La Chapelle Expiatoire, and Marie-Antoinette’s smile
I read this morning in the papers that the corpses of the late King and Queen of France, by order of their brother, the restored Louis the Eighteenth, were exhumed from their grave in the former graveyard of La Madeleine, which has since become a private garden. The remains were removed with royal honours to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the resting place of the Kings and Queens of France for twelve centuries.
Queen Marie-Antoinette was found soon after the workmen began digging, and the remains of King Louis the Sixteenth were located the next day. A search for the bones of the King’s youngest sister, Madame Elisabeth, was also conducted at the cemetery of Les Errancis. The guillotine had filled La Madeleine by the spring of 1794, and the authorities had opened the new graveyard to accommodate its increasing output.
That second investigation was unsuccessful. While the King and Queen had each been granted an individual execution and a coffin, Madame Elisabeth had been guillotined towards the end of the Terror as one in a cart of twenty-five prisoners. The remains had been thrown together into a common grave. The bodies, as required by law, had been stripped of all clothing, which, along with their other property, was forfeited to the Nation upon the imposition of the death sentence. Any identification would have become impossible very soon after the burial. Nevertheless, I trust that God will overlook the lack of proper funeral rites, which were denied to many in those days.
Those of you who have read Mistress of the Revolution, my first novel, will recognize its opening paragraphs. It is the news of the exhumations of the bodies Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette that prompt my narrator, Gabrielle, to write her memoirs and exhume her own past. So I have long thought of writing a post on the beautiful little Chapelle Expiatoire that was later built on the location of the former graveyard of La Madeleine, in what is now Square Louis XVI.
The great writer François-René de Chateaubriand, who attended the exhumations, writes in his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe: “Amidst the bones, I recognized the Queen’s head from the smile she had given me in Versailles.” Chateaubriand had been presented to the King and Queen only a few years before the Revolution. Did he really recognize Marie-Antoinette’s smile in the grim remains from La Madeleine?
Not long ago I had a heated discussion with a French historian, an 18th century specialist no less, who argued that the exhumations were mere propaganda, and that there had been no way of telling whether the bones taken to Saint-Denis were really those of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. According to that scholar, two bodies were needed, and they were picked at random among those in the mass grave. Chateaubriand, far from recognizing the Queen’s smile, was covering up the deception.
I disagree. Oh sure, that was long before the days of DNA testing, but I am sure that the right bones were found and reburied. Why? First, both Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were buried in coffins. That made it easy to separate their bones from the hundreds of other remains surrounding them. Also, Descloseaux, the owner of the plot that had been the graveyard of La Madeleine, had attended the initial burials, and he had an excellent reason to remember – and later point out – the exact locations of the royal bodies. He purchased the plot after the graveyard closed, with the idea that someday, upon the restoration of the Bourbons, it would become one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Paris. Indeed when Louis XVIII eventually purchased the plot to build the Chapelle Expiatoire, Descloseaux demanded – and received – many times its market value.
This is why I believe that the bodies buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, under the funeral monuments of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (below) are really those of the King and Queen.
And if you visit the Chapelle Expiatoire, in the Square Louis XVI, remember not only the royal couple, but also the other victims of Revolution still resting under the greenery of that little park.
Photograph of the monuments of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Saint-Denis by Eric Pouhier.