French Royalty: Louis XVII

Figure 1.--This portrait of Louis XVII shows him dressed in a skeleton suit with an open ruffled collar. This would have been painted a year or two before his mother's execution. Note the bangs. We do not know who the arttist was or when this portrait was painted. It does not look to be the work of Madame Vigée LeBrun who seems to have painted the most accurate images.

The childhood of Louis-Charles is one of the sadest of all French royal children. He was born in 1785 at Versailles in the popmp and splendor of Europe's most glitering royal court. He died in 1795 at Paris orphaned and raised as a commoner. Few Royal lives are as sad as thhat of Louis-Charles. He was the titular, but uncrowned King of France from 1793. As the second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, he became dauphin (heir to the throne) on the death of his older brother, Louis-Joseph, in June 1789--shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution. Imprisoned with the rest of the royal family in Paris, the French nobles in exile proclaimed him King with the execution of the father on Jan 21, 1793. On July 3, 1793, he was taken from his mother and put under the surveillance of a cobbler. Marie Antoinette was executed on Oct. 16, 1793, and in Jan. 1794, Louis was again imprisoned. The harsh conditions of his confinement quickly undermined his health and he died in June, his death a severe blow to the constitutional monarchists who has once again become a powerful political force. The secrecy surrounding his last months gave rise to many rumours that he had been murdered or had escaped. During the next few decades, more than 30 people claimed to be Louis XVII.


Louis-Charles was the second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antonitte.


Louis-Charles was the second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antonitte. He had an elder brother and two sisters, one of whom died in infancy. His elder brother, Louis Joseph François Xavier, was born in 1781, but died in Meudon on June 4, 1789--shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution. Louis-Charles thus became the Dauphin (crown prince) of France.


Seldom in history has the circumstances of a boy's life change more abruptly than was the case of the Dauphin Louis-Charles.

Raised in splendor

Louis-Charles was born in 1785 at Versailles. He was the titular King of France from 1793. Second son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, he became Dauphin (heir to the throne) on the death of his older brother, Louis-Joseph. He was raised in royal splendor for the first 4 years of his life. He was described as healthy, alert, and clever. Then came the Revolution. There were many portraits done of Queen Marie Antonitte, less of her children. We believe that the most accurate depictions were done by the Queen's favorite artisr, Madame Vigée Le Brun. Paintings done before the Revolution are almost certainly the most accurate because after the 1789 Revolution, the imagery of royalty often took on great political significance.


The royal children were cared for by nurses and givernesses. Here we fo not yet have details, although surely some such records must exist. One painting exists reportedly showing Louis-Charles with a giverness and a pet dog. We cannot conform the accuracy. The owner believes tat the portrait was done by Madame Vegée LeBrun who painted most of the intimate family portaits for the Queen. It does not, however, look to HBC like her work.

The Temple

With the abolition of the Monarchy in 1792, Louis Charles was imprisoned with the rest of the royal family at the Temple in Paris. The Temple was a dreadful prison that was converted from a Paris fortress built in the late 12th century in Paris. King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, their daughter Marie-Thérèse (Madame Royale), Louis-Charles, and Madame Élisabeth (a sister of the King) were imprisoned together. Louis-Charles was known as "the Capet child" by his keepers.

Proclaimed King

The Revolutionary Goverment publically execulted King Louis XVI at the guillotine on January 21, 1793. Louis-Charles' uncle in exile, the Count of Provence and future Louis XVIII, and other French nobles in exile proclaimed Louis-Charles King of France. Royalist insurgents in Vendée also saw Louis-Charles as the rightful King of France. He was also acknowledged as the King by important foreign governments. The Convention (France's Revolutionary assembly) had proclaimed France a republic and refused to acknowledge Louis-Charles as their King and most importantly they had possession of the boy. The elevation of the Dauphin by the émigrés had made him of much greater importance and a potential threat to the Revolution.

Separated from the Queen

Louis-Charles on July 3, 1793, was taken from his mother Marie Antoinette. There are numerous depictions of the scene, almost all fanciful. After this there is considerable debate as to what happened to the Louis-Charles with tales that another boy was substituted for him. While the various images of the separation vary widely, usually Louis-Charles is depicted as wearimg long pants skeleton suits with an open lace collar and sash. He is almost always shown with long hair. He would have been about 8 years old at the time.

Figure 2.--Louis-Charles is seen here under the care of the cobbler Antoine Simon. I am not sure who the artist was or when it was painted. It was, however, almost certainly painted long after the boy's death during the restoration to emphasize the cruel treatment he was subkected to in a scene imagined by the artist. Note that in this image that he is depicted as wearing knee breeches. Interestingly, kneebreeches were seen as aristocratic and the French masses were rermed the "sans cullotes" or people wearing long pants insterad of breeches.

Cared for by a cobbler

Most historians agree that he was put under the surveillance of a cobbler, Antoine Simon. He suffered his course minstrations. Many historians do not believe that the boy was puposefully mistraeted by Simone and his wife, but their familair and course treatment of the Dauphin as a child of their own class was seen as cruelty by the royalists. There are also many depictions of Louis-Charles with the cobbler, but again they are all imagined. While Louis-Charles normallu wore skeleton suits, the drawins with Simone family commonly show him wearing knee breeches.

The orphaned King

Marie Antoinette was executed on October 16, 1793. Louis-Charles gave evidence against her both before and after her execution. He was not immediately told of the execution. This testimony has caused many Royalists to insist that the boy was not the real Louis-Charles. Given his age, however, it would not have been difficult for Revolutionary officials to get theboy to say whatever they wanted. Simon resigned his position. In January 1794, Louis-Charles was again imprisoned. He was held in the dank filth of the Temple Prisson in Paris. He indured long periods of isolation, which must have been terrible for a frightened young boy. He had four guards outside his cell whivh were changed daily. Until July 27 he was confined to one room that no one entered, even to clean or to care for his person. The harsh conditions of his confinement quickly undermined his health. The images of the imprisoned and isolated young King has become an icon for French royalists ever since. Images often depict him as a saint praying in a loney jail. All of the depictions are imaginary because no real paintings were possible.


The Revolutionary leader Barras visited the boy in July and saw that he was ill. He arranged for medical care and more humane treatment. He was given a warder and his living conditions improved. But it was to late. Early in 1795 the Convention had decided to exile Louis-Charles, but in March his warders notified the government that the boy was seriously ill. He was provided with medical care but died of scrofukla at the age of 10 years on June 8, 1795 at Paris.


The Dauphin's body was dumped in a mass grave. Apparently his heart was secretly saved by a royalist doctor. Thehe doctor hid it in a handkerchief after participation in the boy's autopsy. The doctor well after the Revolution gave the Dauphin's heart to the Arch-Bishop of Paris.

Childhood Clothing

HBRC has little information on how Louis-Charles was dressed, either before of after the Revolution. One report indicates that the issue of how the princes were dressed came up in France in the years before the Revolution as the monarchy made a vain attempt to appeal to the population. Another report suggests that his father was so tramautized by the dresses his mothervmase him wear as a boy, that he insisted that his two sons be dressed more boyishly. HBC is unable at this time to document either of these reports. We are unsure about his mother's attitude as to how the children were dressed. One portrait shows the Louis-Charles wearing a skeleton suit as about age 7 or 8 years. This would have been when the Revolution was well under way and about the time his mother was guillotined. HBC has no information on how he was dressed once he was taken away from his mother. There are many drawings, but seem to be prpaganda pieces rather than relaiable depictions (figure 2). Interestingly, while Louis-Charles and his brother before the Revolution were mostly pictured in long pants slkeleton suits, several of the drawing appearing dufring the Revolution show him wearing knee breaches. We are not sure why this was.

Hair Style

Like his clothing, the available images show considerable consistaency concerning the Dauphne's hair style. Louis-Charles is usually depicted with long uncurled hair. One image shows him wearing bangs, but this is realtively unusual. Most other images show him wearing bangs and long uncurled hair. His older brother who died in 1789 is also usually shown with long hair, perhaps often shown with slightly shorter and straigter. From other available late 18th century images, this appears to have been a common style. After the tirn of the 19th century, boys began wearing shorter hair styles.


There are litterally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of images of Louis XVII, primarily because he became a symbol for the Royalist forces fighting the Revolution. Almost all are of low quality and drawn or painting by individuals who had never seen the boy or knew how he was dressed. The most well executed portrait is unattributed, although some believe that it may have been David. Interestingly, although these images vary widely, the constant is that Louis XVII had long hair and wore an open-necked, long pants skeleton suit. Images of him under the care of the cobbler Simon tend to show him wearing knee breeches.

Dynastic Succession

Luois-Charles' death was a severe blow to the constitutional monarchists who has once again become a powerful political force. Rumours soon began circulating that the Dauphin had escaped. The secrecy surrounding his last months gave rise to many rumours that he had been murdered or had escaped. Some claimed that the boy had been spirited away by royalists and replaced by a commoner. One particularly factous rumor suggests that the leader of the Terror, Robespierre himself, had actually spirited the boy away. During the next few decades, more than 30 people claimed to be Louis XVII. With the death of Louis-Charles, the sucession fell to a brother of Louis XVI, the Count of Provence, who was restored to the French throne after the fall of Napoleon in 1814 as Louis XVIII. Louis XVIII died in September 1824. Louis' other brother became king as Charles X.

Recent Scholarship

Recent scholarship has used DNA analysis to address the continuong specualtion about what vecame of Louis-Charles. The DNA analysis compared samples of the preseved heart to hair samples of his mother, two of her sisters, and modern ancestors. The genetic sequences were all identical. The DNA expert pronounced the results as definitive even though the heart samples were far from ideal.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site royal pages:
[Main French Bourbon royal pages]
[Main royal pages]
[Austria] [Belgium] [Denmark] [France] [Germany] [Italy] [Luxembourg] [Monaco] [Netherlands] [Norway]
[Romania] [Russia] [Spain] [United Kingdom]

Created: May 1, 2000
Last updated: April 17, 2003