French Revolution: Liberty leading the people

When one thinks of the French Revolution, a number of images come to mind, like “Liberty leading the people” painted in July 1830 by French Artist “Eugene Delacroix.”

The image depicts a bare-chested woman, representing the idea of liberty, carrying a bayonet in one hand and a flag in the other.  She encourages this rebellious crowd forward, on a path towards victory…

The 18th century drew to a close, and France’s involvement in the “American War of Independence (1775-1783)” added to the extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his Queen; Marie Antoinette.  Yet he wasn’t totally to blame for the financial situation the country found itself in, for he inherited a debt left by King Louis XV.  The combination was pushing the country ever closer to bankruptcy.

The French Revolution started in 1789 and ended in 1799 with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, as France’s saviour and he proclaimed himself as Emperor of France in 1804.

French citizens redesigned the political landscape of their country, and some 17,000 people were known to have been executed, as this reign of terror swept across France.

France faced huge debts, and taxation of its people could not plug the hole in its economy.  New reforms put forward, were instantly blocked by the clergy and nobility, eager to hang on to their tax exemptions.

Poverty existed within the peasantry groups, who themselves, depended on good harvests for basic subsistence.  In 1787 and 1788 harvests had been poor, prices rose and fear of large scale famine was on the cards.

Even so, the peasants of the land were expected to pay feudal dues (The legal and social system in which people were given land and protection by a lord, in return for which they worked and fought for him) and obligations to the aristocracy.

King Louis XVI stepped in and called upon the Estates General (A medieval representative that had the power to deal with a financial crisis, consisting of; clergy – nobility – commoners) allowing the people to list their grievances.  The Estates General met in 1789, and claimed frustration and obstruction by the clergy and aristocrats.  This led to the formation of the National Assembly (The National Assembly claimed to legitimately represent the French population) and the drawing up of a constitution which limited Monarchy intervention.

In 1789, the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille, whilst peasants and farmers attacked manors and estates belonging to their landlords, until they be freed from oppressive contracts.

In 1790 the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” (The document granted due process in judicial matters and established sovereignty amongst the French citizens.  It made it clear, every person was seen as equal) was written with the collaboration of Maximilien de Robespierre, this was the foundation to the French Constitution.

The National Assembly may have taken the first steps towards creating a New France through the Constitution, yet rifts existed between radical and more moderate members.

This was to come to a head in 1791-92 as Louis XVI attempted an escape from Paris.

Louis, anxiously felt for the safety of his family, as they were nothing more than prisoners in Tuileries Palace, and believed fleeing was their only option.

On the nights of 20th and 21st June 1791, the royal party was arrested at Varennes on route to the border.  This attempt of escape compromised his position and that of the monarchy.

They returned to Paris, as prisoners, they were seen as enemies of the Revolution… Which left the question, how long would they keep Louis and Marie Antoinette alive?

This would cause the assembly to become divided. 

The moderate Girondins, (Girondins were moderates in the National Convention who controlled the legislative assembly) stood up to be counted, and voted that France should retain a constitutional monarchy.  Whilst on the other hand were the Jacobins (Jacobins were a radical wing of representatives in the National Convention, led by Robespierre calling for democratic solutions to France’s issues) with Robespierre as their president, who wanted King Louis XVI, gone forever, he even called for his execution.

Neighbouring countries, dreaded the thought of France’s revolutionary tactics would spread to other lands.  They stepped in by issuing the “Declaration of Pillnitz,” calling that the French return Louis XVI, to his rightful place, on the throne.

It was seen as a declaration of hostile intent and the Girondin’s declared war on Austria and Prussia.

In January 1793, the National Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a Republic.  Louis was tried for treason and executed.

France’s was with Austria and Prussia suffered as foreign armies entered deeper and deeper into France.

The Jaconin’s overthrew the Girondin’s and took control, conscripting people to the French Army.  It seemed France’s fortunes were ever changing.

Robespierre paranoia led to a reign of terror between 1793-1794, where some 17,000 counter revolutionaries were executed at the guillotine.

With foreign armies being pushed back across French borders.  It wasn’t long before the Revolutionary Government questioned Robespierre true motives… On the 27th July 1794, he was arrested and executed on the 28th at the guillotine.

Following the removal of Robespierre a period of governmental restructuring took place, leading up to a new Constitution of 1795.

The Committee of Public Safety’s conscription drive had enlarged their armies, as they defended France against invasion by Prussia and Austria.

A young Napoleon Bonaparte trail blazed his armies through Italy and Egypt, winning considerable fame for himself and wealth as he tore through Europe.

With political upheaval in France, Napoleon returned to Paris in 1799, putting down a coup against the Directory, and naming himself “First Consul” leader of France.  The Revolution was over, and France entered a fifteen-year period of military rule.

In May of 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte received the title: Emperor of France

French Revolution: Maximilien de Robespierre

Maximilien de Robespierre was born on the 6th May 1758, in Arras, France.  His mother died in 1764, and his distraught father just wandered off, leaving him to be raised by his grandparent, along with his brothers and sisters.  He learnt at an early age, what it meant to be poor, when attending school as a charity boy.  These early years, proved to be grounding for his life in later years.

Robespierre won a scholarship to the Louis le Grand College in Paris when he was eleven, and in 1775 was selected to deliver his address in Latin, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette visited the school.

Having graduated with a law degree, Robespierre practised law in Arras, and his sister Charlotte kept house for him.  He gained a reputation, for representing poor clients against the rich, in his eyes justice was available for all.

It wasn’t long before he took on a public role, where he could express his views; calling for political change in the French Monarchy.  He was elected to the Estates General of the French Legislature in 1788, aged 30.

He became the people’s voice, attacking the French Monarchy and calling for democratic reforms, and opposed the death penalty and slavery.

To promote his agenda, he left government and in April of 1789 was elected to the post of President of the Jacobin political faction.  In 1790 assisted in the creation of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen;” this was the foundation to the French Constitution.

In August of 1792, the people of Paris rose up against King Louis XVI, and Robespierre became head of the Paris delegation of the National Convention.

With his new found post, Robespierre encouraged the Parisians to rise up against the aristocracy, whilst he called for the execution of the King of France.

On the 27th July 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, with virtual dictorial control over the government.

The Revolutionary government was responsible for the Reign of Terror, which would see some 300,000 enemies of the revolution arrested, and more than 17,000 executed by guillotine.  Political opponents to Robespierre found themselves sent to the guillotine.

Robespierre had the power over life and death, as he continued his reign of terror.  It wasn’t long before the Revolutionary government questioned his motives…  A coalition was formed in 1794, by those revolutionaries who once believed in him, who now question his moves, and those of his immediate followers.

On the 27th July 1794, Robespierre and his followers were arrested, he escaped, and the National Convention declared him an outlaw.  He was re-captured at the “Hotel de Ville” in Paris.

On the 28th July 1794, Maximilien de Robespierre a leading voice of the French Revolution, and instigator of the Reign of Terror was executed by guillotine.

French Revolution: Queen Marie Antoinette of France

Marie Antoinette was born a princess to Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria and Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor on the 2nd November 1755 in Vienna, Austria.  It was Maria Theresa’s aim to position her children in places of power through marriage, much like Queen Victoria had done through her children.

On the 16th May 1770, Louis-Auguste (16) the crown prince of France, marries Marie Antoinette (15) in a royal marriage, cementing an alliance between Austria and France.

In 1774, Louis XV died and Louis-Auguste ascended to the French throne as King Louis XVI (20) with his wife Marie Antoinette becoming Queen of France (19).

Some seven years had passed since their marriage, and no off-spring had been born continuing the family line.  Emperor Joseph of Austria, the Queen’s brother had to step in and offer advice.  His intervention saw the birth of Marie Therese Charlotte, less than a year later.

Marie became bored with the court rituals of being a Queen, and constantly being on display.  She sought escape from this life, surrounding herself with questionable friends like; Yolande de Polignac and Therese de Lamballe.  Often lavishing them with expensive gifts and creating positions for them within her household.

It was a life of sheer pleasure; Masked Balls, Gambling, the Theatre, yet she was supposed to be a French Queen, present in Court and part of the French nobility … but she was often absent.

This young Queen, with blonde hair and astounding beauty, set fashion trends across France.  She enjoyed showing off her beauty and style, and spent outrageous amounts on her clothing.

Some envied, other’s hated Marie Antoinette for her contempt of handed down traditions of court etiquette, often interceding on Austrian causes. 

Fabricated stories circulated, accusing her of affairs and sexual acts with members of the court … thus muddying her name across Paris.  One act grabbed the nation’s attention: The Diamond Necklace Affair, which would question her moral beliefs.  For it was, one Madame Lamotte, who sought a position in court.  The eligible Prince de Rohan; Cardinal of France was excluded from the Queen’s selected group of loyal friends. 

A plot was orchestrated, where Lamotte posed as the Lesbian lover of Marie Antoinette, and she convinced Rohan that the Queen wanted the necklace made by Boehmer for Louis XV’s lover; Madame du Barry.  Rohan obtained the diamond necklace from Boehmer, and then passed it on to Lamotte.  The charade was exposed when Boehmer asked the Queen for payment.

Both King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were outraged at the charade.  Prince de Rohan was arrested, and the trial saw the Monarchy paraded before the nation.

In the late 1780’s France had a series of poor harvests, and those most affected were the country’s poor, peasants’ starved.

France a country with huge debts, found itself unable to repay those inherited from Louis XV.

Tragedy would strike at the heart of the French Monarchy. For it was in 1789; “The Dauphin” son of Louis and Marie died in June from a crippling and agonizing disease.

Louis called upon the Estates in May 1789, a way of gaining support from the common people, to force through much needed reforms.

The Queen wanted to preserve the right of the Monarchy, and opposed any reforms which would give the common people, more say in how France was ruled. 

In July 1789 the Bastille was seized by the people.  The King could see a revolution was coming and desired not to provoke the situation.  So on the 15th July, military troops concentrated around Paris were dispersed.

In October of 1789, tales spread through the down trodden Paris slums, of banquets at Versailles Palace whilst their loyal subjects starved.

On the 4th October Parisians demanded bread from the King, and he met with some to hear their grievances.  A number of women gained entrance to the palace, and ripped the Queen’s bed to shreds, as she escaped half-naked.

Situations forced upon them, they moved to Tuileries Palace in Paris, and they would come under the close scrutiny of Parisians, making them vulnerable to possible attack.

It became obvious as to who ruled France; Marie Antoinette … For she sought out assistance from abroad, to step in and restore royal authority in France.

In July of 1792, Prussian armies invaded France, and the people of Paris were warned, if any harm came to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the invading armies would exact revenge upon them.

In August 1792, Tuileries palace was attacked by the people, and some 900 Swiss guards who protected the monarchy lost their lives.

The monarchy was abolished in 1792, which led to the imprisonment of hundreds of aristocrats, of which many lost their lives in prison.  One of these was Madame Lamballe who had returned to Paris to aid Marie Antoinette, and was hacked to death for failing to swear an oath against the Queen.

King Louis XVI and his Queen; Marie Antoinette were held at the Temple Fortress to await their fate.  In December of 1792, Louis was brought before the National Convention on the charge of treason and found guilty.  On the 21st January 1793, he was executed on the guillotine.

Over the next two years, hundreds of aristocrats and people of France would face tribunals and be executed on the guillotine.  In September of 1793, Marie Antoinette was moved to the Conciergerie Prison, where she was under constant guard in solitary confinement.

On the 14th October, she faced the Revolutionary Tribunal, and found guilty and executed by guillotine on the 16th October.

The bodily remains of Marie Antoinette were buried in an unmarked grave, and so ended the life of the Queen of France, the former Princess of Austria aged 38.

French Revolution: King Louis XVI of France

Louis Auguste de France, was born on the 23rd August 1754 at the Palace of Versailles, to parents, Louis, Dauphin of France and Marie – Josephe of Saxony, daughter of Frederick Augustus II and King of Poland.

Louis life was to fall apart, as his older brother and heir apparent, Louis duc de Bourgogne, died in 1761.  This was followed up on the 20th December 1765, with the death of his father, and his mother on the 13th March 1767.

In May 1770 Louis Auguste de France, took the fourteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette) as his bride, in an arranged marriage.  She being the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Teresa.

The couple were blessed with four children; Marie-Therese, Louis-Joseph, Louis-Charles and Sophie Beatrix, of which only Marie-Therese lived beyond childhood.

On the 10th May 1774, Louis Auguste became Louis XVI of France, with the death of his grandfather; Louis XV.

Louis was never expected to be king of France, he lacked self confidence and strength of character to rule a country.

When Louis came to the throne, the royal coffers were empty, the country was in debt, and his citizens showed little respect towards the monarchy.

In the early part of his reign, he supported American colonies desire for Independence, against France’s enemy; Great Britain.  Of course was has to be paid for, which meant taking out international loans.  As much as he was advised by his finance minister’s to raise or impose taxes upon his citizens, it was never passed.  Nobility and his Queen had forced him to dismiss such an idea.

By June of 1789, the Third Estate declared itself as the National Assembly, and aligned itself with the Bourgeoisie, and proposed to set out a new constitution.

Louis XVI resisted such changes, declaring the Assembly was void, and called out the army to restore order.  Public dissension grew, and a national guard was created to resist the use of the army against its people.

In July of 1789, Louis XVI had no choice, and had to acknowledge the National Assembly’s authority.

On the 14th July 1789, riots broke out across Paris, and the Bastille Prison was attacked in a show of defiance, towards the King.

Louis believed the Revolution would burn itself out.  Publicly he stood up, promising reforms he had no intention in keeping, and accepting his post as the constitutional monarch.  He resisted changes, on bad advice from hard line nobles and his Queen; Marie Antoinette.

On the 6th October 1789, Louis and his family were removed by force from Versailles Palace to Tuileries Palace in Paris.

Louis and his family attempted to escape from Paris for the eastern frontier in the June of 1791, under the cover of darkness, but the alarm was raised.  They were captured at Varennes and brought back to Paris as prisoners.

War broke out with Austria in the April of 1792, and Louis hoped for defeat, paving the way for the restoration of his authority.

Suspicions of treason, against France led to the suspension of the King’s powers, and on the 21st September 1792, Louis and his family were charged with treason.

King Louis XVI was brought to trial on charges of conspiracy with foreign powers in the January of 1793.  He was found guilty by the National Assembly and sentenced to death.

On the 21st January 1793, King Louis XVI walked to the guillotine, and was executed in the Palace de la Revolution in Paris.

On the 13th July 1793, Louis-Charles was taken from his mother, and imprisoned, where he is believed to have died.

Some nine months later, Queen Marie Antoinette was convicted of treason by a tribunal, and executed by guillotine on the 16th October 1793.

Marie-Therese was released from prison in December of 1795, into the custody of her mother’s family in Austria.

French Revolution: The Bastille

The Bastille was built between 1370-1383, standing some 100 feet in height and surrounded by an 80 foot wide moat.  At the time of its construction, its purpose was to serve as part of the walled defences of Paris, France.

In the 17th century it became a prison to house political agitators, high ranking officials and spies.  Most never saw the inside of a court; they would be imprisoned by order of the King.

With food shortages in 1789, and resentment by the people towards King Louis XVI, France was on track, heading towards a revolution.

In June, Louis approved the foundation of the National Assembly, and the call of the commoners, for a constitution.  Louis gave false hopes to his people, letting them believe he was prepared to compromise.  Then he dismissed Jacques Necker, the minister who called for reforms, and surrounded Paris with his troops.  In response, mobs rioted in Paris.

On the 7th July thirty-two Swiss mercenary soldiers arrived at the Bastille at the request of Bernard-Jordan de Launay, the military governor of the prison.  Then on the 12th July 250 barrels of gunpowder were delivered to the prison.

On the 13th July, revolutionaries armed with muskets stormed the Bastille’s towers.  On the 14th July, upwards of a thousand revolutionaries gathered around the Bastille.

Launay received two delegations that day, requesting he surrender the fortress and hand over the munitions.  Both requests were denied, yet he promised he would not fire upon the crowd.

Some three-hundred revolutionaries attempted to lower the drawbridge, and one hundred of these rioters were cut down in a hail of fire.  By mid-afternoon, deserters from the French army joined the rioters by removing five cannons and aiming them in the Bastille’s direction.

Launay and his men laid down their arms and were duly arrested.  They were taken to the “Hotel de Ville” the town hall.  Launay was dragged away and murdered by these revolutionaries, for they wanted justice.

The citizens of Paris, half expected a counterattack from the military as they built barricades and armed themselves.

The King could see a revolution was coming, and any military action against the Parisian people would only enhance the situation.  So on the 15th July 1789, military troops concentrated around Paris were withdrawn.

The capture of the Bastille spread across France like wild-fire, which led to minor uprisings in many towns and cities.

The new Revolutionary Government had the Bastille torn down, stone by stone, and the last stone was presented to the National Assembly on the 6th February 1790.

In 1792, the monarchy was abolished, and King Louis XVI of France, along with his wife; Queen Marie-Antoinette were sent to the guillotine on the charge of treason.  King Louis died on the 21st January 1793 and Queen Marie-Antoinette on the 16th October.

The storming of the Bastille, on the 14th July 1789 is remembered each year in France.  These events led to the French Revolution, where many nobles lost their head at the guillotine,

French Revolution: The Cause…

During the 18th century, French Monarchs had unlimited power, and as such declared themselves as the “Representative of God,” to the people.  They were engaged in a life of luxury and extravagance at the royal court of Versailles.

Louis XIV (1643-1715) of the Bourbon Dynasty, a most powerful and efficient monarch, who participated in many wars.  His successor Louis XV (1715-1774) took France to war against England, which brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

Louis XVI (1774-1793), lived a life of luxury and extravagance, when the country’s finance was reaching near bottom.  He may have been King, but his Queen; Marie Antoinette, played a major part in the affairs of the state.

The social condition of 18th century France, the French Society, consisted of three classes:  Clergy – Nobles – Common People.

The Clergy was of the First Estate, subdivided into two groups; higher and lower clergy.  The higher clergy, were held responsible for churches, monasteries and educational institutions, and paid no taxes to the monarchy.

The common people disliked the higher clergy, who lived a scandalous luxurious lifestyle, similar to the monarchy.  Whilst the lower clergy, were appointed to serve the people.

Nobility was the Second Estate of French Society, exempt from paying taxes to the monarchy.  Nobility consisted of two groups; count nobles and provincial nobles.

Court nobles, lived a life of luxury, and paid no interest, in the problems of its people, leaving provincial nobles, to listen to the problems of its citizen’s and resolve them.

France’s Third Estate, consisted of the country’s common people, its manual workers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and businessmen, and they paid taxes, keeping France afloat.

The lower clergies, provincial nobles and the ranks of the common people, joined together with the Bourgeoisie… so the French Revolution was born.

France’s economic condition was another cause for the outbreak of the “French Revolution.”  Louis XVI attempted to resolve the situation…

  • In 1774, Turgot was appointed, as France’s Finance Minister.
  • In 1776, Necker was appointed, as France’s Finance Minister.
  • In 1783, Callone was appointed, as France’s Finance Minister.

The finance ministers had their own ideas of sorting the country’s debt problem, from imposing taxes on all citizens of France, no matter what status they held to borrowing money to offset the debt.

For hundred’s of years, the members of France’s higher classes, had never paid taxes, and any suggestion was dismissed.

It was inevitable by 1789, the Monarchy had to go, and a Revolution would take place…  The French Revolution.