These are just a few of the words historians have used to describe Louis XVI. How many of these monikers are accurate, though?
As a child, Louis was ignored in favor of his older brother. When his brother died of a sudden illness, Louis became dauphin. Few believed he was worthy or capable of filling his brother's shoes. Even his grandfather, Louis XV, the Beloved King, had little faith in his "ungainly, dim-witted" grandson.
Louis had two younger brothers, the Comte de Provence and the Comte d'Artois, who teased him mercilessly. Provence was an accomplished conversationalist, capable of the deeper thought and quick wit so prized in the salons of Paris. Artois was the handsome, charming, social butterfly. Poor Louis was the Jan Brady of the French Court - a middle child who was not as smart as his elder sibling nor as precocious as his younger sibling. One can easily imagine him petulantly stomping his foot and crying, "Artois. Artois. Artois. Everyone loves Artois! What about me, Louis?"
From a young age Louis took comfort in menial labor. He enjoyed performing tasks with his hands. He was a skilled hunter, draftsman, locksmith, and carpenter. He once admitted he took great pleasure in mixing mortar and chopping wood. These were hardly suitable or admirable interests for the future king of France. Indeed, he suffered much ridicule because of his "less than noble pursuits."
And so, Louis grew from a lonely, shy, insecure boy into a lonely, shy, insecure man.
Marie Antoinette, a lively young woman, seemed an odd match for the bumbling dauphin.
Initially, the two young royals found they shared little in common. While Louis paid little attention to his appearance, often dressing in coarse, peasant-like clothes, Marie Antoinette loved fashionable gowns and expensive jewels. Though the young Marie Antoinette was the original party-girl and spent much of her time engaged in frivolous activities like attending masquerade balls, horse races, and grand fetes, Louis was a homebody. He preferred to stay in his room, tinkering with his locks, building furniture, reading books, or practicing cartography. They spent a lot of time apart in the early years of their marriage. She would ride in a sleigh over the frozen countryside surrounding Versailles, he would ride off alone to hunt for wild boar or stag.
Eventually, their desire for an heir would bind them together.
Very few people know of Louis XVI's positive attributes. He is not remembered for his intelligence of for being well-read, nor is he remembered for being kind, compassionate, or generous. Yet, he was all of these things and more.
Here are a few little known facts about Louis XVI:
- Louis had the largest personal collection of books during his lifetime. His library, decorated in shades of blue and gold, contained over eight thousand leather-bound books.
- Louis subscribed to various European newspapers.
- Louis had a head for numbers. He was particularly fond of statistics.
- Louis was an accomplished locksmith. Locksmithing is an art that demands neatness and strengths, two attributes Louis possessed. Louis designed and installed a lock in his desk to secure state papers.
- He was also a gifted craftsman, designing and constructing furniture. Some of his pieces can be viewed today.
- Louis was not born to be king. He was the second son, the spare heir. He did not receive the rigorous training or attention usually afforded the dauphin of France.
- Louis was a faithful journal keeper.
- Louis was a tireless horseman and hunter. He even rode to hunt on his wedding day.
- Physically, Louis was a bit challenged. He had beefy lips, large hands, and a pock marked face. He spoke slowly and deliberately, and had a lumbering gait.
- Louis XVI hated cats!