Louis XVI, born Louis-Auguste de France (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793) ruled as King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, and then as King of the French from 1791 to 1792. Suspended and arrested during the Insurrection of 10 August 1792, he was tried by the National Convention, found guilty of treason, and executed on 21 January 1793. His execution signaled the end of absolute monarchy in France and would eventually bring about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Although he was beloved at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism led some elements of the people of France to eventually hate him as a symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Régime. After the abolition of the monarchy in 1792, the new republican government gave him the surname Capet (a reference to the nickname of Hugh Capet, founder of the Capetian dynasty, which the Revolutionaries wrongly interpreted as a family name), and forced him to be called Louis Capet in an attempt to discredit his status as king. He was also informally nicknamed Louis le Dernier (Louis the Last), a derisive use of the traditional nicknaming of French kings. Today, historians and Frenchmen in general have a more nuanced view of Louis XVI, who is seen as an honest man with good intentions but who was probably unfit for the Herculean task of reforming the monarchy, and who was used as a scapegoat by the Revolutionaries.
The future king Louis XVI was born Louis-Auguste at the Palace of Versailles on 23 August 1754 to the heir to the French throne, the dauphin Louis (1729–65), who was the only son of the King Louis XV and his consort, Queen Maria Leszczynska. Louis-Auguste’s father died at the age of thirty-five and never ascended the French throne. Louis-Auguste’s mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, the Dauphin’s second wife, and the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.
Louis-Auguste was the oldest surviving son out of eight children, three of whom died young. He had a difficult childhood because his parents for the most part neglected him, favoring his older brother Louis Duc de Bourgogne, who died at the age of ten in 1761. This caused his parents to turn their back on Louis-Auguste even more. A strong and healthy boy, despite being very shy, Louis-Auguste excelled in the school room and had a strong taste for English history and astronomy. He enjoyed working on locks and hunting with his grandfather King Louis XV and playing with his younger brothers Louis-Stanislas, Comte de Provence (the future King Louis XVIII) and Charles-Philip, Comte d’Artois (the future King Charles X). The boys’ father died on 20 December 1765, which dealt their mother, Marie-Josèphe, a devastating blow from which she never recovered, sinking into a deep depression for the rest of her life. With his father dead, eleven-year-old Louis-Auguste was now the Dauphin of France and next-in-line to the French throne, which at the time was known as the “Finest” kingdom in Europe; but it was a job his grandfather, Louis XV, failed to prepare him for, a job which he himself did not feel capable of doing. Louis Auguste’s mother died two years after his father on 13 March 1767, leaving young Louis-Auguste and his younger siblings orphans. For the first year after the death of his mother he was cared for by his grandmother, Queen Maria Leszczynska, who died the next year, in 1768; and after that he was taken into the care of his spinster aunts Adélaïde, Victoire, Sophie, and Louise-Marie, known collectively as Mesdames Tantes.
On 16 May 1770, at the age of fifteen, Louis-Auguste married the fourteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa. The marriage was initially amiable but distant – Louis-Auguste’s shyness meant that he failed to consummate the union, much to his wife’s distress, whilst his fear of being manipulated by her for Imperial purposes caused him to behave coldly towards her in public. Over time, the couple became closer, and the marriage was consummated in July 1773.Subsequently, the Royal couple had four children:
- Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte (19 December 1778 – 19 October 1851)
- Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François (22 October 1781 – 4 June 1789)
- Louis-Charles (the future titular King Louis XVII of France) (27 March 1785 – 8 June 1795)
- Sophie-Hélène-Béatrix (9 July 1786 – 19 June 1787)
Louis XVI was characterized for a long time as a little simpleton, handled by his advisers, with crazes for iron work and hunting. This image is partly due to his attitude towards the court.
The “thoughtlessness” that was sometimes attributed to him is explained partly by a strong myopia which isolated him from the world, and in particular, enabled him only with difficulty to recognize his interlocutors. Louis XVI was a studious prince and scholar. In addition to his known passion for iron work, he was set on history, geography, navy and sciences. He made the navy a priority of France’s foreign politics, and was anxious to thwart the British projections overseas, and to take revenge for the disastrous Treaty of Paris. This powerful navy strongly contributed to the success of the American Revolutionary War. He had moreover a theoretical knowledge of the navy so pointed that he was likely, when he saw the sea for the first time, to make remarks whose relevance astounded his interlocutors.
Since Louis XIV, the nobility had been “mainly domesticated” by the structure of the royal court. The configuration of the court governed the life of the nobles by making the king the center of a very strict and complex set of ceremonies in which he was attended by the nobles in a way regimented by rigid etiquette. By constructing this system, Louis XIV aimed to eliminate the effect of the often rebellious, and always threatening, nobility toward the royal power. Within the court, the nobility saw its participation in the life of the king organized as if in a vase, enclosed in a subtle system of dependencies, hierarchies, and rewards, so that its inclinations for autonomy with respect to the royal authority definitely became much reduced.
Louis XVI inherited this system: nobility was seen as being in service to the king, and nobles judged their status upon the rewards and honours derived from him. Even if the majority of the nobility did not have the means of living at the court, the texts show an attachment of provincial noblemen to the role of the court, and the importance with which they attached a “presentation” at court.
Like Louis XV, Louis XVI entered this system with great sadness. This was not for lack of education: he was the first French monarch who spoke fluent English, and nourished philosophers of the Enlightenment. He sought to divorce himself from the royally authoritarian image of Louis XIV. To do this, he tried to develop an image for himself as a simple man, an image more in keeping with that of the “enlightened despots” of Europe, like Frederick II of Prussia.
Louis’s refusal to fully immerse himself in the court system explains the bad reputation that he eventually gained with the nobles. By depriving the nobility of its ceremonial role, the king deprived it of its accepted social role and protections. Initially created to control the nobility, the court system gradually ended up controlling the king as well.
Gradually, the image of the king during Louis’s reign became degraded. Poor management by Louis of the royal court, the refusal of the parlements (where the nobility and a part of the upper middle classes expressed themselves) to pass any meaningful reforms, and the often frivolous and capricious image of the Queen combined to tarnish the image of the king and monarchy. Many lampooners ridiculing Louis came from a part of the nobility that had a lot to lose, describing him not as “simply the king”, but as a “simpleton king.”
Absolute Monarch of France: 1774-1789
When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1774 he was 20, as his father, the son of the previous king, Louis XV, had died in 1765. He had an enormous responsibility, as the government was deeply in debt, and resentment towards ‘despotic’ monarchy was on the rise. Louis therefore appointed an experienced advisor, Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, comte de Maurepas who, until his death in 1781 would take charge on many important ministerial decisions.
Radical financial reforms by Turgot and Malesherbes disaffected the nobles and were blocked by the parlements who insisted that the King did not have the legal right to levy new taxes. So Turgot was dismissed in 1776 and Malesherbes resigned in 1776 to be replaced by Jacques Necker. Necker supported the American Revolution, and progressed upon a policy of taking out large international loans instead of raising taxes. This, Louis hoped, would reduce France’s deficit and fund the American Revolutionary War, in which France participated from 1778 onward. When this policy failed miserably, Louis dismissed him, and replaced him with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, in 1783, who increased public spending to ‘buy’ the country’s way out of debt. Again this failed, so Louis convoked the Assembly of Notables in 1787 to discuss a revolutionary new fiscal reform of Calonne’s. When the nobles were told the extent of the debt, they were shocked into rejecting the plan. This signalled that Louis had lost his legitimacy to rule as an absolute monarch, and he fell into depression.
As power drifted from him, there were increasingly loud calls for him to convoke the Estates-General, and in May 1789 he did so, bringing it together for the first time since 1614 in a last-ditch attempt to get new monetary reforms approved. This convocation was one of the events that transformed the general economic and political malaise of the country into the French Revolution, which began in June 1789, when the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly; Louis’ attempts to control it resulted in the Tennis Court Oath (serment du jeu de paume, 20 June), and the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly on 9 July. Hence, the legitimate power of King Louis had been undermined and became transferred to the elected representatives of the people’s nation. The storming of the Bastille on 14 July symbolised the victory of democratic constitutional monarchy over King Louis XVI’s absolute power.
Revolutionary Constitutional Reign: 1789-1792
On 5 October 1789, an angry mob of women from the Parisian underclass who had been incited by revolutionaries marched on the Palace of Versailles, where the royal family lived. During the night, they infiltrated the palace and attempted to kill the Queen, who was associated with a frivolous lifestyle that symbolized much that was despised about the Ancient Regime. After the situation had been diffused, the King and his family were brought back by the crowd to Paris to live in the Tuileries Palace.
Initially, after the removal of the royal family to Paris, Louis maintained a high popularity and was obliging to the social, political, and economic reforms of the Revolution. Unbeknownst to the public, however, recent scholarship has concluded that Louis began to suffer at the time from severe bouts of clinical depression, which left him prone to paralyzing indecisiveness. During these indecisive moments, his wife, the unpopular Queen, was essentially forced into assuming the role of decision-maker for the Crown.
The Revolution’s principles of popular sovereignty, though central to democratic principles of later eras, marked a decisive break from the absolute monarchical principle of throne and altar that was at the heart of traditional French government. As a result, the Revolution was opposed by many of the rural people of France and by practically all the governments of France’s neighbors. As the Revolution became more radical, several leading figures in the initial revolutionary movement themselves eventually began questioning the principles of popular control of government. Some, notably Honoré Mirabeau, secretly plotted to restore the power of the Crown in a new constitutional form.
However, Mirabeau’s sudden death, and Louis’s depression, fatally weakened developments in that area. Louis was nowhere near as reactionary as his right-wing brothers, the Comte de Provence and the Comte d’Artois, and he sent repeated messages publicly and privately calling on them to halt their attempts to launch counter-coups (often through his secretly nominated regent, former minister de Brienne). However, he was alienated from the new democratic government both by its negative reaction to the traditional role of the monarch and in its treatment of him and his family. He was particularly irked by being kept essentially as a prisoner in the Tuileries, where his wife was forced humiliatingly to have revolutionary soldiers in her private bedroom watching her as she slept, and by the refusal of the new regime to allow him to have Catholic confessors and priests of his choice rather than ‘constitutional priests’ created by the Revolution.
On 21 June 1791, Louis attempted to flee secretly with his family from Paris to the royalist fortress town of Montmédy on the northeastern border of France in the hope of forcing a more moderate swing in the Revolution than was deemed possible in radical Paris. However, flaws in the escape plan caused sufficient delays to enable the royal refugees to be recognized and captured along the way at Varennes. Supposedly Louis was captured while trying to make a purchase at a store, where the clerk recognized him. According to the legend, Louis was recognized because the coin used as payment featured an accurate portrait of him. He was returned to Paris, where he remained indubitably as constitutional king, though under effective house-arrest.
The other monarchies of Europe looked with concern at the developments in France, and considered whether they should intervene, either in support of Louis or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The key figure was Marie Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, who had initially looked on the Revolution with equanimity, but became more and more disturbed as the Revolution became more radical, although he still hoped to avoid war. On 27 August, Leopold and King Frederick William II of Prussia, in consultation with émigré French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pilnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family, and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them. Although Leopold saw the Pillnitz Declaration as a way of taking action that would enable him to avoid actually doing anything about France, at least for the moment, it was seen in France as a serious threat and was denounced by the revolutionary leaders.
In addition to the ideological differences between France and the monarchical powers of Europe, there were continuing disputes over the status of Austrian estates in Alsace, and the concern of members of the National Constituent Assembly about the agitation of emigré nobles abroad, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and the minor states of Germany.
In the end, the Legislative Assembly, supported by Louis, declared war on the Holy Roman Empire first, voting for war on 20 April 1792, after a long list of grievances were presented to it by the foreign minister, Charles François Dumouriez. Dumouriez prepared an immediate invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, where he expected the local population to rise against Austrian rule. However, the Revolution had thoroughly disorganized the army, and the forces raised were insufficient for the invasion. The soldiers fled at the first sign of battle, deserting en masse and in one case, murdering their general.
While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganized its armies, a mostly Prussian allied army under Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick assembled at Koblenz on the Rhine. In July, the invasion commenced, with Brunswick’s army easily taking the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun. Brunswick then issued on 25 July a proclamation, written by Louis’ émigré cousin, the Prince of Condé, declaring the intent of the Austrians and Prussians to restore the King to his full powers and to treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial-law.
Contrary to its intended purpose of strengthening the position of the King against the revolutionaries, the Brunswick Manifesto had the opposite effect of greatly undermining Louis’ already highly tenuous position in Paris. It was taken by many to be the final proof of a collusion between Louis and foreign powers in a conspiracy against his own country. The anger of the populace boiled over on 10 August when a mob — with the backing of a new municipal government of Paris that came to be known as the “insurrectionary” Paris Commune — besieged the Tuileries Palace. The King and the royal family took shelter with the Legislative Assembly.
Arrest and Execution: 1792-1793
Louis was officially arrested on 13 August and sent to the Temple, an ancient Paris fortress used as a prison. On 21 September, the National Convention declared France to be a republic.
Louis was tried (from 11 December 1792) and convicted of high treason before the National Convention. He was sentenced to death (21 January 1793) by guillotine by a very tight vote of 361 to 360, of which 72 effective abstentions.
Stripped of all titles and honorifics by the egalitarian, republican government, Citizen Louis Capet was guillotined in front of a cheering crowd on 21 January 1793. Executioner Charles Henri Sanson testified that the former King had bravely met his fate.
Historical information supplied by Wikipedia.