Weird Norfolk: Charlotte Atkyns, a friend of Marie Antoinette
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
It is a curious inscription that links a quiet Norfolk village to an infamous French Queen who became a symbol of the excesses of the monarchy and famous for a quote she may never have even said: 'let them eat cake'.
A marble plaque inside St Peter's at Ketteringham reads: 'In memory of Charlotte, daughter of Robert Walpole and wife of Edward Atkyns esq of Ketteringham. She was born 18 and died at Paris 1836 where she lies in an unknown grave. This tablet was erected in 1907 by a few who sympathised with her wish to rest in this church. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette and made several brave attempts to rescue her from prison and after that Queen's death, strove to save the Dauphin of France.'
Charlottle Walpole was born in County Westmeath in Ireland and, according to hearsay, was related to Prime Minister Robert Walpole. An actress, she made her stage debut as Leonora in The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaff at the Crow Street Theatre in London before her Drury Lane debut in October 1777.
After spending the following summer in Bath, she returned to Drury Lane where 'as pretty as an angel' she captured the attention of Sir Edward Atkyns, the grandson of a Lord Chief Justice, of Ketteringham Hall in Norfolk and the pair married and had two sons, Edward and Wright Edward.
The Norfolk gentry refused to accept Charlotte, a common actress, so the pair moved to France in November 1784 to start a new life together away from gossip. They entered court circles at Versailles and there the charming Mrs Atkyns was introduced to the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
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The pair became firm friends and, as the Atkyns flitted from France to Ketteringham, Charlotte extended her contacts for French émigrés and, at the start of the French Revolution was recruited as a spy and agent by Louise de Frotte for the counter-revolutionary royalists from 1791 to 1794.
When Marie Antoinette was imprisoned, Charlotte made many attempts to help her escape, on one occasion visiting Marie in her prison cell dressed as a national guard – she begged the Queen to swap clothes with her and escape, but she refused to forsake her children and her friend was compelled to leave her.
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Charlotte also tried to free the former royal children from where they were being held, at one stage smuggling a child believed to be the Dauphin out although it was later discovered that he was a mute and Charlotte had been tricked.
Her large fortune helped her bribe officials, pay messengers to travel between London and Paris and charter a ship to hover near the coast for months waiting to transport possible fugitives.
Charlotte knew no rest until she had expended all her energy and her wealth not only to free Marie Antoinette, but also those close to her – her quest failed, however, and her friend was executed by the guillotine in 1793.
On February 2 1836, Charlotte died in France with her loyal German maid by her side, her fortune all but gone having remortgaged Ketteringham and spent the modern-day equivalent of £15 million during her reign as the female Scarlet Pimpernell.
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