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Louis XVII

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Title: Louis XVII  
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Louis XVII

Louis XVII
King of France and of Navarre (titular)

Seven year old Louis in 1792, portrait by Alexander Kucharsky
Reign 21 January 1793 – 8 June 1795 (claimant)
Predecessor Louis XVI
Successor Napoleon I (de facto in 1804)
Louis XVIII (de jure in 1814)
Full name
Louis Charles de France
House Bourbon
Father Louis XVI of France
Mother Marie Antoinette
Born (1785-03-27)27 March 1785
Palace of Versailles, France
Died 8 June 1795(1795-06-08) (aged 10)
Paris Temple, France
Burial Saint Denis Basilica, France (Heart only)
Religion Roman Catholic

Louis XVII (Versailles 27 March 1785 – Paris 8 June 1795), from birth to 1789 known as Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy; then from 1789 to 1791 as Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France; and from 1791 to 1792 as Louis-Charles, Prince Royal of France, was the younger son of King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette. As the son of the king, he was a Fils de France (Son of France). His older brother, Louis Joseph, died in June 1789, just a few weeks before the start of the French Revolution.

His parents were executed for treason under the first republic making the newly orphaned eight-year-old Louis-Charles nominal successor to the abolished throne. In keeping with dynastic order, when his father was executed on 21 January 1793, during the middle-period of French Revolution, he became (nominally) the King of France and Navarre in the eyes of the royalists. However, as France was by then the First French Republic (21 September 1792 – 2 December 1804), and as he had been imprisoned from August 1792 until his death from illness in 1795 at the age of 10, he was never officially king, nor did he rule. His title is rather one bestowed by his royalist supporters and implicitly by Louis XVIII's adoption of the title Louis XVIII rather than Louis XVII.


Louis-Charles de France was born at the Palace of Versailles, the second son and third child of his parents, Louis XVII and Marie-Antoinette. He became the Dauphin at the death of his elder brother Louis-Joseph.

Like all royal children of the time, Louis-Charles was cared for by multiple people. The Queen appointed Governesses to look after all three of her living children; Louis-Charles' original Governess was Yolande de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac, who left France near the beginning of the revolution; she was replaced by marquise Louise Élisabeth de Tourzel. Additionally, the Queen selected Agathe de Rambaud to be the official nurse of Louis-Charles. Alain Decaux wrote (somewhat dramatically): "Madame de Rambaud was officially in charge of the care of the Dauphin from the day of his birth until 10 August 1792, in other words, for seven years. During these seven years, she never left him, she cradled him, took care of him, dressed him, comforted him, scolded him. Ten times, a hundred times, more than Marie Antoinette, she was a true mother for him".[1]

On 6 October 1789 the royal family was forced by the revolution to move from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris where they spent the next three years. There the family lived a secluded life, and Marie Antoinette dedicated most of her time to her children, especially the little Dauphin. On 21 June 1791 the family tried to escape in secrecy, but the attempt failed. When the Tuileries were stormed by the armed mob on 10 August 1792 the royal family sought refuge at the Legislative Assembly.

On 13 August, the royal family was imprisoned in the tower of the Temple. At first their conditions were not extremely harsh but they were prisoners and were re-styled as "Capets" by the new-born Republic. The king was separated from his family and tried in December.


From birth to 1789, as a second son, he was known officially as Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy and colloquially as the prince du sang (prince of the blood); then on becoming heir-apparent as a four-year-old after the death of his 7 year old older brother the Dauphin Louis Joseph from a quick acting illness on 4 June 1789 to October 1791 he became styled officially as Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France (the seventeenth Dauphin of France; the hereditary title under the Capet Monarchy of a French crown prince). The old Monarchy title would be explicitly stripped under the new written French Constitution of 1791, which made France a short-lived constitutional monarchy. Under the new constitution the heir to the throne was restyled as the Prince Royal (likewise the ancien régime title prince du sang (prince of the blood) would be retitled as prince français), the new dignity taking effect from the inception of the Legislative Assembly on 1 October 1791.

From October when the old title gave way to the new official republican substitute and then beyond into the following August 1792 when he was imprisoned, he was known as Louis Charles, 'Prince Royal of France'. He held the new title when imprisoned in August 1792 as the Royal Heir, after the family failed to escape the republic, until arguably, he became the uncrowned king in January 1793— at least in the eyes of Royalist factions and foreign International powers hoping to restore the monarchy.

As the son of the king, he was sometimes written about as a Fils de France (lit. a Son of France), and in most historiography is primarily listed as 'Louis XVII of France', since with the Bourbon restoration, his uncle took Louis XVIII as regnal name.

Prison and rumours of escape

1793: disputed accession

After the execution of his father on 21 January 1793 Louis became, for the royalists, King of France, and a week later, his uncle, the Count of Provence (later to rule as King Louis XVIII), arrogated to himself the title of Regent. From that moment plots were hatched for the escape of the prisoners from the Temple, the chief of which were engineered by the Chevalier de Jarjayes, the Baron de Batz, and the faithful Lady Atkyns. On 3 July the little Dauphin was again separated from his mother, this time to be given into the keeping of the cobbler Antoine Simon who had been named his guardian by the Committee of General Security.

The tales told by royalist writers of the barbarous cruelty inflicted by Simon and his wife on the child are not proven. Marie-Jeanne, in fact, took great care of the child's person, and there is documentary evidence to prove that he had food and exercise. But the Simons did not raise the child as a prince, and stories survive narrating how Louis-Charles was encouraged to eat and drink to excess, and learned the language of the gutter. The foreign secretaries of England and Spain heard accounts from their spies that the boy was raped by prostitutes in order to infect him with venereal diseases to supply the Commune with manufactured "evidence" against the Queen.[2]

But the scenes related by A. de Beauchesne of the physical martyrdom of the child are not supported by any other testimony, though he was at this time seen by a great number of people. On 6 October, Pache, Chaumette, Jacques Hébert and others visited him and secured his signature to charges of sexual molestation against his mother, his sister and his aunt.[2] The next day he was confronted with his sister Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte for the last time.

1794: imprisoned prince becomes ill

Simon's wife now fell ill, and on 19 January 1794 the Simons left the Temple, after securing a receipt for the safe transfer of their ward, who was declared to be in good health. A large part of the Temple records from that time onwards were destroyed under the Bourbon Restoration, so that exact knowledge of the facts is practically impossible. Two days after the departure of the Simons the prisoner is said by the Restoration historians to have been put in a dark room which was barricaded like the cage of a wild animal. The story runs that food was passed through the bars to the child, who survived in spite of the accumulated filth of his surroundings.

Robespierre visited Marie-Thérèse on 11 May, but no one, according to the legend, entered the dauphin's room for six months until Barras visited the prison after the 9th Thermidor (27 July 1794). Barras's account of the visit describes the child as suffering from extreme neglect, but conveys no idea of the alleged walling in. It is nevertheless certain that during the first half of 1794 he was very strictly secluded; he had no special guardian, but was under the charge of guards who changed from day to day.

The child made no complaint to Barras of his treatment, possibly because he feared to do so. He was then cleaned and re-clothed. His room was cleaned, and during the day he was visited by his new attendant, a creole and a compatriot of Joséphine de Beauharnais, named Jean Jacques Christophe Laurent (1770–1807). From 8 November onwards, Laurent had assistance from a man named Gomin.

The child was now taken out to walk on the roof of the Tower. From about the time of Gomin's entrance the prisoner was inspected, not by delegates of the Commune, but by representatives of the civil committee of the 48 sections of Paris. The rare recurrence of the same inspectors would obviously facilitate fraud, if any such were intended. From the end of October onwards the child maintained an obstinate silence, explained by Laurent as a determination taken on the day he made his deposition against his mother. On 19 December 1794 he was visited by three commissioners from the Committee of General Security — J. B. Harmand de la Meuse, J. B. C. Mathieu and J. Reverchon — who extracted no word from him.

1795: Death

On Laurent's retirement, Étienne Lasne was appointed on 31 March 1795 to be the child's guardian. In May 1795 the prisoner was seriously ill, and a doctor, P. J. Desault well acquainted with the dauphin having visited him seven months earlier, was summoned. However, Desault died suddenly, not without suspicion of poison, on June 1, and it was some days before other doctors Pelletan and Dumangin were called.

It was announced that Louis Charles died on June 8. Next day an autopsy was conducted by Pelletan at which it was stated that a child apparently about ten years of age, "which the commissioners told us was the late Louis Capet's son", had died of a scrofulous infection of long standing. He was buried on the 10th in the cemetery of Ste. Marguerite, but no stone was erected to mark the spot. "Scrofula"[3] as it was previously known is nowadays called Tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis and that Latin refers to a lymphadenitis (chronic lymph node swelling or infection) of the neck (cervical lymph nodes) lymph nodes associated with tuberculosis.[4]


The weak parts of this story have been identified as: the sudden and unexplained departure of the Simons; the subsequent cruel treatment of the child – keeping him in a dark room practically out of sight (unless any doubt of his identity was possible), while his sister was in comparative comfort; the cause of death, declared to be of long standing, but in fact developed rapidly, and the fact that the disease is usually not fatal and is self-limiting; the insufficient excuse provided for the child's muteness under Gomin's regime (he had answered Barras) and the irregularities in the formalities in attending the death and the funeral, when a simple identification of the body by Marie Thérèse would have prevented any doubt of his death.

Immediately on the announcement of the dauphin's death a rumour arose that he had escaped. Simien-Despréaux, one of Louis XVIII's authors, stated in 1814 that Louis XVII was living and someone possessed proof of this; and Eckard, one of the mainstays of the official account, left among his unpublished papers a statement that many members of "an assembly of our wise men" obstinately named Louis XVII as the prince whom their wishes demanded.

Unfortunately the removal of the child suited the plans of the comte de Provence, now Louis XVIII, as well as it suited those of the revolutionary government. The royal family made no serious attempt to ascertain the truth, though they paid no tributes to the memory of the deceased king which might have been expected, had they been convinced of his death. Even his sister wore no mourning for him until she arrived at Vienna and saw that this was expected of her.

In 2000 Philippe Delorme arranged for DNA testing of the heart believed to have belonged to the child who died in captivity. The tests proved that the heart was that of Louis-Charles. French Legitimists organized its burial in the Basilica on 8 June 2004, next to the remains of Louis's parents.[5]

Lost Dauphin claimants

As rumours quickly spread that the body buried was not that of Louis-Charles and that he had been spirited away alive by sympathizers, the legend of the "Lost Dauphin" was born. When the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1814, hundreds of claimants came forward. Would-be royal heirs continued to appear across Europe for decades afterward and some of their descendants still have small but loyal retinues of followers today. Popular candidates for the Lost Dauphin included John James Audubon, the naturalist; Eleazer Williams, a missionary from Wisconsin of Mohawk Native American descent; and Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, a German clockmaker. However, DNA testing conducted in 1993 proved that Naundorff was not the Dauphin.[6]


Karl Wilhelm Naundorff's story rested on a series of complicated intrigues. According to him, Barras determined to save the dauphin in order to please Joséphine de Beauharnais, the future empress, having conceived the idea of using the dauphin's existence as a means of dominating the comte de Provence in the event of a restoration. The dauphin was concealed in the fourth storey of the Tower, a wooden figure being substituted for him. Laurent, to protect himself from the consequences of the substitution, replaced the wooden figure with a deaf mute, who was presently exchanged for the scrofulous child of the death certificate. The deaf mute was also concealed in the Temple. It was not the dead child, but the dauphin who left the prison in the coffin, to be retrieved by friends before it reached the cemetery.

Naundorff, or Näundorff, arrived from nowhere in Berlin in 1810, with papers giving the name Karl Wilhelm Naundorff. He said he was escaping persecution and settled at Spandau in 1812 as a clockmaker, marrying Johanna Einert in 1818. In 1822 he removed to Brandenburg, and in 1828 to Crossen, near Frankfurt. He was imprisoned from 1825 to 1828 for coining, though apparently on insufficient evidence, and in 1833 came to push his claims in Paris, where he was recognised as the dauphin by many persons formerly connected with the court of Louis XVI. Expelled from France in 1836, the day after bringing a suit against the duchess of Angoulême for the restitution of the dauphin's private property, he lived in exile until his death at Delft on 10 August 1845, and his tomb was inscribed "Louis XVII., roi de France et de Navarre (Charles Louis, duc de Normandie)". The Dutch authorities who had inscribed on his death certificate the name of Charles Louis de Bourbon, duc de Normandie (Louis XVII) permitted his son to bear the name de Bourbon, and when the family appealed in 1850–51, and again in 1874, for the restitution of their civil rights as heirs of Louis XVI, no less an advocate than Jules Favre pleaded their cause.


Richemont's tale that Mrs. Simon, who was genuinely attached to him, smuggled him out in a basket, is simple and more credible, and does not necessarily invalidate the story of the subsequent operations with the deaf mute and the scrofulous patient, Laurent in that case being deceived from the beginning, but it renders them extremely unlikely.

Richemont (Henri Ethelbert Louis Victor Hébert) was in prison in Milan for seven years and began to put forward his claims in Paris in 1828. In 1833 he was again arrested, was brought to trial in the following year and condemned to twelve years' imprisonment. He escaped after a few months and left the country, to return in 1840. He died at Gleize on 10 August 1853, the name of Louis Charles de France being inscribed on his tomb until the government ordered its removal.


A third pretender, Eleazar Williams, did not affect to know anything of his escape. He possessed, he said, no consciousness of his early years, only emerging from idiocy at the age of thirteen, when he was living with an Indian family in New York State. He was a missionary to the Indians when the prince de Joinville, son of Louis-Philippe, met him, and after some conversation asked him to sign a document abdicating his rights in favour of Louis-Philippe, in return for which he, the dauphin (alias Eleazar Williams), was to receive the private inheritance which was his. This Eleazar Williams refused to do. Williams' story is generally regarded as false.


Strangely, the account of the substitution in the Temple is well substantiated, even to the names of the substitutes. The curious imbroglio deceived royalists and republicans alike. Lady Atkyns was trying by every possible means to get the dauphin out of his prison when he was apparently already in safe hands, if not outside the Temple walls. A child was in fact delivered to her agents, but he was a deaf mute. That there was fraud, and a complicated fraud, in the guardians of the dauphin may be taken as proved by a succession of writers from 1850 onwards, and more recently by Frédéric Barbey, who wisely attempts no ultimate solution. When the partisans of Richemont or Naundorff come to the post-Temple careers of their heroes, they become in most cases so uncritical as to be unconvincing.

Ultimately, as many as 100 "false dauphins" appeared over the years. Whether there was any truth to any of their claims was uncertain, as there appeared to be no hard proof of the King's fate, until 2000 when DNA testing proved beyond doubt that Louis-Charles had indeed died in prison.

Philippe-Jean Pelletan was one of the doctors who attended Louis-Charles shortly before his death and subsequently Pelletan performed the autopsy. He removed the heart and this was not interred with the rest of Louis-Charles's body. Philippe-Jean Pelletan tried to return Louis-Charles's heart to Louis XVIII and Charles X, both of whom could not bring themselves to believe the heart to be that of their nephew. It is not known if Pelletan tried to approach Marie-Thérèse, Duchess of Angoulême.

The heart was stolen by one of Pelletan's students, who confessed to the theft on his deathbed and asked his wife to return it to Pelletan. Instead, she sent it to the Archbishop of Paris, Hyacinthe-Louis de Quélen, where it stayed until the Revolution of 1830.

It also spent some time in Spain. In 1895, Carlos, Duke of Madrid, nephew of the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria-Este (1817–1886), officially received the heart on behalf of Paul Cottin,[7][8] cousin of the owner and donator, Edouard Dumont.[9] The heart stayed in the castle of Frohsdorf, near Vienna in Austria. In 1909, Jaime, Duke of Madrid, son of Carlos, inherited from the relic, then his daughter Beatriz, princess Massimo and finally in 1938, Infanta Maria das Neves of Portugal, titular Queen consort of Spain, France, and Navarre.

By 1975, it was being kept in a crystal vase at the royal crypt in the Saint Denis Basilica outside Paris, the burial place of Louis-Charles's parents and other members of France's royal family.

In 2000, Philippe Delorme arranged for DNA testing of the heart as well as bone samples from Karl Wilhelm Naundorff. Ernst Brinkmann of Münster University and Belgian genetics professor Jean-Jacques Cassiman of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, conducted mitochondrial DNA tests in 2000 using samples from Marie-Antoinette, her sisters Maria Johanna Gabriela and Maria Josepha, their mother, Maria Theresa, and two living direct descendants in strict maternal line of Maria Theresa, Queen Anne of Romania and her brother, Prince André de Bourbon Parme. The tests proved that Naundorff was not the dauphin, and the heart was that of Louis-Charles. It was buried in the Basilica on 8 June 2004.[10]

In fiction

  • Louis XVII is the subject of an advice column appearing in the satirical newspaper The Onion called "Ask the Dauphin", which portrays him as a spoiled brat.




Titles, styles, honours and arms

Titles and styles

  • 27 March 1785 – 4 June 1789 His Royal Highness[11] the Duke of Normandy (Monseigneur le duc de Normandie)
  • 4 June 1789 – 1 October 1791 His Royal Highness the Dauphin of France (Monseigneur le Dauphin)
  • 21 January 1793 – 8 June 1795 His Majesty the King of France and Navarre [titular]


Kingdom of France portal

Further reading

  • Cadbury, Deborah. The Lost King of France: Revolution, Revenge and the Search for Louis XVII. London: Fourth Estate, 2002 (ISBN 1-84115-588-8, hardcover), 2003 (ISBN 1-84115-589-6, paperback); New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002 (ISBN 0-312-28312-1, hardcover); New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003 (ISBN 0-312-32029-9, paperback reprint). (Note that subtitles vary in different editions of the book.)
    • , Vol. 25, No. 8, 17 August 2003.
  • 'Live Free or Die' (historical thriller novel) by Dominic Lagan ISBN 978-0-9561518-0-3, Editions Gigouzac 2009 paperback

External links

Primary sources

  • (French) Duchess of Angoulême's Memoirs on the Captivity in the Temple (from the autograph manuscript)
  • Duchess of Angoulême's Memoirs on the Captivity in the Temple, (1823 English translation of a slightly redacted French edition)
  • Louis XVII

Other material

  • (French) Philippe Delorme's website (one page in English).
  • (French) Details about the DNA analysis of the heart believed to be that of Louis-Charles.
  • Internet Movie Database
  • "FRANCE SET TO BURY ROYAL AFTER 209 YEARS", "New York Post", 8 December 2003.
Louis XVII of France
Cadet branch of the Capetian dynasty
Born: 27 March 1785 Died: 8 June 1795
French royalty
Preceded by
Dauphin of France
4 June 1789 – 1 October 1791
Succeeded by
Heir to the Throne
as Heir apparent
4 June 1789 – 21 September 1792
Succeeded by
Joseph Bonaparte
Titles in pretence
Preceded by
Louis XVI
King of France and Navarre

21 January 1793 – 8 June 1795
Reason for succession failure:
Monarchy abolished in 1792
National Convention
assumes executive power
Title next held by
Napoleon I
as Emperor of the French
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