Louis-Charles, The Dauphin and Louis XVII

Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy, was the second son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and born on 27 March 1785 at Versailles. He was baptized the same day as his older brother, Louis-Joseph, and because Louis-Joseph was Dauphin, Louis-Charles’s course in life was set so that “he might do ‘that which was right in the sight of the Lord.'”[1] However, Louis-Joseph died on 4 June 1789, from tuberculosis and this meant that at tender age of four Louis-Charles inherited the title of Dauphin.

4-year-old Louis-Charles by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1789. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among the descriptions written about the new dauphin was one that described him in the following manner:

“[He was] well-shaped and graceful; his forehead broad and open, his eyebrows arched; his large, blue eyes, fringed with long chestnut lashes … his complexion, dazzlingly fair, was blended with a brilliant bloom; his hair, dark chestnut, curled naturally, and fell in thick ringlets on his shoulders; he had the vermilion mouth of his mother, and, like her, a small dimple on the chin. His physiognomy, at once noble and gentle, recalled the dignity of Marie Antoinette, the amiability of Louis XVI.”[2]

Louis-Charles’s first governess was Yolande de Polastron, an impoverished noblewoman that caught the eye of Marie Antoinette and then became her close friend. From all reports she was a lively woman with a cheerful personality and liked by many people at court. However, it came as a surprise to courtiers when her husband was made a duke and she received the title of Duchess of Polignac. Because of her close relationship with Marie Antoinette, the duchess was appointed governess to the queen’s children, a desirable position that had been held by noble families and passed down from mother to daughter. Her friendship with Marie Antoinette also resulted in other favors that caused jealousy at court and earned her a bad reputation with the French public. So, when the Bastille was stormed, the Duke and Duchess of Polignac fled France.

Louise Élisabeth de Tourzel, better known as Madame Tourzel, was then appointed the new governess. She was a devout woman and someone of impeccable character. As she was unknown to Marie Antoinette, the Queen wanted her to understand her new charge and wrote a rather lengthy letter about her son to introduce him. The Queen said:

“My son is four years and four months old … His health has always been good, but even in his cradle we perceived that his nerves were very delicate … This delicacy of his nerves is such that any noise to which he is not accustomed frightens him. For instance, he is afraid of dogs because he once heard one bark close to him.”[3]

(Left to right) Duchesse de Polignac and Madame de Tourzel, Public Domain

(Left to right) Duchesse de Polignac and Madame de Tourzel. Public domain.

The Queen also noted that the word pardon offended him. “He will say and do all that you can wish when he is wrong, but as for the word pardon, he never pronounces it without tears and infinite difficulty.”[4] Louis-Charles had several faults that Marie Antoinette also noted.

“Like all children who are strong and healthy, he is very giddy, very volatile, and violent in his passions … He is admirably faithful when once he has promised anything, but he is very indiscreet; [and] he is thoughtless in repeating anything that he has heard.”[5]

He was also said to be unhappy with most of his female attendants, and he battled with them on a daily basis: It seems, they attempted to impose strict bed and rising times, something he detested and tried his best to avoid. But “his indocility … at once disappeared on the approach of his mother.”[6]


Louis-Charles. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Despite his faults, Louis-Charles was said to possess some remarkable characteristics. Someone wrote that he had “a sort of childish fondness which charmed all who approached him [and] his mouth never opened but to give utterance to the most amiable naïvetés.”[7] Those who met him greatly admired and readily admitted that it was impossible not to love “him after you had heard him speak.”[8] One person noted:

“Children and princes are generally full of themselves; but this prince had the selfishness neither of princes nor of children … He always thought, not of himself, but of others; he was tender towards those who loved him, attentive to those who spoke to him, conciliatory towards those who visited him, polite to everyone.”[9]

When the royal family fled the Tuileries Palace during the events of 10 August, Louis-Charles was with them. Eventually all were imprisoned at the Temple, a medieval fortress constructed in the 13th century by the Knights Templar. Just as the Temple was dismal, so too was life for those imprisoned there. It was routine, and the royal family was crowded together in tiny rooms and guarded constantly. All they could do was await their fate and hope for freedom. In addition, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette feared what might happen to their son, so, they refused to let him take walks outside, and they tried to keep him close so that he would not be removed from them.

The Temple, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Temple. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined. This ostensibly made Louis-Charles the new ruler, Louis XVII. It also put the young boy in a precarious position with revolutionaries and the National Convention. About a month later, the Committee of General Security decreed he should be taken from his mother, and, despite her vehement protests and his screeching not to leave her, she had to give him up to prevent the guards from killing them all.

After Louis-Charles was removed, the Committee placed him under the guardianship of one of their colleagues. He was a shoemaker named Antoine Simon. There are claims that Simon was neglectful and brutal (although this has never been proven). Accusations by Royalists supporters from this time period were that “from the very first day … [Simon] wish[ed] to transform the heir to the throne into a street vagabond,”[10] and they maintained that each day fresh atrocities occurred. There were also claims that Louis-Charles, under Simon’s care, was “forced to drink wine and brandy, repeat coarse oaths and obscene songs, [and was raped by prostitutes to infect him with venereal disease].”[11] However, the Queen remarked of Simon, “We are very fortunate to have this good M. Simon, who obtains for us anything we ask for.”[12] There are also reports indicating Simon was nice enough to bring Louis-Charles toys and even gave him a dog named Castor.

Antoine Simon, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Antoine Simon.  Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Eventually, Louis-Charles testified against his mother claiming incest. His sister, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France (better known as Madame Royale at the time), confronted her brother about these claims. This occurred around the time of Marie Antoinette’s death on 16 October 1793. Simon was still taking care of Louis-Charles and Madame Royale did not report that her brother showed any signs of physical ill-treatment (emotional abuse is likely a different story).

On 19 July 1794, about nine months after Marie Antoinette’s death, Simon was removed as guardian to Louis-Charles. The boy’s care then fell to authorities, and, supposedly, no one entered the dauphin’s room for six months and he was left to the care of jailers (geôliers). It was at this time that Louis-Charles was said to have been extremely neglected. No one interacted with him and his meals were passed through bars. Moreover, one jailer, who came on board after Simon left, claimed to have found “a dark, fetid room full of filth: on a tumbled and dirty bed lay a child scantily clothed, emaciated, with discoloured lips and lustreless eyes; covered with sores, eaten by vermin and ingrained with dirt.”[13]

The first person to enter Louis-Charles’s cell after the six months was the main leader of the Directory, Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras. He ordered Louis-Charles to be taken out for a walk and regularly inspected. However, from that point forward the boy obstinately refused to speak. He became ill with scrofula (tuberculosis as it is now called) and died at the Temple on 8 June 1795, about two years after his mother’s death. Several doctors “attended him, and made a necropsy after his death.”[14] Their findings indicated Louis-Charles suffered “strumous disease of the right knee and left radius, and tuberculous disease of the intestines.”[15]

Louis-Charles - Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras who was resposible for Louis-Charles

Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

At the time, Madame Royale, was also imprisoned at the Temple. She had not seen her brother for about two years and did not identify his body. He was said to have been buried at the cemetery of Ste. Marguerite but no headstone marked the spot. This lack of identification, no headstone, and other events soon gave way to conjecture that the dauphin had not died. Rumors then began to circulate that another child had been substituted for Louis-Charles and that he had been spirited out of the Temple with aid and was alive living somewhere. However, those closest to the monarchy did not embrace this rumor because Louis Joseph de Bourbon, prince de Condé (also a prince du sang) and cousin to princesse de Lamballe, offered a proclamation announcing the new King, Louis XVIII, and stating of Louis-Charles’s death:

“Gentlemen — Scarcely had the tombs of the unfortunate Louis XVI, his august Consort [Marie Antoinette], and his respectable sister [Madame Élisabeth], been closed, when they have again been opened to unite to those illustrious victims of the most interesting object of our love, our help, and our esteem. The young descendant of so many kings [Louis-Charles], whose birth alone could secure the happiness of his subjects … has just sunk under his fetters … It is not the first time that I have called to your recollection this principle, that the King never dies in France. Let us therefore swear to this [new] august prince, now become our king.”[16]

Louis-Charles, the Dauphin and Future Louis XVII, Author's Collection

Louis-Charles, the dauphin and future Louis XVII. Author’s collection.


  • [1] Harper’s Round Table, Vol. 14, 1893, p. 382.
  • [2] “Louis XVII,” in Morning Chronicle, 16 May 1854, p. 2.
  • [3] Yonge, Charles Duke, The Life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, 1876, p. 268.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] “Louis XVII,” in 6 May 1854, p. 2. 
  • [7] Ibid
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid. 
  • [10] “On This Day,” Harlepool Mail, 27 March 1930, p. 9.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] “The Fate of Louis XVII,” in Portsmouth Evening News, 31 March 1930, p. 3.
  • [13] “On This Day,” 27 March 1930, p. 9.
  • [14] “The Fate of Louis XVII,” in Bristol Mercury, 5 October 1891, p. 6. 
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “Address of the Prince de Conde,” in Kentish Gazette, 10 July 1795, p. 2.

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  1. Tracey Reid on March 25, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    Such a sad end for a young boy.

    • Geri Walton on March 25, 2016 at 7:24 pm

      It really was a sad ending Tracey.

    • Michele Deppe on October 20, 2021 at 3:48 pm

      Thank you so much for these well written histories, Geri. I’m so intrigued that I’m reading one after another and learning a lot.

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