Why Did One of the World’s Most Modern and Powerful Countries Execute Their King?

On 21 January 1793 an event occurred which sent spasms of shock through Europe and still echoes through western history. French King Louis XVI, just 38 years old and the leader of one of the world’s most modern and powerful countries, had been executed by what was seen as a revolutionary rabble.

The chaos that followed would usher in war, Napoleon’s Empire, and a new age of European and world history.

Dan talks to Adam Zamoyski, a historian who has recently written a new biography of Napoleon.Listen Now

Vive la révolution

Contrary to popular belief, however, the initial aim of the revolution was not the disposal of the King. When the violence started with the Storming of the Bastille in July 1789 his overall position, let alone his life, was not under threat. However, over the next few years a series of events lead to his position becoming untenable.

In the years after the revolution many of its ardent supporters on the more moderate right began to backtrack slightly and introduce the idea of the King, who still enjoyed a lot of support in the countryside, being a British-style constitutional monarch who would enjoy a fair degree of power.

History might have turned out very differently had this idea gone through, but Mirabeau, its foremost supporter, died in April 1791 – just at a time where tensions on the international scene were beginning to rise.

Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau. He gained a reputation as the voice of the people during the revolution, championing the moderate stance favouring a constitutional monarchy.

Unsurprisingly, the monarchist kingdoms and empires of 18th century Europe were watching events in Paris with growing concern, and this distrust was more than reciprocated by the revolutionary government.

Austrian intervention

To make matters worse, the King’s Austrian wife Marie Antoinette was corresponding with her royal family members back home, with the possibility of an armed intervention raised. Matters came to head in September 1791 when the King and his family attempted to escape in what is known to history as “the flight to Varennes.”

The Arrest of Louis XVI and his Family at Varennes. (Thomas Falcon Marshall, 1854).

On his bed he had left behind a detailed manifesto utterly rejecting the revolution and the possibility of a constitutional monarchy – before setting off into the night in a bid to join Austrian-supported émigré forces in the north-east.

They did not get far, and the King was famously recognised by a man who compared his face to the livre note he had in front of him. Unceremoniously hauled back to Paris, Louis lived under virtual house arrest whilst much of his remaining support crumbled after his manifesto was published.

The next year, war finally broke out. Prussia and Austria got together and issued the Declaration of Pilnitz, which firmly and publicly put their support behind the French King. Louis was then pushed into declaring war on Austria by the Revolutionary Assembly, and the French armies invaded the nearby Austrian Netherlands with little success.

The revolution had disorganised the army, which was quickly and soundly defeated on a number of occasions. With the situation looking grave, the popular opinion towards Louis – seen as the cause and instigator of the war – grew more and more hostile.

Downfall

A further Prussian declaration that they intended to restore the King to his full powers was seen as the final proof that he had invited these enemies into his country. In August 1792 a mob stormed his new home of the Tuileries and he was forced to take shelter, ironically, with the Assembly.

Storming of the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution. (Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, 1793).

Just days later Louis was imprisoned and stripped of all his titles – and to be known henceforth as “Citoyen Louis Capet.” However, still at this point his execution was far from a foregone conclusion. Only when a chest was found in the Tuileries containing yet more incriminating correspondence did the King’s position become dangerous.

The radical Jacobins on the left of the revolutionaries called for the King’s head, and in a trial on 15 January 1793 he was found guilty of collusion with the enemies of France. A further vote called for his death by a majority of just one. The King’s own cousin was amongst those who voted for execution, and could have made all the difference.

Just six days later he was guillotined in front of an expectant crowd. Though a timid, weak and indecisive man all his life, even the most partisan of spectators and participants agreed that he had met his death with awesome courage and dignity. Louis’ brave display ironically won over many who had not been monarchists before.

Louis XVI just before being executed. (Creative Commons), credit: Enciclopedia1993.

His death also ushered in a new, crazed and bloody phase of the revolution, which quickly descended into a spree of executions, known as ‘The Terror’. His execution surely marks a turning point, not only for French politics, but world history entirely.