The Execution of Louis XVI and the End of the French Monarchy

By Doyle, William | History Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Execution of Louis XVI and the End of the French Monarchy


Doyle, William, History Review


William Doyle discusses traditional and revisionist interpretations of the downfall of the Kings of France, arguing that notions of a `desacralised monarchy' are inadequate to explain what happened.

The morning of 21 January 1793 was raw and foggy in Paris. Although there was no traffic on the streets, it took a solitary coach one and a half hours to trundle the two miles from the medieval keep of the Temple, in the working east end of the city, to the newest and largest of its squares, in the spacious west end, beyond the Tuileries gardens. In the centre of the square stood a huge empty pedestal, which until the previous August had supported a proud equestrian statue of Louis XV. The square had been named after him. But on 11 August 1792 this statue had been torn down, and in the weeks that followed a systematic attempt had been made. to destroy every visible or legible reminder of kings. This was the aftermath of the Revolution of 10 August, the Republican Revolution, in which Louis XV's grandson, and the throne he occupied, had been overthrown. It was that grandson who rode in the slow-moving carriage on that bleak morning five months later, murmuring prayers. Louis XVI, condemned after a trial before the elected representatives of the French Nation, was going to his execution. A guillotine now stood next to the vandalised pedestal in what was now called the Place de la Revolution. It was here, watched by 20,000 of his former subjects, that Louis XVI met his end.

Nobody was unaware of how momentous this was. What to do with the former king had been the first great political issue confronting the Convention which had ruled France since 21 September 1792. When it was decided to try `Louis Capet' for crimes against the Nation the deputies spent days agonising over whether they had the authority to kill him, and whether they should use it. In subjecting the Lord's Anointed to the supreme penalty, they thought they would be ending monarchy in France forever. In the event, it was to be only eleven years before Napoleon would crown himself; and subsequently both Louis XVI's brothers and then one of his cousins would be kings after him. But none of them sat on the same throne. Only Charles X among them believed that he ruled by divine right, and after six years his subjects brusquely undeceived him. Nineteenth century French monarchs ruled on sufferance. They owed their thrones either to brute force or the consent of their compatriots. In this sense the regicides of 1793 really had destroyed something forever. When the guillotine blade fell at 10.22 that morning a mystique was destroyed. Monarchy had been desecrated, desacralised.

The Conspiracy Theory

But how had this come about? The question began to be asked almost before Louis XVI's headless corpse was cold. How could the French, the most monarchical of people, have turned so suddenly against a ruler whom they had proclaimed, as recently as 1789, the `Restorer of French Liberty'? Royalists in general chose to believe that they had not turned against him at all. The whole Revolution, they believed, had not been the work of the true and loyal people of France, but a conspiracy of malign and nihilistic intellectuals dedicated to the destruction of religion, monarchy, and the social order itself. By 1797 various versions of this conspiracy theory had crystallised into the claims of a best-selling book now forgotten but tremendously influential throughout the nineteenth century: the Abbe Barruel's Memoirs to Serve for the History of Jacobinism. A foe of the Enlightenment for many years before 1789, Barruel now had something concrete to blame it for - the Revolution. A wicked clutch of godless writers had worked over the eighteenth century to subvert first Christianity and then monarchy. Their followers had plotted in the secrecy of masonic lodges to achieve the same end, and in 1789 they had transmuted themselves into Jacobin clubs. These clubs had consistently attacked the monarchy and its powers, and stirred up the Parisian rabble to do the same throughout the early revolutionary years, eventually forcing the king into the ill-fated flight to Varennes. …

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