Lady Atkyns’s Plot to Save Marie Antoinette

Lady Atkyns's Plot to Save Marie Antoinette
Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns. Public Domain.

After Marie Antoinette was imprisoned, Royalists and friends were always on the lookout hoping to free the imprisoned Queen. Although there were many plots to save the Queen, some appear to be more legend than fact. One plot that seems to be more legend than fact is a plot by Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns, who is supposedly related to Britain’s famous Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

The story goes that Atkyns had a short-lived career as an actress on the London stage at the Drury Lane Theatre. Her career lasted for two years, beginning in 1777 and ending in 1779, and it ended because Sir Edward Atkyns, of Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk fell in love with her and married her in June of 1779. Unfortunately, Atkyns was not accepted by Norfolk society and as her husband was suffering under heavy debts, the couple decided to move to France.

Atkyns was described as being “pretty, witty, impressionable, and good,” but also eccentric. Despite her eccentricities, in France the newly-wedded couple were welcomed, and they made friendships with influential people at the French court. Among their friends was Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, better known as the Duchess of Polignac, who was a close friend to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, from the moment that the Duchess of Polignac introduced Atkyns to Marie Antoinette, Atkyns was enchanted and reputedly thereafter an intense admirer of the Queen. According to one source:

“Atkyns shared first in the Queen’s amusements, then in her griefs, for she was still at Versailles when the Dauphin Louis Joseph died, and [she was still there] when 1789 began the cycle of years so terrible for French Royalty.”

Louis de Frotté. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the French Revolution broke out, in 1789, Atkyns and her husband moved from Versailles to Lille, a city in northern France. Atkyns’s relationship with the royal family was claimed to have been somewhat close because after Atkyns began residing in Lille, she was known locally “as a pensioner on the Royal Treasury.” In 1791, Atkyns and her husband returned to England. This was also the same year that Atkyns was recruited by her lover the Royalist Louis de Frotté to be a spy, a position that she purportedly fulfilled until 1794.

Once Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793, it was enough to make any Royalist lose hope of saving the Queen. However, the King’s death is said to have emboldened Atkyns. She then came up with an idea to save the Queen because “Why should she not go in person to Paris and try her chance?” Atkyns believed that the same level of surveillance applied to the King would not be applied to Marie Antoinette. Therefore, Atkyns thought that she might be able to gain access to the Queen at the Temple.

Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Public Domain.

There were several drawbacks to Atkyns plan. First, Atkyns was a foreigner and barely spoke French. There was also little support from her friend Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Peltier had been a blazing revolutionary who suddenly did an about face, became an intense Royalist, and founded a newspaper with the title of “The Acts of the Apostles.” After he founded his paper, Peltier then violently attacked everyone who disagreed with his ideas.

The day after the insurrection of 10 August, Peltier left France and sought refuge in England. There, he and other French emigrants began to publish articles against the revolutionaries. Peltier supposedly then developed a friendship with Atkyns and was doing everything in his power to dissuade Atkyns from becoming involved in any plot to save Marie Antoinette. Thus, he wrote to Atkyns stating:

“You will hardly have arrived before innumerable embarrassments will crop up; if you leave your hotel three times in the day, or if you see the same person thrice, you will become a suspect.”

Atkyns was persistent, and her persistence eventually convinced Peltier about her plot to save the Queen because even “he admitted that the moment was relatively favourable [to rescue her].” However, events were also quickly progressing in Paris. Before Atkyns could institute her plan, it was reported that she began to doubt her plan’s feasibility, particularly after word reached her that another plot to free Marie Antoinette had recently failed. 

This failed plot had been carried out by several people, including a member of the Paris Commune named Jacques François Lepitre. Apparently, Lepitre had been won over by the Royalist cause and the plot had almost succeeded, “when the irresolution of one [of the plotters] had ruined everything.” Lepitre was arrested and condemned for conspiring with the royal family. Fortunately, he escaped death, but the failed plot resulted in intense scrutiny being leveled at the prisoners at the Temple, and it also supposedly resulted in Peltier trying again to dissuade Atkyns from making any attempt to save the Queen:

“If you wish to be useful to that family, you can only be so by directing operations from here (instead of going there to get guillotined), and by making those sacrifices which you have already resolved to make.”

Marie Antoinette. Author’s Collection.

Atkyns was not discouraged by Peltier words. Instead it is claimed that she reached Marie Antoinette anyway. For her story to match other facts, it appears that her meeting with Marie Antoinette would have had to occur after Marie Antoinette had been moved from the Temple to “the Conciergerie; that is to say, after August 2, 1793.” Moreover, this meeting occurred because apparently Atkyns “won over a municipal official, who consented to open the doors of the Conciergerie for her, on the condition that no word should be exchanged between her and the Royal prisoner … [and] wear the uniform of a National Guard.”

Atkyns supposedly agreed to these conditions. On the proposed day of her meeting, Atkyns appeared carrying a bouquet, which she offered to the Marie Antoinette.* However, supposedly, because of the stress of the event, Atkyns accidentally dropped a note that was to be presented with the bouquet to Marie Antoinette. As the municipal guard rushed forward to pick it up, Atkyns bent down, grabbed, it and swallowed it. Of course, she was immediately ordered out.

Despite this failure, Atkyns did not give up. Through friends and persistence, she was able to obtain another meeting. This one was supposedly a private interview with Marie Antoinette, and it was reported that Atkyns “had to pay a thousand louis for that single hour.” This time Atkyns planned to change clothes with Marie Antoinette so that the Queen would leave the Conciergerie undetected while Atkyns remained behind. If Atkyns thought her plan would work, she found an obstinate Marie Antoinette instead.

“[Marie Antoinette] would not, under any pretext, sacrifice the life of another, and to abandon her imprisoned children was equally impossible to her. But what emotion she must have felt at the sight of such a love … She could but thank her friend with tearful eyes and commend her son, the Dauphin, to that friend’s tender solicitude.”

Many people claim that Atkyns’s story about attempting to rescue Marie Antoinette is false and that the story comes from a “cracked old woman who dreamed that she had been the friend of Marie Antoinette.” Backing up these claims are indications that Atkyns was not in Paris in 1793 as she claimed. Papers from Frotté show that he believed Atkyns’s story and supposedly a mysterious Countess Macnamara also spoke of Atkyns’s plot. However, both Frotté and Macnamara obtained their information from Atkyns. One twentieth century investigator of the story also claims that the book written by Frédéric Barbey about the plot relies on faulty evidence:

“There is no other evidence of her [Atkyns] ever having been at Versailles, or ever having seen the Queen, except a few allusions to their friendship in some letter addressed to Mrs. Atkyns, of which M. Barbey has found a large collection in the office of an unnamed Paris lawyer … Assuming their existence and authenticity, his quotations from them suggest that Mrs. Atkyns was in the habit of writing letters from eminent persons to herself.”


*Some people say the guard offered the flowers to Marie Antoinette. In either case the note fell out of the bouquet.

References:

  • —, in Public Advertiser, 21 June 1779
  • Barbey, Frédéric, A Friend of Marie-Antoinette (Lady Atkyns), 1906
  • “Mrs. Harris in History,” in Pall Mall Gazette, 18 April 1906
  • New Monthly Magazine, Volume 15, 1825
  • Rocheterie, Maxime de La, The Life of Marie Antoinette, 1906
  • “The Atkyns Romance,” in The Spectator, 18 August 1906
  • The Spectator, Volume 97, 1907

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