5 Louis XVI, King of France
August 23, 1754–January 21, 1793
Louis-Auguste, duc de Berry, the third son of the dauphin, Louis (1729–1765), and Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, was born at Versailles on 23 August 1754. He never expected to be king, but his two older brothers died before him, and his father died young in 1765.
In 1770, Louis was married by arrangement of Étienne François, duc de Choiseul (1719–1785), who headed the Austrian party at court, to Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793), the daughter of the Austrian Emperor Francis I (r. 1745–1765) and Marie-Thérèse (1717–1780).
His marriage was celebrated in 1770 when Louis was sixteen and his bride fifteen. It was not consummated for seven years. His brother-in-law, the Emperor Joseph II, visited Versailles in disguise and spoke to the young couple regarding their lack of marital relations, later writing that they were “two complete blunderers”. Eventually, the couple had four children. Only one, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte (called Madame Royale, who became the duchess d’Angoulême) survived the French Revolution.
In 1774, Louis XV died suddenly of smallpox and Louis-Auguste succeeded to the throne, a place where he was never comfortable. More interested in hunting and astronomy than politics, he was also slow to make decisions and was very often swayed by the opinions of others to his detriment.
Alarmed by a series of financial setbacks and the increasing national debt, incurred in part by France’s support of the American colonists in their fight against Great Britain and in part by the profligate spending at Versailles by members of his court as well as the courts of previous monarchs, Louis called for a reform of the tax system to eliminate privilege and establish fiscal uniformity. Louis held an Assembly of the Notables (nobles) in 1787 but his negotiations failed and in 1789 he was forced to call the Estates-General, which had not met since 1617. The Estates-General was comprised of members of the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and wealthy merchants, professionals and all the commoners (Third Estate). The nobility expected that they would be able to control the outcome of the meeting and resist the king’s reforms as members of the clergy were also of the nobility and would be expected to vote with the nobles. As a countermeasure, the king increased the number of representatives in the Third Estate but there remained a question as to whether the estates would vote by group or deputy. Members of the Third Estate refused to meet except as a National Assembly with one vote per deputy. Louis was slow to make the necessary reforms and in his hesitation set the stage for the French Revolution.
The winter of 1789 had been particularly harsh and many people went hungry. Although the National Assembly met in May, Louis was distracted by the recent death of the Dauphin and did not take control of the situation. Insisting that each delegate should have a vote, the frustrated Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly or Constituent Assembly (Constituante) on June 17 and invited members of the other estates to join them. Later, when the delegates found the doors to the assembly hall locked by order of the king, they crossed the street to a tennis court and declared their resolve never to disband until they had written a new constitution for France (Tennis Court Oath). When the assembly remained defiant in the face of further concessions by Louis, he ordered troops to Versailles as a precaution.
On July 14, incited by the dire economic situation and fearing there would be violence soon, Parisians stormed the Bastille looking for weapons they believed were there. When the governor of the prison confronted them, they murdered him. Louis, in his diary for that day, wrote that nothing had happened, the significance of the event having eluded him. Louis did, nevertheless, order that the other two estates join the third and recognized the Assembly. However, it was too late.
After the storming of the Bastille, many high ranking members of the aristocracy, including the King’s brothers and aunts, emigrated from France for fear of their lives. The Queen elected to remain by the King’s side.
The abolition of feudal privileges by the National Constituent Assembly on 4 August 1789 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (La Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen), drafted by Lafayette with the help of Thomas Jefferson and adopted on 26 August, paved the way to a Constitutional Monarchy (4 September 1791 – 21 September 1792).
Louis and his family remained at Versailles until early October when they were forced to return to Paris by a group of women who had come to protest the prices and scarcity of bread. Together with the National Guard, the women escorted the king and his family down muddy roads to Paris where they became virtual prisoners in the Tuileries, the king reduced to little more than a figurehead in the government.
On June 20, 1791, the king and his household fled Paris with the goal of reaching safe haven in Germany with his émigré brothers, the counts of Provençe and Artois. They were apprehended thirty miles from the border at Varennes and escorted back to Paris. The king’s credibility was severely damaged and many citizens believed that he actively conspired with foreign powers to undermine the Revolution.
A group of militants and some of the National Guard staged a coup d’état on August 10, 1792, massacring most of the Swiss Guard, causing the royal family to seek refuge in the Salle du Manège (Riding Hall), at the north end of the Tuileries where the Assembly held most of its gatherings. Three days later, Louis was officially arrested and he and his family were placed in the tower of the Temple, a former Knights Templar fortress, prisoners of the new revolutionary government. On September 21, the Constitutional Convention abolished the monarchy.
The following year, the king, now called Louis Capet, was put on trial for treason, found guilty by the Revolutionary Tribunal of “conspiring against liberty and public safety,” and sentenced to death. Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine in the former Place Louis XV (renamed the Place de la Révolution, now the Place de la Concorde) on January 21 at 10:20 a.m. His last words were reportedly, “I die innocent of all the crimes that are imputed to me; I forgive the authors of my death; I pray to God that the blood you shed will not fall on France.” He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Madeleine Church cemetery.
Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s remains were later exhumed by order of his brother Louis XVIII during the restored Bourbon monarchy in 1816 and buried in the traditional crypt of French kings in the Cathedral of St. Denis.
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Fig. 1. Louis XVI. Engraving. Gale Biography in Context, Gale. Available from: Biography In Context. Accessed April 2, 2019. https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/PC4295803104/BIC?u=wash_main&sid=BIC&xid=a3b09163.