The Lost King of France 
by Deborah Cadbury.
Fourth Estate, 352 pp., £18.99, October 2002, 1 84115 588 8
Show More
Show More

In the spring of 1750, children began to disappear from the streets of Paris. Some were big boys of 14 or 15, others were mites of five or six years old. When beggar children vanished, no one much noticed, but when the children of tradespeople and craftworkers were missed panic spread through working-class districts and into the city at large. Schoolmasters put up notices asking parents to escort their children to and from school, as they could not be responsible for their safety. ‘Stranger-danger’ was in everyone’s mind – casual passers-by were chased and beaten up. The parents and their neighbours believed that the authorities were not only uncaring and inactive, but in some sinister way complicit. After a few days of unease, street-fighting broke out in various locations. You could tell it was serious, one commentator said, because the rioters didn’t break for lunch. In fact they stayed out far into the night, and women were prominent among them. Public buildings were stoned and a group of young people tried to break into armourers’ premises on the Pont Saint-Michel, saying that they must have guns to use against the police. The authorities deployed bayonets and firearms. At least twenty rioters were killed, and an unknown number injured on both sides. Three young men were hanged for public order offences. The police, speculating wildly to draw attention from themselves, blamed the riots on organised crime, or on persons unknown – men in black – who mingled with the crowds and offered them cash to start trouble.

Most of the parents caught up with their children at various houses of detention and bought them out, squealing with indignation at being billed for their board and lodging while they had been in custody. If there were families who didn’t recover their children, they were the illiterate and the very poor, who routinely fall off the record. There was an explanation – not creditable, but rational – for the disappearances. In those years, at every bad harvest, hungry people swarmed to the towns and especially to Paris. They had to compete with the urban poor for bread and life’s other necessities, and their quarrels wasted police time; the fit vagrants went out robbing, and the unfit died in inconvenient places and had to be cleaned off the streets. A royal edict of 1749 had ordered a round-up of all the homeless in Paris, children included, even those who were taking shelter in churches. It seemed that the constables – who were paid per arrest – had been over-zealous, scooping up apprentices running errands for their masters, or children who were just playing in the street.

But who will be placated with a rational explanation? There was a rumour, a whisper, of a deeper malaise in the state. Louis XV, people said, had become a leper. God was punishing him for his depravities and vice, for his neglect of his duty to feed his country. Leprosy, it was well known, could be cured by bathing in the blood of children. That was where the innocents of Paris were going – to Versailles, to have their veins opened, their blood splashed into a marble tub. In the days after the riots, police spies were out in force, creeping through the capital with their ears open for sedition. A drinker in a tavern near the place des Victoires claimed: ‘Our women of Les Halles will go to Versailles to dethrone the King and tear his eyes out.’ A month later, when the King wanted to move palaces, he would not go through Paris, but had a path cut through the Bois de Boulogne, which was known afterwards as ‘the Riot Road’.

It would be a stretch of the imagination to say that the events of the spring of 1750 prefigure those of the Revolutionary spring of 1789. But their quality of strangeness, their dark undertow of fairytale, finds an echo in the material of Deborah Cadbury’s absorbing book. By 1789, the sons and daughters of the people who believed that Louis XV was a leper were encouraged by pamphleteers to believe that his successor was an impotent, overweight cuckold, a king of Cockaigne – the fairytale land of instant gratification, where pigs walked around ready roasted with forks stuck into their backs. Since Louis XVI had no bedroom interests, his wife Marie-Antoinette had taken on the monarch’s traditional sexual appetites; having yielded her virginity to her own brother, the future Emperor of Austria, she now preyed on her subjects, both men and women. Every female monster of myth and fairytale, every wicked stepmother, was incarnate in her. The tales told against the monarchs were repetitive, picking up motifs worked through two centuries of stereotyped abuse. But the King’s stolidity and the frantic quality of his wife’s boredom offered new, interesting possibilities. In the course of the ‘diamond necklace scandal’ of 1785, the Queen had been impersonated by a prostitute named d’Oliva, suitably costumed, mute, and artfully posed in a grotto. Libellistes named d’Oliva among the Queen’s lesbian conquests. There seemed no end to the woman’s ingenuity; she had not only achieved congress with her brother, but with her own double.

How did it come to this? Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774 on a wave of public goodwill. He seemed a pacific, reform-minded monarch, and educated liberals hoped for great things from him. The French people are said to have taken against Marie-Antoinette because she was Austrian, daughter of the hereditary enemy. But on her first entry into Paris, as Cadbury reports, the welcome on the streets was ecstatic. The event had been delayed till two years after the marriage, but if surviving songs are of value as evidence, the general sentiment was ‘make love, not war’ – though it was more indecently expressed. Low-life ballad singers quite liked the idea of France fucking Austria.

But there were no children of the marriage till a daughter was born in late 1778. Some four years earlier, the Queen was driving out one day in her calèche when a small boy ran under the wheels. He was snatched up unhurt, and though his grandmother ran out of her cottage to claim him, the Queen grappled him to her bosom and announced she was taking him home with her. It was fate, she said; he was to be her comfort till she had a child of her own. Jacques-Armand was four or five years old. On this day of his forcible adoption he wore a woollen cap, wooden clogs and a red smock. His mother had died the previous year, leaving five children, so his grandmother was not sorry to see him go off to the palace – she expressed doubts, though, as to what he would make of the arrangement, and indeed all the way back he bawled, struggled and kicked out at Antoinette and her ladies. Even when he was scrubbed and kitted out in a white silk suit, a feathered hat and a silver-fringed pink scarf, he continued to wail for his grandmother, his brother Louis and his sister Marianne. He was a blond, blue-eyed boy, smart and quick to learn; soon he sat by Antoinette at breakfast, quiet and numb, and sometimes she brought him to dine with the King. In time she had sons of her own, and the makeshift abductee was forgotten. By 1792, the year of the monarchy’s fall, Jacques-Armand was a grown man; he had become, said a lady who had witnessed his kidnapping, a convinced republican and ‘the most bloodthirsty terrorist in Versailles’.

In 1793 Louis XVI was tried and executed. Spectators ran up to the scaffold and dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood: was this reverence, or ghoulish triumph, or was it the people of Paris getting back what they thought they were owed? Soon afterwards, the heir to the non-existent throne, who was eight, was taken away from his imprisoned mother, aunt and sister and held separately, at first in the room that had been his father’s, and then in a secure cell, an oubliette. Louis-Charles died (or perhaps he didn’t) in the custody of the state. Perhaps he was rescued, and a substitute or changeling died instead? If he survived, where did he go, and what became of him?

Out of the mystery of this missing child – one missing child among many – Deborah Cadbury has made a scientific puzzle-book and an affecting human story, fluent and highly readable. Obliged to explain the background to the mystery of the ‘lost king’, she does it swiftly and without fuss. She tells the Revolution in the venerable English fashion. Her version is the one with the gurning extras with three-day beards, growling and waving pikes, straight out of A Tale of Two Cities – as if the belligerent Paris crowd were all her royals saw of their subjects: as if they never saw Condorcet or Barnave, or the elegant subtle lawyers who could have fished them out of their plight; as if they never breathed an atmosphere of goodwill, were never offered bargains or compromises or a life under the rule of law, but were driven by illiterate brutes to a preordained end.

There is nothing to her Revolution but iconoclasm and greed – so her royals, understandably, resist it all the way. They are the victims, and are endangered as soon as they make the first concessions to reform. Describing the first session of the Estates General, in May 1789, she notes: ‘One of those taking in the scene . . . was a young lawyer called Maximilien Robespierre.’ She adds no comment; the nodding and winking lie between the lines. A big finger from heaven is pointing at one small, singular man with a forked tail hidden beneath his Deputy’s coat of mourning black. Everything is implicit in that first moment, the republic and the Terror; the smallest impulse towards liberty must bring disaster in its wake.

In 1789 Robespierre was a political nonentity; he was also a monarchist. It might have been worth asking what changed his mind. But in this book, ‘radical’ means ‘nasty’ and ‘change’ implies ‘for the worse’. Is it fair to complain about the author’s version of history, when she is primarily interested in how science can solve the mystery of the lost king of France, when she is primarily writing for the general reader? It is fair, precisely because she is writing for the general reader; and because she appears to be a writer of discernment and sense who ought to do better than people her story with ‘the mob’ with their ‘lust for vengeance’ and their ‘unstoppable fury’. Every ‘mob’ is made of persons, none of them worth less, inherently, than a royal person. We are used to having the Revolution’s history written by moral retards who are two hundred years behind its philosophy. But doesn’t science’s world-view make us equal? Are we not all descended from the same hairy slope-heads? Under the microscope, aren’t our cells of equal worth?

If the author had asked herself this, she might have lost faith in her book, which provides a brilliant answer to a not very important question. Yes, the child who died in prison was exactly who most historians supposed: the son of Marie-Antoinette. Only romantics and conspiracy theorists have wanted to think otherwise. But because a lingering doubt remained, the child’s fate is of abiding interest: this is the book’s premise. We are still in the pit of superstition which makes the ‘lost king’ – a child who was exceptionally unfortunate, beleaguered and pitiable – more than ordinary flesh and blood. Did the Enlightenment really occur, or was it just someone by the Styx lighting a cigarette?

In the autumn of 1789, the women of Les Halles, with other Parisians and the National Guard, did indeed go to Versailles. Here, a gap opened between violent rhetoric and action; they forbore to tear out the King’s eyes. Instead they brought the King and Queen, the heir and his elder sister to Paris. It was a gruesome and long-forecast procession: bodyguards’ heads on pikes, the National Guard escorting the royal party, and carts full of flour from the royal granaries following on behind. The family had to bed down in the cobwebbed Tuileries, not a very good sort of palace, dark and deserted for years, with squatters – unpaid royal servants perhaps – living in the warmer bits. That first night, crowds of Parisians – not hostile, but excited and noisy – made their way into the gardens. The little Dauphin woke in the night, bewildered, hearing unknown voices and asking: ‘Is it still yesterday?’ Yesterday he had seen, for the first time, the angry and distressed faces of the people he was meant to rule.

Cadbury invites us to see the move to Paris as the beginning of the strict imprisonment of the royal family, and a severe loss of power. She has telescoped the middle of the Revolution, so that her reader moves, emotionally, straight from those violent days in October 1789 to the days of the fall of the monarchy. But the Queen’s lover Axel Fersen (who was more royalist than Louis) noted that ‘the people seem delighted at seeing the King and the royal family in Paris.’ And even Marat, who had not yet hit his stride as the national pessimist, thought that maybe with the King in it the city would be less hungry. In the next weeks, the dark palace was scrubbed out, and a procession of carriers wheeled in effects from Versailles to bring the furnishings up to scratch. The mood of the nation remained reverent; the King’s body was still precious, sacred. In March 1791, when Louis had a digestive upset, six Deputies from the National Assembly were sent to attend on him, and they returned to make their report trailing five doctors, who announced that they had administered appropriate medication, that the King had vomited freely, and that his copious evacuations were ‘bilious and brown’. Why not cut out the middlemen, one (radical, nasty) journalist said, and just bring in the royal chamberpot so we can all have a look?

After the coup of August 1792 the family found themselves in a real prison – or at least, a private prison, devised for them. The Comte d’Artois, the King’s brother, had within the grounds of his Paris house a medieval tower, called the Temple, dilapidated but secure. Artois was abroad with the émigrés, looking forward to the fine opportunities he would have if the King were killed; meanwhile, the nation had taken over his house. Louis, his sister Elisabeth, his wife Antoinette, the little boy Louis-Charles and his teenage sister Marie-Thérèse were first confined to the Little Temple, an adjunct building, where they settled to a routine of family meals, backgammon and walks in the horse chestnut avenue.

When rooms were prepared, they were moved deeper into the old fortress itself. It is sad to think that here, for the first time, they learned to live as a family. Antoinette found the girl unrewarding – she took after her father, and perhaps Antoinette could not dismiss from her mind the knowledge that at the age of four Marie-Thérèse had told her household: ‘I wish the Queen were dead.’ Louis-Charles had always been her favourite. Like the child who had been kidnapped, he was blue-eyed and fair-haired, intelligent and responsive. René Hébert, a powerful figure in the Paris Commune, which was in theory responsible for the family, said: ‘He is as beautiful as the day and as interesting as can be. He plays with the King marvellously well . . .’ Hébert, by most accounts, was a mild-mannered man, but he had a ferocious alter ego. In his news-sheet and in his persona as Père Duchesne, Hébert called for the ‘wolf-cub’ to be killed, and for the former Dauphin and his sister to be stranded on a desert island. Here another gap opens between rhetoric and action, and the width of this gap needs to be appreciated. The ‘people’ said they would tear out the King’s eyes, they said they would eat the Queen’s liver. Presented with the opportunity, they did neither of these things; the ‘mobs’ fell back, and let the lawyers finish off royalty.

The family and their keepers lived in such fear that it would be hard to say which was the more afraid. The Allies, who were at one stage two days’ march from Paris, had circulated details of their planned reprisals, so that the Revolutionaries knew who was to be tortured to death and who merely imprisoned for life. The Duke of Brunswick, the Allied commander, had threatened to raze the city of Paris if any harm were offered to the royal family. But the French Army rallied, the enemy was driven back and the borders of Revolutionary France began to expand. No European power showed the slightest interest in the royal family as individuals, just as later their descendants would show no interest in rescuing the Romanovs. If anyone tried to buy out Louis, his wife and his children, they didn’t offer enough, or offer it to the right people. All the same, adventurers of every sort saw the challenge and potential rewards of freeing the family. Some of the attempts were amateur and romantically inept. But six months after the King’s execution, royalists had infiltrated the Temple guard and a number of well-placed officials had been bribed. At the last moment, the citizen Antoine Simon stormed into the Temple and wrecked the plot.

Simon was one of the ‘commissioners’ who had guarded the royal family while Louis was still alive. A shoemaker by trade, he had always been a poor man, had no education, and was shabby and roughly spoken. When his first wife died he had to pawn her clothes for burial money. His second wife, a working woman as rough as himself, had some savings, which he ‘squandered’, Cadbury says indignantly, on ‘repaying his debts’. Charges of brutality, of savagery, have been laid at Simon’s door, but perhaps this is the first time posterity has reproached him for ordinary honesty. He was certainly honest in Revolutionary terms, a straightforward patriot, an incorruptible: the Commune owed him a favour; so, when Louis-Charles was separated from his mother, Simon was the obvious person to take over as his ‘tutor’. Citoyenne Simon, chortling over her rise in the world, moved into the Temple and treated the boy as her servant – very much, one imagines, as she’d have treated a child of her own. He was a good little thing, she said, anxious to please. He polished her shoes and brought her little foot-stove in the morning, to warm her legs when she heaved out of bed.

Simon was a heavy drinker, unpredictable and sometimes violent. His tuition seemed to consist in teaching the boy to sing Revolutionary songs and repeat coarse jokes about the three women still incarcerated in the room over his head. Hearing them moving the furniture, the boy grumbled: ‘Haven’t those bitches been guillotined yet?’ His hair cropped in Roman style, a red cap on his head, he was soon made over into a little sansculotte. When Simon caught him masturbating, he asserted defiantly that his mother and aunt had taught him the practice; soon afterwards, ‘seated in an armchair, swinging his legs’, he repeated this before Hébert and other members of the Commune. Some time earlier he had bruised a testicle; the subsequent bandaging and bed-rest was recorded in the prison log. Now the suspicion arose that the injury had a sinister explanation. When Antoinette was tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, one of the charges was that she had injured the child in an attempt at intercourse with him. There were those who could almost believe it; the Queen’s dealings with her kissing kin had long ago been besmirched by the libelles. Nineteenth-century historians, early 20th-century historians, found the whole affair incomprehensible, an unspeakable and uniquely wicked plot hatched to destroy a woman who was already destroyed. In our day, when accusations of child abuse have become commonplace, we have seen many wild allegations brought before courts of law; we know how children can be coaxed into testimony. So we ought to be wiser, or at least able to bring our recent insights to the topic. But there is a problem: contemporaries could not evaluate the evidence because they had been encouraged to believe in the Queen’s innate and hopeless depravity; and we cannot make sense of this strange episode if we believe that revolution is an innately pathological process, carried through by hopeless and depraved people. Cadbury chooses the old, uncomprehending formula whereby ‘Hébert . . . hatched an outrageous plan.’ She believes that the monster Revolutionaries themselves abused the child, brought in prostitutes to infect him with syphilis, and beat him into signing a statement accusing his mother. Her authority is ‘the historian Vincent Cronin, writing in 1974’ – close to source, then.

The effect of the accusations, brought out in open court, was to swing some sympathy Antoinette’s way, at least in the public gallery. That didn’t, of course, influence the verdict. It was a show trial, with this one peculiar, exotic element thrown in. The former Queen herself seemed to understand how it had happened. In her last letter she asked her sister-in-law Elisabeth not to blame Louis-Charles for dragging her into his accusations, to remember how easy it is to put words into a child’s mouth. Elisabeth had admitted to scolding the child sharply for his addiction to what she called ‘plaisirs solitaires’, but she couldn’t imagine the connection between this scolding and his eagerness to fix some of the blame on his smugly pious virgin aunt. Elisabeth was taken for execution in May 1794. Marie-Thérèse was left alone in her prison room. Neither she nor her brother was told their mother was dead, and it is hard to know whether that was a mercy or not.

The king of France, the divines preached, had two bodies. One was a corporeal body, frail or gross; the other was an ideal body, which never died, but was inhabited, as it were, by the next king, who slid into it in a seamless transition. After the execution of Louis XVI, his only living son became Louis XVII. No proclamation or ceremony was needed, no public acclamation or even acceptance; behind their backs, the people had got a new sovereign. In the last few months of the new King’s life, the assault on his corporeal body, while it stopped short of murder, was quite formidable. Simon resigned – no one knows why. He and his complacent wife trundled their meagre effects away from the Temple, the child was put into a room alone, and the room was made secure. The last person who knew him as an individual was gone; from now on he was dehumanised.

Cadbury’s account of the next eight months of Louis-Charles’s life makes harrowing reading. His cell became verminous, so did his hair and body. He sank into apathy and for a time became mute, lying curled up on his bed, sometimes refusing food. The story is so distressing that it is not at first clear whether it is moral or useful to pick it apart. Is it cruel in itself, to try to discriminate between degrees of cruelty? It may be so, but we should try to do it, if only to illuminate the dark and blood-stained country we have moved into – the terrain of folk-tales, where monsters and devils dwell in caves and holes. Cadbury believes that no one took out the child’s urine or faeces, so that the smell in the room became intolerable and eventually his waste covered the floor. Given that his jailers were feeding him, and bringing him water to wash with every day, is this credible? Not unless persons of Sadean interests had been added to the guard. What seems more likely is that the disoriented child, like many prisoners, embarked on his own directionless ‘dirty protest’. To say this is not to exonerate his jailers – just to point out that claims that the child was deliberately left to lie in his own excrement are part of the pathologising of revolution, and are no different in spirit from the pre-Revolutionary pamphlets which alleged that the royals were more like animals than people. It is not callous to point out that the accounts of the treatment of Louis-Charles were put together long after the event. Cadbury is aware that his sister never saw him during these months, and adds it to the indictment against the Revolution, that the children were kept apart; yet she quotes freely from his sister’s account of his sufferings. Later, a free woman and a duchess, Marie-Thérèse was to say that no child in the history of the world had been treated so badly as her lost brother.

Her heartbroken allegation is unanswerable, in its own terms. What builds up, in later years, is a legend that sounds very like the horror stories recounted about the cell of the Man in the Iron Mask, which thrilled the populace in the early years of the Revolution – and very like the Bastille narratives, with their repeated motifs of darkness, hunger and menace. A good Bastille story should end in a daring escape, perhaps in disguise.

But there was no liberation for the child in this cell. Thermidor, the fall of Robespierre, brought no immediate relief. Paul Barras – ex-nobleman, late Jacobin terrorist, future member of the Directory – came and expressed shock. He asked for the cell to be cleaned up, but no one did it. The times had been uncertain for five years. Maybe tomorrow there would be a counter-coup. No one wanted to be the first to act, the first to be accused of royalism. Perhaps no one wanted to approach this feral child, so obviously sick, his body ulcerated. It is as if the king’s body, once too glorious to be touched by common people, was now in itself a source of contamination. The leper king had come back.

Before he was separated from his mother, the little boy had already begun complaining of chest pains and breathing difficulties. His older brother had died of tuberculosis in the spring of 1789, a twisted, stooped, sad little figure, wasting away under the gilded ceilings of Versailles. Eight months after his solitary confinement began, Louis-Charles was let out, to die with light, air and medical attention – for what that was worth. It was June 1795. The post mortem noted the skin nodules, the intestinal adhesions, the tumour-like growths that clustered in the cavity of his body. The attendants would not nail down his coffin till it was taken down a floor, so that his sister would not hear and interpret the sounds. It was a clumsy, too-late attempt to spare her feelings. The coffin was placed in a common grave. But one of the doctors at the post mortem, after cutting out the child’s heart, wrapped it up and carried it home. He bottled it in alcohol and placed it on a high shelf. Years passed. He neglected the relic. The alcohol evaporated. The heart dried out and became a stone.

If her jailers had brought Marie-Thérèse downstairs to identify the body formally, it would have spared posterity much bewilderment, and (by Cadbury’s account) one hundred Dauphin impostors. No one else who was on the spot, she believes, was in a position to make a positive identification of the corpse. Antoine Simon had been executed with Robespierre, and anyone who had known the Dauphin in his days of freedom had vanished from the scene. When the little boy first disappeared into the Temple, stories became current that he had been rescued, and his keepers were forced to parade him in the gardens to show that he was still in their custody. The strict nature of his later imprisonment and the very fact that his sister had not been shown the body acted to fuel the rumours that the Prince had been smuggled out and a substitute child put in his place; it seems to have been widely accepted that royalist plotters would have a ready supply of dead, dying or mute children.

The impostors began to show themselves under Napoleon, but their number increased with the Restoration. There were strenuous efforts to find the little boy’s corpse, in the hope that it could be identified, but four different sites were suggested for the Dauphin’s grave. Madame Simon herself surfaced to claim that she and her husband had smuggled the child out in a laundry basket. Con-men and eccentrics of all nations rallied to the cause. The credulity and wishful thinking of various royal servants made them collude with the claimants. Marie-Thérèse herself, exchanged for royalist prisoners in 1795 and taken to Vienna, was steadfast in her refusal to meet any of the false princes. Sometimes she was tempted. Lists of questions were devised, questions only her real brother would have been able to answer. But she never followed through. Seventeen at her release, she was married off to her first cousin, and lived a long and unhappy life; to torment her, new dauphins multiplied. An inability to speak French was no disqualification, so ingenious were their stories. Some were American – why not? One of them was Eleazer Williams, who was not quite, as Cadbury says, ‘a half-caste with a native Indian mother’, but the descendant of Eunice Williams, who in 1704, as a seven-year-old, had been kidnapped by Indians from a settler stockade in Massachusetts. Eunice grew up with the Indians, who were Catholic and French-speaking, and scandalised her own people by refusing to be ransomed and marrying a Mohawk called Squirrel. Her great-grandson Eleazer was 11 before he bobbed his head up among the whites, a ‘solemn youth’ wearing a blanket, illiterate but bright and (as it proved) keen to reassert himself not just as a white man but as a king among his white tribe.

If Eleazer was the most picturesque claimant, the most persistent was a Prussian called Naundorff. As late as the 1950s there were bitter scraps between Naundorrf’s descendants and other Euro-trash: the Orléanist candidate for the throne, the Spanish Bourbon candidate, their common enemy the Bonapartists. In 1954, when the Naundorff family tested their claim unsuccessfully in the French courts, their current pretender was a circus manager, which seems apt enough. Until very recently, the efforts of forensic scientists to solve the problem came to nothing. Bone and hair samples of dubious provenance created much excitement but provided inconsistent and partial information. Until the discovery of mitochondrial DNA – which makes it possible to trace the maternal line – and the recovery of samples that would yield a gene sequence, there was no foolproof way to dismiss Naundorff or any other claimant. Cadbury is englamoured by research scientists, ‘the technicians in masks and gowns absorbed in their specialist tasks’. She likes their ‘gleaming corridors’, and their ‘bright fluorescent lights’. Even their ‘canisters of gas, fridges and freezers’ come in for a mention. Her exposition is clear; only her tabloid style jars. If Professor Jean-Jacques Cassiman of the Centre for Human Genetics in Leuven is our man – the man with the final answer – what do we care if he is ‘of medium build, with a thick crop of dark-brown hair, a tanned face and watchful dark eyes’?

The contents of the book’s last pages are so fascinating that triviality of style can’t spoil them. The story of the child’s heart is the strangest one in this book – its theft, recovery, displacements, travels. It had come to rest in the crypt at Saint-Denis, and – a piquant detail this – was conveyed to the research lab not in a box in an unmarked van, but in a hearse. You would think our homeless organs would have parity, and that the clinician’s saw, carefully cutting away the merest fraction of the long-dead tissue, would excise mystique. The opposite is true. So contentious was the matter that half of the excised tissue was sent to a German lab, and half to Cassiman (of the luxuriant locks). French labs were not to be trusted: too many vested interests. The tissue was ground to a fine dust, the DNA extracted. The mitochondrial DNA sequence was compared with that of living Habsburgs in the direct line of descent, and with a sequence from a single hair of Johanna-Gabriela, sister of Marie Antoinette. They were identical; Professor Cassiman, ‘sunlight streaming through the windows, classical music playing softly as he worked’, could enlighten us at last. The heart taken from the boy who died in the Temple was the heart of Antoinette’s son. The case is closed – though of course, the descendants of the Naundorff claimant don’t believe it. Cadbury thoughtfully provides the address of their website, for anyone who wants to follow the progress of their delusion.

One question remains, skimmed over in this book. Was Louis-Charles really the lost King of France, or was he an impostor himself? We know he was the son of Antoinette, but doubt has been cast on whether Louis XVI was his father. It was some eight years after the marriage that Marie-Thérèse was conceived, and another three years till the first Dauphin arrived. According to The Untold Love Story by Evelyn Farr (‘Thoroughly enjoyable’, Catholic Herald; ‘Convincing’, the Tablet), Antoinette’s affair with Axel Fersen began in July 1783, and after this date the Queen became pregnant three times in three years. If Cadbury is going to rely on Vincent Cronin, we long-range gossips need not apologise for leaning on Evelyn Farr. It is beyond doubt that the King’s reception of Louis-Charles was sulky. ‘The only prince present was the Duc de Chartres,’ he wrote in his journal; ‘there were neither congratulations nor compliments.’ On the birth of his next child, a short-lived daughter, he recorded ‘neither congratulations, fireworks nor Te Deum’.

A.N. Wilson suggested recently that Queen Victoria was the child of Sir John Conroy, not the Duke of Kent. We know her maternal descent is not in doubt, but is this a suggestion that the men with the gleaming corridors could pursue? With big freezers like theirs, they can’t be far off discovering the secrets of all our fathers and mothers. We need not even speculate on our current generations of Windsors; if Victoria can be reattributed, the royals of all Europe will be reshuffled. Whole tribes of bones will be creaking into motion, and hearses will be summoned, and lapidary inscriptions will be scratched out and rectified. Royal tombs will be common graves after all. Eleazer Williams in his beads, his ‘hair carelessly stuck with feathers’, will be dancing on them; and Jacques-Armand, who died at about 23, fighting for the Republic, will be stamping down the earth with his little wooden clogs.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences