I am under the impression that the Queen's imprisonment in the Temple was vastly different from that in the Conciergerie. Supposedly, the king and queen were treated well during their imprisonment at Temple, though they were forced to stay on different floors However, I have read that she did not get good food at the Conciergerie and only a few kind souls tried to make life a bit less harsh for her. My question is can we really believe everything that is told to us by those who kept the records? For whom did they write the logs and entries? I do not give the revolutionaries very much credit for wanting their side to look as though they would give the Queen favored treatment. Am I right or wrong?
First, thank you for reading my blog and sending me your thoughtful question. I would do my best to provide you with a thorough answer.
One of the most challenging aspects of writing about history is wading through the conflicting accounts of an event or sketched about a famous person and knowing what to believe. As a subject of study, Marie Antoinette poses many difficulties for the historian because she was (and still is today) a polarizing figure. Some people adore her, while others deplore her.
Your question: Can we believe what was written in the logs, correspondences, and memoirs of the revolutionaries in regards to their treatment of the royal family?
The contradictory rumors about Antoinette began before the fireworks displays celebrating her nuptials had even faded from the inky evening sky. Some said she was silly, immature, coquettish. While others lauded her lively wit, sound judgment, and chastity.
When there are conflicting accounts about a single person or event, how do you separate fact from fiction? How do you know which to believe?
When I am faced with this particular challenge, I employ a basic journalistic technique: Consider the source. Who is the source? What do we know of their character? What is/was their connection to the subject? Does anyone corroborate their story? And if so, who? What is their motive in telling their story?
The revolutionaries tasked with guarding the King and Queen were mostly simple men, of humble origins, lacking education and refinement. They had few reasons to sympathise with the royal family and a multitude of reasons to loath them (And do not forget, the flames of their hatred were being stoked daily by the newspapers and cartoons who cried out for vengeance and blood in the name of Liberté!)
|Monument to Louis and Antoinette|
Through their eyes, Antoinette is viewed as a saintly woman innocent of ever having committed a transgression and Louis was a hapless victim who merely got swept away by a deluge that was not of his making.
When faced with conflicting stories, my editor liked to say, "The truth lies somewhere in between."
Antoinette was no saint. Louis was hardly a victim. Though neither deserved the "justice" meted out to them.
|Furniture from the Temple|
She was fed regular meals, allowed books and correspondence (censured, of course), and was attended to by a maid and her husband's valet, Clery.
However, in his journal, Clery writes about the many colds and illnesses the family suffered while imprisoned in the damp, cold Tower. He also writes about the cruel caprices of their captors, and how they would randomly decide to keep the family apart.
When her son, the dauphin, became ill, she was prohibited from attending him at night. Having already lost two children, one can only imagine her great distress at not being able to tend to little Louis-Charles.
|The Family in the Tower|
He also tells of a chilling encounter with a particularly heartless twenty-two year old Municipal Officer on the eve of the king's execution.
"I volunteered for duty to see the grimaces he will make tomorrow," he said.
|Louis in the Temple|
"Of all of these prisons, the Conciergerie, on the Ile de la Cite, had the most sinister reputation." Citizens, Simon Schama
For Antoinette, life took a dramatic, horrifying turn for the worse when she was transferred from the Temple Tower to the Conciergerie.
Forced to leave behind her children and the few comforts that had been afforded her, she was placed in an 11 x 6 foot cell on the ground floor of the ancient, imposing prison. She had a trestle bed with two mattresses, a bolster and a blanket, a table, two chairs, a wash-basin, and a privacy screen. According to Olivier Blanc, in his book Last Letters, the prison-keeper and a servant woman tried to make the room more cheerful by putting "fine sheets and a pillow on her bed and a vase of flowers on the table."
I have been to the Conciergerie more than once and each visit to the bleak prison left me feeling despondent. For those of you who have not had the opportunity to tour the prison, allow me to describe it for you.
According to contemporary newspaper accounts, the queen would "rise every day at seven o'clock and goes to bed at ten. She calls her two gendarmes 'Messiuers,' her servant-woman 'Madame Harel'. The police administrators and those who approach her officially call her 'Madame'. She eats with good appetite; in the morning, chocolate with a breadroll, at dinner, soup and a lot of meat - chicken, veal cutlets, and mutton. She drinks only water, like her mother, she says, who never drank wine."
The article goes on to list the queen's reading material and to state that she does her own toilet and has not lost her "stylishness."
Now Janet, we must employ the "consider the source" rule here in deciding how much of the above is fact and how much is revolutionary propaganda.
The article does not indicate who supplied the information about the queen's daily schedule, though it does quote Bault, the prison-keeper.
Let's take it line by line, shall we?
Eating habits - Despite my earnest effort, I could not find another source that described the queen's eating habits while at the Conciergerie. I do know that when the the queen was at Versailles, she preferred bread and chocolate for breakfast. So, she very well could have been eating a breadroll with chocolate while imprisoned in the Conciergerie. I find it doubtful, though, that she ate "a lot of meat" as she had always been a light eater. Greasy meats upset her stomach, as did alcohol.
Her Toilet - When I read the bit about the queen performing her own toilet and retaining her "stylishness", I guffawed loud enough to startle my slumbering schnoodle. Contemporary sources described her as having worn a plain black gown and a pair of plum-colored high-heeled slippers. Hardly the picture of a primping, preening princess.
Michonis, the prison administrator, and the Chevalier de Rougeville (he had protected her during the attack on the Tuileries) both described the queen as having looked shockingly thin (so much for the super meat diet theory), haggard, and older than her years.
Antoinette physically suffered while imprisoned in the Conciergerie. She endured painful menstrual cycles akin to hemorrhaging, her hair turned white, she went blind in one eye, and had a hacking cough. Some might disagree (if they have non-royalist sentiments), but the woman I just described does not sound stylish.
I hope I have answered your question. If any of my readers have questions about Marie Antoinette or 18th Century France, please leave a comment on this blog or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org