Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Series of Deaths 1711-12

A genuine tragedy hit the French house of Bourbon between 1711 and 1712 when no less than four members of the family suddenly died - to make it even worse they were at the top of the succession. It was all due to one of the most dreaded and untreatable illnesses in Europe at the time: smallpox.

Louis le Grand Dauphin
It all began in April 1711 when Louis, le Grand Dauphin (son of the reigning Louis XIV) suddenly contracted smallpox at the Château de Meudon and died. This made his son, the Duc de Bougogne, Dauphin and all seemed manageable again. But while the court was heading towards Fontainebleau the new Dauphine Marie Adélaïde became feverish and soon the dreaded diagnose was declared: smallpox. The Dauphine was immediately bled (it was the common way of "healing" illnesses) and given emetics but little did it help. She died on 23 February 1712 at just 26 years old.

The Duc de Bougogne had genuinely loved his wife and was devastated at her death. By now the fear of infection (it was almost impossible not to catch it given the hygiene) had spread and the court hastily moved on to the Château de Marly. But the worst had already occurred and the Duc de Bougogne also fell ill with smallpox. He had contracted the illness because he refused to leave his wife's side in her last moments and was now to pay the ultimate price. Now he himself was the patient and just six days later he would also be dead. The couple was buried together at the Basilisk de Saint Denis.

The now dead Duc de Bougogne and Marie Adélaïde had two sons: the Duc de Bretagne (Brittany) and the Duc d'Anjou. The epidemic was not over yet. Both boys were baptised immediately for fear that they may die before having been accepted into the realm of God. And once more the worst fears of the court were confirmed: both boys had contracted the illness. The eldest son - and recently declared Dauphin of France - the Duc de Bretagne was bled but in vain. He died on 8 March 1712 just a month after his parents. Now there was only the infant the Duc d'Anjou left. What on earth was that saved this little boy from sharing the same fate of his family?

Mignard - Madame de Ventadour.jpg
Madame de Ventadour
The question is not what but who. The Duc d'Anjou - or Dauphin as he would now be known - was under the care of Madame de Ventadour. When it was discovered that the young siblings shared the decease of their parents she did not hesitate and isolated the young boy in her chambers. She would nurse him herself  alongside three other nurses and even forbade the doctors to bleed him when they had rushed to "save" the life of the heir to the throne. Thanks to Madame de Ventadour's sharp instinct the little Duc d'Anjou survived the smallpox epidemic that had claimed the life of his entire close family. He would live on to become Louis XV - all because of his governess.

And if you wonder what happened to Madame de Ventadour, she continued as the young Dauphin's governess till 1717.

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