But we're also continuing with the latest in our series of audio adventures, Tales for Our Time, and a story from another savage and bloody conflict a century and a quarter earlier - the French Revolution. So welcome to Part Three of my serialization of The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy. In tonight's episode refugees from the terror on the Continent flee across the water:
Feeling in every part of England certainly ran very high at this time against the French and their doings. Smugglers and legitimate traders between the French and the English coasts brought snatches of news from over the water, which made every honest Englishman's blood boil, and made him long to have "a good go" at those murderers, who had imprisoned their king and all his family, subjected the queen and the royal children to every species of indignity, and were even now loudly demanding the blood of the whole Bourbon family and of every one of its adherents.
The execution of the Princesse de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette's young and charming friend, had filled every one in England with unspeakable horror, the daily execution of scores of royalists of good family, whose only sin was their aristocratic name, seemed to cry for vengeance to the whole of civilised Europe.
Yet, with all that, no one dared to interfere. Burke had exhausted all his eloquence in trying to induce the British Government to fight the revolutionary government of France, but Mr. Pitt, with characteristic prudence, did not feel that this country was fit yet to embark on another arduous and costly war. It was for Austria to take the initiative; Austria, whose fairest daughter was even now a dethroned queen, imprisoned and insulted by a howling mob; surely 'twas not—so argued Mr. Fox—for the whole of England to take up arms, because one set of Frenchmen chose to murder another.
The Princesse de Lamballe was Marie-Louise Thérèse, born into the cadet branch of the House of Savoy and a confidante of Queen Marie Antoinette. She perished in the massacres of early September 1792 - ie, just a few days before the tale of The Scarlet Pimpernel begins. Rumors were rife that foreign armies were about to attack Paris and restore the ancien régime. So, in a preemptive move, a mass bloodletting was ordered: half the prisoners in the city's gaols were murdered, including common criminals, hundreds of priests and girls as young as ten. The Princesse de Lamballe was then being held at La Force prison and was brought before a tribunal, who asked her to identify herself:
'Who are you?'
'Marie Thérèse Louise, Princess of Savoy.'
'Superintendent of the Household to the Queen...'
'Swear to liberty and equality, and hatred of the King and Queen.'
'Readily to the former; but I cannot to the latter: it is not in my heart.'
To this, the citoyen presiding over the tribunal commanded, "Emmenez madame" – Take madame away. Two guards led her into a yard and handed her over to the mob. According to reports, this "small lady dressed in white" was raped and then had her breasts cut off before being bludgeoned in the skull with a pikestaff and eventually stabbed to death. Her body was stripped, disemboweled, and her head cut off and carried by pike through the streets, with her body following, dragged by the mob, shrieking triumphantly, "La Lamballe!" and selling strands of her hair to passersby. The pike-borne head was taken to a café, where the cheering patrons raised a toast to the Princess's murder, and then paraded underneath the window of Marie Antoinette in the Temple prison. It was a routine slander of the revolutionaries that the Princess and the Queen were lovers, and they wished to force Her Majesty to kiss the lips of her dead paramour. Instead, Marie Antoinette fainted. At the Palais Royal, the Duc d'Orléans was dining with a group of visiting Englishmen, and his mistress, recognizing the head, cried, "They will carry mine like that one day."
Eventually, the man hoisting the head, Charlat, got thirsty and went into an alehouse, leaving his pike outside. When he'd finished boozing and came back out, the head of the Princesse de Lamballe was gone, and has never been found.
How much of this actually happened can never be known, but this was the version that spread to England, and thus to the patrons of public houses in Dover. And they were not wrong to be disgusted by the rapid descent of the French Revolution into evil and depravity.
Members of The Mark Steyn Club can hear Part Three of our adventure simply by clicking here and logging-in. Parts One and Two can be found here - and if you've only joined in recent days and missed our earlier serials (Conan Doyle's The Tragedy of the Korosko, H G Wells' The Time Machine, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda, plus Kipling, Kafka, Dickens, Gogol, Jack London, John Buchan and Scott Fitzgerald), you can find them all here.
I mentioned on Friday the great innovation of the Reign of Terror – industrial-scale decapitation. One of our first-week Founding Members from Alberta writes:
The guillotine may have been swift and painless, but decapitation is a most horrible death as perceived by the deceased's survivors. It is one of the reasons why it is preferred by ISIS as the very idea of it burns in the mind forever. Never mind that there is no body to gaze upon for a last time, or touch, or even on which to plant a tender last kiss, the body and head are separated and that is a terrible circumstance, which is complete elimination of the physical person. Even if it happens accidentally in say, a vehicular collision, decapitation is incredibly violent and dehumanizing. As a form of capital punishment cheered on by the mob it is the most awful IMO.
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