Monday, January 26, 2009

Question from Diane - French royal tombs at St. Denis

I've been trying to get information on the desecration of the French royal tombs at St. Denis during the French Revolution. Since so many members of the sixteenth century royal family had close relations with the Tudors I was hoping someone could recommend a good book or other source. As everyone knows, most biographies end with the death of the subject and don't describe what may have happened to the person's body afterward. I came across one story that said the mob kicked the head of Louis XII (Mary of Suffolk's first husband) around the church like a football...

I'd appreciate any recommendations. Thanks!


  1. Hey, I was actually at St. Denis this summer! It is quite beautiful and I enjoyed it far more than Notre Dame (which is HUGE and very very crowded). But anyway, when I was there I noticed that many of the tombs (including Louis XII) had a lot of grafiti (names carved into the monuments, not spray paint). many of the dates were from the late 17th and early 1800s, but I do not know how accurate that is. I read on a plaque that the bodies of the kings and queens were removed during the french revolution and buried in a mass grave near the church. However, with the restoration of the monarchy, some were returned to their original graves. I know that Louis XVI's brother (when he was temporarily restored to the throne) had Louis and Marie Antoinette buried there in a special vault and had a monument erected to them. Louis XII'x head was on the monument (maybe re-attached?). Francois and Claude's tomb surprised me a bit, as they were both naked and in very distorted positions (far more natural looking than the normal tombs with the people carved in very stiff and formal ways). Their tomb also had A LOT of the carved grafiti. It was one of my favorite places we visited while in Paris and I took many pictures!!! I know this isn't a book recommendation, but I hoped it helped a little.

  2. The Committee of Public Safety ordered the desecration of the tombs shortly after scary Robespierre was on board. People were actually ordered to storm the tombs. Some of the carnage entailed the shoulder blade of Hugues Capet and the beard of Henry IV being stolen as souvenirs. I don’t remember the story of Louis XII, but I do remember that they played boules with the bones.

    Because it was a public decree, you can find information about the desecration of the tombs in any book about the French Revolution. One of my favorites is – Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr You might have a hard time hunting down what happened to different monarch’s bones. Sadly, I think most ended up being dust in the wind. Let me know if there is something specific you are looking for.

  3. Thanks for your help Elizabeth and Bearded Lady!

    I found the reference to Louis XII's desecration by googling "head of Louis XII" and looking at the "Paris, part 21" listing. It is part of the lectures of John L. Stoddard. He also describes Henri IV's disinterment.

    I was hoping someone would say something about Alexandre Lenoir. He saved the monuments in St. Denis from being destroyed by persuading the existing "government" that they were works of art and should be put in a museum. He wrote a book about it.

  4. Have you tried - Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto. I have not read the book, but it traces the remains of Descartes skull and may cover a little of other saved monuments.

  5. Alexander Dumas pere, gives an excellent account of the desecration in "Horror at Fontenay". Written in 1830, it may be close approximation of what took place. Though novelesque, the description of the desecration can be well visualised and the events described can give impetus to new thoughts and research.

  6. I am a descendant of Hugh Capet, after the desecration of the individual tombs by placing all of the remains in a pit or mass grave, the remains were removed from the mass grave.

    Since there was no way to determine the individual remains, they were placed in a common ossuary in St. Denis. There is a plaque listing the names of those in the ossuary.


All comments are moderated so your replies may not show up immediately. Please be patient. Thanks!