The death of the Princesse de Lamballe

3 September 2012

During a recent visit to Paris, I made a point of walking past the spot on the junction of the Rue du Roi de Sicile and Rue Pavée where the entrance to La Force prison would have been in the 1790s. It was here that on the 3rd of September 1792, Marie Antoinette’s friend and Superintendent of her Household, the Princesse de Lamballe was delivered by a kangaroo court set up in the prison hall to a gang of murderers and self designated ‘executioners’ that waited outside.

The unfortunate Princess had been packed off to the grim La Force prison on the 19th August 1792 along with Madame de Tourzel and her young daughter, Pauline after they had been separated from the royal family at the Temple, whence they had all gone together after the fall of the Tuileries on the 10th of August.

The Princesse de Lamballe, Anton Josef Hickel, 1788.

Madame de Tourzel wrote at length in her memoirs about their life in La Force. During their time at the Temple, she and her daughter had become accustomed to keep an eye on the always nervous Princesse, who had long been prey to fainting spells and fits, which may have been caused by epilepsy. However, she noted that while they were in the dank and awful La Force prison, Madame de Lamballe had ‘not been in such good health for a long time’, which seems quite remarkable considering the terrible stress and fear that they must have been existing under, especially as at the time, La Force was primarily used to imprison prostitutes and so the three court ladies found themselves assailed day and night by crude songs, jokes and remarks and as Madame de Tourzel put it ‘The least chaste ears would have been offended by everything they continuously heard, night and day.’

On the second of September however, things began to change and their gaoler told them not to leave their cell, warning them that there were rumours that the Prussians and Austrians were advancing on Paris, with the result that the streets were becoming restless and even dangerous as mass panic spread throughout the Faubourgs. The aristocratic ladies must have thought themselves relatively safe within the albeit unpleasant walls of their prison, but alas forces were already conspiring against them.

That night, Madame de Tourzel was woken up by a mysterious stranger creeping into their cell. To her alarm, he went to the bedside of her young daughter and shook her awake, asking her to come with him at once. Powerless to disobey or indeed make a fuss, Madame de Tourzel instructed the girl to go with the stranger – who luckily for them both turned out to be a Scarlet Pimpernel like rescuer known as Monsieur Hardy.

The Princesse de Lamballe, sketched by Gabriel while awaiting ‘trial’ on the day of her death.

The next morning, Madame de Tourzel and the Princesse de Lamballe prayed for Pauline, whose fate they did not know and then climbed up on to the Princesse’s bed which afforded them a small view onto the street below. They saw that there was already a large mob gathered around the prison door while the prisoners were clustered together in silent, frightened groups in the corridors and courtyard.

A few hours later, at eleven o clock in the morning, a gaoler came to fetch the Princesse de Lamballe. Madame de Tourzel’s presence had not been requested but she decided to accompany her friend all the same. They walked behind the gaoler to the prison records office, where a rudimentary court had been set up. The two ladies sat together and watched the proceedings which all followed more or less the same method – the prisoner was briefly interrogated for about ten minutes and then either found innocent with a cry of ‘Vive la Nation’ or pronounced guilty. The innocent were carried from the prison, congratulated and embraced by all before being whisked away to freedom while the guilty were passed over to a pair of sans culottes who led them out into the courtyard to be summarily despatched.

When, many hours later, Madame de Tourzel’s turn came, according to her, the intrepid Monsieur Hardy who had come back for her, had managed to get the judges and their henchmen so completely sozzled that they proclaimed her innocent when she agreed to declare ‘Vive la Nation’ and he was able to get her away and reunite her with her daughter. She noted with a certain amount of irony that while she was being handed into the carriage that was waiting to whisk her away, the same blood splattered men who had been murdering her fellow prisoners all day took special care to tell her coachman which route he should take so that she would avoid seeing any of that day’s carnage.

However, her friend, the Princesse de Lamballe had no brave rescuer on hand and was not to be as fortunate as the Tourzel ladies. To the surprise of absolutely no one, she was found guilty by the tribunal after she denied any knowledge of treasonous plots emanating from the royal court and then refused to take an oath proclaiming her hatred of the king, queen and monarchy although she accepted the oath of loyalty to Liberty and Equality. She was then led out to the courtyard where the mob awaited her.

The Death of the Princesse de Lamballe.

What happened next is open to some debate. We are all familiar with the horrific accounts of gang rape, evisceration and so on, but did any of this actually really happen? Axel de Fersen was to write to the Duke of Södermanland that ‘The Princesse de Lamballe was most fearfully tortured for four hours. My pen jibs at giving details. They tore off her breasts with their teeth and then did all possible, for two whole hours, to force her back to consciousness, to make her death the more agonising.’

We are told by numerous sources that the Princess was either hit from behind and felled to the ground or run through with a sword and then eviscerated. In an orgy of violence, she was then apparently stripped, tortured and terribly mutilated by the gleeful crowd who were keen to enact their loathing of the queen on the body of one of her closest friends. After this, her head and according to some accounts also her heart and genitalia were placed on pikes and then paraded along with her naked mutilated body through the streets before being waved in front of the windows of the Temple so that Marie Antoinette could see them before being dumped at a boundary stone on the Rue Saint Antoine.

However, as David Andress notes in his book The Terror, later that day a group of men, including two members of the Parisian National Guard reported to the administrative office of the Quinze-Vingts Section with what the clerk noted to be ‘the headless body of the former princesse de Lamballe, who had just been killed at the Hôtel de La Force.’ The clerk, who must have felt much put upon to be expected to deal with such a matter, then went on to dispassionately note that the lady’s head was elsewhere and also, helpfully, itemised the contents of her pockets which included ‘a gold ring with a bezel of changeable blue stone, in which was some blond hair tied in a love-knot with these words above it: ‘Whitened through misery’, ‘a sort of double-faced image, on one side representing a bleeding heart surrounded with thorns and pierced by a dagger, with these words below: ‘Cor Jesu, salva nos, perimur,’ on the other a bleeding heart with a fleur-de-lis above and below the words: ‘Cor Mariae unitum cordi Christi’’ and ‘a medallion on light blue cloth, on which was painted a bleeding heart pierced by a dagger, embroidered in blue silk’. There is no mention of mutilation other than decapitation, nakedness (the pockets are a clue that the corpse arrived fully dressed) or anything else that fits in with the usual lurid descriptions of the violence enacted against the Princesse. Could it be therefore that they were exaggerated?

Shortly afterwards, head and body were reunited and, apparently unimpeded, servants of the Penthièvre family arrived to take them away for proper burial. Her final resting place is not definitely known.

While no one can dispute that the unfortunate Princesse came to a very violent end, beaten and probably stabbed to death before being decapitated, at La Force prison, it seems clear from the writing of that unfortunate clerk at least that the terrible tortures described by other writers almost certainly didn’t actually happen and that actually the detailed and stomach turning accounts of entrails being used as belts, her heart being eaten and false moustaches being fashioned out of her pubic hair were instead possibly products of the mass hysteria of the time and then flamed by the righteous fury of the Revolution’s pro-Royalist critics. Whatever the truth though, this and the many other incidents like it, were shameful indeed and do no credit to the people responsible.

The Princesse de Lamballe by Hensius, 1791.

Further reading:

The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution

The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine – France 1793-1794

Voices of the Revolution

Blood Sisters: French Revolution in Women’s Memory

Threshold of Terror: Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution

Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794

Glory and Terror: Seven Deaths Under the French Revolution

Mémoires de madame la Duchesse de Tourzel gouvernante des enfants de France pendant les années 1789, 1790, 1791,1792, 1793, 1795: Publiés par Le duc Des Cars. Tome 2

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