"Marie-Antoinette's Table Cloth"
This piece of white Damask, size approximately 5 feet 6 inches by a little over 7 feet, shows with finest silks and detail, a portrait of Charles VI on horseback, skyline scenes of the city of Vienna, lettered "Wien", and the Imperial achievement of arms, repeated at intervals in the weave. Charles VI was Holy Roman Emperor, 1711-1740. This "table cloth" featured in the Tale of Two Cities Exhibition at Greenwich Palace, in 1989.
Alice Williams was a charming lady whom my late Mother befriended during the Second World War when they worked together with the WVS (later WRVS). Alice was housekeeper to Frederick Pullen J.P. of London Road, Burgess Hill in Sussex, who claimed that his great aunt Caroline had been a lady in waiting to Marie-Antoinette, the Queen of France, brutally treated during the French Revolution, and guillotined on the 16th October 1793. Marie-Antoinette was the daughter of the Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa and grand daughter of Charles VI of Austria.
The family story, told by Mr Pullen, was that the table cloth (when full sized) had been a wedding present to Marie-Antoinette upon her marriage to King Louis XVI of France from her Mother, the Empress of Austria. It was supposed to have been made for the Empresses father, Charles VI. In the Tuileries, shortly before her execution, the Queen had commanded that it be ripped up into six pieces and one piece given to each of her ladies in waiting. The macabre purpose of this apparent iconoclasm was that the pieces of cloth should be used as shrouds in preparation for the impending slaughter of the Royal household. The only person to escape was, apparently, the English lady who brought her piece of the cloth back to England.
Alice Williams was dying of cancer, occasionally nursed by my Mother. She knew of my great interest in heraldry and, having inherited from Mr Pullen, gave the textile to me before she died. In the 1960s, experts at the Victoria and Albert Museum authenticated it as early eighteenth century Viennese work. In 1968, Prof. Dr Hans Jager Sunstenau of Vienna confirmed that it was from the Imperial Household but was unable to locate any documentation at that time. In 1997, my wife, also named Alice, and I went to Vienna during the course of a congress and visited the Sch0nbrunn Palace, which had largely been built for Emperor Charles VI. We discussed the tablecloth with a curator who showed us an old engraving illustrating a banquet in which cloth appeared quite clearly on a long table. He allowed us into a long room which he told us was the banqueting hall illustrated in the engraving. At the time, it was closed to the public for redecoration work. Roughly measuring the room with our feet and comparing the decoration and chandeliers, we concluded that this could well have been the banqueting room used on the occasion when the drawing for the print had been made. The original table would have been more than 30 feet long and 5 feet wide. The tablecloth would have hung about 18 inches down on all sides. Alternatively, of course, the cloth could have covered a table in a the palace in Vienna.
Later that day, we met Professor Jager Sunstenau again. In his late 90's, he is still alive, in 2005. We had tea with the old gentleman in Vienna while we were staying at the Convent of the Teutonic Knights next to their orginal theatre where Mozart played. He confirmed our interpretation.
Wherever it was once in practical use, it is now, obviously, identified as being a family treasure, but, I believe that every family must have something of historical value and a story to fascinate the next generation. Such stories, wrapped in international, national, or family history are the cements that bind the family unit together. "Grandpa tell me another," I have heard said on many an occasion.
"Have I told you about when…" I reply, and there are more true tales to tell, from family history.
Cecil R. Humphery-Smith