The Heart of a King

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The Heart of a King

They buried the King of France earlier this month. You may have missed the news of his death, which also occurred during June—June of 1795, that is. And thereby hangs a historical tale.


 


As an earlier article by the History Doctor explained (Ask the History Doc: Louis XVII), a short time after the French revolution broke out, the royal family was moved forcibly from Versailles to Paris, which had become the center of all the political action. The Dauphin, young Louis, eventually found himself incarcerated with his mother, Marie Antoinette, his father, Louis XVI, and his sister, known as Madame Royale. As the Reign of Terror got underway, the monarchy was abolished and the guillotine got busy making many Frenchmen “a foot shorter.” The young boy, only four at the time the revolution had begun, was forced to deal with the painful series of events leading to the executions of both of his parents. To Royalists, of course, the execution of Louis XVI meant that on his death, his young imprisoned son became the legitimate ruler of France.


 


For a time, both Louis and his sister managed to survive, even though the conditions under which they were incarcerated in the Temple seem to have been fairly grim. Although his sister survived the revolution, Louis was not so fortunate. It is probably understandable that under the circumstances the ten-year-old boy’s physical constitution became severely weakened, and in June of 1795 he succumbed to tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his older brother some years earlier. Young Louis, like his father and mother, was taken to a common burial site near the present day church of St. Marguerite. But not before an autopsy was performed, and that is where the story gets really interesting.


 


The physician who performed the autopsy managed somehow to take off with the boy’s heart, apparently concealed in his handkerchief underneath his jacket. He hid the heart for some years, preserving it in a jar of alcohol. The heart, known by the doctor’s students to be that of the boy king, evidently presented a grave temptation, and finally one of the young students succumbed. He snatched the jar, carrying it to his residence and concealing its whereabouts until he himself was on his deathbed, at which time he requested that his wife return the jar with the now-pickled heart to the doctor’s family.


 


After that, the heart apparently traveled extensively throughout Europe, even making its way to Spain to rest in the custody of the Spanish branch of the Bourbon family for some years. That family branch returned the heart to France in 1975, and it was placed in the Basilica of St. Denis.


 


But controversy swirled about the object in the jar. Was it really the heart of Louis XVII? If it was, what about the many persons who had claimed to be young Louis throughout the years after the Revolution? Could it be, instead, the heart of a pretender, someone who was switched with the child ruler? In the end, only medical science could provide the answer, and then only after working through a lengthy series of regulations imposed by the French government.


 


Early this year, the Cultural Ministry finally approved DNA testing on the heart. Comparisons were made using DNA samples from the Bourbon-Parme family and, most tellingly, with a strand of hair known to be from the boy’s mother, Marie Antoinette. While the report did not confirm the heart’s identity “100 percent,” it did declare that the heart is “undoubtedly that of a Habsburg and almost certainly that of Louis XVII,” adding that, “this is about as sure as it gets.”


 


And so, earlier this month, the heart of young Louis was buried in the royal crypt at St. Denis, 209 years to the day after his death. The crystal vase containing the heart, carried in by the young prince Amaury de Bourbon de Parme, was treated with great respect throughout the Mass, the ceremony itself being worthy of any royal personage. Cardinal Jean Honore, presiding over a crowd of more than a thousand mourners, spoke of the child as a victim of the murderous folly of the revolution. At the close, the duc d’Anjou Louis-Alphonse de Bourbon, direct descendant of Louis XVI, was greeted by the crowd outside the basilica with the acclamation “Vive le roi.”


 


And so at last, the young boy who lived for ten short years, who never got a chance to rule, who was separated so callously from his mother, his father, and then even from his sister, has finally come home to rest near his royal parents.



Requiescat in pace.

 






See also, Bonjour Paris, “
My Best-Kept Paris Secret,” Thirza Vallois.



“The Lost King of France: A True Story of Revolution, Revenge, and DNA” by Deborah Cadbury is available from Amazon.com.












Jean England Freeland is a now-retired professor of history presently living on a real farm raising real fruit and veggies. After struggling to learn French for four years, she has at last reached the point where, whenever she visits Paris and actually speaks the language, the natives no longer flee screaming. She considers this one of the major accomplishments of her life.


They buried the King of France earlier this month. You may have missed the news of his death, which also occurred during June—June of 1795, that is. And thereby hangs a historical tale.


 


As an earlier article by the History Doctor explained (Ask the History Doc: Louis XVII), a short time after the French revolution broke out, the royal family was moved forcibly from Versailles to Paris, which had become the center of all the political action. The Dauphin, young Louis, eventually found himself incarcerated with his mother, Marie Antoinette, his father, Louis XVI, and his sister, known as Madame Royale. As the Reign of Terror got underway, the monarchy was abolished and the guillotine got busy making many Frenchmen “a foot shorter.” The young boy, only four at the time the revolution had begun, was forced to deal with the painful series of events leading to the executions of both of his parents. To Royalists, of course, the execution of Louis XVI meant that on his death, his young imprisoned son became the legitimate ruler of France.


 


For a time, both Louis and his sister managed to survive, even though the conditions under which they were incarcerated in the Temple seem to have been fairly grim. Although his sister survived the revolution, Louis was not so fortunate. It is probably understandable that under the circumstances the ten-year-old boy’s physical constitution became severely weakened, and in June of 1795 he succumbed to tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his older brother some years earlier. Young Louis, like his father and mother, was taken to a common burial site near the present day church of St. Marguerite. But not before an autopsy was performed, and that is where the story gets really interesting.


 


The physician who performed the autopsy managed somehow to take off with the boy’s heart, apparently concealed in his handkerchief underneath his jacket. He hid the heart for some years, preserving it in a jar of alcohol. The heart, known by the doctor’s students to be that of the boy king, evidently presented a grave temptation, and finally one of the young students succumbed. He snatched the jar, carrying it to his residence and concealing its whereabouts until he himself was on his deathbed, at which time he requested that his wife return the jar with the now-pickled heart to the doctor’s family.


 


After that, the heart apparently traveled extensively throughout Europe, even making its way to Spain to rest in the custody of the Spanish branch of the Bourbon family for some years. That family branch returned the heart to France in 1975, and it was placed in the Basilica of St. Denis.


 


But controversy swirled about the object in the jar. Was it really the heart of Louis XVII? If it was, what about the many persons who had claimed to be young Louis throughout the years after the Revolution? Could it be, instead, the heart of a pretender, someone who was switched with the child ruler? In the end, only medical science could provide the answer, and then only after working through a lengthy series of regulations imposed by the French government.


 


Early this year, the Cultural Ministry finally approved DNA testing on the heart. Comparisons were made using DNA samples from the Bourbon-Parme family and, most tellingly, with a strand of hair known to be from the boy’s mother, Marie Antoinette. While the report did not confirm the heart’s identity “100 percent,” it did declare that the heart is “undoubtedly that of a Habsburg and almost certainly that of Louis XVII,” adding that, “this is about as sure as it gets.”


 


And so, earlier this month, the heart of young Louis was buried in the royal crypt at St. Denis, 209 years to the day after his death. The crystal vase containing the heart, carried in by the young prince Amaury de Bourbon de Parme, was treated with great respect throughout the Mass, the ceremony itself being worthy of any royal personage. Cardinal Jean Honore, presiding over a crowd of more than a thousand mourners, spoke of the child as a victim of the murderous folly of the revolution. At the close, the duc d’Anjou Louis-Alphonse de Bourbon, direct descendant of Louis XVI, was greeted by the crowd outside the basilica with the acclamation “Vive le roi.”


 


And so at last, the young boy who lived for ten short years, who never got a chance to rule, who was separated so callously from his mother, his father, and then even from his sister, has finally come home to rest near his royal parents.



Requiescat in pace.

 







See also, Bonjour Paris, “My Best-Kept Paris Secret,” Thirza Vallois.






“The Lost King of France: A True Story of Revolution, Revenge, and DNA” by Deborah Cadbury is available from Amazon.com.












Jean England Freeland is a now-retired professor of history presently living on a real farm raising real fruit and veggies. After struggling to learn French for four years, she has at last reached the point where, whenever she visits Paris and actually speaks the language, the natives no longer flee screaming. She considers this one of the major accomplishments of her life.

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