Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet
|King of France and Navarre|
|Reign||10 May 1774 – 1 October 1791|
(17 years, 144 days)
|Coronation||11 June 1775 (aged 20)|
|Successor||Napoleon Bonaparte (Monarchy Abolished)|
|King of the French|
|Reign||1 October 1791 – 21 September 1792|
|Born||23 August 1754|
Palace of Versailles, France
|Died||21 January 1793 (aged 38)|
|Burial||21 January 1815|
Royal Basilica of Saint Denis, France
|Issue||Marie Thérèse, Duchess of Angoulême|
Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France
Louis XVII of France
|House||House of Bourbon|
|Father||Louis, Dauphin of France|
|Mother||Marie Josèphe of Saxony|
Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793) was the King of France from 1774 until 1792,[a] when the monarchy was abolished during the French Revolution. His overthrow and execution ended a monarchy that was over 1,000 years old, although he was not the last French king.
Louis came from the House of Bourbon. He became the king at the age of 20, after the death of his grandfather Louis XV. Early in his reign, he tried to make France more modern. He stopped the government from using torture and allowed people to be Protestant again. He and his minister Turgot took away some laws on selling grain, which led to high grain prices in years when the harvest was bad. He also supported the Americans in their war for independence from Great Britain. Debts from this war, other war debts and the outdated tax system caused major money problems in France. Louis's plans to solve the problems were blocked by the nobles. The money problems and the new ideas of the Age of Enlightenment caused more people to stop supporting the existing monarchy (the Ancien Régime) and demand change.
In 1789, Louis called the Estates-General (a parliament) to try to solve the problems. As a leader who was weak-willed and did not want to change the country much, he soon disappointed the elected politicians who wanted to reduce the king's powers. Protests against the monarchy became more common, especially among the poorer people of Paris and the middle class. This led to the Storming of the Bastille in July and the Women's March on Versailles in October. These events caused the king to lose control of the country to the National Assembly.
At first, the Assembly did not plan to abolish the monarchy. But the idea became more popular as rebellions and protests broke out across France, more radical politicians started to lead the government, money problems became worse and foreign governments threatened to invade. Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette slowly became unpopular symbols of the Ancien Régime that people wanted to leave behind. Their failed escape from Paris in June 1791 was a disaster. It convinced many people that they were plotting with foreign governments to overthrow the Assembly. He was arrested during a riot in August 1792 and the monarchy was abolished the next month. The government took away his titles, calling him Citizen Louis Capet, taking the surname from Hugh Capet, an early French king. He was put on trial by the National Convention, found guilty of treason, and executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793. He was the only king of France to be executed.
Early life and marriage[change | change source]
Louis XVI was born in 1754 during the reign of his grandfather King Louis XV. His father was Louis Ferdinand, Dauphin of France, the heir to the throne. His mother was Marie Josephe of Saxony. His parents liked his older brother more than Louis and were upset when Louis's brother died while still a child. Louis's parents turned against him and he became a shy boy. His father died early in Louis's life and Louis became the heir to the throne. Because of this, he took the title of dauphin.
In 1770, when Louis was 15, he married Marie Antoinette, an Austrian princess. They had met only two days before the wedding. Many people in France did not want Louis to have an Austrian wife, because France's alliance with Austria was not popular. The two countries had been enemies until 1756, when they had become allies. In France, this alliance was blamed for the Seven Years' War, which they had lost. Louis and Marie Antoinette were not close in the early years of their marriage, but they did grow to love each other. It was not until 1777 that they had sexual relations. They did not manage to have children for several years after that. This made the marriage difficult. The situation was made worse when rude pamphlet called libelles were published. These libelles mocked them for not being able to have children. One asked: "Can the King do it? Can't the King do it?" In the end, he and Marie Antoinette had four children:
They also adopted six children.
Reign as an absolute monarch[change | change source]
Louis became the king when Louis XV died in 1774. He was 19 years old. Louis took charge of a country which had big problems. After the Seven Year's War, France was no longer the most powerful country in Europe. The country had debts because of the war, and because its tax system was outdated. Many nobles and other rich people could avoid paying taxes, something that many ordinary people hated. It was also the Age of Enlightenment, a time when people were becoming more interested in ideas like democracy and liberalism. A growing number of people opposed the absolute monarchy of France.
Louis wanted to be a good, popular king. One of his early decisions was to give powers back to the parlements that had been taken away in the later reign of Louis XV. The parlements were not parliaments in the modern meaning; they were not elected assemblies of politicians. The parlements were actually important regional courts and their judges supported the local nobles. They often stopped the kings from changing the country and stopped laws from having an effect in their provinces. When he brought back the parlements, Louis said "It seems to me to be the general wish and I want to be loved." He chose the Comte de Maurepas to be his main advisor, and Maurepas served in this role until his death in 1781. He also chose Anne Robert Jacques Turgot to be his minister of finance.
Turgot suggested they should relax the laws that limited when grain could be sold and how much it could be sold for. However, these changes caused high grain prices in years when the harvest was bad. This caused the Flour War protests in 1775. Some of Turgot's other reforms were blocked by the nobles and parlements. In 1776, Louis changed his mind and sacked Turgot. He replaced him with Jacques Necker. Necker tried to publish a complete list of everything the government was spending money on, but this ended up hiding much of the spending. In 1783, Louis then chose Charles Alexandre de Calonne as his main minister of finance.
Louis and his government supported the Americans in the American Revolutionary War, because they wanted to weaken Great Britain. They wanted revenge because they had lost Quebec to the British in the Seven Years' War. The Americans won and the British agreed to let them be independent in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. However, their other attempts to weaken the British Empire were mostly stopped because their navy lost the Battle of the Saintes, and France did not gain many new lands. Moreover, the debts from the war worsened the government's money problems. By 1787, the money problems were out of control.
Louis called an Assembly of Notables, a meeting of the most senior French nobles, to discuss how to solve the money problems. He wanted to stop the nobles and parlements from blocking his attempts to solve them. But the nobles were shocked when they learned how bad the problems were and refused to help. Louis also tried to stop the Parlement of Paris from getting in the way, even arresting two of members, but it did not work because too many people supported the parlement. He also brought back Jacques Necker. Louis decided he had no choice but to call the Estates-General, the French parliament, which had not met since 1614.
French Revolution[change | change source]
The Estates-General of 1789 began sitting in May. Like previous Estates-General, it was designed to represent the "three estates" that made up French society. A quarter of its members were elected by the First Estate (Catholic Church priests), another quarter were elected by the Second Estate (the nobles) and the other half were elected by wealthy people from the Third Estate (everyone else). The politicians of the Third Estate wanted to talk about changing French society and reducing the powers of the king, but the king only wanted them to talk about taxes. He very quickly managed to annoy these politicians. For example, they were told that all members would have an equal vote, but then the king decided instead that the Third Estate members would only have half a vote. The Third Estate members thought it was unfair that they represented 95% of the population, but had only a third of the power in the Estates-General.
In June 1789, the Third Estate members announced that they were the National Assembly. Louis tried to stop them from meeting. On 20 June, all but one of those members signed the Tennis Court Oath. They promised that they would stay together until the king agreed to reduce his powers. Although Louis did offer some more rights to the Third Estate, they decided that this was not enough. On 11 July, Louis sacked many advisors who supported the National Assembly. This included Jacques Necker, who was quite popular. Ordinary people in Paris strongly supported Necker and the National Assembly. They began to fear that the king was going to stop the National Assembly. A riot broke out, leading to the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July.
Louis backed down and agreed to let the National Assembly run the country. The National Assembly started to carry out some dramatic changes to France. They passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and ended the laws that allowed the nobles to be treated better than ordinary people.
On 5 October 1789, a crowd of protestors (mostly women) gathered in Paris to protest the high price of bread. They decided to have a march to the Palace of Versailles. where the king lived. They broke into the palace. Some guards were killed, and the rest did not stop them. The protestors demanded that the royal family come with them to Paris. Louis did not want to come, but he gave in to their demands. He signed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and went with them to Paris. He moved into the older Tuileries Palace.
Either the Storming of the Bastille or the Women's March on Versailles could be seen as the moment the king lost control of his country.
Failed escape[change | change source]
Louis would not be content as puppet king for very long. He was unhappy with the way he, his family and the church were being treated. The moderate politicians were losing support to more radical ones. But even though he was really a prisoner in the Tuileries Palace, Louis had allies in the army and other countries who would have supported the king over the politicians. Louis and Marie Antoinette planned to escape from the Tuileries on the night of June 21, 1791, disguised as servants. The royal family travelled towards the Fortress of Montmédy, which was a base for soldiers who supported the king and was on the border with the Austrian Netherlands. On their way to Montmédy, they were caught in the village of Varennes and forced to return to Paris. This incident became known as the flight to Varennes.
When Louis and his family were brought back to the Tuileries, guards now watched over them far more. Whether rightly or wrongly, many people in France believed that the king and queen were plotting with foreign governments to restore the absolute monarchy. The next year, these tensions led to France starting a war with Austria and Prussia. In July 1792, Prussia's Duke of Brunswick wrote "We will destroy Paris into the ground if anything happens to our royal majesty, the king and queen." He was trying to help the king and queen, but instead it did the opposite.
Arrest and execution[change | change source]
In August 1792, a riot broke out in Paris. A crowd of protestors, encouraged by radical politicians, invaded the Tuileries. Louis was arrested on 13 August and sent to the Temple, an ancient Paris fortress used as a prison. On September 21, the National Convention (the new National Assembly) declared France to be a republic and abolished the monarchy. They took away Louis's titles and gave him an ordinary name: Louis Capet. They believed that Capet should be his surname because he was related to the House of Capet.
Louis was charged with several crimes, with the National Convention (the new National Assembly) acting as the judge. The main crime they accused him of was plotting with Austria to restore the absolute monarchy. They quickly voted that he was guilty. Nobody at the Convention liked Louis, but the Girondins at least wanted to spare his life. Maximilien Robespierre and the Montagnards said that he should be killed, and more than half of the members voted to have him executing. Many of them believed that they were not just punishing Louis for a crime, but also destroying the idea of monarchy.
For the last time, Louis was reunited to his family and promised to come back the next morning, but he did not. On his way to the guillotine, Louis said "I trust that my death will be for the happiness of my people, but I grieve for France, and I fear that she may suffer the anger of the Lord." Before his execution, he made a speech saying "I die innocent of all the crimes that I was accused of; I forgive those who have caused my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never bring harm upon France." He tried to say more, but his speech was drowned out by a roll of drums. He was executed on January 21, 1793 in Place de la Revolution (now Place de la Concorde) in central Paris. He was 38 years old. Marie Antoinette was executed nine months later.
Legacy[change | change source]
At first, Louis was buried in a nearby graveyard. In 1815, his and Marie Antoinette's remains were moved to the Basilica of Saint Denis, the traditional burial site for French kings. There are statues of them in the church. The Chapelle expiatoire was also built as a memorial to him, on the site of his original grave. The composers Luigi Cherubini and Paul Wranitzky both wrote funeral music in memory of him. Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, was named after him because of his support for the American Revolution.
Louis XVI would not be the last French king. Two of Louis's brothers would become kings after the 1814 Bourbon Restoration: Louis XVIII and Charles X. Louis XVI's sons had died of diseases before then, and his daughter could not inherit the throne. The last French king was Louis-Philippe I, their distant relative. The last French monarch was Napoleon III, who was an emperor rather than a king.
In the 19th century, the French historians Jules Michelet and Alphonse de Lamartine noted how many French people came to feel sorry for Louis XVI, and this led to the monarchy being brought back in 1814. Although they did not agree on everything, both historians said that ending the monarchy in 1792 was the right decision, but that the king and queen should not have been killed. Michelet said that these executions encouraged more executions, leading to the Reign of Terror.
References[change | change source]
- Andress, David. The Terror, p. 12
- Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette, p.127
- Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette, pp.166-167
- Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette, p.164
- Philippe Huisman, Marguerite Jallut: Marie Antoinette, Stephens, 1971
- See Susan Dunn, The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination. (1994).
Other websites[change | change source]
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Louis XVI. of France.|
- "Louis XVI (1754 - 1793) - Find A Grave Memorial". findagrave.com. Retrieved 7 April 2010.
- "Louis XVI (king of France) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia". britannica.com. Retrieved 7 April 2010.