The last decades of monarchical rule in France were tumultuous. The kings of France found themselves called to account for their totalitarian rule by more and more powerful blocks in opposition, and the opulent lifestyle of the French court at Versailles became more and more the subject of outrage among the general populace.
But, not all the French kings were to blame. One such innocent was Louis XVII, and the story of what happened to him, and the mystery surrounding his life, should be a cautionary tale to all those who would use children as political pawns.
The Child King
Louis XVII, born as Louis Charles, was the son of Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI of France. He was born on the 27th of March, 1785, the second son of the royal couple.
His elder brother, Louis Joseph, died at the age of seven from tuberculosis in June 1789, and Louis Charles became the “Dauphin”, the title accorded to the heir apparent of the throne of France. But external events were to overtake him while he was still a child.
The French Revolution, in 1789, led to the violent overthrow of the French monarchy. Louis XVI was publicly beheaded on 21 January 1793, with Madam Tussaud ultimately taking the waxworks of his and Marie Antoinette’s severed heads to London to form her famous waxwork museum. Louis Charles was now Louis XVII, the hereditary king of France.
However, he was also the figurehead and focal point of the despised royal family whose callous disregard for the common man had brought about the Revolution. Louis had been arrested and imprisoned along with the royal family, and was held in the Tower of the Square du Temple, in Paris, until the night of the 3 July, 1793.
On that night the guards of the prison came in order to separate the 8-year-old Louis Charles from his mother and sister. Marie Antoinette resisted for nearly an hour. However, finally, she gave up. Louis Charles was separated and imprisoned in a tiny windowless room, all alone.
What Happened In the Temple?
The mystery of the “Lost Dauphin” actually began when Louis XVII was first incarcerated in the Temple prison in Paris. The couple who were in charge of the safekeeping of Louis resigned from their post, and the new jailer is believed to have harshly treated the young king.
According to the official records, Louis died on the 8 June, 1795 at the age of ten in the Temple prison. His autopsy recorded that he died due to tuberculosis, brought on and exacerbated by this harsh treatment. Some say that he died not of tuberculosis but entirely due to neglect by the jailers.
However, immediately rumors started to fly around the fate of the young king. Some said that the guards had murdered him in his cell, removing a dangerous focal point for the monarchist cause. And some others said that the boy who died that night was not Louis XVII at all.
The body taken to the morgue was examined by five people. All of them testified that he was Louis XVII. However, those people who testified to him had never seen the Dauphin of France in reality.
The sister of Louis, who could have positively identified him, was never consulted. And his body was buried on the 10th of June, before anyone who might recognize that he was not Louis XVII had a chance to see him.
Rumors and Claimants
After the news of the death broke, rumors started spreading that the Dauphin of France was not dead but had in fact been spirited out of the Temple by royalist sympathizers. It is a confirmed fact that supporters of the monarchy were indeed actively trying to rescue Louis at this time, and the belief was that they had succeeded.
The rumors were mainly based on a confession that stated that the boy who died in prison was an imposter. The woman who was the jailer of Louis XVII confessed that she, along with her husband, had smuggled another boy in the Temple prison.
After resigning as the keeper of the young prince, the couple had then smuggled him out and left another to face the cruel treatment of the jailer, who did not know what Louis looked like. And what better way to protect the young king than to let the world believe he was dead?
However, this mystery also lead to many imposters coming forward, and over the years over one hundred people claimed that they were Louis XVII. One such example was the popular naturalist John James Audubon.
Seizing on his superficial resemblance and similarities in age to Louis, many people believed that he was the real Louis although Audubon himself denied this. It was not helpful that his true origin was itself obscure, having been adopted at the same time that Louis was believed to have escaped.
Eleazer Williams was another claimant. He was a Protestant missionary who, when at the house of a man named Francis Vinton, started trembling and shaking after seeing the portrait of Antoine Simon, the jailer who had mistreated Louis XVII.
According to the rumors, Simon had physically abused Louis in the Temple prison, and this strong reaction convinced Francis Vinton that Williams was the real Louis Charles. However, Williams could not recall anything about his early life or how he escaped the prison.
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There was no evidence that could clearly prove that Eleazer Williams was Louis XVII. Moreover, as Williams had a Native American ancestry, it seems very likely that he was not, in fact, the king of France.
Naundorff the Clockmaker
One of the most intriguing claimants was the German clockmaker, Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, who put forward several pieces of evidence in order to support his claim, mostly eyewitness confirmation from people who knew Louis. Based on this, he gained the widespread support of people.
He was even successful in convincing the childhood nurse of Louis XVII that he was genuine. The nurse had put forward a number of questions relating to his childhood memories, which he was apparently able to answer.
The government even recognized him as Louis XVII, and he was allowed to adopt the royal family name of Bourbon. However, it would seem that he was actually one of the great con-artists of history.
In the year 1950, a bone from the grave of Karl Wilhelm Naundorff was taken and tested for DNA. His DNA did not match the DNA of Marie Antoinette or any of the members of the family of Louis Charles. It was only then that people came to know that Karl Wilhelm Naundorff was not Louis XVII but an imposter.
Can DNA Provide the Answer, Then?
The possibility of the Lost Dauphin having survived is still up for debate, although most historians believe he did indeed die in the Temple in 1795. However, modern science can help in resolving the mystery through DNA testing.
On the 19th of April, 2000, two scientists sought to shed light on the identity of the boy who died on the 8 June, 1795, through testing his heart.
The heart of Louis XVII (Unknown Author / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The hearts of French kings are traditionally preserved on their deaths, and so it was with the boy who died in the tower. And when the remains of this heart were tested, it was found that it did in deed belong to Louis Charles.
The DNA testing showed a familial relationship to Marie Antoinette, Louis XVII’s mother. Barring shenanigans, it would seem that the boy king did indeed die of neglect and tuberculosis all alone in the tower, aged only ten.
Top Image: Louis XVII, the Lost Dauphin of France, painted in 1792. Source: Alexander Kucharsky / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri