Some time ago my salon guests and I shared the last hours in the life of Marie Antoinette; today is another sad tale as we visit the former King Louis XVI on his final day, the man who had ruled France now known as little better than a common criminal.
On 15th January 1793, Louis XVI was found guilty of treason and crimes against the state. The prisoner was returned to his cell in the Temple to prepare for his fate, his appointed with the executioner scheduled for 21st January 1793 and little hope of a reprieve on the horizon.
|The King at The Temple by Jean-François Garneray|
On the last evening of his life Louis said his farewells to his family; more than anything he wished to spare his children the agony of knowing they would never see their father again and told them that he would visit them again in the morning, a meeting that was destined never to happen. At dawn on the day of his execution he celebrated mass and then, all hope of mercy gone, prepared to journey by carriage to the scaffold where a crowd of thousands waited.
When Louis left his bed at five o'clock on the morning of his execution, he was greeted by a cold, wet and miserable day in Paris. He spent the early hours in contemplation and prayer until he was taken from the tower at around eight o'clock, to find a guard of over one thousand horseguards who had been appointed to escort the prisoner on the long journey from the prison to the place of execution in the Place de Louis XV,. At Louis' request it was agreed that he would be accompanied by Father Henry Essex Edgeworth, an Irish priest who had made his home in France and served as confessor to Madame Elizabeth.
During the carriage ride Louis remained utterly composed, praying with Father Edgeworth and apparently unaware of the vast crowds of citizens who lined the route, any sound they might make drowned by by innumerable drummers who walked ahead of the procession.
|The Execution of Louis XVI by Isidore-Stanislas Helman, 1794|
Upon their arrival before the scaffold the former king left the carriage and dismissed any notion that the guards who came to surround him would prepare him for his fate Instead he untied his own neckerchief, opened the collar of his shirt and declared himself ready to proceed. Momentarily stilled by such a composed display, the guards recovered themselves and moved to bind his hands, at which point Louis refuted their efforts, their very audacity most distasteful to him.
Taking the arm of the priest who had ridden with him, Louis passed along the path to the scaffold as a crowd of thousands looked on. He mounted the steps and addressed those who had gathered to watch his execution, telling them firmly,
"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."
At that, the drummers picked up their sticks and began again as the crowd called its approval, urging the guards on as they seized the former king and set him beneath the blade. With no further ceremony, the National Razor fell, ending the life of Louis XVI at just after quarter past ten, with the citizens letting out a roar. At that, one of the guards seized the head and promenaded around the scaffold; at this, the crowd fell silent for a short time, perhaps realising for the first time what they had just witnessed. Presently though cries of support could be heard until the Place rang with shouts of "Vive la Republique!".
|Execution of Louis XVI from an English engraving, 1798|
His body was transported for burial in the churchyard of the Church of the Madeleine. Here he lay until 21st January 1815 when he and Marie Antoinette's remains were retrieved and interred beside the King's ancestors in the Basilica of Saint-Denis, their memories honoured by a monument to their passing.