likely candidates for the child in the Temple.

Thus, as Franck insists, doubt remained; at this point there was still no material evidence that Louis XVII had died in the Temple.

DNA analysis

The remains of Naundorff

[1:30] The first genetic tests were undertaken at the end of the 1990s. In 1998 Professor Jean-Jacques Cassiman of the University of Louvain extracted genetic material from bones belonging to Naundorff  (who had been exhumed in 1950) and from hair samples belonging to Marie-Antoinette and her sisters.  Comparison of the two yielded the unequivocal result that Naundorff could not be a descendant of Marie-Antoinette.  However, the quality and authenticity of the Naundorff sample has been called into question, since his grave had been opened so long ago and the pieces of bone imperfectly stored.

Franck Ferrand's team go in search of Cassiman, now in retirement, at his home outside Louvain. The geneticist obligingly reiterates his findings: the discrepancies in the DNA sequences were too great for the individuals in question to possibly belong to the same family, "that is to say, Naundorff could not have been Louis XVII, that was quite clear". As to any mix-up or contamination, Cassiman shrugs in exasperation; that was "very improbable".

The Heart of the Child in the Temple

[1hr:32] Here at last is the climax that the programme has been building towards!

In 1975, after a long odyssey, the heart removed by Pelletan from the child in the Temple,  was traced by Philippe Delorme to a underground chapel in the crypt of Saint-Denis. In 1999 he asked Cassiman to compare DNA from the heart with that of Marie-Antoinette. In order to verify the results, two separate teams of geneticists were involved;  Cassiman's work was duplicated by a second lab in Munster.

The research presented a considerable technical challenge.  The first difficulty was to obtain a suitable sample from the heart which had been preserved in alcohol, then become desiccated and hard as stone. Cassiman then faced the delicate challenge of extracting exploitable DNA. However, on 19th April 2000, at a high-profile press conference, Cassiman's team was finally able to announce their findings to the world: the heart did indeed belong to an individual maternally related to Marie-Antoinette.  It would seem Louis XVII had finally been found.

New doubts

[1hr:35] Surely the DNA evidence is conclusive?  To most of the world it would seem so, but not to Naundorff's supporters.  In a clip we see one determined woman rise in protest at the press conference itself. Since the science seems watertight, opponents have concentrated on the identity of the heart. They suggest that it might not belong to Louis-Charles after all, but to his brother the dauphin Louis-Joseph, who died in 1789.

With Philippe Delorme at  Museum of the Préfecture de police

[1hr:36] Philippe reads the account from Pelletan's original report and retraces the story of the heart, which was stolen and returned, rescued from the debris by Pelletan's son during the 1830 revolution, and eventually found its way into the hands of the Spanish Bourbons; in 1975 it was given by the Princess Massimo to the Mémorial de France, the organisation which oversees the royal graves in Saint-Denis.

[1hr:40]  We now meet Laure de la Chapelle, president of the Cercle Louis XVII who has elaborated the view that the hearts of the child in the Temple had become swapped with that of Louis-Joseph, deposited in the church of the Val-de-Grâce. and lost during the Revolution.  Delorme holds that this heart would have been traditionally embalmed whereas the heart in our possession had been preserved in alcohol exactly as Pelletan had specified. Despite all the researches, however, the historical record can never be 100% watertight .

[1hr:41] We see footage of the splendid service held at Saint-Denis on 8th June 2004 in which the heart was  deposited in the royal vault. The ceremony was conspicuously presided over by the Bourbon heirs.

Latest Genetic Tests

[1hr: 42] The programme, first broadcast in 2014, ends back in Tours with Hugues de Bourbon.  Hugues explains that  his father was totally convinced by his ancestor Naundorff's claim. He himself has submitted to DNA tests which were based on the Y-chromosome rather than the mitochondrial DNA used by Cassiman . The geneticist Gerard Lucotte concluded that he belonged to same masculine line as the Bourbon kings; and are thus of the Bourbon family.   (Other geneticists point out that the same can be said for 70% of the French  population.) He is now working on establishing links to Marie-Antoinette.  It is a battle of experts, says Hugues to conclude, from which he hopes finally to learn the truth.


L'Ombre d'un doute: L'enfant de Marie-Antoinette est-il mort à la prison du Temple ?
First broadcast on 4th November 2014.
I found the programme in full on ""; but I think the Church is breaking copyright law.

See also:
Au cœur de l'Histoire: Louis XVII est-il mort au Temple? (Franck Ferrand).  Broadcast 21st January 2016 on Europe1.
On YouTube:

In 2016 FF revisited the child in the Temple for his radio series Au cœur de l'Histoire.  The radio show is less tightly produced than the TV documentary and is definitely more revealing.  Franck's guests were Philippe Delorme and the playwright  Jean-Louis Bachelet, both of whom had written new books on Louis XVII.  Franck explains that he hadn't invited any survivalists on this occasion as he wanted to avoid acrimonious controversy.  He wonders why the question of Louis XVII's death still arouses such passion?  DNA analysis exposed the impostors as long ago as 1998 and Philippe Delorme has declared the matter closed; yet not a month, even three weeks goes by without another book or paper. In a recent broadcast Franck had interviewed a French diplomat who traced his ancestry back to Louis XVII in Argentina.

The reason for the passion is clear enough: "There might be someone walking around somewhere in the world with a virtual crown on his head, a crown that is among the most prestigious of all time."

Jean-Louis Bachelet's book Saint-Royal reinvestigated the mystery.  He concludes that the individual exhumed in 1846, an adolescent of 18-20, could not be either Louis XVII or the hypothetical "child in the Temple".  If the Revolutionary authorities had wanted to make a substitution, they would have chosen a child closer to the correct age. The cemetery received bodies from surrounding hospitals, so it is likely that other skeletons show marks from an autopsy. 

Franck wonders if this conclusion is just giving ammunition to the survivalists? Bachelet comments that he is fascinated by the whole idea of "survivance" in the collective French imagination.  There were many pretenders;  Richemont was much better known at the time;  Naundorff is prominent today only because of his descendants.

Franck and his guests touch on the new genetic evidence concerning the Naundorff family. Gerard Lucotte does not inspire Delorme's confidence;  he is  "an extremely controversial geneticist", un peu farfelue;  he even claims to have determined the Y-chromosome of Christ.

Franck wonders, more generally, whether the use of DNA evidence might encourage distortion by giving too much initiative to scientists who have no historical training.  Even during the 1894  investigations, the "experts" were challenged: Gaston Labrousse argued that the 1894 findings favoured the Naundorffists and did not conform to the skeleton on view in the plates.  Philippe Delorme is less sceptical. There must be a strict methodology and clear demarcation between work of the geneticist and work of the historian;  genetics did not establish the identity of the heart of Louis XVII but it did enabled us to say that it belonged to a descendant of Marie-Antoinette.

Franck concludes by asking what elements of doubt remain:
Jean-Louis Bachelet observes that in fact the Convention took extreme care to verify their prisoner's identity.  In the final year,  extensive rota of commissaries of the Commune was in place - all bourgeois of Paris who could have seen LVII in the Tuileries.  If a substitution had happened, someone would surely have talked. A realistic look at the functioning of the Committees makes it difficult to imagine Robespierre personally entering the Temple and removing LVII.  Apart from anything else, he would have had to get through six locked doors.  At a certain point false rumours circulated;  Desault and Chopart, doctors at the Hôtel-Dieu, both died of natural causes in the cholera epidemic of 1795 which claimed over 3,000 lives.

Bachelet notes, very reasonably, that the stumbling block is mainly psychological - it is hard to accept that a member of the royal family could have died in such abject conditions. The controversy has touched both Royalist passions and Revolutionary hatreds.