The French Revolution:
The French Revolution broke out in 1789 and in the Reign of Terror that followed, scores of hapless people, whose only crime was of being of aristocratic stock or associated in some manner with the royalty, ended their lives on the guillotine. Two prominent victims were Madame Du Barry and Princess de Lamballe.
Madame Du Barry and Princess de Lamballe:
Madame Du Barry was one of the most famous Courtesans of France and the Mistress of the former King Louis XV. She was of humble origins – a fact that made Marie Antoinette, as the new Dauphine, cold-shoulder her – and, although good-natured, without the sharp intellect and powerful political acumen of her predecessor, the King’s former lover Madame de Pompadour. However, due to her association with the King of France, for a long time, Madame Du Barry enjoyed a high status and privileged position in the French Court.
After his death in 1774 though, she was made to retire from Court and, after a two year sojourn at the Convent of Pont-au-Dames, withdrew to live a comfortable, untroubled existence at her country estate, Chateau de Louveciennes. She was probably happier now than she had ever been, not having to dance to the King’s whims or keep abreast with the numerous Court intrigues against her. So she lived quietly, took on new lovers, and was said to have interested herself in social work in the neighboring areas when time permitted. Her ministrations for the poor were however completely forgotten in the Reign of Terror and only her former excesses remembered.
Princess Therese de Lamballe was a very close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette. She was a great support to her during the early, difficult years of her marriage to King Louis XVI, and she was to provide comfort in the later dark days of her life. Princess de Lamballe was beautiful, witty, and fond of gaiety and the good life as the Queen. She was however no giddy, featherbrained creature and displayed remarkable personal courage and loyalty towards her disgraced royal friend.
Chance of Safety:
It is a curious point to note that both Madame Du Barry and Princess Lamballe had had the chance to escape to safety in Great Britain, but both chose to return to Paris and to their subsequent deaths.
In the case of Madame Du Barry, she had gone to England on a personal matter concerning her stolen diamond jewelery in 1792. Well-received in English Society, she was strongly urged to remain in England and not return to France where an ill wind was blowing for those of Royal blood and their associates. As a Mistress of the former King, probably it should have occurred to Madame Du Barry that returning home would be especially dangerous for her. However, for reasons best known to herself, she chose to return.
Princess de Lamballe had accompanied the Royal Family to imprisonment at the Tuileries Palace after they were forced to leave the Versailles Palace. In 1791 she was allowed to go to Great Britain where she tried to gain support for the beleaguered Royal family. Like Madame Du Barry, she too no doubt was advised to remain put, but she was determined not to desert Marie Antoinette and so came back to France.
Trial and Sentencing:
Madame Du Barry was arrested in 1793 and thrown into prison – for a while she shared the same dingy cell as that of Grace Elliott, the Mistress of the Duke of Orleans. She was brought to trial and was accused of treason and quickly sentenced to death.
Princess de Lamballe remained with Marie Antoinette until the events of 10 August 1792, when the Revolutionary mob attacked the Tuileries Palace and massacred the 900 Swiss Guards. The Royal Family, which escaped in the nick of time, was now carted off to imprisonment at the Temple Fortress in Paris.
After being incarcerated here herself, Princess de Lamballe was taken to La Force Prison in Paris. She was brought to trial and asked to embrace the Revolution and its principles and denounce the Monarchy. While she agreed to take an oath supporting the former, she firmly refused to turn against her beloved Queen. With this refusal, she signed her own death warrant.
Actually, both Madame Du Barry and Princess de Lamballe received death sentences more for their royal connections than for any major crimes they had personally committed.
The end for the two ladies was neither peaceful nor dignified.
Madame Du Barry lost all of her former composure. As she was dragged before the blood-thirsty mob in the Place de la Concorde to be guillotined, she screamed, shouted, wept, and begged for mercy. She tried to cling to life until the last, famously crying to the executioner, “Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment!” (Another moment, Mr. Executioner, just a little moment).
Princess de Lamballe was turned over to an angry mob waiting with hammers, swords, and pikes in an alley outside La Force. They converged about her as soon as she stepped out the door and it is said that she was gang-raped before they bludgeoned and hacked her to death. Her head, her breasts, and her genitals were mounted up on pikes and paraded through the streets of Paris and taken to be displayed before the window of the imprisoned Queen. Marie Antoinette, whose hair had turned white after their capture in Varennes, is said to have fainted away on seeing the gruesome fate of her friend.