Friday, October 21, 2011

Royal Profile: Princess Elisabeth of France

One of the most tragic but most spotless, pious and saintly royal figures who became a martyr of the French Revolution was Princess Elisabeth of France. She was born in Versailles on May 3, 1764, the youngest child of the Dauphin Louis, making her the granddaughter of King Louis XV and the sister of His Most Christian Majesty King Louis XVI of France. Along with her siblings she was raised by Madame de Marsan, the royal governess and she was given a good education as well as becoming an accomplished rider and artist. Her father died only the next year after she was born and she was only about three years old when her mother died. However, her parents (a lovely couple) passed on to her a deep sense of devotion to the Catholic Church and the venerable monarchy of France. Princess Elisabeth and her siblings were a very close-knit little family and the Princess grew into a very religious, very royalist and very devoted young lady. Being the youngest, she remained at home longer than any other while her older siblings went on to other positions, marriages and so on.

Princess Elisabeth remained with her brother, King Louis XVI, and was very attentive to him. There was some talk of her being married to the Austrian Emperor Joseph II but nothing came of it. It might have been better for her if she had ultimately, but as things stood at the time the Princess was wise to refuse as the Emperor was of a fairly different mindset from Elisabeth. The Emperor was a very modern-minded man, an “enlightened despot” who favored greater state control over the Church. Elisabeth was a very traditional conservative and a very devout Catholic who put her faith first and above all else. She was considered, along with her brother the Count of Artois (the future King Charles X) to be the most pro-Church and staunchly royalist member of the family. She was also a very strong-willed and determined woman. As a girl those traits had made her a little difficult but, as she grew up, her growing faith turned these into admirable qualities and gave her a great moral strength with firm and uncompromising principles. She turned away from any thought of marriage to devote herself to caring for her brother, the Royal Family, the French people and one would be hard pressed in any event to find a husband worthy of her.

Madame Elisabeth (as she was known) was also an extremely kind and compassionate woman who, rather than the glamorous life of a royal princess or even consort, would have preferred the life of a simple Carmelite nun. She would have taken vows at once but, King Louis XVI said he could not do without her. So, she set an example for charity and piety from the palace at Versailles. She had great love and respect for her eldest brother and even the younger Count of Artois (who was known for his rather wild ways) who she adored and tried to gently pull back to the straight and narrow. She also cared deeply for the poor (and despite popular perceptions she was not alone in that), even starting a dairy to provide free milk to poor children. Yet, she was not some dour, grim, puritanical sort of figure either. Madame Elisabeth enjoyed life, enjoyed art and beautiful things, enjoyed music and loved to dance. Of course, as with others, none of these admirable qualities were enough to save her when the horror of the Revolution descended on France. In fact, the revolutionaries, necessarily, poured out their deepest hatred on the purest and most upright individuals who represented all that was best about the old, glorious, Christian Kingdom of France.

When the Revolution came, usually dated with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 the King was concerned for the safety of his family and had several sent abroad. Madame Elisabeth, however, refused to abandon her post and she disagreed with her brother compromising in any way with the revolutionaries. There was, it is often forgotten, a brief period in which France was a constitutional monarchy as Louis XVI was forced to give in to the demands of the revolutionaries. All of this Madame Elisabeth staunchly opposed. She always supported her brother of course but, with her strength of will and character, she was against any concessions or coming to any agreement with a movement that was wicked in its very core. It was not simply an effort on her part to maintain royal authority but also to maintain the independence of the Church from the revolutionary laws to bring the Church under state control totally. This, of course, made her all the more hated by the revolutionaries who regarded her as one of the ultra-royalist, reactionary faction they correctly identified as their greatest enemies. Unfortunate, perhaps, but true. The Revolutionaries and Madame Elisabeth represented two completely opposite and irreconcilable positions one of which would have to perish for the other to survive.

Madame Elisabeth remained with King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette in their darkest hour. Her status as a leading enemy of the revolution was confirmed when the National Assembly intercepted a letter she sent to the Count of Artois in which she supported foreign monarchs sending troops to rescue the Royal Family, crush the revolution and restore royal authority. Still, even when the mob stormed the Tuileries, Madame Elisabeth bravely confronted them with some in the crowd mistaking her for Marie Antoinette. With the rest of the Royal Family she was taken into custody by the revolutionaries and originally imprisoned with the Queen but the two were later separated. Although she did not know it, Marie Antoinette addressed her last letter to her beloved sister-in-law. Locked away, Madame Elisabeth knew about the execution of her brother the King but was kept in the dark about the murder of the Queen. In her confinement she tried to comfort her niece Marie-Therese, daughter of the late King and Queen, even though she was constantly being insulted and tormented by her captors.

When the time came for her show-trial she was as calm and determined as ever as she was accused of aiding the King in his effort to escape, supporting the royalists abroad and counterrevolutionaries in France. When the King was slanders as a bloody tyrant, Madame Elisabeth, who had advised him to take a more hard-line approach, defiantly told the court, “If my brother had been what you call him, you would not have been where you are, nor I where I am”. Which was perfectly true as the King could have ordered his troops to shoot down the mobs in the streets but had refused to do so. Nonetheless, the verdict was pre-determined and on May 10, 1794 Madame Elisabeth was taken to the guillotine at the Place de la Revolution and executed. In her final moments she had offered her life to God as a sacrificial victim for all her country was enduring. Even in her final moments she helped others on the way to their execution and guided them in saying their prayers, a saintly princess from start to finish and a credit to the Royal House of France. Although there is no cause underway for her canonization, no less a figure than Pope Pius VII said he considered her a saint as do most French royalists. She was a martyr, martyred for her royal blood and her opposition to the godless forces of the Revolution.


  1. A brave woman, no doubt about it. I wish we had a few more of her in France...

  2. One of the greatest of the Bourbons, no doubt. It is rather sad there is no cause for her canonization ongoing. In an earlier age there would have been no doubt (as with St.Isabel, the sister of St. Louis).

  3. Thank you for this: very informative.

    Are there any saints or causes for sainthood among the royalty out of the French Revolution? Off the top of my head, I can't think of any.

  4. Depends on what you mean "out of" I suppose. Princess Elisabeth's sister, Marie Clotilde, recently covered, had a cause begun but it seems to have stalled out a long, long time ago. She wasn't directly involved in the Revolution but she certainly suffered from it. Both sisters I think are worthy of canonization, the Kings are a complicated subject. Louis XVI was probably most worthy but he did put his name to some bad decisions (under pressure of course), Louis XVIII was Louis XVIII and Charles X, admire him though I do, did not lead a very spotless life all the time.

  5. I think Louis XVI would be worthy. He put his name to bad decisions, as you say, but he repented of it, bitterly.

  6. Oh I agree, and I believe Charles X is happily in Heaven as well (Louis XVIII is a little more complicated for me) but I only mean that I cannot see the Church today canonizing someone like King Louis XVI. The mainstream in France would of course be adamantly against it and the things he agreed to (under duress) at the time would give ammunition to Catholic or at least "Catholic" opposition to his cause.

  7. Would it be off the mark to guess that it is not politically correct to proffer martyrs from among the royals as candidates for sainthood?

  8. Very informative, thank you for posting.


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