Domestic servants witness the births, lives, illnesses and deaths of princes and monarchs, but often remain silent about the circumstances of princely deaths. However there was one family of servants to the Crown who seemed, during a large part of the Ancien Régime, to consider themselves as funerary historiographers of the kings of France: the Anthoine family, whose members successively occupied posts as grooms of the bedchamber, arquebus carriers, keepers of the king's pet dogs and inspectors of the hunting domain of the Forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. This faithful line of servants was ennobled in 1704, and served kings until the end of the Restoration.
Its first representative, Jacques Anthoine (1614-1677), left a long and edifying account of the last illness and death of Louis XIII, who died on 14 May 1643 after long, drawn-out suffering. Today’s reader cannot fail to be struck by his depiction of the last moments of the King, surrounded by three men of the clergy who shouted in his ears, “Long live Jesus and Mary! Place your trust in them! You are striving for heaven!”
His two sons Jean and François both continued their service with Louis XIV, who they served throughout his life. At the time of the king’s last illness, they had the idea of copying their father and began keeping a diary, relating with extreme accuracy all the most intimate details of the king’s suffering: none of the great court chroniclers, such as Saint-Simon or Dangeau, were able to capture the same amount of detail, nor transcribe with such intensity the last moments of the great King, who they did not leave for one moment during the twenty-two days his “illness” lasted. They were present on 10 August in Marly, when the King sent for his First Physician, Fagon, then helped the King to get up, take his last steps, eat and change his clothes which were soaked because of the fever. They also saw him burn his most secret papers and letters, and ask Madame de Maintenon to withdraw to Saint-Cyr. “Besides themselves with grief”, they also were present at the farewells that the King bade to all his servants, “great and small, one and all on their knees”, and saw him kiss his great-grandson and talk about his will with the Duke of Orleans.
Finally, on 1st September, “at 7 o’clock in the morning, nature making a last effort, the King fell into his death throes which lasted until 8.15, then, having sighed repeatedly a few times, and hiccupped slightly twice, without any agitation or convulsions, this great monarch gave up his soul to God in admirable tranquillity. Sic transit gloria mundi […]. After the king had died, his mouth and his eyes, which had remained open and were almost as beautiful as they were in life, were closed by lords Tortillière and La Grange, servants of the Chamber, who performed this last duty for their good master. His face was pale and had become a little yellowish and very thin, but nevertheless his features were little changed”. The two valets still had to wash his body, before watching over him: “Mr Maréchal, First Surgeon, helped the servants of the chamber, valets of the chamber and upholsterers, to take the king’s body out of the bed to change the bedlinen and carry out other appropriate duties, and then placed him in a sitting position so that his face could be seen uncovered throughout the day”. On the following day, they were present at the autopsy and the embalming, before recounting the funeral ceremonies of the King and the first days of the Regency of the Duke of Orleans. The account concludes with a physical and moral portrait of the king, in which the two loyal servants display a great understanding of psychology, and with a short eulogy:
Les héros de l'Antiquité,
N'étoient que des héros d'esté,
Ils suivoient le printemps comme les hirondelles,
La victoire pour eux l'hiver n'avait point d'aisles,
Ils craignoient les frimats, les neiges et les glaçons,
Mais Louis étoit héros de toutes les saisons
[The heroes of Antiquity,
Were merely summer heroes,
They followed springtime like swallows,
Winter was their victor, when they had no wings
They feared frost, snow and ice,
But Louis was a hero for all seasons]
Several copies of the Anthoine Brothers’ manuscript are known in public collections and in private hands. One of them had already been published in 1880. The most beautiful of these copies, titled “History of the antiques of churches, abbeys, priories, castles, forests and other places located within the boundaries of the jurisdiction and hunting domain of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, with a faithful account of what happened during the last illnesses and deaths of the very Christian kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV; dedicated to the King by Mr Anthoine, shield bearer and common arquebus carrier to the King, Inspector General of the hunting domain and supervisors of the waters and forests of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the year 1728”, is preserved in the Manuscript Department of the French National library (NAF 5012). This version of the texts, including several variations, was probably written in the 1720s to be offered to the young Louis XV: adorned with engravings, the two accounts of the deaths of Louis XIII and Louis XIV are complemented by the history of the Château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the place where the former died and the latter was born, embellished with maps, portraits and drawings.
The rather cryptic title of this manuscript no doubt explains why it had never been identified by historians. This exceptional document has just been digitised and published online on the Gallica website. It will be exhibited for the first time to the public on the occasion of the exhibition “The King is dead!” at the Palace of Versailles beginning on 26 October 2015.
Charles-Éloi Vial, Curator in charge of collections, Manuscript Department. His last book: Le dernier voyage de l'Empereur. Paris-île d'Aix,1815.