Why you should care
Because there’s more than one Bourbon that matters.
Vanished Without a Trace: Our take on some of history’s enduring mysteries.
This begins, and ends, with a heart. In 1795 Dr. Philippe-Jean Pelletan, performing an autopsy on a 10-year-old boy, noted that the child had died of conditions related to tuberculosis. He then removed the heart, preserving and mummifying it, and the boy’s body was thrown into a mass grave. The muscular organ was all that was left of Louis-Charles Capet, the eldest son of France’s dethroned king.
The 1790s were not kind to the Bourbons, the French royal family. Louis XVI, Capet’s father, was embattled by revolutionary mobs and later by revolutionary governments, beginning in 1789. After an escape attempt in 1791, he and his family were put under house arrest in a Parisian palace; the king was stripped of his title a year later and put on trial. He was found guilty in 1793 and executed by guillotine, where crowds gathered to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood to boost their luck or simply collect a morbid souvenir. Ten months later, Louis’ widow, Marie Antoinette, lost her head too.
Many a blue-eyed, fair-haired adventurer suddenly found an overwhelming need to unburden himself and admit to his blue-blooded descent.
Deborah Cadbury in The Lost King of France
Louis Capet was never meant to be king. But when his older brother died of tuberculosis a few weeks before the revolution, Louis-Charles became the heir, or dauphin, of the French court, and the presumptive King Louis XVII when his father died. Louis Capet and his older sister — ineligible to rule according to France’s law because she was female — were taken away from their mother before her execution. Marie-Therese went to the care of an older relative, ultimately surviving the revolutionary period known as the Reign of Terror. But Louis Capet was locked up, reportedly beaten and kept in solitude for extended periods. Official reports say he died on June 8, 1795. His heart was put in a jar by Pelletan, but the heart soon disappeared from the doctor’s desk.
Rumors persisted about Louis Capet’s fate. Before Napoleon engineered a coup and seized power in 1799, “people were saying, ‘It doesn’t necessarily have to be the Bourbons who come back as long as we’ve got someone in charge,’” says William Doyle, emeritus professor of history at the University of Bristol. Political instability, and the power vacuum created by the death of some of the more powerful revolutionaries, left some nostalgic for the monarchy.
Just a few years later, a convict named Jean-Marie Hervagault won support by claiming to be the lost son of Louis XVI, with a complex story about escaping just a few days before Louis Capet reportedly died. After him, Mathurin Bruneau, the son of a cobbler, claimed to be the dauphin in a (failed) bid to get out of prison. “Many a blue-eyed, fair-haired adventurer suddenly found an overwhelming need to unburden himself and admit to his blue-blooded descent,” writes Deborah Cadbury in her book The Lost King of France. Eleazer Williams, half Native American, claimed he was the rightful king — but that he would abdicate for a hefty settlement. None of these aspiring royals gained much traction because they weren’t very convincing, and because France had inaugurated Louis XVIII, Louis XVI’s younger brother, who was in no mood to give up his throne to a long-lost nephew.
By 1824, however, Louis XVIII was ill, and a new pretender started getting attention: Baron de Richemont. By the late 1820s, he was bombarding the public and aristocracy with appeals to recognize his claims of having been smuggled out of prison before Louis Capet’s alleged death and hidden away for his own safety. He penned his own memoirs, and when he died in 1853, his death certificate and tombstone identified him as Louis-Charles of France. Another, named Karl Naundorff, died in 1845, leaving behind a family who wholeheartedly believed his claim to the throne (a contingent still believes Naundorff was the rightful king) and a tombstone reading: “Here lies Louis XVII, King of France and Navarre.” But after World War II, his body was exhumed and examined by scientists, who concluded that he wasn’t the rightful heir — much to the chagrin of his loyalists, who say the evidence was flawed.
In the end, the heart was key. It had disappeared when one of Pelletan’s students pilfered it. But it was returned years later, and Pelletan donated it to the archbishop of Paris. The heart spent the war in Madrid and returned to France in 1975. DNA results in 2000 made it official: The heart belonged to Marie Antoinette’s son. Four years later, it was re-interred at Saint-Denis and finally consigned to history, alongside the rest of France’s royal family.