Dozens of Imposters Pretended to be Louis XVII, Marie Antoinette’s Son
The executions of both Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI have acquired legendary status. Surprisingly, the fate of their son, and the dozens of imposters who came out of the woodwork claiming to be the missing Louis XVII, have been all but forgotten. Born into a privileged existence within Versailles, Louis-Charles was the third child of Marie Antoinette, whose popularity plummeted in the lead up to the French Revolution.
Marie Antoinette had four children. The death of her eldest son, Louis Joseph, at age seven in June 1789 of tuberculosis, made Louis-Charles the last legitimate heir in the family. The family was imprisoned at Temple Prison in August 1792, the monarchy was abolished and in January 1793 Louis XVI, who was by now known as Citizen Louis Capet, was executed during the Reign of Terror.
Marie Antoinette with her children, Louis-Charles and Marie-Thérèse, facing the mob in June 1792. (Public domain)
Louis-Charles was their next target and in July 1793 he was separated from his mother and used as a pawn during his mother’s trial. Marie Antoinette was nothing if not maternal, an image fostered throughout her reign. Jacques René Hébert, editor of the newspaper Le Père Duchesne, came up with a plan to damage her reputation, claiming she had sexually abused her son. He even managed to get Louis-Charles to sign a document supporting his allegations. Described at her trial as “the scourge and the blood-sucker of the French,” Marie Antoinette was executed in October 1793.
With his sister Marie-Thérèse in a nearby cell, Louis-Charles was left in solitary confinement and was pronounced dead due to tuberculosis on 8 June 1795 at the age of 10. When performing the autopsy, a Dr. Pellatan found evidence of the awful abuse he had suffered. He secretly cut out the boy’s heart and smuggled it out, while the body of the young king was buried in a mass grave nearby.
Portrait of the children of Marie Antoinette, Marie-Thérèse and Louis XVII. (Public domain)
By the time Marie-Thérèse was released in December 1795, rumors had already begun about the fate of Louis XVII. In what has been dubbed “the fauxdauphinomanie of the early nineteenth century,” dozens of fraudsters attempted to adopt the identity of the lost dauphin over the coming decades. While some of their stories were ludicrous, the hounding she suffered must have been unbearable.
The most successful amongst them was Jean-Marie Hervagault, who, inspired by a book published in 1800 entitled Le Cimetière de la Madeleine, copied the plot and claimed to be the lost boy-king rescued from the Temple. Meanwhile, Karl Wilhelm Naundorff claimed to have been smuggled out in a basket. His tomb in Delft was inscribed Louis XVII, roi de France et de Navarre. There were even allegations that the young king had been rescued during a royalist plot and was living in the New World. To that end Reverend Eleazer Williams, a missionary of Native American descent in Wisconsin, somehow convinced several people that he was in fact the lost king.
The mummified heart of Louis XVII, Marie Antoinette’s son, in the Chapel of the Bourbons at the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Denis near Paris. (ctj71081 / CC BY-NC 2.0)
200 years of uncertainty finally came to an end thanks to the heart smuggled out by Pellatan. Pickled in an alcohol-filled glass vial, the heart of Louis XVII had, after an extraordinary journey of its own, found its way home. In the hope of putting an end to the conspiracy theories, in 2000, scientists matched the DNA of the mummified heart with that of a lock of hair from Marie Antoinette and the DNA of other members of the royal family. In 2004, 209 years after he died, Louis XVII was interred near the remains of his parents at the royal crypt of St. Denis to the sound of a small crowd shouting “long live the King.”
Top image: Portrait of Dauphin Louis-Charles of France, Marie Antoinette’s son. Source: Public domain
By Cecilia Bogaard