Tuesday 21 January 2014

The Last Months of King Louis XVI

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

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
 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
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
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.

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

Pen and Sword
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Unknown said...

That's such a detailed account I've not heard before. What amazes me in instances like this is that he could continue to his death utterly convinced of his own innocence. To be so out of tough with the political climate of your nation seems to be quite characteristic of this kind of office. Only people like Stalin seem to have recognised a suitable amount of paranoia as a result of their actions!

Catherine Curzon said...

He was out of touch, it's very true. Whether he was guilty of treason is another matter...

Historical Reminiscing with Marilyn said...

Louis XVI was not guilty of treason. His crime was to be a man devoted to his family and too gentle to call out the troops and stop the Mobs the first day. He saw himself as the Father of his people. He was not the heir to the throne who had the temperament to make a strong ruler. He procrastinated too much. Memoirs tell us that but a man who would not allow the Swiss Guards to fire on the crowds cannot be viewed with anything but pity. Out of touch..yes but the politics of the time were such that only a Leader with really strong, ruthless, characteristics would have survived. The memoirs tell us that.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Marilyn; nothing is guaranteed to split commentators like the French Revolution. I am in agreement with you that he was out of touch; in that climate, he was absolutely not the right man for the job.

Bermuda Tim said...

I think a small part of the problem here is that unlike the British Monarchy and its chameleon like ability to morph and change with the times, the French Aristocracy was fatally resistant to any kind of reform. Unfortunately for them, their glittering lives blinded them to the upcoming storm. King Louis XVI in essence sat at the top of this aristocratic heap, a lightning rod for ALL the perceived evils of his "Class". Poor Guy didn't stand a chance. It is my opinion and my opinion alone that this "resistance to change" is somehow endemic in the French Soul....for example, France has an "Academie des Belles Letres" where the purpose of the Academy is to be on guard against the "infiltration" of foreign words (Especially and my God in Heaven, English!)...unlike our beautiful and useful Language. All indications of the life of Louis XVI show that yes, he was a gentle Family Man but again, that didn't matter....any and all observations of this sad events and the terrible events to follow I make naturally from hindsight....I wasn't there and I wasn't Him...

Catherine Curzon said...

I love your description of him as a "lightning rod", it's so perceptive. He seems to me too have been utterly unprepared for the situation in which he found himself, utterly at sea.

Antoine Vanner said...

I read somewhere that in the carriage Louis enquired if there was any news of Pérouse, "The French Captain Cook", who had disappeared in the Pacific and whose fate was to be unknown for more than another thirty years., If this s true then it casts a very impressive light on a man who was trying to less the tension of those with him by discussing other matters. Louis was inadequate as a king but his behaviour in his last days showed him to be a very good, brave and noble man. Here's a link to information on Perouse http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/326447/Jean-Francois-de-Galaup-comte-de-La-Perouse

Catherine Curzon said...

I hadn't heard that before, Antoine, thank you. Pérouse is such a fascinating character, I wonder that he isn't better known.

Anna Belfrage said...

How anyone could consider him guilty of treason is beyond me. An inept king, yes. A bad man? Hmm

Catherine Curzon said...

I absolutely agree, I don't see any villainy in him.

Mairead said...

The Abbé Edgeworth was an Irish priest. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Essex_Edgeworth

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Mairead; I've amended that!