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September Massacres

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September Massacres

Murderous riots, executions and anarchy. The September Massacres marked one of the most ruthless events of the French Revolution. But what did it aim to achieve and why was the killing of prisoners the answer to France’s underlining issues?

The September Massacres date

After the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792, paranoia started brewing in Paris about the potential of political prisoners plotting a counterrevolutionary uprising. This paranoia manifested into violence, and between September 2 and 6, 1792 mass killings of prisoners (and other political opponents) spread through the city of Paris. These five days became known as the September Massacres, in which between 1100 and 1400 prisoners were murdered.

Who conducted these executions, what triggered them, and did the victims of these killings actually pose a threat?

September Massacres: the ‘First Terror’ of the French Revolution

The September Massacres were a key event in the French Revolution, preceding and, to some extent, foretelling the events of the Reign of Terror, which followed about a year later on 5 September 1793, until 27 July 1794. For this reason, the events in September 1792 are sometimes referred to as the French Revolution’s ‘First Terror’.

September Massacres Engraving showing the September Massacres in the newspaper Les Révolutions de Paris StudySmarterEngraving showing the September Massacres in the newspaper Les Révolutions de Paris, Wikimedia Commons.

Background to the September Massacres

A month before the September Massacres, the French Revolution had taken a far more radical turn. Armed revolutionaries led by the Jacobins had stormed the Tuileries Palace and overthrown the monarchy, but that did not signal the end of the revolution.

Jacobins

Members of a radical political club founded in Paris in 1789, who led the Terror of 1793–94.

Arguably, in fact, it triggered a period of even more intense revolution and with that, a deep suspicion of potential counterrevolutionary plots. Parisian politician Georges Danton, who had now assumed office with fellow politician Maximilien Robespierre, stoked this fire with a speech on August 25 that warned people of the traitors amongst them.

The potential of war, a threatening manifesto, and food shortages all contributed to an increased fear of these counterrevolutionaries, eventually culminating in the violence that broke out.

Prussia

Parisians were concerned about a potential Prussian invasion, sparked by the Brunswick Manifesto (the Duke of Brunswick was commander of the Prussian army), which was declared on 25 July 1792. In this manifesto, he warned Parisians to obey Louis XVI and threatened violence if they didn’t. The manifesto created fear and anger in Paris and encouraged Parisians to arm themselves and defend their country.

Perhaps influenced by the Manifesto’s threats, rumours circulated in the late summer of 1792 (after the overthrow of the King) that Prussia had stuck to their word and invaded France. Rumours also suggested that the counterrevolutionaries in Paris would offer their support to the Prussian invaders; there was a particular emphasis on the refractory priests as they were seen as secret counterrevolutionaries.

Who were the refractory priests and why were they seen as a threat?

The revolutionaries abolished the original structure of the Catholic Church during the French Revolution and asked the clergy to take an oath of loyalty to the state. This oath would mean the state was placed above anything else, including the Pope. The clergy members that took the oath became known as the juring priests, those that didn't, became the refractory priests.

This caused a huge split in the church with both sides facing the possibility of persecution for their decision. The refractory priests were seen as holding counterrevolutionary feelings because of their refusal to take the oath of loyalty to the Constitution.

Events of the September Massacres

A group of 19 refractory priests were the victims of the first killings on September 2. They were initially tried by a ‘people’s commission’ and then sentenced to prison. However, they never made it that far as the guards killed them on the way.

Violence spread throughout Paris and across France with prisoners, aristocrats, former soldiers, and priests all falling victim to the killings. The massacres were further encouraged by politicians, who published propaganda reinforcing the rumours and praising the killings of the ‘counterrevolutionary’ prisoners on September 2.¹

The killings were largely carried about by the Sans-Culottes.

Sans-Culottes

Literally translated as ‘without breeches’. A group of lower-class people who became radical and violent during the French Revolution.

Below are some of the major sites of the violence:

Couvent des Carmes

The revolutionaries killed 115 priests over three days in a convent turned prison in the southwest of Paris.

Bicêtre Prison

On the grounds that a large number of counterrevolutionary weapons were hidden there, over a thousand armed men stormed the Bicêtre Prison hospital and killed hundreds of prisoners. No weapons were found and many of the victims were vagrants or children convicted of petty street crimes.

Vagrant

A homeless person without regular work that travels from place to place begging.

Salpêtrière Prison

On September 3, some of the men that had stormed Bicêtre Prison then turned to the women’s prison of Salpêtrière. They killed around 130 women, many of whom had been imprisoned for prostitution or adultery.

Prison de la Force

Over 160 prisoners received death penalties at the Prison de la Force, a prison that was specifically designed for political prisoners.

Versailles

Although the main violence took place between September 2-6, copycat riots broke out in Versailles on September 9, killing around 30 inmates.

Did you know?

One of the women killed at the Prison de la Force was Louis XVI’s wife Marie Antoinette's friend, Marie-Thérèse, Princesse de Lamballe. A young sculptress by the name of Marie Grosholtz was asked to make a wax effigy of her head. This artist would later move to London and become well known under her married name, Madame Tussaud.

Significance of the September Massacres

The September Massacres received international attention and were heavily criticised. British newspapers reported the events in graphic detail and circulated rumours of cannibalism and demon worship.

The massacres also prompted members of the nobility and bourgeoisie to flee from France through fear of becoming the next victims of the violence.

Bourgeoisie

The middle class, which owns most of a society’s wealth and is interested in maintaining traditional values.

The aftermath of the September Massacres

The new French revolutionary parliament, the National Convention, was formed after the Massacres on 21 September 1972. The massacres led to deep political divisions as moderates were appalled at the violence but the Jacobins defended it.

Members of the Convention criticised Danton and his encouragement of the movement, forcing him to quit as a minister. Robespierre was also criticised for fostering a personality cult. However, he maintained his position and showed little sympathy for the victims. Historian Mary Ashburn Miller suggests that Robespierre (amongst other revolutionaries) felt that violence was simply a necessary part of the revolution.²

The National Convention gave rise to two opposing factions: the Girondins and the Montagnards. The Girondins were moderate Republicans, whilst the Montagnards were very radical: they consisted of people that were high up in both the Convention and the Jacobin club. This division came to be important in future events of the Revolution. The Massacres led the Montagnards and their supporters to be known as buveurs de sang (blood drinkers).

The violence subdued after the Battle of Valmy on September 20, when Austrians and Prussians were pushed out of France and the foreign military threat to Paris was averted.

September Massacres - Key takeaways

  • The September Massacres took place over five days from September 2 to September 6, in which armed groups tried and executed (mainly) prisoners who they believed were counterrevolutionaries.
  • These events were spurred on by fears of a Prussian invasion and the threat of the Brunswick Manifesto, which threatened violence if the French didn't obey King Louis XVI.
  • Minister Danton encouraged rumours and suspicion by stating that there were traitors among the public.
  • The September Massacres received negative international attention and the events were publicised in graphic detail in Britain.
  • The September Massacres caused divisions between the Jacobins and the moderates. Danton was forced to quit as a minister for his involvement.

1. Stephen Clarke, The French Revolution, 2019.

2. Mary Ashburn Miller, A Natural History of Revolution: Violence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination 1789-1794, 2011.

Frequently Asked Questions about September Massacres

Armed mobs killed 1100-1400 people (including priests, prisoners, aristocrats and common criminals), who they suspected of counterrevolutionary ideologies.

In the September Massacres, armed groups stormed different prisons, tried, and then executed suspected political opponents who they believed were counterrevolutionaries.

Enlightenment principles were liberty, equality and fraternity. The September Massacres contradicted these principles as they involved the killing of people who were most likely innocent of the crimes they were accused. 

The September Massacres created more division between the Jacobins and the moderates, who disagreed with the violence. Danton was heavily criticised and forced to quit as a minister.

The September Massacres were led by armed groups, including the Sans-Culottes. 

Final September Massacres Quiz

Question

Which Manifesto played a part in the September Massacres?

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Answer

The Brunswick Manifesto.

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Question

Why were the September Massacres referred to as the French Revolution's ‘First Terror’?

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Answer

They preceded the Reign of Terror, which began about a year later, and were in some ways a precursor. 

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Question

Which Parisian politician encouraged revolutionary fervour with a speech on August 25?

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Answer

Danton

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Question

What did the Duke of Brunswick warn in his manifesto?

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Answer

He warned Parisians to obey Louis XVI and threatened violence if they didn't.

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Question

Who were the refractory priests?

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Answer

Refractory priests were members of the clergy that had refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the constitution.

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Question

Which of the following fell victim to the killings? 

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Answer

Jacobins

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Question

On what grounds did armed men storm the Bicêtre Prison?

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Answer

On the grounds that a large number of counterrevolutionary weapons were hidden there.

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Question

Who was incarcerated in the Prison de la Force?

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Answer

Political prisoners

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Question

Which famous wax sculptress was commissioned to create an effigy of one of the victims of the September Massacre?

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Answer

Marie Grosholtz, otherwise known as Madame Tussaud.

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Question

How did the British react to the September Massacres?

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Answer

With abhorrence. Newspapers reported the events in graphic detail and circulated rumours of cannibalism and demon worship.

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Question

What was Robespierre criticised for after the September Massacres?

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Answer

For creating a personality cult.

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