What Happened to the Children of Marie Antoinette?
A Closer Look at the Royal Families of Europe
Most of us are at least in part familiar with the tragic history of the child queen Marie Antoinette, and her equally young and inexperienced husband Louis VXI of France. That she lived a life of unadulterated luxury and opulence while the people she governed languished in poverty until the Revolution broke out in 1789 is universally understood. And that she was eventually executed with her husband by guillotine is fairly infamous. But what about the four children she had before her execution? What became of them?
Marie Therese of France (December 19, 1778- October 19, 1851)
Marie Therese was the eldest child of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and their first daughter. Born, like the rest of her siblings at the Palace de Versailles, Marie was nicknamed Mousseline by her mother, but fashionably referred to as the Madame Royale at court. She was named after her grandmother on her mother’s side, the then Empress of Austria.
Although the birth was a traumatizing one (Marie Antoinette is said to have nearly suffocated in the crowded room that she was undergoing labor in-- the heat and eyes of so many people on her were not good for herself or the baby, regardless of French tradition), the queen adored her daughter from the start. Noting that because of Salic Law, this first-born daughter would not be able to ascend the French throne, Marie Antoinette reportedly uttered, “Poor little one, you are not desired, but you will be none the less dear to me! A son would have belonged to the state—you will belong to me.”
Her father, the king, reportedly rejoiced in spoiling his daughter, while her mother attempted to teach her to appreciate her privilige (contrary to what might have been said about the queen's life of luxury, she did attempt to imbue her children with some degree of gratefulness and sympathy). Other, less well off children were frequently invited to dine with Marie Therese, and share in her presents and possessions. Because two of her siblings died very young, Marie shared the closest bond to her brother Louis Charles.
After her parents were captured during the French Revolution after an attempt to escape went awry while fleeing the Tuileries, she was sentenced to death by revolutionaries. First her father, and then her mother would be executed by guillotine, while she languished in a jail cell, separated from her younger brother Louis Charles. It was here that she would spend many of the years of her adolescence, and also learn of her brother’s death. She had only two books in the Temple Tower prison, and was frequently miserable, isolated, and bored.
Eventually, the Austrian army convinced the French revolutionaries to decrease her sentence to exile, and she was released from her imprisonment. She was nearly seventeen, and she was now exiled to the place where her mother had been born: Austria. From there, she joined the court of Emperor Francis II in Vienna.
In 1799, at the age of twenty-one, she would marry her cousin, Louis Antoine d’Artois, son of Louis XVI’s younger brother, also known as the Duke of Angoulême. Their marriage took place despite the Duke’s protestations against it in Latvia. From that period on, she would be referred to as the Duchess of Angoulême.
For a brief period of time, she was allowed to return to France when the monarchy was reinstated, but she would be exiled once more after the Revolution of 1830. She died, childless, the only of her siblings to survive into adulthood. She would remain a staunch supporter of the monarchy until her death in exile, at the age of sixty-three.
Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France (October 22, 1781- June 4, 1789)
Louis Joseph Xavier François was the first son and second child of Marie Antoinettte and Louis XVI, and as such, he was considered the heir to the throne until his death at seven years old. Born at Versailles, Louis Joseph was named for his uncle on his mother’s side.
Described as bright for his age, the young Dauphin was beloved by his parents and older sister. From an early age he suffered from poor health-- at just three years old he was racked by high fevers. Although he would recover, the fevers returned two years later, early signs of tuberculosis. Ultimately, the child would die from tuberculosis in the summertime, the second of siblings to perish after his infant sister, Sophie of France. Before his death, he was under the care of a number of governesses, and his wet-nurse would be accused of transmitting tuberculosis to him, although this was largely unsubstantiated.
Louis XVII, aka Louis-Charles (March 27, 1785- June 8, 1795)
Louis-Charles was the third child and second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Although he was not originally designated as the heir to the throne since he had an older brother, upon Louis Joseph’s death in 1789, just before the French Revolution began, Louis-Charles would be named Dauphin.
He was born in Versailles, and like his other siblings, adored by his parents, and doted on by governesses and other servants. There was very little time between when he was named Dauphin and when the Revolution began, and so he did not have the typical crown-prince experience. After his family were intercepted fleeing, they would all be imprisoned. After his father was executed, he was left very briefly under the charge of his mother Marie, at Temple Tower prison.
Eventually however, he was separated from his mother and sister and sent to live under the guardianship of a cobbler, Antoine Simone. Reports that Simone was abusive to the Dauphin are extensive although not entirely substantiated. What is assured however, is that the young Dauphin was manipulated into testifying against his mother, which would help cement her execution. He would help accuse her, without fully knowing the impact of his testimony, of incest and abuse. Meanwhile Simone was attempting to get the young crown-prince to renounce his royal upbringing and embrace the spirit of the common man and the revolution.
However, the conditions that the young prince were kept in were vile and horrid-- frequently dangerous and unsanitary. And so it was not altogether surprising when he fell ill and died in 1795, at the premature age of ten years old. He died, as his brother had, of tuberculosis.
His heart would not be buried with the rest of his body, but rather smuggled away in a crystal case and preserved by a coroner. Recent DNA tests have all but confirmed the heart belonged to the Dauphin.
Since his father died before he did, there was technically a very brief period where Louis Charles was crowned Louis XVII of France by loyalists still invested in sustaining the power of the crown.
Sophie of France (July 9, 1786- June 19, 1787)
The youngest of Louis XVI and Marie Antionette's children, and their second daughter, Sophie Helena Beatrice of France was named for her great aunt on her father’s side. Although she was born at Versailles and therefore enjoyed all of the opulence such an upbringing might afford, she contracter tuberculosis young, and this coupled with an already fragile system would prove fatal. She died roughly a month short of her first birthday.
A portrait of Marie Antoinette with each of her four children (pictured above) which was almost completed, had to be edited so that the infant Sophie was painted out of her cradle. Her death reportedly devastated both of her parents.