Louis XVI of France
King Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet
|King of France and Navarre|
|Reign||10 May 1774 –4 September 1791|
|Coronation||11 June 1775|
|King of the French|
|Reign||4 September 1791 –10 August 1792|
|Proclamation||30 September 1791|
|Successor||Provisional Executive Council
|Born||23 August 1754
Palace of Versailles, France
|Died||21 January 1793 (aged 38)
Place de la Révolution, Paris,France
|Burial||21 January 1815
Basilica of St Denis, north of Paris
|Issue||Marie Thérèse of France
Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France
Louis XVII of France
|Father||Louis, Dauphin of France|
|Mother||Maria Josepha of Saxony|
Louis XVI (French pronunciation: [lwi sɛːz]; 23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793), born Louis-Auguste, also known as Louis Capet, was King of France from 1774 until his deposition in 1792, although his formal title after 1791 was King of the French. He was guillotined on 21 January 1793. His father, Louis, Dauphin of France, was the son and heir apparent of Louis XV of France, but his father died in 1765, and Louis succeeded his grandfather as king in 1774.
The first part of Louis’ reign was marked by attempts to reform France in accordance with Enlightenment ideas. These included efforts to abolish serfdom, remove the taille, and increase tolerance toward non-Catholics. TheFrench nobility reacted to the proposed reforms with hostility, and successfully opposed their implementation. Louis implemented deregulation of the grain market, advocated by his liberal minister Turgot, but it resulted in an increase in bread prices. In period of bad harvests, it would lead to food scarcity which would prompt the masses to revolt. From 1776 Louis XVI actively supported the North American colonists, who were seeking theirindependence from Great Britain, which was realized in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
The ensuing debt and financial crisis contributed to the unpopularity of the Ancien Régime which culminated at the Estates-General of 1789. Discontent among the members of France’s middle and lower classes resulted in strengthened opposition to the French aristocracy and to the absolute monarchy, of which Louis and his wife, queen Marie Antoinette, were viewed as representatives. In 1789, the storming of the Bastille during riots in Paris marked the beginning of the French Revolution.
Louis’s indecisiveness and conservatism led some elements of the people of France to view him as a symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Régime, and his popularity deteriorated progressively. His disastrous flight to Varennes in June 1791, four months before the constitutional monarchy was declared, seemed to justify the rumors that the king tied his hopes of political salvation to the prospects of foreign invasion. The credibility of the king was deeply undermined and the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic became an ever increasing possibility.
In a context of civil and international war, Louis XVI was suspended and arrested at the time of the insurrection of 10 August 1792 one month before the constitutional monarchy was abolished and the First French Republicproclaimed on 21 September 1792. He was tried by the National Convention (self-instituted as a tribunal for the occasion), found guilty of high treason, and executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793, as a desacralized French citizen known as “Citizen Louis Capet”, a nickname in reference to Hugh Capet, the founder of the Capetian dynasty – which the revolutionaries interpreted as Louis’ family name. Louis XVI was the only King of France ever to be executed, and his death brought an end to more than a thousand years of continuous French monarchy.
- 2Family life
- 3Absolute monarch of France, 1774–1789
- 4Foreign policy
- 5Revolutionary constitutional reign, 1789–1792
- 6Imprisonment and execution, 1792–1793
- 9Titles, styles, honours and arms
- 12External links
Louis-Auguste de France, who was given the title Duc de Berry at birth, was born in the Palace of Versailles. Out of seven children, he was the second son of Louis, the Dauphin of France, and thus the grandson of Louis XV of France and of his consort, Maria Leszczyńska. His mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.
Louis-Auguste had a difficult childhood because his parents neglected him in favour of his, said to be, bright and handsome older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne, who died at the age of nine in 1761. A strong and healthy boy, but very shy, Louis-Auguste excelled in his studies and had a strong taste for Latin, history, geography, and astronomy, and became fluent in Italian and English. He enjoyed physical activities such as hunting with his grandfather, and rough-playing with his younger brothers, Louis-Stanislas, comte de Provence, and Charles-Philippe, comte d’Artois. From an early age, Louis-Auguste had been encouraged in another of his hobbies: locksmithing, which was seen as a ‘useful’ pursuit for a child.
Upon the death of his father, who died of tuberculosis on 20 December 1765, the eleven-year-old Louis-Auguste became the new Dauphin. His mother never recovered from the loss of her husband, and died on 13 March 1767, also from tuberculosis. The strict and conservative education he received from the Duc de La Vauguyon, “gouverneur des Enfants de France” (governor of the Children of France), from 1760 until his marriage in 1770, did not prepare him for the throne that he was to inherit in 1774 after the death of his grandfather, Louis XV. Throughout his education, Louis-Auguste received a mixture of studies particular to religion, morality, and humanities. His instructors may have also had a good hand in shaping Louis-Auguste into the indecisive king that he became. Abbé Berthier, his instructor, taught him that timidity was a value in strong monarchs, and Abbé Soldini, his confessor, instructed him not to let people read his mind.
On 16 May 1770, at the age of fifteen, Louis-Auguste married the fourteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), his second cousin once removed and the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa.
This marriage was met with hostility by the French public. France’s alliance with Austria had pulled the country into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, in which it was defeated by the British, both in Europe and in North America. By the time that Louis-Auguste and Marie-Antoinette were married, the French people generally regarded the Austrian alliance with dislike, and Marie-Antoinette was seen as an unwelcome foreigner. For the young couple, the marriage was initially amiable but distant. Louis-Auguste’s shyness and, among other factors, the young age and inexperience of the newlyweds, who were near total strangers to each other – having met only two days prior to their wedding -, meant that the 15-year-old bridegroom failed to consummate the union with his 14-year-old bride. His fear of being manipulated by her for Imperial purposes caused him to behave coldly towards her in public. Over time, the couple became closer, though while their marriage was reportedly consummated in July 1773, it was not in fact really so until 1777.
Since the royal couple failed to produce any children for several years after their wedding, there was a strain upon their marriage, whilst the situation was worsened by the publication of obscene pamphlets (libelles) which mocked the infertility of the pair. One questioned, “Can the King do it? Can’t the King do it?”
The reasons behind the couple’s initial failure to have children were debated at that time, and they have continued to be so since. One suggestion is that Louis-Auguste suffered from a physiological dysfunction, most often thought to be phimosis, a suggestion first made in late 1772 by the royal doctors. Historians adhering to this view suggest that he wascircumcised (a common treatment for phimosis) to relieve the condition seven years after their marriage. Louis’s doctors were not in favour of the surgery – the operation was delicate and traumatic, and capable of doing “as much harm as good” to an adult male. The argument for phimosis and a resulting operation is mostly seen to originate from Stefan Zweig, who is now known to have given undue prominence to evidence suggesting that Louis had phimosis, and to have suppressed other evidence that contradicted that interpretation.Zweig, a novelist not an historian, was influenced by the theories of his close friend Sigmund Freud, and argued that Marie Antoinette’s notorious frivolity and spendthrift ways resulted from her sexual frustration in the first seven years of her marriage
Most modern historians agree that Louis had no surgery – for instance, as late as 1777, the Prussian envoy, Baron Goltz, reported that the King of France had definitely declined the operation. The fact was that Louis was frequently declared to be perfectly fit for sexual intercourse, confirmed by Joseph II, and during the time he was purported to have had the operation, he went out hunting almost every day, according to his journal. This would not have been possible if he had undergone a circumcision; at the very least, he would have been unable to ride to the hunt for a few weeks thereafter. The couple’s consummation problems are now attributed to other factors. Antonia Fraser’s biography of the queen discusses Joseph II’s letter on the matter to one of his brothers after he visited Versailles in 1777. In the letter, Joseph describes in astonishingly frank detail Louis’ inadequate performance in the marriage bed and Antoinette’s lack of interest in conjugal activity. Joseph described the couple as “complete fumblers”; however, with his advice, Louis began to apply himself more effectively to his marital duties, and sometime in the third week of March 1777 Marie Antoinette became pregnant.
Eventually, in spite of their earlier difficulties, the royal couple became the parents of four children. Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan, notes a miscarriage the queen suffered after the birth of her first child, an incident dated to July 1779 by a letter to the queen from the empress. Madame Campan states that Louis spent an entire morning consoling his wife at her bedside, and swore to secrecy everyone who knew of the incident. Marie Antoinette suffered a second miscarriage at the beginning of November 1783. The four live-born children were:
- Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte (19 December 1778 – 19 October 1851)
- Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François, the Dauphin (22 October 1781 – 4 June 1789)
- Louis-Charles, Dauphin after the death of his elder brother, future titular king Louis XVII of France (27 March 1785 – 8 June 1795)
- Sophie-Hélène-Béatrix, died in infancy (9 July 1786 – 19 June 1787)
Absolute monarch of France, 1774–1789
When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1774, he was nineteen years old. He had an enormous responsibility, as the government was deeply in debt, and resentment of “despotic” monarchy was on the rise. He felt himself woefully unqualified to resolve the situation.
As king, Louis focused primarily on religious freedom and foreign policy. While none doubted Louis’s intellectual ability to rule France, it was quite clear that, although raised as the Dauphin since 1765, he lacked firmness and decisiveness. His desire to be loved by his people is evident in the prefaces of many of his edicts that would often explain the nature and good intention of his actions as benefiting the people. He aimed to earn the love of his people by reinstating the parlements. When questioned about his decision, he said, “It may be considered politically unwise, but it seems to me to be the general wish and I want to be loved.” In spite of his indecisiveness, Louis XVI was determined to be a good king, stating that he “must always consult public opinion; it is never wrong.” He therefore appointed an experienced advisor, Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, comte de Maurepas who, until his death in 1781, would take charge of many important ministerial functions.
Among the major events of Louis XVI’s reign was his signing of the Edict of Versailles, also known as the Edict of Tolerance, on 7 November 1787, which was registered in the parlement on 29 January 1788. This edict effectively nullified the Edict of Fontainebleau that had been law for 102 years, granting non-Roman Catholics – Huguenots and Lutherans, as well as Jews – civil and legal status in France and the legal right to practice their faiths. The Edict of Versailles did not legally proclaim freedom of religion in France – this took two more years, with theDeclaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 – however, it was an important step in eliminating religious tensions and it officially ended religious persecution within his realm.
Radical financial reforms by Turgot and Malesherbes angered the nobles and were blocked by the parlements who insisted that the King did not have the legal right to levy new taxes. So, in 1776, Turgot was dismissed and Malesherbes resigned, to be replaced by Jacques Necker. Necker supported the American Revolution, and he carried out a policy of taking out large international loans instead of raising taxes. He attempted to gain public favor in 1781 when he had published the first ever statement of the French Crown’s expenses and accounts, theCompte rendu au roi. This allowed the people of France to view the king’s accounts in modest surplus. When this policy failed miserably, Louis dismissed him, and then replaced him in 1783 with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who increased public spending to “buy” the country’s way out of debt. Again this failed, so Louis convoked the Assembly of Notables in 1787 to discuss a revolutionary new fiscal reform proposed by Calonne. When the nobles were informed of the extent of the debt, they were shocked into rejecting the plan. This negative turn of events signaled to Louis that he had lost the ability to rule as an absolute monarch, and he fell into depression.
As power drifted from him, there were increasingly loud calls for him to convoke the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614, at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIII. As a last-ditch attempt to get new monetary reforms approved, Louis XVI convoked the Estates-General on 8 August 1788, setting the date of their opening at 1 May 1789. With the convocation of the Estates-General, as in many other instances during his reign, Louis placed his reputation and public image in the hands of those who were perhaps not as sensitive to the desires of the French public as he was. Because it had been so long since the Estates-General had been convened, there was some debate as to which procedures should be followed. Ultimately, the parlement de Paris agreed that “all traditional observances should be carefully maintained to avoid the impression that the Estates-General could make things up as it went along.” Under this decision, the King agreed to retain many of the divisive customs which had been the norm in 1614, but which were intolerable to a Third Estate buoyed by the recent proclamations of equality. For example, the First and Second Estates proceeded into the assembly wearing their finest garments, while the Third Estate was required to wear plain, oppressively somber black, an act of alienation that Louis would likely have not condoned. He seemed to regard the deputies of the Estates-General with at least respect: in a wave of self-important patriotism, members of the Estates refused to remove their hats in the King’s presence, so Louis removed his to them. This convocation was one of the events that transformed the general economic and political malaise of the country into the French Revolution. In June 1789, the Third Estate unilaterally declared itself the National Assembly. Louis’s attempts to control it resulted in the Tennis Court Oath(serment du jeu de paume), on 20 June, the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July, and eventually led to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, which started the French Revolution.(Louis’ “diary” entry for 14 July, the single word “rien (nothing)” has been used to show how out of touch with reality he was, but the document was more of a hunting log than a personal journal. When he did not go hunting, he wrote “rien”. He did not mean nothing important had happened that day). Within three short months, the majority of the king’s executive authority had been transferred to the elected representatives of the people’s nation.
French involvement in the Seven Years’ War had left Louis XVI a disastrous inheritance. Britain’s victories had seen them capture most of France’s colonial territories. While some were returned to France at the 1763 Treaty of Parisa vast swathe of North America was ceded to the British.
This had led to a strategy amongst the French leadership of seeking to rebuild the French military in order to fight a war of revenge against Britain, in which it was hoped the lost colonies could be recovered. France still maintained a strong influence in the West Indies, and in India maintained five trading posts, leaving opportunities for disputes and power-play with Great Britain.
Concerning the American Revolution and Europe
In the spring of 1776, Vergennes, the Foreign Secretary, saw an opportunity to humiliate France’s long-standing enemy, Great Britain, and to recover territory lost during the Seven Years’ War, by supporting the American Revolution. In the same year Louis XVI was persuaded by Pierre Beaumarchais to send supplies, ammunition, and guns to the rebels secretly, then to sign a formal Treaty of Alliance in early 1778, and later that year to go to war with Britain. In deciding in favor of war, despite France’s large financial problems, the King was materially influenced by alarmist reports after the Battle of Saratoga which suggested that Britain was preparing to make huge concessions to the thirteen colonies and then, allied with them, to strike at French and Spanish possessions in the West Indies. Spain and the Netherlands soon joined the French in an anti-British coalition. After 1778, Great Britain switched its focus to the West Indies, as defending the sugar islands was considered more important than trying to recover the thirteen colonies. France and Spain planned to invade the British Isles themselves with theArmada of 1779, but the operation never went ahead.
France’s initial military assistance to the American rebels was a disappointment, with defeats at Rhode Island and Savannah. In 1780, France sent Rochambeau and Grasse to help the Americans, along with large land and naval forces. The French expeditionary force arrived in North America in July 1780. The appearance of French fleets in the Caribbean was followed by the capture of a number of the sugar islands, including Tobago and Grenada. In October 1781, the French naval blockade was instrumental in forcing a British army under Cornwallis to surrender at the Siege of Yorktown. When news of this reached London in March 1782, the government of Lord North fell and Great Britain immediately sued for peace terms; however, France delayed the end of the war until September 1783 in the hope of overrunning more British colonies in India and the West Indies.
Great Britain recognised the independence of the thirteen colonies as the United States of America, and the French war ministry rebuilt its army. However, the British defeated the main French fleet in 1782 and successfully defended Jamaica and Gibraltar. France gained little from the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the war, except the colonies of Tobago and Senegal. Louis XVI was wholly disappointed in his aims of recovering Canada, India, and other islands in the West Indies from Britain, as they were too well defended and the Royal Navy made any invasion attempt impossible. The war cost 1,066 million livres, financed by new loans at high interest (with no new taxes). Necker concealed the crisis from the public by explaining only that ordinary revenues exceeded ordinary expenses, and not mentioning the loans. After he was forced from office in 1781, new taxes were levied.
This intervention in America was not possible without France adopting a neutral position in European affairs in order not to be drawn into a continental war which would be simply a repetition of the French policy mistakes in theSeven Years’ War. Vergennes supported by King Louis refused to go to War to support Austria in the Bavarian Succession crisis in 1778, when Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph, tried to control parts of Bavaria. Vergennes and Maurepas refused to support the Austrian position, but the intervention of Marie Antoinette in favor of Austria obliged France to adopt a position more favorable to Austria, which in the treaty of Teschen was able to get in compensation a territory whose population numbered around 100,000 persons. However, this intervention was a disaster for the image of the Queen, who was named “l’Autrichienne” (a pun in French meaning “Austrian”, but the “chienne” suffix can mean “bitch”) on account of it.
Louis XVI hoped to use the American Revolutionary War as an opportunity to expel the British from India. In 1782, he sealed an alliance with the Peshwa Madhu Rao Narayan. As a consequence, Bussy moved his troops to the Isle de France (now Mauritius) and later contributed to the French effort in India in 1783. Suffren became the ally of Hyder Ali in the Second Anglo-Mysore War against British rule in India, in 1782–1783, fighting the British fleet along the coasts of India and Ceylon.
France also intervened in Cochinchina following Mgr Pigneau de Béhaine‘s intervention to obtain military aid. A France-Cochinchina alliance was signed through the Treaty of Versailles of 1787, between Louis XVI and PrinceNguyễn Ánh.
Louis XVI also encouraged major voyages of exploration. In 1785, he appointed La Pérouse to lead a sailing expedition around the world.
Revolutionary constitutional reign, 1789–1792
On 5 October 1789, an angry mob of Parisian working women was incited by revolutionaries and marched on the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lived. At dawn, they infiltrated the palace and attempted to kill the queen, who was associated with a frivolous lifestyle that symbolized much that was despised about the Ancien Régime. After the situation had been defused by Lafayette, head of the Garde nationale, the king and his family were brought by the crowd to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, the reasoning being that the king would be more accountable to the people if he lived among them in Paris.
The Revolution’s principles of popular sovereignty, though central to democratic principles of later eras, marked a decisive break from the centuries-old principle of divine right that was at the heart of the French monarchy. As a result, the Revolution was opposed by many of the rural people of France and by all the governments of France’s neighbors. As the Revolution became more radical and the masses more uncontrollable, several of its leading figures began to doubt its benefits. Some, like Honoré Mirabeau, secretly plotted with the Crown to restore its power in a new constitutional form.
Beginning in 1791, Montmorin, Minister of Foreign Affairs, started to organize covert resistance to the revolutionary forces. Thus, the funds of the Liste Civile, voted annually by the National Assembly, were partially assigned to secret expenses in order to preserve the monarchy. Arnault Laporte, who was in charge of the Civil list, collaborated with both Montmorin and Mirabeau. After the sudden death of Mirabeau, Maximilien Radix de Sainte-Foix, a noted financier, took his place. In effect, he headed a secret council of advisers to Louis XVI, which tried to preserve the monarchy; these schemes proved unsuccessful, and were exposed later when the armoire de fer was discovered.
Mirabeau’s death on 7 April, and Louis XVI’s indecision, fatally weakened negotiations between the Crown and moderate politicians. On one hand, Louis was nowhere near as reactionary as his brothers, the comte de Provence and the comte d’Artois, and he repeatedly sent messages to them requesting a halt to their attempts to launch counter-coups. This was often done through his secretly nominated regent, the Cardinal Loménie de Brienne. On the other hand, Louis was alienated from the new democratic government both by its negative reaction to the traditional role of the monarch and in its treatment of him and his family. He was particularly irked by being kept essentially as a prisoner in the Tuileries, and by the refusal of the new regime to allow him to have confessors and priests of his choice rather than ‘constitutional priests’ pledged to the state and not the Roman Catholic Church.
Flight to Varennes (1791)
On 21 June 1791, Louis XVI attempted to flee secretly with his family from Paris to the royalist fortress town of Montmédy on the northeastern border of France, where he would join the émigrés and be protected by Austria. While the National Assembly worked painstakingly towards a constitution, Louis and Marie-Antoinette were involved in plans of their own. Louis had appointed Breteuil to act as plenipotentiary, dealing with other foreign heads of state in an attempt to bring about a counter-revolution. Louis himself held reservations against depending on foreign assistance. Like his mother and father, he thought that the Austrians were treacherous and the Prussians were overly ambitious. As tensions in Paris rose and he was pressured to accept measures from the Assembly against his will, Louis XVI and the queen plotted to secretly escape from France. Beyond escape, they hoped to raise an “armed congress” with the help of the émigrés, as well as assistance from other nations with which they could return and, in essence, recapture France. This degree of planning reveals Louis’ political determination; unfortunately, it was for this determined plot that he was eventually convicted of high treason. He left behind (on his bed) a 16-page written manifesto, Déclaration du roi, adressée à tous les François, à sa sortie de Paris, traditionally known as theTestament politique de Louis XVI (“Political Testament of Louis XVI”), explaining his rejection of the constitutional system as illegitimate; it was printed in the newspapers. However, his indecision, many delays, and misunderstanding of France were responsible for the failure of the escape. Within 24 hours, the royal family was arrested at Varennes-en-Argonne shortly after Jean-Baptiste Drouet, who recognised the king from his profile on a 50 livres assignat (paper money), had given the alert. Louis XVI and his family were taken back to Paris where they arrived on 25 June. Viewed suspiciously as traitors, they were placed under tight house arrest upon their return to the Tuileries.
At the microscopic level, the failure of the escape plans was due to a series of misadventures, delays, misinterpretations, and poor judgments. In a wider perspective, the failure was attributable to the king’s indecision—he repeatedly postponed the schedule, allowing for smaller problems to become severe. Furthermore, he totally misunderstood the political situation. He thought only a small number of radicals in Paris were promoting a revolution that the people as a whole rejected. He thought, mistakenly, that he was beloved by the peasants and the common folk. The king’s flight in the short term was traumatic for France, inciting a wave of emotions that ranged from anxiety to violence to panic. Everyone realized that war was imminent. The deeper realization, that the king had in fact repudiated the Revolution, was an even greater shock for people who until then had seen him as a good king who governed as a manifestation of God’s will. They felt betrayed. Republicanism now burst out of the coffee houses and became a dominating philosophy of the rapidly radicalized French Revolution.
Intervention by foreign powers
The other monarchies of Europe looked with concern upon the developments in France, and considered whether they should intervene, either in support of Louis or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The key figure was Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Initially, he had looked on the Revolution with equanimity. However, he became more and more disturbed as it became more and more radical. Despite this, he still hoped to avoid war.
On 27 August, Leopold and Frederick William II of Prussia, in consultation with émigrés French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family, and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them. Although Leopold saw the Pillnitz Declaration as an easy way to appear concerned about the developments in France without committing any soldiers or finances to change them, the revolutionary leaders in Paris viewed it fearfully as a dangerous foreign attempt to undermine France’s sovereignty.
In addition to the ideological differences between France and the monarchical powers of Europe, there were continuing disputes over the status of Austrian estates in Alsace, and the concern of members of the National Constituent Assembly about the agitation of émigrés nobles abroad, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and the minor states of Germany.
In the end, the Legislative Assembly, supported by Louis XVI, declared war on Austria (“the King of Bohemia and Hungary”) first, voting for war on 20 April 1792, after a long list of grievances was presented to it by the foreign minister, Charles François Dumouriez. Dumouriez prepared an immediate invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, where he expected the local population to rise against Austrian rule. However, the Revolution had thoroughly disorganised the army, and the forces raised were insufficient for the invasion. The soldiers fled at the first sign of battle and, in one case, on 28 April 1792, murdered their general, Irish-born comte Théobald de Dillon, whom they accused of treason.
While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganised its armies, a Prussian-Austrian army under Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick assembled at Coblenz on the Rhine. In July, the invasion began, with Brunswick’s army easily taking the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun. The duke then issued on 25 July a proclamation called the Brunswick Manifesto, written by Louis’s émigré cousin, the Prince de Condé, declaring the intent of the Austrians and Prussians to restore the king to his full powers and to treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial law.
Contrary to its intended purpose of strengthening Louis XVI’s position against the revolutionaries, the Brunswick Manifesto had the opposite effect of greatly undermining his already highly tenuous position. It was taken by many to be the final proof of collusion between the king and foreign powers in a conspiracy against his own country. The anger of the populace boiled over on 10 August when an armed mob – with the backing of a new municipal government of Paris that came to be known as the Insurrectional Paris Commune – marched upon and invaded the Tuileries Palace. The royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly.
Imprisonment and execution, 1792–1793
Louis was officially arrested on 13 August 1792, and sent to the Temple, an ancient fortress in Paris that was used as a prison. On 21 September, the National Assembly declared France to be a Republic and abolished the Monarchy. Louis was stripped of all of his titles and honours, and from this date was known as simply Citoyen Louis Capet.
The Girondins were partial to keeping the deposed king under arrest, both as a hostage and a guarantee for the future. Members of the Commune and the most radical deputies, who would soon form the group known as the Mountain, argued for Louis’s immediate execution. The legal background of many of the deputies made it difficult for a great number of them to accept an execution without the due process of law of some sort, and it was voted that the deposed monarch be tried before the National Convention, the organ that housed the representatives of the sovereign people. In many ways, the former king’s trial represented the trial of the monarchy by the revolution. It was seen as such, with the death of one came the life of the other. Michelet argued that the death of the former king would lead to the acceptance of violence as a tool for happiness. He said, “If we accept the proposition that one person can be sacrificed for the happiness of the many, it will soon be demonstrated that two or three or more could also be sacrificed for the happiness of the many. Little by little, we will find reasons for sacrificing the many for the happiness of the many, and we will think it was a bargain.”
In November 1792, the armoire de fer (iron chest) incident took place at the Tuileries Palace, when the existence, in the king’s bedroom, of the hidden safe containing compromising documents and correspondence, was revealed by François Gamain, the Versailles locksmith who had installed it, went to Paris on 20 November and told Jean-Marie Roland, Girondinist Minister of the Interior. The resulting scandal served to discredit the king.
On 11 December, among crowded and silent streets, the deposed king was brought from the Temple to stand before the Convention and hear his indictment, an accusation of high treason and crimes against the State. On 26 December, his counsel, Raymond Desèze, delivered Louis’ response to the charges, with the assistance of François Tronchet and Malesherbes.
Paul Wranitzky: “Funeral March for the Death of the King Louis XVI” from the Symphony Op. 31 “The Revolution” or “La Paix”, Mov. 2 Pt. 2.
Porticodoro / SmartCGArt Media Productions – Classical Orchestra.
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On 15 January 1793, the Convention, composed of 721 deputies, voted on the verdict. Given overwhelming evidence of Louis’s collusion with the invaders, the verdict was a foregone conclusion – with 693 deputies voting guilty, none for acquittal, with 23 abstaining. The next day, a roll-call vote was carried out to decide upon the fate of the former king, and the result was uncomfortably close for such a dramatic decision. 288 of the deputies voted against death and for some other alternative, mainly some means of imprisonment or exile. 72 of the deputies voted for the death penalty, but subject to a number of delaying conditions and reservations. 361 of the deputies voted for Louis’s immediate death. Philippe Égalité, formerly the duke of Orléans and Louis’ own cousin, voted for Louis’ execution, a cause of much future bitterness among French monarchists; he would himself be guillotined before the end of 1793.
The next day, a motion to grant Louis XVI reprieve from the death sentence was voted down: 310 of the deputies requested mercy, but 380 voted for the immediate execution of the death penalty. This decision would be final. On Monday, 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine on the Place de la Révolution. The executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, testified that the former king had bravely met his fate.
As Louis XVI mounted the scaffold, he appeared dignified and resigned. He delivered a short speech in which he pardoned “…those who are the cause of my death…. “. He then declared himself innocent of the crimes of which he was accused, praying that his blood would not fall back on France. Many accounts suggest Louis XVI’s desire to say more, but Antoine-Joseph Santerre, a general in the National Guard, halted the speech by ordering a drum roll. The former king was then quickly beheaded. Some accounts of Louis’s beheading indicate that the blade did not sever his neck entirely the first time. There are also accounts of a blood-curdling scream issuing from Louis after the blade fell but this is unlikely, since the blade severed Louis’s spine. It is agreed that while Louis’s blood dripped to the ground many members of the crowd ran forward to dip their handkerchiefs in it. This account was proven true in 2012, after a DNA comparison linked blood thought to be from Louis XVI’s beheading to DNA taken from tissue samples originating from what was long thought to be the mummified head of Henry IV of France. The blood sample was taken from a squash gourd carved to commemorate the heroes of the French Revolution that had, according to legend, been used to house one of the handkerchiefs dipped in Louis’s blood.
The 19th-century historian Jules Michelet attributed the restoration of the French monarchy to the sympathy that had been engendered by the execution of Louis XVI. Michelet’s Histoire de la Révolution Française and Alphonse de Lamartine’s Histoire des Girondins, in particular, showed the marks of the feelings aroused by the revolution’s regicide. The two writers did not share the same sociopolitical vision, but they agreed that, even though the monarchy was rightly ended in 1792, the lives of the royal family should have been spared. Lack of compassion at that moment contributed to a radicalization of revolutionary violence and to greater divisiveness among Frenchmen. For the 20th century novelist Albert Camus the execution signaled the end of the role of God in history, for which he mourned. For the 20th century philosopher Jean-François Lyotard the regicide was the starting point of all French thought, the memory of which acts as a reminder that French modernity began under the sign of a crime.
Louis’ daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, the future Duchess of Angoulême, survived the French Revolution, and she lobbied in Rome energetically for the canonization of her father as a saint of the Catholic Church. Despite his signing of the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy”, Louis had been described as a martyr by Pope Pius VI in 1793. In 1820, however, a memorandum of the Congregation of Rites in Rome, declaring the impossibility of proving that Louis had been executed for religious rather than political reasons, put an end to hopes of canonization.
- The Requiem in C minor for mixed chorus by Luigi Cherubini was written in 1816, in memory of Louis XVI.
- The city of Louisville, Kentucky, is named for Louis XVI. In 1780, the Virginia General Assembly bestowed this name in honor of the French king, whose soldiers were aiding the American side in the Revolutionary War. The Virginia General Assembly saw the King as a noble man, but many other Continental delegates disagreed. (At that time, Kentucky was a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Kentucky became the 15th State of the United States in 1792.)
- There are numerous other places named “Louisville”, such as Louisville, Alabama, Louisville, Colorado, Louisville, Georgia, Louisville, Illinois, Louisville, Kansas, Louisville, Nebraska, Louisville, New York, Louisville, Ohio,Louisville, Kentucky, and Louisville, Tennessee, all located in the United States.
In film and literature
King Louis XVI has been portrayed in numerous films. In Marie Antoinette (1938), he was played by Robert Morley. Jean-François Balmer portrayed him in the 1989 two-part miniseries La Révolution française. More recently, he was depicted in the 2006 film Marie Antoinette by Jason Schwartzman. In Sacha Guitry‘s Si Versailles m’était conté, Louis was portrayed by one of the film’s producers, Gilbert Bokanowski, using the alias Gilbert Boka. Several portrayals have upheld the image of a bumbling, almost foolish king, such as that by Jacques Morel in the 1956 French film Marie-Antoinette reine de France and that by Terence Budd in the Lady Oscar live action film. In Start the Revolution Without Me, Louis XVI is portrayed by Hugh Griffith as a laughable cuckold. Mel Brooks played a comic version of Louis XVI in The History of the World Part 1, portraying him as a libertine who has such distaste for the peasantry he uses them as targets in skeet shooting. In the 1996 film Ridicule; Urbain Cancelier plays Louis.
Louis has been the subject of novels as well, including two of the alternate histories anthologized in If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931): “If Drouet’s Cart Had Stuck” by Hilaire Belloc and “If Louis XVI Had Had an Atom of Firmness” by André Maurois, which tell very different stories but both imagine Louis surviving and still reigning in the early 19th century. Louis appears in the children’s book Ben and Me by Robert Lawson but does not appear in the 1953 animated short film based on the same book.
|[show]Ancestors of Louis XVI of France|
Titles, styles, honours and arms
|Royal styles of
King Louis XVI
Par la grâce de Dieu, Roi de France et de Navarre
|Reference style||His Most Christian Majesty|
|Spoken style||Your Most Christian Majesty|
|Alternative style||Monsieur Le Roi|
Titles and styles
- 23 August 1754 – 20 December 1765: His Royal Highness The Duke of Berry
- 20 December 1765 – 10 May 1774: His Royal Highness The Dauphin of France
- 10 May 1774 – 21 September 1792: His Most Christian Majesty The King
- 21 September 1792 – 21 January 1793: Citizen Louis Capet
Louis’s formal style before the revolution was “Louis XVI, par la grâce de Dieu, roi de France et de Navarre“, or “Louis XVI, by the Grace of God, King of France and of Navarre”.
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