Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France: Her Life at the Temple and Her Release

Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France was the oldest child of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and was known as Madame Royale, a style customarily used for the eldest living unmarried daughter of a reigning French monarch. She was also the only child of the King and Queen’s to reach adulthood as her siblings died while young.  

Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France. Courtesy of EstimArt.

Like her father, mother, aunt, brother, and the Princess de Lamballe, Marie-Thérèse was imprisoned in August of 1792 at the Temple, which had been built by the Knights Templar in the twelfth century and started out as fort. New headquarters emerged in the thirteenth century in the form of a fortress called enclos du Temple. The Temple originally contained buildings necessary for the order to function and included two towers: a massive one known as the Gross Tour (great tower) and a small one called Tour de Tour de César (Caesar’s Tower).

The Temple. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The great tower was where the royal family was imprisoned. It was 150 feet high with walls that were 9 feet thick. It consisted of four stories, all vaulted, and the interior was between 34 and 36 feet square. The second floor was reserved for the King and the third floor for the Queen. Both floors had an antechamber preceded by two doors, one of oak and the other of iron.

The King and the Dauphin (Louis-Charles) were housed together on the second floor and Marie-Thérèse, her mother, and her aunt (Madame Élisabeth) were placed on the third floor. The chamber that housed Marie-Thérèse and her mother was directly above the King’s chamber, and in it there was the Queen’s bed, a mahogany chest of drawer, and a wooden screen. There was also Marie-Thérèse’s bed that had three mattresses, a hair palliass, bolster, and two cotton quilts. In addition, the room had yellow paper on the walls.

During the royal family’s imprisonment, they were constantly insulted. Marie-Thérèse wrote that “My father was no longer treated as King. He was not called ‘Sire’ or ‘Your Majesty,’ but ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Louis.’”[1] Moreover, jailers were always sitting in his room, and one jailer purposely tried to torment him by singing a popular song of revolutionaries, known as “Le Carmagnole,” or smoking a pipe, something the King detested.

The royal family was unhappy while imprisoned at the Temple partly because news was hard to come by, and they only learned of the outside world by bits and pieces. How they knew something was afoot was if they heard the beating of the drums, but even then they did not know exactly what the drums meant.

The royal family’s unhappiness increased when Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793. Shortly after his execution, Louis-Charles (Louis XVII) was removed on 3 July 1793 and housed in a different part of the Temple. After his removal Marie Antoinette never saw him again and Marie-Thérèse only saw him a couple of times.

Life in the Temple was difficult, and it became more difficult when a few weeks after her brother’s separation, on the night of 1 August, at 1:00 in the morning, guards came and took her mother away. She supposedly threw her arms around her mother and had to be torn from her. When the Queen left the Temple, she did not stoop low enough and hit her head on the lintel of door as she exited. One of her guards asked if she was hurt. She is reported to have said, “No, … nothing can hurt me now.”[2]

The Queen was take from the Temple to an isolated cell in the Conciergerie, a prison that was the main penitentiary of a network of prisons throughout Paris and housed more than 2,700 people, who were summarily executed by guillotine. She arrived there at 3am and was known thereafter as “Prisoner n° 280.” She was placed in cell below courtyard level that was unpleasant and damp: The brick floor was thick with slimy mud and the walls were usually wet as water trickled down them because of the cell’s proximity to the Seine. Moreover, when the river was low and the walls dried out, she could see the appearance of pieces of old fleur-de-lis wallpaper.

After her mother’s removal from the Temple, Marie-Thérèse scratched her unhappiness onto a wall in her room. It read: 

“Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte is the most unfortunate person in the world. She cannot hear news of her mother, not even to be reunited to her even though she has asked for it a thousand times. Long live my good mother whom I like and whose news I cannot know.”*[3]

Marie Antoinette’s trial began on 14 October. It lasted 15 hours, and the next session that began on 15 October lasted 24 hours. The verdict probably came as no surprise to anyone. The sentence of death by guillotine was passed at 4:30am on the 16th, and when it was pronounced, the Queen didn’t say a single word. A few hours later, she was executed at the Place de la Concorde. Her death was followed by the death of her sister-in-law and Marie-Thérèse’s aunt, Madame Élisabeth, who was guillotined on 10 May 1794.

Portrait of Madame Élisabeth, Courtesy of Wikipedia

All alone with no one, Marie-Thérèse had to have had a lonely existence and feared for her future. On 8 June 1795, her brother died from a long-standing scrofulous infection. She was not informed and did not make any identification of his body, which partly resulted in rumors that he was still alive. These rumors included tales the Dauphin had been spirited out of the Temple and resulted in the legend of the “Lost Dauphin.” In fact, the idea that Louis-Charles was still alive gave rise to over one hundred claimants alleging that they were him when the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1814.

A few months after her brother’s death, on 31 October 1795, five members were elected to serve in the new government, known as the Directory. They decided to place a woman with Marie-Thérèse to serve as her companion. That woman was Madame Chauterenne, and it was at that time that Marie-Thérèse was informed that Louis-Charles had died. She must have been depressed and felt that death surrounded her. She also probably expected to die in prison just like her family. However, soon after the Directory was established and the directors struck a deal to exchange her for several prominent republic prisoners being held in Austria. She knew nothing of the deal and only learned of it the day before her release.

On 18 December 1795, at 11pm, the evening before her seventeenth birthday, she left the Temple. It had been three years, four months, and five days of imprisonment. She must have held her breath as she descended from the third floor to the ground floor of the Temple. She was probably worried that her release might not happen, but then she stepped from damp, stale air inside the Tower to the fresh cold air outside.

To avoid any attention, authorities had arranged for her to leave on foot and had a carriage waiting for her on a nearby street. Shortly after she left, a man named Comte Pierre Louis Roederer entered her room. He was one of the 693 members in the National Convention that voted the King guilty of treason. Subsequent votes then condemned the King to be guillotined. As he looked around her room, he noticed on the wall these penned lines:

“O my father, watch over me from you place in heaven” [and] … “O God, pardon those through whom my parents died!”[4]

Roederer was supposedly “stupefied” and noted in his “Memoirs” to have had the “fiercest remorse.”

To accompany Marie-Thérèse on her journey, she was told she could select a companion. She selected Madame de Sérent, who had served Madame Élisabeth as her dame d’atour. However, the Directory refused Marie-Thérèse’s first selection and settled on her second. Renée Suzanne de Soucy, the daughter of her former governess, Madame de Mackau, was to accompany her. Marie-Thérèse was also placed under the guardianship of a captain of the gendarmes whose last name was Méchin.

Marie-Thérèse in 1797. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The exchange was to occur at the Swiss frontier, and, so, Marie-Thérèse and Méchin then undertook a six-day journey. Jeanne Louise Henriette Campan, known as Madame Campan, was a French educator, writer, and lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. She later wrote Marie Antoinette’s memoirs and noted that Marie-Thérèse’s trip through France was melancholy. Moreover, when the young woman crossed over the French border Madame Campan claims she said, “I leave France with regret, for I shall never cease to consider it my country.”[5]

Marie-Thérèse arrived at Huningue, a little town near Basel, Switzerland, that was besieged by Austrians in 1796 and 1797. There she settled into a room in the Corbeau Inn and penned a letter to Madame Chauterenne:

“I was recognized the first day at Provins. You have no idea how people ran to see me. Some called me my dear lady, others my dear Princess. Some wept with joy, and I also was near weeping. … What a change from Paris to the departments. At Charenton people were already refusing to take the assignats. They murmur loudly against the Government. … They all seemed grieved at my departure. I am known everywhere, notwithstanding the care of those who surround me. … if you knew how I feel! What a pity that such a change should not have taken place earlier! I should not have seen my family perish with so many thousands of innocent people. … My companions are very worthy people. Our M. Méchin is a good man, but very timid; he is in constant fear lest the émigrés come and seize me, or the Terrorists kill me.”[6]

The following day, 25 December, a second carriage arrived at the inn. It was carrying precious cargo, Marie-Thérèse’s dog named Coco. This joyous reunion was captured in detail:

“Coco, who was not restrained by any considerations of etiquette, scrambled through the half-open door and rushed towards his mistress, displaying such joy at being restored to her that they thought he would die for want of breath. Someone having remarked that the dog was very ugly, Madame’s eyes filled with tears and she murmured, ‘I love him. He is all I have now to remind me of my brother.’”[7]

Besides Coco, Marie-Thérèse also received some clothing. Her departure from the Temple had been done so hastily that she left certain clothing behind. To help with this clothing shortage, the Directory presented her with a trousseau that was placed inside two band boxes and contained such things as “a mantle, some bonnets, hats, fichus, shawls, etc.”[8]

The following day, the official exchange took place. She was being exchanged for prisoners who had been detained for a month at Freiburg im Breisgau, a city in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. There was also some worry about the exchange as it needed to be performed with the utmost delicacy so as “not to wound the susceptibilities of either party.”[9] It was to happen at the country home of a man named Reber, a spot that was less than ten minutes away from the Corbeau Inn. The one-story house had a garden in front and access was acquired through fanciful wrought-iron gates. In the rear was also a fine garden that extended down to the Rhine River, where an elegant little temple stood reminiscent of the Queen’s beloved Petit Trianon.

Marie-Thérèse arrived at 6pm. The exchange occurred an hour later when she was placed into the hands of the Austrian envoy. He attested to the following:

“The undersigned, in virtue of the orders of his Majesty the Emperor, declares having received from M. Bacher, French ambassador delegated to this end, Madame the Princess Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, daughter of his majesty the King Louis XVI.”[10]

Those at the exchange reported that it “passed calmly.” Afterwards, Marie-Thérèse took refreshments and left with Imperial agents a little after 9pm heading to Lauffenbourg. The exchange was not commonly known until later that evening. Two detachments of dragoons acted as her escort with her destination being Vienna.

Marie-Thérèse in Vienna in 1796 soon after her departure from Revolutionary France. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of the prisoners that Marie-Thérèse was exchanged for, one prisoner is worth mentioning. He was the fiery republican and postmaster at Sainte-Menehould who had recognized the heavy placid features of the King when the royal family was fleeing to Montemédy. His name was Jean-Baptiste Drouet and if he had not taken immediate steps to warn citizens about the King’s flight, France’s history might have been different because the King and Queen would have likely escaped and lived.

Marie-Thérèse had never been to Vienna despite it being the birthplace of her mother and the capital of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. She arrived there safely on 9 January 1796, in the evening, twenty-two days after she had left the Temple.

* In French it reads: “Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte est la plus malheureuse personne du monde. Elle ne peut obtenir de savoir des nouvelles de sa mère, pas même d’être réunie à elle quoiqu’elle l’ait demandé mille fois. Vive ma bonne mère que j’aime bien et dont je ne peux savoir des nouvelles.”


  • [1] The Nation v. 56-57 (New York: Nation Company, 1893), p. 47.
  • [2] Madame Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Campan, The Private Life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Navarre: With Sketches and Anecdotes of the Court of Louis XVI (New York: R. Bentley and Son, 1887), p. 421.
  • [3] Le Correspondant v. 227 (1907), p. 537.
  • [4] M. J.-L.-H. Campan, p. 441.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 442.
  • [6] The Nation, p. 47.
  • [7] G. Lenotre and J. L. May, The Daughter of Louis XVI: Marie-Therese-Charlotte de France, Duchesse D’Angouleme (London: J. Lane, 1908), p. 220.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 222.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 223.
  • [10] The Nation, p. 47.

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