A Question About the Queen's Imprisonment

Dear Leah ~
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?
Janet ~

Dear Janet!

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!) 

 History Revised
Monument to Louis and Antoinette
Certainly, their post-regicide claims of having treated the king and queen with dignity or compassion must be viewed through sceptical lenses.  There was an overwhelming wave of sympathy for Louis and Antoinette that swelled during the Restoration.  A perfect example of the change of sentiment can be found in the corpses of the king and queen.  After they were beheaded, they were thrown into unmarked graves and covered in quicklime.  It wasn't until over twenty years later that their bodies were recovered and interred in the Basilica of St. Denis.  Fifteen years after that, when remorse was at an all-time high, a beautiful sculpture of the king and queen was installed inside the Basilica.  If one were to look at the statue today, knowing nothing about the blood-thirsty mobs that instigated the revolution, one would believe Louis and Antoinette had been well-loved.
Just as we must view the accounts provided by the revolutionary gaurds with suspicion, so must we look closely at the words written by those who had been supportive of the King and Queen.
While the Memoirs of Madame Vigee Le Brun (the queen's official portraitist) and Clery's A Journal of the Terror (the king's valet) make for riveting, emotional reads, the vignettes they sketch are perhaps a bit too soft-focused.  Sentiment, loyalty, and survivor's remorse surely shaded their memories.

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.

The Temple

Furniture from the Temple
The Temple Prison was no Versailles, but the queen's rooms were comfortable enough.  She had furniture, a modicum of privacy, and was able to spend time with her husband, children, and sister in law.
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
Clery also tells stories about the king and queen strolling together in the Temple Gardens, the king showing his son how to use a chisel and mallet, and the royal children playing ball together.

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
The Abbey De Firmont, Louis XVI's last confessor, wrote of the cruelty and disrespect shown the king by the guards and even the executioner, Sanson, during the king's final moments on the scaffold.  These insults were documented by many and can therefore be easily believed.

The Conciergerie

"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."
No Privacy
 There is a conflicting account as to the furniture in her room.  From Axel Fersen's journal we learn that the cell was "small, damp, and fetid, without stove or fireplace; there were three beds, one for the Queen, another beside it for her woman attendant, the third for two gendarmes who never left the cell, even when the Queen had to satisfy the needs of nature." (According to Vincent Cronin, Fersen apparently paid someone in the prison to describe the Queen's living conditions)

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.

The Queen's cell is situated on an inside corridor.  There are two doors to the cell; one is shorter than the other.  A guide told me that the guards would make the queen exit and enter her cell through the shorter door, to force her to bow her head.  The floors and walls are of stone. A large, demilune window takes up most of the far wall, but is covered in bars.  Beyond the window is a courtyard with stone water basins that were used by common female prisoners.

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?

Sleeping - The article suggests the queen received nine hours of sleep per night, but a conflicting account describes her as having a surplus of nervous energy that prevented her from being able to gain rest.  I can tell yo that down the hall from her cell were a row of miserable, barred cells that resembled horse stalls (even the floors were littered with hay in an effort to absorb human waste).  These were the cells of the very poor, the most wretched.  In a last letter, a prisoner describes the cells as gloomy and over-filled with moaning, miserable souls.  With her swirling emotions and the cacophony of agony rising up outside her cell, I doubt Antoinette slept as peacefully as the article suggests.

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 would like to end his piece by drawing your attention to two images of Marie Antoinette.  The first is a highly romanticized portrait of the queen by De Brehen, a staunch royalist, painted after the queen's execution.  In this image, the queen looks like a well-tended widow, captured during a quiet moment of reading. 

Now, I would like to draw your attention to the image on the right.  It is a picture of the death mask of Marie Antoinette.  Even with her eyes closed, one can sense the sadness she must have felt in her final moments while mounting the steps to the scaffold.  It is hardly the face of a stylish woman. 

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 leahmariebrown@live.com

Further Reading:


  1. Fantastic question, and equally fantastic response! There is a French book (in two tomes, each tome being about 670 long!) titled "Les soixante-seize jours de Marie-Antoinette à la Conciergerie" (Marie Antoinette's 76 days in the Conciergerie"), that was written by Paul Belaiche-Daninos, who researched for several years the archives of the Revolution and wrote this fantastic book, which reads like a novel, and aims to retell, day after day, of MA's treatment before her beheading, as well as after. He refers to those who tried to save her and get her out of the prison, and to those who tried to rush her execution before she possibly died in prison. A great read, unfortunately, only available in French :(

  2. Another very well researched and informative article from you! I enjoyed it immensely.

  3. Thank you for answering my question about the final days of Marie Antoinette. I really appreciate your attention to the details that confirm my suspicions. My deepest appreciation for such an excellent response to my question.

    I had not known about the cells next to the Queen's which harbored human squalor nor the door that made her have to bend her head. How sad! How cruel! What a despicable shame!

    Likewise, I agree with your statement that no matter what she had done, neither she nor the King deserved the treatment that they received at the hands of the Revolutionaries.

    Merci beaucoup!

  4. One more comment: I truly appreciate the contrast between the two portraits of Queen Antoinette, one drawn probably during her days at the Temple, and the other, a death mask, shown after her execution. I am so happy that you ended your essay with these portraits of the Queen. It truly says it all, at 38, she is still a very young woman. What an injustice!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. It should be noted that Antoinette's cell at the Conciergerie is a reproduction. Her cell was converted into a chapel.

  7. Nice Information! I personally really appreciate your article. This is a great website. I will make sure that I stop back again!.

  8. Fascinating stuff, thanks so much!
    Lewis, Canada

  9. there also made a Film about her ,standing Trial prior to her execution
    L' Autrichienne-Full Movie-1990(Marie Antoinette) the Film is in French only, it is a very sad one .She was accused of many things, she never did or had control, influence over it
    Here is the Link - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGqgbWq_2-E


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