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Princess of Lamballe: when noble values become a death sentence.
The French revolution (1789-1799) was, and still is, the most famous public revolt against the ruling monarchies. It is often associated with what become later the French motto "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity). However, it came within a package, alongside chaos, revenge and therefore bloodbaths. Although it varies, but that is applicable to almost every revolution ever made and here is why:
Given the right circumstances, anyone can be a tyrant on his own, including those revolting to end a tyranny. Acknowledging it or not, those revolutionists switch roles with their rulers, where the public, initially victims of their actual political system, become the butcher who mercilessly take out their anger on anyone thought to be related to the system in a barbarian act of vengeance.
Today, we discuss the short life story of an unfortunate rightful woman who was caught in the wrong place and time: France during its ferocious, bloody revolution.
Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy was born on September 8, 1749 in Turin to Louis Victor of Savoy, Prince of Carignano, and Christine Henriette, a princess of a German dynasty. Nothing much is really known about her childhood. At the age of 17, Marie had to leave Italy for France to marry Louis Alexandre Stanislas de Bourbon, the Prince of Lamballe. Not unlike Royal marriages at the time, both families of the groom and bride encouraged the marriage which was basically a political alliance between the Royal house of Savoy and its French counterpart.
Although, Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, the Duke of Penthièvre and Alexandre Stanislas' father, had another reason to persuade his son into marrying Marie Therese: the young prince was a hedonist who "enjoyed life to the fullest". And in an attempt to change his behaviour, the Duke thought that marrying his son to the Savoyard princess, who was renowned for her beauty and piety, would put an end to Alexandre's libertine lifestyle.
At first, the marriage was happy overall as both of the groom and his bride were attracted to each other physically and emotionally. However, that did not last for long, and because old habits die hard, the couple's happiness crashed on the rocks of the groom's lusts shortly after. Only three months into marriage, Louis Alexandre got bored of his wife and resumed his old lifestyle of debauchery. The unfaithful husband broke Marie's heart, cheating on her on multiple occasions mostly with actresses and dancers. The young princess was reportedly devastated by her spouse infidelity and had to be comforted by the Duke of Penthievre, her father-in-law. But otherwise, she did not seek a divorce and remained loyal to her Prince.
In May 6, 1768, roughly 16 months after the wedding, the marriage had came to an unfortunate end when Louis Alexandre was hoisted by his own petard; the degenerate young man, aged only 20, died of a venereal disease (STD) in the arms of his dutiful wife who, despite her spouse's constant cheating, nursed and took good care of him until he drew his last breath. Thus, the princess of Lamballe became a widow at the very young age of 18.
The Duke was in deep grieve for his son, and Marie, whom de Bourbon considered as a daughter of his, was his one consolation. He then decided to engage in extensive charitable activities, and with the fortune Marie had inherited from her late husband, she joined her father-in-law doing charity. Those activities granted her the nickname of "The angel of Penthièvre" among the locals.
But other than acts of charity, Marie Therese's title as princess of Lamballe meant she had to attend the ceremonies held by the French Royal family. When the dauphin of France (1) Louis Auguste married Marie Antoinette of Austria in 1770, de Lamballe, along with other princes and princesses, was presented to Antoinette in a ceremony when the latter arrived in France. The new bride fell under the charm of the sweet, amiable Marie Therese and had a great affection towards her. Therefore, and following Auguste's ascension to the throne in 1774 as Louis XVI, it was not much of a surprise that Marie Antoinette, the new queen of France, appointed Marie Therese as "the superintendent of the Queen’s household".
The two "Maries" got along quite well, and de Lamballe did not cease to amuse the Queen. The widow princess was described as "a woman of ethics who had no interest in power or ruling and not one to participate in plots and conspiracies". Those qualities of honesty and trustworthiness were, of course, rare especially when it came to the Royal class. As a consequence, it did not take long for Marie Therese of Savoy to become Marie Antoinette's intimate companion. However, there was a major difference between the two: the Queen was of an outgoing nature, who loved to mix with other members of the high society. The princess was the exact opposite, a recluse who wanted to spend time alone with Antoinette rather than being in public. This difference in character between the two will cause some issues later.
Due to the contrast between the outgoing Queen and the reclusive princess, their bonds were not always strong especially when Marie Antoinette met Yolande de Polastron, a duchess with whom she had a lot in common. It was just normal for the timid Marie Therese to lose her position as the Queen's favourite to the charismatic duchess. But even then, and once again, the princess of Lamballe remained loyal to her Queen, the same as she did with her cheating, late husband. Though, her loyalty and honesty did not go unappreciated by Marie Antoinette, who described her as "a woman with a pure heart who bears no grudge, jealousy or hatred towards anyone."
It is quite ironic that Marie Therese's most praised qualities would lead to her ultimate demise in the years to come.
During the outbreak of the French revolution in July 1789, de Lamballe was not in France, and when she was back in September, she went directly to nurse her father-in-law who was ill at the time. In October, after Marie Therese was informed of what was happening in the country, she immediately joined the Royal family in Paris to resume her duties. There, the salon the princess owned served as a meeting place for the queen with royalist sympathizers such as nobles and aristocrats.
By 1791, and after "the day of daggers"(2) and the unsuccessful escape of the Royal family from Paris(3), the king had not only lost the nobles' support, but also any dependability he still had among the public who were growing more hostile towards the French monarchy. Being aware that accompanying her would be of a great danger to de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette asked the latter to flee France and not come back for the sake of her life. This request was flatly rejected by the princess, who considered herself responsible to the Queen's safety, especially when most, if not all of Antoinette's intimate circle of friends had left the country, including Yolande de Polastron.
The revolution escalated really quick, and on the 10th of August 1792, armed revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries palace where the Royal family resided. As a result of the insurrection, the monarchy was overthrown and de Lamballe, alongside with the Queen, some noblewomen and a few retainers, was captured and imprisoned in the Temple prison. Nine days later, it was decided that the royal family should not be allowed to keep their servants. Thus, Marie Therese and the other noblewomen were transferred to La Force prison where they shared a cell, and the worse was yet to come.
In September, mobs attacked prisons where those suspected of supporting the monarchy were imprisoned, and placed them for trial before hastily assembled tribunals they called "people's tribunals". In reality, those "trials" could be called anything but such; the judges were the angry mobs themselves, driven by the hostility they had towards the monarchy. The prisoners were asked a handful of questions, after which they would be judged, and in many cases, savagely executed.
On the 3rd of September, 5 days before her 43th birthday, Marie Therese was taken to the tribunal. Her trial ended as fast as it started: after asking her to confirm her identity, "the judges" demanded for de Lamballe to swear to liberty, equality and hatred to the king, Queen and monarchy. Marie agreed to the take the oath of liberty and equality, but rejected to denounce the monarchies, saying that it is not in her heart to hate anyone. The noble response had fell on the deaf ears of vengeance, and the sham trial was summarily concluded with a few words: "take Madame away."
If you have not guessed it already, that was not a simple order to put her back in prison or such. In a matter of fact, during what will be known later as the "September's massacres", "take Monsieur/Madame away" was a verdict in itself that meant for the accused of monarchy supporting to be thrown in the street, where he/she became under the mercy of the ferocious crowd to do whatever they wished to him/her, which, of course, meant a painful and humiliating death. It was just the case for Marie Therese.
Princess de Lamballe was led to the street full of raged men, women and even children who were awaiting to witness her demise. The paving was already soaked in blood and covered with bodies from previous "trials". Within a couple of minutes, the small framed woman was kicked, punched, beaten and stabbed to death by various weapons. Her body was then decapitated, and Marie's severed head was mounted atop a pike and taken by the crowd to where the Queen was imprisoned. The freak show went on as the mob displayed de Lamballe's head in front of Antoinette's window, probably as a warning that her end would be no different. Furthermore, the revolutionaries unsuccessfully attempted to break inside the Temple prison. The reason? The anti monarchist propaganda at the time portrayed de Lamballe as the lesbian lover of the Queen. Thus, the mob wished to show the severed head of the princess to Antoinette in person so she could kiss the lips of her alleged lover! It is worth noting that neither of the two women was actually lesbian. Those were mere lies to undermine the public image of the monarchy.
As if that was not savage and cruel enough, another account suggests that de Lamballe was raped and sexually harassed before she was killed. After her death, Marie Therese's heart was ripped out of her chest and her entrails were sticking out. Her headless body was then dragged for kilometers around the city while the mob shrieked death threats to the monarchies. It is impossible to know whether or not this had happened as Marie's body was never found. And even when the Duke of Penthievre tried to retrieve her remains to honor his daughter-in-law with a proper burial, it led to no avail. However, and considering the atrocities committed during the French revolution, this account of events is not unlikely to be true.
The farce trials went on for the four following days in each and every prison in Paris, claiming the lives of more than 1600 people. In La Force prison, 160 prisoner, including de Lamballe, were all massacred in similar brutal ways.
Marie Therese of Savoy certainly did not deserve such a gruesome end. The proverb "it is better to be a soldier in a garden than a Gardner in the battlefield" is pretty accurate to describe de Lamballe's fate; she was just an honest, loyal person who still honored her ethics even while stuck in the middle of politics. But we all know that politics was not and will never be a game of honesty. Therefore, she was the rightful woman in wrong side, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. De Lamballe was a kind hearted woman who did not know how to hate. Yet ironically, she paid her life as the price of hatred towards the monarchies, because in the eyes of the public, she was an icon of a system not wanted anymore and had to be uprooted and replaced.
(1) the dauphin(e) of France: a title given to both the apparent heir of the French throne and his wife.
(2) the day of daggers: on 28 February 1791, hundreds of nobles with concealed weapons (mostly knives and daggers) gathered in front of the Tuileries palace, where the king resided back then, to defend and show their support to Louis XVI. However, the king and his guards misinterpreted their intentions and thought they came to take away the French ruler from the palace. The nobles ended up humiliated by the guards and expelled with their weapons confiscated. As a result to this incident, Louis XVI lost the support of the aristocrats in Paris.
(3) the king's unsuccessful escape to Montmédy known also as "flight to Varennes": in the night between 21-22 June 1791, the king decided to flee Paris with his family to join the last of his loyal troops and officers in Montmédy, where he was supposed to initiate a counter revolution. The escape was terribly planned and the royal family was caught at Varennes a little while after. This is considered as a major blow to the King's reputation as his failed escape confirmed the public theory of Louis XVI conspiring against the people's will. Some even went further, suggesting if the king had made it to Montmédy, the revolution would had been nipped in the bud. Whether that is true or not, nobody can tell for sure.