Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Death of the Duc d'Orléans (1842)
I have little time for posting at the moment, but I do not want to let the day pass without commemorating the tragic death of Ferdinand-Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, beloved eldest brother of Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians. Whatever one thinks of the Orléans family or Louis-Philippe, the story of the destruction of his handsome, gifted and charismatic heir, in the flower of his youth, is a horrible one.
On July 13, 1842, while en route to Neuilly to bid farewell to his parents, before departing for military duties, Ferdinand-Philippe's horses ran out of control and the prince either lept or was hurled from his carriage, cracking his skull against the pavement. Bleeding and unconscious, he was carried to a nearby inn, where he died several hours later, surrounded by his distraught family. His agony - and theirs- had only been exacerbated by the barbaric medical practices of the time.
It is said that the prince's death played an important role in contributing to Louis-Philippe's downfall. Deprived of the support of his son's popularity, and greater skill in sounding the mood of the nation, the position of the King of the French was gravely weakened. He lost the throne only six years later, amidst the tumult and tragedy of 1848.
The death of the young Duc d'Orléans (or the Duc de Chartres, as he was still known in the family, by the title he had held before his father's rise to the throne), foreshadowed political tragedies to come. More immediately, however, it was a terrible human tragedy for his family. "Chartres was the head, heart and soul of our family," wrote the Queen of the Belgians.
For his pious mother, Queen Marie-Amélie, Ferdinand-Philippe's sudden, brutal demise, in a state of total unconsciousness, without being able to prepare spiritually for death or lucidly receive the Last Rites, was a source of frenzied religious anguish, then of mysterious consolation. When she saw that her son's condition was desperate, the Queen sent at once for a priest, who did, indeed, administer extreme unction to the dying prince. Yet, Marie-Amélie was left in an agonizing uncertainty regarding his eternal fate. She was deeply troubled by the fact that he had not had the opportunity to confess his sins. According to Mia Kerckvoorde, biographer of Queen Louise-Marie, Chartres, even more liberal and revolutionary than his father, did not share his mother's religious faith. If this is true, it might explain why Marie-Amélie was so worried about the state of his soul.
Desperate, the poor mother poured out fervent prayers at his deathbed, offering up litanies, begging God, if He wanted a victim, to take her instead of her son. After the priest had finished administering the Last Rites, the Queen placed a relic of the True Cross in the prince's hands, hoping that God might take pity on him at his passage to eternity. To the great alarm and distress of her family, she then spent 17 days prostrate before his bier, in the chapel of Neuilly, praying desperately, unable to sleep, wandering about like a ghost. Trying to console her, Louise-Marie wrote to her mother: "Weep, some tears are equivalent to prayers." On the day of the transfer of Chartres' remains to the royal chapel of Dreux, the necropolis of the Orléans family, Marie-Amélie clung frantically to the coffin, shrieking.
At the beginning of August, however, on a sorrowful pilgrimage to Dreux, to pray for the repose of her son's soul, the grieving Queen finally found peace. She had spent the entire journey silent and dejected. Entering the crypt, she had, as before, fallen prostrate, wailing and sobbing. Then, suddenly, to the great amazement of her companions, she recovered herself, rose and departed, with a calm, firm step. A few days later, to one of her ladies, she calmly remarked: "Enfin, ma chère, Dieu l'a voulu" ("After all, my dear, it was God's will.") What had happened? Suzanne d'Huart, in her edition of the Queen's journal, wonders if Marie-Amélie experienced some sort of mystical assurance of her son's salvation. She remained, however, deeply grieved by the loss of her dear Chartres, sadly reading and re-reading his letters and sighing: "Alas! I loved him so much, perhaps too much..."