A Plot to Save Marie Antoinette: The Carnation Plot

Marie Antoinette. Author’s Collection.

A plot to save Marie Antoinette, known as the Carnation Plot (also referred to as either le complot de l’oeillet or affaire de l’œillet) was one of many devised while she was imprisoned. The Carnation Plot was inspired by a chevalier of St. Louis, named Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville. Rougeville was loyal to King Louis XVI and had been at his side when a mob broke into the Tuileries and harangued the King and Queen on 20 June. Two months later, he was there during the insurrection at the Tuileries known as 10 August.

After 10 August, Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned at the Temple. Louis XVI was then guillotined on 21 January 1793. Several months later, at 1:00am on 1 August 1793, Marie Antoinette, now known as the Widow Capet, was transferred from the Temple to an isolated cell in the Conciergerie. She was identified as prisoner 280.

Widow Capet 1793 by Sophie Prieur. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Her imprisonment was difficult and while at the Conciergerie, Rougeville was introduced to the royal family’s jail administrator named Jean-Baptiste Michonis. Michonis was known to take guests to visit the Queen, most of whom she did not know. Michonis was also said to have once been a fierce revolutionary but after a time he was touched by the misfortunes the royal family suffered, and, supposedly, after meeting Rougeville, Michonis and Rougeville came to an understanding about freeing the Queen.

They decided that on Wednesday, 28 August, Rougeville would accompany Michonis to the Conciergerie. When they arrived, Rougeville noticed that only a screen separated Marie Antoinette from her guards. Rougeville wrote of his visit:

“The room was small, damp, and ill-smelling … there were three beds: one for the Queen, the other, by the side of hers, for the woman who served her; the third, for the two gendarmes, who never left the room on any occasion or under any circumstance whatsoever. The Queen’s bedstead was, like the others, of wood, the bedding consisted of a straw mattress, a woollen mattress, and a worn and dirty blanket, which had been used by prisoners for a long time.”

Rougeville noted that he was shocked when he saw the Queen. She was so thin that he scarcely recognized her. Her hair was cut in the back and at the forehead and she was dressed in a black caraco. Moreover, she was so weak, she could barely walk.

“‘Ah, it is you, Monsieur Michonis,” she [the Queen] said; and approaching him, she asked him as usual, for news of her children. Then perceiving Rougeville [who she remembered from 20 June], she was seized with such emotion that she fell back into an armchair. A deep flush rose to her face; her limbs trembled, and tears flowed from her eyes.”

Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville. Public Domain.

Before arriving, Rougeville had pinned two carnations to his lapel. One of them had a note hidden inside. He now dropped that carnation near a wood stove and indicated to the Queen that she should pick it up. Supposedly, Marie Antoinette was somewhat confused by his gesture.

There are several stories about what happened next. One version claims a gendarme noticed it, picked it up, and saw the note. A second version is that the warden’s wife, Madame Richard, saw it and picked it up. Rougeville then rushed over, grabbed it from Madame Richard, and swallowed it. A third version, and probably the most likely, is that Rougeville and Michonis departed, the Queen saw the note, picked it up, and read it out of sight of the guards.

After reading the note, the Queen had Michonis and Rougeville recalled. Michonis then occupied the gendarmes, so that Rougeville could speak to Marie Antoinette privately, which he did through a screen. Rougeville then promised that she would soon be rescued. In the meantime, Michonis began to fear that if he occupied the gendarmes any longer they would become suspicious and he indicated to Rougeville it was time to leave and they exited.

The note Rougeville left purportedly had an offer of money to use as bribe and informed her that he would return on Friday to see her. Marie Antoinette then destroyed Rougeville’s note by tearing it into little pieces. As the Queen had no pen or pencil to reply, she pricked out her answer to Rougeville with a pin. Her noted stated: “I am constantly watched; I neither talk nor write; I trust in you; I shall come.”

Marie Antoinette then handed the pricked note to a gendarme named Jean Gilbert whom she may have thought of as a friend. She then said, “‘You see I have no need of a pen to write,’ adding that it was the answer she had ready for the man when he returned on Friday.” Gilbert did not wait for Rougeville’s returned. He became suspicious supposedly gave the note to Madame Richard, and she delivered it to Michonis when he came the next day (29 August). To avoid being compromised, Michonis told Madame Richard that the note was of no consequence and that he would no longer bring anyone else to visit the Queen.

On the 30th, as promised Rougeville returned, but he did so disguised. He then gave Marie Antoinette a certain amount money for bribes. The bribes were given to the Warden (Toussaint Richard) and his wife (Madame Richard). The day was then set for the Queen’s escape, which was to be the night of September 2 and 3 and the plot was to proceed as follows:

Jean-Baptiste Michonis. Courtesy of Centre de Recherche.

On the appointed evening Michonis was to arrive at 10pm and take Marie Antoinette out of the Temple under orders of the municipality. Once outside, having made good her escape, Rougeville would receive her. Rougeville would then have her join Madame Jarjayes in the territory of Livry-Gargan at a property owned by Herault de Séchelles, and the Queen would then be taken to Germany. To ensure the warden and his wife were not suspected of having been involved, a discharge was also to be entered on the jail-books.

The plotters came on the designated day and gave the gendarmes fifty louis to say nothing. The Queen was prepared for their arrival, left her cell, and crossed into a small courtyard. However, before she went through the gate either Gilbert or another guard, named François Dufresne, stopped her and “declared that if they carried the queen away, he would call the guard.” No amount of persuasion changed his mind even though he had already accepted a bribe. Thus, the escape attempt failed.

On 3 September, the gendarme Gilbert denounced the plot and the public learned of the Queen’s planned escape. “When the conspiracy was revealed, the city was amazed, and the Convention took drastic measures once again against all suspected monarchists and counter-revolutionaries, referring them to the Revolutionary Tribunal.” Having been found out, Rougeville escaped, later moved to Reims, and died there in 1814. Michonis, Toussaint Richard, and Madame Richard were arrested.

Marie Antoinette was questioned twice about the incident, and “she tried to repudiate all the charges which could weigh upon Michonis and Rougeville.” With no information from her, the examiners discovered nothing, but surveillance of the Queen was now increased. In addition, Marie Antoinette got a new warden. Monsieur Antoine Bault and his wife now served as wardens at the Conciergerie. New guards were also assigned to watch her. Thus, she never escaped and was guillotined on 16 October 1793.

Michonis was later condemned and guillotined. He died on 17 June 1794 and was buried in the cimetière de Picpus. The warden and Madame Richard were not released until after the Queen’s death. Madame Richard then returned to work and was murdered some years later in 1796 by a convict condemned to twenty years. It happened when she handed him a bowl of soup, he stabbed her through the heart with a knife. As for the gendarme Gilbert, he received a commission after the Queen’s death. The next report of Gilbert is that he gambled away money belonging to his company, “and then blew his brains out in despair.”

References:

  • Brill, E.J., The Unsolved Mystery Louis XVII, 1970
  • Cambridgeshire,” in Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, in 09 December 1865
  • Gaulot, Paul, A Friend of the Queen, 1893
  • Lenotre, G., The Last Days of Marie Antoinette, 1907
  • Rocheterie, Maxime de La, The Life of Marie Antoinette, 1906
  • The Argosy, Volume 63, 1897
  • The Living Age, 1897

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