One day, on the pretext that the Duke of Berry, future King Louis XVI, has not been assiduous enough in his studies, his father, the Dauphin, decides to punish him by depriving him of the Great Hunt of Saint Hubert, a sacred ritual in the royal family’s calendar. The Dauphin’s entourage try to have the punishment attenuated, without success. This punishment, inflicted while the Dauphin is already confined to bed, is however, the last he will give.
The 19 October, 1765, the Children of France are advised to prepare themselves for the death of their father. The Duke of Berry is unable to hold back his tears. Marie-Josephe of Saxe writes:
“In the conversation, the Dauphin says to the Duke of Berry: “Well, my son, did you really think that I only had a cold?” Then, laughing, and joking about it, he added: “Doubtless, when you learned of my state of health, you said to yourself: good, he won’t prevent me from going hunting any more!” “
So this last punishment remained engraved in the affective memory of this very sensitive child, and is singularly intertwined with this new tragedy. A remorseless malediction seems to weigh down this young life, punctuated with miseries and sufferings. He could repeat one of the last sentences of his father, which still resounds in his memory: “I wish all sorts of happiness and benedictions for my children”, reasonably, he is unable to believe it.
For his mother, it is also a fatal blow. The idea of death attacking the royal family becomes an obsession for her. Living in its constant company, she starts to call it to her, and ardently desire it. She installs around her, black draperies and a copy of the funeral monument erected for her husband… this tomb which seems to her “more beautiful than all the palaces of the universe”. Jean-Francois Chiappe comments:
“Louis-Auguste, having lost his father, has a living corpse for a mother”.
She devotes her days to prayers and pious readings, inciting her children to spend their time in study and prayer. She refuses all distractions and dresses austerely to make “her face as clear as her soul”. In a highly symbolic gesture, she cuts her hair.
Once again, the new Dauphin has to assume the role of scapegoat. The 31 March 1766, Easter Day, he occupies his father’s place at the church service, following the Mass for the first time as the second highest-ranking person in the kingdom. This is another “dagger blow” for the widow, for which she blames the innocent boy. Later, she will reproach him for not having spoken to her enough about the dead man – while accusing her father-in-law, Louis XV, of reminding her of him with too much insistence by his frequent visits.
Mr de La Vauguyon seizes on this painful event to present his pupil with a new example to follow in his Recueil abrege des vertus de Monseigneur le dauphin. At his pressing invitation, the Duke of Berry plunges again into the horrors of illness and suffering. From then on, his governor will profit from every occasion to revive his pain, like a fire that is stirred to stop it from going out. One of these moments is the Requiem Mass sung for the repose of the dead man’s soul, accompanied by a funeral prayer which furnished a timely reminder of moral edification.
“The sad ceremony which you have just attended has renewed all your pain: my eyes bathed in tears, saw yours flow. We have therefore rendered our last duties to Mr le Dauphin… He deigned to honour me with his friendship and his confidence, he gave me the greatest proof of that in charging me to take his place at your side and teach you to become worthy of him… How many times did he say to me: “Will my son know that, raised above other men, he remains, himself, a man?” “
It is therefore in this austere climate, encumbered by phantoms and spectres, that the prince’s childhood will continue. Illnesses, deaths and sufferings one after the other. The 23 February 1766, his great-grandfather – King Stanislas of Poland – succumbs from an atrocious accident. After having revived the fire in his hearth, he approached it to warm himself. But his clothes took fire and the poor man, screaming in pain, fell into the grate. Before his death, he was able to leave a few precious words of advice to his great-grandson, commenting a work of Machiavelli in a prophetic tone:
“Of all the bad things which can happen to a nation, there are none for which attention to preventing them is not a remedy […]. But there are some bad things, according to a famous politician, like illnesses of langour and consumption, at first easy to cure and difficult to recognize, and as they progress, very easy to recognize and very difficult to cure. There is no doubt that a prudent wisdom, which sees the unhappy things of State at an early stage, can easily prevent them from coming to a head. But, if they haven’t been seen, and they explode and you are unable to discover the cause or the nature of them, then it is almost impossible to stop their course…”
To be continued.