Known as Madame Élisabeth, Élisabeth Philippine Marie Hélène de France, was the youngest sibling of King Louis XVI. She was born on 3 May 1764 at the Palace of Versailles to Louis, Dauphin of France, and his wife, Marie-Josèphe of Saxony. However, her parents were both dead by the time she was two and she was reported to be in delicate health.
Madame Élisabeth had a sister who was five years older than her. Her name was Marie Clotilde, and she was born 23 September 1759. They developed a close relationship because both girls were given a royal education and shared time together. They became even closer when Marie Clotilde once insisted upon taking care of Élisabeth when she was ill. Thereafter, Élisabeth held a deep attachment for her older sister.
As young motherless girls, Élisabeth and Marie Clotilde focused on religion and virtue, and they soon adapted themselves to strict Catholic devotions. Both girls also had a strong desire to follow the example of their aunt, Madame Louise. She was a nun and belonged to the Order of the Carmelites, a Roman Catholic religious order founded in the twelfth century. Louis XVI was completely against them being nuns, and after Élisabeth’s visits became frequent, he became uneasy and told her, “I need you.”
One of the reasons that Louis XVI needed them was for political reasons. So, for example, on 27 August 1775, Louis XVI married Marie Clotilde to Charles Emmanuel, Prince of Piedmont. Soon after she traveled to Turin, and Marie-Antoinette sent a letter a few days later to her mother about 11-year-old Élisabeth:
My sister Élisabeth is a charming child, who has intelligence, character, and much grace; she showed the greatest feeling, and much above her age, at the departure of her sister. The poor little girl was in despair, and as her health is very delicate, she was taken ill and had a very severe nervous attack. I own to my dear mamma that I fear I am getting too attached to her, feeling, from the example of my aunts, how essential it is for her happiness not to remain an old maid in this country.
Louis XVI wanted Madame Élisabeth to marry too. It seemed as if it would happen as several attempts were undertaken, the first being a marriage between her and the Prince of Brazil, who was her same age. However, negotiations were broken off. Two other princes then sought her hand. The first was the Duke of Aosta, but it was felt a marriage to him was beneath a “Daughter of France.” There was also Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Emperor Joseph II, “who on the occasion of his journey to France the preceding year had been struck by the vivacity of her mind the sweetness of her nature.” This failed also because of an anti-Austrian party that existed at the French court and opposed such a union.
In her teens, appearance wise, Madame Élisabeth was described in this way:
“Her figure was not tall, neither had her bearing that majesty which was so much admired in the queen [Marie Antoinette]; her nose had the shape which is characteristic of the Bourbon face, but her forehead with its pure lines giving to her countenance its marked character of nobleness and candour, her dark blue eyes with their penetrating sweetness, her mouth with its smile that showed her pretty teeth, and the expression of intelligence and goodness that pervaded her whole person formed a charming and sympathetic presence.”
Character-wise Madame Élisabeth was described as being opposite of happy sister Marie Clotilde. Whereas Marie Clotilde was easy-going and accommodating, Élisabeth was said to be proud, passionate, and inflexible. These traits were considered intolerable in a royal, and, so, she was directed, encouraged, and aided from an early age as she was a demanding child practically from birth. One person said of her:
“[S]he stamped with anger if one of her women did not immediately bring her the thing she asked for.”
For all her character shortcomings, Madame Élisabeth grew into a greatly admired adult. In fact, her goodness resulted in a lifetime of charitable work and behavior regularly reported to be impeccable. But as good and charitable as she was, she was also extremely private. Her brother recognized her desire for privacy, and surprised her on her nineteenth birthday in 1783 with an estate named Montreuil. However, he would not allow her to sleep over night there until she turned 25, and, so, each day she rode from Versailles to Montreuil.
Montreuil held fond memories for Madame Élisabeth. She had visited it frequently in her youth. Upon presenting the estate to her, Louis XVI stated, “Sister, you are in your own house. This is to be your Trianon.” Montreuil (today known as the “Domaine de Madame Elisabeth”) consisted of just over 17 acres. It was located one mile from Versailles near the barrier at the entrance to Versailles on the outskirts of Paris. It was “charmingly diversified with greensward and trees, and with shrubbery paths among the copses in all directions.”
Montreuil became a source of infinite delight for Élisabeth. She devoted a portion of the land to “cow pasture, dairy, vegetable and fruit gardens, and a poultry-yard.” Madame Élisabeth also soon became friends to the neighboring villagers. Her charitable nature soon became evident: she gave milk from her dairy to children or to those at a nearby foundling hospital. In addition, the vegetables and fruits from her garden were also regularly distributed to the sick, often by her own two hands, which earned her the nickname “Bonne dame de Montreuil” (good lady of Montreuil).
Besides her charitable works, Élisabeth was creative and talented. She loved to read and write letters. She was also a skilled seamstress and enjoyed petit point and embroidery. Her artistic skills were also evident. She created several drawings, of which some are displayed at Versailles. In addition, around this same time, counted stitch work on canvas was popular, and, at one point, Madame Élisabeth and her sister-in-law, Marie Antoinette, “commenced some work of this sort, which … [was intended for Marie Antoinette’s apartments] … on the ground-floor of the Louvre, but its completion was cut short by the Revolution.”
Madame Élisabeth was also said to be extremely fond of riding horseback and to be an accomplished rider. She was also known to hunt on horseback. One time she attended a boar hunt in the Forest of St. Germain in Laye, an area that lies about 20 kilometers West of Paris. She was mounted on an English horse and riding à l’anglaise. She was also wearing clothing purchased from London that included a plain blue riding habit and atop her head was an English riding hat that sported black feathers.
After the revolution broke out, hungry market women marched on Versailles in October of 1789, and forced the royal family to go to the Palace of Tuileries in Paris. There, Madame Élisabeth wrote to one of her friends:
We have been brought back to the Tuilleries, [sic] where nothing is ready; but we slept from excessive fatigue. It is certain we are prisoners here; my brother does not believe it, but time will teach him that it is so. Our friends think like me, that we are lost. We have no hope left but in God … My brother is perfectly resigned to his fate; his piety increases with his misfortunes.
As the revolution dragged on, Madame Élisabeth’s aunts left France for Italy on 20 February 1791, and she was to accompany them but hesitated instead. When Marie Antoinette asked her if she was going to abandon them too, Élisabeth vowed to stay and suffer whatever fate awaited the royal family. What awaited them was a failed attempt to escape, their capture at Varennes, and a dusty, dirty four-day return trip to Paris.
The royal family’s return to the Tuileries sealed their fate. After the events of 10 August of 1792, when insurgents attacked and overran the Tuileries, Madame Élisabeth sought refuge with the royal family at the Legislative Assembly, where she witnessed her brother’s dethronement. A few days later, the royal family was imprisoned at the Temple, and then both Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette were charged with treason and guillotined, 21 January 1793 and 16 October 1793, respectively.
Madame Élisabeth had always been delicate and suffered from fainting fits. These increased near the end of her life, no doubt from the stress of being imprisoned. In May of 1794, Madame Élisabeth was taken to the Conciergerie, where she was interrogated and accused of assisting the King in his flight to Varennes, supplying émigrés with funds, and encouraging the resistance of the royal troops during the events of 10 August 1792. She was found guilty, and, the next day, on 10 May 1794, she was sent to the scaffolding with 23 other victims.
Madame Élisabeth ascended “with calmness and resignation, did not utter a single complaint, and seemed happy to go and rejoin in another life, those whom she had loved … she was 30 years of age.” Her body was thrown into a common grave in a Paris cemetery used for victims of the guillotine called the Cimetière des Errancis. Her brother Louis XVIII searched for her remains during the Bourbon Restoration but discovered they could no longer be identified. Later, her remains and the remains of other guillotined victims were placed in the Catacombs of Paris, so what represents her today is a medallion located at the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
- Embroidery and Lace, 1889
- “Literature,” in Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 09 December 1831
- The Life and Letters of Madame Elisabeth de France, Sister of Louis XVI, 1899
- The Royal Military Chronicle, 1814
- The Ruin of a Princess, 1912