Monday, 2 March 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.