Catherine Delors

Mistress of the Revolution

London, this 25th of January 1815.

I read this morning in the papers that the corpses of the late King and Queen of France, by order of their brother, the restored Louis the Eighteenth, were exhumed from their grave in the former graveyard of La Madeleine, which has since become a private garden. The remains were removed with royal honours to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, the resting place of the Kings and Queens of France for twelve centuries.

Queen Marie-Antoinette was found soon after the workmen began digging, and the remains of King Louis the Sixteenth were located the next day. A search for the bones of the King’s youngest sister, Madame Elisabeth, was also conducted at the cemetery of Les Errancis. The guillotine had filled La Madeleine by the spring of 1794, and the authorities had opened the new graveyard to accommodate its increasing output. That second investigation was unsuccessful. While the King and Queen had each been granted an individual execution and a coffin, Madame Elisabeth had been guillotined towards the end of the Terror as one in a cart of twenty-five prisoners. The remains had been thrown together into a common grave. The bodies, as required by law, had been stripped of all clothing, which, along with their other property, was forfeited to the Nation upon the imposition of the death sentence. Any identification would have become impossible very soon after the burial. Nevertheless, I trust that God will overlook the lack of proper funeral rites, which were denied to many in those days.

Other victims of the guillotine, some of whom I knew and loved, also remain buried at La Madeleine and Les Errancis, royalists and revolutionaries alike, commingled for all eternity in their unmarked graves.

These tidings from Paris have affected my spirits today. I never cry any more, yet feel tears choking me. I know that I must not allow myself this indulgence, for it is far easier to keep from crying than to quit. Nevertheless, over twenty years have passed since the great Revolution, and it is time for me at last to exhume my own dead and attempt to revive them, however feebly, under my pen.

Some of the events related here are now known only to me, and possibly my daughter. I am not aware of the extent of her recollection, because, out of shyness or shame, or a desire not to acknowledge to each other the shared sorrows of the past, we have never talked about those things since our arrival in England in 1794. She was a child then, and may not have understood or remembered much of what she saw or heard. It causes me pain to recall those events, and still more to write about them, but secrecy has been a heavy burden.