Tradition had it that the kings and queens of France were buried in the cathedral of Saint-Denis in Paris. However, the tumultuous years of the French Revolution led not only to the end of the tradition but also resulted in the remains of the French monarchs being desecrated. Some were later returned to their final resting place but other were not. These are the fates of the mortal remains of the people who ruled France in the age of Versailles.
On the last day of July, 1793, it was decided to break into the tombs of the old kings and queens of France. The new republic was in dire need of cash and as it was assumed that royalty was buried with jewels, they were meant to pay for the party. There was a symbolic reason for the vandalism too. The tombs and their splendour represented an age of hierarchy which the revolution aimed to eradicate.
The coffins were opened on 15 October. Louis XIV, Anne of Austria as well as Marie Thérèse's graves were opened and the corpses stripped of any valuables. The following day - the day of Marie Antoinette's execution - saw the process repeated on the graves of Louis XV and Philippe d'Orléans (Louis XIV's brother).
The bodies themselves were not treated kindly either. A massive pit had been dug in the earth immediately outside the cathedral and the remains were tossed in there with abandon.
|Tomb of Louis XIV|
Before the revolution, the cathedral of Saint-Denis had been filled with bronze and copper statues of the former monarchs. These - alongside with the lead coffins - were melted down and transformed into bullets, cannons etc. A great deal of the extravagant tombs were likewise destroyed but for no particular practical reason.
Not everything in the tombs of Saint-Denis was destroyed. Some pieces of the dead were taken as "trophies" or souvenirs. Louis XIV's heart was stolen - legend has it that it was eaten by the extremely eccentric William Buckland, although it seems unlikely.
However, not all royals were buried at Saint-Denis. The recently executed Louis XVI's corpse had been sent to the cemetery of the Church of the Madeleine were it was buried without pomp. There was not much respect afforded to the former king either. He was not given a burial stone and his head was placed between his feet before the body was covered with a layer of lime. Marie Antoinette's remains suffered the same fate; she was taken to the same graveyard and buried without a marker.
Some of the Bourbons' bodies were not buried at Saint-Denis - instead, their hearts were. This is the case for Louis Ferdinand (son of Louis XV) whose body was laid to rest in the cathedral of Saint-Etienne in Sens. Marie Josèphe's body is also buried in that cathedral.
One particular member of the French royal family was never buried in a cathedral. Madame Élisabeth was buried in a mass grave at the Errancis Cemetery. When the Comte de Provence became king, he attempted to retrieve her body but none of those in the mass grave could be identified. Instead, their remains were taken to the infamous catacombs. Somewhere down there, is the remains of the sister of Louis XVI - perhaps as part of the elaborate decorations made up of skulls and bones.
The poor Louis XVIII's remains were never identified either. After his death at age 10, his body was quietly buried at the Sainte-Marguerite graveyard. However, his heart - following custom - was removed. The heart would be buried next to his parents in 2004. Yet, his body has not been recovered. Only a skull of a teenager was found in the area where he was buried which could not be his.
|Grave markers of Louis XVI and Marie|
By 1815, the Bourbons once again sat on the throne. It was therefore decreed that the remains should be excavated from the mass grave and restored to the sanctity of the cathedral. However, the remains had been handled so roughly and had deteriorated so much, that they could not be identified. It must be remembered that even the well-conserved body of Louis XIV was without the protective environment it had enjoyed in the tomb. The remains were instead placed in an ossuary.
That same year, the bodies of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were added to the ossuary and given a proper burial.