Marie Antoinette loved children. She couldn’t wait to have a bunch of her own, and the lack of intimacy, and therefore children, in her marriage must have been very hard for her to bear. But she found other ways to be a “mother”. When she first arrived at Versailles, she often asked her ladies-in-waiting to bring their children with them. The 15 year old dauphine grew particularly close to a 5 year old boy and his 12 year old sister, the children of Madame de Misery, chief femme de chambre.
The children, and Marie Antoinette’s pets, livened up her apartments and life. They played noisy games, breaking furniture and tearing clothes in the mayhem. Not everyone was a fan. Count Mercy, the Austrian ambassador at the French court certainly wasn’t. He believed Marie Antoinette should occupy herself with more important and seemly matters. Never mind that Marie Antoinette was still a child herself, and one whose education had been seriously neglected and who now found herself out of her depth when talking to most adults at court. No wonder she enjoyed the company of children more, but their fun and games were eventually put an end to.
A few years later, she decided to adopt less fortunate children. The first was called Armand (or Jacques). Madame Campan remembers him in her memoirs:
A little village boy, four or five years old, full of health with a pleasing countenance, remarkably large blue eyes, and fine light hair, got under the feet of the Queen’s horses when she was taking an airing in a calash, through the hamlet of St. Michel, near Louveciennes. The coachman and postilions stopped the horses, and the child was rescued without the slightest injury. Its grandmother rushed out of the door of her cottage to take it; but the Queen, standing up in her calash and extending her arms, called out that the child was hers, and that destiny had given it to her, to console her, no doubt, until she should had the happiness of having one herself.
“Is his mother alive?” asked the Queen. “No, Madame; my daughter died last winter, and left five small children upon my hands.” “I will take this one, and provide for all the rest.; “Do you consent?” “Ah, Madame, they are too fortunate,” replied the cottager; “but Jacques is a bad boy. I hope he will stay with you!” The Queen, taking little Jacques upon her knee, said that she would make him used to her, and gave orders to proceed. It was necessary, however, to shorten the drive, so violently did Jacques, scream and kick the Queen and her ladies. The arrival of her ladies at her apartments at Versailles astonished the whole household; he cried out with intolerable shrillness that he wanted his grandmother, his brother, Louis, and his sister, Marianne; nothing could calm him.
He was taken away by the wife of a servant, who was appointed to attend him as a nurse. The other children were put to school. Little Jacques, whose family name was Armand, came back to the Queen two days afterwards; a white frock trimmed with lace, a rose-colored sash with silver fringe, and a hat decorated with feathers, were now substituted for the woolen cap, the little red frock, and the wooden shoes. The child was really very beautiful. The Queen was enchanted with him; he was brought to her every morning at nine o’clock; he breakfasted and dined with her, and often even with the King.
She like to call him my child and lavished caresses upon him, still maintaining a deep silence responding the regrets which constantly occupied her heart. The child remained with the Queen until the time when Madame was old enough to come home to her august mother, who had particularly taken upon herself the care of her education. This little unfortunate was nearly twenty in 1792; the incendiary endeavors of the people, and the fear of being thought a favored creature of the Queen, had made him a most sanguinary terrorist of Versailles. He was killed at the battle of Jemmapes.
It is unclear much of this story was embellished, but the basic facts are true. Marie Antoinette took care of Armand until her first child, Marie Therese, was born, and then continued to fund his education. She also took an interest in the rest of his family. His brother Denis was given a musical education and became cellist to the King, while his two sisters were given an allowance and were left with a large sum of money after the Queen’s death.
Marie Antoinette continued to adopt children even after she became a mother herself. The next child was a girl, Marie Phillippine Camriquet. Renamed Ernestine, she was the daughter of one of Marie Therese’s maids. The Queen chose her as a young companion for her daughter. At first, Ernestine would come to the palace to spend the day with Marie Therese and then return home, but when her mother died in 1788, she moved into the young princess’ apartments. She was dressed similarly to Marie Therese, was given the same toys, and the same lessons.
In 1790, one of Louis’ gentlemen ushers and his wife died. When Marie Antoinette heard of it, she instantly decided to take care of their three daughters. The two eldest were sent to a convent. The younger, Jeanne Louise Victoire, who was 3 like the Dauphin, was installed in the royal apartments and became his companion. She was also renamed Zoe.
Three years previously, another boy had joined her household. The Chevalier de Boufflers had just returned from Senegal and presented the Queen with a parrot and a young boy. Usually, such boys entered the service of the people they were gifted to, but Marie Antoinette had other ideas. After having him baptized and renamed Jean Amilcar, she asked one of the houseboys to look after him. When the royal family was forced, during the revolution, to abandon Versailles for the Tuileries, Jean Amilcar was placed in an institution for children at Saint-Cloud.
Marie Antoinette paid for his upkeep there. It is said that, when the Queen couldn’t afford to send him money anymore, the poor boy was cast out of the institution and died of starvation on the streets. The girls had a better fate. Zoe joined her older sisters at the convent, where she eventually took the vows. She died there during the restoration. Ernestine remained with the royal family until the fall of the monarchy and their subsequent imprisonment.
The girl’s father was guillotined during the Terror, but Ernestine survived the revolution. When Marie Therese was finally freed from prison and allowed to go to Austria, she wanted her young friend to go with her, but she couldn’t be found. The princess never forgot her friend and, when her family was restored to the throne of France, looked for her again. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. Ernestine had died a few months before.