Many years ago I read an extravagantly lurid little book called Strange Tales of Immortal Crimes by Harry Ashton-Wolfe. This book contained nineteenth-century “true-crime” stories ostensibly taken from the files of the French police.
One of the tales concerned the famous detective Vidocq and his search for a boy rumored to be the missing child of Marie Antoinette. The story contained a delusional, grave-robbing artist, a government conspiracy and the audacious rescue of the captive Dauphin from his cutthroat captors.
Granted, Strange Tales made for exciting reading, but the true account of Louis XVII is stranger and far more interesting than anything fiction could conjure up. Deborah Cadbury recounts this striking story in The Lost King of France: A True Story of Revolution, Revenge and DNA.
Cadbury’s narrative begins in the 1990s with the DNA testing of a small, desiccated human heart. This heart was stored in a crystal urn in the crypt of the French Bourbon kings at the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Purportedly, it belonged to the titular Lost King of France, Louis-Charles, Duc de Normandie, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Poor little Louis-Charles is one of the tragic figures of history. He was eight years old when imprisoned with his family at the start of the French Revolution. Despised as a royal by his fanatical sans-culotte captors, the boy was physically and emotionally brutalized for two years before finally succumbing to disease and maltreatment in 1795.
Or did he?
There have always been rumors that the young Dauphin didn’t die in Temple Prison. That he escaped or was smuggled out. In the early nineteenth century, pretenders cropped up all over the world claiming to be the long lost Louis XVII. Were all of these men imposters?
The first half of The Lost King follows the French royal family from the start of the Revolution through their period of captivity and the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I’ll give a small warning here for sensitive souls. The sections detailing the brutal treatment of the royal family, especially the children, are distressing to read.
In 1795, the revolutionary council announced that Louis-Charles had died in captivity. For reasons unknown, a physician who attended the autopsy of the boy who died in Temple prison cut out and kept the child’s heart, preserving it in alcohol.
The second half of the book details the astonishing adventures of this tiny relic through 200 years of history along with the heartache faced by Louis’ surviving sister, Marie-Therese, in the period following the revolution. The stories of some of the more famous pretenders to the throne are also scrutinized.
Deborah Cadbury, a journalist and former producer of scientific programs for the BBC, does a fine job in relating this real life tale of adventure. The story is intriguing, the book well written and the final denouement when the results of the DNA test come through are moving.
For people interested in this topic the library also has the similarly-themed book, Marie-Therese, Child of Terror: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter, by Susan Nagel.
Check the WRL catalog for The Lost King of France.