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Madame Élisabeth

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Madame Élisabeth

"Elisabeth of France" redirects here. For other uses, see Elisabeth of France (disambiguation).
Princess of France

Full name
Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène de France
Father Louis, Dauphin of France
Mother Duchess Maria Josepha of Saxony
Born (1764-05-03)3 May 1764
Palace of Versailles, France
Died 10 May 1794(1794-05-10) (aged 30)
Paris, France
Burial Cimetière des Errancis, Paris, France, (first)

Catacombs of Paris (final)

Élisabeth of France (Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène de France;[1][2] 3 May 1764 – 10 May 1794), known as Madame Élisabeth, was a French princess and the youngest sibling of King Louis XVI. During the French Revolution, she remained beside the king and his family and was executed at Place de la Révolution in Paris during the Terror.


Élisabeth was born on 3 May 1764 in the Palace of Versailles in France, the youngest child of Louis, Dauphin of France, and his wife, Marie-Josèphe of Saxony. Her paternal grandparents were King Louis XV of France and his consort, Queen Maria Leszczyńska. As the granddaughter of the king, she was a Petite-Fille de France. Her maternal grandparents were King Augustus III of Poland, also the Elector of Saxony, and his wife, the Archduchess Maria Josepha, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I.

At the sudden death of her father in 1765, Élisabeth's oldest surviving brother, Louis Auguste (later to be Louis XVI of France), became the new Dauphin (the heir-apparent to the French throne). Their mother Marie Josèphe, who never recovered from the loss of her husband, died in March 1767 from tuberculosis.[3] This left Élisabeth an orphan at the age of just two years old, along with her older siblings: Louis Auguste, Louis Stanislas, Count of Provence, Charles Philippe and Clotilde ("Madame Clotilde").

Élisabeth and her sister Clotilde were then raised by Marie Louise de Rohan, comtesse de Marsan and Governess of the Children of France and sister of the Prince of Soubise. She was given a good education. A skillful rider, she was also interested in art; several of her drawings are preserved in the museum of the Château de Versailles. In 1774, her grandfather, Louis XV, died and her elder brother ascended the throne as Louis XVI.

Élisabeth was deeply religious. She was devoted to her brother the king, and refused to marry (as it would have been to a foreign prince) so that she might remain in France: in 1777, a marriage was suggested to Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, son of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and brother of her sister-in-law, Queen Marie Antoinette, but she declined with her brother's consent.


Élisabeth and her brother Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois, were the staunchest conservatives in the royal family. Unlike Artois, who, on the order of the king, left France on 17 July 1789, three days after the storming of the Bastille,[4] Élisabeth refused to emigrate when the gravity of the events set forth by the French Revolution became clear. After the march of women to Versailles on 5 October 1789, and the transfer of the royal family to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, she remained with the king and his family, rather than with her aunts, mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire, at the château de Bellevue, near Paris.

During this time, she corresponded with the exiled comte d'Artois. One of her letters, in which she expressed her view that a foreign intervention by the exiled French royalists and foreign monarchies was necessary to restore the old regime, was intercepted by the National Assembly. She was loyal to the royal couple, but was more unyielding toward any compromises in the limitation of the powers of the Church and the monarchy.

In February 1791, she still chose not to emigrate with her aunts Adélaïde and Victoire, but accompanied the royal family on its unsuccessful escape attempt of 20 June 1791, which was stopped at Varennes. During the storming of the Tuileries Palace, she showed herself to the crowd, who mistook her for the queen.

On 10 August 1792, when insurgents attacked the Tuileries, she followed the king and his family, seeking refuge at the Legislative Assembly, where she witnessed, later on in the day, her brother's dethronement. The whole family was transferred to the Temple Tower three days later. After the execution of the former king on 21 January 1793 and the separation of her nephew, the young "Louis XVII" from the rest of the family on 3 July, Élisabeth was left with Marie Antoinette, and Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, Madame Royale, in their apartment in the Tower. The former queen was taken to the Conciergerie on 2 August 1793, and executed on 16 October. Marie Antoinette's last letter, written in the early hours of the day of her execution, was addressed to Élisabeth, but never reached her. Élisabeth and Marie-Thérèse were kept in ignorance of Marie Antoinette's death.

Trial and execution

Élisabeth was not regarded as dangerous by Robespierre, and the original plan had been to banish her from France. She spent her last days with Marie-Thérèse, comforting and looking after her niece, who later wrote of her: "I feel I have her nature . . . [she] considered me and cared for me as her daughter, and I, I honoured her as a second mother".[5] On 9 May 1794, however, she was transferred to the Conciergerie and brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. She was accused of assisting the king's flight, of supplying émigrés with funds, and of encouraging the resistance of the royal troops during the events of 10 August 1792. During her trial, she replied, when addressed as "The Sister of a Tyrant": "If my brother had been what you call him, you would not have been where you are, nor I where I am". She was condemned to death and guillotined the following day.[6]

She was executed along with 23 other men and women, who had been tried and condemned at the same time as she. A devout Roman Catholic, and the highest ranking among them, in the cart taking them to their execution, and while waiting her turn, she helped several of them through the ordeal, encouraging them and reciting the De profundis until her time came.[7]

At the foot of the guillotine, two of the women who were also in the cart asked to kiss her before their execution. Elizabeth gladly did so, and then was forced by the executioners to remain in the cart and watch the others being executed, before she herself was finally taken up to be guillotined.[8] While she was being strapped to the board, her shawl fell off, exposing her shoulders, and she cried to the executioner “Au nom de votre mère, monsieur, couvrez-moi. (In the name of your mother, sir, cover me)”.[9]

Her body was buried in a common grave at the Errancis Cemetery in Paris.[10] At the time of the Restoration, her brother Louis XVIII searched for her remains, only to discover that the bodies interred there had decomposed to a state where they could no longer be identified. Élisabeth's remains, with that of other victims of the guillotine (including Robespierre, also buried at the Errancis Cemetery), were later placed in the Catacombs of Paris. A medallion represents her at the Basilica of Saint Denis.

The Cause of Beatification of Élisabeth has been introduced in 1924, but not finished yet.


Élisabeth, who had turned thirty a week before her death, was executed essentially because she was a sister of the king; however, the general consensus of the French revolutionaries was that she was a supporter of the ultra-right royalist faction. There is much evidence to suggest that she actively supported the intrigues of the comte d'Artois to bring foreign armies into France to crush the Revolution. In monarchist circles, her exemplary private life elicited much admiration. Élisabeth was much praised for her charitable nature, familial devotion and devout Catholic faith. There can be no question that she saw the Revolution as the incarnation of evil on earth and viewed civil war as the only means to drive it from the land.

Royalist literature represents her as a Catholic martyr, while left-wing historians severely criticise her for extreme conservatism, which seemed excessive even to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Several biographies have been published of her in French, while extensive treatment of her life is given in Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette and Deborah Cadbury's investigative biography of Louis XVII.

See also



Primary source

  • (French) Duchess of Angoulême's Memoirs on the Captivity in the Temple (from the autograph manuscript; see in particular Part 3)
  • Duchess of Angoulême's Memoirs on the Captivity in the Temple, (1823 English translation of a slightly redacted French edition; see in particular Part 3)


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