French Mourning in the 1700s

The French King Louis XV issued an ordinance and reduced mourning time by half in 1716. He also “settled the particular manner in which mourning should be observed.”[1] One rule settled was when one king mourned for another monarch, the monarch was to wear the color violet, and it was worn for three months. But her majesty was to dress in mourning “like her subjects.” On the death of a potentate, who was not the father of her majesty, or of any queen, who was not her mother, mourners were obliged to dress in mourning for twenty-one days. Interestingly, the only person who never wore mourning was the chancellor, “because he is detached, by his situation, in some measure, from himself, as the principal representative of justice.”[2]

Louis XV and French Mourning

Louis XV in 1730. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


When Louis XV died on 10 May 1774 soon after the Caledonian Mercury in England published an article detailing the steps taken before and after his French majesty’s death:

“[T]he four heralds of arms were ordered to wait in the anti-chamber next to his Majesty’s bed-room; just as he was expiring they were introduced and placed one at each corner of the bed, and after the physicians attending had declared he was dead, the two heralds on the right side of the bed, immediately proclaimed aloud, three distinct times, Le Roi est mort. But as the king is supposed to be never dead in France, the two others on the left proclaimed in the same manner, Vive Le Roi Louis Seiziene; then the body remained exposed for the inspection of every one; twenty-four hours after the death, the body was opened, the heart and bowels extracted, and washed in aromatic waters; after being embalmed, they were put into a box for that purpose, and buried in a tomb at the val of grace; the body was carried to the Louvre in Paris, exposed in state, remained there till all the parish priests, monks, fryars, & c. had been in procession, and said prayers; it was then sent with funeral pomp to St. Dennis, and placed under a mausoleum erected in the choir of the church, where it is to remain 40 days; during that time all the household will be waiting as if the king was alive; a table is served twice a day, and when the dinner is ready, Le Grand Alaitre d’Hotel will taste the victuals, and then proceed to the choir of the church, and announce to his Majesty that the table is served; the first gentleman of the chamber in waiting will answer that his Majesty has dined; the same ceremony is to be gone through at night for the supper. At the expiration of the 40 days, the ceremony of the burial will be performed and funeral speech pronounced; the tomb is then to be opened, and six guards du corps will take the body of Lewis XIV who lies upon the first steps, and carry him down into the vault, and put the body of Lewis XV, in his place. The entrance is then shut up, and upon it is erected a new wooden mausoleum, covered with a black velvet pall to the right hand of the altar.”[3]

Louis XV a year before his death (1773) by François-Hubert Drouais. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

French mourning involved more than just commiserating over the death of royalty. For instance, public mourning served as an outward sign of sorrow and came to express the degree of friendship or relationship that existed between the living and the deceased. Ceremonies were also attached to pubic mourning, although one 1786 writer noted that such ceremonies “have not been known very long.”[4] Among the well-known French people publicly mourned was the Enlightenment writer Voltaire, who died on 30 May 1778. Although public mourning for him did not result until about 13 years after his death, when it came it was epic. At that time his body was exhumed in readiness to be enshrined in the Pantheon and the procession to the commemorative monument and burial place turned into a major celebration lasting twelve hours and stretching from one side of Paris to the other. Madame Tussaud and her mentor and uncle, Philippe Mathé Curtius, were an integral part and provided “Voltaire’s waxen effigy … reclining upon a sarcophagus and dressed in vermilion robes.”[5]

Transporting Voltaire to Panthéon. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Besides public mourning, there was personal mourning. Great mourning was attached to the loss of a father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, sibling, or spouse and was called “full mourning.” Full mourning was further divided into three classes: woolen, silk, and half-mourning and mourning also had two distinct colors, white or black. Black was the primary color chosen for the expression of this French mourning, and the “silent herald of … sufferings.”[6] The color black was “strongly expressive of the privation of life … [and] a symbol of the privation of light.”[7] To further insure that mourning was done in a respectful way the Cabinet des Modes published an essay on mourning and their essay was then republished in 1786 in an English magazine to help the English “trace the analogy between our mourning and that of France.”[8] The article provided the following information about mourning:

  • When mourning for a father or mother, it lasted six months: Six weeks were reserved for great and small weepers (weepers were badges of mourning worn in the 1700 and 1800s), six weeks for woolen without weepers, six weeks in silk, and six more dressed in half-mourning.
  • When mourning for a grandfather or grandmother, it lasted eighteen weeks: three weeks great weepers, three weeks small weepers, six weeks in woolen, and then six more weeks in half mourning.
  • When a wife mourned her husband, it lasted a year and six weeks: four and a half months “in cambrick [sic], the cloak, gown, and petticoat of French fluff, four months and a half in crape and woolen, three months in silk and gauze, and six weeks in half mourning.”[9]
  • When a husband mourned a wife, it lasted six months: dress was the same as for a father or mother.
  • When mourning for a sibling, it lasted two months: woolen was the first month, fifteen days in silk, and fifteen days in half-mourning.
  • When mourning an aunt or uncle, it lasted three weeks: fifteen days in woolen and fifteen days in half-mourning.
  • When mourning a sibling, uncle, or aunt and coming into possession of their fortune, mourning was to be worn for six months.
  • When uncles and aunts mourned their nephews who were heads of the family, the same rules applied as for a father or mother.
  • When mourning a German cousin, it lasted fifteen days: eight in bordered ruffles and seven days in half-mourning.
  • When mourning an uncle or first cousin, according to Brittany, it lasted eleven days: six days in black and five days in black and white.
  • When mourning a second cousin, it lasted eight days: five days in black and three days in white.
  • The clergy denoted “full mourning by wearing a white band, a cassock, and a crape sash.”[10]
  • In the military, mourning was “signified by a black crape bound round the arm, but when dressed in a full suit of black, they [were] distinguished by a gold dragan [sic] at the sword-hilt.”[11]
  • Subjects appeared in mourning for a king, “in the same form as for a father or mother.”[12]


  • [1] Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, Or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, 1786, p. 561-562.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “London,” in Caledonian Mercury, 28 May 1774, p. 2.  –
  • [4] Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, Or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, p. 561.
  • [5] Walton, Geri, Madame Tussaud: Her Life and Legacy, 2019, p. 70.
  • [6] Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, Or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge,
  • [7] Ibid., p. 561.
  • [8] Ibid. p. 563.
  • [9] Ibid. p. 562.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.

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