The Lost King of France: A True Story of Revolution, Revenge and DNA by Deborah Cadbury

Dec 9, 2011

This book could be called a modern science mystery.  It follows the story of Louis XVII, son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and his older sister.  While his sister survived her imprisonment, remarried and continued her life as part of European royalty, her little brother died under mysterious circumstances at the hands of French revolutionaries.  The official records state that Louis-Charles XVII died in prison at the age of 10 on June 8, 1795 from tuberculosis.  But few contemporaries accepted the official verdict since there was no grave and the witness accounts varied greatly.  Some said that he died of neglect, some that he was murdered, and others that he did not die at all, but was taken away to safety by the royalists and another child was put in his place.   A doctor who had been summoned to treat the dauphin died mysteriously the week before the boy's death.  Since Louis-Charles was the dauphin, heir to the most powerful throne in Europe, there were over time more than one hundred dauphins.  Some claimants seemed genuine, gaining immediate support from European aristocracy, while others were swiftly exposed as frauds.  The most intriguing candidate was the famous naturalist John James Audubon and the most colorful claimant was perhaps Eleazer Williams.  Williams was the descendant of a Mohawk Native American and a white woman who had been kidnapped by the Mohawks at the age of 7.  The missing dauphin was even the object of Mark Twain’s satire in Wild Man and Huckleberry Finn.  Only recent advances in forensic science made it possible to uncover the true dauphin and his faith.  His DNA sequencing was compared to hair taken from his mother Marie Antoinette, two of her sisters, and two living maternal relatives from the maternal Habsburg line.  The 200 years of speculations were put to rest on December 15, 1999.  The child who would be the king Louis XVII, was at last buried in the Basilica Saint Denis with the rest of the French royals on 8 June 2004.

The book is a good refresher of "all things royal" for royal history or French history enthusiasts, and for all of us who have forgotten all the minute details about the Jacobins, Maximilien Robespierre and the circumstances of the assassinations of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  It also mentions contemporary branches of the Bourbons and Habsburgs as it relates to the story of the last Russian czar Nicholai and his family, whose remains were also identified via DNA sequencing in recent years.   



Reviewed by Library Staff