French Royalty: Louis XVI

Figure 1.--This drawing peports to show Louis XVI saying good-bye to his family after the death sentence has been delivered. Marie Antoinette and their two surviving children, Marie Therese and Louis Charles are depicted. There are many such images, all depicting the scene differently. We are not sure who the artist is or when this was drawn.

Louis XVI was born in 1754 at Versailles. He was the last King of France (1774-93) in the line of the Bourbon monarchs preceding the Revolution of 1789--the last Bourbon king to govern France as an absolute ruler. He became heir to his grandfather's throne upon his father's death in 1765. While he was the third spn, he was the only surviving son with his father, the Dauphin died. Unlike his father, Louis was neither intelligent or handsome. HBC at this time has little information on his childhood, but some information on how he was dressed as a boy.


Louis father was the Dauphin (crown prince) Louis de France (1729-65), the eldest son of King Louis XV (1710- ) and Maria of Poland Leczinska (1703- ). His father died in 1765, however, before inheriting the crown. Louis XVI's mother was Marie-Josephe (Wettin) de Saxe (1731- ). The Wettin dynasty is more familiar to us as the male founder of the current British royal family. Prince Albert was related to Marie-Joseph. Her father was Frederick Augustus II (Wettin) of Saxony, King of Poland (1696- ). Her mother was the Habsburg princess Marie Josephe (1699- ).


Louis XVI was born in 1754 at Versailles. We have little information about Louis' childhood.

Childhood Clothing

One report indicates that Louis was traumatized by his mother who dressed him in reproductions of her own clothes. In the 18th century it was common for young boys to wear dresses like their sisters. Apparntlty Louis' mother Marie-Josephe kept him in dresses longer than was common at the time. We have, however, few details on this.


Louis became a devout and chaste young man who disapproved of the licentious court and his father's lack of fidelity to his mother. His grandfather in turn found Louis dull, inelegant, and in modern terms--gross.


Louis' education was indifferently handled, but he possessed an excellent memory and took an interest in history and geography.

Marie Antoinette

The Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette's father was Francis I Stephende Lorraine Holy Roman Emperor (1708- ) and the Habsburg Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80). Her father's title of Holy Roman Emperor was pretigious, but largely powerless. Her mother Empress Maria Theresa was, however, one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe. Marie Antoinette was born in 1755 in Vienna. She was the royal couple's youngest and reportedly most beautiful child. She was brought up to believe that her destiny was to become queen of France. Royal marriages were at the time often diplomatic tools and the marriage of the Hapsburg and Bourbon families was an important step in the diplomatic world of the 18th century.


Louis in 1770 married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette. Marriage to the vivacious, somewhat frivolous Austrian princess did nothing go alter Louis' phlegmatic character.

Life Style

Louis devdeloped a tendency to overeat and strove to vigorously pursue hunting to maintain his health. Curiously for a king, his other hobbies were masonry and blacksmithing.


Louis and Marie Antoinette had four children, two boys and two girls. Neither of the boys inherited the crown, although their younger son is often referred to as Louis VXVII.

Marie Therese (1778-1851)

Marie Therese was born in 1778 and was given the title of Duchess of Angouleme. She was referred to as Madame Royale, meaning the Princess Royal or eldest daughter of the king. Marie Therese with her parents was confined in the Temple prison. She survived the Revolution. As female ancestors could not inheit the crown on France, she unlike her brother Louis-Charles was not a political threat to the Revolution. We had thought that never married. A HBRC reader tells us that she actually married her cousin, Louis-Antoine duc de Angouleme son of Charles X.


Louis-Joseph was the first son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He was born in 1781, but we have little information on his childhood. A French student has kindly provided some information on his clothing. He was reportedly outfitted in boyish styled clothes which was an inovation for French royal children. His father was traumatized by his mother who reportedly had her clothes reproduced for him to wear. Louis was, as a result, determined to dress his sons in more boyish fashions at an early age. Available images show him wearing skeleton suits at an early age. Louis-Joseph died in June 1789 at the age of 8 years, just at the outbreak of the Revolution. I am unsure about the circumstances of his death.

Louis-Charles (Louis XVII)

Louis-Charles was born in 1785 at Versailles. He died in 1795 at Paris. 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, 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.

Sophie Helene Beatrix (1786- )

Sophie Helene Beatrix was born in 1786. She died a year later in 1787.


Louis succeeded to the throne on May 10, 1774 after his grandfather's, Louis XV, death. At the time, he was still immature, lacking in self-confidence, and because of a physical defect (later remedied by an operation) frigid in his relations with his young wife. Although well-disposed toward his subjects and interested in foreign policy, Louis had not sufficient strength of character or power of decision to combat the court factions or give support to reforming ministers. His poor eduvation made him suspectable to the intrigues of schemin advisers. Louis did not have the strength of character or foresight to persue needed reforms when possible or to deal with the Revolution when it occurred. His undoing of the judicial reforms of his grandfather cost him presige, and his reign was marked by the increasing strength of the aristocrats, who opposed most economic and administrative reforms.

The Revolution

Facing bankruptcy of the royal treasury, Louis was obliged in May, 1789, to summon the Estates General, a body that could approve new taxes but which had not met for over a hundred years. The three estates represented respectively the aristocracy, the clergy and the commoners well-to-do commoners, people of property or position mainly, but commoners all the same, and as such, people without significant political rights. But the time was ripe for change and events moved swiftly. Only a month after it was summoned, the Third Estate met by itself, renaming itself the National Assembly. A month after that the people stormed the royal prison, the Bastille. The King took fright. Despite attempts at compromise Louis XVI was arrested and tried after attempting to flee the country. When the Revolution broke out in 1789, he allowed himself to be controlled by reactionary court factions into defending the privileges of the nobles and clergy, and continued to believe that the Revolution would burn itself out.

Louis and his family suffered the humiliation of being brought to Paris by Revolutionary forces. He pretended to assent to ruling as a constitutional monarch. But his education and life experience made it impossible to really accept this. He secretly sought assistance from the royalist armies gathering in Germany. After a failed attempt to escape the capital and join the reactionary forces in 1791 his true intentions were revealed. He lost all credibility and subsequently appeared to be under the control of the Queen. Under her guidence, he secretly but more actively encourage an intervention into France by Austria, hoping to restore his throne this way. When papers detailing this, along with other dealings with counterrevolutionaries, were discovered in Nov. 1792, Louis was charged with treason. Condemned to death, he was guillotined in Paris on Jan 21, 1793. His courage on June 20, 1792 when the palace was invaded by a mob, and his dignified bearing during his trial and execution did something to restore, but not reestablish, his reputation.


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Created: May 9, 2002
Last updated: July 18, 2003