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Louis XVI of France

Louis XVI (23 August 175421 January 1793), Louis-Auguste de France, ruled as King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, and then as King of the French from 1791 to 1792. Suspended and arrested during the 10th of August 1792 Insurrection, he was tried by the National Convention, found guilty of treason, and executed on 21 January 1793. He was the only king of France to be executed.

Although he was beloved at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism led some elements of the people of France to eventually hate him as a symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Régime. After the abolition of the monarchy in 1792, the new republican government gave him the surname Capet, a reference to the nickname of Hugh Capet, founder of the Capetian dynasty, which the revolutionaries wrongly interpreted as a family name. He was also informally nicknamed Louis le Dernier (Louis the Last), a derisive use of the traditional nicknaming of French kings. Today, historians and Frenchmen in general have a more nuanced view of Louis XVI, who is seen as an honest man with good intentions, but who was probably unfit for the herculean task of reforming the monarchy, and who was used as a scapegoat by the revolutionaries.

Louis-Auguste, who was given the title of duc de Berry at birth, was born on 23 August, 1754, in the Palace of Versailles in France. Out of eight children, he was the third son of the Dauphin Louis-Ferdinand, the only son of King Louis XV of France and his consort, Queen Maria Leszczyńska. His mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.

The duc de Berry had a difficult childhood because his parents neglected him in favor of his bright and handsome older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne, who died at the age of ten in 1761. The sorrow his parents felt at the death of their elder son made it difficult for them to give Louis-Auguste the attention and affection he needed. A strong and healthy boy, although very shy, he excelled in his studies and had a strong taste for Latin, English, history, geography and astronomy. He also enjoyed working on locks, hunting with his grandfather Louis XV and playing with his younger brothers, Louis-Stanislas, comte de Provence, and Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois.

Upon the death of his father, the Dauphin, who died of tuberculosis on 20 December 1765, the eleven-year-old Louis-Auguste became the new Dauphin. His mother, who had never recovered from the loss of her husband, died on 13 March 1767, also from tuberculosis. Louis-Auguste, his two brothers and two sisters were left orphaned.. The strict and conservative education he received from the duc de La Vauguyon, "gouverneur des Enfants de France" (governor of the Children of France) from 1760 until his marriage in 1770 did not prepare him for the throne he was to inherit in 1774 at the death of his grandfather.

Family life

On 16 May 1770, at the age of fifteen, Louis-Auguste married the fourteen-year-old Austrian Archduchess Maria Antonia von Habsburg-Lothringen (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa. The marriage was initially amiable but distant — Louis-Auguste's shyness meant that he failed to consummate the union, much to his wife's distress, whilst his fear of being manipulated by her for Imperial purposes caused him to behave coldly towards her in public. Over time, the couple (who were second cousins once removed) became closer, and the marriage was consummated in July 1773.

Absolute monarch of France, 1774-1789

When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1776 he was 22. He had an enormous responsibility, as the government was deeply in debt, and resentment towards 'despotic' monarchy was on the rise. Louis also felt woefully unqualified for the job. He aimed to earn the love of his people by reinstating the parlements. While none doubted Louis’s intellectual ability to rule France, it was quite clear that although raised as the Dauphin since 1765 he was indecisive and not firm enough to rule. Louis therefore appointed an experienced advisor, Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, comte de Maurepas who, until his death in 1781 would take charge on many important ministerial decisions.

Radical financial reforms by Turgot and Malesherbes angered the nobles and were blocked by the parlements who insisted that the King did not have the legal right to levy new taxes. So Turgot was dismissed in 1776 and Malesherbes resigned in 1776 to be replaced by Jacques Necker. Necker supported the American Revolution, and proceeded with a policy of taking out large international loans instead of raising taxes. When this policy failed miserably, Louis dismissed him, and replaced him in 1783 with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who increased public spending to 'buy' the country's way out of debt. Again this failed, so Louis convoked the Assembly of Notables in 1787 to discuss a revolutionary new fiscal reform proposed by Calonne. When the nobles were told the extent of the debt, they were shocked into rejecting the plan. This negative turn of events signaled to Louis that he had lost the ability to rule as an absolute monarch, and he fell into depression.

As power drifted from him, there were increasingly loud calls for him to convoke the Estates-General, and in May 1789 he did so, summoning it for the first time since 1614 in a last-ditch attempt to get new monetary reforms approved. This convocation was one of the events that transformed the general economic and political malaise of the country into the French Revolution, which began in June 1789, when the Third Estate unilaterally declared itself the National Assembly. Louis's attempts to control it resulted in the Tennis Court Oath (serment du jeu de paume, 20 June), and the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July. Within three short months, the majority of the king's executive authority had been transferred to the elected representatives of the people's nation. The storming of the Bastille on 14 July served to reinforce and emphasize this radical change in the mind of the masses.

Revolutionary constitutional reign, 1789–1792

On 5 October 1789, an angry mob of women from the Parisian underclass that had been incited by revolutionaries marched on the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lived. During the night, they infiltrated the palace and attempted to kill the queen, who was associated with a frivolous lifestyle that symbolized much that was despised about the Ancient Regime. After the situation had been defused, the king and his family were brought back by the crowd to Paris to live in the Tuileries Palace. The reasoning behind this forced departure from Versailles was the opinion the king would be more accountable to the people if he lived among them in Paris where he and his family could be better monitored.

Initially, after the removal of the royal family to Paris, Louis maintained a certain level of popularity by acquiescing to many of the social, political, and economic reforms of the revolutionaries. Unbeknownst to the public, however, recent scholarship has concluded that Louis began to suffer at the time from severe bouts of clinical depression, which left him prone to paralyzing indecisiveness. During these indecisive moments, his wife, the unpopular queen, was essentially forced into assuming the role of decision-maker for the Crown.

The revolution's principles of popular sovereignty, though central to democratic principles of later eras, marked a decisive break from the absolute monarchical principle that was at the heart of traditional French government. As a result, the revolution was opposed by many of the rural people of France and by practically all the governments of France's neighbors. As the revolution became more radical and the masses became more uncontrollable, several leading figures in the initial formation of the revolution began to doubt its benefits. Some like Honoré Mirabeau secretly plotted with the Crown to restore its power in a new constitutional form.

However, Mirabeau's sudden death, and Louis's indecision, fatally weakened negotiations between the Crown and moderate politicians. On one hand, Louis was nowhere near as reactionary as his right-wing brothers, the Comte de Provence and the Comte d'Artois, and he repeatedly sent messages to them requesting a halt to their attempts to launch counter-coups. This was often done through his secretly nominated regent, the Cardinal Loménie de Brienne. On the other hand, Louis was alienated from the new democratic government both by its negative reaction to the traditional role of the monarch and in its treatment of him and his family. He was particularly irked by being kept essentially as a prisoner in the Tuileries, where his wife was being humiliatedly forced to have revolutionary soldiers in her private bedroom watching her as she slept, and by the refusal of the new regime to allow him to have confessors and priests of his choice rather than 'constitutional priests' pledged to the state and not the Roman Catholic Church.

On 21 June 1791, Louis attempted to secretly flee with his family from Paris to the royalist fortress town of Montmédy on the northeastern border of France in the hope of forcing a more moderate swing in the Revolution than was deemed possible in radical Paris. However, flaws in the escape plan caused enough delays to enable the royal refugees to be recognized and captured along the way at Varennes. Supposedly Louis was captured while trying to make a purchase at a store, where the clerk recognized him. According to the legend, Louis was recognized because the coin used as payment featured an accurate portrait of him. He was returned to Paris, where he and his immediate family were viewed suspiciously as traitors. As a result, they were place under tight house arrest upon their return to the Tuileries.

The other monarchies of Europe looked with concern upon the developments in France, and considered whether they should intervene, either in support of Louis or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The key figure was Marie Antoinette's brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Initially, he had looked on the revolution with equanimity. However, he became more and more disturbed as it became more and more radical. Despite this, he still hoped to avoid war.

On 27 August, Leopold and King Frederick William II of Prussia, in consultation with émigré French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pilnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family, and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them. Although Leopold saw the Pillnitz Declaration as an easy way to appear concerned about the developments in France without committing any soldiers or finances to change them, the revolutionary leaders in Paris viewed it fearfully as a dangerous foreign attempt to undermine France's sovereignty .

In addition to the ideological differences between France and the monarchical powers of Europe, there were continuing disputes over the status of Austrian estates in Alsace, and the concern of members of the National Constituent Assembly about the agitation of émigré nobles abroad, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and the minor states of Germany.

In the end, the Legislative Assembly, supported by Louis, declared war on the Holy Roman Empire first, voting for war on 20 April 1792, after a long list of grievances were presented to it by the foreign minister, Charles François Dumouriez. Dumouriez prepared an immediate invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, where he expected the local population to rise against Austrian rule. However, the revolution had thoroughly disorganized the army, and the forces raised were insufficient for the invasion. The soldiers fled at the first sign of battle, deserting en masse and in one case, murdering their general.

While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganized its armies, a mostly Prussian allied army under Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick assembled at Coblenz on the Rhine. In July, the invasion commenced, with Brunswick's army easily taking the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun. The duke then issued on 25 July a proclamation called the Brunswick Manifesto, written by Louis's émigré cousin, the Prince de Condé, declaring the intent of the Austrians and Prussians to restore the king to his full powers and to treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial law.

Contrary to its intended purpose of strengthening the position of the king against the revolutionaries, the Brunswick Manifesto had the opposite effect of greatly undermining Louis's already highly tenuous position in Paris. It was taken by many to be the final proof of a collusion between Louis and foreign powers in a conspiracy against his own country. The anger of the populace boiled over on 10 August when a mob — with the backing of a new municipal government of Paris that came to be known as the "insurrectionary" Paris Communebesieged the Tuileries Palace. The king and the royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly.

Arrest and execution, 1792-1793

Louis was officially arrested on 13 August and sent to the Temple, an ancient Paris fortress used as a prison. On 21 September, the National Convention declared France to be a republic and abolished the monarchy.

The Girondins were partial to keeping the deposed king under arrest, both as a hostage and a guarantee for the future. The more radical members – mainly the Commune and Parisian deputies who would soon be known as the Mountain – argued for Louis's immediate execution. The legal background of many of the deputies made it difficult for a great number of them to accept an execution without due process of some sort, and it was voted that the deposed monarch should be tried before the National Convention, the organ that housed the representatives of the sovereign people.

On the 11 December, among crowded and silent streets, the deposed king was brought from the Temple to stand before the Convention and hear his indictment, an accusation of High Treason and Crimes against the State. On the 26th, his counsel, Raymond de Sèze, delivered Louis's response to the charges, with the assistance of Francois Tronchet and Malesherbes.

On the 15 January of 1793 the Convention, composed of 721 deputies, voted out the verdict, which was a foregone conclusion – 693 voted guilty, and none voted for acquittal. The next day, a voting roll-call was carried out in order to decide upon the fate of the king, and the result was, for such a dramatic decision, uncomfortably close. 288 deputies voted against death and for some other alternative, mainly some means of imprisonment or exile. 72 deputies voted for the death penalty, but subject to a number of delaying conditions and reservations. 361 deputies voted for Louis's immediate death.

The next day, a motion to grant Louis reprieve from the death sentence was voted down; 310 deputies requested mercy, 380 voted for the execution of the death penalty. This decision would be final. On Monday, 21 January 1793, stripped of all titles and honorifics by the republican government, Citoyen Louis Capet was guillotined in front of a cheering crowd in what today is the Place de la Concorde. The executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, testified that the former King had bravely met his fate.

As Louis XVI mounted the scaffold he appeared dignified and resigned. He attempted a speech in which he reasserted his innocence and pardoned those responsible for his death. He declared himself willing to die and prayed that the people of France would be spared a similar fate. He seemed about to say more when Antoine-Joseph Santerre, a general in the Garde Nationale, cut Louis off by ordering a drum roll. The former king was then quickly beheaded.

Accounts of Louis’s beheading indicate that the blade did not sever his neck entirely the first time. There are also accounts of a blood curdling scream issuing from Louis after the blade fell but this is unlikely as the blade would have severed Louis’s spine. It is agreed however that, as Louis's blood dripped to the ground, many in the crowd ran forward to dip their handkerchiefs in it.

Legacy

In fiction

Ancestors

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References

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