A Celebration of Women Writers

"Life and Letters of Madame Élisabeth, Chapter III." by Madame Élisabeth, Sister of Louis XVI; translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley.
From: The Ruin of a Princess. translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley. New York: The Lamb Publishing Company, 1912. pp. 90-107.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 90] 


Madame Élisabeth's Removal to the Conciergerie–Her Examination, Condemnation, and Death 1

[THE only authentic records of Madame Élisabeth's life from the day she entered the Tower of the Temple, August 13, 1792, to May 9, 1794, the day when she was torn from the arms of her young niece, are in the simple Narrative of that niece, Marie-Thérèse de France, and in the Journal of the Temple by Cléry, Louis XVI.'s valet. These narratives could be, and have been rewritten and elaborated in tender words by loving hearts, but their plain simplicity is more befitting the sacred figure of this brave, self-forgetting, wise and truly Christ-like woman. They are given later.

We take her now as she emerges from the Temple, for a last brief moment, into the sight and hearing of men.]

On the 25th of November, 1793, the municipality of Paris addressed to the National Assembly the following petition:


"You have decreed Equality; source of public welfare; it is established on foundations henceforth immovable; nevertheless, it is violated, this Equality, and in the most revolting manner, by the vile remains of tyranny, by the prisoners in the Tower of the Temple. Could they still, those abominable remains, be of any account under present circumstances, it could be only from the interest the country has [Page 91]  in preventing them from rending her bosom, and renewing the atrocities committed by the two monsters who gave them birth. If, therefore, such is the sole interest of the Republic in respect to them, it is beneath her sole surveillance that they ought to be placed. We are no longer in those horrible days when a Liberticide faction (on whom the blade of the law has already done justice) assumed, as a means of vengeance against a patriotic Commune which it abhorred, a responsibility which outraged all laws, and has weighed for more than fifteen months on every member of the Commune of Paris.

"Reason, justice, equality cry to you, legislators, to make that responsibility cease.

"And as it is more than time to return to their regular work two hundred and fifty sans-culottes, now unjustly employed in guarding the prisoners of the Temple, the Commune of Paris expects your wisdom:–

"1st, That you will send the infamous Élisabeth before the Revolutionary tribunal at the earliest moment.

"2d, That in regard to the posterity of the tyrant you will take prompt measures to transfer them to a prison chosen by you, then to be locked up with suitable precautions and treated by the system of equality in the same manner as all other prisoners whom the Republic has need to secure.


Referred to the Committee on Public Safety, this petition slumbered there for six months, but it was not forgotten in that hotbed of the Revolution.

Madame Élisabeth had, from the hour that she left Montrueil, expressed the resolution to share the trials and the perils of her brother and his family. She kept that resolu- [Page 92]  tion: at Versailles on the 6th of October; in Paris, through years of gloomy solitude in the Tuileries; on the road to and from Varennes; on that day of evil omen, the 20th of June; on the bloody night of the 10th of August; in the box at the Assembly, facing insults and threats; in the Tower of the Temple, witness and actor in those heart-rending farewells. Yes, she kept all the promises she made to God, and God was now about to keep all his to her: strength and faithfulness unto death were hers, and pity passes from our minds as we read of these last scenes, so all-triumphant are they.

In a pouring rain she was taken on foot across the garden and courtyard of the Temple, placed in a hackney-coach, and driven to the Conciergerie, May 9, 1794. It was then eight o'clock in the evening. At ten she was taken to the council hall of the Revolutionary tribunal, and there subjected to her first examination before Gabriel Deliége, judge, Fouquier-Tinville, prosecutor, and Ducray, clerk. 1

After placing her signature with that of the three men at the foot of each page of her indictment, Madame Élisabeth was taken back to prison. She made herself no illusions as to the fate that awaited her. She knew it would be in vain to ask for the help of a Catholic priest; she resigned herself to that deprivation, and offered direct to God the sacrifice of her life, drawing from her living faith the strength to make that sacrifice worthily. She was alone; no human help could reach her. It is said that, unknown to her, a lawyer, M. Chauveau-Lagarde, hearing of her arraignment, went to the prison to offer himself for her defence. He was not permitted to see her. He appealed to Fouquier-Tinville, who replied: "You cannot see her to-day; there is no hurry; she will not be tried yet." Nevertheless, spurred by a vague anxiety, M. Chauveau-Lagarde went the next morning to the assize court, [Page 93]  and there, according to his presentiment, was Madame Élisabeth seated, among twenty-four other prisoners, on the upper bench, where they had placed her that she might be conspicuously in view of every one. It was then impossible to confer with her, and she was ignorant that one man stood in that court seeking to defend her. 1

René-François Dumas, president of the Revolutionary tribunal, opened the session; Gabriel Deliége and Antoine-Marie, judges, were seated beside him.

Gilbert Liendon, deputy public prosecutor, read the accusation; Charles-Adrien Legris, clerk, wrote down the examination.

The jurors, to the number of fifteen, were the following citizens [names given].

The Indictment.

"Antoine-Quentin Fouquier, Public Prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal, established in Paris by the decree of the National Assembly, March 10, 1793, year Two of the Republic, without recourse to any Court of Appeal, in virtue of the power given him by article 2 of another decree of the said Convention given on the 5th of April following, to the effect the 'the Public Prosecutor of said Tribunal is authorized to arrest, try, and judge, on the denunciation of the constituted authorities, or of citizens,'–

"Herewith declares that the following persons have been, by various decrees of the Committee of general safety of the Convention, of the Revolutionary committees of the different sections of Paris, and of the department of the Yonne, and by virtue of warrants of arrest issued by the said Public Prosecutor, denounced to this Tribunal:– [Page 94] 

"1st, Marie Élisabeth Capet, sister of Louis Capet, the last tyrant of the French, aged thirty, and born at Versailles."

[Then follow the names and description of twenty-four other prisoners.]

"And, also, that it is to the family of the Capets that the French people owe all the evils under the weight of which they have groaned for so many centuries.

"It was at the moment when excessive oppression forced the people to break their chains, that this whole family united to plunge them into a slavery more cruel than that from which they were trying to emerge. The crimes of all kinds, the guilty deeds of Capet, of the Messalina Antoinette, of the two brothers Capet, and of Élisabeth, are too well known to make it necessary to repaint here the horrible picture. They are written in letters of blood upon the annals of the Revolution; and the unheard-of atrocities exercised by the barbarous émigrés and the sanguinary Satellites of despots, the murders, the incendiarisms, the ravages, the assassinations unknown to the most ferocious monsters which they have committed on French territory, are still commanded by that detestable family, in order to deliver a great nation once more to the despotism and fury of a few individuals.

"Élisabeth has shared all those crimes; she has co-operated in all the plots, the conspiracies formed by her infamous brothers, by the wicked and impure Antoinette, and by the horde of conspirators collected around them; she associated herself with their projects; she encouraged the assassins of the nation, the plots of July, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, the conspiracy of the 6th of October following, of which the d'Estaings, the Villeroys, and others, [Page 95]  who have now been struck by the blade of the law, were the agents,–in short, the whole uninterrupted chain of conspiracies, lasting four whole years, were followed and seconded by all the means which Élisabeth had in her power. It was she who in the month of June, 1791, sent diamonds, the property of the nation, to the infamous d'Artois, her brother, to put him in a condition to execute projects concerted with him, and to hire assassins of the nation. It was she who maintained with her other brother, now become an object of derision and contempt to the coalized Powers on whom he imposed his imbecile and ponderous nullity, a most active correspondence; it was she who chose by the most insulting pride and disdain to degrade and humiliate the free men who consecrated their time to guarding the tyrant; it was she who lavished attentions on the assassins, sent to the Champs Élysées by the despot to provoke the brave Marseillais; it was she who stanched the wounds they received in their precipitate flight.

"Élisabeth meditated with Capet and Antoinette the massacre of the citizens of Paris on the immortal day of the 10th of August. She watched all night hoping to witness the nocturnal carnage. She helped the barbarous Antoinette to bite the cartridges; she encouraged by her language, young girls whom fanatical priests had brought to the château for that horrible occupation. Finally, disappointed in the hope of all this horde of conspirators, namely,–that the citizens who came to overthrow tyranny would be massacred,–she fled in the morning, with the tyrant and his wife, and went to await in the temple of National sovereignty that the horde of slaves, paid and committed to the crimes of that parricide Court, should drown Liberty in the blood of citizens and cut the throats [Page 96]  of its representatives among whom she had sought a refuge.

"Finally, we have seen her, since the well-deserved punishment of the most guilty of the tyrants who have ever dishonoured human nature, promoting the re-establishment of tyranny by lavishing, with Antoinette, on the son of Capet homage to royalty and the pretended honours of a king."

The president, in presence of the auditory composed as aforesaid, then put to the said jurors, each individually, the following oath:–

"Citizen, you swear and promise to examine with the most scrupulous attention the charges brought against the accused persons, here present before you; to communicate with no one until after you declare your verdict; to listen to neither hatred nor malignity, fear, nor affection; to decide according to the charges and means of defence, and according to your confidence and inward conviction, with the impartiality and firmness which becomes free men."

After swearing the said oath, the said jurors took their seats in the centre of the audience chamber, facing the accused and the witnesses.

The president told the accused that they might sit down: after which he asked their names, age, profession, residence, and place of birth, beginning with Madame Élisabeth.

Q. What is your name?

A. Élisabeth-Marie.

[The report in the "Moniteur" does not say, but a large number of persons present have declared that Madame Élisabeth answered: "I am named Élisabeth-Marie de France, sister of Louis XVI, aunt of Louis XVII, your king."]

Q. Your age? A. Thirty. [Page 97] 

Q. Where were you born? A. Versailles.

Q. Where do you live? A. Paris.

. . . . . . . . . .

The president then put the following questions to Madame Élisabeth:

Q. Where were you on the 12th, 13th, and 14th of July, 1789, that is, at the period of the first plots of the Court against the people?

A. I was in the bosom of my family. I knew of no plots such as you speak of. I was far from foreseeing or seconding those events.

Q. At the time of the flight of the tyrant, your brother, to Varennes did you not accompany him?

A. All things commanded me to follow my brother; I made it my duty on that occasion, as on all others.

Q. Did you not figure in the infamous and scandalous orgy of the Gardes-du-corps, and did you not make the circuit of the table with Marie-Antoinette and induce each guest to repeat the shocking oath to exterminate the patriots, to smother liberty at its birth, and re-establish the tottering throne?

A. I am absolutely ignorant if the orgy mentioned took place; and I declare that I was never in any way informed of it.

Q. You do not tell the truth, and your denial is not of any use to you, because it is contradicted on one side by public notoriety, and on the other by the likelihood, which convinces every man of sense, that a woman so closely allied as you were with Marie-Antoinette, both by ties of blood and those of intimate friendship, could not avoid sharing her machinations and helping with all your power; you did therefore, necessarily, and in accord with the wife of the tyrant, instigate the abominable oath taken by the satellites [Page 98]  of the Court to assassinate and annihilate liberty at its birth; also you instigated the bloody outrages done to that precious sign of liberty, the tri-colour cockade, by ordering your accomplices to trample it under foot.

A. I have already declared that all those acts are unknown to me; I have no other answer.

Q. Where were you on the 10th of August?

A. I was in the château, my usual and natural residence for some time past.

Q. Did you not pass the night of the 9th and 10th in your brother's room; and did you not have secret conferences with him which explained to you the object and motive of all the movements and preparations which were being made before your eyes?

A. I spent the night you speak of in my brother's room; I did not leave him; he had much confidence in me; and yet I never remarked anything in his conduct or in his conversation which announced to me what happened later.

Q. Your answer wounds both truth and probability; a woman like you, who has manifested through the whole course of the Revolution so striking an opposition to the present order of things, cannot be believed when she tries to make us think that she was ignorant of the cause of those assemblages of all kinds in the château on the eve of the 10th of August. Will you tell us what prevented you from going to bed on the night of the 9th and 10th of August?

A. I did not go to bed because the constituted bodies had come to tell my brother of the agitation, the excitement of the inhabitants of Paris, and the dangers that might result from it.

Q. You dissimulate in vain: especially after the various [Page 99] confessions of the widow Capet, who stated that you took part in the orgy of the Gardes-du-corps, that you supported her under her fears and alarms on the 10th of August as to the life of Capet. But what you deny fruitlessly is the active part you took in the conflict that ensued between the patriots and the satellites of tyranny; it is your zeal and ardour in serving the enemies of the people, in supplying them with cartridges, which you took pains to bite, because they were directed against patriots and intended to mow them down; it is the desire you have publicly expressed that victory should belong to the power and partisans of your brother, and the encouragement of all kinds which you have given to the murderers of your country. What answer have you to these last facts?

A. All those acts imputed to me are unworthy deeds with which I was very far from staining myself.

Q. At the time of the journey to Varennes did you not precede the shameful evasion of the tyrant by the subtraction of the diamonds called crown diamonds, belonging then to the nation, and did you not send them to d'Artois?

A. Those diamonds were not sent to d'Artois; I confined myself to giving them into the hands of a trustworthy person.

Q. Will you name the person with whom you deposited those diamonds?

A. M. de Choiseul was the person I selected to receive that trust.

Q. What have become of the diamonds you say you confided to Choiseul?

A. I am absolutely ignorant of what was the fate of those diamonds, not having had an opportunity to see M. de Choiseul; I have had no anxiety, nor have I concerned myself about them. [Page 100] 

Q. You do not cease to lie on all the questions made to you, and especially on the matter of the diamonds; for a procés-verbal of September 12, 1792, drawn up with full knowledge of the circumstances by the representatives of the people at the time of the theft of those diamonds, proves, in a manner that cannot be denied, that those diamonds were sent to d'Artois. Have you not kept up a correspondence with your brother, the ci-devant Monsieur ?

A. I do not remember having done so since it was prohibited.

Q. Did you not yourself stanch and dress the wounds of the assassins sent to the Champs Élysées by your brother against the brave Marseillais?

A. I never knew that my brother did send assassins against any one, no matter who. Although I gave succour to some wounded men, humanity alone induced me to dress their wounds; I did not need to know the cause of their ills to occupy myself with their relief. I make no merit of this, and I cannot imagine that a crime can be made of it.

Q. It is difficult to reconcile the sentiments of humanity in which you now adorn yourself with the cruel joy you showed on seeing the torrents of blood that flowed on the 10th of August. All things justify us in believing that you are humane to none but the murderers of the people, and that you have all the ferocity of the most sanguinary animals for the defenders of liberty. Far from succouring the latter you instigated their massacre by your applause; far from disarming the murderers of the people you gave them with your own hands the instruments of death, by which you flattered yourselves, you and your accomplices, that tyranny and despotism would be restored. That is the humanity of despots, who, from all time, have sacrificed millions of men to their caprices, to their ambition, and to their [Page 101] cupidity. The prisoner Élisabeth, whose plan of defence is to deny all that is laid to her charge, will she have the sincerity to admit that she nursed the little Capet in the hope of succeeding to his father's throne, thus instigating to royalty?

A. I talked familiarly with that unfortunate child, who was dear to me from more than one cause, and I gave him, in consequence, all the consolations that I thought might comfort him for the loss of those who gave him birth.

Q. That is admitting, in other terms, that you fed the little Capet with the projects of vengeance which you and yours have never ceased to form against liberty; and that you flattered yourself to raise the fragments of a shattered throne by soaking it in the blood of patriots.

The president then proceeded to the examination of the other prisoners, confining himself to a few insignificant questions.

[Here the "Moniteur" and after it historians, omit all mention of the speech of Madame Élisabeth's defender, thus leaving it to be supposed that no voice was raised in her behalf. Though the trial was rapid, and all communication was prevented between her and her defender, it is a known fact that Chauveau-Lagarde rose after the president had ended Madame Élisabeth's examination, and made a short plea, of which he has given us himself the substance:

"I called attention," he says, "to the fact that in this trial there was only a bold accusation, without documents, without examination, without witnesses, and that, consequently, as there was in it no legal element of conviction there could be no legal conviction at all.

"I added that they had nothing against the august prisoner but her answers to the questions just put to her, and that [Page 102]  those answers, far from condemning her, ought to honour her to all eyes, because they proved absolutely nothing but the goodness of her heart and the heroism of her friendship.

"Then after developing those ideas I ended by saying that as there was no ground for a defence, I could only present for Madame Élisabeth an apology, and even so, I found it impossible to make more than one that was worthy of her, namely: that a princess who had been a perfect model of virtue at the Court of France could not be the enemy of Frenchmen.

"It is impossible to paint the fury with which Dumas apostrophized me; reproaching me for having had the 'audacity to speak' of what he called 'the pretended virtue of the accused, thus attempting to corrupt the public morals.' It was easy to see that Madams Élisabeth, who until then had remained calm, as if unconscious of her own danger, was agitated by that to which I was exposing myself.]

The report in the "Moniteur" continues:–

After the Public Prosecutor and the defenders had been heard, the president declared the debate closed. He then summed up the cases and gave to the jury the following written paper:–

"Plots and conspiracies have existed, formed by Capet, his wife, his family, his agents and his accomplices, in consequence of which external war on the part of a coalition of tyrants has been provoked, also civil war in the interior has been raised, succour in men and money have been furnished to the enemy, troops have been assembled, plans of campaign have been made, and leaders appointed to murder the people, annihilate liberty, and restore despotism.

"Is Élisabeth Capet an accomplice in these plots?"

The jury, after a few moments' deliberation, returned to [Page 103]  the audience chamber and gave an affirmative declaration against Madame Élisabeth and the other prisoners [here follow the names], who were then condemned to the Penalty of Death . . . . It was then ordered that, by the diligence of the Public Prosecutor, the present judgment shall be executed within twenty-four hours on the Place de la Révolution of this city, and be printed, read, published, and posted throughout the extent of the Republic.

As Madame Élisabeth left the Tribunal, Fouquier turned to the president and said: "It must be owned she never uttered a complaint."–"What has she to complain of, that Élisabeth de France?" replied Dumas, with ironical gaiety; "have n't we just given her a court of aristocrats who are worthy of her? There will be nothing to prevent her from fancying she is back in the salons of Versailles when she finds herself at the foot of the guillotine surrounded by all those faithful nobles."

When Madame Élisabeth returned to the prison she asked to be taken to the common room, in which were the twenty-four persons condemned to die with her on the morrow. This room, long, narrow, and dark, was separated from the office of the Conciergerie by a door and a glass partition. It had no furniture but wooden benches fastened to the walls. These, and the following details are given by two eye-witnesses who happened to be in the room that night though not among the number condemned to death. 1 [Page 104] 

Joining the poor unfortunates, who were now in different stages of agony and fear, Madame Élisabeth took her place among them naturally. Such as she had been at Versailles and at Montreuil in the midst of other friends, she was here, forgetful of herself, mindful of them, and dropping into each poor heart by simple words the balm of God's own comfort. She seemed to regard them as friends about to accompany her to heaven. She spoke to them calmly and gently, and soon the serenity of her look, the tranquillity of her mind subdued their anguish. The Marquise de Sénozan, the oldest of the twenty-four victims, was the first to recover courage and offer to God the little that remained to her of life. Madame de Montmorin, nearly all of whose family had been massacred in the Revolution, could not endure the thought of the immolation of her son, twenty years of age, who was doomed to die with her. "I am willing to die," she said sobbing, "but I cannot see him die."–"You love your son," said Madame Élisabeth, "and yet you do not wish him to accompany you; you are going yourself to the joys of heaven and you want him to stay upon earth, where all is now torture and sorrow." Under the influence of those words Mme. de Montmorin's heart rose to a species of ecstasy: her fibres relaxed, her tears flowed, and clasping her son in her arms, "Yes, yes!" she cried, "we will go together."

M. de Loménie, former minister of war, and lately mayor of Brienne, whom that town and its adjoining districts had vainly endeavoured to save, was indignant with a species of exaltation, not at being condemned to die, but at hearing Fouquier impute to him as a crime the testimony of affection and gratitude shown for him by his department. Madame Élisabeth went to him and said gently: "If it is fine to merit the esteem of your fellow-citizens, think how much [Page 105]  finer is to merit the goodness of God. You have shown your compatriots how to live rightly; show them now how men die when their conscience is at peace."

It sometimes happens that timid natures, the most susceptible of fear in the ordinary course of life, will heroically brave death when a great sentiment inspires them. Madame Élisabeth's presence conveyed that inspiration. The Marquise de Crussol-Amboise was so timid that she dared not sleep without two women in her room; a spider terrified her; the mere idea of an imaginary danger filled her with dread. Madame Élisabeth's example transformed her suddenly; she grew calm and firm, and so remained till death. The same species of emotion was conveyed to all the others. The calm presence of Madame Élisabeth seemed to them in that terrible hour as if illumined by a reflection from the Divine. "It is not exacted of us," she said, "as it was of the ancient martyrs, that we sacrifice our beliefs; all they ask of us is the abandonment of our miserable lives. Let us make that feeble sacrifice to God with resignation"

So, in these last moments of life a great joy was given to her; she revived the numbed or aching hearts, she restored the vigour of their faith to fainting souls, she blunted the sting of death, and brought to eyes despairing of earth, the light of the true deliverance.

The next morning the gates of the prison opened and the carts of the executioner, called by Barère "the biers of the living," came out. Madame Élisabeth was in the first with others, among them Mme. de Sénozan and Mme. de Crussol-Amboise, to whom she talked during the passage from the Conciergerie to the Place Louis XV. Arriving there, she was the first to descend; the executioner offered his hand, but the princess looked the other way and needed no help. At the foot of the scaffold was a long bench on which the [Page 106]  victims were told to sit. By a refinement of cruelty Madame Élisabeth was placed nearest the steps to the scaffold, but she was the last of the twenty-five called to ascend them; she was to see and hear the killing of them all before her turn should come. During that time she never ceased to say the De profundis; she who was about to die prayed for the dead.

The first to be called was Mme. de Crussol. She rose immediately; as she passed Madame Élisabeth she curtsied, and then, bending forward, asked to be allowed to kiss her. "Willingly, and with all my heart," replied the princess. All the other women, ten in number, did likewise. The men, as they passed her, each bowed low the head that an instant later was to fall into the basket. When the twenty-fourth bowed thus before her, she said: "Courage, and faith in God's mercy." Then she rose herself, to be ready at the call of the executioner. She mounted firmly the steps of the scaffold. Again the man offered his hand, but withdrew it, seeing from her bearing that she needed no help. With an upward look to heaven, she gave herself into the hands of the executioner. As he fastened her to the fatal plank, her neckerchief came loose and fell to the ground. "In the name of your mother, monsieur, cover me," she said. Those were her last words.

At this execution alone, no cries of "Vive la Revolution!" were raised; the crowd dispersed silently. The eye-witness from whose lips this account was written down, added: "When I saw the cart on which they were placing the bodies and heads of the victims, I fled like the wind." The cart held two baskets; into one of which they threw the mound of bodies; into the other the heap of heads. These were taken to the cemetery at Monçeaux, and flung into a grave twelve feet square, one upon another, naked, because the [Page 107]  clothes were a perquisite of the State. In 1816, Louis XVIII., wishing to give his sister Christian burial, ordered a search to be made for her remains. The searchers fancied they discovered her body, but her head was never found.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


[Page 90]

1 Madame Élisabeth's Life in the Temple, being recorded only by her neice and by Cléry, will be found later, in their narratives.–TR.

[Page 92]

1 See Appendix II.

[Page 93]

1 The following account of the proceedings is taken from the official report in the "Moniteur."

[Page 103]

1 One was Geoffroy Ferry, who was there as usual to take an inventory of the clothes and other articles on the condemned persons; he gave these details to his nephew, attached in 1825 to the École des Beaux Arts, who gave them to the author of the "Vie de Madame Élisabeth." The other was Marguerite, a maid in the service of the Marquis de Fenouil, imprisoned in the Conciergerie for refusing to testify against her master. The same author obtained these facts from her own lips in 1828.–FR. ED.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom