I was late and a bit confused as to whether I had taken the right Métro to reach the Chapelle Expiatoire, the neo-classical temple built above the original grave of Louis XVI.
Then I spotted them: a young dark haired man in a waxed green jacket, and a girl in a black puffball skirt pelting along the road towards what looked like a park enclosed in black railings.
Reassured, I ran after them, following them in through an entrance hall where we were met by young men wearing white armbands embroidered with the gold ‘lys’ of the House of Bourbon.
“No space in the Chapelle” they said firmly. My friend in the waxed jacket was made of sterner stuff. Ignoring them he traipsed across the lawn and up the Chapelle steps. I followed suit. Soon we had pushed discreetly into the back of the tiny temple.
It was packed: I saw men and women of all ages, even the odd child, hoisted up in parental arms. It was not possible to see the altar, only hear a distant voice reading St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:19) “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"says the Lord .”
Fitting verses for a memorial Mass for Louis XVI: his final words, according to L’Abbé Edgeworth, the Irish priest who accompanied him to the guillotine were: “I forgive the authors of my death and pray God that the blood you are going to shed may never fall back into France.”
My eye fell on the thin-fingered marble angel pointing a statue of the King heavenwards to the right of the circular chapel. On the left, just above the semi-circle of chanting male choristers, was a similar sculpture: a loose-haired Marie Antoinette, next to a Cross, clutching the arms of veiled woman (representing religion, according to my guidebook).
Her body lay next to that of her husband here, in the grounds of the Madeleine cemetery, once home to the graves of some 3,000 victims of the Revolution. A Royalist doctor noted the precise spot of their burial and later bought the land. Then in 1815, when Louis XVIII ascended the throne of France, he ordered the bodies of his unfortunate brother and sister-in-law to be exhumed and removed to the Basilica of Saint-Denis in North Paris, which already contained the graves of some 40-odd French Kings and Queens.
Around 1,000 turn up there for the memorial Mass on January 21st, the date of Louis XVI’s death. It is, I was told, the largest one in Paris, though dozens are said the same day throughout France. Some – notably in the regions of Tours, Aquitaine and Britanny – are even advertised in the regional press.
Today's Mass, in the Chapelle Expiatoire, whose vertical altar was erected right over the former grave of Louis XVI and his spouse, had for 50 years taken place on the Sunday nearest to January 21st.
But it was not an exercise in self-indulgence, emphasised the priest. “We are not here for nostalgia but because France was originally a Christian country,” he said.”Louis XVI was faithful to his Christian faith and utterly lacking in any spirit of revenge.”
The organisers from the Institut de La Maison de Bourbon, a cultural institute devoted to promulgating the memory and legacy of France’s kings, said Louis XVI was much loved, the victim of foreign powers jealous of France, and his cousins in the Orleans family. His negative reputation since death, they blame on the politically correct version of French history they claim is taught in the Republic’s schools, but which has more recently been challenged by French revisionist historians.
“The country was horrified by his death, and all the provinces utterly opposed to what happened in Paris. He was the Father of the nation.” a spokeswoman later explained. Certainly those present, as we approached the Eucharistic liturgy, seem wrapped in sorrow, the atmosphere heightened by the white tapers in gilded brackets that light the Chapelle, suffusing its pale stone with a golden glow. As I handed round the collection basket – at the request of a lady in a fur hat - I sensed I was intruding on a private grief.
Some present had family links to the dead King. Boris, 20, a student from Poitiers, said later that he was descended from a counsellor to Louis XVI and a “gentleman servant” to Marie Antoinette. He had come to remember them he said. Philippe, the descendent of a captain of the hunt for the Prince of Condé, said he had come so the truth was remembered. Hundreds of thousands, he said, had been killed by Revolutionary soldiers in the Vendée, the region of West France where Royalism, a potent force, united noble, peasant and priest against the Revolution.
I recall this later that afternoon, when as I left a grotty bar in Saint-Denis, en route to the Basilica, the regulars began to chat. They had no problem, they said, with the Royalists who turned up, some in Revolutionary – era dress, each January 21st. “I love them” said a man in a woolly hat, “Why? Because they have soul. We don’t tell our children the truth” he adds. “Qu'est-ce que tu veux? Ideas make us advance.”