French revolution has been termed as the greatest revolution led by the people against dictatorship. But there is big mystery regarding the fate of Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette’s son Louis XVII. He was lost after the revolution and nothing much could be known about him. Researchers have been debating about his fate for over 200 years now. Did he die in the prison? Did he escape from the prison and become a German clockmaker, an American naturalist or an Episcopal minister?
There are no doubts that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined by the revolutionaries. But their son and the heir to the throne, the 10 year old boy Louis XVII disappeared in 1795 never to resurface again. After the reversal of power Louis XVII along with his mother and sister were imprisoned until July 3, 1793. On that date the guards came into the prison cell and took away the baby Prince from the arms of his mother. Though Marie Antoinette pleaded to the guards for an hour but finally she had to sacrifice the little child to save the girl baby. Marie Theresa who is Louis’ sister recalls how her mother gave up her brother when she was threatened that both the babies will be killed otherwise. For nearly two years Louis is said to have been imprisoned in a small windowless room. But what happened next is a mystery.
According to the French official records the boy died at the age of 10 on June 8, 1795 after suffering from tuberculosis, but most of the people do not buy this record. Many feel the boy died due to neglect and maltreatment, while others feel he was murdered. Another group of scholars opine that he did not die at all, he was rather transported to a safe location and another child was put in his place. The mystery further intensifies as the doctor who had examined Louis XVII died mysteriously a week before the boy’s death. His wife hinted that her husband was asked to take part in some irregularities which he refused.
Rumours ran rife that the boy was murdered by the radical governing body of the revolution so that there would be no claimant on the throne. In 1814 historian of the newly restored French monarchy claimed that Louis Charles (or Louis XVII) was alive though he did not confide his location. Most common rumour was that Louis Charles was transported off to America. Then in 1846 many graves from the French Revolution era were dug up and one child’s body was found who had died due to tuberculosis. On close examination of the body the boy appeared lot older than Louis XVII’s described age. The boy whose body was found was in his middle to late teens.
Soon many claimed to be the real Louis XVII in exile. One of them was famous naturalist John James Audubon. He never made any claims publicly but in his letter to his wife on a visit to France, he writes “patient, silent, bashful, and yet powerful of physique and of mind, dressed as a common man, I walk the streets! I bow! I ask permission to do this or that! I …who should command all!” He was adopted at near about the same time as Louis XVII vanished and he was born in the same year. Other claimants include Eleazer Williams an Episcopal minister who was raised by a Mohawk Native American and a white woman and German clockmaker Karl Wilhelm Naundorf. But the examination of their DNA after their death confirmed that they were hoaxes.
In 2000 tests were carried out on the heart of the boy who died of tuberculosis. The sample from the boys preserved heart was matched with a lock of hair taken from Marie Antoinette and they matched. Most of the scholars believe that this is the body of Louis XVII. But there is controversy here too. The doctor who conducted the autopsy of the boy hid the heart in a handkerchief and pickled it in alcohol. Later he passed it onto his student. The heart was later placed at the Palace under the supervision of the Archbishop. It was later sent to the Spanish branch of the Bourbon family and restored at Saint Denis Basilica in 1999. Some critics opine that there are high chances that the heart was replaced during so many transfers. Moreover though the DNA samples match but it cannot be confirmed in the tests whether the boy was the son of Marie Antoinette. It could well be a relative to the queen. So the mystery still seems unsolved.