In the latest instalment of our autumn series, looking at what led to the fall of various monarchies throughout history, Royal Central looks at the end of the monarchy in France.
The most well-known episode regarding the ending of France’s monarchy is the 1789 Revolution which led to the deaths of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. But while this event did lead to the end of the absolute monarchy, it was only for a short time and the monarchy did not actually end for good until 1870.
The French Revolution
The first real attempt to end the monarchy in France happened in 1789, and it is probably the most well-known event that led to the end of the monarchy. The current King in 1789 was King Louis XVI who was married to the famous Queen Marie-Antoinette. King Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774 and was a member of the House of Bourbons who had ruled over France since 1589. King Louis XVI’s reign was complicated from the beginning as he ascended the throne in the middle of a financial crisis that wouldn’t end during his reign and a rising anger in the French people. This led him to call the Estates-General in 1789, a sign that the monarchy was weakened as it was the first time the body was called since 1614. The Estates-General were split into three estates: the clergy, the nobility and the rest of France – the Third Estate. But the middle class created the National Assembly and were soon joined by the Third Estate. They took the Tennis Court Oath under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. They were joined by the Clergy as well as 47 members of the nobility.
When Louis XVI fired Necker – the Finance Minister- a few days later after he published an inaccurate account of the government’s debts, a lot of Parisians thought the King did it to undermine the National Assembly which made them even angrier. On July 14th, insurgents stormed the Bastille fortress in order to take the weapons and ammunition. However, despite the storming of the Bastille being probably the most well-known episode of the French Revolution, it only lasted for a few hours, and the Revolution lasted until 1792. The Bastille episode did act as a symbol and example in other parts of France and civil authority rapidly deteriorated which caused a lot of members of the nobility to flee France as they were fearing for their security.
Other important episodes of the French Revolution are the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August 1789 (directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson) and the Women’s March on Versailles in October 1789 which led to the King and Queen leaving Versailles to live at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Indeed, the people tried to kill Queen Marie-Antoinette as they felt she was living a lavish lifestyle that was provocative considering the financial crisis in France. They felt that if the royal couple lived in Paris inside of Versailles, it would be easier to make them accountable if they were living among the people in Paris.
Worried about his family safety and dismayed by the direction the Revolution was taking, King Louis XVI decided to flee with his family from Paris to the Austrian border in June 1791. However, he was recognised during the trip, in Varennes, and brought back to Paris. The Assembly suspended him, and the King and Queen were held under guards. His attempted flight did not go down well with the public and would ultimately lead to his death.
The Revolution’s goal was to abolish the absolute monarchy (called the Ancien Régime), but the Assembly was split on whether France should become a constitutional monarchy or a republic. Ultimately, they settled on a constitutional monarchy with the King only having a representative role. The writing of the First Constitution in 1791, and it stated that there would be one Assembly and that the King would only have a suspensive veto. However, a lot of people were still angry that the King had attempted to flee and raised the point that since he had been suspended from his powers after being arrested in Varennes. He was now deposed and shouldn’t be the King of the new constitutional monarchy. However, despite huge protests, the First Constitution was signed on 3 September 1791, and the National Assembly gave way to the new Legislative Assembly that would share power with the King.
While it seemed like this was the end of the troubles for King Louis XVI and the monarchy, things only got worse from there when foreign monarchies got involved at a time when the French people were trying to assert their sovereignty. It had already started in August 1791 when the King’s brother-in-law, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, King Frederick William II of Prussia, and the King’s brother, Charles-Philippe, Comte d’Artois, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, declaring their intention to bring the French king in the position “to consolidate the basis of a monarchical government” and that they were preparing their own troops for action.
In April 1792, the Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria over territories claims. However, the French army was completely disorganised due to the Revolution, and they lost. In July, the Duke of Brunswick and his troops took the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun and on July 25th, he issued a statement written by King Louis XVI’s cousin, the Prince de Condé saying that the Austrians and Prussians intended to restore the King to his full powers. This was the downfall of King Louis XVI, as on August 10th, an armed mob invaded the Tuileries Palace while the King and his family took shelter in the Legislative Assembly. King Louis XVI was arrested on August 13th, and France was declared a Republic on September 21st, 1792.
King Louis XVI was beheaded on January 21th, 1793 while Queen Marie-Antoinette was beheaded a few months later on October 16th, 1793. This was the true end of the absolute monarchy in France but not the end of the monarchy altogether as France would alternate between Empires, Monarchies, and Republics from 1792 to 1870.
The First French Republic and the First French Empire
France became a republic in September 1792 and remained one until 1804 – although the form of the government changed several times. In 1799, after a coup, the government became the Consulate with Napoleon Bonaparte – one of the co-conspirators- being the Consul (equivalent to the head of government). However, in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor of the French thus ending the First French Republic and starting the First French Empire. During his time as Emperor, Napoleon took part in many wars and was very successful which allowed him to solidify his grip over Europe. But he had a lot of enemies, and in 1813, Prussian and Austrian armies joined forces with the Russian army in the Sixth Coalition War against France and invaded the country in 1814 which forced Napoleon to abdicate. He was exiled to the Island of Elba.
The restoration of the Bourbon monarchy
After Napoleon’s abdication, the monarchy was restored with the Bourbons in power. King Louis XVI’s younger brother, Louis Stanislas was crowned as Louis XVIII in April 1814. However, Napoleon came back less than a year later in March 1815. He returned from exile and took back control of the throne. Under his control, France took part in the Seventh Coalition War, but they had few resources and Napoleon ultimately lost the Battle of Waterloo. He then tried to abdicate in favour of his son, but the Bourbon monarchy was restored instead. Napoleon was exiled again, and he would die in 1821. Since his rule only lasted 111 days, it is now known as The Hundred Days.
The next fifteen years were quiet in terms of regime change as King Louis XVIII ruled France until his death in 1824 and his younger brother succeeded him as King Charles X until 1830.
The 1830 July Revolution and the reign of the Orléans
In March 1830, King Charles X dissolved parliament after 221 members of the Chambers of Deputies passed a motion of no confidence, and he also delayed the elections for two months. In the meantime, the “221” were held as heroes by the liberals as the King had become really unpopular. The government was defeated in the next elections, and on April 30th, King Charles X dissolved the National Guard of Paris – a voluntary group of citizens – on the grounds that it had behaved in an inappropriate manner towards the King. On July 25th, the King signed the July Ordinances that suspended the liberty of the press, dissolved the newly elected Chamber of Deputies, and excluded the commercial middle-class from future elections. This would lead to the end of the Bourbon monarchy in just three days.
Indeed, from July 27th to July 29th, the French people started a revolution against the King and his government, and they won over most of the important institutions of Paris, capturing the Tuileries Palace, the Hotel de Ville, the Louvre and the Archbishop’s Palace among others.
On August 2nd, King Charles X and his son, Louis Antoine abdicated their rights for the throne and left for Great Britain. Charles X had hoped his grandson would takeover as Henry V, but the members of the former government decided otherwise. As a result, they chose to elect Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans as King. A fact that is not often well-known is that Charles X’s son only renounced his rights to the throne after a 20 minute argument with his father, and he is, thus, considered by the monarchists as King Louis XIX Antoine even though he only “ruled” for 20 minutes. Historians usually don’t count him as a King of France.
This decision made significant changes for the French monarchy. King Louis-Philippe I was chosen because he was more liberal and the regime officially changed to the July monarchy – still a constitutional monarchy but a more liberal one – and it officially ended the Bourbons monarchy as Charles X was the last Bourbon to rule over France. It also started a division between the Bourbons and the Orléans with the Bourbons supporters being called Legitimists and the Orléans supporters being called Orléanists. This division still exists today.
During his reign from 1830 to 1848, King Louis-Philippe I had the title of King of the French (as opposed to King of France) and was very liberal. However, he grew more and more conservative, and when a new revolution started because of a very tense economic and social climate in the country, he fled to Great-Britain. The Second French Republic was declared in February 1848, marking a new change of regime in France, the fifth one in less than 60 years.
The Second French Republic and the Second French Empire
The Second French Republic lasted from 1848 to 1852 with Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as President. Louis-Napoléon was the nephew of Napoléon I. He was the first French head of state to hold the title of president, the first elected by a direct popular vote. However, the Constitution stated that a President could not seek re-election after his four year term. Louis-Napoléon spent the first half of 1851 trying to convince the National Assembly to change the constitution, but when the Assembly voted against his suggestion, he organised a coup d’état in December 1851. A Parisian insurrection started, but the insurgents were quickly defeated. The Assembly was dissolved and a new Constitution was drafted.
Following a referendum, the new constitution was adopted in January 1852 with more legislative power to the President, and the President was now elected for ten years with no term limits. However, Louis-Napoléon followed his uncle Napoléon I’s footsteps as he quickly decided to become Emperor, and after another referendum, the Second French Empire was proclaimed in November 1852. Louis-Napoléon chose to be proclaimed Emperor on December 2th as it was a very symbolic date, one year after his coup and 48 years to the day after Napoléon I’s coronation. He became Napoléon III and ruled until 1870.
The real end of the monarchy and the start of France as a long-standing Republic
In September 1870, Napoléon III and his army were made prisoners during the Franco-Prussian war and Napoléon III had to surrender. When the news reached Paris, a group of Republican deputies gathered at the City Hall and proclaimed the return of the Republic and the creation of a Government of National Defence. It was the end of the Second French Empire and the start of a long-standing republic regime, marking the end of the monarchy in any of its forms in France. Napoléon III was, thus, the last French monarch ever.
France has been under the regime of the Fifth Republic since 1958. And while 1789 and the Revolution are the events that started it all, it took 81 years for the monarchy to completely disappear in France. However, there are still monarchists in the country today, most of them split between two pretenders. Indeed, there are several claimants to the throne of France, but the main two are the Bourbons and the Orléans. The current Bourbon pretender is Louis de Bourbon as Head of the House of Bourbon since 1989. The current Orléans pretender is Henri d’Orléans as the head of the House of Orléans; although his son and heir, Jean d’Orléans, Dauphin de France and Duc de Vendôme is quite well-known.