King Louis XVI of France and his family were caught attempting to escape Paris during the Flight to Varennes.
By the summer of 1791 the royal family had been living in the Tuileries in the heart of Paris for almost two years. They had been forced to move there from the lavish Palace of Versailles after the October Days of 1789, and felt as if they were prisoners as a result of their rapidly declining power.
The startling pace of change was viewed with alarm by the other monarchies of Europe, and this led to fear in France that the king himself was conspiring with foreign powers to topple the fledgling revolutionary government. Yet, convinced that he would find support for his rule in the countryside, on the night of the 20-21 June 1791 the king reinforced the people’s lack of trust in him.
In what became known as the Flight to Varennes, Louis and the rest of the immediate royal family fled the Tuileries under cover of darkness. The plan had been largely formulated by the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette’s favourite who was also rumoured to be her lover.
Disguised to avoid being noticed by the palace guards, the family travelled in a large heavy coach pulled by six horses. Their slow progress meant the journey to the eastern frontier took considerably longer than had been anticipated and soon word of their escape had spread. In Sainte-Menehould they were recognised by the local postmaster who checked the king’s likeness against an assignat.
While the royal party continued their slow progress the postmaster rode ahead to the next town, Varennes, which lay just 30 miles from the Austrian border. Here the escapees were arrested and returned to Paris, the royal reputation in tatters.