The late 1700's in France were alternately an exciting and terrible time. Shortly after the colonists in America won their freedom from the tyranny of English rule, the French were revving up their own revolution.
What many considered to be terrible financial and foreign policy decisions made by the throne had put France into very dire straits financially. The public believed that the Ancien Régime, essentially a political system devised in the 1500's that gave monarchs divine rule, did not have the interests of the commoners at heart. While people were literally starving in the streets of Paris, the queen, Marie Antoinette, was living the lifestyle of royalty to the fullest with expensive clothes and balls. Though it was a popularly held belief that the queen had uttered the famous saying “Let them eat cake,” she, in fact, had never done such a thing, but the people easily believed she had. It was just more fuel for the revolutionary fires. Already unpopular with the people, the Austrian Marie Antoinette became a target and much of the peoples’ suffering was blamed solely on her and the extravagant lifestyle she was believed to have led.
Though some very famous names had their lives cut short by Madame Guillotine, namely King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and, later, Robespierre, another royal also lost her life during the French Revolution. Her name was Princess Élisabeth, she was more commonly referred to as Madame Élisabeth, and she was the sister of the king.
Princess Élisabeth of France
Princess Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène of France of France was born on May 3, 1764. Her parents were Louis, the Dauphin of France (the official heir to the throne of France) and Duchess Maria Josepha of Saxony. When she was born, her official title was a Petite-Fille de France, because she was the granddaughter of the king.
In 1765, when Élisabeth was about a year old, her father died making her oldest brother, Louis Auguste, the Dauphin and heir to the throne. He would become King Louis XVI. In March of 1766, her mother died of tuberculosis. Élisabeth was not quite two years old.
Her education was overseen by a woman named Marie Louise de Rohan, who was the comtesse de Marsan and also held the official title of Governess of the Children of France. Not much of Élisabeth has been recorded, but it is known that she was a consummate equestrian and was also skilled in art.
Probably because of the loss of her parents at such an early age, Élisabeth was exceptionally close to her brother and never married. She did not want to enter into a marriage with someone from a foreign country because the union would take her away from her family. It is also known that Élisabeth had very strong religious faith and grew to have strong conservative royalist stances on politics.
Princess Élisabeth and the French Revolution
By 1789, being a French royal was a perilous thing. In July of that year, the mobs of Paris had overthrown the legendary prison fortress in what came to be known as The Storming of the Bastille. A few days later, French royals began leaving the country in a panicked and steady stream, however Elisabeth chose to stay with her brother.
On October 5, 1789, the royal family, which included Louis XVI, his wife, Marie Antoinette and their children, Marie-Thérèse and Louis-Charles (the Dauphin) and Princess Élisabeth, were attacked at the Palace at Versailles. The angry mob wanted Marie Antoinette’s blood. Fortunately for her, the situation was diffused but the family was still brought back to Paris by the people. They were put on what amounted to a somewhat relaxed house arrest at the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
In June of 1791, Louis XVI orchestrated an escape plan that was foiled, and the royal family was returned to Tuileries and locked down tightly, where they lived in relative fear for their lives for a little over a year.
On the 13th of August, 1792, Louis XVI was arrested for treason. On the 21st of September, he was stripped of all of his official royal titles and was known by the name Citizen Louis Capet. The monarchy had officially been abolished. On the 24th, the remaining family members were arrested and moved to Temple Tower.
While the now Louis Capet was suffering these machinations and humiliations of the new French Republic and fearing for his very life, his sister Élisabeth remained with the rest of the royal family at Temple Tower. Not much is said of their quality of life, but they may have attempted to carry on with the education of the two children. Élisabeth was known as a conservative, and may have had some dealings with royalist factions in Paris, but these were secretive and likely hard to orchestrate given the security detail guarding the royals.
On December 11, 1792, Louis Capet was officially charged with treason. His council defended against the charges, but a guilty verdict was almost totally assured even before the beginning of the trial. On January 15th, 1793, the former King Louis XVI was convicted of treason and the next day he was sentenced to death. He was executed six days later at the guillotine.
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The Trial and Execution of Princess Élisabeth of France
With Louis dead, the fates of the rest of the family were uncertain. His young son, Louis-Charles, would have, by default, become the new King of France upon his father’s death, but the monarchy had been abolished. On July 3, 1793, Louis-Charles was removed from the custody of his mother. Marie Antoinette, Marie-Thérèse and Princess Élisabeth did, however remain together.
With the official arrest of Marie Antoinette, having been referred to as the Widow Caput since the execution of her husband, on August 2, 1793, Marie-Thérèse and Princess Élisabeth remained together, yet still under arrest. The former queen was executed on October 16th of that year.
Princess Élisabeth wasn't considered much of a threat to the newborn French Republic. Though she was conservative and devoutly religious, her brother Louis Stanislas, definitely did have the support of the remaining French Royalists and would, after The Terror, become King Louis XVIII. At some point, Robespierre, who helped engineer the early days of the French Republic, had considered banishing her from France. However, on May 7, 1794, she was arrested and brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal to answer to charges of treason.
Because Élisabeth had not evacuated France before the arrest of her brother, her fate was likely already sealed. She was also involved and implicated in the escape attempt of the royal family in June of 1791. This was what ultimately gave the new government cause to charge her with treason.
During her trial, which began on May 9, 1794, she was repeatedly called the “Sister of a Tyrant,” and was ultimately found guilty of the charges against her. Élisabeth was sentenced to death by the same instrument that had taken the lives of her brother and sister-in-law – the guillotine. Death would come for her the very next day.
On the day of her execution, Élisabeth was transported to the scaffold with twenty-three others who were to meet the same fate as she. It has been said that her devoutly religious nature helped her comfort those who were executed before her and that she prayed through the entire ordeal.
When her turn came, it is said that she went willingly, after having been forced to watch the executions of those condemned who she had helped comfort. The lever was released and Princess Élisabeth of France was no more.
She was buried in a common grave. When her brother, who took the throne as Louis XVIII in 1795, attempted to locate her body, he was unsuccessful. The bodies of those who were executed had been treated with chemicals which caused rapid decomposition, rendering most of the remains unidentifiable.
Some believe that, because of her conservatism and her devout Catholic faith, Élisabeth died a martyr and, indeed, have petitioned the Catholic Church to grace her with sainthood. That petition has been pending since 1924.
© 2013 Georgie Lowery
Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on February 10, 2013:
A very interesting article and sad that a lady such as Elisabeth should have been executed when she was obviously no threat - but when there is mob rule no real justice is given.
Martin Kloess from San Francisco on February 09, 2013:
Excellent report. Thank you for going through the effort to bring this to us.
Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on February 09, 2013:
A good article on a great lady. Thank you.