Tuesday 4 October 2011

October 5th, 1789: The revolution reaches Versailles

"At first only women showed themselves; the latticed windows of the palace were closed, and the Bodyguard and Flanders regiment were drawn up in the Place d'Armes... General consternation and disorder reigned throughout the interior of the palace... The insurrection was directed against the Queen in particular; I shudder even now at the memory of the fishwives, or rather Furies, who wore white aprons, which they screamed out were intended to receive the bowels of Marie-Antoinette... They mixed the most obscene expressions with these horrible threats." - Extract from the memoirs of Jeanne-Louise Campan, lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette
"The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes dying, dying, dying." 
- From The Splendour Falls by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Versailles, not just the political and administrative centre of France's absolute monarchy for the last century, but also its living, breathing cultural embodiment, fell early to the forces of the Revolution. A full four years and ten days before the guillotine blade sliced through the neck of its last queen, the legendary palace was breached and defiled. Today, it stands as a busy, bustling, slightly soulless museum, with little outward sign of the drama and trauma which swept over it at sunset on October 5th, 1789.

The French Revolution was already three months old by the time it turned on the palace. The Bastille had fallen on July 14th; the legislative end of absolute monarchy in France had arguably occurred even earlier, on May 5th, when the Estates-General was re-called. If absolutism wasn't dead then, it certainly was by June 23rd. In the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, the King and Queen had evacuated  some of their most unpopular friends, relatives and advisers from Versailles. The prime minister, baron de Breteuil, who famously lasted less than one hundred hours in his new job, had fled incognito to a spa in the Hapsburg empire, where he continued to act as the royalist government's prime minister-in-exile and their secret, vital link to the foreign powers. The King's youngest brother, Charles, Comte d'Artois, had been ordered to journey to Coblenz in modern-day Germany because he was now so widely unpopular that he was considered a likely target for assassination. (One of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting wrote, "The rage of the populace was pointed against the Comte d'Artois, whose unfavourable opinion of [the reforms] was an odious crime in their eyes.") Marie-Antoinette's favourite, Gabrielle de Polignac, had also refugeed abroad, with her husband, daughter, sons and sister-in-law in tow. Several priests, courtiers and members of the military high command also fled; some at the King's command, others of their own volition. At the time, those left at Versailles thought, or hoped, that their friends' exiles would be temporary and that once royal authority was re-established, they could return. 

Since the panic in July, Louis XVI had made sure he was seen often in the company of more liberal and pro-reform courtiers, like the duc de Villeroi, the duc de Villequier, the marquis de Nesle and the comte d'Estaing. Marie-Antoinette had retreated almost entirely from public view and beyond appointing the impeccably proper marquise de Tourzel to take over as governess to the royal children, the Queen kept herself secluded behind the palace walls. Those close to her could see the strain she was under; one night, Madame Campan, one of her ladies-in-waiting, remembered keeping the Queen company as she stared out her windows until three o'clock in the  morning, reflecting on the fates of all those who had left her. The King confided to a friend that his wife was "much tormented by all that has passed." 

Since July, the palace had slumbered in an uneasy state. Some of its most famous and influential residents had vanished and everywhere one looked, there were signs that Versailles was entering into its twilight. There were no more entertainments, no more state visits, no more official dinners and no more grand displays. For the first time since Lully and Louis XIV, the sound of music had vanished from its corridors. The only banquets or dinners given were those in honour of various regiments which had remained loyal to the Crown. One of those dinners, given in honour of the ultra-royalist Flanders regiment, turned into a display of drunken royalist enthusiasm, with the soldiers standing on tables to sing patriotic songs and chant "Vive le roi!" The King, the Queen and the Dauphin arrived to rapturous applause and displays of anti-revolutionary sentiment. In republican and reformist circles, the banquet was viewed as the start of a counter-revolution and a sign that a secret royalist army was being gathered at Versailles to march on the capital and crush opposition to the King's rule. One revolutionary newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple, described the regiment's dinner as "an orgy".

According to most modern historians, it was fear about this "secret army", coupled with the poor harvest of 1788-1789 which tripped the wire in Paris and led to the attack on the palace in October. Meaning that it was that old substance which we once believed lay at the root of the French Revolution - bread. Or a lack thereof. However, memoirs at the time, particularly from royalists, even liberal ones, indicate that many of the monarchy's supporters had been worried about an attack from Versailles since early September, if not earlier. One palace servant wrote later that the bread and the banquet were only "the pretexts for the insurrection of the 5th and 6th of October, 1789". The real reason was that "ever since the beginning of September", anti-monarchist politicians "had been industriously circulating that the King intended to flee, with his family and ministers, to some stronghold; and at all the popular gatherings, there had been a great deal of talk about going to Versailles to seize the King before he could escape." Rumour upon rumour circulated in the countryside and the palace about revolutionary plans to overthrow the monarchy, incite violence and seize private property; it was a time that royalists would later dub "the Great Fear."

The day the storm broke and the Great Fear finally crashed over Versailles began normally enough, under the circumstances. It was a Monday and the Queen had spent the weekend at the Petit Trianon, her small weekend house in the grounds of the palace (below). The King had gone hunting at nearby Meudon early in the morning and he had been making good progress, when a message arrived from the comte de St.-Priest, a liberal-turned-conservative who was now Minister of the Royal Household, informing him that a protest led by the market-women of Paris had left the city and made for the palace at ten o'clock that morning. They were expected to demand grain or bread from the King once they reached Versailles, but given the violence of the demonstration and the number of guns they were carrying with them, St.-Priest did not have much confidence that they constituted a peaceful protest, as claimed. The King turned around and rode back to the palace at breakneck speed; he thundered down the Grand Avenue with his retinue and reached the Royal Apartments at three o'clock in the afternoon. A message was dispatched to the Petit Trianon, ordering the Queen to return to the palace at once with her children. She obediently left immediately and cancelled the Dauphin's daily outing in his carriage.

In the Royal Apartments, the King's advisers began to draw-up plans to evacuate the palace. Louis XIV had built Versailles as a display of royal wealth and power; it was supposed to be a statement about the French monarchy's security from domestic rebellion. In short, it had no defences. If an onslaught came, everyone inside would be destroyed. They may as well be standing outside the street. St.-Priest floated the idea that the Queen and her two children should be moved to the chateau at Rambouillet, away from danger. The marquise de Tourzel, the children's governess, also supported the plan. Marie-Antoinette, having refused to leave her husband in July, was still insistent in October that she wasn't going anywhere without him. Louis XVI, catastrophically, refused to run away, meaning Marie-Antoinette had to remain at Versailles with him. He felt that it was a King's place to stay and to lead. It was honourable, but it was stupid. Years later, when he had bungled five or six attempts to escape and, in doing so save his family's life, the King was to confide to Madame de Tourzel that he realised, too late, how terrible his mistakes had been. What mattered on October 5th was that Marie-Antoinette would not go without him and Louis XVI would not go. No-one thought it safe to send the children away without a parent figure and, even if they had, the Queen would never have allowed it. Louis's decision on October 5th, therefore, directly contributed to the appalling tragedies which overtook his two children during the Revolution, which destroyed one of the children's lives and ended another's.
An advanced delegation from the riot reached Versailles and the King met with them, as the palace was slowly surrounded. If there was a bread shortage, then Louis was more than happy to help; he ordered the directors of the public granaries to release the reserve supplies of emergency grain. The King's order and his royal guarantee was given in writing. But suspicions were raised in some of the courtiers, who felt the rioters' delegation were a tad too well-dressed to reflect the poverty they claimed to be suffering. One of the main speakers was wearing a plain dress that certainly did not indicate "misery nor an abject condition." (In contrast to this, the little princess, who later saw the crowd in its entirety, said there were some women in its ranks who brought home to her the full, awful and unimaginable horror of genuine poverty.)

The royal government's suspicions that the riot was political rather than humanitarian intensified when the crowds outside the palace refused to go away, despite apparently getting what they had wanted in the form of the King's order about the grain. When the idea of moving the Queen, the Dauphin and Madame Royale to Rambouillet was brought up again, it was too late. Versailles was surrounded. The mood in the palace was now eerily purgatorial, as silent hysteria set in. It was, almost literally, like waiting for the axe to fall.

As the sun set, the crowd's chants against the royal family, and the Queen specifically, could be heard echoing inside the palace. As Madame Campan recalled, some of them were screaming out their desire to disembowel Marie-Antoinette and drag her body through the streets. When the marquis de La Fayette, the hero of the American wars and now in charge of defending the palace, went home at midnight, Marie-Antoinette, who had never liked him, suspected he was deliberately leaving so that the palace could be stormed and he would bear no culpability for the subsequent assassinations. As night set in, accepting that she was the main focus of the mob's wrath, Marie-Antoinette refused to share her children or her husband's rooms, in order to put any of them in danger. If the palace was breached, Madame de Tourzel was given strict instructions to take the royal children to their father, where the Queen felt they would be safer. At two o'clock, she went back to her own bedchamber to lie down.

At four o'clock in the morning of October 6th, the gates gave way.


  1. Thank you for this eloquent, yet concise, account of the events leading up to Louis XVI's and his family's move to Paris. I know the story well and it never fails to touch me. You did a wonderful job relating it.

  2. The waiting must have been horrifying.


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