Apart from a few amusements, the princes’ time is mostly consecrated to study. The future Louis XVI, Duke of Berry, in the company of his two younger brothers – the Counts of Provence and of Artois – continues his apprenticeship with Mme de Marsan. This lady, ruled by the “devotion party”, firmly defends the cause of traditional monarchy and religion. She dismisses all of the new ideas, especially those of the opposition faction, devoted to the cause of Philosophy.
This strict and authoritative education, that Pierrette Girault de Coursac qualifies as “an almost hypnotic conditioning” deeply leaves its mark on the still malleable child. Copying his governess, he repeats and engraves in his memory the principles which apply to a person of his rank, like a page from the Catechism:
“A prince is truly in God’s image, when he is just and when he reigns only to make virtue rule. […] The prince is established by God to be the model of all virtues to others. […] You are absolutely equal by nature to other men and consequently you should be sensitive to all of the troubles and all of the miseries of humanity. […] A prince should only divert and amuse himself after having exactly acquitted himself of his duties, and only for the time necessary to relax his mind, strengthen his body and take care of his health. […] Son of Saint Louis, be like your father; imitate his faith, his zeal for religion. Be holy, just and good like him. […] A throne cannot be overthrown when its foundation is reason and justice, when all that is bad is punished and all that is good is rewarded.”
Such a programme seems to plan long years of study; but a brutal change will interrupt the course of this teaching. The 8 September 1760, doctors and surgeons penetrate the child’s chamber. They examine him attentively and declare to his mother that he is in good health. Louis-Auguste quickly understands the significance of this impromptu visit: he is going to have to leave his governesses to “pass to the men”. He is only six years old, instead of the reglementary seven for this initiatic passage.
The upset caused to such a young child by this rupture can be imagined. However, the Duke of Berry consoles himself rapidly. He is going to join his elder brother, who had been entrusted to Mr de La Vauguyon in June 1758. And this perspective, in spite of the rivalry which opposes the two princes, delights him.
The Duke of Burgundy is just as happy to see his little brother whom he has seen so little over the last two years. He will again be able to exercise his authority over his younger brother and perfect his education. It is even said that one day he calls him to make him listen – in the presence of their governors – to the list of his own qualities and faults, scrupulously written down in a book. This exercise was supposed to be an example to him… as well as a counter-example. “This will do you good”, proclaims solemnly the Duke of Burgundy, aged nine. The Duke of Berry accepts without a blink these authoritive methods and rarely rebels against his brother to whom he devotes a faultless respect.
But fraternal friendship is not the only reason for this submission. If the two brothers have been prematurely put together, it is because a new tragedy hovers over the family… and the young prince is supposed to be a diversion. For the last few months, the Duke of Burgundy has been showing strange symptoms. At first, it was believed that he had an abcess on his hip, due to a fall he had made while playing with his cardboard horse. A first operation had only made it worse. General de Fontenay writes on 27 April these few words to the Dauphine’s brother:
“My Lord, I am very mortified to have only bad news to send you on the health of a nephew who is dear to you, and who is not less dear to the most tender sister and to a brother-in-law who answers so cordially to your friendship. His state, from day to day, is becoming very unfortunate; he is becoming feeble, his wound is of a colour which is worrying, and the pus is of a very bad quality. He has been put on goat’s milk recently for his only food. The doctors’ reports confirm My Lord the Dauphin and My Lady the Dauphine in the hope of his recovery, but the most gifted surgeons think very differently. It is not known how to prepare this august couple for an event which would pierce their hearts.”
From this moment, the roles are inverted. The Duke of Berry is no longer the little prince of second order. Promised to the throne, he finds himself projected to the front of the stage. Those who yesterday murmured about him, come to visit him, overflowing with civility. At the same time, the ranks around the Duke of Burgundy become thinner. People try to oppose the two brothers, to accentuate their rivalry. One day, The Duke of Burgundy is even asked if, like Esau, he wouldn’t exchange his birthright for the good health of his brother. He replies firmly: “No, never, even if I must remain in bed all my life in the state in which I am.”
The Duke of Berry could have then profited from the occasion to display his qualities. But he didn’t. He remained very attached to his brother and later… very much later, he will give the Christian names of the Duke of Burgundy to his eldest son.
It is true that, throughout all of his suffering, the prince had to be admired. To his preceptor who asked him if he regretted life, the child answered: “I admit that I am losing it unwillingly, but I have made the sacrifice of it to God for a long time.” This courageous manner of affronting death will deeply mark the memory of the Duke of Berry. As for the Count of Provence, he will particularly remember the atrocious sufferings which gradually consume the dying boy. It has to be admitted that his little body laminated with ulcers, shaken by an incessant cough, composes a dark picture…
To be continued.