Was Germany's 'Dark Countess' the daughter of executed French royals Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette? Mystery could be solved after grave is exhumed

  • Mysterious woman arrived in Hildburghausen in 1807 and lived in castle
  • She always wore a veil or travelled in a covered carriage
  • Some believe she was the real Marie Thérèse - daughter of executed royals
  • They say her half-sister took her identity after the horrors of imprisonment

A 200-year-old mystery that links a castle in a German town, a mysterious 'Dark Countess' and the French royal family may be on the cusp of finally being solved.

In 1807 a covered carriage arrived in the central German town of Hildburghausen. A man, now known to be Leonardus Cornelius van der Valck, a secretary in the Dutch embassy in Paris from July 1798 to April 1799, got out.

With him was an enigmatic and secretive young woman who would go on to fire the imaginations of historians everywhere.

End of the mystery? A digger clears the earth during the exhumation of the grave of so-called 'Dark Countess' in Hildburghausen, Germany

Known as the 'Dark Countess', many believed she was none other than Marie Thérèse Charlotte de Bourbon - daughter of the French King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were executed during the French Revolution.

Rarely seen in public and always veiled, she lived under the protection of the Duke and Duchess of Saxony- Hildburghausen in castle of Eishausen.

Now a team of archaeologists, supported by Central German Radio, may be about to shed light on a secret that has gone unsolved for more than two centuries.

The grave is being opened to find out if it contains the remains of 'Madame Royale', the French Princess Marie Therese who was said to be the sole surviving member of the French royal family after the revolution in 1789

Resting place: Michael Roemhild, director of the local municipal museum, holds what are believed to be pieces of the coffin and nails during the exhumation

They are exhuming her grave to collect DNA evidence that can prove once and for all whether the Dark Countess was in fact the ill-fated princess.

Princess Marie Thérèse, pictured around the time she left France

After her parents were guillotined Marie Thérèse was imprisoned in the 'Temple', a notorious former fortress used as a prison during the Reign of Terror.

Accepted historical dogma is that afterwards she was taken to Vienna, the capital city of her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, and also her mother's birthplace.

It was speculated that she would have refused to rejoin society after her traumatic time in the Temple, where it is rumoured she was subjected to cruelties by the guards - and perhaps even pregnant from rape - and was replaced by Ernestine Lambriquet, her half-sister and childhood companion.

The Count gave her name as Sophie Botta, a single woman from Westphalia and refused to confirm what the relationship between the pair was.

When she died in November 1837 she was quickly buried, possibly without a religious service, intensifying the speculation.

A physician said she appeared to be around 60 years old when she died- which would match the age of Marie Thérèse.

'I am personally convinced that the Madame Royale , the French king's daughter, is buried here,' said Mayor Hildburghausen Harz Steffen, reports Die Welt.

He welcomes the grave opening, but many residents want to prevent it to maintain the air of mystery surrounding a tale that would not look out of place in a Dan Brown novel.

Central German Radio has sought to allay those fears and say the project will be respectful.

'The grave of the Dark Countess and the remains will be treated with the utmost care and with due regard for piety and dignity,' said editor Eva Hempel .

The comments below have not been moderated.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now