On the 7th May 1794, just a few weeks before the Law of 22nd Prairial that created the Great Terror, Maximilien Robespierre formally announced the creation of the Cult of the Supreme Being in a meeting of the National Convention.

The Cult had been devised almost exclusively by Robespierre, and followed a period of dramatic de-Christianisation that had seen the French Church stripped of its authority.  The Republic had fought hard to remove the influence of the Church from politics, with even the calendar being changed to remove all religious connotations.

What made the Cult of the Supreme Being unique as the state religion was that it recognised that God had created the universe, but that he did not interfere or intervene in its operation.  Therefore, humans were responsible for their own actions and destinies.  In the words of Robespierre, the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul were, “constant reminders” of the virtuous way people should live their lives in the Republic.

A month later, on the 20th Prairial (otherwise known as the 8th June 1794), Robespierre ordered a national celebration known as the Festival of the Supreme Being.  The most significant celebrations were in Paris, where a huge man-made papier-mâché mountain was built on the Champs de Mars.  This event is seen by many as marking the pinnacle of Robespierre’s influence.  However, within just 8 weeks the Thermidorian Reaction had removed him from power and executed him.

It is estimated that up to a quarter of a million different units of measurement were in use throughout France at eve of the Revolution in 1789, and that these differed not only from trade to trade but also from town to town. The difficulties in trade, science and taxation that arose from these inconsistent systems prompted the French Academy of Sciences to investigate the reform of weights and measurements, although scientists across both Europe and America had discussed the advantages of a universal system of measurement for over a century.

Having decided that units in the new decimal system should be based on the natural world, the Academy defined the metre as one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator. However, since this distance had never been calculated, the astronomers Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain led an expedition to measure the length of the meridian arc between Dunkirk and Barcelona as a basis for it. They completed their survey in 1798 and presented their findings the following year, having created both a reference metre and kilogram from platinum. The latter was calculated as the mass of a cube of water at 4°C, where each side of the cube measured 0.1 metres. This volume was also defined as a litre.

Although France was the first country to adopt the new metric system, it was abolished by Napoleon in 1812. By the time it was reinstated in 1840, however, numerous other countries had begun to adopt the system and its universal units soon spread to become the dominant form of measurement around the world.

At 12.15pm on the afternoon of the 16th October 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine in the Place de la Revolution in Paris. Found guilty of treason earlier that morning, she was transported to her death in an open cart and later buried in an unmarked grave.

Following the execution of her husband, the former King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette had continued to be held prisoner in the Temple along with her children. Following the creation of the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror, calls for her trial grew louder and this become the National Convention’s preferred policy following the fall of the Girondins at the end of May.

After her son was sent to live with a Jacobin cobbler as a form of revolutionary re-education, Marie Antoinette was moved to an isolated cell in the Conciergerie from which she plotted a failed escape attempt known as “The Carnation Plot”. It’s argued by some that it was this that convinced the CPS to bring her to trial in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal on the 14th October.

Although the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, Marie Antoinette had expected a sentence of life imprisonment or exile. Despite this she showed courage throughout the remaining hours of her life including the verbal abuse she suffered on the hour-long journey to the guillotine. On climbing the steps to the scaffold she accidentally stepped on the foot of the executioner, reacting by saying, “Pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it”.

These were the last words she said before the blade fell.

The Reign of Terror began in France when Bertrand Barère, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, made a speech in favour of it that ended with the exclamation, “Let’s make terror the order of the day!”

Although there is debate amongst historians regarding the exact date that the Reign of Terror began, Barère made his speech at a time that Paris Commune was agitating for a more proactive approach against enemies of the revolution. Less than two weeks later the National Convention passed the Law of Suspects. This led to the arrest of both declared and suspected opponents of the government. This was one of the key causes of the more than 16,000 executions that took place during the Terror.

The following February Robespierre himself justified the government’s policy as ‘nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice’. While some historians disagree with Robespierre’s argument that the Terror was necessary to combat counter-revolutionary elements in French society, there can be little doubt that France’s fortunes improved during its time.

However, the Terror had also begun to face opposition. By the end of 1793 two factions – one calling for an escalation, the other for moderation – had emerged. Although the leaders of both groups were executed, Robespierre’s dominance of the Committee of Public Safety was now seen as a threat to the National Convention itself.

In the session on 27 July 1794, members of the Convention turned against Robespierre and his allies. Shouts of “Down with the tyrant! Arrest him!” were heard in the chamber. Robespierre and 21 followers were arrested, and later executed, in what became known as the Thermidorian Reaction.

On the 10th August 1792, French revolutionary troops stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Referred to by some historians as ‘the Second Revolution’ the events of the 10th August suspended the monarchy under King Louis XVI.

The royal family had lived in the Tuileries since the October Days of 1789 saw them brought back to Paris from Versailles. Louis and his family were virtually imprisoned, as proved when crowds barred them from moving to their summer residence in April 1791. This may have influenced Louis to carry out the failed Flight to Varennes two months later, after which the family were more officially held under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace.

The relationship between the royal family and the people of Paris continued to decline throughout 1792. The king did himself no favours by vetoing a range of decrees passed by the Legislative Assembly, but the situation grew worse with the threat of invasion from foreign armies. By the time of the Brunswick Manifesto on 1st August that lent foreign support to the royal family, the crowds of Paris held Louis and the concept of monarchy in absolute contempt.

On the morning of the 10th August, crowds massed outside the Tuileries. With Louis opting to take shelter in the Legislative Assembly building, his Swiss Guard who were left to defend the palace were eventually overrun after they ran out of ammunition. Approximately 800 people on the king’s side were killed, and Paris was put in the hands of the revolutionaries while the royal family were sent to the Temple prison.

On the 30th July 1792, a group of volunteer soldiers from the city of Marseille were the first to introduce and sing “La Marseillaise” in Paris. Written by the French army officer Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle and originally called “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” or “War Song for the Army of the Rhine”, it was designed to rally soldiers in Strasbourg during the French Revolutionary Wars. However, the song was soon adopted as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille after one of the volunteers sang it at a patriotic gathering in the city. The song became the official French National Anthem three years later, on the 14th July 1795.

The song was written when the French revolutionary army was facing significant military difficulties in the War of the First Coalition. Facing the combined forces of both Austria and Prussia, the disorganised and numerically inferior French army had suffered a number of defeats in the first weeks of the war. This helps to explain the militaristic lyrics of the song, since it was written at a time when France was facing the very real threat of invasion and defeat.

The song’s close ties with the French Revolution meant that it often suffered at the hands of those who were against the revolution. For example, when Louis XVIII – the deposed Louis XVI’s brother – was declared king of France after the defeat of Napoleon, he banned La Marseillaise outright. The song was restored to its position as the French national anthem in 1879.

On the 13th July 1793, the radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.

Marat, the second of nine children, had left home at sixteen in search of opportunities to pursue his interest in medicine. Having decided to move to northern England in 1770, he settled in Newcastle upon Tyne where he gained a reputation as a highly effective doctor, but also developed an increasing suspicion of the established political order.

Marat moved back to France six years later where his medical skills earned him the patronage of various members of the aristocracy. He used the wealth he earned from this position to establish a scientific laboratory where he engaged in research regarding fire, heat, electricity and light. Although he was visited by the American polymath Benjamin Franklin, the French Academy of Sciences was sceptical of his conclusions, and relations between Marat and the powerful Academy quickly broke down.

Despite Marat’s wealth and privilege, he maintained his passion for social justice throughout the years preceding the French Revolution. As Louis XVI struggled to secure his rule in the late 1780s, Marat put his scientific and medical career on hold, and instead dedicated his time to writing arguments in favour of political, economic and social reform. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, he established his own radical newspaper which soon adopted the name L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”).

Marat’s writings were vicious in their attacks on all those he perceived as being enemies of the people, by whom he meant the lower classes of the Third Estate. His newspaper often called for violence against the upper class and members of the government, even resulting in him fleeing to London for a few months in early 1790. On his return to Paris he continued his fierce criticism of the government, and even began to target less radical revolutionaries with his call for their execution as enemies of the people. He continued to have to go into hiding on occasion, and began to utilise Paris’ extensive sewer network, where it is believed he developed the debilitating skin condition that later saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.

Despite his reputation as a radical agitator, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 where he was a passionate supporter of the decision to declare France a Republic. He soon turned his anger on the members of the Girondin component of the National Convention who opposed the execution of the King. Within six months these moderates had been ousted from the government, and Marat turned to working from home due to his worsening skin condition.

On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to a young woman from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. The 24-year old Charlotte Corday claimed to have information about Girondin deputies who had escaped Paris, and presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors. Corday, however, was actually a Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the Norman Girondins, she pulled out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest, severing a major artery and causing him to die almost immediately of massive blood loss.

Corday was placed on trial and was guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, but described Marat as a ‘monster’. She explained that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’, but the assassination contributed to the growing fear of counter-revolution that fuelled the subsequent Terror – in which thousands of moderate and conservative Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Marat was virtually deified by the revolutionaries. At his funeral, the Marquis de Sade – the infamous sexual predator who had joined with the most radical elements of the National Convention after being freed from prison – gave the eulogy. Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, were later bought by the Musée Grévin in Paris and are now on display as part of a waxwork scene depicting the assassination.

Interestingly, Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum had also offered to buy the bathtub – but their letter got lost in the post and arrived after a sale had already been agreed. Madame Tussaud’s in London does, however, own the guillotine blade that beheaded the former queen Marie Antoinette on October 16th 1793. The founder of the museum, Marie Tussaud, was a famed wax sculptor before the revolution, and had even had her hair cut in preparation for execution during the Terror due to her connections to the aristocracy. However, it was decided that her talents could better serve the Revolution, and so she was spared in order to create death masks of the guillotine’s many famous victims.

The guillotine is, of course, synonymous with the worst violence of the French Revolution, but the machine was actually created to represent equality. In France prior to 1789, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility.  Commoners were usually subjected to longer and more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, and to bring about equality in death as well as life, the new revolutionary National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.

It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome way to carry out the death sentence.  Mary Queen of Scots, who I mentioned earlier as someone who visited the town of Buxton where we are recording this episode of HistoryPod, was only beheaded after three blows of the executioner’s axe. The Yorkshire town of Halifax had tried to improve the precision of beheadings with the creation of the Halifax Gibbet – a guillotine-like machine in which an axe head was fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two tall uprights – a whole two centuries before the French invention. However, this device didn’t make it out of Yorkshire. In the face of continued manual beheadings therefore, on 10th October 1789 French physician Joseph Guillotin argued that the new government of France should ensure that every execution was both swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.

Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine.  Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antoine Louis who should be credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries Guillotin’s name.

The first execution using the device was conducted on 25th April 1792.  Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, had the dubious honour of being the guillotine’s first victim. Contemporary accounts reveal that the execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’.  Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency…although this was, of course, the whole point.

On the 26th February 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte escaped exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and sailed to the French mainland. After landing at the coastal town of Golfe-Juan on the first of March, he led his supporters to Paris where he began a period of government known as the Hundred Days.

On the 11th April 1814 Napoleon had agreed to the Treaty of Fontainebleau, in which he abdicated the throne following his defeat in the War of the Sixth Coalition. The treaty ended his rule of France but allowed him to keep his title as emperor. He was granted sovereignty of the island of Elba and, following a failed suicide attempt, arrived on the island on the 30th May.

Throughout the nine months and 21 days that he remained on Elba, Napoleon observed with interest the unfolding situation in France under the restored Bourbon king. Meanwhile he implemented a series of social and economic reforms on the island. However, his confidence in the likelihood of a popular revolt in his favour led to him leaving the island while the Great Powers were distracted by internal arguments at the Congress of Vienna. The British navy ships that were supposed to ensure he was unable to escape his exile were not present when, on the 26th February, Napoleon headed for the French mainland on board the brig Inconstant accompanied by almost a thousand troops.

Napoleon’s arrival in France on the 1st March was greeted with enthusiasm, and he quickly secured a small army with whom he marched to Paris. His arrival on 20th March led Louis XVIII to flee the city.

On the 21st January 1793, former French King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Revolution in Paris. The blade fell at 10.22am, after which it’s reported that a number of members of the public rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood. His body was later buried and covered with quicklime.

Louis’ trial began on the 11th December 1792, and he was found guilty of treason by 693 of the National Convention’s 721 deputies on the 15th January. However, a much narrower majority of 387 to 334 voted for the death sentence on the 18th. His death warrant was finalised on the 20th January, and his execution was scheduled for the next day. A number of factors had contributed to him being found guilty, of which the Flight to Varennes and the events of the 10th August were the most significant.

On the morning of his execution, Louis woke at 5am after which he made his confession and attended mass. Accompanied by the Irish-born priest Father Henry Essex Edgeworth, his carriage left the Temple prison at around 9am. 80,000 armed men lined the route to the Place de la Revolution, where a crowd of around 100,000 people had assembled to see the execution.

Louis calmly took off his coat at the foot of the scaffold and, as he stood next to the guillotine, attempted to address the crowd. However, his speech was drowned out by the beating of the soldiers’ drums before he was seized, his hands quickly tied, and he was placed under the blade. Marie Antoinette was executed eight months later.

On the 2nd December 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of the French at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. His coronation was attended by Pope Pius VII, but significantly he did not place the crown on the new Emperor’s head.

Napoleon had risen to prominence during the French Revolution, during which he led a number of successful campaigns in the Revolutionary Wars. He returned to France in 1799, where the coup of 18 Brumaire resulted in him becoming First Consul. Having secured the Senate’s agreement that he could rule by decree, Napoleon then began extending his political control.

In January 1804 the secret police exposed a plot supported by the previous Bourbon royal family to assassinate Napoleon. He used this as an excuse to reinstate hereditary leadership under his own family, as a way to avoid a return of the Bourbons. This was supported by a constitutional referendum in November that year, in which over 99% of voters cast their ballots in favour. Notably 52% of the eligible population abstained.

The Coronation itself was a lavish affair that referenced various elements of Carolingian tradition, the ancien regime, and the French Revolution. Although Napoleon crowning himself is sometimes presented as an unplanned move by the new Emperor, there is evidence that it was agreed in advance. However, this still didn’t please everyone. The composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who had originally dedicated his 3rd Symphony to Napoleon, reportedly exclaimed, ” Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”