My fascination with the French Revolution started in grade 10. There is a chance that this fascination had as much to do with my very young, cute, single history teacher as it did with the subject matter. Nevertheless, I was hooked.
On a visit to the Basilica Cathedral of St. Denis, located just north of Paris, something bothered me. The cathedral, known for its Gothic architecture and exquisite sculptures, is the burial place of the kings and queens of France. One outstanding sculpture sits atop the tombs of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. But they couldn’t possibly be there. The timing didn’t make sense. They were beheaded and dumped in a mass grave, certainly not at St. Denis, which was almost destroyed during the Revolution. The church was looted, royal bones were dug up and thrown into a pit at the side of the church and the building was left in ruins. So, how did they end up there?
On further investigation, I was lured to a neo-classical structure four blocks from Galleries Lafayette (the upscale department store on Boulevard Haussmann). The Expiatoire is dedicated to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.
It sits on the western edge of a well-used public garden, a quiet respite from the bustle of traffic and tourists. The building marks the place where the king and queen were buried in a mass grave after their executions. Apparently, over twenty years later, after the fall of the First Republic, Louis XVIII exhumed their bones, moved them to St. Denis and erected this extravagant monument to commemorate the royal couple’s death.
For those of us visiting in the twenty-first century, it’s a reminder of the horrors that happened in the place de la Concorde, a kilometre from this restful place. It also stands as a warning. Despots are alive and well and history can repeat itself.
While the building is open only three days a week, the park surrounding it is open daily. When I visited, it was host to a few older men sitting on benches and a family picnic. I could smell the fresh baguettes, spicy charcuterie and stinky cheese as I walked by.
Inside the monument, a walled garden lined by symbolic tombs leads to a chapel built over the spot where the king and queen’s remains were found.
The chapel contains an altar and two magnificent sculptures, one for Louis and one for Marie Antoinette. Engraved on a large bronze plaque below the king’s sculpture is his last will and testament. Sadly, I wasn’t mentioned.
A similar bronze plaque beneath Marie Antoinette’s sculpture displays a letter written by the queen on the day of her execution. It’s addressed to her sister-in-law, Elisabeth.
Marie Antoinette was reviled when she was queen, as much or more for being Austrian as for being rich and royal. In her letter, she thanks her sister-in-law for standing by Louis and her and for staying when she could have fled.
Like most mothers, Marie Antoinette worried about her son and daughter and asks Elisabeth to ensure they are brought up loving and respecting one another. She also asks Elisabeth to forgive her son, the Dauphin. I didn’t understand this reference until I learned he was separated from his mother in the last month the queen was held in the Temple Tower. When she was tried in court, letters accusing her of incest with her son were presented in evidence against her. The eight year old child had been coerced into signing the papers. I can’t think of a false charge worse than this. What parent can? Even without these charges, she stood little chance of survival, and she never got to see or talk to her son after her conviction.
Marie Antoinette’s final letter captures her vulnerability and her stoicism as she faced death. It puts a human face on a woman I had dismissed as frivolous and extravagant. Her missive was never delivered to her sister-in-law and Elisabeth, like the king and queen, was sent to the guillotine. The Dauphin died in prison. The only one to survive was the queen’s daughter, Marie-Thérèse.
So, my question remained. After so many years, how were their bones distinguished from all the others who had been murdered and interred there.
On a very cool website, “Forgotten Books,” I found a volume entitled The Last Days of Marie Antoinette from the French of G. Lenôtre LR (translated by Mrs. Rodolph Stabbell) and published in 1907. According to an 1814 report delivered by France’s High Chancellor, before the king’s execution the senior curate of the Church of the Madeleine was given strict orders from the Executive Authorities regarding the king’s funeral. Had he disobeyed, he would have been imprisoned or worse. The curate received the king’s body January 21, 1793, having ensured a trench was the proper depth and that there was the prescribed amount of quick lime. He watched the open coffin, where the king lay, head between his legs, lowered into the trench. It was covered with a bed of lime and several layers of earth, each one beaten down. I imagine the authorities didn’t want any royalists digging up the king.
Emmanuel Daujou, a witness to the burial, saw where the king was interred and testified that his father-in-law bought the cemetery, which lay adjacent to his property, and planted two willows and hornbeam trees near the king’s grave.
Beside the wall that enclosed the cemetery, officials found male bones. These were attributed to the king because “the head was covered with lime and lay among the bones of the legs.”
Marie Antoinette was executed on October 16, almost ten months after her husband. Her remains were a bit more difficult to locate. Apparently, her body was left on the grass in the cemetery for 15 days before a gravedigger dug a hole, placed her open coffin in it and submitted this bill for the work: “The Widow Capet, for the coffin – 6 livres; for the grave and gravediggers, 15 – 35 livres.” This is the only record of her burial.
When the search for the queen began, one of the workmen, who said he had witnessed Marie Antoinette’s burial, assisted with locating her remains. They found bones “obviously a woman’s,” along with “two elastic garters in a fair state of preservation.” The servant who had dressed Marie Antoinette before her execution testified the queen had been wearing these garters.
When the Expiatoire was commissioned, Louis XVIII was back on the throne. This made we wonder, what did the push for a secular republic and the defeat of the monarchy amidst all that bloodshed accomplish? The Expiatoire’s architecture, the money it cost to build, the dedication only to the rich and royal, everything about the space is antithetical to the philosophy of the revolution, a set-back to a country struggling to find a new, more equal political paradigm.
While reading about the execution of King Louis XVI, I came across the names of two additional Revolutionary burial places. According to Paris’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website, “During the French Revolution, the abandoned quarries [in Montmartre] were used as mass graves for those killed during riots – including several hundred Swiss Guards killed defending the Tuileries on 10 August 1792.”
Another mass grave, Les Errancis, was used for 1,119 people guillotined at the place de la Concorde (known at that time as the place de la Révolution) in the year after the Madeleine cemetery was closed. The infamous Robespierre was buried in Les Errancis, as were two other famous organizers of the Revolution, Danton and Desmoulins who were betrayed and killed by Robespierre during the Reign of Terror. If Louis XVIII’s sister hadn’t been buried there, this unholy place may have been forgotten.
What’s left of the cemetery is a plaque mounted next door to an upscale bakery on rue Monceau. I confess, I ordered a pain au chocolat and read the dedication while I ate. The irony was not lost on me. The Revolution followed a year of drought and crop failure. In 1789, common people were spending 88% of their income on bread, compared to the 50% they usually spent. Famine was one of the major causes of the revolt.
Another irony I couldn’t shake off as I read the plaque and devoured my pain au chocolat in this upscale Batignolles neighbourhood was the close proximity of the Nissim de Camondo museum, opened in 1937. Its donor, a wealthy Jewish banker collected French decorative arts from the period of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Had he lived in that time, Moïse de Camondo would not have had the right to full citizenship. It was only after the French Revolution, Jews were given equal rights. But then, when the Nazis invaded France, French citizenship didn’t guarantee any protection, as is witnessed by the tragic end of Moïse de Camondo’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, all born in France, all French citizens, all killed in Nazi concentration camps.