Was a nine-year-old boy imprisoned for making a joke about Louis XIV’s bald head?

Is there any truth behind the sensational story that in 1674 a young boy was imprisoned after making a joke about the French king's baldness?

Illustration by Glen McBeth.

The most common version of this story goes that nine-year-old schoolboy Francis Seldon made a pun about Louis XIV’s baldness during a royal visit to a school in Clermont. Louis had the boy thrown into the Bastille, where he remained in solitary confinement for 69 years.

But the story has been exaggerated, possibly through public knowledge of Louis’ sensitivity regarding his bald head and his fondness for wearing enormous wigs.

In 1674, the time of the king’s visit, Francis Seldon was the 16‑year‑old son of a rich Irish family who had sent him to France to get a first-class education. His crime was putting up a poster mocking his Jesuit teacher’s habit of holding king above God.

For this Seldon was imprisoned, and his parents were informed that the boy had disappeared. They died still believing this, at which point Seldon inherited the family fortune.

But Seldon wasn’t released for 31 years, and only then because a Jesuit priest petitioned on his behalf, in return for 98 per cent of his assets. Seldon returned to Ireland, physically broken but a wealthy man, at least until he honoured his contract with the Jesuits.  

This question was answered by freelance writer Mark Blackmore.

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