Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Princesse de Lamballe

Among the thousands murdered during the French Revolution, one of the most notorious cases was that of the death of the Princesse de Lamballe, friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette. The fury of the new order of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity vented itself upon her frail form in a manner of extreme violence. This was as strange as it was hideous, because other than being a confidante of the queen's, Madame de Lamballe could be counted among the more liberal, "enlightened" aristocrats, devoted to works of charity and civil improvements.

Contrary to the standard depiction of Lamballe as a lovely but simpering idiot, the princess was intelligent as well as cultured. She was the Grande Maitresse of all the French masonic ladies' lodges, for she saw freemasonry as a tool for creating a better world, as did many of her contemporaries. Her liberal politics were one of the reasons, according to scholar Bernard Fay, that King Louis XVI encouraged his wife towards the Polignacs, and away from Lamballe and her Orleanist salon. Madame de Lamballe discovered before the end that utopian politics that seek to create an earthly paradise inevitably lead to social chaos.

Marie-Therese-Louise de Savoie-Carignan was born in Turin on September 8, 1749. In 1767 she was married to the Prince de Lamballe, son of the Duc de Penthievre, relatives of the French royal family. Her husband died soon afterwards, and the young Marie-Antoinette pitied her and took her sleigh-riding. According to Madame Campan, the queen's chambermaid:
It was at the time of the sleighing-parties that the Queen became intimately acquainted with the Princesse de Lamballe, who made her appearance in them wrapped in fur, with all the brilliancy and freshness of the age of twenty,–the emblem of spring, peeping from under sable and ermine. Her situation, moreover, rendered her peculiarly interesting; married, when she was scarcely past childhood, to a young prince, who ruined himself by the contagious example of the Duc d’Orleans, she had had nothing to do from the time of her arrival in France but to weep. A widow at eighteen, and childless, she lived with the Duc de Penthievre as an adopted daughter. She had the tenderest respect and attachment for that venerable Prince; but the Queen, though doing justice to his virtues, saw that the Duc de Penthievre’s way of life, whether at Paris or at his country-seat, could neither afford his young daughter-in-law the amusements suited to her time of life, nor ensure her in the future an establishment such as she was deprived of by her widowhood.
Marie-Antoinette made Madame de Lamballe, known for her virtue and kindness, the Superintendent of her household, which was controversial at the time since there were other courtiers who felt the position was due to them. The two women became good friends. The queen was always trying to recapture the home she had left in Austria, where she had been inseparable from her older sister Maria Carolina, who had mothered her a great deal. Madame de Lamballe and Madame de Polignac were both roughly the same age as Carolina. However, Lamballe was a bit too intellectual for Antoinette and highly neurotic, and so the queen, with Louis' approval, eventually became closer to the Polignacs. She always remained friends with Lamballe, however.

When the Revolution erupted in 1789, Madame de Lamballe returned to France from the safety of England in order to share the troubles of the royal family. She became closer than ever to the king's devout sister, Madame Elisabeth of France, and was horrified at how the masonic principles she had thought to be so constructive had led to such a violent revolution. When the royal family was arrested and sent to the Temple prison in August 1792, Lamballe was separated from them and sent to the prison of La Force. When the September Massacres broke out, in which thousands were killed and the streets ran with blood, Madame de Lamballe was asked to renounce her loyalty to the king and the queen. She refused, and was delivered over to the mob. She was bludgeoned and stabbed to death, and by some accounts raped and mutilated. She was definitely decapitated, and the valet of Louis XVI, Hanet Clery, gave an account of how the mob brought her head on a pike to the Temple prison for the queen to kiss.
We were hardly seated before a head at the end of a pike was presented at the window. Tison's wife screamed loudly; the murderers thought it was the queen's voice, and we heard the frantic laughs of those barbarians. Thinking that Her Majesty was still at table, they had raised the victim's head so that it could not escape her sight; it was that of the Princesse de Lamballe. Though bloody, it was not disfigured; her blond hair, still curling, floated around the pike.
Such excesses became typical of the French Revolution, stirred up by propaganda which played upon the fears of many. The Princesse de Lamballe was a bit misguided but ultimately heroic and loyal, and the grisly death to which she was subjected exemplified not only the misogyny of the new order but a hatred of all that was beautiful and good.
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10 comments:

Chou-Charles said...

Ha! Somebody who writes that Lamballe was intelligent and that she had spirit! How it is true!
And indeed, she was close to the new ideas, and she worried about the poor... in short she should not have been murdered...

elena maria vidal said...

Welcome, Chou-Charles! Yes, I have heard some people say that hers was a ritual murder made to look like a lynching.

de Brantigny said...

I never miss this blog. While it is a horror that La Princesse was murdered how good it was that she should see the error of the masonic ways.

I believe it was Madame Elisabeth who took Her Majesty away from the window so she could not see her friend desecrated in such a manner.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree and I think the queen was spared seeing the horror of it although the thought of it devastated her, naturally.

Chou-Charles said...

Your article is a wonder of historical exactitudes!
Congratulations!

elena maria vidal said...

Merci, mon ami!

pimprenelle said...

This is a wonderful article, elena maria vidal, very sensible and very erudite. As Chou wrote, it is good to read that Mme de Lamballe was a clever and spiritual woman. Many authors are so unfair to her !

Did Marie Antoinette see her head through the window ? Many writers affirm se did not... But, still, I wonder...

I recently read that her murder could be a mistake, that she was about to be sent away, but she stumbled, and then, they thought she had received a blow, it was a signal, and they began to hit and slaughter her. Awful, isn't it ?

Isn't it strange that Mme de Lamballe would be born on the same day as Mme de Polignac, precisely ? I always wondered about it...

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Pimprenelle! They were born on the same day? September 8? Very, very interesting!

Lylia M said...

I'm wondering if anyone else becomes physically ill when reading of the barbaric behavior of the Revolutionary mobs. Obviously, those of you who are historians have probably read these things so many times that you're accustomed to it (or at least know what's coming in the next paragraph so you can train yourself to skip ahead!). I will never forget reading Stefan Zweig's biography of Marie Antoinette. I was in the fourth grade, and eating Pillsbury Slice 'n Bake chocolate chip cookies, and I became quite ill after reading of the rampages of the mobs, "drunk with blood and wine." I just can't deal with the fact that these atrocities were perpetrated against real people -- and, in many cases, good and innocent people.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Lylia. Everytime I hear this story, I am sick at heart thinking of all the innocent people killed, of whom Lamballe was only one of the prominent examples.