The Comte de Provence was the brother of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette’s husband. His account reveals how a man with a bit of common sense and an actual desire to escape, could succeed in doing so – unlike Marie Antoinette’s husband, who was sadly lacking in both aspects!
Throughout this memoir Provence cannot refrain from making not very subtle digs at Marie Antoinette, who had aroused his anger over the years by preventing him having any power. In fact, the much revered deputy Mirabeau, drily referred to Provence as Marie Antoinette’s pet poodle!
Provence: During November 1790, there were lots of rumours going around that the King intended escaping from Paris. I mentioned the rumours to the Queen, who assured me that neither she nor the King had given any reason for such rumours to start. [In fact, the King had begun corresponding with General Bouillé about the escape, in October. He in turn had spoken to his junior officers about the matter, who had in turn confided in their mistresses and so on – as you do.] But she added that, sooner or later, they would have to leave, and she promised to give me plenty of notice. But, at the same time, she advised me to make all necessary preparations.
I discussed this subject thoroughly with Madame de Balbi [his mistress], and, the following year, at Easter, we decided to leave the country. We decided that Madame [his wife], Madame de Balbi, and myself, should all escape that very night in Madame de Balbi’s carriage, accompanied by the Comte d’Avaray, who was trustworthy and reliable. [Provence discussed the plans with his mistress, and then told his wife what they had both decided!]
I went to the Tuileries to inform the King and Queen of my intentions. They were preoccupied, even then, with plans for their own escape – which they had not divulged to me in the slightest.
They were immediately concerned that, if I successfully escaped before them, it would probably be impossible for them to escape several weeks later. I understood their predicament, and agreed to postpone my departure.
Later we reconsidered our plan, and decided we should take d’Avaray’s advice, and all travel separately. D’Avaray agreed to arrange a carriage which would be suitable for both of us, and a separate one for my wife and an attendant. He also undertook to provide the necessary disguise for me.
In the meantime, Madame de Balbi left for Brussels.
A few weeks later, I wrote a note to d’Avaray asking him to come to see me.
“Are we to grease our boots?” he said, when he entered.
“Yes,” I answered. “We are leaving on Sunday.”
Here I must express my wonder that, during the twenty months that I had now been in Paris, a passageway, which was known to several of my attendants, had not even been suspected by my jailers. What’s more, I had used this passageway throughout our persecution, to go to my chapel, which is in the great Luxembourg Palace, so how had I not betrayed it myself? [The royal family had been dragged from Versailles in October 1789 to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, by a huge mob, who wanted the King and his family in Paris, where they could keep an eye on them! Provence lived in the Luxembourg Palace]
I needed a passport. Fortunately Madame de Balbi, when she had left, had given d’Avaray an old passport. She had, in turn, been given this passport by the British ambassador, in the name of Mr and Miss Foster. But the passport, valid for only a fortnight, was dated 23rd of April, and was for a man and a woman, instead of two men. [Towns and villages along the route to the border had taken it upon themselves to demand passports from travellers, being suspicious of the many aristocrats who were fleeing France to assemble round the exiled French Prince, the Comte d’Artois, in Belgium.]
I did not see how we could possibly make use of it, but d’Avaray – who was no more disturbed by these difficulties than if a young friend had begged him to take him to the Opera Ball, without his parents’ knowledge – d’Avaray soon demonstrated that I was wrong. He scraped away the writing, and although what he scraped was in a fold, and the paper was very thin, within a quarter of an hour, the passport was ready for Messieurs and Miss Foster, and dated the 13th of June, instead of the 23rd of April.
D’Avaray then busily scattered blots of ink on the back of the passport, both on the scraped places, and elsewhere. We resolved therefore, to be satisfied with it as it was, hoping that the officials who might happen to examine the passport would not notice its defects.
Finally, we thought about which road we should take. We eventually agreed to proceed to Mons. As this road was not busy, we hoped we would find the horses we would need for our journey, more easily.
In the evening, I went to the Tuileries Palace. I asked the Queen if she thought that a passport from the English ambassador would be all we needed for our trip. She assured me that the King himself only had one from the Russian ambassador, and these words put me at ease.
No doubt, I must have explained myself badly to the Queen for, in fact, a passport in the name of the Baroness de Korff, although granted by the Russian ambassador, had really been issued from the Foreign Office. But I am convinced that the Queen had no reason to deceive me, and I would not have mentioned these details, if I had not promised to reveal everything, in this account.
That morning, June 19th, I met Beauchêne at my wife’s levee [a ceremony where royals were attended by courtiers, when they ‘rose’ in the morning]. He told me that someone had gone to Audouin, one of these journalists who distribute daily poison in Paris for one penny a sheet, and given him what he claimed was a copy of a plan of escape for the King, and the whole of the family. This man had also told Audouin that he was convinced that the plan had been adopted at the Tuileries. He had then begged Audouin to publish the plan in his newspaper, and they had agreed to publish it next day.
This information made me very uneasy. Apparently I even became very pale as I listened to this news. I do not believe that, but I do know that I very quickly recovered my composure, and asked Beauchêne laughingly to tell me the details of this apparent plan. He then mentioned some details which I knew were totally false. I realised then, that even if some of the details of our plan were known, they were insignificant, and I was able to relax.
On Monday morning, June 20th, a rumour was spread about, that the Queen had been arrested in the course of the night, as she was attempting to escape with my sister in a hackney-coach. This did not alarm me much, but on reflection, this rumour, combined with what I had heard from Beauchêne, seemed to indicate that our jailers were worrying about us. At the moment, they seemed to have only vague suspicions. I concluded therefore, that we would still have time to escape, but that if we did not do so quickly, we would miss the opportunity to do so at all.
I decided that it would probably be a good idea to blacken my eyebrows, in order to disguise my appearance, therefore, at lunchtime, I slipped a cork into my pocket for this purpose.
Soon afterwards, I left the Luxembourg Palace for the Tuileries Palace. I was even more impatient than usual to reach the Tuileries because I knew that my sister Elisabeth had been informed of the planned escape, that very afternoon. It had been difficult for me to keep our plans secret from her, for so long.
I found my sister calm and resigned to the will of Heaven. She was quite happy, but not passionately so. In fact, she was as calm as if she had known the secret for a whole year. After a loving embrace, she said: “My dear brother, you are blessed with religious beliefs, please let me give you something which will bring you happiness.” I accepted the icon she presented me with gratefully.
We spoke for some time about our plans and, without being blinded by my affection for her, I must say that no one could possibly have reasoned on the subject with more coolness and judgement than she did. I could not help admiring her.
I went down to the Queen’s apartment and waited for some time to see her, because she was speaking to the three gentlemen of the bodyguard, in private. Finally she arrived and I rushed up to embrace her. “Be careful not to upset me,” she said. “I do not want anyone to notice I have been crying.” [The stress was getting to Marie Antoinette.]
The King, Queen, Comtesse de Provence, Princess Elisabeth and I dined together, till nearly eleven o’clock. As I was about to leave, the King, who until then had not told me the name of his intended destination, took me aside. He then told me that he was going to Montmedi, and urged me to travel via the Austrian Low Countries to Longwy. Again we embraced each other lovingly, and finally separated, thoroughly persuaded – at least I was – that within four days we would all meet up again in a safe place.
I must now note that my first valet-de-chambre always slept in my room. However, two days beforehand, I had conducted a little experiment which had convinced me that, before he could undress himself and come back to my room, I had more than enough time to get up, light a candle, and go into a side room.
Therefore, the moment he had gone out of the room, I got up and carefully closed the curtains of my bed. Then, having collected the few little things which I wanted, I went into my side room and shut the door. From that very moment, because of my confidence in d’Avaray, I felt I had successfully escaped from France.
I put three hundred louis into the pockets of my dressing gown and slipped into another room, where d’Avaray was waiting for me. D’Avaray dressed me, and when I was ready, I remembered that I had forgotten my cane and a second snuff-box which I had wanted to bring with me. I wanted to go back to look for them, but d’Avaray would not permit such rashness, so I gave up the idea.
The clothes fitted me very well, but the wig was a little too tight. However, as it fitted me reasonably well, and as I had decided to wear a large round hat with a great tri-coloured cockade pulled down over my eyes whenever I could, the fact that the wig did not fit too well did not cause us much trouble. [A tri-coloured cockade showed that the wearer was a republican – and would hopefully disarm anyone questioning the wearer.]
Once we had passed through some empty rooms, d’Avaray asked me to wait. He returned minutes later, saying: “Come with me,” and we proceeded to our carriage. We asked the coachman to drive to the Pont Neuf, then we left the Luxembourg.
I was so overjoyed at having escaped from my prison – as was d’Avaray – that we became deliriously happy. Accordingly, our first impulse, once we had left the Luxembourg behind us, was to sing a verse from the opera, Penelope.
We passed several people in the streets, and a patrol of national guards. Nobody however, thought of even looking to see whether there was any one in the carriage. We found our other carriage waiting for us between the Mint and the Quatre Nations, near a kind of little alleyway.
We then proceeded on foot to the travelling carriage, after d’Avaray had warned me to be careful not to waddle as I walked [Provence and the King, who were both obese, walked with a distinctive waddle]. At last we reached it. We assumed an English accent, asked our coachman to drive us to Le Bourget, just out of Paris, and set off.
When we arrived at the Pont-Neuf, two carriages passed us, which immediately made d’Avaray uneasy. But it was much worse when, after having changed our route to avoid them, they passed us again at the Porte St. Martin, and it became clear that they were taking the same road as we were ourselves.
D’Avaray had no doubt that the travellers were from my family, and he swore in an undertone against “Princes who spoil the best laid plans in the world, by not communicating with each other.” He believed, with some justification, that if the carriages continued to travel together, we would interfere with each other’s ability to obtain fresh horses. We would also give rise to suspicion, and would inevitably be stopped. I did not share his alarm, because I knew very well that my wife was in the other carriage, and that once we had passed Le Bourget, we had nothing more to fear, but I could not explain this to him in front of Sayer, who did not know our secret.
At Le Bourget, d’Avaray told Sayer to leave the carriage, using the pretext of sending him to find out who was in the other carriages. When we were alone, I explained to him quite clearly that my wife and her attendants were taking another route, and finally, he relaxed.
Day overtook us near Nanteuil. Sayer got on horseback, and Peronnet took his place in the carriage. He produced my diamonds, which he had brought in his pockets, and we hid them between the lining and the back of the carriage, then we pasted the lining back into place.
I took out the cork, which I mentioned before, which d’Avaray had taken care to blacken, and I coloured my eyebrows with it. We were careful not to apply it too heavily, but simply enough to disguise me perfectly. Moreover, I decided to pretend to be asleep at all the post-houses, at least until we were far away from Paris.
As we left each post-house, I tried to guess how well the various coachmen would drive us, simply from studying their appearance. I must admit that I was correct in my predictions each time. We had been driven admirably well as far as Vertfeuil, but then I predicted that we would be driven very badly to Soissons, and I was not mistaken.
This coachman justified the inference which I had drawn from looking at his face only too well, for nobody could have been a worse driver. We agreed that he could be none other than the president of the Republican Society of Soissons. But although I seemed to make light of this, I was actually really anxious. I had realised as I had travelled the last few miles that I had left the icon which my sister had given me at Paris and, although I was no more devout than my neighbour, this loss really disturbed me, much more so than leaving behind my cane and snuff-box.
When we arrived at Soissons, we found that a spoke for the left front wheel was broken. This was a nuisance but it was worse a moment later, when we examined the wheel more closely, and found that the rim of the wheel was also broken.
D’Avaray showed no emotion, but I realised perfectly well what was going through his mind. I was just as concerned as he was, but I tried to compose myself, just as d’Avaray had done. They suggested that we should have a new rim made for the wheel. We asked how long that would take. They answered, that it would take about two and a half hours. I was not a blacksmith, and did not know what else we could do. However I was very concerned by any delay, because it was now half past eight.
By now, people in Paris would know that we had left, and every moment of delay lost us some of the advantage which setting off during the night, had given us. [Provence guessed, rightly, that the National Assembly would immediately dispatch couriers to try to catch up with the escaping royals, and arrest them.] But d’Avaray, who had recovered his coolness, thought of another expedient, which was to bind the rim of the wheel with a double clip of iron, and the people agreed to try this.
While this work was going on, I happened to look into d’Avaray’s travelling bag, and I was amazed and overjoyed to find the icon I thought I had left behind at Paris, in it. But what was even more surprising, was that d’Avaray has since assured me, that he was no less surprised than I was, when I found the icon, because he did not have the slightest recollection of having put it there.
The postmaster was standing near the carriage while the repair was being undertaken, and I chatted to him for a good while in my assumed English accent, without noticing anything which could lead me to fear that he had even the slightest suspicion of who I was.
At last our wheel was repaired, and they assured us that it would still go for twelve or fifteen leagues. That however, was still short of what we needed, because we were still thirty two leagues from Mons, but hoping we would be lucky enough to make it, we tried not to worry, and set off again.
The post-house of Vaurains, between Soissons and Laon, is a solitary building, where there was no one around, apart from those connected to the post-house, who were all busy looking after their horses. This seemed such a good opportunity of relieving the stiffness in my legs by getting out of the carriage, that I suggested doing so. However d’Avaray opposed the idea so firmly, that I was obliged to give it up.
I then suggested we should have some breakfast, so we had a pie and some claret, but without bread, as we had unfortunately forgotten bread.
D’Avaray then had a very good idea. He suggested we should take Sayer into the carriage with us again, and send Peronnet ahead, with the measurements of our wheel, to have a similar one made, in case the iron bands would break. We would therefore avoid having to wait for two hours, as that could prove fatal to us.
When he came into the carriage, Sayer informed us that everybody was convinced we were really English, and this gave us great pleasure. He also added that everyone was convinced that we were travelling to Brussels [where thousands of counter-revolutionary aristocrats were assembling, hoping to join a future army of foreign invaders, who would destroy the French National Assembly and restore Louis XVI’s absolute monarchy]. This would have been a very dangerous idea if we had been thought to be Frenchmen, but, because everyone thought we were English, it became a matter of indifference.
Shortly after we arrived at La Capelle, I heard an argument between the mistress of the post-house and Peronnet, who alighted at every post-house to pay. They were arguing because we were travelling with three horses, and paying a generous thirty sous for them. The post-mistress maintained (with some justice, I must admit), that as there were three of us in the carriage, we ought to pay for four horses. Peronnet was disputing this point, and she was then threatening to make us take four horses and two drivers.
We thought it was bizarre that Peronnet was in effect risking our lives for the sake of ten sous, which was the difference between the charges. D’Avaray told her that she was treating us that way because we were foreigners. “No,” she answered, “I am perfectly entitled to put in six horses, if that’s what I feel the coach needs.”
“Well,” I answered in bad French (convinced, by the smiles of all the coachmen when they heard my accent, that I was taken for a true Englishman), “put six horse. I pay only five.” She smiled.
Then I addressed Peronnet. I said to him: “M. Perron, pay what madame demand. It not be said that Michael Foster has dispute with lady about money.” The tone I assumed, the gravity, the gestures, the accent – a thousand things, in short, which cannot be described in writing, rendered this the most comical scene in the world, but we knew better than to laugh. [Provence used to be the star when the teenage royal family acted out plays for their own amusement.]
At the gate of Avesnes we were asked our names, as usual, and if we were going to sleep in the town. We replied that we were two Englishmen, and that we wanted to continue our journey. We presented our passports, which were not even looked at, and we travelled to the post-house. But Sayer, who had ridden ahead, and was very tired, had been told by everybody that it was ridiculous for us to go any further, as we could not possibly expect to get in at Maubeuge. He had yielded to these arguments, and had not ordered us any more horses. We ordered them immediately, but we had to wait around for them for a very long fifteen minutes, just between the post-house and a coffee-house, which was full of officers. [Louis XVI however, walked up a hill and asked for directions without a care in the world!]
Fortunately I had previously pulled down the blind, and it protected us on the side of the coffee-house from the attentions of the officers, who might have recognised d’Avaray. However, I noticed how edgy d’Avaray was, torn between his alarm at our situation, and his anger with Sayer, who had put us in that situation. I tried to calm him down, and succeeded quite easily. We set off at last, and as soon as we were out of the town, sang lustily: “Victory is ours.”
The coachman who drove us travelled at a good pace, and seemed to be a determined fellow, but we were concerned when we noticed that he kept looking behind him. Finally he stopped, and asked us where we wanted him to take us. “To the post-house,” I replied.
“Oh,” he responded, “the post-house is not a comfortable inn. I will take you to the Stag Inn, where you will find good accommodation.”
“But,” I said, “it does not matter whether the accommodation is good or bad, as we do not intend to sleep at Maubeuge.”
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“To Mons,” I replied.
“To Mons,” he said, laughing, “Oh, you will not get there today!”
He added that they might open the gates to let us in, but that they would certainly not open them to let us out again. I asked if he could go round the town, and we would double our payment. He replied: “Nothing would persuade me to do that!” These few words made me realise the horror of our situation, and, with no more hope, all I could think of was resigning myself to the fate which I foresaw only too clearly.
However d’Avaray, as calm as if we had been in no danger, began to speak in bad French, but with an eloquence which I shall not attempt to imitate. He told the coachman that we were in a great hurry to get to Mons, as we had left his sister, my cousin, at Soissons. He added that she was a charming girl whom we loved greatly but that she was seriously ill and that the only doctor she had any confidence in lived in Mons. He said that if we lost time in fetching the doctor, his sister would die. And lastly, d’Avaray said that if he would drive us to Mons, he would give him one, two, three guineas.
This speech, backed by the promise of the three guineas, had a wonderful effect on the coachman and after a few moments’ hesitation, he said to us: “Fine, I will take you.” Then he admitted that he did not really know his way through that area, and would take a guide.
The coachman stopped and entered a public-house for some refreshment. He asked the landlady if she knew of someone who could guide us further on our journey. The woman went to fetch her brother. He offered to conduct us, but he confirmed what his sister had said, that workmen had been digging up the roads, creating many ditches as they did so.
“If it were the devil himself,” exclaimed the coachman, “I will pass. Bring a lantern, and show me the way.” This conversation, as may well be imagined, gave us no pleasure, but the determination shown by the coachman gave us some hope.
So we advanced across the fields, just a hundred feet away from the walls of the fortified town of Maubeuge. We were quite sure we would be stopped if a sentry, who knew his duty, saw our lantern. We would willingly have let them fire at us with grapeshot from the top of the ramparts, so long as they did not pursue us.
When we arrived at the deepest trench, I wanted to cross it on foot, but the coachman would not let me do so. He alighted and inspected the trench. He then found a spot where the trench, although deep, was not broad. He mounted his horse again, and carried us across the trench as cleverly as possible.
The guide conducted us so long as we were in the fields, parting from us only when we were once again on the high road. We were finally on the road to Mons, and were certain of arriving there without any further problem.
Before I gave way to my joy, I gave thanks to God for the recovery of my liberty. I then wanted to share my joy with d’Avaray. As we were not yet out of France, he wanted to check my high spirits, because of Sayer, who did not know who I was. Sayer, however, was sleeping soundly on my shoulder, and d’Avaray himself was so overjoyed that he could not resist laughing and relaxing with me.
The first thing I did when I was safely out of France, was to seize the hateful tri-coloured cockade and rip it from my hat. I have asked d’Avaray to preserve it for posterity, just as Christopher Columbus preserved his chains.
We then discussed what we should do at Mons, as we expected to find its gates shut. We decided we would look for a hotel in the surrounding area.
We discussed what would happen if we could only find one bed. I told d’Avaray that I would give it up to him, and, because I was the strongest, I would spend the night on a chair [Provence was different to his brother in more ways than one! Louis XVI always assumed that the bed was his and let valets – however exhausted – kip on a chair.]. But d’Avaray declared that he would not allow that, and that he would rather lie on a mattress on the floor by the side of my bed. I insisted that he would at the very least have to share this bed which we still did not have! As I was now hysterically happy, everything made me laugh and I sang some lines from an opera, which made us laugh even more. [At times, Provence’s lively character is quite appealing. The orphaned Princess Marie-Thérèse would have found his entertaining company lighten her sad memories, somewhat, when she was finally released from prison.]
We continued our journey and finally arrived at the outskirts of Mons. I got out of the carriage for the first time in twenty four hours. We knocked at the door of an inn, and a maid came and asked what we wanted. “To write a letter,” I replied, and she shut the door in my face. But the coachman, who wanted some refreshments, knocked so hard that she opened it again, and we went in. I was glad to go in because my legs were so stiff they could hardly carry me.
The very first thing I did was to throw myself on my knees in order to give thanks to God. Then we made inquiries about their accommodation. Having performed that first duty, I fulfilled another which was no less sacred, by folding my dear d’Avaray in my arms. I could now call him my deliverer.
We soon learned however, that there was no means of either eating or sleeping in this horrible little inn, and all we could obtain was a glass of insipid beer. Therefore we decided to send a letter to the commander of the garrison based at Mons, which we sent with Peronnet, and in the meantime we conversed by the side of a wretched peat fire.
Shortly afterwards, Peronnet returned and told us that the town gates were open.
When we entered the town, we were asked to state our names and rank. The questions were put to d’Avaray, who hesitated, but I replied, saying that we were the Comte de Provence, brother of the King of France, and the Comte d’Avaray. I added that we wanted to go to the Couronne Imperiale, as we had been told it was the best inn in Mons.
The commander of the guard told us that we were expected at La Femme Sauvage, and that Madame was waiting there. We could not really understand how my wife was already at Mons, as she had travelled via Tournay, however we were delighted at this good fortune, and asked the coachman to take us to La Femme Sauvage.
When we arrived, we found the hotelier at the door, and he confirmed that we were expected. However, after climbing up a shabby staircase, we met a servant with a lamp, who, after surveying me from head to toe, told me with some embarrassment, that I was not the person they had expected.
The room door was open, and a lady, who was already in bed, called out anxiously: “It’s not him! Don’t come in.”
The hotelier, who was now in his turn surveying me up and down, asked: “Are you not the Comte de Fersen?”
“No,” I replied, “but if the lady will not receive us, could you give us another room?” A dry negative was his only answer, so we went downstairs, returned to our carriage, and drove to the Couronne Imperiale, where the hotelier likewise declared that he had no room for us. [Fersen’s mistress was waiting for Fersen. Someone who was more discreet would not have mentioned this incident, but Provence was delighted at this opportunity of embarrassing Fersen, and ultimately, Marie Antoinette.]
This second misadventure was really beginning to discourage us, when a voice from the inn pronounced these words: “Monsieur d’Avaray, is that you?” I realised immediately it was Madame de Balbi. We alighted, and entered the house. Madame de Balbi busied herself arranging some supper. Afterwards she was kind enough to give up her bed to me [hardly – she would have jumped in with him!], while d’Avaray took her maid’s, and for the first time in twenty months [since the royal family had moved from Versailles to Paris], I lay down to sleep, convinced that I would not be wakened by some tale of horror.
I slept for about six hours, and was wakened by M. de la Châtre, who was at Mons. He was so impatient to see me that he had not allowed me to sleep until I was fully rested. One moment later, the Comte de Fersen arrived, and informed me he had driven the King as far as Bondy. I was delighted because I felt sure that, once out of Paris, the King would run no further risk. I warmly embraced M. de Fersen.
When I was dressed, I received visits from all the French at Mons, and from the Austrian officers garrisoned at Mons. I was infinitely flattered by the reception they all accorded me, but nonetheless, I was anxious to set out again on the road to Namur.
Although I was not yet feeling apprehensive about the King, I began to wonder why the news from Montmedi was delayed.
I was grief-stricken when I received the distressing news of the King’s arrest at Varennes, as may well be imagined. I even regretted that I had succeeded in escaping, and, for a moment, I thought of returning to France, and letting them put me in chains again, so that I could share with my unfortunate relatives in their captivity. But I realised that, without helping them in any way, I would have simply succeeded in sacrificing both myself, and d’Avaray, my friend and deliverer, who was adamant he would not leave me.
When Princess Marie-Thérèse was finally released from her imprisonment, she initially went to stay with the Austrian Emperor in Vienna, but, finding her Austrian relatives cold and unfriendly, she requested permission to go to stay with her uncle, the Comte de Provence, who had been a daily part of her life before the Revolution and was the last remaining link with her beloved parents. Provence had become Louis XVIII, because of the death of his brother and nephew. After twenty years of exile, Louis XVIII finally attained his long-held ambition of achieving power when he returned to France in 1814, when the French monarchy was restored, twenty years after the execution of his brother, Louis XVI. [There are minor differences in the names of the main characters in these memoirs, depending on the translator involved.]