Louis XVII was the second son of King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette.

As the son of the king, he was a Fils de France (Son of France).

His older brother, Louis Joseph, died in June 1789, just a few weeks before the start of the French Revolution – leaving Louis XVII as Dauphin, or Crown Prince.

Early Life

Louis Charles de France was born at the Palace of Versailles, the second son and third child of his parents.

An intimate friend of the Queen, Yolande de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac, was appointed Governess to the Royal Children, Madame Royale, Louis-Joseph, Dauphin of France and the young Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy (the future Louis XVII).

On the death of his elder brother Louis-Joseph, in June 1789, Agathe de Rambaud was chosen by the queen to be the Berceuse des Enfants de France (Royal Governess) of the Duke of Normandy – who became the new Dauphin.

Madame de Rambaud was officially in charge of the care of the Dauphin from the day of his birth until 10 August 1792 – a period of seven years.

After this time, the queen’s friend, the marquise Louise Élisabeth de Tourzel, was the last governess to the children of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Troubled Times

On 6 October 1789 – at the height of the French Revolution – the royal family was forced to move from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where they spent the next two years.

On 21 June 1791, they tried to escape from the revolution in secrecy – but the attempt failed, and they were moved back to Paris. When the Tuileries were stormed by an armed mob on 10 August 1792 the royal family sought refuge at the Legislative Assembly.

On 13 August, the royal family was imprisoned in the tower of the Temple. At first their conditions were not extremely harsh. But they were prisoners, and were re-styled as “Capets” by the new-born Republic.

The king was separated from his family and tried in December of 1792.

He was executed on 21 January 1793, during the middle period of the French Revolution.

Louis-Charles became (nominally) the uncrowned King of France and Navarre, in the eyes of royalists.

Under the newly written French Constitution of 1791 (which made France a short-lived constitutional monarchy), the heir to the throne was restyled as the Prince Royal.

Plans and Rumors of Escape

After the execution of his father Louis became, for the royalists, King of France, and a week later, his uncle, the Count of Provence (later to rule as King Louis XVIII), took for himself the title of Regent.

From that moment, plots were hatched for the escape of the prisoners from the Temple – chief of which were those engineered by the Chevalier de Jarjayes, the Baron de Batz, and the faithful Lady Atkyns.


On the 3 July, the little Dauphin was again separated from his mother. He was given into the custody of the cobbler Antoine Simon, who had been named his guardian by the Committee of General Security.

The tales told by royalist writers of the barbarous cruelty inflicted by Simon and his wife on the child are not proven.

There is documentary evidence to attest to the fact that he had food and exercise. But the Simons did not raise the child as a prince, and stories survive narrating how Louis-Charles was encouraged to eat and drink to excess, and learned the language of the gutter.

The foreign secretaries of England and Spain heard accounts from their spies that the boy was raped by prostitutes in order to infect him with venereal diseases to supply the Commune with manufactured “evidence” against the Queen.

On 6 October 1793, officials of the Commune visited him and secured his signature to charges of sexual molestation against his mother, his sister and his aunt. The next day, he was confronted with his sister Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte for the last time.


Simon’s wife fell ill, and on 19 January 1794 the Simons left the Temple, after securing a receipt for the safe transfer of their ward, who was declared to be in good health.

Two days after the departure of the Simons the prisoner is said by Restoration historians to have been put in a dark room which was barricaded like the cage of a wild animal. The story runs that food was passed through the bars to the child, who survived in spite of the accumulated filth of his surroundings.

According to legend, no one entered the dauphin’s room for six months until Barras visited the prison after 27 July 1794. Barras’s account of the visit describes the child as suffering from extreme neglect, but conveys no evidence of the alleged walling in.

It is nonetheless evident that during the first half of 1794 Louis-Charles was very strictly secluded. He had no special guardian, but was under the charge of guards who changed from day to day.

The child made no complaint to Barras of his treatment, possibly because he feared to do so. He was bathed and re-clothed. His room was cleaned, and during the day he was visited by his new attendant, a Creole and compatriot of Joséphine de Beauharnais, named Jean Jacques Christophe Laurent. From 8 November onwards, Laurent had assistance from a man named Gomin.

From about the time of Gomin’s entrance the prisoner was inspected, not by delegates of the Commune, but by representatives of the civil committee of the 48 sections of Paris.

The child maintained an obstinate silence, explained by Laurent as a determination taken on the day he made his deposition against his mother.

On 19 December 1794 he was visited by three commissioners from the Committee of General Security — J. B. Harmand de la Meuse, J. B. C. Mathieu and J. Reverchon — who extracted no word from him.

Death of a Prince?

On Laurent’s retirement, Étienne Lasne was appointed on 31 March 1795 to be the child’s guardian.

In May 1795 the prisoner was taken seriously ill, and a doctor, P. J. Desault, was summoned. However, Desault died suddenly – not without suspicion of poison – on 1 June, and it was some days before other doctors (Pelletan and Dumangin) were called.

It was announced that Louis-Charles died on 8 June, 1795.

Next day an autopsy was conducted by Pelletan at which it was stated that a child apparently about ten years of age, “which the commissioners told us was the late Louis Capet’s son”, had died of a scrofulous infection of long standing.

“Scrofula” is nowadays called Tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis, and refers to a chronic swelling or infection in the lymph nodes of the neck, associated with tuberculosis.

Louis-Charles was buried on the 10th of June in the cemetery of Ste. Marguerite – but no stone was erected to mark the spot.

Shadows of Doubt

The weak parts of this story have been identified as:

* the sudden and unexplained departure of the Simons
* the subsequent cruel treatment of the child – keeping him in a dark room practically out of sight (unless any doubt of his identity was possible), while his sister was in comparative comfort
* the cause of death, declared to be of long standing, but in fact developing rapidly – and the fact that the disease is usually non-fatal
* the insufficient excuse provided for the child’s muteness under Gomin’s regime (he had spoken to Barras), and
* the irregularities in the formalities in attending the death and the funeral – when a simple identification of the body by Marie-Thérèse would have prevented any doubt of his death.

Immediately on the pronouncement of the dauphin’s death a rumor arose that he had escaped.

Unfortunately, the removal of the child suited the plans of the comte de Provence (now Louis XVIII), as well as it suited those of the revolutionary government.

The royal family made no serious attempt to ascertain the truth, though they paid no tributes to the memory of the deceased king which might have been expected, had they been convinced of his death. Even his sister wore no mourning for him until she arrived at Vienna and saw that this was expected of her.

The Lost Dauphin

As rumors quickly spread that the body buried was not that of Louis-Charles and that he had been spirited away alive by sympathizers, the legend of the “Lost Dauphin” was born. When the Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1814, hundreds of claimants came forward.

Would-be royal heirs continued to appear across Europe for decades afterward – and some of their descendants still have small but loyal retinues of followers, today.


Karl Wilhelm Naundorff’s story rested on a complex web of intrigues.

According to him, Barras determined to save the dauphin in order to please Joséphine de Beauharnais, the future empress – having conceived the idea of using the dauphin’s existence as leverage against the comte de Provence, in the event of a restoration.

The dauphin was concealed in the fourth story of the Tower, a wooden figure being substituted for him.

Laurent replaced the wooden figure with a deaf mute, who was subsequently exchanged for the scrofulous child of the death certificate. The deaf mute was also concealed in the Temple.

It was not the dead child, but the dauphin who left the prison in the coffin, to be retrieved by friends before it reached the cemetery.

Naundorff, or Näundorff, arrived from nowhere in Berlin in 1810, with papers giving the name Karl Wilhelm Naundorff. He said he was escaping persecution, and settled at Spandau in 1812 as a clockmaker, marrying Johanna Einert in 1818. He was imprisoned from 1825 to 1828 for coining (though apparently on insufficient evidence).

In 1833 he came to push his claims in Paris, where he was recognized as the dauphin by many persons formerly connected with the court of Louis XVI.

Expelled from France in 1836 (the day after bringing a suit against the duchess of Angoulême for the restitution of the dauphin’s private property), he lived in exile until his death at Delft on 10 August 1845.

His tomb was inscribed “Louis XVII., roi de France et de Navarre (Charles Louis, duc de Normandie)”.


Richemont (Henri Ethelbert Louis Victor Hébert) claimed that Mrs. Simon – who was genuinely attached to him – smuggled him out in a basket.

His tale does not necessarily invalidate the story of the subsequent operations with the deaf mute and the scrofulous patient (Laurent having been deceived from the beginning), but it renders them highly unlikely.

Richemont was in prison in Milan for seven years, and began to put forward his claims in Paris in 1828.

In 1833 he was again arrested, brought to trial in the following year, and condemned to twelve years’ imprisonment. He escaped after a few months and left the country, to return in 1840.

Richemont died at Gleize on 10 August 1853, the name of Louis Charles de France being inscribed on his tomb until the government ordered its removal.


A third pretender, Eleazar Williams – a missionary from Wisconsin, of Mohawk Native American descent – claimed to know nothing of his escape. He possessed, he said, no consciousness of his early years, only emerging from idiocy at the age of thirteen, when he was living with an Mohawk family in New York State.

He was a missionary to the Native American Indians when the prince de Joinville (son of Louis-Philippe) met him, and after some conversation asked him to sign a document abdicating his rights in favor of Louis-Philippe, in return for which he, the dauphin (alias Eleazar Williams), was to receive the private inheritance which was his.

Eleazar Williams refused to do this.

Williams’ story is generally regarded as false.

Strange Circumstances

The account of the substitution in the Temple is well substantiated – even to the names of the substitutes. The affair deceived royalists and republicans alike.

Lady Atkyns was trying by every possible means to get the dauphin out of his prison when he was apparently already in safe hands, if not outside the Temple walls.

A child was in fact delivered to her agents, but he was a deaf mute. That there was fraud, and a complicated fraud, in the guardians of the dauphin may be taken as a given.

Ultimately, as many as 100 “false dauphins” appeared over the years. Whether there was any truth to any of their claims was uncertain, as there appeared to be no hard proof of the King’s fate.

Philippe-Jean Pelletan was one of the doctors who attended Louis-Charles shortly before his death, and it was Pelletan who subsequently performed the autopsy. He removed the heart – and this was not interred with the rest of Louis-Charles’s body.

The heart was stolen by one of Pelletan’s students, who confessed to the theft on his deathbed, and asked his wife to return it to Pelletan. Instead, she sent it to the Archbishop of Paris, where it stayed until the Revolution of 1830. It also spent some time in Spain.

By 1975, the heart was being kept in a crystal vase at the royal crypt in the Saint Denis Basilica outside Paris, the burial place of Louis-Charles’s parents and other members of France’s royal family.

The Forensic Kicker

In 2000, Philippe Delorme arranged for DNA testing of the heart, as well as bone samples from Karl Wilhelm Naundorff.

Ernst Brinkmann of Münster University and Belgian genetics professor Jean-Jacques Cassiman of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, conducted mitochondrial DNA tests in 2000 using samples from Marie-Antoinette, her sisters Maria Johanna Gabriela and Maria Josepha, their mother, Maria Theresa, and two living direct descendants in the strict maternal line of Maria Theresa – Queen Anne of Romania and her brother, Prince André de Bourbon Parme.

The tests proved that Naundorff was not the dauphin, and the heart was that of Louis-Charles. It was buried in the Basilica on 8 June 2004.

Mystery Solved, Then?

So it would seem.

But the claimants to the legacy of The Lost Dauphin are still out there, and several still persist, in their claims.

That’s a wrap, for this case.

See you next time.