Friday 23 August 2013

"I Die Innocent": The Life of Louis XVI

Louis XVI (Versailles, France, 23rd August 1754 – Paris, France, 21st January 1793) 

Portrait of Louis XVI by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis , 1776
Louis XVI by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis , 1776

There have been a few too many guillotines around these parts of late and today we're beneath the National Razor again, this time in the company of a king. We've already watched the Bastille fall, witnessed the Insurrection of 10th August and followed the man behind the Reign of Terror  to the guillotine, so let's gad back to Versailles and see where it all began.

Louis Auguste de France, Duc de Berry, was born to Louis, the Dauphin of France, and Maria Josepha of Saxony. Timid and studious, the boy's relationship with his parents was somewhat distant and he threw himself into his studies under the Duc de la Vauguyon, a strict disciplinarian. When his father died, the 11 year old Louis succeeded him as Dauphin; at the death of his mother two years later, the boy immersed himself even further in his education, excelling in his studies as he grew into a quiet young man.

In 1770, Louis was married to the 14 year old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia, better known to history as Marie Antoinette. The daughter of a Holy Roman Emperor, the marriage cemented a powerful dynasty and  marriage took place by proxy on 19th April in the Church of the Augustine Friars, Vienna. The young bride was presented to her new family on 7th May 1770, the wedding ceremony following just over a week later. 

Portrait of Marie Antoinette and her Three Children, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787
Marie Antoinette and her Three Children, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787

Away from the public gaze the marriage was far from passionate. Desperately shy, Louis did not consummate the union for seven years and as an heir became an increasingly distant hope, pamphleteers and balladeers made bawdy sport of the couple. Eventually Louis and Marie would have four children together but by the time the first was born, the country was already rife with rumour that the king was unable to father an heir. 

In 1774 the young man became King Louis XVI; utterly overwhelmed and underprepared by his education, Louis was an indecisive and timid ruler, desperate to be liked by the people even as he allowed himself to be influenced by his ministers and advisers. A series of unpopular policy decisions and poor foreign policies knocked the new King's confidence even further and, with the government descending deeper and deeper into debt, Louis found himself scrutinised by politicians and public alike. 

Portrait of Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet, 1786
Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet, 1786

The royal household was seen as profligate and wasteful both at home and overseas. Whilst the disastrous Seven Years' War and the part played by France in the American War of Independence were ruinously expensive, Louis prevaricated over financial reform and appointed Jacques Necker to sort out the fiscal mess the country was falling into. Hugely popular with the people, Necker's eventual dismissal would play a part in the fall of the Bastille. 

The public weren't only taxed to the limit, they were starving too and famine swept the land in the 1780s. A cloud of dissent swirled as the masses looked to Versailles where they saw opulence and luxury beyond their imagining. They were, they believed, ruled by a King who could not possibly imagine what the lives of his subjects were like. His wife was draped in the latest fashions, his household filled with luxuries available and while the people starved, the court dined on fine foods. His popularity fast waning, Louis struggled to reconcile the wishes of his subjects and his advisors as influential and ambitious nobles and politicians jockeyed to take advantage of his indecisive, quiet nature.

Painting of the Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David, 1791
The Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David, 1791

Bowing to the wishes of his advisors, Louis faltered when it came to matters of reform and summoned the Estates-General for the first time since 1614, intending for this body to make taxation decisions. The decision proved a fateful one and the Third Estate, clamouring for equality, met to take the Tennis Court Oath, a seminal moment in France. 

Furious at their exclusion from a meeting in the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs in Versailles, members of the Third Estate held a conference on a nearby tennis court. They believed that they were deliberately refused entry to the meeting and swore an oath of allegiance that they would not disband until a French constitution was written. It has been suggested that the doors of the meeting hall were likely locked as the royal family was in mourning for the King's oldest son, who had been dead barely a fortnight. Nevertheless, the Oath was a turning point as French citizens formally declared their opposition to the monarch. Faced with this vote of no-confidence, Louis attempted to make concessions but the damage was done and the idea of constitution began to take root. Less than a month later there were mobs on the streets of Paris and the Bastille fell

Painting of the Royal Family Return to Paris, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, 1791
The Royal Family Return to Paris, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, 1791

Even now the events that led to the scaffold were beginning to form and Louis entered into talks with politicians, the family by now under effective house arrest in the Tuileries. Fearing for his future, Louis and his family fled for Montmédy and the protection of Austria; longer-term they hoped to return with a force made up of allies and sympathetic nations and reassert monarchial authority. However, indecision struck Louis again and he postponed the escape multiple times, not quite able to believe that his popularity had diminished to the point of revolution. 

When the family finally did undertake what has become known as the flight to Varennes on the night of 20th June, the plan was doomed to failure. Apparently recognising Louis from his portrait on currency a local man, Jean-Baptiste Drouet, raised the alarm. There would be no further chance to escape and the royal family was returned to the Tuileries and placed under arrest once more.

Looking to his fellow monarchs for support, Louis found himself met by a wall of platitudinous concern but little in the way of action. Declarations were issued, sabres were rattled and fingers were wagged but nobody rode to his rescue. France found now that it had few friends on the continent and one can only imagine how Louis must have felt as he watched his last remaining chances for escape slipping away bit by bit. When the Tuileries was stormed by a mob, the royal family was escorted out of the Palace to the Legislative Assembly, their already restricted world shrinking even further.

Painting of the King at The Temple, Jean-François Garneray
The King at The Temple, Jean-François Garneray 

The man who had once sat on the throne of France was arrested on 13th August 1792 and sent to the Temple, a Parisian prison that would be his final home. Just over a month later the National Assembly abolished the Monarchy, declaring France a Republic. Stripped of his titles, the imprisoned King Louis XVI was now known as nothing more grand that Citoyen Louis Capet. As his opponents were now to find, abolishing a monarchy was one thing but there remained the problem of what to do with the monarch when he no longer had a kingdom to rule. Moderate Girondins strongly encouraged the continued imprisonment of Louis whilst their more radical colleagues argued for nothing less than execution. Once more the politicians debated until, on 11th December, Louis and his counsel, Raymond Romain, Comte de Sèze,  appeared before the Convention to hear charges of high treason and crimes against the State.

Engraving of the Execution of Louis XVI by  Isidore-Stanislas Helman, 1794
The Execution of Louis XVI by  Isidore-Stanislas Helman, 1794

The trial lasted just over a month and on 15th January 1793, the verdict of guilty was read out. Among those who decided that the sentence should be death was Louis's own cousin, Philippe Égalité, the former Duc d'Orléans. The prisoner was returned to the Temple to prepare for his fate, his appointed with the executioner scheduled for 21st January 1793.

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 see 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.

Dignified to the last Louis showed no fear as he approached the guillotine and told the hostile citizens, '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.'

Minutes later, Louis XVI was dead, his body 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.

Photograph of funerary monuments of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, Saint Denis Basilica, France
Funerary monuments of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, Saint Denis Basilica, France

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Unknown said...

I always find this such a strange tale! It shows how the monarchy were so out of touch with the climate of their country and yet were also unable to take any action to save either themselves or the country when it really mattered. And then, to the last, Louis maintained his dignity! So many contradictions in one man...

Catherine Curzon said...

I think he was a true gentleman, but one ill-suited and woefully unprepared for the challenges he faced.

A. Colleen Jones said...

He was very different from the Sun King! The previous Louis wanted to be the Minister of Finance. That's what got Nicholas Fouquet in trouble; they both wanted the job. Louis won.

Catherine Curzon said...

The Sun King was certainly a somewhat more forthright chap!

sarah c said...

Very different from the Sun King. Like the last tsar of Russia he meant well but lacked the ability to control such situations.

Catherine Curzon said...

Yes! He let the situation run away from control.

Gem Twitcher said...

You were so brave and fearless,Madame-crossing the Channel at night wrapped in your black cloak and hat lowered over your face! You saved soooo many lives-a true!Scarlet Pimpernel"!

Catherine Curzon said...

Why, sir, I hardly know *what* you mean! *flutters fan*

Gem Twitcher said...

...and you returned to the ball as though nothing had happened!! Even the Prince of Wales commented on the glint in your eye,Madame!

Nicolaas Vergunst said...

The flight to Varennes demonstrates, perhaps more than any other incident in this tale, just how out of touch the monarchs had become. The royal family were at a loss when it came to ordinary public behaviour and, apparently, both hapless and clumsy at the roadside inn of Sainte-Menehould where they required overnight rest and refreshment.

Following their arrest the next day, the people of Varennes revolted against those citizens who had supported or remained loyal to the monarchy, including local landowners, seizing property and confiscating all contents. Ironically, and here's the twist in the tale, the heroic capture of a King and Queen brought both popularity and poverty to Varennes. From what I saw passing through, the town has never recovered, despite being badly damaged in WWI. The attached photo shows the house (far right) were Louis and Marie-Antoinette had been arrested.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for your perceptive comment. Unfortunately, the photo didn't carry across into the comments here, my apologies for that!

Mari Christian said...

Thank you Catherine. This account of the end of the French monarchy was beautifully written and illustrated. Thank you so much.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, that's so kind!