The gruesome death of Louis, le Grand Dauphin

In the last years of his reign, Louis XIV had to witness the demise of a lot of his family members. The one of his only son, the person supposed to become King as Louis XV after him, was particularly awful.

 

Detail of The family of the Grand Dauphin showing Louis de France by Mignard

On April 8 in 1711, Wednesday in Easter week, Monseigneur, as the Dauphin was called, left the château de Versailles for his own residence, the chateau de Meudon. He was in company of his daughter-in-law Marie-Adélaïde de Savoie, Duchesse de Bourgogne, wife of the Dauphin’s eldest son and granddaughter of Monsieur. On the way, at Chaville, they spotted a priest carrying the sacrament to a sick person. Being good Catholics, they left the carriage and knelt down to adore. Upon rising, the Dauphin inquired what malady the sick person suffered of and was told it was a man with smallpox.

Hearing this, the Dauphin at once got a little queasy. He had smallpox as a child, at least that is what the doctors had diagnosed, but he always doubted it indeed was so. Since the malady that troubled him back then was in such a mild form, nobody was quite sure. Monseigneur had always been quite worried he might once fall victim to smallpox, because his childhood malady might have been something different.

The meeting with the priest left quite the impression on him and the same evening, as he spoke with Monsieur Boudin, his physician, the Dauphin said it would not surprise him at all if he were to fall ill with smallpox now.

On the morning of the next day, April 9, all seemed fine however. The Dauphin rose as usual, planning to go wolf-hunting, but as he was dressing a sudden dizzy feeling and weakness hit him. He fell back on the chair from which he just had risen.

Monsieur Boudin rushed to Monseigneur and put him swiftly into bed. The Dauphin’s pulse was felt by the physician and gave reason for alarm. Boudin sent word to Fagon, physician to the King, at once and Monsieur Fagon informed Louis XIV afterwards. However, Fagon assured the King that it was nothing serious or to worry about. Just a passing feeling of weakness, as one has occasionally, and which vanishes after a few hours. Thus Louis XIV did not travel to Meudon to see his son that afternoon and drove to Marly instead.

The Duc de Bourgogne, assured it was nothing serious as well, nevertheless travelled to Meudon, with his wife, to spent the day at the bedside of his father. Both left at nightfall, to be at Marly in time for the King’s supper. There, the Duc de Bourgogne informed his grandfather the situation was a bit more serious than the Messieurs Doctors claimed. Louis XIV was quite shocked by the account of the Dauphin’s condition he was given that evening and travelled to Meudon the following morning. Willed to remain there until his son had recovered. He also forbade the Duc de Bourgogne and his younger brother the Duc de Berry, along with their wives, to visit their father, for fear the illness might be contagious. Only the members of court and the royal family who already had smallpox were allowed to enter the sick chamber in order to pay their respects.

 

Meudon, as it looked in 1710.

 

Upon his arrival at Meudon, the King found his daughters, the Princesse de Conti and the Duchesse de Bourbon, along with Mademoiselle de Lislebonne and Madame d’Espinoy already present and allowed them to stay to function as nurses. The King took his meals with them and was joined by Madame de Maintenon.

The disease was soon identified to be indeed smallpox, but the doctors did not consider it a threat for the Dauphin’s life, taking into account the patient was otherwise very healthy, strong and a man of fifty. Louis XIV, lodging in rooms above those of his soon, carried on to do business as usual. He visited his son several times a day, held his councils and worked with his ministers. On April 13, he drove to Marly in the afternoon for some fresh air and a chat with the Duchesse de Bourgogne.

It was a constant coming and going at Meudon. People came to pay their respects, to see the King, to ask after the Dauphin, to chat and gossip. Pretty much unseen by everyone, Mademoiselle de Choin slipped in and out of the sick chamber. She only ever entered it when the king was not with his son. The Dauphin had married her in secret after the death of his wife, just like his father had married Madame de Maintenon. The latter hardly left her apartment. Louis XIV did not pay the decency visit to Mademoiselle de Choin, he believed Madame de Maintenon had done it on his behalf, but Madame de Maintenon only forwarded some polite excuses to Mademoiselle de Choin. Saying she hoped they would meet soon… while living only a few metres away from her.

Mademoiselle de Choin (vers 1690)
Mademoiselle de Choin

On April 14, it was believed Monseigneur was out of danger. He felt a little better. The same day, a deputation of herring-selling market-women from Paris arrived at Meudon. Just like in 1701, as the Dauphin fell ill, they came to pay their respects and were admitted into the sick chamber. They expressed their joy upon hearing the Dauphin felt better and promised to arrange for a Te Deum to be held in celebration. “It is not time yet, my poor girls” replied the Dauphin. He knew the whole thing was not yet over, and saw his condition a little bit more critical.

He took a turn for the worse only a few hours later, with his whole body and face swelling, his features becoming almost unrecognisable.

Fits of drowsiness followed. As the sun set over Meudon, Monseigneur’s condition became increasingly alarming. Monsieur Boudin proposed to Monsieur Fagon that maybe other physicians, from Paris, should be shown in order to give their opinion. Fagon was outraged such a thing was suggested and remained obstinately optimistic the Dauphin would recover. So much that Louis XIV was not even informed his son had taken a turn for the worse. The King was at supper. He had visited his son in the early afternoon and shed some tears upon seeing the state he was in, but had afterwards been ensured, yet again, there was no reason to worry. Thus sat down to sup.

In the meanwhile, the atmosphere was tense in the sick chamber. The physicians began to apply the grands remédes, sans effect, and panic spread in the room packed with servants and visitors. As it happened, coming to inquire after the latest news as every day, the cure of Meudon sauntered in. He understood the graveness of the situation at once and rushed to the bed of Monseigneur. He seized the hand of the Dauphin and took it into his own, speaking about God with him. Hardly able to speak anymore himself, Monseigneur uttered some sort of quick confession and received absolution from the cure. Just in time. Only minutes later, Monseigneur lost consciousness.

Hyacinthe Rigaud - Louis de France, Dauphin (1661-1711), dit le Grand Dauphin - Google Art Project.jpg
Le Grand Dauphin in 1688

Death came quickly. The King rose, still dazed, and left. Dry-eyed. Carriages to take him and the others away from Meudon had already been sent for as it was clear the Dauphin would die. On his way from his son’s rooms to the carriages, the King was stopped briefly by the officers of his deceased son. They threw themselves on their knees and begged him to have pity with them, for now without a master and place, they would die of hunger and their families with them. Louis took not much of a notice of all of that. Instead he went straight for the first carriage in sight…. which happened to be one of Monseigneur’s. He stopped and asked for a other carriage to be summoned. Once it was there, he entered with Madame de Maintenon, the Princesse de Conti and Madame la Duchesse de Bourbon. The latter screamed all the way to Marly.

Nobody thought of informing the Dauphin’s wife. Poor Mademoiselle de Choin was not present at the Dauphin’s bedside when it happened. She was in her attic rooms, hidden away as usual, and only was made aware of the Dauphin’s demise as the cries of despair echoed to her. Once the King had left, Mademoiselle de Lislebonne and Mademoiselle de Melun, her friends, ushered her to a carriage en route to Paris. Everyone left in quite the hurry, some even on foot, and Meudon turned oddly silent.

The King arrived at Marly, where his sudden return had not been expected, and found the place in darkness. There were no candles and also the keys to various rooms could not be located. Having just lost his son and heir, the King was parked in a antichambre, seated between wife and daughters, for over an hour. He wept freely then, observed by many. The room was swiftly packed with people who had not been present at Meudon and now sought to make themselves seen. Finally, the key to Madame de Maintenon‘s bedroom was found and Louis XIV retired there. Staying for another hour, before he went to bed at around four o’clock in the morning.

Meanwhile at Meudon, at strange atmosphere took over. The chateau itself was almost in complete darkness, while in the gardens the servants and officers made their rounds in torch-light, not quite sure what to do now. Some wandered aimlessly, others sought shelter in the side-buildings.

The only room with activity was the bedroom of the Dauphin. Tall candles had been placed around his bed, but the state of his body, despite open windows and doors, was such that the few monks and valets present to guard the corpse, were forced to withdraw to the terrace the rooms opened up to. The disfigured corpse of the man who was supposed to rule France after his father Louis XIV, was hastily put into a coffin the next day. Without being embalmed first as it was custom.

Due to the infectious state of the body, the funeral of Monseigneur was not a grand affair. The coffin of lead was placed into one of the royal carriages and brought to Saint-Denis, accompanied only by few people, to be lowered into the royal vault of the cathedral without ceremony.

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