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 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.

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