- "Every time I create an appointment, I create a hundred malcontents and one ingrate."
- ―Louis XVI.[src]
Louis XVI of France (1754 – 1793), born Louis-Auguste de France, duc de Berry, was King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, after which he was subsequently King of the French from 1791 to 1792, before his deposition and execution during the French Revolution.
- 1 Biography
- 2 Legacy
- 3 Personality and characteristics
- 4 Gallery
- 5 Appearances
- 6 References
Early life and reign
Born as the third son of Louis, Dauphin of France and the grandson of King Louis XV, Louis-Auguste was never expected to become king. Instead, his parents' attention went to his eldest brother and heir to the throne, the Duc de Bourgogne. In 1761 however, the 9-year-old heir died of tuberculosis. Louis-Auguste's father died of the same disease four years later, making the former Dauphin at the age of 11. His mother, Maria Josepha of Saxony, never recovered from the shock of losing her eldest son and husband, and died of tuberculosis herself in 1767.
Having been largely ignored in his childhood, Louis-Auguste appears to have received many of his characteristic traits from his tutors. They taught him that austerity and aloofness were desirable attributes for a king and showed strong character, instead of encouraging him to be decisive and personable.
In May 1770, the 15-year-old Louis-Auguste married his second cousin once removed, the 14-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia, better known as Marie Antoinette, in an arranged marriage. The celebrations of their wedding ended in tragedy when 132 Parisians were killed following a stampede at a fireworks display at the Place Louis XV. The young Archduchess found her marriage to the shy and ineffectual Louis-Auguste unpleasant and lackluster, as their personalities were complete opposites. While he retired to bed before midnight and got up early in the morning, she enjoyed partying and gambling and slept until the afternoon. As such, it would take eight years before the couple conceived the first of four children, much to the derision of the French people.
- "The king spent his whole life saying each evening that he was mistaken that same morning."
- ―A deputy on the indecisiveness of Louis.[src]
In 1774, Louis XV died, making the twenty-year-old Louis-Auguste King of France. After losing the Seven Years' War, France was facing debt and public discontent with the monarchy. Louis' predecessor had in many ways covered up the nation's problems without solving any of them, while also being considered immoral and debauched, something Louis wished to distance himself from.
He had noble intentions and wished to do good by his subjects. This was exemplified during the rough winter of 1784, where he gave 3 million francs of his personal savings to be distributed among the poor while also ordering that royal trees be chopped down for firewood. Unfortunately for the well-meaning Louis, he had little understanding of governance. His shy personality meant that he was unable to defy various aristocratic factions and navigate the complicated politics of a royal court that seemed incapable of reform, which made his reign a highly agitated one. Unable to control his own court, he was often influenced by others, exemplified when, in September 1789, he asked the royalist writer Antoine de Rivarol, "What should I do?", to which the latter responded, "Act like a king!"
Insecure and indecisive by nature, and possibly clinically depressed, Louis did little to effectively counter the problems that would eventually lead to the revolution, even if he had not caused them himself. He would typically avoid addressing problems directly and instead seek refuge in hobbies and passions such as hunting, locksmithing, carpenting, geography and exploration. Throughout his reign, he would also make several changes to the Palace of Versailles
In 1776, Louis appointed the Swiss banker Jacques Necker as his finance minister. Necker suggested that he use loans to finance support for the American rebels fighting British colonial authorities in the American Revolutionary War. It was hoped that France would make financial gains from the war, although it would soon lead to further debt and Necker's resignation. In 1778, Louis gifted the Luxembourg Palace to his brother, the Comte de Provence.
Financial crisis and Estates-General
- Guest 1: "I thought for sure the plebs would riot this afternoon."
- Guest 2: "You heard the King. New taxes and not a word of concession on the matter of representation."
- ―Two guests at a soirée discussing Louis' initial stance on the debating at the Estates-General, 1789.[src]
By 1789, France was virtually bankrupt. The situation was worsened by a trade treaty, known as the Eden Agreement, between Britain and France, which mainly benefited the former. Britain was far ahead of the French technologically and inundated France with their industrial products, ruining French artisans. In this vein, some of the aforementioned products would be used in eventual revolutionary riots.
The political situation was highly unstable. Food shortages secretly orchestrated by a radical faction of the Templar Order under François-Thomas Germain meant that the starving commoners soon blamed the rich. Several members of the nobility and lower clergy also grew critical of the societal system. Germain wished to topple the monarchy by instigating rebellion through starvation and fear, predicting that this would end the old societal order and bring about a system in which the rising wealthy middle class would take power, allowing the Templars to control the populace through more subtle means. Louis failed to take note of these developments, however.
Called back the year before, Necker advised that Louis summon the Estates-General for the first time since 1614 in order to address the French financial crisis. On 5 May 1789, Louis opened the Estates-General at the Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs in Versailles. His opening speech was considered by many attendants to be deeply uninteresting, and the meeting almost immediately reached an impasse when it was debated whether the estates should vote collectively or individually by deputy on resolutions, as the latter option would give wide influence to the numerous Third Estate representing the commoners of French society. In the midst of these debates, Louis' eldest son, the Dauphin Louis Joseph, died of tuberculosis.
Deputies of the Third Estate soon discussed political reform and founded the National Assembly, declaring that it would oversee the nation's affairs. Although Louis ordered that the Assembly to disband, he was soon forced to give in to them. Meanwhile, the Queen encouraged him towards a conservative policy in regards to the Assembly, and he soon dismissed Necker. This was seen by many as an attempt to supress the Assembly, leading to an uprising in Paris that saw the Bastille being stormed on 14 July. On returning from a hunting trip that day, Louis was said to have asked the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, "Is this a revolt?", to which the latter responded, "No, sir. It's a revolution".
Three days later, Louis visited the newly-formed Paris Commune at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, where the Marquis de Lafayette presented him with a tricolore cockade. Lafayette had added the white color of the monarchy to the cockade in order to represent the King's new role in governance. Much to the joy of the general populace, Louis reappointed Necker on 19 July.
Women's March on Versailles
As bread prices rose and Templars discreetly attempted to incite violent action, the women of Paris marched on the Palace of Versailles on 5 October 1789, intending to demand bread and the acceptance of the newly-drafted constitution from Louis himself. They were joined by several members of Lafayette's National Guard, and the King was forced to receive a group of six women who explained their grievances. Louis then charismatically agreed to open his food stores, although many of the marchers feared that the Queen would make him change his mind.
Several women therefore infiltrated the palace on the morning of 6 October, killing royal guards while searching for the Queen. The chaos soon died down, allowing the National Guard to negotiate with the royal guards. Lafayette then persuaded Louis and the Queen to appear on the palace balcony before the crowd, who received them with a surprising warmth. The King reluctantly accepted the constitution and agreed to take up residence at the Tuileries Palace in Paris with his family, bringing them closer to their subjects.
Maintaining his power
Life at the Tuileries Palace seemed dreary, and Louis felt certain that his reign, along with its rights and privileges, was at an end, himself and his family primarily serving as figureheads. According to a legend, the doctor and penal reformer Joseph-Ignace Guillotin asked Louis for advice on the design of the execution machine known as the guillotine, to which the King suggested an angled blade rather than a crescent-shaped one. At an unknown point, Louis had also acquired a key to a First Civilization temple underneath Saint-Denis, placing it in a hidden iron cabinet at his office in the Tuileries.
As the revolution grew more tense and radical, several moderate revolutionaries such as Maximilien Radix de Sainte-Foix began to fear that the situation would grow out of hand, and began serving as secret advisors for Louis. Among the most prominent of these advisors was the Comte de Mirabeau, who counseled and corresponded with the King on how to ensure that he would never be toppled. Mirabeau had his debts paid off in return, although his primary motivation was to keep the revolution peaceful.
In April 1791 however, Mirabeau died, and Louis ignored his advisors and refused to abdicate. He eventually agreed to an escape attempt, spurred on by the Queen. He and his family secretly fled to supposedly loyal troops in Montmédy to the east, hoping to initiate a counter-revolution. However, the family was recognized and arrested in the town of Varennes and were sent back to Paris, ending the absolutist monarchy.
King of the French
- Revolutionary 1: "Any sign of the tyrant?"
- Revolutionary 2: "Must've buggered off."
- Revolutionary 1: "Bleedin' coward."
- —Two revolutionaries searching for Louis during the 10 August insurrection, 1792.[src]
In early 1792, France became embroiled in a war against the counter-revolutionary monarchies of Austria and Prussia. With revolutionary zeal increasing in Paris and the nation on the brink of defeat, the royal family were viewed as traitors. On 20 June, revolutionaries broke into the Tuileries in an attempt to persuade Louis to pursue policies more in line with the revolution. He was forced to don the red phrygian cap and toast the nation with a glass of wine.
On 6 August 1792, a crowd gathered at the Champ de Mars once more to demand the abolition of the monarchy. Fearing attempts to derail the revolution, radical Jacobins and Cordeliers took refuge at the Hôtel de Ville along with 7,000 troops and took over the Paris Commune. In response, Louis strengthened the defences at the Tuileries from 2,000 to 3,000 men, mainly composed of his Swiss Guard. When the grounds of the Tuileries were invaded on 10 August by 20,000 revolutionaries, the angry crowd sought to kill the royal family, but Louis had seemingly predicted the situation and fled in advance with his family. They took refuge with the Legislative Assembly in the Salle du Manège, where Louis was arrested soon after and stripped of his power, before being imprisoned in the Temple with his family. During the storming of the Tuileries, the young artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte stole the temple key, while copies of the King's correspondence with Mirabeau were found in the iron cabinet and made public by the Templars. On 21 September, France was proclaimed a republic.
- "A king must reign or die!"
- ―Louis Antoine de Saint-Just calling for the King's execution, 1792.[src]
The National Convention's trial of the former king now known as Louis Capet began on 11 December 1792. Louis faced 11 charges, including attempting to prevent the meeting of the Estates-General and liberty by extension, ordering the storage of grain, sugar and coffee, arranging the restoration of the absolutist monarchy with the help of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and King Frederick William II of Prussia and suspending the execution of a decree against non-juring priests. His dealings with Mirabeau were also used as evidence against him, and charges were made against the entire royal family.
He disputed all of these charges, made impassioned pleas and attempted to present valid legal arguments, which were successful in stalling the proceedings, even though he knew that he could do little to prevent a death sentence. Those who testified on Louis' behalf were massacred in two instances, while documents that could have proven his innocence were not passed on to his defenders. As such, the verdict seemed predetermined, especially since the young politician Louis Antoine de Saint-Just held a much applauded speech in favor of sentencing the King to death. Out of the Convention's 721 deputies, 691 voted in favor of a verdict of guilty, while none voted for acquittal. On 15 January 1793, the Convention declared Louis guilty of conspiracy against public freedom.
Over the following two days, deputies debated as to whether he should imprisoned, exiled or executed, and if execution should be immediate or witheld until a politically opportune time. Thanks to the vote of the Templar Louis-Michel le Peletier, the deposed king was sentenced to immediate execution by a vote of 361 to 360. Le Peletier served Germain, who believed that the humiliation and execution of the King would serve as a symbol that the old societal order had ended. Among those who voted for execution was also the King's own cousin, the Duc d'Orléans
- "Heed here this fallen man! This tyrant! This profaner of the brotherhood of man. Wretched and false friend of beleaguered France! Wicked and deceitful! Here you pay through death the debt incurred by your thoughtless reign. [...] What we do here today will ring through the vaults of history! Our children, and our children's children, will look back upon this day as the birth of freedom! May all mankind be so liberated!"
- ―An orator at Louis' execution, 1793.[src]
Louis was scheduled for execution on 21 January. On the morning of his execution, he prayed for salvation inside his cell along with his confessor, Henry Essex Edgeworth. He was then driven to the Place Louis XV, now known as the Place de la Révolution. As he climbed the guillotine scaffold, Louis pleaded with the crowd and said, "People, I die innocent. Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything I have been charged with. My wish and hope is that my blood may consolidate the well-being of the French people". Before he could continue, a drum roll was ordered to silence him. The king was decapitated by the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson moments later, his head being shown to the crowd, who proceeded to sing Ça Ira.
- "The King is... merely a symbol. A symbol can inspire fear, and fear can inspire control - but men inevitably lose their fear of symbols. [...] The Divine Right of Kings is nothing but the reflection of sunlight upon gold. When the Crown and Church are ground to dust, we who control the gold will decide the future."
- ―François-Thomas Germain on the effect of Louis' death, 1793.[src]
Following his execution, Louis was initially buried at the Church of the Madeleine, while several of his books were given to the Collège des Quatre-Nations. The Queen would be guillotined in November 1793, and the House of Bourbon would not rule France until the downfall of Napoleon in 1815, after which Louis' younger brother, the Comte de Provence, became constitutional king. He was succeeded by Louis' other brother, the Comte d'Artois, who was deposed in the July Revolution of 1830.
Despite this brief resurgence in power, the absolutist monarchy and divine right of kings as a concept and societal system was forever brought to an end with the revolution and the execution of Louis. As Germain had intended, the nobility, some of whom had supported the revolution, ultimately fell victim to this radical change, and the rising middle class would gain power.
Personality and characteristics
- "Trying to get Louis to hold to a position was like trying to hold greased billiard balls together."
- ―The Comte d'Artois on his older brother.[src]
Throughout his life, Louis displayed indecisiveness and shyness, and was mild-mannered, most likely having taken these traits from his childhood tutors. Despite his good intentions of helping the French people, his lack of a strong personality meant that he was unable to exert power in the field of politics, of which he had little knowledge. He was also frequently influenced by his close associates and his wife. It is believed that he was clinically depressed, and he often sought refuge from his duties by indulging in hobbies. In 2014, the Abstergo Entertainment researcher Robert Fraser said of Louis, "Very mild mannered (i.e., boring). His speech to the Estates-General almost put me to sleep".