222 years ago Louis XVI, was awaiting the outcome of his trial which started on the 3rd of December 1792. It was a forgone conclusion and he knew it.
Louis, incorrectly styled ‘Louis Capet’ by the revolutionaries after the abolition of the French Monarchy in September 1792, was guillotined on the 21st January 1793 at what is know called the Place de la Concorde in Paris. This was the end of an era for France, the ancien regime had been overthrown, a new calendar was proclaimed and anyone opposing the ideas of the Revolution were to be punished. Indeed they were. An orgy of terror erupted from 1793-1794 dubbed ‘la Terreur’ in France and Louis was the first victim.
One big debate in the history of the French Revolution is whether Louis XVI was a victim or a tyrant. 33 charges were laid against Louis at his trial and the 33rd of these, “causing the blood of Frenchmen to flow”, was particularly hurtful for a King who sought nothing but happiness for his people. Even in his last moments, he had no bitterness towards his enemies but only concern for his nation and 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.” Whilst uttering his final words, the drummers on guard began playing loudly in order to drown out the former King’s voice.
Born in August 1754, Louis-Auguste was immediately styled (Duke) Duc de Berry. He was the second son of the Dauphin (French term for the first in line of succession) Louis, who died in December 1765. Louis-Auguste’s older brother, also Louis, Duc de Bourgogne whom died in March 1761 was favoured by his parents and the future Louis XVI was often a shy boy but nonetheless took to his studies; after all he was never supposed to be King. After the death of his brother and father in the early 1760s, Louis-Auguste found himself the Dauphin. His ageing grandfather, Louis XV had been reigning since 1715 and had fought the disastrous Seven Year’s War with Britain and Prussia, 1756-1763, whereby France lost significant prestige, lucrative trading contracts and almost all of her colonies in the Americas and India. Louis-Auguste was particularly interested in history and also took an interest in cartography. He also became well read in the study of his country’s government, the role of Monarchy, the need for his people to be happy and, ironically, the life of Charles I of England.
In May 1770, he married the Austrian archduchess, Marie Antoinette at Versailles. The marriage was engineered by pro-Austrian ministers who sought a Bourbon-Habsburg rapprochement. On one of their visits to Paris, they were highly popular amongst the citizenry and in 1774, when Louis XV died, they were a promising young Royal couple.
When Louis-Auguste finally succeeded to the throne on 10th May 1774 as ‘Louis XVI’ he was faced with enormous tasks left behind by his grandfather. Debt was the talk of the coffee houses of Paris, but also the troublesome American colonies which soon sought independence from France’s historic enemy, Britain. Louis XVI’s decision to directly support the American rebels in 1777 after the Battle of Saratoga was a huge gamble for a country in debt, but the final victory at Yorktown in 1781 with the help of the French Navy secured America her independence and brought a humiliated Great Britain to the negotiating table. Most of the 18th Century had been a humiliation for the Bourbons. Also known as The Sun King, Louis XIV had seen defeats just before his death during the War of the Spanish Succession; Louis XV lost the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Year’s War, but Louis XVI on the other hand, had restored French prestige and honour. Despite supporting a Republican cause, Louis XVI had fostered warm Franco-American relations and was on good terms with the American ambassador, Benjamin Franklin.
After the victory during the American Revolution, Louis XVI sought to control France’s finances. A series of proposed reforms, most notably crafted by the Swiss banker, Jacques Necker had failed to be accepted by the nobility with much of the opposition being led by The King’s own cousin, The Duc de Orleans (who also voted for his death in 1793). The King felt he had no choice but to summon the Estates-General in 1788 which met in 1789. The so called ‘Third Estate’ had been influenced by individuals who were learned in the works of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu. The majority in France favoured the British system of constitutional monarchy and Louis XVI still remained popular outside of Paris. Robespierre initially thought a referendum on Louis’ fate should be held across the country, but he soon withdrew the idea for the French public would have voted to save him. After the events at the Bastille prison in July and the storming of Versailles in October 1789, Louis XVI and his family were forced to move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The King became a Constitutional Monarch and was given the new title ‘King of the French’ in order to create a more personal connection between him and his people, something which was not required, as you will see.
Louis XVI was personally concerned with the welfare of his people, something which had been important to him since childhood. In contrast to his brothers: The Duc de Provence (future Louis XVIII) and The Duc de Artois (future Charles X) he preferred the company of ordinary Frenchmen. One example of this care for his people is seen during hunting, which was one of the king’s favourite past times; Louis’ brothers strode through peasant farmlands whilst Louis sought to go around. Another exemplification occurred when The King was riding back to Versailles and was confronted by a child asking for help for his ill parents. The child had no idea who he was talking to but after The King saw his parents, he provided them with a pension for the rest of their lives.
Revolutionary propaganda often portrayed Louis XVI as a blood thirsty tyrant who ordered the execution of his own people, but this was simply not the case. Most of the propaganda was conducted towards his wife and their relationship. There are many theories surrounding both The King and Queen’s personal lives and it would be inappropriate to discuss affairs which, even in relation to historical figures, should remain private. Marie Antoinette has been accused of conducting an affair with the Swedish Count, Axel von Fersen. They were certainly good friends but there is no evidence of a sexual relationship. The King on the other hand was often accused of lacking sexual prowess and sometimes impotency after failing to consummate his marriage early in their relationship. Nevertheless, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did have many children, including a Dauphin finally in 1781, (confusingly another) Louis.
From October 1789-January 1793, Louis XVI was essentially a prisoner of the Revolution. His disastrous attempt to flee to the Austrian Netherlands for help in June 1791 was to be used as a central accusation to charge The King with tyranny. Indeed, he did intend on mustering an army to reassert his powers with the help of French émigrés including his two brothers. The reasoning behind this was because he felt the Revolution was harming his religious duties with a wave of anti-Christian decrees. Louis XVI was a very pious individual and took his role incredibly seriously unlike his younger brothers, particularly Charles X (reigned 1824-1830) who attempted to overturn virtually everything associated with the Revolution and the Napoleonic era during his reign.
With Louis XVI’s inevitable execution at the beginning of 1793, he certainly became a victim of a Revolution spiralling into chaos, resentment and paranoia. Blood did indeed spill after his death and The King’s wife and eldest child were to die as victims too. Marie Antoinette, despite living a frivolous lifestyle during the reign of her husband and often supporting his political opponents at court, fiercely answered the charges laid against her concerning her son (proclaimed Louis XVII after the death of his father by Royalists). She was accused of sexually abusing him (pure fabrication) yet it was this son who would be treated appallingly in prison and would die in custody in June 1795 with his mother being guillotined in October 1793.
Whilst history soon moved on after the execution of Louis XVI, his Bourbon dynasty would be back on the throne by 1815 under the former King’s brothers, Louis XVIII and Charles X. Both Kings were the total opposite of their brother. They were charming enough but never understood the people their brother came to love, those who would have saved him given the chance. After the Revolution of 1830, the Bourbons would never reign in France again. The Spanish branch however, descendants of Louis XIV, continue today. Louis XVI, no tyrant, was perhaps a victim of the age. He had entrenched views but was by no means out of touch nor indifferent to the plights of his people. Instead of having endless debates about his reign, perhaps we should think in remembrance about what made him as a man and the turbulent age he lived and reigned in?