Louis XVI Biography
A proud line of French royal history that saw more than a millennia of monarchal rule came to a bone shattering end when Louis XVI felt the sharp end of a revolution inspired guillotine in 1793.
The establishment of the Kingdom Of The Franks in 486 saw the first French monarchy which ruled with some brief interruptions until the Capetian dynasty in 987 adopted the monarchs title as 'King Of France'. This French monarchy continued intact until the hapless Louis XVI succumbed to what is now infamously called the French Revolution.
The young Louis grew up during the reign of his grandfather Louis XV. He was third in line to the throne behind his father and his elder brother Louis Joseph Xavier. It was thought an education fit for a monarch to accede to the throne was not required. But the death of his elder brother at just nine years old and the death of his father at the age of 36 in 1765 thrust the second born boy into the role of heir apparent. He became the dauphin who would succeed his grandfather Louis XV.
His mother never got over the shock of losing her husband and lost sight of the bigger picture regarding Louis' education and future role. His grandfather Louis XV was too busy enjoying his womanising reign to give any thought to the line of succession and preparing his grandson for his life on the throne of France.
At the age of 15 Louis Auguste entered into a diplomatic marriage with Marie Antoinette who at 14 was the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman emperor Francis I. This was a time of ill feeling towards Austria with the disastrous Seven Years' War still festering in the minds of a French people mourning the loss of their sons through the conflict. The marriage was meant to solidify the alliance between the Habsburg Empire and France.
This marriage was met with disdain in France and it was a feeling that would rest in the back of the mind of a nation who traditionally loved the monarchy but were growing discontented with its rule.
At the passing of Louis XV in 1774 the dauphin was 19 years of age and at the head of an empire he was ill equipped to reign over. Yet he was an absolute monarch who had the power to do as he saw fit.
France had not had a strong king since Louis XIV, known as Louis the Great or the Sun King. During the rule of Louis XV a general malaise had set in and although Louis XVI was very familiar with his country's history, his role model as king was his grandfather who did not set an exemplary example of how a successful monarch should rule.
The young king had also been influenced by ideas from the enlightenment movement that were in direct contrast to his absolute monarchy and the feudal system that was an effective control tool of serfs for the French nobility. In an era where enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire were openly stating:
"If you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones" and Jean-Jacques Rousseau was quoted as saying:
"Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in fetters". Here we had Louis XVI trying to implement enlightenment ideas with all the optimism of a turkey that had survived Thanksgiving and was looking forward to Christmas and the New Year.
The nobility opposed his reforms and the king conceded to their will. By doing this he proved himself to be a weak monarch who was both indecisive and lacked a coherent policy strategy for his reign. Unfortunately for Louis, this type of leadership proved to be the story of his sovereignty.
Louis XVI inherited a large national debt from his predecessor which was compounded by bad financial advice from the kings minister Jacques Necker who took on exhorbitant international loans to help fund the American War of Independence in the hope of restoring parts of the French empire previously lost to the British.
France fared badly gaining little territory in the America's in a conflict that placed the country on the verge of bankruptcy. Worse still, Jacques Necker decided to publish the French Crown's expenses and accounts in an exercise that outraged the country and saw Neckers quick fire dismissal by Louis XVI.
The extravagance of the royal family and in particular Marie Antoinette further fuelled the French publics growing contempt for the Royal House Of Bourbon. By 1789 a crisis was looming that Louis XVI tried to avert by summoning to a meeting the triumvirate of the 'estates-general' to try and extract more taxes.
The estates-general consisted of the first (clergy), second (nobility) and third (common people). However no agreement could be made and the third estate took it upon themselves to declare itself as the National Assembly with a right to represent the nation and in doing so set in motion the path to the French revolution.
Rumours were rife that Louis XVI would act against the assembly which raised the ire of Parisians against the monarchy. This pent up anger exploded on 14th July 1789 when the people of Paris stormed the Bastille prison which they viewed as a symbol of the repressive royal regime. Louis failed to recognise the significance of the storming of the Bastille and was so out of touch from his people he failed to realise the perilous position he was gently sauntering into.
A bread shortage caused a mob to gather on 6th October 1789. Tensions were rising and the mob marched from Paris to Versailles to confront the king about the hardships faced by the third estate (common people). It was an angry confrontation that was only quelled by the king agreeing to relocate to the Tuileries Palace in Paris so he could witness the hardships the people faced. This turned out to be the king living under house arrest whilst the National Assembly went about transforming the country and limiting the control of the king.
In June 1791 Louis XVI made the decision to escape France and seek foreign help to wrest back full control of his kingdom. He and his family fled the Tuileries Palace disguised as servants and took a carriage heading for the royalist town of Montmédy, close to the Austrian border. It was an ill fated journey that would see the royal family recognised and arrested in the town of Varennes. Louis was sent back to Paris and facing damning evidence of collusion with foreign powers he was compelled to accept the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
By September 1792 the monarchy was abolished and France was declared a Republic and in November the former king was charged with treason. The trial was swift and so too was his conviction which saw him given an appointment with the guillotine on 21st January 1793, a fate which Marie Antoniette would also face nine months later.
Louis XVI was the victim of both his inherited circumstances and the long ascendency of the House Of Bourbon that peaked under Louis XIV. The well trodden path of abundance to complacency onto apathy was then followed culminating in a monarch who dithered in indecisiveness whilst dicing with indifference towards his people.
Louis XVI was out of touch. He was more at home hunting game than finding fiscal acclaim with the people. He chose his advisors poorly and trusted their guidance too surely. Alas, he found out too late in his reign it was not their neck on the block come the day of reckoning.
For all his faults Louis XVI faced the charges of treason with great courage and kept his dignity, if not his head. Standing on the scaffold his calm composure impressed even the baying mob despite them being unable to hear his final words due to continuous drum rolls to drown out his speech.
This regicide was the end of an era, an end to a dynasty and an end to a thousand year old monarchy. The historical significance of the occasion caused many to lament the demise of the king and the French monarchy.
His legacy is one of the great lessons in history. The aristocracy who denounced their kings proposed reforms later regretted not backing their monarch. The revolutions thirst for ongoing change had been whetted by the kings blood and during the French reign of terror many thousands from the ranks of nobility followed Louis XVI to the guillotine.
Louis XVI was a failed monarch due to his indecisiveness at a critical time for the Royal House Of Bourbon. He was an ill prepared king at one of the major turning points in history. The nemesis of the revolution directed at his throne mockingly called him "Louis The Last" and his misfortune has thus been written into the annuls of history with the ink of his own blood.
Royal injustices apart, he was an articulate ruler who left us many words of wisdom which I have compiled into this list of 18 of the best quotes by Louis XVI of France.
Quotes About Louis XVI
Napoleon Bonaparte shared this observation:
"Vanity made the revolution; liberty was only a pretext"
Jean-Baptiste Mailhe read out the charges to the king beginning with this line:
"Louis, the French Nation accuses you of having committed a multitude of crimes to establish your tyranny, in destroying her freedom"
His queen Marie Antoinette was reassuring during the bread shortages that occurred at the time of Louis' coronation:
"It is quite certain that in seeing the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune, we are more obliged than ever to work hard for their happiness. The king seems to understand this truth; as for myself, I know that in my whole life (even if I live for a hundred years) I shall never forget the day of the coronation"
His defence counsel Raymond Desèze made an appeal to history:
"Louis ascended the throne at the age of twenty, and at the age of twenty he gave to the throne the example of character. He brought to the throne no wicked weaknesses, no corrupting passions. He was economical, just, severe. He showed himself always the constant friend of the people. The people wanted the abolition of servitude. He began by abolishing it on his own lands. The people asked for reforms in the criminal law... he carried out these reforms. The people wanted liberty: he gave it to them. The people themselves came before him in his sacrifices. Nevertheless, it is in the name of these very people that one today demands... Citizens, I cannot finish... I stop myself before History. Think how it will judge your judgement, and that the judgement of him will be judged by the centuries"
Jean-Baptiste Mailhe, who was head of the committee deciding if the king should face trial, sought to delay the execution:
"Death, but [...] I think it would be worthy of the Convention to consider whether it would be useful to policy to delay the execution"
One of the revolutions leaders Maximilien Robespierre put it bluntly:
"I utter this deadly truth with regret, but Louis must die, because the homeland has to live"
The French advocate Georges Danton was forthright with his view:
"One must never compromise with tyrants. One can only strike at kings through the head. Nothing can be expected from European kings except by force of arms. I vote for the death of the tyrant"
The French revolution theorist Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès gave this terse quote about the vote for the death of Louis XVI:
"Death without phrases"
His executioner Charles-Henri Sanson stated that the king:
"bore all this with a composure and a firmness which has surprised us all. I remained strongly convinced that he derived this firmness from the principles of the religion by which he seemed penetrated and persuaded as no other man"
The French writer Louis-Sebastian Mercer summed it up thus:
"In two minutes the work of centuries was overturned. Palaces and houses destroyed, churches overturned, their vaults torn asunder"
The historian Jules Michelet spoke of the aftermath of regicide:
"If we accept the proposition that one person can be sacrificed for the happiness of the many, it will soon be demonstrated that two or three or more could also be sacrificed for the happiness of the many. Little by little, we will find reasons for sacrificing the many for the happiness of the many, and we will think it was a bargain"
The French legislator Louis Saint-Just was forthright with this quote:
"Monarchy is an outrage which even the blind of an entire people cannot justify… all men hold from nature the secret mission to destroy wherever it my be found. No man can reign innocently. The folly is too evident. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. Do kings themselves treat otherwise those who seek to usurp their authority?"
The author Jennifer Donnelly gave this assessment:
"Little by little, the old world crumbled, and not once did the king imagine that some of the pieces might fall on him"