Born in turmoil, just over a month before the breakout of the chaotic and bloodthirsty French Revolution, Dauphin (Crown Prince) Louis XVII was surely the unluckiest of France’s kings.
During his short life-span of ten years, little Louis Charles suffered immense pain along with mental and physical torture. Yet the venerable royal blood still flowed in his veins, which made it possible for the boy to forgive those who tormented his family.
King Louis XVII (1785-1795), born Louis Charles, was the youngest son of King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette.
In 1789, the year revolution broke out, Louis Charles was devastated by the untimely death of his older brother Louis Joseph. Then, in a double-blow, his father King Louis XVI was executed by the Jacobins in February 1793.
Young Louis Charles became the King of France in the eyes of the royalists who hoped for a restoration of the monarchy. However, the young Republic made sure that Louis XVII never actually governed.
In October 1789, the royal family was forcefully brought to the Tuileries Palace by a Parisian mob of rebellious women, who were angry about the rising price of bread.
Every royal family member was surrounded by revolutionary guards at all times. They were even present in Queen Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at night, and during her visits to her children.
After many failed escape attempts, and the execution of Louis XVI in front of the mob, the young Louis Charles was separated from his family; the rebels understood that in the royal eyes, he would be King of France. The revolutionary government placed him under the custody of Antoine Simon, a Parisian cobbler and fierce supporter of the Revolution.
Given free rein by the new government to transform the French king into a new, staunch citizen, Simon tortured Louis Charles in myriad ways.
In her memoir about her service to Queen Marie Antoinette, governess Henriette Campan described the cruelty inflicted by Simon on little Louis Charles in detail.
He arbitrarily starved the boy, then forced him to eat and drink to excess. The little boy was beaten, humiliated, and trained as “a wolf.” Simon woke him up with the nickname “Capet” (a scornful reference to Huge Capet, one of France’s founding kings) in the middle of the night, called him to come near his bed, and then punched or kicked the poor boy.
The Crown Prince’s older sister Marie Therese wrote in her memoirs about “the monster Simon.” She claims Simon forced the boy to get drunk on brandy, punished him if he showed sympathy, and rewarded him if he was vile.
The foreign secretaries of England and Spain also heard from their spies that the boy was raped by prostitutes in order to infect him with venereal diseases, to create “evidence” that would justify the vilification and the execution of his mother Marie Antoinette.
Later, some revolutionary government officials even forcibly secured his signature to charges of sexual molestation against his mother.
Once, when Simon was torturing Louis Charles, the boy fell down on the floor, suffering in pain. Simon laughed and asked, “If you are king, Capet, what will you do to me?” According to his governess, Louis Charles thought of his dead father, then said: “I would forgive you.”
In January 1794, Simon left the medieval fortress Le Temple where Louis Charles was imprisoned. But the days of exile were not over for the little boy. Some memoirs say that he was locked in a dark room, where he was caged like a zoo animal. Occasional food was passed through the bars, and the boy lived in his own filth.
His treatment changed dramatically when revolutionary leader Paul Barras visited Louis Charles in July 1794. Finding a psychologically scarred child who could barely speak, the crown prince was cleaned, re-clothed, and allowed to walk outside for fresh air. However, Louis Charles never regained the ability to speak, nor could he walk without support.
In May 1795, Louis XVII became seriously ill. He died of tuberculosis on June 8. During the autopsy, the attending physician, Dr. Pelletan, was shocked to see the countless scars on the body of the boy that remained after his mistreatment at the hands of Simon and his revolutionary jailers.
Louis Charles, the unlucky French king, was buried on June 10 but without any stone to mark his grave. Even today, no one has yet been able to identify exactly where he was buried.
However, Dr. Pelletan, following the royal tradition at the time, smuggled out his heart during the autopsy and stored it in distilled alcohol to preserve it.
This carefully preserved heart is all that remains of the poor, unfortunate French king.
While modern historians have often overlooked the violence of French revolutionaries by thinking of them as “progressive,” this label cannot obscure the truth behind the scenes of terror unleashed by the Jacobins and their guillotines.
Nor can it hide the truth about the noble demeanor of the French royal family, such as King Louis XVI or King Louis XVII, even in the face of incomprehensible cruelty.