Louis XIII is an intriguing and very complex character. Accused of coldness, melancholy and homosexuality, he has divided opinion over the years. Many see him as a cipher and pawn of his incredibly clever First Minister, Cardinal Richelieu. But Louis, for all his perceived faults, had undeniable qualities.
The negative slant on his personality is subjective but with a very real basis in fact. And yet – when his childhood is investigated – it is possible to see why he was such a complicated human being.
Jean Héroard was born in Montpellier in the year 1551. His descent was from a long line of influential doctors with international connections and he spent his early career in the pay of the Gonzagas and then Charles IX of France. Charles’ brother and heir, Henri III, retained this doctor and Henri IV renewed the contract when his wife Marie de Medici became pregnant with the future Louis XIII.
As soon as the umbilical cord was severed, this doctor took control and responsibility for the heir of the throne of France’s care. What set Héroard apart – in history – was the very detailed, day by day account he kept of his new charge’s life.
When just two days old, the dauphin Louis had trouble suckling so Héroard brought in a surgeon who cut the membranes beneath the infant’s tongue in three places – a common enough practice but Louis – for the rest of his life – was afflicted by a stutter and he often had to poke his tongue out of his mouth and hold it between his lips.
From that day on Héroard seems to have sought and found complete control over all of the child’s inputs and outputs. The first suppository was administered when Louis was just 10 days old.
By whatever standards, both activities were an invasion and one that continued for many years, robbing Louis of control over his own body.
Héroard records the dauphin farting near the nose of an attendant who said, ‘Sir, you must fire your musket again.’
‘But it’s not loaded,’ said Louis.
‘Sir, but what should it be loaded with?’
‘With merde,’ the dauphin replied.
A close reading of Louis’ childhood brings unmistakable proof of profound abuse. He was whipped regularly on the orders of both his mother (Marie de Medici) and his father (Henri IV)
Héroard should not hold the full blame. His nurse, his governess, his siblings(legitimate and illegitimate) play their parts. As does his father,the sexual exhibitionist.
When Louis is only four or five years old and after a visit to his father, Héroard questions the dauphin and records…
‘…he (Louis) said some new words and phrases that are shameful and unworthy of his upbringing, saying that Papa’s was a lot longer than his, that his was a long as that – showing half the length of his arm.’
The violence and the abuse were not abnormal. The adults thus produced were afflicted. These adults populate our history books.
Louis as a child by Frans Pourbus the Younger