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10 Mysteries and Controversies Surrounding French Royalty

by Larry Jimenez
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

In June 2020, a crowd of protesters gathered around the statue of King Louis IX of France in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri, demanding its removal. They called on the Vatican to drop Louis from its roll of saints, accusing the king of Islamophobia, antisemitism, and mishandling the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, causing death and suffering to Christians and Muslims alike.

More than 150 years after its final dissolution, the French monarchy still stirs up passionate debates like this one among historians and ordinary people. Born in the misty past, it reached its apogee in the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV, received a seeming death blow in the Revolution, was restored for a while, and plodded along until the fall of the Second Empire of Napoleon III in 1870.

Along the way, some monarchs left a trail of mysteries and secrets that are still controversial to this day. Below are ten of the most intriguing.

Related: 10 Scurrilous Royals and Nobles Who Were Involved in Juicy Scandals

10 Mystery of the Merovingians

The Merovingians

The history of France as a nation began when the various Frankish tribes were united under Clovis I (481–511). His dynasty, the Merovingians, took its name from his grandfather Merovech, a mysterious and shadowy figure who fought with the Romans against the Huns in 451. Aside from the fact that he was a Salian Frank, we know little of Merovech’s origins, which gave rise to fantastic myths about him.

According to the 7th-century Chronicle of Fredegar, a man named Chlodio was staying by the sea with his wife one summer. His wife was out swimming one day when she was raped by a sea beast called Quinotaur, giving birth to Merovech. But the most famous myth of all may be the one concocted by pseudohistorians Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and popularized by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

Both books suggest that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife and was pregnant with his child when she fled Palestine for Marseille. The Holy Grail is actually her womb carrying Jesus’ bloodline. Mary’s relics are purported to be either in the abbey of Vezelay in Burgundy or the convent of St. Maximin in Provence, whichever you prefer. This modern myth claims (without evidence) that the Merovingians were descendants of Jesus Christ.

Some who disagree propose even more bizarre lineages for the Merovingians, linking them to the Nephilim, or fallen angels of ancient lore. The sea beast that spawned Merovech is connected to the Beast and Antichrist of Revelation 13.

Conspiracy theories aside, the prosaic truth may be that Merovech was illegitimate, and the sea monster tale was made to cover up his parentage and give him a heroic, divine origin to legitimize Merovingian power.[1]

9 The Death of St. Louis

The Crusades of Saint Louis IX of France – A Documentary

Louis IX (1214–1270), the only French king to be made a saint, led the disastrous Seventh and Eighth Crusades but nevertheless earned a reputation as a model Christian warrior. In Louis’s first foray, he was captured in Egypt and held for ransom; in the second, he and most of his men suffered the most excruciating deaths in Tunis. History ascribes Louis’s death to the plague. Now, it seems the history books need to be rewritten.

In 2019, researchers analyzed a jawbone believed to be the king’s and detected signs that he suffered from scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. It supports the account that in his final days, Louis was spitting out bits of gum and teeth, indicative of the last stages of scurvy.

Not only Louis but also one-sixth of his troops had similar symptoms, as chronicled by Jean de Joinville: “Our army suffered from gum necrosis [dead gums], and the barbers [doctors] had to cut the necrotizing tissue in order to allow the men to chew the meat and swallow. And it was a pity to hear the soldiers shouting and crying like women in labor when their gums were cut.”

But why did Louis and his army suffer so horribly when there was plenty of fruits and vegetables ready for the picking in the Tunisian countryside? Pure ignorance. Vitamin C deficiency as the cause of scurvy wasn’t established until 1927. The Crusaders relied on a meat-heavy diet, and poor planning and logistics meant they failed to bring enough water, fruit, and vegetables along with them.

In addition, the pious Louis undertook various penances and fasts, which undermined his health. He also suffered from dysentery before the end. Researchers believe scurvy was not the primary cause of death, but it did open Louis’s body to the infection that actually killed him.[2]

8 Charles VI’s Glass Delusion

WEIRD Things You Did Not Know about Charles VI of France

A mysterious psychological disorder first appeared in the Middle Ages and afflicted the nobility in the subsequent centuries before disappearing in the 19th. This strange malady made victims think that their bodies, or parts of it, were made of glass.

One of the first recorded cases of “glass delusion” was that of King Charles VI (1368–1422), who reformed the royal bureaucracy and showed much promise as an enlightened ruler. That was until everything crumbled in 1392 when he first manifested symptoms of schizophrenia. From being hailed as “the Beloved,” Charles was now called “the Mad.”

Charles believed he was made entirely of glass. To prevent himself from breaking, he wrapped his body in layers of thick blankets and kept motionless for hours. When it became necessary to move, he wore a special garment with iron rods to protect his fragile innards. He failed to recognize his wife and children and, for five months, refused to wash himself. In 2018, a group of French psychiatrists assessed the king’s condition as suggestive of bipolar disorder.

It has been theorized that glass delusion was an unconscious reaction to new materials and substances. When glass delusion was first recorded in the 15th century, a Venetian glassmaker had just invented transparent, colorless glass, which amazed many people. Before Glass Men like Charles VI, there were Earthenware Men who believed they were pieces of pottery, and the 19th century saw a rise in Concrete Men at a time when concrete was becoming popular as a building material.[3]

7 The Murder of Agnes Sorel

Agnes Sorel – The First OFFICIAL Mistress

A ravishing and intelligent wit, Agnes Sorel was only 20 when she first met King Charles VII, 20 years her senior. Charles was immediately captivated, and soon, she was being presented as the king’s mistress, the first in French history to be officially introduced as such. Charles spared nothing to lavish her with gifts, including what is believed to be the first cut diamond and goodly estates. And Agnes was extravagant. She had fur-lined dresses with trains up to 26 feet (8 meters) long, and she sported the controversial off-the-shoulder gown with one breast exposed—her own invention.

Agnes had significant political influence over Charles, and his decision to wrest Normandy away from England was certainly at her urging. The king legitimized the three bastard children Agnes bore him. Along the way, the mistress collected a number of enemies in the court.

On February 4, 1450, after delivering her fourth child, who later died, Agnes came down with non-stop diarrhea. After two or three days, she expired, just 28 years old. Fatal dysentery after childbirth was suspicious, and rumors of poison circulated. The truth of the rumors was confirmed in 2005 when forensic toxicology uncovered massive amounts of mercury in her remains. But who killed Agnes remains a mystery.

First to be accused was Jacques Coeur, the royal financier, but the spendthrift Agnes had been his best client, and he was soon exonerated. What about Charles’s wife, Queen Marie? Or Agnes’s manipulative cousin, Antoinette de Maignelay? Then, there was the queen’s faithful doctor, Poitevin, who had the most ready access to the murder weapon.

But the most likely suspect seems to be Charles’s son, the future Louis XI, who didn’t hide his loathing for Agnes, even once pursuing her with a dagger. He had threatened to drive Agnes out of his father’s life and had numerous spies posing as Agnes’s servants who could have done the actual murder.

We may never be certain, and the murder of Agnes Sorel is one cold case historians will revisit again and again.[4]

6 The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Catherine de Medici may be the most maligned woman in French history. Her epithet, “The Serpent Queen”—someone who would strike from behind and in the dark when the victim least expected it—is how many will describe her intrigues as the power behind her three sons and her deft maneuvers to navigate the labyrinth of the French Wars of Religion.

Catherine knew that the stability of France rested on peace between the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholics. To that end, she negotiated with Jeanne d’Albret, the Protestant queen of Navarre and widow of Huguenot leader Antoine de Bourbon, for marriage between Jeanne’s son Henry and her own daughter, Margaret. Jeanne was hesitant, aware of Catherine’s devious streak.

She wrote to Henry, “I have spoken to the Queen three or four times. She only mocks me, and reports the contrary of what I have said to her…” Jeanne did consent to the union, but when she suddenly died while in Paris, rumors spread that Catherine had killed her with a pair of poisoned gloves, an accusation that has never been substantiated.

Henry and Margaret were wed on August 18, 1572. Thousands of Huguenots converged on Paris for the festivities. On the 22nd, Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny was wounded in an assassination attempt. The Catholics, fearing reprisals, orchestrated a preemptive strike on the 24th, St. Bartholomew’s Day, resulting in the massacre of 3,000 Protestants in Paris alone.

History lays the responsibility squarely on Catherine. But did she really singlehandedly plot the massacre? She did know beforehand that Coligny would be assassinated. She may have wanted a few Huguenot leaders dead to protect her son, King Charles IX. But premeditated wholesale slaughter? There is no real evidence.

Catherine visited Coligny after the attack and promised to catch the assassin. She even sent the royal doctor to treat Coligny and offered shelter to Protestants fleeing the Catholic mob. Why would she even instigate a massacre that guaranteed a third round of war when the entire point of Henry and Margaret’s marriage was to promote peace between the factions?

Catherine’s words in the aftermath of the events suggest the Serpent Queen herself was caught by surprise: “I have never before… been in a situation where I had so great a reason for feeling terrified and from which I have escaped with greater gratitude.”

“Kill them all!” Charles IX had cried. At worst, Catherine was forced to collude with her son to deal with a situation that had spiraled out of her control.[5]

5 Henri IV’s Missing Head

Henri IV Of France – The First Bourbon King

Henry of Navarre became Henry IV upon the assassination of the last of Catherine’s sons, Henry III, in 1587. “Paris is well worth a Mass!” he was reported to have said and converted to Roman Catholicism to end the years of exhausting religious chaos. The first Bourbon on the throne was revered as “Good King Henry” for bringing peace and prosperity to France.

But things had changed by 1793, and the Bourbons were now despised as the curse of France. A revolutionary mob sacked Henry’s tomb in the Basilica of St. Denis, where it had rested since 1610. They took his remains and threw them into a mass grave. When the grave was reopened in 1817, Henry’s head was nowhere to be found.

In 1946, a photographer offered the Louvre a head he claimed to be that of the king, but the Louvre declined. Then, in 2008, a mummified head was discovered in the attic of a house in Angers belonging to Jacques Bellanger, a retired tax collector. Facial reconstruction software turned up a good likeness to contemporary portraits of the king, and investigators even identified a mole and a scar that positively points to the head as Henry’s.

But then, why was the brain, shrunken to the size of a walnut, not removed by royal embalmers, as was customary? DNA from the head matched those of blood supposedly from Louis XVI, but the blood itself was of dubious provenance. Moreover, DNA comparison with living male descendants of the Bourbons indicates that both the head and the blood were not authentic.

So, where is Henry IV’s head? Was the body uncovered in 1817 even Henry’s? The body of Good King Henry was one the revolutionaries might have treated with respect and dignity and buried separately. For all we know, somewhere out there, Henry may be resting peacefully in his own grave, whole and intact.[6]

4 The Mistress and the Witch

France’s Evil Killer Witch | La Voisin

Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin, was a well-known clairvoyant and fortuneteller in 17th-century Paris. Extraordinarily well-educated, she had some knowledge of medicine and physiology, which she used in her work—palmistry, face-reading, and performing abortions. La Voisin’s aphrodisiacs, usually the ground bones of toads mixed with Spanish fly, human blood, and iron shavings, were especially popular. Her intelligence and rhetorical skills impressed even the professors at Sorbonne University, who were tricked into believing her gifts were God-given.

Soon, La Voisin added a more sinister ingredient to her mystical rituals: the Black Mass, where she used her own body as a living altar when summoning the spirits. Many prominent nobles came to La Voisin for help and advice, and she became well-known in the royal court of Louis XIV. She became so in demand that she set up an elaborate network of other witches who “subcontracted” work and helped handle the mountain of requests.

In 1667, according to La Voisin, the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, asked her to perform a Black Mass to make her hold on Louis more secure. Mme. de Montespan was given an aphrodisiac to accomplish this purpose. But when Louis pursued an affair with Mademoiselle de Fontanges, jealousy drove Mme. de Montespan to drop the aphrodisiac and ask La Voisin for poison instead.

Meanwhile, the prefect of police was investigating a series of poisonings and got wind of a plot to kill the king. It was not just Mme. de Montespan who had a motive. In Versailles, where jockeying for position was the name of the game, virtually everyone was a suspect. And the police were now on to La Voisin’s gang of witches—”the criminal magical underworld” of Paris—who provided clients with the concoctions to summarily dispatch their enemies.

The ensuing scandal and investigation uncovered La Voisin’s complicity in the murders of between 1,000 and 2,500 people. Louis refused to believe de Montespan had plotted against him, not even with the accusation of her involvement by La Voisin’s daughter, Marguerite. The charges of participating in Satanic rituals and attempted poisoning of Mlle. de Fontanges leveled against her were never proven. Louis didn’t prosecute any noble of his court who availed of La Voisin’s services, fearing that if people learned that Versailles was a nest of murderers and dealers in witchcraft, they would rebel.

But La Voisin did not escape: She was burned at the stake along with 36 of her accomplices in 1680.[7]

3 The Man in the Iron Mask

History Buffs: The Man in the Iron Mask

The most famous mystery involving the royal family is the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, a prisoner who was confined to the Bastille and other jails during the reign of Louis XIV. No one was allowed to see his face, which was always covered by a black velvet mask. Later, Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas would romanticize the story, turning the mask into iron.

Most historians agree that the prisoner’s name was Eustache Dauger, a valet. Beyond this, his identity remains enigmatic. Who was Eustache Dauger, and what crime did he commit to warrant such treatment? The name may just be a pseudonym, and it is not even clear if Dauger was a misspelled d’Anger.

In 1669, a lettre de cachet ordered Dauger’s arrest for displeasing Louis. Dauger was handed over to the charge of Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, who would be his jailer for the next 34 years. Saint-Mars was to “threaten him with death if he speaks one word except about his actual needs.” He must also be kept in a special cell behind three doors where no one could hear him.

Voltaire and Dumas were responsible for the notion that the prisoner was a brother of Louis, whose strong resemblance to the king necessitated the mask. Another theory suggests he was Louis’s real father, hidden away to cover up the Sun King’s true paternity. Various other high-ranking personages have been put forward as candidates: a disgraced general, an English nobleman, and a perfidious Italian diplomat named Count Antonio Mattioli, among many. Others have even theorized that Dauger was actually a woman—the daughter of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. Desperate for a male heir, the couple was said to have had her hidden away and replaced with a boy who became Louis XIV.

However, historians have dismissed the notion that Dauger had royal blood. He was identified as a valet and indeed served as valet to one of the prominent prisoners while in jail. But 17th century protocol would not allow a member of royalty to take on such a lowly position, not even while imprisoned. Dauger must have been what the record said he was—a humble valet.

Then why all the elaborate precautions surrounding him? Was he privy to information of great consequence? Dauger died in 1703 at the Bastille, taking all his secrets to the grave.[8]

2 The Great Cipher

Louis XIV: The World’s Longest Reigning Monarch | 1715: The Sun King is Dead | Real Royalty

One of the toughest codes in history—the Great Cipher of Louis XIV—took 200 years to crack. The product of the father-and-son team Antoine and Bonaventure Rossignol, the Great Cipher protected Louis’s secret messages, plots, and schemes from prying eyes throughout his reign. So important was the code to the kingdom’s security that the Rossignols worked in a room next to the King’s study at Versailles. Running the Black Chamber code bureau gave them great power.

The monoalphabetic nature of the cipher was deceiving. It was not just a simple substitution cipher. A layer of complexity was added by the inclusion of 587 numbers, representing syllables instead of single letters. The Rossignols were actually encrypting vocal sounds, something unique in cryptography. Some numbers functioned as traps, not representing anything meaningful but included for the sole purpose of bamboozling codebreakers.

The Great Cipher was in use until 1811 when the last of the Rossignols died. In 1893, cryptanalyst Etienne Bazeries deciphered some of the codes after three years of trial and error. But Bazieres was only able to solve parts of the cipher so that today, much correspondence in the French Archives has yet to yield its secrets. That is 150 years of French history still waiting to be uncovered.[9]

1 The Lost Dauphin

The Heart Of The TRAGIC French Prince Who Should Have Been King

In January 1793, the seven-year-old Dauphin Louis Charles was proclaimed by royalists as King Louis XVII upon his father’s execution by guillotine. At the time, the child was separated from his mother, Marie Antoinette, who was in Temple prison awaiting trial and placed under the care of a cobbler, Antoine Simon. Louis was manipulated into accusing his mother of molestation and incest, charges that were instrumental in sending Marie Antoinette to the guillotine.

In 1794, after the Queen’s beheading, Louis was sent to the Temple prison in Paris, where harsh conditions and mistreatment caused his health to deteriorate. On June 8, 1795, it was announced that young Louis Charles was dead, later determined to be from tuberculosis. The doctor who did the autopsy, Philippe-Jean Pelletan, surreptitiously removed the heart, took it with him, and preserved it in alcohol. The shroud of secrecy around the Dauphin’s final days raised suspicions that the dead child was not Louis. Many believed he was spirited away and was still alive.

The following years saw a host of individuals coming forward claiming to be Louis. The strongest candidate seemed to be Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, a German clockmaker who appeared in Paris in 1833 and was so convincing the Dauphin’s former governess at Versailles swore he was Louis. Like Louis, Naundorff had a deformed right ear and a scar on the lip. He had a general resemblance to the Bourbons. When Naundorff settled in the Netherlands, he was officially recognized by the Dutch government as Louis XVII, and his tombstone at Delft bore the name Louis Charles de Bourbon, Duc de Normandie.

In 1999, the mummified heart Dr. Pelletan stole was analyzed, and in 2004, a report concluded that its DNA was genetically similar to Marie Antoinette’s. The boy Pelettan autopsied was Louis Charles. Not so fast, say supporters of Naundorff. In 2014, a comparison of DNA from Naundorff’s humerus bone with those from Marie Antoinette’s descendants showed similarities as well. Though this study is disputed, it keeps open the possibility that Naundorff might indeed have been the prince.

But what about the heart? There are nagging questions about its authenticity. King Louis XVIII refused it, saying it was not his nephew’s. From there, the organ had changed hands multiple times, been hidden, stolen, or lost until it found its way, in 1975, to the royal crypt in St. Denis. There is a chance that it belonged to some other royal family member and not Louis Charles.

Most of France believes the matter to be settled. The Dauphin did not survive Temple prison. But to a handful, the doubts simply will not go away.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen