The French Revolution: Violent from its inception

Violent from its inception:

Dispelling the myth of the “liberal” and “radical” phases

of the French Revolution

French Revolt

This 1789 engraving depicts French soldiers or Parisian militia carrying the severed heads of the Bastille’s commander Bernard-Rene Jordan, Marquis de Launay (1740-1789) and Paris mayor Jacques de Flesselles (1721-1789) on pikes. Both men were killed by enraged Parisians on the same day as the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789. The caption reads “Thus we take revenge on traitors”. This image is part of the Library of Congress’ French Political Cartoon Collection.

Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!

-Marie-Jeanne Philippon, Madame Roland (1754-1793) immediately before her death on the guillotine.

Have we not seen France dishonoured by a hundred thousand murders? The whole territory of this fair kingdom covered with scaffolds? And this unhappy land drenched with the blood of its children through judicial massacres, while inhuman tyrants squandered it abroad in a cruel war, sustained in their own private interests? Never has the bloodiest despot gambled with men’s lives with so much insolence, and never has an apathetic people presented itself for butchering more willingly. Sword and fire, frost and famine, privations and sufferings of every kind, none of these disgust it with its punishment…

-Comte Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), Considerations on France (1796)[1].

 

The French Revolution began, and for its entire duration remained, soaked in innocent blood. Mob tyranny, popular mob “justice”, and widespread paranoia reigned from the moment the Bastille fell until the dawn of the Terror in fall 1793. Contrary to the self-serving and prevailing liberal historiography which dominated nineteenth century studies of the Revolution, which urged that the conflict be separated into a legitimate, ideal, more civilized “liberal” phase (1789-1793) and a tragically unintended, accidental “radical phase” (the Terror, fall 1793-summer 1794), in actuality a clear, uninterrupted, chronological line of popular violence unrestrained by the revolutionary leaders exists from 14 July 1789 onward. From the storming of the Bastille through the Great Fear, October Days, Champs de Mars massacre, and September Massacres, the Revolution – hardly restrained by the liberal Enlightenment ideals which purportedly united its adherents – saw thousands of people slaughtered without trial in the name of liberty.

In his fifteen years on the throne before the Revolution, the alleged ‘tyrant’ Louis XVI never executed so many people. The pre-Terror revolutionary violence culminated in the infant Republic’s savage suppression of the Catholic royalist Vendee Rebellion, which saw a quarter of a million people, mostly rural civilians, exterminated on the orders of the Republican government in Paris, and the passage of the Law of Suspects a year after the 1792 September Massacres. The Revolution’s true power derived not from the logical appeal and inspiring charisma of its Enlightenment ideals, but from the terror of unrestrained popular violence and brutality which constantly characterized it from the moment of its beginning in summer 1789. This essay will review the major events of the Revolution before the start of the official Terror, and show that these mass murders were all committed by people who believed themselves acting in its name. This was all prior to the Terror which saw some 17,000 people sent to the guillotine. In truth, the entire Revolution was a terror, and no one was safe from its wrath.

When a mob of thousands of enraged Parisians stormed the Bastille on the morning of 14 July 1789, far from being a prison overflowing with oppressed victims of the brutal ancien regime, only seven old men were housed within its decrepit walls.[2] Immediately after seizing the fortress, the mob captured its captain, the Marquis de Launay, and dragged him toward the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall, in a storm of verbal and physical abuse. Outside the Hôtel, a discussion began among the mob as to what they should do with their prisoner. The badly beaten Marquis shouted “Enough! Let me die!”[3], and the crowd readily obliged him. He was repeatedly stabbed and his head sawn off and fixed on a pike. Following his death, as the above image shows, the mob paraded his head through the streets of Paris, but their fury for blood was hardly sated. The very same afternoon after the storming, the unofficial mayor of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles, was assassinated, shot on the steps of the city hall while trying to justify his actions to the mob.[4] As the above illustration shows, his head was also mounted on a pike and paraded around Paris.

In the Great Fear immediately following the storming of the Bastille, uprisings among peasants across rural France and among the urban poor in Paris saw a number of suspected counter-revolutionaries killed between mid-July and early August.[5] In the provinces, peasants began to arm themselves and seize seigniorial estates, murdering some of their landlords and their families in cold blood without trial.[6] Where was the sense of law and the due process of justice to which all French citizens were, according to Enlightenment ideals, supposed to be entitled when these landlords were being murdered? Why were none of these lords, as much citizens of a ‘free’ France as their peasant labourers, allowed to petition to the King or to a local court before they were slaughtered? From its inception, as in Paris at the Bastille and in the rural provinces, the participants in the Revolution proved either pathetically unable or cruelly unwilling to not engage in extrajudicial violence. The National Assembly’s self-serving silence against the mobs served only to embolden their sense of righteousness and impunity in launching attacks against perceived enemies of the Revolution.

The popular violence of the Revolution further accelerated in the October Days of 1789, with severed heads on pikes once again making a macabre appearance. Enraged by reports of ostentatious court living at Versailles – where the politically tone-deaf aristocrats callously partied, feasted, and allegedly dared to ‘desecrate’ the tricolour –without concern for the famine gripping the poor throughout France, an armed mob of Parisian citizens dominated by women who had often been involved in capital’s bread riots stormed the royal chateau, slaughtered the royal Swiss Guards, and rampaged through the palace attempting to find and murder Queen Marie Antoinette.[7] The then-popular Marquis de Lafayette managed to take some control of the situation, calming the mob’s fury by appearing with the King and Queen on one of the palace’s balconies, convincing the King to publicly agree to return to Paris, and –tempering the crowd’s visceral hatred of L’ Autrichienne – kissing the Queen’s hand in a gesture of fealty.[8] The result was that King Louis XVI promised to release stores of bread to the Parisian citizens, and, refusing to accept his word, the marchers forced the French royal family and courtiers to return, effectively under arrest, to Paris, with the guards’ heads again mounted on pikes before the royal carriage.[9]

The moderate royalist Lafayette, erstwhile commander of the Paris-based National Guard, lost all his popularity—and moderate reformers their most prominent Paris spokesman – on 17 July 1791 in the Champs de Mars massacre, during which suspected counter-revolutionaries, including many members of the Guard, were murdered by enraged Paris mobs after Lafayette ordered his men to fire and disperse the mob. Both sides suffered rather minimal losses, but the conduct of the revolutionaries – making a demand backed by violence – shows yet again how the republican mob cared nothing for the rule of law. Why had the mob gathered? The National Assembly – the Revolution’s own legislature – had, on the same day, issued an edict confirming that the unpopular Louis XVI would remain king under a constitutional monarchy. The young republican leaders Danton and Desmoulins – neither of whom survived the Terror – led the mob, who carried a petition from the Girondist republican Jacques Pierre Brissot – who also died in the Terror – to compel the King to abdicate[10]. Lafayette’s reputation never recovered from the bloodshed, and thus the moderates and reform-minded royalists lost most of their influence among Parisians.

A key turning point in the escalation of popular violence occurred in fall 1792. The most violent outbreak of revolutionary mob attacks to date occurred with the September Massacres. Fearing that foreign and royalist armies would attack Paris and that the city’s incarcerated inmates represented a fifth column threat, urban poor sans culottes armed with the demagogue Marat’s latest incendiary, bloodthirsty edition of L’Ami du Peuple, attacked the overflowing Paris prisons stocked with suspected counter-revolutionaries. The prisoners included nonjuring Catholic clergy who objected to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, noble mothers and children, prostitutes, and the infirm. Some 1,300 were murdered in cold blood without any semblance of legal process or fair trial, including over 200 priests and the Queen’s closest friend the middle-aged Princess Marie Louise de Lamballe[11], who was, by several accounts, raped by the mob and her breasts cut off before being decapitated and her head struck on a pike.[12]

The violent trajectory of the Revolution before the Terror culminated in the brutal suppression of the Vendee royalist rebellion from March 1793 to March 1796, which began when outraged Catholic monarchists and other French conservatives in that province received word that the Republic’s leaders had ordered a general mobilization (levee en masse), conscripting most able-bodied Frenchmen to fight and defend the Republic against Austrian encroachment. As hundreds of thousands of rural Catholic traditionalists and monarchists rose against the Revolution, republican soldiers were called in to suppress the revolt. The Republic’s generals Jean-Baptiste Carrier and Turreau were ordered by the Committee of Public Safety to put the entire region to the sword and kill all those suspected of any degree of collaboration with the Catholic and Royal Army, as the Vendee rebel leaders called themselves. It is this savage conflict that saw suspected counterrevolutionary men and women stripped naked, tied together, and thrown into local rivers to drown by the Republic’s military forces, who sadistically called these paired executions ‘republican marriages’[13]. Their inability to distinguish between combatant, sympathizer, and civilian in the region led to an unprecedented degree of bloodshed, all conducted in the name and defence of the nascent Republic.

Historians disagree as to how many royalist combatants and sympathizers died, with liberals estimating the dead at some 130,000 and others approaching as high as 250-300,000.[14] The highest figure cited is the controversial estimate of 450,000 dead by Peter McPhee, who argues along with several other scholars that the Vendee suppression can be considered a genocide.[15] If we accept the more mainstream figure of some quarter of a million people killed, and take into account France’s contemporary population of just under 30 million around 1789, then, were a similar proportion of French to be killed today, the figure would be some 550-600,000 out of some 66 million people. This is genocidal in scale. Even if one does not hold the Committee of Public Safety directly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of Vendee civilians who died in the carnage, it is undeniable that the forces loyal to the Republic engaged in these targeted scorched earth campaigns at the behest of the governing revolutionary republican authorities in Paris. Given that the royalists viewed the Republic itself as illegitimate – hence why the Vendee citizens were outraged to hear that their men were to be conscripted to fight in the republican army against the Austrian monarchy – one can only accept the view that the Vendee was an illegal rebellion and example of treason if one views the Republic itself as a legitimate political entity.

When a political movement is soaked in blood from its very onset, it is insulting to basic intelligence to argue somehow that it was not violent from its foundation. Before the guillotine, the “national razor”, severed some 17,000 heads, long before the official start of the Terror, Parisian mobs massacred hundreds of royal guards who were simply doing their duty, slaughtered over 1,300 innocent civilians and clergy in Paris jails, and within four years of the Bastille’s storming (itself a violent event), the nascent Republic’s generals slaughtered approximately a quarter of a million people in three years’ time. The term “liberal revolution” with its conjuring of fidelity to restrained, rational liberal Enlightenment ideals is an ignorant misnomer at best and at worst a crass, deliberate fiction. The supreme irony is that from its foundations the Revolution’s radicals lauded the ideals of liberty and universal justice while never consistently abiding by them; decrying the supposed tyranny of an ancien regime that brutally tortured and executed a handful of would-be-regicides and murderers over several centuries, the radical revolutionaries bathed the infant Republic in blood, slaughtering some 250,000 Catholic Frenchmen and women in three years in the name of liberty and justice.

From its inception the Revolution was bathed in innocent blood, the blood of both real and imagined enemies. It was ‘radical’ and violent from the moment the Bastille fell and the royal guards were hacked to death and their heads put on pikes. Even if the official Terror began in fall 1793, real terror reigned in practice since July 1789. Thus, the true symbols of the Revolution even before the Terror were not the tricolour cockade or Lady Liberty/Marianne, but the haunting spectre of the national razor and the macabre spectacle of heads on pikes. All were truly equal in revolutionary France only when they stood in the shadow of the scaffold or before the fury of the mob. The Revolution betrayed its liberal ideals from the onset, and the fact that neither the National Assembly nor successive revolutionary legislatures ever condemned the popular violence speaks volumes. Where was their commitment to justice, to the rule of law? It was silent, shamed, and cowed before the threat of the mob. Bourgeoisie republican leaders’ self-serving silence served only to legitimize and embolden radical revolutionaries in both the Committee of Public Safety and among les sans-culottes in the Paris streets. The Committee and the urban poor were united in one thing: loyal to abstract Enlightenment ideals and willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to advance them, they consistently showed callous disregard for human life and the values they allegedly espoused, seeing an enemy worthy only of death in anyone who dared challenge the notion of sovereignty resting in a people who showed themselves to be nothing if not violent, inconsistent, changeable, and bloodthirsty. The ancien regime was far less savage than the supposedly liberal Republic which replaced it, and killed far fewer people in the centuries it ruled France than those who died as enemies of the Revolution from 1789-1794. As Louis XVI’s sister Princess Elisabeth said to her tribunal judges shortly before her death under the guillotine – she was condemned to death for the crime of being “the sister of a tyrant” – “If my brother had been what you call him, you would not have been where you are, nor I where I am now”.[16]

The French Revolution was the predominating radical terrorist movement of its day. From 1789-1794 the Revolution killed far more people in the name of Liberty than Daesh (ISIS) or Al Qaeda has ever killed in the name of Allah. Yet, whereas international government leaders, popes, patriarchs, Muslim scholars, imams, and community leaders have all denounced ISIS (an apocalyptic jihadist group which targets non-Wahhabi Muslims along with Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslims), in France today the Revolution is idolized on the coinage, museums, art galleries, the national anthem, official flag, all public buildings, etc. Year after year, millions of French people celebrate the anniversary of Bastille Day, blissfully unaware that they are celebrating a revolution which led to the extrajudicial murder and massacring of hundreds of thousands of French men and women whose great ‘crime’ was to oppose the brutal march of “liberty”, of unrestrained, illegal popular violence, and the Republic’s attempted eradication of over a thousand years of French Catholic culture, history, and monarchical tradition.

 

French Rev 2

A true symbol of the French Revolution: the values of the tricolour and liberty cockade are inseparable and indistinguishable from the macabre spectacle of the severed heads of “enemies of the revolution” mounted on pikes and paraded through the Paris streets. The bottom caption of this 1789 engraving reads “This is how we punish traitors”. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.[17]

 

Bibliography:

Andress, David. Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution. Suffolk, England: The Royal Historical Society, 2000.

Bergeron, Louis. Le Monde et son Histoire. Volume VII, Chapter VII. Paris: Bouquins, 1986.

Clerk, Kenneth. Civilisation: A Personal View. New York: Penguin, 1987.

De Beauchesne, Alcide-Hyacinthe. La vie de Madame Élisabeth, sœur de Louis XVI, Volume 2. Paris: Henri-Plon Éditeur-Imprimeur, 1870.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: William Morrow and Co, 1980.

Hussenet, Jacques (dir.). “Détruisez la Vendée !”. Regards croisés sur les victimes et destructions de la guerre de Vendée. La Roche-sur-Yon, France: Centre vendéen de recherches historiques, 2007.

Jones, Peter M. The Peasantry and the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Chapter 3.

Library of Congress. “Prise de la Bastille par les Citoyens de Paris… C’est ainsi que l’on punit les traitres.” Library of Congress. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b51512/

Maistre, Count Joseph de. Considerations on France. Translated and edited by Richard A. Lebrun. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

McPhee, Peter. Review of Reynald Secher, A French Genocide: The Vendée. H-France Review, Vol. 4 (March 2004), No. 26.

Morris, Gouverneur. A Diary of the French Revolution, Volume 1. North Stratford, New Hampshire: Ayer Publishing, 1939.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Vintage Press, 1989.

Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre And the French Revolution. New York: Owl Books, 2006.

 

End notes:

[1] Maistre, Count Joseph de, Considerations on France, translated and edited by Richard A. Lebrun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Clerk, Kenneth, Civilisation: A Personal View (New York: Penguin, 1987). Pg. 216.

[3] Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Vintage Press, 1989). Pg. 405.

[4] Hibbert, Christopher, The Days of the French Revolution (New York: William Morrow and Co, 1980). Pgs. 69-82.

[5] Jones, Peter M, The Peasantry and the French Revolution. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Chapter 3.

[6] Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pgs. 114-5.

[7] Schama, Ibid. Pg. 459.

[8] Ibid, pg. 468.

[9] Morris, Gouverneur, A Diary of the French Revolution, Volume 1 (North Stratford, New Hampshire: Ayer Publishing, 1939). Pg. 243.

[10] Andress, David, Massacre at the Champ de Mars: Popular Dissent and Political Culture in the French Revolution (Suffolk, England: The Royal Historical Society, 2000). Pg. 239.

[11] Bergeron, Louis, Le Monde et son Histoire, Volume VII, Chapter VII (Paris: Bouquins, 1986). Pg. 324.

[12] Hibbert, Christopher. Ibid, p. 175.

[13] Scurr, Ruth, Fatal Purity: Robespierre And the French Revolution (New York: Owl Books, 2006). Pg. 305.

[14] Hussenet, Jacques (dir.), “Détruisez la Vendée !”. Regards croisés sur les victimes et destructions de la guerre de Vendée (La Roche-sur-Yon: Centre vendéen de recherches historiques, 2007).

[15] McPhee, Peter, Review of Reynald Secher, A French Genocide: The Vendée (H-France Review: Vol. 4 (March 2004), No. 26.

[16] de Beauchesne, Alcide-Hyacinthe, La vie de Madame Élisabeth, sœur de Louis XVI, Volume 2 (Paris: Henri-Plon Éditeur-Imprimeur, 1870). Pgs 199-205, 219-250.

[17] “Prise de la Bastille par les Citoyens de Paris… C’est ainsi que l’on punit les traitres.” Library of Congress. http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b51512/

 

Further Reading:

Comte Antoine de Rivarol: Letters, books, pamphlets, and materials by and about the French Royalist

Comte Antoine de Rivarol (1753-1801) was a Languedoc aristocrat, Royalist author and essayist, and French translator and political commentator. He is most famous for his commentaries on the worsening and ever-more violent degeneration of the French Revolution. Living in self-imposed exile in Berlin, Hamburg, and London, he wrote incessantly in support of the French Bourbon royalist cause. His writings circulated widely both during his life and especially after his young death in French, British, and German monarchist circles.

My favourite works by le Comte de Rivarol:

Interesting works about him:

  • Bauër, Gérard (1962). Les Moralistes Français: La Rochefoucauld; La Bruyère; Vauvenargues; Chamfort; Rivarol; Joubert. Paris: Editions A. Michel.
  • Cointat, Michel (2003). Rivarol (1753-1801): Un Écrivain Controversé. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Darnton, Robert (1982). The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. Harvard University Press.
  • Debidour, Victor-Henry (1956). Rivarol, Écrits Politiques et Littéraires Choisis et Présentés. Paris: Grasset.
  • De Lescure, Mathurin (1882). Rivarol et la Société Française pendant la Révolution et l’Émigration. Paris: E. Plon et Cie.
  • Le Breton, André (1895). Rivarol, sa Vie, ses Idées. Paris: Librairie Hachette et Cie.
  • Matyaszewski, Paweł (1990). “Le Conservatisme Éclairé de Rivarol,” Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France, 90e Année, No. 4/5, pp. 622–630.
  • McMahon, Darrin M. (2001). Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity. Oxford University Press.
  • Jünger, Ernest (1974). Rivarol et Autres Essais. Paris: Grasset.
  • Roche, Alphonse Victor (1937). Les Idées Traditionalistes en France de Rivarol À Charles Maurras. The University of Illinois.
  • Saintsbury, George (1892). “Chamfort and Rivarol.” In: Miscellaneous Essays. London: Percival & Co., pp. 43–80.
  • Treich, Léon (1926). L’Esprit de Rivarol. Paris: Gallimard.
  • Faÿ, Bernard (1978). Rivarol et la Révolution. Paris: Librairie Académique Perin.
  • Baranger, Valérie (2007). Rivarol Face à la Révolution Française. Éditions de Paris.
  • Barth, Hans (1960). “Antoine de Rivarol and the French Revolution.” In: The Idea of Order: Contributions to a Philosophy of Politics. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co., p. 49.
  • Matyaszewski, Paweł (1997). La Pensée Politique d’Antoine de Rivarol. Lublin: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego.

Remembering Queen Marie Antoinette of France

I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments. I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing.

I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister…

Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths.

I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed…

I pardon all my enemies the evils that they have done me.

-Excerpt from Queen Marie Antoinette’s last letter, written at 4:30am to her sister-in-law Princess Elisabeth of France, 16 October 1793.

Today we remember Her Most Christian Majesty Queen Marie Antoinette of France and Navarre, guillotined by the radical French Republic on 16 October 1793. May her memory, and that of her martyred son and husband, be eternal!

1783

1783 “Rose Portrait” of the 28-year old Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, by court painter Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun/

Born on 2 November 1755 to the Austrian Habsburg monarch Maria Theresa (1717-1780, r. 1740-80), reigning Queen of Hungary and Croatia, Archduchess of Austria, and from 1745-65 de jure Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire, and her husband, Prince Franz Stefan, Duke of Lorraine (1708-1765), Holy Roman Emperor, Princess Maria Antonia, as she was known before her marriage, had a happy and warm childhood. Her mother and father created a warm, informal family life in the royal palace of Schoenbrunn in Vienna centered around their devout Catholic faith.

Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of the House of Habsburg, Queen of Hungary and Croatia, sovereign Archduchess of Austria. Queen Marie Antoinette's mother lived from 1717-1780, ruling the Habsburg dominions from 1740-80 and serving as Holy Roman Empress from 1745-65 with her husband's death. She then co-ruled with her son Joseph II (r. 1765-90) as Dowager Empress until her own death in 1780.

Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of the House of Habsburg, Queen of Hungary and Croatia, sovereign Archduchess of Austria. Queen Marie Antoinette’s mother lived from 1717-1780, ruling the Habsburg dominions from 1740-80 and serving as Holy Roman Empress from 1745-65 with her husband’s death. She then co-ruled with her son Joseph II (r. 1765-90) as Dowager Empress until her own death in 1780.

The widowed Empress Maria Theresa with her children, including Archduchess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette).

The widowed Empress Maria Theresa with her children, including Archduchess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette).

At the age of 15, in 1770, Maria Antonia became Dauphine (Crown Princess) of France upon her marriage to the Dauphin Louis-Auguste de France (1754-1793), favourite grandson and heir of the ailing King Louis XV of France of the Bourbon dynasty.

Painting of the wedding of then-Dauphin Louis-Auguste de France and Austrian Archduchess Maria Antonia on 16 May 1770.

Painting of the wedding of then-Dauphin Louis-Auguste de France and Austrian Archduchess Maria Antonia on 16 May 1770.

Profile medallion of Marie Antoinette as Archduchess of Austria and Dauphine of France.

Profile medallion of Marie Antoinette as Archduchess of Austria and Dauphine of France.

Upon her husband’s accession to the French throne as Louis XVI on 10 May 1774, when she was only 18, Marie Antoinette became Queen of France and Navarre.

Antoine François Callet's portrait of King Louis XVI in royal robes.

Antoine François Callet’s portrait of King Louis XVI in royal robes.

Marie Antoinette's monogram as Queen of France, 1774-1793.

Marie Antoinette’s monogram as Queen of France, 1774-1793.

Denied any real political influence, Marie turned her attentions to fashion, arranging elaborate parties and banquets, card games, and gardening. She established a friendship through letter correspondence with Queen Charlotte of Great Britain, consort of King George III.

King Louis XVI of France (1755-1793) shown at the age of 20 in 1775, a year after ascending to the Throne.

King Louis XVI of France (1755-1793) shown at the age of 20 in 1775, a year after ascending to the Throne.

The young Queen painted in 1775 at the age of 19. Courtesy of the Musée Antoine Lécuyer.

The young Queen painted in 1775 at the age of 19. Courtesy of the Musée Antoine Lécuyer.

Queen Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers. By Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778).

Queen Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers. By Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1778).

The royal couple were widely ridiculed by the French public for their failure to produce an heir; Marie Antoinette’s brother the Emperor of Austria Joseph II even weighed in on their marital problems, as did their mother Empress Maria Theresa, who gave her daughter rather forward advice on how best to begin a normative sexual life with her husband the King. Finally, reportedly after a small surgical correction (possibly circumcision) the King and Queen began to enjoy a normal married life. After eight years of marriage, the Queen at last gave birth to a daughter, Princess Marie-Thérèse Charlotte (1778-1851), the first of her four children, and in 1781 to a son and heir, the Dauphin Louis Joseph (d. 1789). In 1785 she gave birth to a son who would survive Louis XVI by several years, Louis Charles (d. 1795, r. de jure as Louis XVII from 1793-95).

Portrait of the young Dauphin Louis Charles, heir of France, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. By Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

Portrait of the young Dauphin Louis Charles, heir of France, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. By Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

Alexander Kucharsky's portrait of the seven year old Louis Charles, Dauphin of France, in 1792, less than a year before his father Louis XVI's death.

Alexander Kucharsky’s portrait of the seven year old Louis Charles, Dauphin of France, in 1792, less than a year before his father Louis XVI’s death.

Within the Kingdom of France, a growing number of the population eventually came to dislike her, accusing L’Autrichienne, “the Austrian woman” (a nickname given Marie Antoinette upon her arrival to France by Louis XV’s hostile daughters,Mesdames de France), of being profligate, promiscuous, and of harbouring sympathies for France’s enemies, particularly Austria, her country of origin. The Diamond Necklace affair further damaged her reputation. The Queen later became known as Madame Déficit because France’s financial crisis was blamed on her lavish spending and her perceived opposition to the social and financial reforms of the more liberal-minded ministers Turgot and Necker. To counter anti-monarchical sentiment which focused particularly on the Queen’s alleged (but false) extramarital affairs and financial irresponsibility, Versailles royal portraitists released several paintings of the Queen with her children, showing her as a faithful wife and devoted mother.

Marie Antoinette with her two eldest children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte and the Dauphin Louis Joseph (1781-89), in the Petit Trianon's gardens, by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller (1785).

Marie Antoinette with her two eldest children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte and the Dauphin Louis Joseph (1781-89), in the Petit Trianon’s gardens, by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller (1785).

This State Portrait by Vigée-Lebrun (1787) of Marie Antoinette and her three surviving children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph, was meant to help her reputation by depicting her as a mother and in simple, yet stately attire.

This State Portrait by Vigée-Lebrun (1787) of Marie Antoinette and her three surviving children Marie Thérèse, Louis Charles (on her lap), and Louis Joseph, was meant to help her reputation by depicting her as a mother and in simple, yet stately , essentially bourgeoisie, attire.

During the French Revolution, after a mob of angry Parisian women (and armed men) stormed the Palace of Versailles in October 1789 — attempting to kill the Queen and slaughtering the royal Swiss Guards — the revolutionary government placed the royal family under house arrest in the Paris Tuileries Palace.

Several events linked to Marie Antoinette, in particular the royal family’s bungled June 1791 attempt to flee to Varennes, and her perceived support for Austria against the revolutionary government, had disastrous effects on French popular opinion: over a year later, on 10 August 1792, the attack on the Tuileries forced the royal family to take refuge at the National Assembly.

Arrest of the royal family at the house of the registrar of passports, at Varennes, night of 21–22 June 1791, by Thomas Falcon Marshall (1854).

Arrest of the royal family at the house of the registrar of passports, at Varennes, night of 21–22 June 1791, by Thomas Falcon Marshall (1854).

On 13 August 1792, the family was imprisoned — ostensibly for their own safety from the mob calling for their heads — in the Temple. On 21 September 1792, Louis XVI was formally deposed as King and the monarchy declared abolished. Around this time, Marie Antoinette said to one of her close friends, Madame Campan:

… If the factions assassinate me … it will be a fortunate event for me; they will deliver me from a most painful existence… I am his wife; I will not suffer him to incur the smallest risk without my sharing it.

The increasingly radical revolutionaries wondered what to do with the man they considered an “ex-king”: Should he be sent into exile, perhaps to America? Should he be kept a prisoner for life? Should he be killed? What about a trial? Leading Jacobin anti-monarchists such as Robespierre and Saint Just called for the immediate execution of Louis, with some urging the assembly not to try him at all, but kill him without trial. The verdict was a foregone conclusion: the radical majority of revolutionaries in the National Assembly convicted the King of treason against the French Republic on 20 January (despite the fact that Louis XVI had never sworn loyalty to it or acknowledged the abolition of the monarchy). They sent Louis XVI to the guillotine on 21 January 1793. As this account notes, the King went to his death with great calm and noble dignity, pardoning all those who took part in it and praying that France might be spared further political violence:

My account is based on that left by Fr. Henry Essex Edgeworth, an English man and the priest who accompanied the King, when he journeyed through Paris on that final morning.

King Louis XVI leaves his sorrowing family.

King Louis XVI says farewell to his family.

On January 20 1793 King Louis XVI was sentenced to death by the National Convention. The execution was scheduled to take place on the following morning. That evening the King was allowed to spend some time with his family, in order to take his leave. He explained to his sorrowing children what was going to happen on the following day. He asked his young son and heir, Prince Louis Charles, not to try to take revenge on the French people. When he left his weeping offspring to return to his own room, he told them that he would come back to see them in the morning. He knew that would not be possible, but he felt it would be comforting for them to feel that he might.

The last journey of a King of France.

On the following morning the King was up at 5 AM. At eight o’clock a guard of 1200 soldiers arrived to escort him to the place of execution. He was brought there in a closed carriage. There was little conversation between the King and the priest, as they were accompanied in the carriage by two gendarmes. Louis just asked his companion to point out various psalms, from the prayer book which he was carrying. The two guards appeared to be very impressed by the dignity and fortitude of their prisoner. They had never been in such close proximity to the King before. The journey to the scaffold lasted for about two hours and the streets were lined all the way by armed citizens of the new Republic. The carriage was also surrounded by the troops and drummers were marching alongside, with the intention of drowning out any cries of sympathy there might be for the unfortunate monarch. All the houses appeared empty and there were no faces appearing at any of the windows. All the activity was in the streets, where the populace were all rushing forward to the great square, to witness the completion of the crime. Whether they all approved it is not known.

Eventually the sad cavalcade arrived at the Place Louis XV, where the instrument of execution was set up. This huge square was shortly to be renamed the Place de la Revolution and is now known as the Place de la Concorde. The guillotine, that Louis XVI was executed on, was in the centre of the square. Thousands of the victims of the illusion of liberty were to follow him to their deaths, on it’s blood-soaked timbers in the following years.

When the king noticed that the carriage had stopped, he addressed himself to the two guards, regarding the priest.

‘I recommend to you this good man; take care that after my death no insult be offered to him – I charge you to prevent it.’

Right up till the end, this good man always showed concern for other people.

The execution of King Louis XVI.

When he disembarked from the carriage, he was surrounded by three guards who attempted to seize him in order to take off his garments. The King royally dismissed them and took his own coat and neckerchief off and arranged the collar of his shirt. For a moment, the soldiers were disconcerted by this show of spirit but they soon recovered and surrounded him again. This time it was in order to bind his hands.

‘What are you attempting?’ said the King, drawing back his hands. ‘To bind you,’ answered the wretches. ‘To bind me,’ said the King, with an indignant air. ‘No! I shall never consent to that: do what you have been ordered, but you shall never bind me. . .’

They gave up the attempt after that.

The pathway to the guillotine was very rough and the priest feared that his King might stumble on the way to his death. King Louis XVI, however, walked resolutely forward and straight up the steps to the awaiting blade. He marched directly across the platform and silenced, with a look alone, the drummers who were standing at the base of the scaffold. Then, in a voice that seemed loud enough to be heard all over the city, he addressed the crowd. These were the final words of this King of France to his people.

“I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.”

He was attempting to proceed when an officer on horseback screamed at the drummers to start beating. They immediately commenced and any further words King Louis XVI might have been trying to say were drowned out.

Many voices in the crowd could be heard encouraging the executioners to perform their task. It was but the work of a few moments, to hustle the King into position and take off his head with one blow from the guillotine. For a moment, a hush fell over the throngs of people. But when one of the soldiers took the head of the dead king and showed it to them, they commenced cheering and throwing their hats in the air.

Thus died the saint and martyr King Louis XVI. His very last thoughts were for the welfare of the people who were murdering him. Remember this on the 14th of July (Bastille Day).

King Louis XVI on the scaffold moments before his death under the guillotine.

King Louis XVI on the scaffold moments before his death under the guillotine.

The death of King Louis XVI on 21 January 1793. From this moment, according to French royal law and tradition, he and Marie Antoinette's son and heir the Dauphin Louis Charles as now King as Louis XVII. Marie Antoinette was now Queen Mother of France, though, of course, the French Republic did not recognise her as such, calling her instead the

The death of King Louis XVI on 21 January 1793. The chief executioner Sanson shows the royal head to the people. From this moment, according to French royal law and tradition, he and Marie Antoinette’s son and heir the Dauphin Louis Charles as now King as Louis XVII. Marie Antoinette was now Queen Mother of France, though, of course, the French Republic did not recognise her as such, calling her instead the “Widow Capet”.

Marie Antoinette, kept afterwards in a state of close guard with no privacy, deeply mourned her husband. By this time her once-splendid hair had turned white from stress.

The Queen aged rapidly in her confinement and subsequent imprisonment, especially following her husband's death.

The Queen aged rapidly in her confinement and subsequent imprisonment, especially following her husband’s death.

Marie Antoinette prisoner in the Temple Tower, attributed to Alexandre Kucharski, ca. 1792. (Private collection)

Marie Antoinette prisoner in the Temple Tower, attributed to Alexandre Kucharski, ca. 1792. (Private collection)

It was only a matter of time before the hatred and fury of the radical revolutionaries returned to the person of the hated Queen. Shortly after the King’s murder, she was removed from her children, and imprisoned in a dank and foul-smelling room in Paris’ Conciergerie prison. In October 1793 she was charged with treason against the Republic and conspiring with Austria (her late brother Leopold II had been, and his son Francis II, her nephew, was now the reigning Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor). She was permitted no attorney to speak in her defense.

Trial of the Queen, October 14-16 1793.

Trial of the Queen, October 14-16 1793. “Marie Antoinette au Tribunal revolutionnaire”, engraving by Alphonse Francois, from a painting by Paul Delaroche (1857). United States Library of Congress.

French Queen Mother Marie Antoinette at her trial, October 1793.

French Queen Mother Marie Antoinette at her trial, October 1793.

Marie-Antoinette_au_Tribunal_révolutionnaire_by_Alphonse_François

After a two-day trial begun on 14 October 1793, during which even the women of Paris (who hated her) felt her inquisitors went too far by forcing her son Louis XVII to testify against his mother and accuse her of molesting him, Marie Antoinette was convicted by the revolutionary tribunal of treason. When asked what her response was to the charges against her, the Queen ignored them, except the charge of incest with her own son, which she vehemently and eloquently denied:

I thought that human nature would excuse me from answering such an imputation, but I appeal from it to the heart of every mother here present.

Like her husband before her, Marie Antoinette was allowed no appeal. Her jailers refused her request to see her children one last time, so she spent her last hours in prayer and writing this letter to her sister-in-law Princess Elisabeth, who would ultimately follow the Queen to the guillotine in 1794*:

16th October, 4.30 A.M.

It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother. Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments. I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing.

I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister. You who out of love have sacrificed everything to be with us, in what a position do I leave you! I have learned from the proceedings at my trial that my daughter was separated from you. Alas! poor child; I do not venture to write to her; she would not receive my letter. 


I do not even know whether this will reach you. Do you receive my blessing for both of them. I hope that one day when they are older they may be able to rejoin you, and to enjoy to the full your tender care. Let them both think of the lesson which I have never ceased to impress upon them, that the principles and the exact performance of their duties are the chief foundation of life; and then mutual affection and confidence in one another will constitute its happiness. Let my daughter feel that at her age she ought always to aid her brother by the advice which her greater
experience and her affection may inspire her to give him. And let my son in his turn render to his sister all the care and all the services which affection can inspire. Let them, in short, both feel that, in whatever positions they may be placed, they will never be truly happy but through their union. Let them follow our example. In our own misfortunes how much comfort has our affection for one another afforded us! And, in times of happiness, we have enjoyed that doubly from being able to share it with a friend; and where can one find friends more tender and more united than in one’s own family? Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths.

I die in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, that of my fathers, that in which I was brought up, and which I have always professed. Having no spiritual consolation to look for, not even knowing whether there are still in this place any priests of that religion (and indeed the place where I am would expose them to too much danger if they were to enter it but once), I sincerely implore pardon of God for all the faults which I may have committed during my life. I trust that, in His goodness, He will mercifully accept my last prayers, as well as those which I have for a long time addressed to Him, to receive my soul into His mercy. I have to speak to you of one thing which is very painful to my heart, I know how much pain the child must have caused you. Forgive him, my dear sister; think of his age, and how easy it is to make a child say whatever one wishes, especially when he does not understand it. It will come to pass one day, I hope, that he will better feel the value of your kindness and of your tender affection for both of them. It remains to confide to you my last thoughts. I should have wished to write them at the beginning of my trial; but, besides that they did not leave me any means of writing, events have passed so rapidly that I really have not had time.

I beg pardon of all whom I know, and especially of you, my sister, for all the vexations which, without intending it, I may have caused you. I pardon all my enemies the evils that they have done me. I bid farewell to my aunts and to all my brothers and sisters. I had friends. The idea of being forever separated from them and from all their troubles is one of the greatest sorrows that I suffer in dying. Let them at least know that to my latest moment I thought of them.

Farewell, my good and tender sister. May this letter reach you. Think always of me; I embrace you with all my heart, as I do my poor dear children. My God, how heart-rending it is to leave them forever! Farewell! farewell! I must now occupy myself with my spiritual duties, as I am not free in my actions. Perhaps they will bring me a priest; but I here protest that I will not say a word to him, but that I will treat him as a total stranger.

Queen Marie Antoinette was executed on the Place de la Révolution on 16 October 1793. Here are two short videos which dramatise her death.

Marie Antoinette moments before her execution. In reality, her jailers cropped her hair extremely short so as not to get in the way of the guillotine (and, more realistically, to humiliate her). Unlike her husband the King, whom his killers permitted to ride to his execution in a closed coach, the Queen was seated in an open tumbrel, exposed to the jeers, taunts, and assaults of the Parisian crowd come to see her die.

Marie Antoinette moments before her execution. In reality, her jailers cropped her hair extremely short so as not to get in the way of the guillotine (and, more realistically, to humiliate her). Unlike her husband the King, whom his killers permitted to ride to his execution in a closed coach, the Queen was seated in an open tumbrel, exposed to the jeers, taunts, and assaults of the Parisian crowd come to see her die.

Marie Antoinette's execution, 16 October 1793.

Marie Antoinette’s execution, 16 October 1793. Her last known words were to one of her guards; she accidentally stepped on his foot, and said to him “Pardon me, monsieur, I did not mean to do it.”

Following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, Louis XVI’s brother King Louis XVIII ordered his late brother and sister-in-law buried in a magnificent tomb befitting their royal status. Here they lie to this day. May God have mercy on them, remember them in His Kingdom, and one day restore the Bourbon monarchy in France:

The tomb of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the royal Basilica of Saint Denis outside Paris.

The funerary monument of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the royal Basilica of Saint Denis outside Paris. The sculptures, designed in 1830, are by Edme Gaulle and Pierre Petitot.

Mort à la République! Mort aux les traîtres républicaines! Mort à la Révolution! Mort à le drapeau tricolore! Mort aux tyrans! Mort à Robespierre et Saint-Just! Mort aux Jacobins! Vive la monarchie de France! Vive le roi et la reine de France! Vive la liberté!

*Tried before the revolutionary tribunal and accused of being “the sister of a Tyrant”, Princess Elisabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, responded: “If my brother had been what you call him, you would not have been where you are, nor I where I am!”. She was convicted, and guillotined the following day.

Bibliography:

Recommended further reading:

Drama, politics, terror, and love in A Tale of Two Cities

‘Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death; — the last, much the easiest to bestow, O Guillotine!’

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Stony Brook University Bookstore is a small section devoted to the Barnes & Noble Classics Series. Among these is one of my favorite pieces of literature, Charles Dickens’ historical fiction novel A Tale of Two Cities. The 1859 bestseller, set in London and Paris during and before the French Revolution, centers around the lives of Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a brilliant but controversial English lawyer, and both men’s love for Lucie Manette, daughter of Doctor Manette, a former prisoner in the French royal Bastille fortress in Paris.

The book opens with Doctor Manette having just been released from the Bastille prison. From his eighteen years of imprisonment, he has developed a form of psychosis, being obsessed with making shoes. He initially does not recognize his daughter Lucie, who takes him back to her home in England.

The scene shifts to a raucous trial in the Old Bailey court in London, where the innocent exiled French aristocrat Charles Darnay is on trial for treason, allegedly having passed information on British troop movements to the French during the Seven Years’ (French and Indian) War. Darnay is acquitted when his main accuser cannot tell him apart from a young barrister (lawyer) present in the court, Sydney Carton.

In Paris, the hated Marquis St. Evrémonde recklessly orders his carriage driven through a dense crowd of people, killing the child of a peasant named Gaspard. Symbolizing the indifference and inhumanity of the ancien regime’s aristocracy toward the peasants, the Marquis condescendingly tosses a coin to the horrified Gaspard, thinking this will compensate him for his terrible loss. Monsieur and Madame Defarge, witnesses to the event, comfort Gaspard. As the Marquis orders his coach to drive off, someone from the outraged crowd—possibly Madame Defarge—contemptuously throws his coin back into his carriage, infuriating him. When the Marquis arrives at his chateau, he reveals his utter disgust and contempt for the French peasantry, referring to them as dogs who must be kept obedient to the whip, with repression being “the only lasting philosophy”. Gaspard, who followed the Marquis to his chateau, stabs and kills the Marquis in his sleep, but is later hanged for his crime.

Back in London, Charles Darnay obtains Doctor Manette’s permission to marry his daughter, but Sydney Carton confesses his love for Lucie as well. Aware that she will not return his love, Carton passionately promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and those dear to you”. Darnay reveals his true identity on the morning of his marriage, which Doctor Manette had asked him not to do. This upsets the doctor, causing him to revert to his obsessive shoemaking.

The scene shifts again to Paris, where in July 1789 the Defarges are among the crowds who assist in the storming of the Bastille, physically dismantling the hated symbol of royal tyranny. Monsieur Defarge enters Dr. Manette’s former cell, 105, north tower. Dickens does not reveal what Defarge is searching for in Manette’s cell until Book Three of the novel, which was written in a series of weekly installments.

Back in England, Lucie and Charles Darnay begin to raise a family, including a son who dies in early childhood and a daughter, Lucie the Younger. Although Carton rarely visits, he is accepted as a close family friend whom little Lucie especially adores.

The guillotine symbolizes the excesses, terror, and capriciousness of the French Revolution.

The guillotine symbolizes the excesses, terror, and capriciousness of the French Revolution.

Ultimately, as the French Revolution unfolds, becoming more and more brutal as the Reign of Terror commences, Darnay returns to Paris to help one of his servants, but he is imprisoned by the revolutionaries and denounced as a hated aristocrat. Dr. Manette and Lucie hasten to Paris to try to free Darnay, who is kept imprisoned for over a year before his trial finally begins. Viewed as a hero by the peasant mob for having endured such a long imprisonment in the Bastille, Dr. Manette successfully pleads for his son-in-law’s release, but Darnay is almost immediately arrested again on charges brought forth by Monsieur and Madame Defarge.

At the revolutionary tribunal, Monsieur Defarge confronts Darnay, who, it is revealed, is the nephew of the hated Marquis St. Evrémonde. Defarge reads a letter written by Dr. Manette, the same letter he had sought when he had entered Manette’s cell during the storming of the Bastille. The letter reveals that the Marquis, Darnay’s uncle, kidnapped and raped a peasant girl, whom Dr. Manette attempted unsuccessfully to save. The Marquis and Darnay’s father then had the doctor imprisoned for attempting to save the girl, and went further, killing the girl’s husband and causing her father to die of shock. It is revealed that Madame Defarge is the sole surviving sister of the peasant girl, whose brother hid his sister away when he realized the Marquis would not rest until the entire peasant family was destroyed. This is why the Defarges seek Darnay’s death; they seek vengeance for the outrages Darnay’s uncle and father perpetrated against Madame Defarge’s family. Dr. Manette is horrified that Darnay is now to be condemned for his uncle’s sins, but his protests are to no avail – Darnay is sentenced to die on the guillotine the next day.

The following morning, Carton visits Darnay in prison, an, realizing he still greatly resembles Darnay, decides to take Darnay’s place and die in his stead on the guillotine, remembering his vow to Lucie to “embrace any sacrifice for you and those dear to you.” Carton shepherds Darnay and his family out of Paris, and prepares himself to die. Meanwhile, the still-vengeful Madame Defarge goes, armed with a pistol, to the Manette residence, hoping to catch the family in mourning for Darnay, a condemned enemy of the Republic, and thereby condemn the entire family. In a struggle with one of the Manette servants, who seeks to protect them from the vengeful woman, Defarge’s pistol goes off, killing her.

As morning dawns, the day of execution arrives. Carton, appearing to all as the condemned Darnay, talks with a fellow condemned, a seamstress, as they wait to board the tumbril that will take them to the guillotine. She recognizes that he is not Darnay, and is awed by his courage and selflessness. He comforts her as they ride to the scaffold, and she is able to meet her death in peace. As he waits his turn to be beheaded, Carton experiences a kind of epiphany, realizing that he is in the right for dying in place of a man who was married, with a family. His last thoughts are that “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”