Friday 21 January 2011

January 21st, 1793: The Execution of King Louis XVI

Anyone who saw Louis XVI, the deposed King of France and Navarre, in the final year of his life would have been struck by how little the imprisoned monarch now resembled the trim and faintly handsome crown prince who had won the praise of the visiting Duchess of Northumberland two decades earlier. Years of over-eating and over-drinking had swollen his always large, but once impressive, body; two or three years of effective house arrest had only exacerbated the problem. An unhealthy attitude towards food had long run in the French Royal Family, which in every generation since the sixteenth century seemed to have produced at least one person who would now be classed either as an anorexic or a bulimic or one with a tendency to "comfort eat". It had been the great crisis of the monarchy in 1789, in the months directly leading to the fall of the Bastille, which had broken King Louis's once unassailable work ethic and optimism in his country's future. The death of his eldest son, Louis-Joseph, at the age of seven in that same summer had pushed the king into a breakdown, which, today, would be recognised as clinical depression. At the time, horrified members of the King's family and entourage simply watched on as their sovereign ploughed his way through family-sized meals and demolished glass after glass of burgundy and his favourite port. His wife, Marie-Antoinette, who ate sparingly and never drank alcohol, only highlighted their worried observations, since when compared to the queen, the king seemed to behaving like both a glutton and a sporadically functioning alcoholic. 

Since that terrible summer, when the Bastille collapsed and the revolution began in earnest, Louis XVI had not had much reason to overcome his mental unhappiness. By the autumn, Versailles had been ransacked and the Royal Family and their surviving courtiers marched back to Paris, surrounded by a singing mob carrying the severed heads of the royal bodyguard. They had endured two years of near-constant humiliation, resulting in their disastrous and failed attempt to flee the capital in June 1791. They were caught when a priest recognised the king in disguise and fell to his knees in a fit of devotion. From Varennes, they were forcibly returned to Paris before the monarchy was legislatively abolished in August 1792 and the King, his wife, their two children and his sister, Elisabeth, were imprisoned in the grim Temple fortress, which in earlier days Marie-Antoinette had described as the most frightening building in Paris. The downfall of the monarchy had precipitated the grim and terrifying days of the September Massacres, in which hundreds of the king's supporters were dragged into the streets to be butchered by a crowd acting with the tacit blessing of the new republican regime. Then, in December, the King was brought to stand trial and the only outcome expected, of course, was that like his 17th century hero, King Charles I of Britain, he must be executed to secure the survival of the republic.

The greatest irony in all this, of course, was that the thirty-eight year old king who had been so demonised by the revolutionaries was, in fact, one of the most liberal monarchs in French history. The American diplomat, Gouverneur Morris, acidly observed to Thomas Jefferson, much more sympathetic to the revolution than Morris himself: "To a person less intimately acquainted than you are with the History of human affairs, it would seem strange that the mildest monarch who ever filled the French throne ... should be prosecuted as one of the most nefarious Tyrants that ever disgraced the Annals of human nature." Throughout his reign, Louis had despised what he saw as the selfish snobbery which underpinned conservatism and he found the glittering, extravagant life of the royal court at Versailles to be absurd, boring and wasteful. Beyond hunting, he had almost no interests in common with the rest of the French upper classes, who regarded their king's interest in blacksmithing, mathematics and science as either bizarre or downright offensive. He resented what he saw as the aristocracy's refusal to abandon one inch of their enormous social and fiscal privileges and, despite his own intense fervent Christian faith, he despaired of the Catholic Church's reactionary refusal to pay a more regulated tax or to trim back some of the worst excesses and corruption within its episcopal appointments. The taille was no longer enough; if the church was going to pay a tax, it would have to be done regularly. On every front, however, the King was thwarted by the very same social classes who would one day find themselves pulled down into a vortex of destruction because the monarchy they claimed to love was no longer able to survive or reform from within. The aristocracy annihilated the political careers of any government minister who looked set to challenge their financial legal privileges; the church swung erratically from throwing a blue fit the moment its position as the official state religion was threatened, but failed spectacularly to inspire any kind of unity or order within its own ranks. Something which came back to haunt it, and the old regime, spectacularly in the spring of 1789.  

But there had been some progress, almost all of it because of Louis and a few of his most trusted advisers. To the apoplectic fury of some of his bishops, in 1787 he had granted full toleration to his Protestant subjects, after over a century of petty and often cruel penal discrimination. He had introduced a budget to life at Versailles (a word which, one suspects, had been fairly alien to the palace beforehand) and he was rigorous in implementing his economy drives, despite the numerous scenes staged by those courtiers who melodramatically likened Louis's actions to the savage tyranny of a Turkish sultan, all because he had reduced the number of chamberlains required to attend a State dinner. He had attempted, where possible, to promote people to positions within the government based on merit, rather than birth, and most of all, from 1788 to 1791 he had done his level best to work with the forces of radicalism and the new politics. He had tried to reach a compromise, time and time again, earning him the undying resentment (or disappointment) of the ultra-royalists, who felt the only thing the revolution should be greeted with was a sword. After his first breakdown, and despite rolling cycles of depression over the next four years, Louis had attempted to rise to the Herculean task of reconciling the throne with the revolution. And in that, he had done his best to make work what many realised as far back as 1789 was essentially unworkable. He had kept faith in the possibility of compromise long after his wife had lost it entirely. He had struggled to make the idea of constitutional monarchy work, despite the criticism he faced from his youngest brother and sister for doing so. But, finally, it became clear that it was no longer possible to do so. Moderate republicans and constitutional monarchists had been sidelined completely from the revolution's political agenda, whose aim now lay very clearly in abolishing the monarchy, annihilating the aristocracy and embarking upon the systematic de-christianisation of France. 

At his trial, Louis had requested he be defended by a brilliant lawyer and a noted liberal monarchist, Guy-Jean Target. Target, in a panic, refused the task of publicly defending the ex-king, claiming he was too old, too sick and too busy. In the end, it was a 71 year-old lawyer named Chrétien Malesherbes who, hearing of the King's impending trial, actually wrote to the new government volunteering his services as defence counsel. Malesherbes had once been employed by the Royal Family in the days before the revolution and, in his letter, he wrote offering his services for this extremely dangerous task, he wrote: "I was twice called to the council of him who was my master at a time when the position was universally aspired to. I owe him the same service when it is an office that many people judge to be dangerous."

During the trial itself, Louis had objected to being referred to as "Citizen Louis Capet" under the revolution's new egalitarian syntax, but apart from that spat, he had behaved with the same calm under pressure which had characterised his actions since the fall of Versailles three years earlier. Wearing a sombre olive-green silk coat, he had waited until being given permission to sit in his judges' presence. He and Malesherbes denied that the King had been plotting against the revolution from the beginning, despite the well-known political views held by other members of his family. Louis was convinced that his actions had always been guided by his  Catholic morality and his serenity in answering each of the charges of espionage and treason impressed many of the spectators. However, when the public prosecutor accused the King of having attempted to commit genocide, in deliberately plotting "the shedding of French blood," the usually sedate Louis exploded with emotion. In the course of his denial, the King became so angry that a tear spilled down his cheek, which he quickly wiped away. Nothing, he protested, had ever been dearer to him than his subjects' welfare and the charge that he had willingly set out to cause the death of Frenchmen and women was as inaccurate as it was offensive. Particularly, he might justifiably have said, when that accusation came from a government like the French republic, who held amongst its guiding principles the idea of state terror.

In the end, of course, the verdict had never been in doubt and Robespierre had queried the utility of holding a trial at all, given that a trial presupposed at least the possibility of innocence. In the trial's opening oration, Antoine Saint-Just, the handsome sociopath nicknamed "the Angel of Death," proclaimed "Louis cannot be judged; he is already judged! ... He is condemned, or if he is not, the sovereignty of the Republic is not absolute." Of the 691 delegates called in to observe the ci-devant king's trial, a few abstained, none voted against and the rest voted that he was guilty of blood-lust, treason, espionage, corruption and cruelty.

In a last minute plea, the American government attempted to save the King's life by offering him and his family political asylum, in grateful recognition for the monarchy's support for American independence. Their move was supported by Thomas Paine, the aforementioned American diplomat Gouverneur Morris and French diplomats stationed in America itself, who warned their new government in Paris that to execute a King who was so popular in the United States, for having helped "my much loved American to burst her fetters" from the British, would permanently damage Franco-American relations. An antebellum mansion had been prepared for the Royal Family in Virginia and, if they were allowed to go there, so Paine and Morris argued, they could live out their lives in peace and settle into the same kind of political obscurity and irrelevance as the exiled Stuarts had from Britain. The leaders of the French Revolution either ignored or mocked the American offer. Marat said it was all Quakerish, pacifist nonsense. The Bourbons were a real threat and must therefore die, even the children. 

Taken back to the Temple and probably unaware of the last-minute American attempts to save his life, Louis XVI was focusing on two final tasks - to prepare his soul for Heaven and to say goodbye to his family. During one of the recesses at the trial, the King had spoken to his lawyer about his worry for the fate of his wife. "Unfortunate princess!" he had said, "My marriage promised her a throne; now, what prospect does it offer her?" He asked for three days to spiritually prepare himself and say his goodbyes, but this was denied him. He was to die the following morning, as scheduled. However, to his relief, he was allowed access to a Catholic priest and former friend of the royal family, Henry Edgeworth, an Irish prelate who had not sworn an oath of loyalty to the republic and remained tied by oaths to the Vatican, rather than the new regime. Whilst awaiting the priest's arrival, the King calmly began reading a biography of Charles I.

Initially, the Convention had intended to refuse Louis the opportunity to say goodbye to his wife, sister and children, who were being held in rooms above his in the prison. Eventually, however, some of them relented. They had been kept separate for over six weeks, but the Queen and Princess Elisabeth had already heard the news being announced by the town criers that their husband and brother was to be executed tomorrow. Louis urged his 7 year-old son, Louis-Charles, who, in the eyes of French royalists and the international community would become King Louis XVII tomorrow when the blade fell on his father's neck, not to seek vengeance for what would happen tomorrow. It was a Christian's duty to forgive and a king's duty to show mercy. Princess Elisabeth, who had long felt that her brother's political misfortunes had been caused precisely by showing too much mercy, did not correct him. Whatever their political disagreements in the final years, the 28 year-old princess adored her brother and repeatedly said he was the truest gentleman she had ever known. If the monarchy was ever restored, Louis believed that his son should "devote himself entirely to the happiness of his fellow citizens; that he should forget all hatred and resentment, particularly in what relates to these misfortunes and vexations I have suffered; that he cannot promote the happiness of a nation but by reigning according to the laws".

For most of their farewell together, Marie-Antoinette huddled against her husband, clutching their son between them, whilst their 14 year-old daughter, Marie-Thérèse, sobbed and screamed at her father's knees. Elisabeth held her brother's spare hand and wept continuously, whilst the prince held between both of his parents cried silently, kissing father and mother's hands, trying to comfort them. Seeing the hysteria his family were reaching in the midst of their grief, Louis refused Marie-Antoinette's request that they all spend the final night together. He must go now, he said, to confess and pray. But he would return tomorrow morning to say goodbye to them properly.

"Be sure that I shall see you again at eight o'clock tomorrow morning?" he said.

"Why not seven o'clock?" asked the Queen.

"Seven o'clock, then," he relented.

Marie-Antoinette grabbed his hand as he stood up. "Do you promise?"

"I promise," he lied. 

In fact, the King had already decided not to return to them again, because he could not bear the sight of his family in such distress and he needed to remain calm tomorrow, in order that he might make a good death. As he descended to his rooms, to spend the night with his final priest, the sobs of his two children could be heard echoing through the stonework of the Temple. He received communion just after six o'clock in the morning and when he was ready to go, he wanted to send his wedding ring to his wife and a gift of prayer books and various sentimental mementos to his sister and children. One of the republican politicians who he entrusted the request to, tossed the package back to him, informing him that he had come to see him die, not run errands for him.

Along with Edgeworth, the King was conducted through the streets of Paris in a dark carriage. An extraordinary, other-worldly silence sat over the city that day. The main gates were locked, no trade was being carried out and crowds of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands turned out to watch the King die. Some issued shouts of support for the republic, but the majority remained silent and disbelieving at the sight unfolding in front of them. The great royalist spy, baron de Batz, a descendant of the real d'Artagnan, was arrested by police, in case he attempted to rescue the king and one former Versailles servant was beaten to within an inch of his life for attempting to touch the carriage as it passed by and pray. 

Reaching the guillotine, Louis leaned on Abbé Edgeworth for support in mounting the steep steps and it therefore seems likely that the later story that the priest cried out, "Son of Saint Louis, ascend into Heaven!" is nothing more than pious fabrication. The King had, however, been listening to religious readings for the entire journey and both he and his confessor were models of calm, even as the King suffered the humiliation of having his blond hair briskly hacked off by Sanson, the public executioner. His Majesty wanted to speak, one last time. Turning to the crowd who had once been his subjects, he declared: "I die innocent of all the crimes of which I have been charged. I pardon those who have brought about my death and I pray that the blood you are about to shed may never be required of France..."

The revolutionary guard then began to beat the drums, deliberately drowning out the King's final speech. 

A few moments later, the King was strapped onto the plank of the guillotine, pushed forward by the executioner's assistant and his neck secured in the brace. At half-past ten, the switch was flicked, the blade fell and sliced through the King's neck in one clean blow. As with the devout legend of Edgeworth's final exhortation, the republican story that the king was so corpulent two blows were needed is almost certainly untrue.

A cheer went up from most of the crowd, as schoolboys rushed forward tossing their hats in the air and trying to dip their uniforms in the tyrant's blood. Elsewhere in the city, however, some republicans, like Louis-Sebastian Mercier, renounced their politics after witnessing "that tragic scene" of revolutionary rhetoric turned into reality and one of the king's judges, one Michel Lepeletier, was stabbed in a cafe as he waited for a cup of coffee. The body of the man who had once been His Most Christian Majesty, By the Grace of God King of France and of Navarre, the Eldest Son of the Church, was taken to a mass grave near the rue d'Anjou and buried without ceremony.

Inside the Temple Fortress, the dead man's two children began to shake with convulsions, whilst his widow sank to the floor in a speechless, silent grief. His sister, however, rosary beads in hand, let out a terrible scream and cried, "The monsters! They are happy now!"


  1. This was compelling and moving. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Thank you, Susan. I very much appreciate the comment and glad you liked the post!


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