Birth of Louis XVI of France

Louis XVI was born on August 23rd, 1754, in the palace of Versailles.

The baby was born at 6.24am in his parents’ apartments on the ground floor of the palace of Versailles after three hours of labour. The fashionable obstetrician Dr Jard had been summoned and a message sent to the baby’s grandfather, King Louis XV, who was at Choisy. Authoritative witnesses at a royal birth were essential, to forestall cynical whispers later, and the Chancellor and the Keeper of the Seals were both present. The new arrival was promptly baptised Louis-Auguste by the royal chaplain on duty and the king came riding in hotfoot from Choisy to see his new grandson and his daughter-in-law, of whom he was very fond. The King promptly created the baby Duc de Berry. Word was sent to Paris, where a few cannon boomed and bells rang for a bit and in the evening there was a brief fireworks display in the Place d’Armes.

No great fuss was made because there was no reason to suppose that Louis-Auguste would ever be king. He was the third son of the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand and his second wife, Marie-Josèphe of Saxony. The eldest son, the Duc de Bourgogne, was three. The second, the Duc d’Aquitaine, would die soon, before his first birthday. Two younger brothers would come along presently: the Comte de Provence (the future Louis XVIII) and the Comte d’Artois (Charles X) in 1755 and 1757. The Dauphin, who was of a deeply religious turn of mind, gave his new son the name Louis-Auguste in memory of the sainted King Louis XII and the little boy grew up constantly being told to emulate his godly ancestor.

The new baby had troubles from the start. His wet nurse had no milk, but it was difficult to get her replaced because she was sleeping with the minister in charge of the royal household, the only person authorised to dismiss her. Short-sighted and consumptive in his early years, Louis-Auguste was the odd one out in the family. He looked different from his brothers. He inherited his fair complexion and bulging blue eyes from his Saxon mother and he had heavy eyebrows and hooded eyelids, and a weightiness and clumsiness about him. Bourgogne was boisterous and bossy, Provence was lively and amusing and Artois had charm and good looks. Berry was slow and introspective. Timid and evasive, he spent his time dancing attendance on the assertive Bourgogne, who cheated him when they played cards.

The Dauphin and Dauphine were extremely close and in fourteen years of marriage she bore him eight children and miscarried eleven times. The Dauphin took pains with the education of his sons, who had an array of tutors for scripture, Latin, mathematics and physics, history and geography, fencing and dancing. Young Berry was taught metalwork, which he loved, and carpentry, which he did not. Specially written plays were put on for the princes, but they were so full of moralising that they gave Louis-Auguste a lasting distaste for the theatre. The children were steered clear of the Enlightenment ideas of leading French intellectuals, that would help to kill Louis-Auguste in the end.

Bourgogne died from tuberculosis at the age of ten in 1761. He had been the hope of the family and his parents never recovered from his loss. It was difficult to think of Louis-Auguste as an acceptable substitute. Then the Dauphin was struck with the same complaint. He bore his approaching demise with stoic calm and took the opportunity to point out to his children that princes are subject to disease and death like everyone else. He was given the last rites of the Church in the presence of his entire family, the court and foreign ambassadors, and died at the end of 1765, when Louis-Auguste was eleven. Two years later Louis-Auguste wrote laconically in his diary: ‘Death of my mother at eight in the evening’.

Louis-Auguste was now Dauphin. At fifteen he married the vivacious Marie-Antoinette of Austria, who could hardly have been less like him. There had to be an operation before he could consummate the union. He was nineteen when he succeeded his grandfather on the throne in 1774 and half his life was over. He would be thirty-eight in 1793 when he kept his appointment with Madame la Guillotine.