King Louis XVI was the last king of France before the monarchy fell to the revolution in 1789: intellectually capable but lacking in decisiveness and authority, his regime has often been categorised as one of corruption, excess and devoid of care for his subjects.
But this black and white characterisation of Louis’ reign fails to take into account the dire circumstances of the crown he inherited, the global political situation and the impact of Enlightenment ideas on the wider population. Revolution and the guillotine were far from inevitable when he became king in 1770.
Here are 10 facts about Louis XVI, King of France.
1. He was born the second son of the dauphin, and the grandson of Louis XV
Louis-Auguste of France was born on 23 August 1754, the second son of the Dauphin. He was given the title Duc de Berry at birth, and proved himself to be intelligent and physically capable, but very shy.
After the death of his elder brother in 1761, and his father in 1765, the 11 year old Louis-Auguste became the new dauphin and his life changed rapidly. He was given a strict new governor and his education changed drastically in an attempt to shape him into a future king of France.
2. He was married to the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette for political reasons
In 1770, aged just 15, Louis married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette, cementing an Austro-French alliance which was becoming increasingly unpopular amongst the people.
The young royal couple were both naturally shy, and virtually complete strangers when they married. It took several years for their marriage to be consummated: a fact which gained considerable attention and generated tension.
3. The royal couple had 4 children and ‘adopted’ a further 6
Despite initial problems in the marriage bed, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette went on to have 4 children: the youngest, Sophie-Hélène-Béatrix, died in infancy and the couple were said to be devastated.
As well as their biological children, the royal couple also continued the tradition of ‘adopting’ orphans. The pair adopted 6 children, including a poor orphan, a slave boy, and the children of palace servants who died. 3 of these adopted children lived with the royal palace, whereas 3 merely lived at the expense of the royal family.
4. He attempted to reform French government
Louis became king aged 19, in 1774. The French monarchy was an absolute one and it was deeply in debt, with several other troubles on the horizon.
In line with Enlightenment ideas which were sweeping across Europe, the new Louis XVI made attempts to make reforms to religious, foreign and financial policy in France. He signed the 1787 Edict of Versailles (also known as the Edict of Tolerance), which gave non-Catholics civil and legal status in France, as well as the opportunity to practice their faiths.
He also tried to implement more radical financial reforms, including new forms of taxations to try and get France out of debt. These were blocked by the nobles and parlements. Few understood the dire financial situation the Crown was in, and successive ministers struggled to improve the country’s finances.
5. He was notoriously indecisive
Many considered Louis’ greatest weakness to be his shyness and indecision. He struggled to make decisions and lacked the authority or character needed to succeed as an absolute monarch. In a system where everything relied on the strength of the monarch’s personality, Louis’ desire to be liked and listen to public opinion proved not only difficult, but dangerous.
6. His support for the American War of Independence caused financial problems at home
France had lost most of its colonies in North America to the British during the Seven Years’ War: unsurprisingly, when the opportunity came to wreak revenge by supporting the American Revolution, France was only too keen to take it up.
Military assistance was sent to the rebels by France at great cost. Around 1,066 million livres were spent on pursuing this policy, financed entirely by new loans at high interest rather than by increasing taxation in France.
With little material gain from its involvement and a financial crisis brewing, ministers attempted to hide the true state of French finances from the people.
7. He oversaw the first Estates-General in 200 years
The Estates-General was a legislative and consultative assembly which had representatives from the three French estates: it had no power itself, but historically was used as an advisory body by the king. In 1789, Louis summoned the Estates-General for the first time since 1614.
This proved to be something of a mistake. Efforts to force fiscal reform failed miserably. The Third Estate, made up of ordinary people, declared itself a National Assembly and swore that they wouldn’t go home until France had a constitution.
8. He was increasingly seen as a symbol of the tyranny of the Ancien Regime
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lived a life of luxury in the Palace of Versailles: sheltered and isolated, they saw and knew little of what life was like for the millions of ordinary people in France at the time. As discontent grew, Louis did little to placate or understand the grievances people raised.
Marie Antoinette’s frivolous, expensive lifestyle particularly aggrieved people. The Diamond Necklace Affair (1784-5) found her accused of participation in a scheme to defraud jewellers of an extremely expensive diamond necklace. Whilst she was found innocent, the scandal seriously damaged her reputation and that of the royal family.
9. He was tried for high treason
The Palace of Versailles was stormed by an angry mob on 5 October 1789. The royal family were captured and taken to Paris, where they were forced to accept their new roles as constitutional monarchs. They were effectively at the mercy of the revolutionaries as they hashed out how French government would work going forward.
After nearly 2 years of negotiations, Louis and his family attempted to flee Paris for Varennes, in the hope that they would be able to escape France from there and rally enough support to restore the monarchy and quash the revolution.
Their plan failed: they were recaptured and Louis’ plans uncovered. This was enough to put him on trial for high treason, and it quickly became clear that there was no way he would not be found guilty and punished accordingly.
10. His execution marked the end of 1,000 years of continuous French monarchy
King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793, having been found guilty of high treason. He used his last moments to pardon those who signed his death warrant and declare himself innocent of the crimes he was accused of. His death was quick, and onlookers described him as meeting his end bravely.
His wife, Marie Antoinette, was executed nearly 10 months later, on 16 October 1793. Louis’ death marked the end of over 1,000 years of continuous monarchy, and many have argued it was a key moment in the radicalisation of revolutionary violence.