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King Louis XVI Execution

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King Louis XVI Execution

On 21 January 1793 a 1000-year reign came screeching to a halt, shattering the divine right of kings and forever changing the course of French history. It shocked rulers and subjects alike across Europe. On this day King Louis XVI was executed at the guillotine, the first and only monarch to be executed in French history. How did this astonishing turn of events come about?

King Louis XVI Execution: Timeline

DateEvent
1754Louis was born.
1770Louis married Marie Antoinette.
1774Louis XVI was crowned following the death of Louis XV, his grandfather.
1787The Assembly of Notables was convened.
1788 Autumn floods and poor harvests led to riots.
1789May a meeting of the Estates-General at Versailles. June – Tennis Court Oath.July – storming of the Bastille. October March to Versailles. Market women forcibly brought the royal family to Paris.
1791June the royal family attempted to escape Paris and made it as far as Varennes.September constitutional monarchy introduced.
1792June First Tuileries journée. Louis XVI survived the crisis.August 10 Second Tuileries journée. Louis XVI was arrested.19 August Austrians cross the French border, leading to widespread panic. September September Massacres. Constitutional monarchy abolished. December Louix XVI went on trial.
1793January execution of Louis XVI. October – execution of Mary Antoinette.

King Louis XVI Execution: Keywords

KeywordDefinition
The divine right of kingsThe doctrine that a king’s rule was God’s will; any rebellion against the king was an act against God.
Controller-GeneralThe Minister of Finance.
ParlementThe high courts in France. There were 13 in total.
Assembly of NotablesA group of nobles, high ranking clergymen, and magistrates were convened by the King to legitimise his reforms. To his surprise, they opposed his reforms.
Estates-GeneralThe assembly of three orders or estates (1) the clergy, (2) the nobility, and (3) the common people.
National AssemblyAfter Louis XVI refused to let the representatives vote individually rather than by order, the Third Estate formed this assembly on 13 June 1789. They renamed themselves the National Constituent Assembly one month later to reflect they were in charge of making a constitution.
JournéeFrench for ‘important day’. Examples in the French Revolution include the storming of the Bastille and the two stormings of the Tuileries Palace.
Sans culottesFrench for ‘without breeches’. Breeches were the clothing of the nobility and bourgeoisie. The sans-culottes were what we would roughly call today the urban working-class.
FédérésTroops of the National Guard who supported a Republic. They were crucial in the second journée of the Tuileries Palace, storming the King’s residence and arresting him. This was a turning point in the Revolution, transforming it from a constitutional monarchy into a Republic.

King Louis XVI Execution: Background Facts

King Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774. His wife was Marie Antoinette, the daughter of the Emperor and Empress of Austria. Her foreign origins made her an unpopular choice of Empress.

King Louis XVI Execution Portrait of Louis XVI StudySmarterPortrait of Louis XVI, Wikimedia Commons.

Louis XVI’s reign was marked by a steadily worsening financial crisis from the onset. He aided the American Revolutionaries with ships, despite his Controller-General (Minister of Finance) warning that France could not afford it.

Louis XVI’s attempts to avoid bankruptcy led to the collapse of his reign. He went through successive Controller-Generals, who failed to stop the impending crisis. When he tried to introduce new taxes on the nobility and clergy, the parlements (high courts), the Assembly of Notables, and then the Estates-General obstructed him in 1789.

Long-Term Causes of King Louis XVI Execution

This section will dive into the long-term causes of King Louis XVI’s Execution.

King Louis XVI Execution: American Revolution

After the crushing defeat by the British in the Seven Years War (17561763), the French desired revenge. The opportunity presented itself when the North American colonies were fighting for their independence from the British Empire.


King Louis XVI Execution American Revolution US flag StudySmarterThe US flag, Wikimedia Commons

During the American War of Independence (17751783), France was on the rebels’ side, providing them with financial and military support. France’s involvement was crucial for the defeat of the British. However, France’s involvement worsened its already crippling economy, costing the French 1,066 million livres. The Controller-General (Minister for Finance) financed the war by raising loans instead of taxes, putting the Crown into significant debt.

After the American Revolution was successful, 8,000 soldiers returned to France, having witnessed a political revolution. The language of liberty and no taxation without representation would have appealed to a France wary of despotism. The historian Simon Schama argued that, ‘For France, without question, the Revolution began in America.’ 1

Despotism

Absolute power or authority in the hands of one person, similar to a tyrant. Here, authority was in the hands of the King.

King Louis XVI execution: financial crisis

In 1786 the Controller-General (Minister for Finance) informed the King that the Crown was on the verge of bankruptcy with a deficit of 112 million livres. The Controller-General tried to introduce a range of reforms such as removing the nobility and the Church’s exemption from the taille.

Taile

A land tax that only peasants had to pay. The nobility and churchmen were exempt.

The parlements (high courts and judges) who were made up of nobility blocked these reforms. Louis XVI met with the Parlement of Paris on 19 November 1787 to persuade them to his side. There he famously exclaimed ‘It’s legal because I wish it’ which many saw as a statement of despotism. His attempts to sway the parlements failed and they continued not to enforce the new reforms.

King Louis XVI Execution A coin of 24 livresStudySmarterA coin of 24 livres, Wikimedia Commons.

Louis XVI looked for support elsewhere. He convened the Assembly of Notables in 1787, hoping they would support his economic reforms. The Notables were a group of nobles, high ranking clergymen, and magistrates selected by the King. But the Notables were worried about the legality of these reforms. They instead argued that only the Estates-General had the right to approve taxation. The Estates-General was convoked on 8 August 1788.

King Louis XVI Execution: Political Crisis

As the Estates-General had not been convoked in a long time, many debated the procedure that should follow. The King agreed that the Estates voted by order rather than letting representatives vote individually. This decision provoked outrage from the Third Estate, who knew that if the First and Second Estates voted together, they would always be able to out-vote the much larger Third Estate.


King Louis XVI Execution Storming of the Bastille painting StudySmarterPainting of the storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houel, Wikimedia Commons

In June 1789, the Third Estate broke off from the Estates-General and pronounced itself as the National Assembly. The King’s attempts to repress the National Assembly led to protests in the streets of Paris. The king’s soldiers joined the mob, storming the Bastille in July 1789. The Bastille was royal prison, a sign of the ancien regime (old regime).

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1789, famine and rising food prices caused rioting in the cities and the countryside. In October the situation escalated when women in Paris marched to the King’s palace in Versailles, known as the March on Versailles. Armed, they forced Louis XVI and his family to leave their palace and marched him back to Paris. The King was forced to reside in the smaller, damper Tuileries Palace.

Contrary to popular belief, the early aims of the Revolution were not to get rid of the King. The National Assembly wanted a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain’s. This only lasted for a year (September 1791 September 1792). What caused the fall of the constitutional monarchy and King Louis XVI’s eventual execution?

Short-Term Causes of King Louis XVI Execution

This section will dive into the short-term causes of King Louis XVI’s Execution.

King Louis XVI Execution: Flight to Varennes

On 20 June 1791, Louis XVI attempted to flee with his family to France’s eastern border. They were likely trying to cross the border into the Austrian Netherlands, where Marie Antoinette's family could support them and raise an army for them. They only got as far as Varennes, where they were caught and forced back to Paris.

King Louis XVI Execution Drawing of Louis XVI arrest and capture in Varennes StudySmarterDrawing of Louis XVI’s arrest and capture in Varennes, Laurent Guyot, Wikimedia Commons.

Before Louis XVI had escaped Paris, he left behind a memorandum (a letter). The memorandum denounced the Revolution and the idea of a constitutional monarchy. This damning evidence fuelled hostility against the King, who was (probably accurately) accused of fleeing to launch a Counter-Revolution. It meant that the constitutional monarchy got to a rocky start in September 1791.

Despite this watershed moment of anger against the King, Louis XVI survived for another year. Why was this?

King Louis XVI Execution: War with Austria

France’s war against Austria both boosted the King’s popularity and destroyed it. In August 1791, Austria (whose Emperor Leopold II was Marie Antoinette’s brother) and Prussia (now Germany) issued the Declaration of Pillnitz. This declaration threatened France with retaliation if they harmed the monarchy. Instead of cowing the revolutionaries into submission, France declared outright war. Louis XVI enjoyed brief popularity when he approved this decision.


King Louis XVI Execution Portrait of Marie Antoinette 1775 StudySmarterPortrait of Marie Antoinette, 1775, Wikimedia Commons

Though France initially enjoyed military success, it soon faced multiple military crises. In July 1792, the Austrian commander the Duke of Brunswick issued the Brunswick Manifesto. The Manifesto declared that Austria would restore Louis XVI to the throne. This inflamed views of an aristocratic plot of Counter-Revolution between Louis XVI and the enemy (Austria and Prussia).

The effect that declining fortunes of war had on Louis XVI’s fate can be seen in the two journées of the Tuileries palace in 1792. The first Tuileries journée was on 20 June 1792, before the Austrians crossed the French border. In this journée, the crowd seized the King but he managed to survive the crisis. But by the second Tuileries journée, on 10 August 1792, the Austrian army was about to cross the French border, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion. Armed sans-culottes and fédérés seized and arrested the King. In September, the monarchy was abolished, establishing the First French Republic.

King Louis XVI Execution Painting of the storming of the Tuileries Palace StudySmarterPainting of the storming of the Tuileries Palace, Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, Wikimedia Commons

King Louis XVI execution: Armoire de fer

In November 1792, incriminating letters were discovered in one of Louis XVI’s iron chests (armoire de fer) in the Tuileries Palace. These secret papers exposed the King’s conspiracy against the revolutionaries. It became impossible for his supporters to pretend that the King believed in the reforms of the French Revolution.

King Louis XVI Execution

How was the King Louis XVI’s execution carried out? What were his last words? Let’s find out.

King Louis XVI Execution: Trial

The National Convention, a parliament, was set up to deal with the problem the monarchy posed to the Revolution. Some of the Convention's factions, like the radical Montagnards, wanted to execute the King, while the more moderate Girondins wished to keep him alive as a hostage in the war. The Armoire de fer (iron chest) scandal turned the tide against the Girondins.

On 11 December 1792, the King stood in front of the Convention to hear his indictment. He was accused of high treason by betraying the nation to the Austrians. On 15 January 1793, the Convention arrived with the verdict. Out of 721 deputies 693 found Louis XVI guilty and 361 voted for his execution.

King Louis XVI Execution: Last Words and Speech

On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine and beheaded in the Palace de la Revolution. He delivered a short speech:

I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.

- Louis XVI, 21 January 1793, as witnessed by Henry Essex Edgeworth de Firmont2

His wife, Marie Antoinette, was also convicted of treason. She was guillotined on 16 October 1793.

King Louis XVI Execution Engraving of the execution of Louis XVI StudySmarterEngraving of the execution of Louis XVI, Georg Heinrich Sieveking, Wikimedia Commons

Significance of the Execution of King Louis XVI

The execution of Louis XVI sent shockwaves across Europe. Neighbouring rulers were equal parts outraged and wary, fearful that the Revolution would spread throughout Europe. This act of regicide challenged the divine right of kings the idea that a king was God’s representative on earth.

Horror and conservative backlash from Britain soon led to France declaring war on them. Austria, the birthplace of Marie Antoinette, escalated military aggression. Soon most of the dominant powers in Europe became embroiled in the conflict, including Spain, Portugal, Naples, and the Dutch Republic.

The chaos that followed Louis XVI’s execution saw a Europe engulfed in war, civil war in the Vendee, and the infamous reign of Terror.

Consequences of Louis XVI’s Execution

What were the consequences in the years that follow Louis XVI’s execution?

The Reign of Terror

After the death of Louis XVI, the Reign of Terror consumed the country in 1793. The Terror was formed to prevent a counter-revolution by executing and imprisoning political enemies. It quickly devolved into vigilante or mob justice. A key architect of the Terror was Maximilien Robespierre.

The Restoration of the Monarchy

Though Louis XVI was nicknamed the ‘Last King of France’ by his detractors, he would not be the last. After the fall of Napoleon I in 1814, the monarchy was restored. Louis XVI’s brothers and distant cousin ruled until 1848. The true last King of France would be Napoleon III, Napoleon I’s nephew who reigned from 18481870.

King Louis XVI Execution - Key Takeaways

  • The Crown’s financial crisis and the inability to push new economic reforms pushed Louis XVI to call the Estates-General, setting in motion a series of political and economic crises that would be known as the French Revolution.

  • In June 1791, Louis XVI fled with his family to Montmedy. He was caught at Varennes and escorted back to Paris. He lost much of his credibility as a monarch.

  • Louis XVI left behind a damning memorandum, denouncing the constitutional monarchy.

  • Although the flight to Varennes was a significant crisis, Louis XVI managed to survive it.

  • The outbreak of the war with Austria in 1792 and the publication of the manifesto by the Austrian commander, the Duke of Brunswick, pushed the nation over the edge.

  • Paranoia and suspicion centred on Louis XVI, who was seen as colluding with the Austrians and Prussians to launch a Counter-Revolution.

  • On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded in the Palace de la Revolution; the first and only French King ever to be executed.

¹Simon Schama, CITIZENS: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1989.

²J.M. Thompson, English Witnesses of the French Revolution, 1938.

Frequently Asked Questions about King Louis XVI Execution

On 21 January 1793. He was beheaded in the Palace de la Revolution.

King Louis XVI of France died on the guillotine for high treason.

Louis XVI was found guilty of high treason. He was accused of betraying the nation to the Austrians during the war.

Louis XVIvs execution was important as it challenged the divine right of kings. The chaos in France led to the reign of terror and mob justice. His execution led to a European-wide war that saw the rise and fall of Napoleon.

After the death of Louis XVI, the Reign of Terror consumed the country in 1793. The Terror was formed to prevent a counter-revolution by executing and imprisoning political enemies. It quickly devolved into vigilante or mob justice. A key architect of the Terror was Maximilien Robespierre.

Final King Louis XVI Execution Quiz

Question

Who was a part of the First Estate?

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Answer

Clergy.

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Question

Describe the range of privileges that the nobility experienced.

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Answer

They were exempt from military conscription, and they did not have to pay the gabelle. They benefited from feudal dues (imposing duties upon peasantry). They had monopoly rights to manage mills or wine presses. They were also exempt from the toughest tax: the taille.

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Question

Why did the peasants from the Third Estate resent the monarchy?

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Answer

The peasantry had to pay taxes, which made them utterly resentful. The peasants paid tithe to Church, feudal dues to their landlords, and taxes to the State. The feudal dues were paid in grain or crops, varying between 33% of the harvest. The taxes paid to the State steeply increased between 1749–83 due to France being involved in wars. The worst burden was paying rent to the landlords – the rent increased during the second half of the 18th century due to the population growth. 

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Question

What did the philosophers from the Enlightenment period criticise?

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Answer

The philosophers attacked the Church and the government. They did not accept the literal interpretation of the Bible, as any miracle would be perceived as a superstition. The Church was criticised for its corrupt and wealthy nature. The philosophers did scrutinise the government, specifically denying that God chose a King to lead the country.

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Question

Give some short-term causes for the execution of Louis XVI. 

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Answer

1. France’s involvement in the American War of Independence. Many French soldiers who fought for the Independence of America were exposed to revolutionary ideals (liberty and democracy), diminishing the support for the King even more. The involvement exhausted the government’s resources. Jacques Necker financed the war by raising loans instead of taxes. 


2. Political crisis was another reason. The King was urged to convoke the Estates-General. After the convocation, the Third Estate pronounced itself to be the National Assembly. The King’s attempts to control the situation resulted in the Tennis Court Oath (commitment to a national constitution and a more representative government) the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly (was formed during the first stage of the Revolution). National Constituent Assembly assumed its power. The King’s executive authority was passed on to the Nation’s elected representatives. The French Revolution had started. 


3. The King lost his credibility. The King ignored the advice to abdicate and attempted to flee with his family to the eastern frontier in 1791. He was caught at Varennes and escorted to Paris, losing his credibility as a monarch. The people accused him of repudiating the revolutionary reforms. The King also refused to implement the constitution of 1791, which he had agreed previously to. The publication of the manifesto by the Austrian commander, the duke of Brunswick, asserting the intent of Austria to restore the King’s powers, pushed everyone over the edge.

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Question

What was Louis XVI accused of?

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Answer

Louis XVI was accused of high treason (he refused to cede his power to the Revolutionary Government) and the crimes against the State.

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Question

What was the consequence of the Louis XVI execution?

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Answer

After the death of Louis XVI, the Reign of Terror consumed the country in 1793. The Reign aimed to fight those who opposed the revolution and stop the counter-revolution. Many of those who were executed were ordinary people; many simply criticized the government. 

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Question

Define the storming of the Bastille of 1789.

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Answer

The revolutionaries seized control of the political prison referred to as Bastille. Bastille was a sign of royal authority, but the revolutionaries perceived it as the monarchy’s abuse of power.

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