Élisabeth, Madame (1764–1794)

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Élisabeth, Madame (1764–1794)

French princess. Name variations: Madame Elisabeth; Elizabeth or Élisabeth de France; Elisabeth of France. Born Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène at Versailles, France, on May 3, 1764; guillotined on May 10, 1794; daughter and last child of Louis the Dauphin (1729–1765) and his second wife Marie Josèphe of Saxony (1731–1767); sister of three kings of France: Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792), Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1824), and Charles X (r. 1824–1830).

Left an orphan at age three, Madame Élisabeth, shared a deep attachment with her then 13-year-old brother Louis XVI. Brought up by Madame de Mackau , Élisabeth often resided at Montreuil, near Paris, in a home given to her by Louis when she reached maturity. There, the princess demonstrated her generous nature, taking an interest in charitable works. She once had 60 poor young girls vaccinated at her own expense.

The pious Élisabeth refused all offers of marriage so that she might remain by the side of her brother. From the beginning of the French Revolution, she was well aware of the gravity of the situation both of them faced, but she refused to leave the king. The "eminently sensible" Élisabeth, notes Simon Schama in Citizens, watched Louis vacillate in his resolve as he handled the cataclysmic events. "The king is backing off," she wrote. "He is always afraid of making a mistake. Once the first impulse is passed, he is no longer tormented by anything but the fear of having done an injustice…. [I]t seems to me that in government as in education one should not say 'I will it' until one is sure of being right. But once having said it, never slack off from what you have ordered."

Disguised as a bonneted nurse, she accompanied Louis, his queen Marie Antoinette , and the royal children on the June 20, 1792, flight from Versailles, and was arrested with them at Varennes. Élisabeth was present at the Legislative Assembly when Louis was stripped of his powers and imprisoned in the Temple with the royal family. But after the execution of the king and the removal of Marie Antoinette to the Conciergerie, Madame Élisabeth was left alone in the Temple prison. Before her death, Marie Antoinette wrote a last letter to her trusted Élisabeth, consigning the children into her hands.

On May 9, 1794, Élisabeth was also transferred to the Conciergerie and brought before the revolutionary tribunal. Accused of assisting the king's flight, of supplying émigrés with funds, and of encouraging the resistance of the royal troops on August 10, 1792, she was condemned to death. On May 10, 1794, while reciting De Profundis, Madame Élisabeth was driven to the guillotine. Twenty-five others who were to be killed that day bowed to her, one by one, as they climbed the scaffold. Then, her turn came, and she calmly walked the stairs. When her muslin shawl slipped off her shoulders, she implored the executioner, "In the name of decency, cover me up." It was reported that the generally crude and noisy crowd was subdued when her head landed in the basket.

As might be expected of a sister of Louis XVI, Madame Élisabeth was in favor of absolutist principles. But hers was one of the most touching tragedies of the Revolution; she died because she was the sister of the king. The Mémoires de Madame-Élisabeth (Paris, 1858), by F. de Barghon and Fort-Rion, are of questionable authenticity, as are the collection of letters and documents published in 1865 by F. Feuillet de Conches.

suggested reading:

Beauchesne, A. de. Vie de Madame Élisabeth. 1869.

Beaucourt, Du Fresne de. Étude Sur Madame Élisabeth. Paris, 1864.

d'Armaillé, La comtesse. Madame Élisabeth. Paris, 1886.

d'Arvor, Madame. Madame Élisabeth. Paris, 1898.

Ferrand, Le Comte A.F.C. Éloge historique de Madame Élisabeth (1814, containing 94 letters; 2nd ed., 1861, containing additional letters, but correspondence mutilated).

Maxwell-Scott, Mrs. Madame Elizabeth of France. 1908.

Schama, Simon. Citizens. NY: Knopf, 1989.