Little is known of the early childhood of Louis-Auguste, Duke of Berry, and future King Louis XVI of France.  The chroniclers write about the older children, but rarely of him.  The few times that he is mentioned, the anecdotes supposedly about him are, in fact, often about another family member.

However, one trait is constant.  Everyone agrees about his physical and moral deficiency.  Abbot Proyart speaks of his “weak and valetudinary temperament” and other historians call him a “placid child”, “not precocious”, “who still needs at the age of three to be guided in his tottering walk”.  But there are attenuating circumstances.  His first nurse had great difficulty in suckling him.  As for the Countess de Marsan, who was in charge of the education of the Children of France, she was in no better health:  “The state of her chest gave fear for her life, and she could live only with a little milk”, reports the Duke de Luynes.

The 16 March 1756, when he was weaned, the twenty-month-old child had trouble getting through this difficult time.  His loss of weight worried the doctors and King Louis XV asked for the visit of Mr Tronchin, an illustrious Swiss doctor who was passing through France.  The child was sent to take the air on the heights of Meudon.  The Prince’s state rapidly improved, but his weaning would remain engraved in the memory of the young boy.

On top of this, the Duke of Berry’s nurses hardly marked his affective memory.  It must be said that he wasn’t the one who occupied the highest rank.  The Duke of Burgundy – presumed heir to the throne – carried all the votes.  As for the Count de Provence, he was the Countess de Marsan’s favourite.  Pierrette Girault de Coursac notes with humour:

“They were ecstatic about the Duke of Burgundy, they spoiled the Count of Provence, they took care of the Duke of Berry’s needs.”

The Prince greatly suffered from the pre-eminence of his brothers, especially that of the Duke of Burgundy.  Right from his birth, the Duke had been welcomed as the “son of reconciliation” – the child of new-found harmony.  He was given the conjoined names of his parents at his Christening.  Right from the start, he drew every gaze, this Prince “beautiful as the day” and everyone praised this superman, who seemed endowed with precocious genius in the most diverse domains.

He loves the art of wielding arms.  The capacity of his memory seems limitless.  He excels in geometry and mathematics.  The Gazette de Versailles waxes ecstatic about his capacity for finding practical applications for these disciplines.

“He has perfected an art of which he is the inventor:  it is that of making little batons with rolled paper.  After having exercised himself for some time in this new art, the Prince was at last able to make a paper baton which was very hard and very regular.  It is believed that this baton will be deposited in the archives of the crown, as witness to the talents of the Prince, and to his application to useful things.”

It was also hoped that the Prince would attach himself to love and defend the fine arts.  He had given a few marks of distinction in this direction.

“As he has neither chalk nor sand, he composes a mortar himself in his hand with dust and saliva.”

The Duke of Burgundy seems full of all of the graces.  Everyone admires him.  Not only his parents, King Louis XV, and his educator Mr. le Comte de La Vauguyon, but the whole court.  His every gesture is applauded.  His replies, his wit, even his impertinence.  Mr de La Vauguyon reports the following anecdote, which delighted his entourage.  His preceptor, a Church gentleman of high rank, shows his pupil an illustrated Bible.  The Duke of Burgundy, seeing a naked character, exlaims:  “Cover this figure, it isn’t decent.”

The child already sees himself on the throne of France and is preparing the image he wants to give of himself to his future subjects.  An irreproachable, uncontestable, unattackable image.

“I am the master here.  […]  Why wasn’t I born God?”

he complains one day to the officer who was guarding him.

“I will subjugate England.  I will take the King of Prussia prisoner.  I will do everything I want.”

As for the Duke of Berry, everyone seems to forget about him.  A simple anecdote is sufficient to show this.  One day, during a party given in honour of the little princes, each person has to give a gift to the person he cherishes the most.  Everyone is covered in gifts… except the Prince of Berry, whose hands remain empty.  When the game designates his gift, he refuses to give it.  And when he is reproached for not respecting the rules of the game, he bravely answers:

“I know that no-one loves me;  I love no-one either, and I believe myself to be dispensed from giving presents.”

To be continued.

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