Louis XVI’s reign began in 1774 amidst general rejoicing. It ended tragically after
a short experiment with constitutional monarchy at the start of the Revolution.
During that period, the traditional regime, of the patriarchal and aristocratic type,
had to cope with difficulties that proved insurmountable because of the King’s character
and his adviser’s personalities. Traditional types of opposition were made bolder
by the power structure’s weakness, the financial crisis and the constantly growing
deficit which rose to an intolerable level due to the enormous costs of French participation
in the American Revolutionary war. Above all, there were profound changes in public
opinion, which demanded the right to monitor state activities, abolition of the prohibitions
and privileges that split society into groups with contradictory interests, and greater
freedom. All this gradually forced Louis XVI to call on the Estates General to cooperate
with him in reforming institutions to save the country from bankruptcy, even though,
in the rush of events in 1789, this reform was actually made against his interests.
France was tired of Louis XV’s reign, and the kingdom breathed a sigh of relief when
the King died on May 10th 1774. The King left a country in good, vigorous health.
The last years of his reign had brought some substantial reforms and the minister
Maupeou, had crushed the parliamentary opposition that threatened the crown’s authority
and blocked any kind of change. However, public opinion paid more attention to the
vagaries of Louis XV’s love life than to his efforts to improve the way France was
governed. . People had high hopes for the new reign. They were already fond of their
new sovereigns, the debonair and charitable Louis XVI and the young and pretty Marie
Antoinette, whose gaiety and mischievous disposition delighted her subjects. People
talked about the young couple’s kind actions and felt they were likely to succeed.
They were expected to do wonders for the country and to usher in a new golden age.
The King had announced some large spending cuts, above all in his own household,
in order to lower taxes. He demanded that the people be able to buy bread for two
sous. He had even given up his right to a gift from the people to mark his accession
to the throne in order to spare his subjects.The King’s behaviour did honour to
his wisdom in a France that was becoming more bourgeois. He had no scandalous involvement
with women. People were glad to note the disappearance of the reign of ruinous “favourites”
who were held responsible for all the state’s misfortunes. There was every indication
that the new reign would mark the start of a period of peace and prosperity.
However Louis’ XVI’s first act was a grave mistake, though it increased his popularity
since public opinion generally favoured such a move. He recalled the parliaments,
thus arousing a type of opposition that was very dangerous to his authority and
to the required modernisation of the state, which that opposition was going to fight
stubbornly ( as it had done before) by using the great resources available to it.
At the outset minister Turgot undertook reforms such as freeing the grain trade and
doing away with royal statute labour and other restrictions that paralysed the various
trades.He resigned in May 1776 and was replaced by Necker.
Jaques Necker had to find money, especially since the American war was a major drain.
He resorted to borrowing , and the government debt spiraled out of control. Despite
some progress in the
field of tax collection, Necker did not want to transform the tax system and did
not touch privileges and immunities., a step that would have improved the public
finance. He had to step down in 1783 after revelations of the income of courtiers
and was replaced by Calonne, who decided to submit tax reform measures to an “Assembly
of Noteables” in 1787. Due to opposition from people who did not want to lose their
“privileges” he was removed by the King’s suggestion.
France now moved into a very turbulent period during which attempts to reform, opposition
on the part of of princes and parliamentarians, and demands expressed by ever more
aggressive public opinion led to state paralysis and a pre-revolutionary crisis.
Wind of Freedom
French participation in the American War of Independence had resulted in consequences
and dangers of which the minister had not realised the extent. Aid sent to the rebels
had worsened the royal finances and compromised the chances of recovery. Moreover,
the monarchy had supported the rebels against their legitimate king, meaning that
people could rebel against a king with the approval of the French monarchy. The fighters,
La Fayette and Rochambeau’s army had come back from America strengthened in the views
that had led them to embark for the New World than they would have, if they not gone
off to defend the cause of freedom and tolerance and would have reflected the views
of many courtiers and of wide segments of public opinion.
The Americans had been victorious, thanks to France. After their return to Europe,
the fighters used their prestige to serve their ideal, freedom and republican equality,
which they had admired in the young United States. La Fayette and Rochambeau and
their officers had covered themselves with glory and became the young peoples idols.
They had borrowed the Americans simplicity and democratic ways. They praised the
beneficial effects of American institutions and indulged in republican remarks and
behaviour patterns unlike the French monarchy’s old fashioned pomp. The idea was
not to overthrow it, but rather to tune it to the concepts of freedom and equality
New aspirations came into being in ever more extensive segments of the population
under the influence of philosophy and the Enlightenment.
The desire for equality got a receptive welcome from the Third Estate and the liberal
nobility. The middle class was no longer willing to tolerate the humiliation it suffered
from a society of orders and it struggled for recognition of its right to hold any
civilian or military jobs that had been reserved to the privileged classed up to
that time. The state was on the verge of bankruptcy and had neither enough energy
nor the imagination needed to resolve the crisis, reassure the people living on private
incomes and satisfy an impatient public opinion.
At the Crossroads
Ministers, paralysed by the parliamentary opposition, decided to change things, and
to neutralise it by a sharp attack. In May 1788, the King deprived Parliament of
the bulk of its judicial powers and of its right of legislative and fiscal monitoring.
Public opinion’s anti-absolutism led it to come down on parliament’s side. On occasions,
in the Dauphine, revolt turned to revolution. There were some deaths on the “Day
of the Tiles”, and the provincial estates met and made demands on the King; a meeting
of the Estates General, a doubling of the third Estate, and individual voting. The
King had to give way, recall Necker, and announce a meeting of the Estates General
in 1789. Necker recalled the parliaments, which revealed their true goals, immediately
demanding that the Estates obey the old rules, each order having one vote. That would
mean that the privileged classes would win out over the Third Estate. Public opinion
then veered away from parliament and sought new leaders. A national party came into
being, drawing members from throughout the kingdom. In December, the King decided
that the number of Third Estate deputies would be doubled. That move upgraded the
monarchy's prestige, but France was demanding reforms..
Louis XVI and his ministers had so far tacked blindly between authority and surrender,
between the use of force and weakness. Would they be able to make a skilful response
to the dire threats piling up, to be brought to a peak by the economic crisis? Would
they be able to make the right choice between the inevitable reforms and the siren
songs of conservatism? The year 1689, with its dramas and quickly dashed hopes, brought
a quick and violent answer!
Despotism charge enrages King
Versailles, 17 January 1788.
In its 4 January decree, the Paris parliament firmly condemned the system of sealed
royal orders which allows the King arbitrarily to imprison unruly subjects. The crisis
between parliament and the King, which has been dragging on for months, seems to
have reached a point of no return.
This time the magistrates have no qualms about accusing the King of despotism. Outraged
by such audacity, Louis today summoned a parliamentary delegation to
explain what he sees as a calumny. “The legitimate freedom of my subjects is as dear
to me as it is to themselves. But I will not permit my parliament to denounce the
use of power which I have the sweet satisfaction of believing to have exercised with
more moderation than any of my predecessors”, the King airily told the federation.
It is in fact difficult to see a tyrant in this easy-going monarch who spends more
time hunting than dealing with the affairs of the kingdom.
The Rise and Rise of Paris
Paris is outgrowing itself! City limits, set by Louis XIII in order to avoid the
enlargement of the capital becoming a threat to its security, are constantly being
pushed further back. Brightness and sanitation are the order of the day in the new
districts: the streets are wide and the new aligned houses tall.
The old houses of Port-du-Change over the Seine river have been torn down, the ossuary
at the Saints Innocents, which was polluting the central area, has been transferred
to the catacombs and the in sanitary Chalet prison, by the Petit Pont, has been destroyed
but progress is not the only reason for all of these changes.
For the past few years, Paris, a city of 600,000 inhabitants, wealthy capital of
the arts, of trade, pleasure and finance, has been in the grip of speculation fever.
King crushes opposition
Versailles 8 May 1788
Parliament is rejecting judicial reform? Who cares! Disregarding protests from the
magistrates, the King has just registered the decrees of his Lord Chancellor, Lamoignon,
using the “bed of justice” procedure.
Within 3 days, Louis XVI has crushed parliamentary opposition. During the night of
may 4-5, he gave orders for the arrest of Goislard de Montsabert and Duval d’Epremesnil.
They had written the parliamentary decrees of April 29 and may 3 which strongly criticised
the reforms of the Breinne ministry. However the two fiery councillors escaped from
the police and rushed to seek refuge with other parliamentarians at the law courts.
After a night under siege the two turned themselves in The King has once again shown
he is determined to break the parliamentary revolt. Despite this, opposition to the
King has not been entirely broken and has won public sympathy.
Street fighting in Grenoble
7 June 1788
On this Saturday morning the usual market day activity in the capital of the Dauphine
turned into a riot. The city’s population, helped by peasants from the nearby mountains,
rushed to nail the towns doors shut when they heard the alarm bells ring.
The people of Grenoble wanted to stop their parliamentarians from being sent into
exile. Disregarding royal orders, these magistrates had gathered to criticise the
forced registration of the May decrees on Lamoignon’s judicial reforms. Reprisals
were quickly taken : the rebels were ordered to return to their homes, but they
had no intention of admitting defeat. Royal troops sent in to remove the magistrates
were met by a hail of roofing tiles and stones thrown by an angry mob from the cities
Blood was already flowing freely when the Duc de Clermont Tonnerre, who commanded
the garrison, decide to give in. Wearing their robes of office, the parliamentarians
could then return in triumph to the law courts.
Church severs old ties with the Throne
Paris 15 June 1788
The church has broken the old alliance between the alter and the throne. It is now
backing the revolt of the old nobility. This became apparent during the assembly
that has just been held. The clergy sent a series of remonstrances to the King in
which they criticised the fiscal reform plans of Lomenie de Brienne.
The minister had been planning to entrust the future provincial assemblies with the
task of evaluating church property on the same basis as the kingdom’s other resources.
It had traditionally been the church itself that handed over part of its income to
the King in the form of a “free donation”. There are close family ties between the
high clergy and the nobility.
Extravagance and profligacy rule court
Versailles June 1788
Festivities at the court may be less ostentatious than they used to be, but the royal
couple’s palaces continue to swallow up vast sums of money.
Huge numbers of people work there, but most of them are not needed. Despite the
hundreds of jobs scrapped in 1780, some of which dated back to the Middle Ages,far
too many people are still employed at the palaces. Is it really necessary to pay
high wages to a “royal business chair carrier”? The court’s financial situation is
getting worse every day.
Troops called out as Paris unrest mounts
Paris, 6 July 1788
Some twenty thousand workers of the Saint Antoine suburb are out of work and the
cost of bread is rising all the time.
Fearing unrest, the government has called in ten thousand troops which have been
deployed around the city. The move has, however, added to unrest in the poorer districts,
which are always ready to rise up. A marble mason had resolved to assassinate the
King, whom he blamed for all the problems facing the poor.
The chief minister badly shaken by the incident, has called for security measures
to be strengthened but nothing has been done to help the capital’s unemployed.
Queen’s infidelity sends Louis hunting
Versailles Aug. 1788
Several days ago during a hunting party, the King was found by his equerries weeping
over some poison pen letters criticising the relationship between the Queen and Hans
Axel Fersen. To forget his marital problems, the King has become increasingly involved
in his favourite pastime: hunting. The violent sport helps him to forget all his
worries and concentrate on his quarry. Some hunts go on for so long that he often
spends the night at Ramboullet, arriving there late in the evening in a state of
complete exhaustion. The Queen has spoken to her husband in an attempt to calm his
fears: if he insists, she will stop seeing de Fersen, although is he not their most
faithful friend and the only one they can rely on.
France goes bankrupt
Versailles 16 August 1788
The state has stopped making payments! The news has spread like wildfire through
Paris. Furious and terrified savers have been rushing to the savings bank demanding
that the royal bonds be reimbursed right away. They are even prepared to sell them
at a loss.
As from tomorrow, the state will only pay back in cash small sums as well as two
fifths of its major debts. The remaining three fifths will b e converted into a new
obligatory loan, and nothing guarantees its value. Having failed to convince the
financiers to provide new funds to the treasury, Lomenie de Brienne has decide on
a partial suspension of payments, but this has destroyed its creditors confidence
once and for all. The Geneva born banker Necker is to be recalled to the government.
Parliament reassembles in triumph
Paris 24 Sept. 1788
The crowds of paris have overcome the abuse of royal power. Yesterday a statement
by Louis XVI announced that the judicial reforms have been dropped and the traditional
role of parliaments been restored.
Fire at the Pont du Neuf
Parliament’s reassembly sparks
The King has capitulated, disowning his ministers, Brienne and Lamoignon, who have
been dismissed. Today’s new parliamentary session was held amid violent unrest which
has been rocking Paris for the past month. The public rejoicing that has marked Necker’s
recall and Lamoignon’s departure on September 14 turned into rioting two days later
On the Place Dauphine and at the Palais Royal fireworks were still blazing when a
group of men armed with sticks and torches rushed towards the residencies of the
hated former ministers.
Axel returns to his Marie Antoinette
Versailles 7 Nov. 1788
The first thing that de Fersen did this morning was to rush to Versailles where Marie
Antoinette was impatiently waiting for him. He had just returned from a lengthy stay
in Finland and Sweden, where he had travelled with King Gustav III. The Queen is
no longer trying to hide her feelings for the handsome Swede. She had shown an obsessive
interest in him as soon as he arrived at the French court in 1778, and their relationship
has become even closer since he returned from America.. He always remains discreet
with the Queen in public.
The Third Estate
Louis XVI agrees to double
27 December 1788
The aristocrats are becoming worried. They have not been able to win the King over
to their conservative policies. After the Council meeting held today, Louis XVI agreed
to grant the Third Estate double
Representation at the Estates General. The decision came after lengthy hesitation
and despite the advice of the Assembly of Notables. The move was based on Necker’s
urging. For the past two months municipal petitions have been coming in from all
over the kingdom calling for an increase in the number of Third Estate deputies,
voting by head and joint debate by the three orders.
Aristocracy remains blind to hardship.
Paris, January 1789
The famine, unemployment and unrest that have been stalking the kingdom have no efect
on the quiet life led by most aristocrats, and not least by the Comte de Segur. Last
night at his residence a young and unknown poet, Marie Joseph Chenier, read out his
new tragedy named Charles IX . The play is set at the time of the Saint Bartholomew
massacres. The play did not move its audience.
Priest calls for elected Third Estate
Paris Jan. 1789
Abbot Emmanuel Sieyes, has just published a provocative pamphlet entitled “What is
the Third Estate”? Last November, this brave priest had already lashed out against
the nobility’s vanity and selfishness in a pamphlet called Essay on Privileges.
His new work kicks off on a biting note: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What
was it until today? Nothing. What does it want? To become something.”
His statements go to the heart of the political issue of the hour, will voting in
the Estates General be by class or by head? Sieyes stresses that the traditional
class voting would ignore the wishes of 96% of the population. For him, the Third
Estate is the cornerstone of the nation, “the strong man with one arm still in chains”.
Burdened Third Estate
Women declare war....on each other
Brest 24 Jan 1789
Shocked to the core by the effrontery of the Third Estate which dares to send envoys
to Versailles to see the King, the city’s noblewomen meet at the home of one of their
own, madame Dubosq, to decide what to do. They have drafted a Decree in which they
solemnly state that the Third Estate consists only of persons “unworthy of being
admitted into the ranks of honest people”. The ladies pledge “on a gentleman’s honour”
never ever to have “any dealings with any wives, daughters or kin of these dishonoured
The solemnly promise to walk out immediately if one of these women has the impudence
to show up at the ball at the Comedie. How dare these brazen Third Estate Women rub
shoulders with the other classes and transgress the most elementary rules of good
Pressure for change mounts on Louis XVI
Versailles February 1789
Everything is moving too fast for the King. He no longer controls the reins of power.
This man who has always had great difficulty in taking the slightest decision finds
moves forced upon him of which he does not approve but which he is unable to block.
He supports Necker,whose ideas are opposed to his, and is forced t convene the Estates
In a bid to solve the current financial crisis.
The monarch is afraid of the slightest change and does not trust the nation’s leading
Louis XVI is desperately seeking ways to avoid the gathering of the kingdom’s representatives
at a time when the nobility is distancing itself from him and when ther is rumblings
among his “good people”. He is discovering the existence of a monster, the nation,
led by an elusive force; public opinion. The King is afraid!
Port of Marseilles
Revolt rocks Provence
Aix-en-Provence 27 March 1789
Mirabeau’s skill at defusing the unrest currently rocking Provence has made him a
local hero. The people have even dubbed him Provence’s “saviour”. Elected deputy
of the Third Estate at Aix
A week ago, he has just mediated in a dispute between local housewives enraged by
the rise in the price of bread and the town’s mayor backed by troops.
Mirabeau persuaded the soldiers to withdraw and persuaded the people of Aix to form
a militia, as the inhabitants of the nearby port city of Marseilles had done a few
days earlier. On the day when Marseilles electors were to meet to choose their deputies
an angry and starving mob poured into the city’s streets attacking the tax collectors
house. The mayor and his assistant were forced to flee for their lives.
Tax top complaints of Third Estate
France, April 1789.
Despite their diversity and their sometimes contradictory nature, demands made throughout
the kingdom in the run-up to the meeting of of the Estates General tally on several
major issues. Even if the nobility is sometimes prepared to accept fiscal equality,
it firmly rejects any weakening of provincial privileges in favour of centralised
Thus the gentlemen of Aix have stated that “the King of France will simply be known
in Provence as a “Comte de Provence” . Clergymen in their Books of Grievances stress
the social gap between the higher and lower clergy. The Third Estate is unanimous
in its condemnation of taxation, which it considers monstrously unfair and arbitrary.
Departure of the Three Orders for Versailles
Deputies are presented to the King
Versailles 2 May 1789
The King has finally consented to receive the thousand or so deputies of the three
Estates. The palace ceremony is grandiose. Cardinals wear red, archbishops purple,
and other members of the clergy in black. Noblemen are dressed in colourful outfits,
white stockings, feathered hats and golden stoles.
Beside all this finery, the people of the Third Estate, dressed in black with a simple
muslin cravat, look like court bailiffs. They were only told yesterday by the Marquis
de Dreux Breze what to wear and had problems finding clothes that fit in time for
the ceremony. They were the last to be shown into the great hall. The king does not
seem keen to get to know them.
The Estates General, a nation’s source of hope, are solemnly opened by the King
5 May 1789.
For the first time since 1614, a King of France is to speak publicly and solemnly
to the representatives of the nation. The event has brought a surge of hope to country
dwellers and city folk.
The dramatic event follows five months of preparations for the Estates General and
the drafting of the Books of Grievances which have given each Frenchman an opportunity
to express himself. Gradually, hopes have turned into demands. People have had their
fill of unjust taxes, of the iniquitous feudal system: they want their freedoms.
There are great expectations. People hope that the King will agree to take the wishes
of the Third Estate into account. The members of the Third estate feel they have
become the standard bearers for the aspirations and demands of the 27 million people
they represent. All eyes are focused on the King.
The crowd has been gathered since dawn along the Chantiers street to watch the deputies
to the Estates General pass by. They had been told to arrive at eight o’clock, and
have come in small groups meeting outside the Menus Plaisirs building. The Marquis
de Dreux Breze and the other two masters of ceremonies then ushered the deputies
into the lobby.
The meeting hall has been carefully prepared to receive over three thousand people.
The huge room has been painted light green and white. The gallery is separated from
the main hall by a double colonnade. The whole room is focused towards the impressive
royal dais draped in purple cloth and decorated with golden fleurs-de-lis.
The stately entrance made by the deputies gives the crowd a chance to observe them
closely. Members of the Third Estate dressed in black have aroused a lot of curiosity,
since they are largely unknown but much discussed.
Louis XVI left his palace shortly before noon, a s the last few deputies were arriving
a the Menu Plaisirs. The princes of the blood were riding in the King’s coach, while
the princesses rode in the Queen’s coach. No fewer than 38 coaches drove past the
delighted crowd, accompanied by dozens of outriders, grooms, page-boys and trumpeters.
The excitement reached a peak among the deputies when they hear the King is about
to arrive at last. They all feel they are witnessing a major historical event.
The King begins to speak in a loud powerful voice. Calling on the nation’s representatives
to show harmony, he stresses that wisdom must prevail; but Louis XVI has not shown
the slightest sign of being willing to abandon any of his sovereignty or powers.
At the end Louis left the hall amid loud cheering, but the cheers did not really
mask the deep disappointment felt by a large number of deputies.
Third Estate starts crisis
Versailles 11 May 1789
Debate at the Estates General has been stalled since May 6. Each order was to have
checked the mandates of their deputies separately, but the Third Estate has refused,
arguing that to do so would be to create a separate assembly and give implicit recognition
to class voting. It therefore at all costs had to get each mandate
checked prior to an individual vote. Pushed by deputies from Brittany and the Dauphine,
the Third Estate has confirmed that decision and named itself the Commons, like English
parliamentarians. This move by the Third Estate has unleashed a crisis. The nobility
has rejected individual mandate verification by 188 votes to 46. Today the nobility
has declared itself “constituted”. The clergy is even more split. Several dozen priests
have met privately to study moves to reconcile the three orders.and their proposal
has won nearly half the votes cast including bishops.
Nobility and clergy look down on commoner
Third Estate forms Assembly
Versailles 17 June 1789
A new power is born, independent of the King. The Third Estate Assembly has just
approved a motion by Sieyes supported by Target, by 481 vote to 119 and proclaimed
itself a National Assembly.
It has used terms employed by Necker in
his 1788 assembly plan and concepts spread by Abbot Sieyes in his treatise on the
Third Estate. After lengthy debate, Sieyes succeeded in getting approval for the
term of National Assembly, which had been suggested by le Grand, deputy for Berry.
Sieyes stated that the deputies of the Third Estate, representing 96% of the population
should “fulfil the wishes of the nation”. Are their mandates not the only ones to
have been publicly verified?All of the deputies have sworn to “faithfully fulfil
their duties”. It has immediately taken crucial decisions, refusing to give legislative
powers to the two other orders or the King to keep the right of veto.
Deputies are sworn in at the “Jeu de Paume”
20 June 1789
The National Assembly deputies were surprised and very annoyed on this rainy morning
to arrive at the Menu Plaisirs hall only to find their way barred by locked doors.
They were informed that the hall, guarded by sentries, had been closed in preparation
for the June 23 royal session, but many deputies believe that this is just another
step aimed at the dissolution of the Assembly. They decided that it was vital to
find a suitable meeting place quickly in order to avoid falling in to the trap. Dr.
Guillotin suggested the nearby royal tennis courts of the Jeu de Paume. Mounier called
for the deputies gathered in the large empty room to take the oath, drafted by Target
and formally read out by Bailly. All Third Estate representatives with 8 exceptions
(7 clergy) signed the oath, thus sealing the unity of the Assembly.
Bailly in the Jeu de Paume
Crowd frees French Guards
Paris 30 June 1789
Common man carries nobility and clergy
Something unusual has happened. Parisians have attacked the Abbaye prison to free
some soldiers, while dragoons and hussars refused to intervene. The mob succeeded
in freeing French Guards jailed for protesting against their colonel , whom they
accused of being too strict. The mob’s action is partly
Due to a friendship which has grown between the capita’s inhabitants and members
of this elite unit. Since the French Guards have been posted in Paris, links with
the public have been created with lower ranking officers finding they have much in
common with artisans and tradesmen.
The King sacks Necker
Versailles 9 July 1789
The news spread like wildfire: this morning, the King demanded that the highly popular
Necker should resign.
Necker has secretly set off for Brussels, as the court is afraid that his dismissal
will set off clashes. Both the other liberal ministers, Montmorin and saint Priest,
have also been forced to resign.
The new ministry , which Louis XVI has been thinking about for the past few weeks,
is headed by the Baron de Breteuil. The conservative Barentin remains lord Chancellor
and the Marechal de Broglie, commander of the troops massed around the capital, has
taken over from Puysegur at the Ministry of War
Paris burns after two days of rioting
Paris 12 July 1789
Paris has just lived through two days of rioting. There are no signs that the anger
which has suddenly seized the people will die down.
At the Palais Royal the crowd has been growing steadily, seeking plans for action.
Stepping out of the Foy Cafe, a young man, Camile Desmouolins, leaps onto a table
brandishing a sword. He urges the people to rise up against the German troops who,
he claims, have come to “butcher” the men and women of Paris. He grabs a leaf from
a tree and sticks it in his hat using it as a cockade and the crowd quickly follow
Then the mob rushes to the wax museum to get the busts of Necker and Duc d’Orleans,
carrying them through the streets. The two busts are draped with black crepe as a
symbol of the death of Liberty.
The Bastille, symbol of royal absolutism, is seized by the people
Paris 14 July 1789
By taking the Bastille-symbol of arbitrary royal power and feudal regimes - Parisians
changed the course of the Revolution. The people rebelled against the secular power
of a regime seeking to return to a system which was already seriously threatened
by uprisings and by an elected assembly that had proclaimed itself the National
Constituent Assembly. Only a few days ago.
The army is clearly supporting the cause of the people. Will the revolution of July
14 remain a purely Parisian phenomenon, or will it have a nationwide effect? Is the
assembly, whose bourgeois leanings are obvious , prepared to back this revolt? Will
the King make a last ditch attempt to stop the people?
Around 2a.m., a terrible rumour spread through the capital: 15,000 soldiers have
been deployed on the Rue Saint Antoine and they have started butchering people! It
was a false alarm. At 7 a.m., there was a new rumour. This time, the Royal German
regiment was said to be heading for the Trone toll barrier, the men of the Royal
Croatian for the Saint Antoine district, and other units for la Chapelle. Alarm
bells ring out. T arms! An entire population was obsessed by one idea weapons must
The Invalides are full of weapons. Yesterday, the governor, Charles Virot de Sombreuil,
had prudently refused to hand over any of the thousands of rifles stored there to
a delegation of electors, who wanted them to arm the new militia. Quickly a growing
crowd headed from the capital’s centre to the sombre Invalides building.
By 6 a.m., several thousand men had gathered on the huge parade ground in front of
the Invalides. Sombreuil wanted to talk things over with them, but when he opened
the gates the crowd surged into the courtyard, pouring into the buildings even the
basement. Systematic looting went on until 2p.m. The demonstrators seized 32,000
rifles - without ammunition - as well as twelve cannons and a mortar. Gunpowder and
cartridges were being stored at the Bastille, so the mob decided to rush there.
On the edge of the saint Antoine district there stands a huge eight-towered fortress,
which was used as a state prison. There a large crowd had gathered. At dawn several
hundred artisans, most of the furniture makers, armed with sticks and tools, had
come to the Bastille to demand material needed to make cartridges. The tension rose
quickly. People were aware of the fact that the prison’s governor the Marquis Bernard
de Launey, had considerably strengthened the defences at the Bastille over the past
few days. The crowd became frightened as they cannons aimed at saint Antoine. The
assembly of electors were immediately warned and sent a delegation to meet de Launay.
Suddenly around 1.30p.m., first one, then three, then ten youths, who had climbed
onto the roof of a perfume shop adjoining the ramparts, jumped down into the Bastille’s
courtyard and using axes they break the wooden beams holding the chains that support
the drawbridge. The heavy drawbridge falls killing one man standing beneath. Quickly
hundreds of screaming rioters rush into the courtyard. A volley of gunshots rings
After a prolonged struggle lasting over 24 hours eventually the garrison of the Bastille
capitulate. The invading crowd loots and destroys everything in its path, throwing
archives out of the windows. It suddenly finds the prisoners it has been looking
for. Among them is an accomplice of the regicide Damiens, held for 30 years, a mad
aristocrat and a criminal, as well as four counterfeiters. Shortly afterwards, a
shattered de Launay is brought out under heavy escort. Hundreds of enraged Parisians
are baying for his blood.
A large procession of the conquerors of the Bastille then marches off, heading for
the city hall as it drags the new prisoners along. For their part the freed prisoners
of the King are cheered enthusiastically and carried from the Bastille in triumph..
During the march, three officers of the Bastille headquarters, and three of the invalids
are killed. De Launay is beaten despite efforts to protect him by Hulin ( a former
sergeant of the Swiss Guard), “We must chop his head off”some shout. “Lets hang him”,
scream others gathered outside the city hall. A cook rushes up to an already wounded
de Launay. “Let them kill me!” de Launay shouts, fighting back. He knees the cook,
a certain Desnot, in the groin. “Help me!”
The latter screams. Suddenly, a man stabs de Launay in the stomach with his bayonet.
It is the signal for the butchery to begin. The governor is repeatedly stabbed before
being finished off with a bullet as he lies in the gutter. The cook, who has got
over his pain, grabs a knife and starts cutting off de Launay’s head as the mob cheers.
La Fayette and Bailly, masters of Paris
Paris 15 July 1789
Loud shouts of “Long live the nation and long live the deputies” greet the Assembly’s
delegation, led by La Fayette and Bailly, when it arrives at the capital’s city hall,
where electors have set
up a “Commune of Paris”. The electors see the two men as powerful symbols: Bailly
represents the historic oath taken at the Jeu de Paume, while La Fayette is the hero
of the American Revolution. La Fayette has been named general in command of the bourgeois
militia, which has been called the National Guard, while Bailly has been made provost
of tradesmen, but a voice of dissent is heard among the crowd, shouting “No make
him mayor of Paris”, and the suggestion is warmly welcomed by all. The bourgeoisie
has had a fright and is now counting on these new institutions to restore order.
The Great Fear
France, July 89
It started in Bourgogne and Brittany. The cause was the same everywhere; rumours.
At Nantes on July 20th, witnesses reported seeing a detachment of dragoons heading
for the town. They were surely coming to put down the recent municipal revolt. Local
men rushed to the armouries to grab weapons and set off to meet the soldiers, but
peasants saw them as yet another dangerous armed gang. On the 24th, at Rumilly, in
Champagne, a herd of cows was taken for a group of bandits! On the 28th, at
In southwestern France, threats voiced by dissatisfied religious alms collectors
were taken very seriously. The peasant’s misery was being made even more unbearable
by hunger and unemployment. Growing numbers of drifters were taking to the roads,
prepared to do anything to survive.It is difficult to know why this Great Fear spread
so quickly. Was there an aristocrat’s plot?Whatever the cause the peasants are now
armed, organised and ready to use force to liberate their lands from the nobles
Privileges are abolished amid rejoicing - the Ancien Regime is dead!
Paris Night of 4 August 1789
The Constituent Assembly has done more work in six hours than it has in three months,
getting rid of centuries-old traditions. Just one night, marked by great enthusiasm
and unanimity, was enough to scrap the social structures of the Ancien Regime. First
worried, then terrified by the Great Fear that has been spreading for the past two
weeks throughout the countryside, the deputies have decided to take drastic measures.
The most hated privileges have been abolished, from . the most costly - such as tithes
- to the most oppressive - such as hunting rights. However, in the weeks to come,
these decisions in principle will have to be given concrete form.
The deputies gather around eight o’clock under the presidency of le Chaplier. Allowed
to speak, the lawyer Target submits the draft decree that was debated yesterday.
It is aimed at putting an end to the unrest rocking the countryside. The draft text
reminds all citizens that they must respect property and continue to pay rents and
taxes. The Assembly had been getting ready to condemn the peasants demands.
THE ABOLISHED PRIVILEGES. First to have been abolished are all the ancient and hated
feudal servitude's: mortmain, which made it impossible for serfs to will their own
property: serfdom, a status close to that of slavery; the duties of
Guard and lookout, which had become an obligation for servants to guard the castle;
statue labour, or days spent working for the local lord. Also abolished were the
the the despised exclusive hunting rights and the right to breed fowl.
Then the following privileges of the clergy and nobility were abolished after being
repurchased: the banalities or the nobilities monopoly over the flour mill, the press
house and the bread oven; the champarts, which were the part of the crop owed by
dependent peasants to the landowner; taxes paid for authorisation to leave a region.
Tithes collected by the clergy also disappear, as do surplice fees charged for christenings,
weddings and funerals.
From now on, public office cannot be purchased, since the principle of the venality
of office has been abandoned. Every citizen will have access to military and civil
posts. Justice now being free, there will in future be no privilege due simply to
Men are born free with equal rights
Versailles 26 August 1789
Man has rights; this is an entirely new concept that is going to change people’s
way of thinking radically. After over a month and a half of debate, the Assembly
has just approved the final version of the Declaration of human rights and of the
rights of the citizen.
It was a matter of both sweeping away the theories of justifying the old privileges
and laying down the principles of the new regime that the Constituent Assembly is
to set up. The amount of time spent in debate by the deputies is due to the extent
of the task
Before them. Malouet did not believe that the people of France were ready to hear
this text, while Mirabeau said: “this is a veil that would be dangerous to lift suddenly,
it is a secret that must be hidden from the people”. What could the terrible secret
contained in the Declaration be?”Ignorance of, forgetfulness or contempt for human
rights are the sole cause of the misery of the people and of the corruption of governments,”
states the preamble to the text.
Marat launches new daily paper
Paris, 16 September 1789
“L’Ami du Peuple”. Is Dr. Marat’s destiny at last about to be fulfilled? For its
fifth edition, his daily newspaper has adopted a more biting tone. His new pamphlet
attacking the Assembly, which made the mistake of ignoring him, and the Commune,
which did not elect him, will serve his ambition of becoming the herald of the revolution
better than his obscure theoretical writings.
Royalist officers trample tricolor
Cockades during Versailles “orgy”
Versailles 2 Oct. 1789
In Paris, rumours of a possible counter-revolution have been rife since last-nights
orgy at the Palace of Versailles. The King’s bodyguards had held a banquet at the
palace in honour of the Flanders regiment,
which had been called in recently for use in case rioting should break out in the
capital. Made cautious by recent events, the royal couple had not been quite sure
whether to attend. The King and Queen’s appearance at a balcony was, however, greeted
by wild cheering. Guardsmen started singing the tune of “O Richard O my King” as
officers cheered. Emboldened by the wine they had been drinking, the officers tore
off their tricolor cockades and trampled them underfoot donning white cockades symbolising
After the women’s march on Versailles, King forced to return to Paris
5/6 October 1789
The capital has found its King again and Versailles is deserted. The march by thousands
of Parisians has put an end to a century and a half of royal presence in the town
of the Sun King. A 17th century revolt by Parisians during the violent clashes of
the Fronde had forced a young Louis XIV to settle outside Paris Today, it is another
revolt that has brought his descendent back to the Tuileries. The heart of the revolution
has moved from Versailles to Paris In just three months Parisians have acted thrice
to speed up the pace of the Revolution. Within a few hours the people have disarmed
the King’s party and taken control over the monarch. The Assembly which will move
to Paris in a few days, must take into account a power growing each day - the street!
Yesterday at daybreak, around 7 o’clock, as the capital was blanketed by fog, Parisians
were on a war footing. The night had not helped to calm the revolutionary ardour,
which had been given free reign on Sunday. On the contrary. They wanted to stop the
King from fleeing to Metz, as had been rumoured since the arrival of the Flanders
Regiment. “Let’s march on Versailles” were the words that galvanised the entire city,
which had been living in fear of hunger and of a royalist counter-attack.
Thousands of women urged on by an irresistible force, gathered at the city hall.
They were demanding bread and arms. Led by Hulin, the conquerors of the Bastille
joined the women. Armed with sticks, pikes and pitchforks, the strange procession
set off for the palace of the kings of France. Following on was a second procession
consisting of 15,000 National Guard under la Fayette and citizens of Paris This moved
off around 1 o’clock in driving rain. At 4 p.m. the first procession arrived at Versailles
and headed for the Assembly begging the deputies to take action against food hoarders.
The King agrees to see a deputation from the women who are awe struck by the palace
surroundings. The king calms things by arranging a distribution of food. The King
decides to leave for Rambouilet with his family but is too late. The gate of the
royal stables has been torn down and the mob has rushed in taking the horses. By
nightfall the mob control the royal town.
It is now October 6th. The day has hardly begun when drums start to beat on Armes
Square. As if acting on a pre-arranged signal, tens of thousands of people form tight
ranks. They pour into the palace courtyard and head for the rooms of Marie Antoinette.
The ladies -in-waiting who have spent the night outside her door rush in and drag
her out of bed and into the secret passage leading to the King’s rooms.. The King’s
first thoughts are for his family and he, using another secret passage gains the
bedroom of the Dauphin, picks up the child and carries him back. The mob now have
a blood lust and some palace guards are unceremoniously beheaded. La Fayette comes
running into the Cabinet room where the King and his family are gathered and sets
off with a group of grenadiers to attack the mob who are demanding that Louis be
taken back to Paris. La Fayette begs the royal couple to agree and the King with
no alternative agrees. Walking onto the balcony to confirm his decision. This does
not satisfy the mob who are calling for the Queen. Marie Antoinette takes her children
by the hand and appears on the balcony. “No children” the mob howls. Calmly, the
Queen sends her son and daughter back inside and faces the crowd who were a short
time ago calling for her blood. Time seems to stand still. “To Paris!” a voice shouts,
and this cry is picked up by thousands of others. Her ordeal over the “Austrian”
goes back, barely conscious.
La Fayette immediately gives orders for the King’s departure, as he is too traumatised
to deal with preparations himself. The people are triumphant. The King’s carriage,
preceded by people bearing the severed heads of guards stuck on pikes makes slow
progress. Ragged, drenched and mud-stained men and women singing and pointing derisively
at the royal family they have dubbed “the baker and the baker’s wife”. After a harrowing
six hour march, they reach Paris where the mayor Bailly, greets them with a speech
of welcome. The royal family then are taken to the Tuileries.
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