|Vigee-Lebrun, Elisabeth-Louise. Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and her children. 1787 Oil on canvas. Versailles.|
Widely discussed, researched, and studied over a 200 year period, Marie Antoinette's story is fascinating and sad: victims of a violent revolution, all the family but her daughter died as a result. Now, author Evelyn Farr is bringing to light evidence that two of the queen's children were actually fathered by Count Axel von Fersen and not King Louis XVI.
|Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette and Tyrone Power as Count Axel von Fersen in Marie Antoinette|
"Based on her research, Farr says she has compelling evidence that Marie-Antoinette's son Louis Charles and daughter Princess Sophie – both of whom were thought to be the children of Louis XVI – were in fact fathered by Fersen. "¹
Having recently finished watching Making a Murderer on Netflix my first reaction to this story was - "What about the DNA testing!?"
|Hans Axel von Fersen, portrait by an unknown artist; in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm|
Fersen was known to be a royalist and close friend of the queen. Farr's book provides a fresh look at how close they were by "decoding secret messages and blacked out passages" in their letters. As a result of the language used in the letters, she believes Louis Charles was born of this love affair.² Her book, I Love You Madly, will be published in August 2016.
|Alexander Kucharsky. Portrait of Dauphin Louis Charles of France (1785-1795). 1792, oil on canvas. Palace of Versailles.|
What is intriguing is that through all these years, the heart of Louis Charles survived. The story of this little boy's heart is so fantastic, DNA testing would surely settle many questions. Let's take a look at the history of this royal organ!
|"Chevalier Philippe Jean Pelletan." Library of the National Academy of Medicine. Accessed January 08, 2016. http://bibliotheque.academie-medecine.fr/membres/membre/?mbreid=2820.|
Louis Charles died when he was just ten years old and the physician who performed his autopsy, Philippe-Jean Pelletan, removed his heart as was tradition with royalty. He kept it in a jar of distilled wine alcohol, until one of his students swiped it for himself.³
As you can imagine, it was a rather interesting object. This student admitted his theft when he died and his wife kindly returned it to Pelletan's family. The family then sent it on to the Archbishop of Paris. From here the heart was kept in a crystal urn at the Archbishop's palace.⁴
The heart remained in the crystal urn until the revolution of 1830. In just seven hours the palace was sacked, and it was said that "it was entirely spoiled and gutted; nothing remained but the walls."⁵ Pelletan's son stepped in at this time, and going through the rubble, retrieved the heart (!). He sent it off to the Bourbon family in Spain, who was later to return it to Paris again, where it was finally left in the royal crypt at Saint Denis.
The heart was tested as several people claimed to have been Louis Charles after his death at 10 years old. Even John James Audubon was thought to have possibly been Louis Charles, as he grew up in France and was adopted at the age of 10. Several other persons claimed the same. A piece of the aorta and heart muscle were taken from the heart and sent to two labs for testing.
"The study focused on DNA from the mitochondria, the organelle responsible for
Mitochondrial DNA originates from the egg, so the study could only determine the maternal relationships."⁴
Well there we have it. Even though the mtDNA was tested, the test could not look for DNA from the paternal side.
"The results of the mtDNA analysis of the heart show that the heart mtDNA D-loop sequence and the sequence of maternal relatives of Louis XVII are identical. The mtDNA evidence provides strong evidence to support the proposition that the heart was that of Louis XVII."³
More on the testing...
"Mitochondrial DNA data from Marie-Antionette's family had already been collected from the Naundorff study in the Netherlands. These sequences were from hair from Marie-Antoinette and her two sisters, Johanna Gabriela and Mada-Josepha, and two living relatives, the Queen of Romania and her brother, Andre. The Center for Human Genetics found that the mitochondrial DNA from the heart of the putative Louis Charles varied from a standard in five nucleotide locations and these variations are identical to the variations found in the mitochondrial DNA sequences of Marie-Antoinette and all of her relatives. The laboratory in Germany found the same variations at four of the locations, but could not retrieve data from the fifth location because the DNA was degraded. The conclusion of both laboratories was that the boy who died in prison in 1795 was related to Marie-Antoinette and most likely was Louis Charles."⁴
A gourd emblazoned with heroes of the French Revolution said to contain the blood of Louis XVI. Credit: Davide Pettenervia LiveScience
Could the DNA which is most likely from Louis Charles be compared to that from Louis XVI? Maybe.
In 2012 forensic scientists tested genetic material (blood) that had been kept in a gourd. The blood was said to be that of Louis XVI. A conclusion was drawn up that the DNA tested most likely is that of Louis XVI. Two years later this was questioned and doubts were raised about the possibility of that blood being of the last French King.⁶ So perhaps in the future further tests will be able to show parentage of Louis Charles?
Or maybe not!
¹Perry, Simon. "Royal Scandal! Marie Antoinette's Secret Love Children Revealed in Newly Discovered Letters." People.com. January 07, 2016. Accessed January 08, 2016. http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20395222_20978189,00.html.
²Friedman, Megan. "A New Book Unveils Marie Antoinette's Scandalous Love Letters." Harper's BAZAAR. January 08, 2016. Accessed January 12, 2016. http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/art-books-music/news/a13623/marie-antoinette-count-fersen-love-letters/.
³Jehaes, Els, Heidi Pfeiffer, Kaan Toprak, Ronny Decorte, Bernd Brinkmann, and Jean-Jacques Cassiman. "Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Putative Heart of Louis XVII, Son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette." European Journal of Human Genetics : EJHG 9, no. 3 (03, 2001): 185-90. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejhg.5200602. http://search.proquest.com/docview/217837568?accountid=13645.
⁴"Identification of the Son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette." World of Forensic Science. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (January 8, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3448300300.html
⁵Raikes, Thomas. France, since 1830. Vol. 1. London: T. and W. Boone, 1841. 113.
⁶Le Roux, Mariette. "Bloody Souvenir Not from Decapitated French King: DNA." Phys.org. April 24, 2014. Accessed January 12, 2016. http://phys.org/news/2014-04-bloody-souvenir-decapitated-french-king.html.