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In June 2006 the London auctioneers Christies withdrew from sale at the last moment a letter said to have been written by Charles-Henri Sanson, the chief executioner in Revolutionary France, describing the last moments of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793 as he went to his death on the guillotine. All Christies would say was that additional information had come to light concerning the letter’s provenance and they would not be drawn on whether this related to the ownership of the letter or its authenticity.
There is no doubt that a letter from Sanson existed in the nineteenth century. In 1826 its owner, Baron Neuville, lent the letter to the French writer Châteaubriand, who had it in his hands when he quoted from it directly in revising his Essai Historique about the Revolution. According to Châteaubriand, who was an ardent royalist, the letter described how Louis died bravely, protesting his innocence, and expressing hope that his blood would cement the happiness of the French.
The revolutionary journal ‘Thermomètre du jour’, claimed however that Louis had to be forced up on to the scaffold with a pistol at his temple, cried continuously “I am lost” and was mutilated because at the last second he tried to move away from the guillotine blade, which struck his head rather than his neck. Sanson may have been bribed by royalists to write to the journal on 20 February 1793, contradicting this original report. It is hard to see why otherwise he would have taken the risk. With executions increasing day by day – Sanson presided over 2,918 personally – the next head to fall could easily have been his own for defending the reputation of the king.
As a drum roll deliberately drowned out what Louis XVI had to say, his reported last words seem equally suspect. Rather more reliably quoted is his remark made two months previously, in December 1792, when the famous lawyer Chrétien de Malesherbes came out of retirement to defend him at the Revolutionary Tribunal. "Your sacrifice is the greater," observed Louis to his lawyer, "for you are jeopardizing your own life while you cannot possibly save mine." His words were prophetic. In 1794 Malesherbes was guillotined, together with most of his family.
From our July 2006 newsletter