The Mystery of Marie-Antoinette’s Beloved Dog “Coco”
According to historical accounts, bichons were for centuries among the favoured lapdogs of the French nobility. They reached the height of popularity under King Henri III, the last of the Valois monarchs before the arrival of the Bourbon dynasty in the late 16th century. Henri III’s alleged homosexuality has been the subject of much debate among historians. We do know, however, that his favoured male companions were known as “mignons” and that his over-indulged bichons were always be-ribboned. The verb bichonner in French – for pamper – must surely come down to us from the eccentric court of Henri III.
After the French Revolution ended the Bourbon dynasty with the sharp blade of the guillotine, the bichons pampered by France’s aristocracy fell on hard times. Many were released into the streets of Paris and became common dogs trained to do tricks for popular amusements. Parisians might have rejected bichons as symbols of power, but that did not happen. The people of Paris couldn’t resist their adorable little faces and merry temperament. Or so goes the popular history of the bichon in France. One has to wonder whether bichons escaped the cutting knives of Paris’ boucheries canines in the late 19th century.
I have studied several paintings of Marie-Antoinette posing in opulent splendour with her pampered lapdogs. I have never spotted a bichon in any of those portraits. Her favourite dog was called “Coco”. It’s said that Marie-Antoinette was clutching Coco on the tumbril on her way to her place of execution at Place de la Concorde. The story is probably apocryphal. But Coco was very real. Some accounts claim Coco was a bichon, but it seems more likely the dog was a toy spaniel, commonly called a “papillon”. We know, too, that toy spaniels were the preferred dogs of Marie-Antoinette’s family in Vienna, the Habsburgs. The confusion about Coco may result from the multitude of dogs that Marie Antoinette kept during her short and tragic life. She had another papillon called Thysbée; and her lover, the Swedish ambassador Count Fersen, gave her a large Leonberger called Odin. But it is Coco who has left the greatest mark in the annals of French history.
Some historians claim that Marie-Antoinette, following her arrest in 1791, confided Coco to Madame de Tourzel, the trusted governess of her two children, Prince Louis and Princess Marie-Thérèse. One biographer tells us that Madame de Tourzel was holding little Coco in her arms in the crowd assembled in Place de la Concorde on the day Marie-Antoinette was taken to the guillotine. Coco survived the French Revolution and spent the entire Napoleonic era at the Hapsburg court in Austria. Remarkably, when Napoleon was defeated Coco was still alive at the grand age of 22. The dog actually returned to Paris following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and died shortly afterwards. Whatever the actual circumstances of Coco’s final days, we know exactly where the dog is buried.
Coco lies in the sumptuous gardens of the Hôtel de Seignelay, once a magnificent private residence located at 80 rue de Lille in the 7th arrondissement – a stone’s throw from the spot where Marie-Antoinette was beheaded. The Hôtel de Seignelay eventually fell into the hands of the French government which recently put the property on the auction block to raise funds for the public treasury. In the brochure vaunting the palatial residence’s merits, potential purchasers were encouraged to consider a quaint selling point of particular historical interest: the gravestone marking the final resting place of Marie-Antoinette’s beloved Coco.
I occasionally pass by the Hôtel de Seignelay on my walks with Oscar along the Seine. From the river bank we climb the steps to the street where a statue of Thomas Jefferson stands near the Musée d’Orsay, then head back home along the Quai Anatole France. When we pass behind the Hôtel de Seignelay, I can stand on my toes and peer through an opening in the high wall to catch sight of the spot where Coco’s flat gravestone (pictured above right) is located in the garden.
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