Thursday, 5 September 2019

The Weight of the Crown: Bourbon Obesity

Living like kings necessarily means eating like kings which is never beneficial in the long run. The Bourbons certainly had a taste for good dining but a good deal of them suffered the consequences. Several of the main personages of the dynasty at Versailles were overweight - some to a disturbing degree.

Some of the children of Louis XV were afflicted by issues with their weight. Madame Victoire had been quite a slender, young woman but over the years, her weight escalated. Her over-indulgence in food became so bad that she went to take the waters in Lorraine with her sister, Madame Adéläide in 1761 for "over-consumption of food". Their father even nicknamed her "sow"; Louis XV had several odd nicknames for his daughters none of which sound very flattering today.

The king's only son, Louis Ferdinand, was also said to be on the plump side. It was only towards the end of his life, in 1762, that he lost weight. However, this was not due to a sudden change of lifestyle - he was dying from tuberculosis.

Jean-Marc Nattier, Madame Victoire de France (1748).jpg
Madame Victoire

The children of Louis Ferdinand and Marie Josèphe of Saxony appears to have been particularly inclined towards obesity.

Louis Stanislas Xavier, Comte de Provence quickly gained weight in his early teens. At the age of 16, when he married Marie Josèphine of Savoy, he was so large that he had to waddle rather than walk. Nevertheless, he would still indulge in his passion for the dining table. It was not just at Versailles that Louis Stanislas would enjoy the best French cuisine. When he travelled throughout France, his wife complained that he became "fat as a barrel". Unlike his brothers, Louis Stanislas could not partake in the favourite exercise of his family: hunting. The Comte de Provence suffered from some sort of deformity, he could not ride on horseback and found no other exercise. His weight and handicap almost certainly contributed to his marriage remaining without children and that it took a while before it was consummated.

Louis XVI himself had issues with his weight. Although he was not as obese as revolutionary propaganda would later claim, he was said to have had a pot-belly by the age of twenty. It is likely that he would have been larger if he had not been such an avid horseman. Another factor in keeping his weight down could have been his wife, Marie Antoinette. She allegedly advised him to indulge less in his fondness for sweets and he did comply - to some extent.

Louis Stanislas

Their sister, Clothilde, also gained a considerable frame which prompted several crude jokes. She was generally referred to as "Gros-Clothilde" or Fat Clothilde. Madame Campan relates an anecdote in which a young Clothilde was called that (to her face) by a playmate who promptly received a scolding from the princesse's governess. However, Clothilde does not seem to have taken it too much to heart because she sent her friend a note forgiving the indiscretion.
When she was betrothed to the heir to the Sardinian throne, Charles Emmanuel, it was viciously whispered in the corridors of Versailles that he had gotten two brides rather than one. As for her future father-in-law, he was concerned that her weight might prevent her from carrying children - this alone shows that she must have been considerably over-weight. To his credit, Charles Emmanuel merely stated that he had been given "more to love". It is disconcerting that Clothilde already had such a heavy frame especially considering that she was just 14 years old.

Lady Antonia Fraiser (whose book on Marie Antoinette I heartily recommend) considers whether the Bourbon branch was inflicted by a glandular issue. It could certainly be the case - especially when the physiques of relatives to the Comte de Provence, Louis XVI and Madame Clothilde are considered. It should also be kept in mind that few people were in a position to (or brave enough) to keep the royal children from over-eating.

Drouais - Clotilde of France - Versailles MV 3972.jpg
Madame Clothilde

The dinner tables of Versailles certainly did not make it easy to resist temptation. Diverse dishes were served for the royal family although it is a mistake to believe that they ate all of it - often they would taste bits and pieces of the various dishes rather than consume everything. That being said, the Bourbon kings were notorious for eating enormous amounts of food.

Naturally, not every member of the Bourbon dynasty were over-weight. Louis XV - for one - kept a slender figure throughout his life, as did his grandson, the Comte d'Artois. The latter is interesting considering that three of his siblings suffered from issues with their weight. Likewise, Madame Élisabeth does not appear to have been plagued by weight issues much like her aunts Madame Adélaïde, Madame Louise and Madame Sophie.

1 comment: