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Flight to Varennes

The Flight to Varennes (June 20-21, 1791) was a significant episode in the French Revolution during which King Louis XVI of France and his immediate family were unsuccessful in their attempt to escape, disguised as the servants of a Russian baroness, from the radical agitation of the Jacobins in Paris. Their destination was the fortress town of Montmédy in northeastern France, a Royalist stronghold from which the King hoped to initiate a counter-revolution. This represented a turning point after which popular hostility towards the monarchy as an institution, as well as towards Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as individuals, became more pronounced. They were only able to make it as far as Varennes.

Attempt to flee Paris

Louis XVI's indecision on how to deal with revolutionary demands was one of the causes of the forcible transfer of the royal family from the Palace of Versailles to the Tuileries in Paris on October 6, 1789 after Versailles had been attacked by an angry mob. Thenceforward the king seems to have become emotionally paralyzed, leaving most important decisions to the politically untrained queen to make on her own. Prodded by the queen, Louis committed himself and his family to a disastrous attempt to escape from the capital to the eastern frontier on June 21, 1791. With the dauphin's governess, the Marquise de Tourzel taking on the role of a Russian baroness, the queen and the king's sister Madame Élisabeth playing her maids, the king her butler, and the royal children her daughters, the royal family made their escape. The escape was largely planned by Count Axel von Fersen and the Baron de Breteuil. Due to the cumulative effect of a host of errors which in and of themselves would not have condemned the mission to failure, the royal family was thwarted in its escape when the king was recognized in the revolutionary town of Varennes, not far from its ultimate destination, the heavily fortified royalist citadel of Montmédy. One rumor suggests that the king was recognized because his face appeared on French assignats (or banknotes), though this story's validity is contested.

Consequences

When the royal family finally returned under guard to Paris, the revolutionary crowd met the royal carriage with uncharacteristic silence. The royal family was immediately placed under house arrest back at the Tuileries Palace. From this point forward, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic became an ever increasing possibility. The credibility of the king as a constitutional monarch had been seriously undermined by the escape attempt.

From the autumn of 1791 on, the king tied his hopes of political salvation to the dubious prospects of foreign intervention. At the same time, he encouraged the Girondin faction in the Legislative Assembly in their policy of war with Austria, in the expectation that a French military disaster would pave the way for the restoration of his royal authority. Prompted by Marie Antoinette, Louis rejected the advice of the moderate constitutionalists, led by Antoine Barnave, to fully implement the Constitution of 1791, which he had sworn to maintain, and committed himself instead to a policy of covert counter-revolution.

The outbreak of the war with Austria in April 1792 and the publication of a manifesto by the Austrian commander, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, threatening the destruction of Paris if the safety of the royal family was again endangered, led to the storming of the Tuileries by Parisian radicals on August 10, 1792. This attack led in turn to the suspension of the king's powers by the Legislative Assembly and the proclamation of the First French Republic on September 21. In November, proof of Louis XVI's secret dealings with the deceased revolutionary politician, Mirabeau, and of his counterrevolutionary intrigues with foreigners was found in a secret cupboard in the Tuileries. It was now no longer possible to pretend that the reforms of the French Revolution had been made with the free consent of the king. Some Republicans called for his deposition, others for his trial for alleged treason and intended defection to the enemies of the French people. On December 3 it was decided that Louis, who together with his family had been imprisoned since August, should be brought to trial for treason. He himself appeared twice before the National Convention (December 11 and 23).

Convicted, Louis was guillotined on January 21, 1793. Later, Marie Antoinette was also convicted of treason and beheaded nine months after her husband on October 16.

References

The article also draws material from the out-of-copyright History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.

  • Lindqvist, Herman (1991). Axel von Fersen. Stockholm: Fischer & Co
  • Loomis, Stanley (1972). The Fatal Friendship. Avon Books - ISBN 0931933331
  • Timothy Tackett, When the King Took Flight (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003)

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