France buries 200-year-old royal mystery

By ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International

PARIS, June 3 (UPI) -- One of France's most enduring mysteries will officially be laid to rest next Tuesday, when the presumed heart of King Louis XVII is officially buried in a royal crypt at St. Denis basilica, outside Paris.

The elaborate ceremony, which will be attended by hundreds of royalty and members of the European jet set, ends two centuries of swirling rumors and false claims regarding the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who died under the ax of the French revolution.


Did France's boy-king pass away in a cold Paris prison? Or did he flee overseas and become an American environmentalist or a German clock maker?

Over the years, the mystery of the "lost dauphin" fostered a crop of "pretendants" to the French throne, even as his alleged heart made an equally dramatic odyssey around Europe, before ultimately returning home.


"Louis XVII is without doubt the person who has stirred the most debate in France," Jacques Charles-Gaffiot, head of the St. Denis ceremonies, said of Louis XVII, who became de-facto monarch after his father was beheaded in 1793.

The boy king was recognized by all the European royalty at the time, and by the young United States. But in 1794, he disappeared from historical records.

According to one version of his tale, young Louis-Charles died of tuberculosis in a Paris prison, in 1795.

Philippe-Jean Pelletan, the doctor who performed the autopsy on the young king's body removed his heart and smuggled it home. There, he put the organ into a container of alcohol, and stashed in behind his library, where it was forgotten for years.

A student stole it and returned it. The heart was sent to the Spanish branch of the Bourbon royal family, but eventually made its way back to France in the 19th century. It was sent to St. Denis, where it lay in a crystal container, despite nagging questions about its authenticity.

Finally in 1999, the heart was removed for testing by two separate universities, in Belgium and Germany. The verdict came a year later: The dried, mummified organ was genetically similar to Marie Antoinette, the boy's mother.


In a report published late last year, French historians backed the scientific findings.

"This heart is undoubtedly that of a Hapsburg, and almost certainly that of Louis XVII," wrote one leading historian, Jean Tulard. "We can never be 100 percent sure, but his is about as sure as it gets."

Over the years, the uncertainty over the young king's fate fostered a crop of conspiracy stories. Some speculated Louis XVII hadn't died after all, but had escaped from prison and another child put in his place.

Dozens of people laid claim to the French throne, including a Native American Indian and a watchmaker from Germany. Some even speculated that American naturalist, James Audubon, might have been the true French heir.

Two death certificates for Louis further muddled the historical trail. One was drawn up in 1795, claiming a 10-year-old boy had died, "son of Louis Capet, last king of the French."

Another, 50 years later, claimed German watchmaker Karl Wilhelm Naundorff was in fact the French monarch. Indeed, the Netherlands government, where Naundorff spent his final years, allowed him to use the name "Louis Charles."

But a DNA-tested piece of his bone found no genetic resemblance with DNA available from Marie Antoinette, or from other family members.


Still, even today, the debate is not entirely buried.

Pro-Naundorff royalists have cried foul at the latest DNA results, noting they show only that the heart belonged to someone in Marie Antoinette's family -- but not necessarily to her son.

But for members of the Bourbon royal family, Louis' story finally has a happy ending.

"We don't feel this will be a mass for a child, but a deliverance," said Prince Charles-Emmanuel de Bourbon de Parme, at a press conference in Paris, referring to the June 8 ceremonies for his heart. "This child, after 200 years, will find his place beside his parents."

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