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The March on Versailles (also known as the Women’s March on Versailles, October March, and October Days) was a march in which the women of France rallied together against King Louis and the despised Marie Antoinette. What was the need for this march? What impact did it leave on the women’s call for reform in the National Constituent Assembly? Why did women despise the queen so much?
The March on Versailles was one of the French Revolution’s first and most significant events. Its focal point was the increasing cost and scarcity of bread, one of the primary food sources of commoners in France.
On the morning of 5 October 1789, women, who typically went to the markets to buy bread to feed their families, began to revolt at a Paris marketplace. They marched through Paris, demanding fairer bread prices, and thousands more marchers gradually joined them, including revolutionaries seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France.
Now that we know the basics let’s look at the course of the march.
The end of the Ancien Régime was a moment of relief, but for the lower classes, the fear of famine became a constant source of anxiety. In addition, there were widespread allegations that food, particularly grain, was being intentionally withheld from the poor for the sake of the wealthy.
The Ancien Régime
The Ancien Régime refers to France’s political and social structure from the late Middle Ages until the French Revolution of 1789, which ended the hereditary monarchy and the feudal system of the French nobles.
This march was not the first time people had taken to the streets about food. In the Réveillon riots of April 1789, factory workers rioted about proposed lower wages and were also sparked by fears of food scarcity. Again in the summer of 1789, rumours of a scheme to damage wheat crops to starve the population sparked the so-called Grande Peur (Great Fear), which led to rural unrest among the peasants.
Despite its post-revolutionary mythology, the March on Versailles was not unplanned. Revolutionary speakers widely discussed the idea of a march on Versailles at the Palais-Royal.
A former royal palace the Duke of Orléans owned at the time of the Revolution. The palace hosted revolutionary meetings.
However, the final straw that triggered the march was a royal banquet held on 1 October at Versailles, regarded insensitive in a time of austerity. Newspapers such as L’Ami du Peuple (a radical newspaper written during the French Revolution) reported on and potentially exaggerated the lavish excesses of the feast. The royal banquet became a source of public outrage.
The March began in the markets of what was formerly known as Faubourg Saint-Antoine (the eastern section of Paris). The women could get a nearby church to toll its bells, which prompted more people to join the march.
Their numbers swelled, and the crowd began marching with fierce passions. As tocsins (alarm bells or signals) sounded from church towers throughout various districts, more women from local marketplaces joined in, many carrying kitchen blades and other homemade weapons.
The marchers first took over Hôtel de Ville, the Paris City Hall, and demanded bread and weaponry. Thousands more joined, including the prominent revolutionary Stanislas-Marie Maillard, known for his role in the storming of the Bastille. He took on an unofficial leadership role and prevented some of the potentially more violent aspects of the march, such as burning down of the City Hall.
As he led the mob out of the city in the pouring rain, Maillard appointed several women as group leaders, and they made their way to the Palace in Versailles.
Initially, the march seemed to be about bread and having enough to eat. The rioters had already had access to City Hall’s vast stocks, but they were still discontent: they wanted more than just one supper; they wanted reassurance bread would once again be bountiful and affordable. The women hoped that this march would draw the attention of the King to their discontent and take action to make necessary changes.
Some had more aggressive intentions, desiring vengeance on the king’s army and his wife, Marie Antoinette, whom they detested. Others wanted the King to abandon Versailles and return to Paris, where he would be distant from what they saw as the aristocracy’s destructive influences.
Why was Marie Antoinette detested?
Marie Antoinette became an infamous figure of the French Revolution, renowned for her widely circulated but the questionably accurate phrase ‘let them eat cake’ in response to the bread shortages. Was she an uncaring and arrogant Queen, or did she fall foul to the rumour mill?
People generally despised Marie Antoinette due to her reputation and rumours about her: a careless spender of public funds, a manipulator, a debaucher, and a counterrevolutionary conspirator. Marie Antoinette was also a foreign-born queen, which was not unusual. However, she came from the Austrian Habsburg dynasty, who had traditionally been enemies of France. As a result, many people distrusted her, believing she had tricked the King into marrying her to supply Austrians with military plans and treasury money.
Initial distrust may have fueled the rumours, but we can also place it in the context of a long history of misogynistic attacks that powerful women experienced in France. Previous French queens such as Catherine de Medici and Isabeau of Bavaria were subject to unfounded accusations of debauchery and wickedness.
Excessive indulgence in bodily pleasures, especially sexual pleasures.
When the mob arrived at Versailles, the second group of people gathering from the surrounding region welcomed it. Members of the Assembly met the demonstrators and welcomed Maillard inside their hall, where he spoke of the need for bread.
The marchers followed him into the Assembly and demanded to hear from Mirabeau, the famous reformist deputy and leader of the early stages of the French Revolution. He declined, but a few other deputies, including Maximilien Robespierre, who was still a virtually unknown figure in politics at the time, graced the marchers enthusiastically. Robespierre spoke out strongly in favour of the women and their situation. His efforts were well received; his appeals went a long way toward calming the crowd’s animosity toward the Assembly.
A group of six women met with the King to express their concerns. The King promised to give out food from the royal stores. Despite the six women’s contentment with this deal, many in the crowd were suspicious and felt that he would renounce this promise.
Some demonstrators discovered an unprotected gate to the palace in the morning. They looked for the Queen’s bed-chamber once they were inside. The royal guards retreated through the palace, locking doors and barricading halls, while those in the compromised zone, the cour de marbre, opened fire on the attackers, killing one of the crowd’s young protestors. The remainder, enraged, rushed to the opening and poured in.
One of the on-duty gardes du corps was promptly killed, and his body severed. A second guard, stationed outside the Queen’s apartments entrance, attempted to confront the mob but was seriously injured.
Gardes du corps
The senior formation of the King of France’s Household Cavalry.
As the chaos continued to rage on, other guards were discovered beaten; at least one had his head cut off and placed on top of a spike. The attack slowly died down, enabling the former French guards and the royal gardes du corps to communicate effectively. Eventually, peace was restored to the palace.
Even though the battle had subsided and the two commands of troops had vacated the palace’s interior, the mob remained outside. The Flanders Regiment and another regular regiment there, the Montmorency Dragoons, both appeared to be unwilling to intervene against the people at this point.
While the gardes du corps watch on palace duty had shown bravery in defending the royal family overnight, the regiment’s main body had deserted their positions and retreated before morning.
The mood changed when the King agreed to return to Paris with the crowd. This was further cemented when Lafayette, the leader of the National Guard, added to their delight by putting a tricolour cockade (the official symbol of the revolution) on the King’s nearest bodyguard’s cap.
The crowd then demanded to see Queen Marie Antoinette, on whom they blamed many economic problems. Lafayette, followed by the Queen’s children, led her to the balcony. The audience chanted to remove the children, and it appeared the stage was being prepared for a regicide.
The action of killing a king or queen.
However, the crowd started to warm to the Queen’s bravery as she stood with her hands placed over her chest, and Lafayette quelled the crowd’s rage when he knelt and kissed her hand with dramatic timing and grace. The demonstrators replied with hushed reverence, and some even cheered.
The royal family and a supplement of one hundred deputies were led back to the capital on the afternoon of 6 October 1789, this time with the armed National Guards leading the way.
Except for 56 pro-monarchy representatives, the rest of the National Constituent Assembly followed the king to new lodgings in Paris within two weeks. As a result of the march, the monarchist side lost significant representation in the Assembly, as most of these deputies withdrew from the political arena.
On the other hand, Robespierre’s advocacy of the march significantly increased his popular reputation. Lafayette lost popularity despite his initial accolades, and the radical leadership pursued him into exile as the Revolution advanced.
Maillard’s image as a local hero was cemented upon his return to Paris. The March became a central theme in revolutionary portraits for the ladies of Paris. The ‘Mothers of the Nation’, as they were known, were greeted with great acclaim upon their return, and subsequent Parisian governments would celebrate and request their services for years to come.
Following the Women’s March, Louis sought to work within his limited authority but had little assistance, and he and the royal family became virtual prisoners in the Tuileries Palace.
The Women’s March was a watershed moment in the French Revolution, equaling the fall of the Bastille. The March would serve as a motivation to its descendants, symbolising the strength of populist movements. The occupancy of the Assembly’s deputies’ benches set a precedent, foreshadowing the Parisian governments’ frequent future use of mob control.
The brutally effective siege of the palace was the most significant part; the attack shattered the monarchy’s mystique of superiority for good. It signalled the end of the King’s opposition to reform, and he made no further public attempts to halt the revolution.
The March on Versailles, also known as the October March, was a women’s protest against the King on the scarcity and increased price of bread.
Speakers frequently discussed the march at the Palais-Royal.
The March began with the invasion of the Versailles Palace; women and men gathered on the outskirts of the region carrying weapons of their own.
Although the march was a quest for bread, some had aggressive intentions such as vengeance against the King and, most importantly, the Queen they despised.
The protestors stormed the palace to allow the King to address the people’s concerns forcibly.
The March served as a motivation for the subsequent decades, symbolising the strength of populist movements.
The March on Versailles happened due to a number of factors, but most importantly the increasing cost and scarcity of bread. Women, who typically went to the markets to buy bread for their families, started marching to demand fairer prices.
The King left Versailles for Paris and remained in lodgings there. Robespierre gained popularity whilst Lafayette lost his, and the women involved in the march became revolutionary heroes.
The Women’s March was a watershed moment in the French Revolution, equaling the fall of the Bastille. The March would serve as a motivation to its descendants, symbolising the strength of populist movements. The occupancy of the Assembly’s deputies’ benches set a precedent for the future, foreshadowing the sequential Parisian governments’ frequent use of mob control.
It also shattered the monarchy’s mystique of superiority for good and the King made no further public attempts to halt the revolution.
When the women arrived at Versailles, leader Maillard entered the hall and spoke of the need for bread. The crowds followed him in, where Robespierre addressed them. Six women met with the King and he promised to disburse more food from the royal stores. However, other protestors met this promise with suspicion and attacked the palace until the King agreed to return to Paris.
The King agreed to give more bread, and the crowds successfully forced the King and Queen to move to lodgings in Paris. The March also weakened their authority and strengthened the revolutionary movement.
In what month was the March on Versailles?
The fears of food scarcity sparked the Réveillon riots in April 1789. True or false?
Where was the October 1st banquet held?
The march sparked a genuine affection for the King and the rest of the royal family. True or false?
Who intervened on the behalf of the King at the Palace?
The royal family became virtual prisoners of the Tuileries. True or false?
What regime collapsed paving the way for the revolution?
The Ancien Régime.
The women who bravely marched to Versailles were later known as the Mothers of the Revolution. True or false?
Which of the following were reasons why people disliked Marie Antoinette? (Choose three)
She was Spanish.
What was Marie Antoinette’s infamous apocryphal statement when there was no bread?
‘Let them eat cake.’
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