Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Madame Elisabeth of France, sister of Louis XVI

"And what is martyrdom," asked Lamballe, "but the triumph of love?"
-from Trianon by Elena Maria Vidal

The French monarchy has become infamous to posterity for stories of dangerous liaisons. Louis XIV and his ladies, Louis XV and his Parc aux Cerfs, the Fersen legend, are the standard fare served to the public for generations. Not only does scandal sell books and movies but it reinforces the modern conviction that all royals were decadent and corrupt. The Bourbon dynasty, nevertheless, was remarkable not only for the amorous escapades of some of the kings, but for souls of fortitude and religious devotion, especially among the ladies. Queens Marie-Therese d'Espagne and Marie Lescinska endured their husbands' infidelities with patience and forgiveness, while giving an example of virtue and devoted motherhood to the kingdom. The daughters of Louis XV, in spite of their eccentricities, were known to be pious souls, charitable towards the poor and the religious houses.

The sister of Louis XVI, however, outshines them all. In Madame Elisabeth was blended the piety of Saint Clothilde with the raw courage of Eleanor d'Acquitaine. She possessed the benevolence and common touch which distinguished the descendants of Henri IV. As her brother was hailed “Son of Saint Louis” at the moment of his death, so Madame Elisabeth could be called the “Daughter of Saint Louis” for she exemplified in her person everything that was fine, noble and magnificent about the House of France.

It is sad that in so many novels and films, Elisabeth is either erased or minimized, when her presence was a source of comfort to the king and the queen in their ordeals, even if she disagreed with them. She withstood the mob at her brother’s side and encouraged the rest of the family in the darkness of imprisonment. She became a second mother to her niece Madame Royale, and comforted the condemned on the way to the scaffold.

Madame Elisabeth (1764- 1794) became an orphan at the age of three and was raised by her governesses Madame de Marsan and Madame de Mackau. She was a stubborn child but eventually conquered her willfulness so that gentleness and kindness became her most outstanding character traits.

Mme. de Marsan asked the king to appoint Mme. de Mackau, who was living in retirement in Alsace, as sub-governess. This choice proved to have all the elements required to work a happy change in the nature of a self-willed and haughty child. Mme. de Mackau possessed a firmness to which resistance yielded, and an affectionate kindness which enticed attachment. Armed with almost maternal power, she brought up the Children of France as she would have trained her own children; overlooking no fault; knowing, if need were, how to make herself feared; all the while leading them to like virtue. To a superior mind she added a dignity of tone and manners which inspired respect. When her pupil gave way to the fits of haughty temper to which she was subject, Mme. de Mackau showed on her countenance a displeased gravity, as if to remind her that princes, like other persons, could not be liked except for their virtues and good qualities. (see Katherine Wormeley’s The Ruin of a Princess)

Elisabeth always remained strong-willed when it came to adhering to her principles, however. Many princes sought her hand in marriage, including Marie-Antoinette’s brother Emperor Joseph II, but Elisabeth wanted to become a nun. She longed to join her Aunt Louise at the Carmelite monastery at Saint Denis, where she often visited and served the nuns at table. Louis XVI would not give his permission for her to enter, begging her to stay. “We will have need of you here,” he said.

So Elisabeth took on the challenge of living the single, consecrated life in the world, without the support of a community, and living it amid the splendors of Versailles. As Elisabeth grew older she more frequently joined Marie-Antoinette at Petit Trianon, and she remained close to her brother, Louis XVI. She was devoted to her brother Artois, the rascal of the family, and tried to encourage him to reform his life, while comforting his forlorn and forsaken wife, Marie-Therese de Savoie. For her twenty-fifth birthday, Elisabeth was given a farm called Montreuil by the king and the queen, where she started a dairy to provide milk for poor children. While she organized her ladies in devotions and charitable works, Elisabeth also enjoyed music, embroidery, clothes and especially shoes. She loved to dance and was the last to leave any ball.

In the days of the Revolution, Madame Elisabeth disagreed with the conciliatory policies of her brother Louis XVI and the political maneuverings of Marie-Antoinette. She saw the Revolution as pure evil, as an attack upon the Church and Christendom and thought that it should be stopped with fire and sword if necessary. There were many heated arguments at the Tuileries and as author Simone Bertiere points out in L’Insoumise, Marie-Antoinette could hardly stand her sister-in-law at times. However, misfortune bonded the two women together as if they had been blood sisters.

Elisabeth was deeply aware of the danger to her own life but refused to leave her brother’s family. She stood at his side on June 20, 1792 when the mob stormed the Tuileries and hoped that the people would mistake her for the queen so that her sister-in-law would be spared. “Were it not better that they shed my blood than that of my sister?” she said. When Louis XVI was killed and the little Dauphin taken away and brutalized, Elisabeth comforted Marie-Antoinette and young Madame Royale, keeping them from despair. Nesta Webster reports in Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the Revolution that when a friend wondered if Madame Elisabeth could escape on her own, it was said, “Madame Elisabeth is inseparable from the queen; she would not leave her for the most splendid crown in the universe.” After the queen’s death in October 1793, the aunt and the niece remained in the Temple prison, enduring humiliations and taunts of the jailers. Elisabeth trained Marie-Therese-Charlotte how to survive in confinement, knowing that soon she would be alone.

In May, 1794, Elisabeth was removed to the Conciergerie. According to Deborah Cadbury in The Lost King of France, Elisabeth, knowing she was to die, offered to God the sacrifice of her life. At her trial she was condemned for plotting against the Revolution. While awaiting death, eyewitnesses reported how she inspired the other prisoners: “She seemed to regard them all as friends about to accompany her to heaven….the tranquility of her mind subdued their anguish.” (Cadbury, page 138) On May 10, 1794 she recited the De Profundis on the way to the guillotine. The princess was the last of a group of twenty-five people to be executed; they each knelt before her, asking her blessing. (Some say she fainted in the process; the sound of so many decapitations was too much.) When it was Elisabeth’s turn, the executioner pulled her bodice down very low off her shoulders, and she begged for modesty’s sake to be covered. There were no cheers when Elisabeth’s head was thrown into a basket, the crowd was silent, and some reported the scent of roses filling the square, a miracle from the middle ages to disturb the dawn of modernity. Many regarded her as a saint, including Pope Pius VII, and perhaps someday her cause will be introduced. Share

1 comment:

AA said...

Wonderful sketch of this holy person. I use her prayer in my daily devotions and I have little doubt that she will one day be canonized, though that probably must wait for happier times. Thank you.