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.
The morning of the 14th July 1789 saw the beginning of the French Revolution when Parisian revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, a large fortress, prison and ammunition store that symbolised everything that was wrong with the monarchy. Despite having earlier legalised the National Assembly following the Tennis Court Oath, King Louis XVI had ordered royal troops to surround Paris and had dismissed his popular finance minister, Jacques Necker. These actions led the Parisian crowd to believe that Louis was preparing to overthrow the Assembly.
Although the Bastille had been a symbol of tyranny for its imprisonment of people without trial, when it was stormed it only contained seven prisoners. One was a deranged Irishman who believed himself to be God and Julius Caesar. In addition there was another so-called ‘lunatic’, four forgers, and the Comte de Solages – an aristocrat who had been imprisoned at the request of his own family for committing incest.
The fortress was not attacked in order to free these prisoners. The mob was much more interested in seizing gunpowder from the Bastille’s stores to use in the 28,000 muskets they had taken earlier that day from the Hôtel des Invalides. The fortress was guarded by 82 French soldiers and a further 32 Swiss mercenaries when the mob arrived. Despite initial attempts to calm the crowd the Bastille’s governor, Marquis Bernard-Rene de Launay, ordered the guards to open fire when around 300 rioters broke into the first courtyard. When a group of deserters from the French army joined the mob, de Launay surrendered. He was later beheaded by the crowd.
The radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.
Marat was a well-respected doctor who, despite his wealth and privilege, had a passion for social justice. In the late 1780s he put his career on hold and dedicated his time to writing in favour of political, economic and social reform in his own radical newspaper. This soon adopted the name L’Ami du Peuple (“The People’s Friend”).
Marat’s writings often called for violence against the upper class, members of the government, and enemies of the people. As a result he occasionally had to hide in Paris’ extensive sewer network, where he may have developed the skin condition that saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.
On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to the 24-year old Charlotte Corday from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. Corday presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors, but she was actually a moderate Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the traitors, 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 guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, and said that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’. However, the assassination raised fears of counter-revolution and contributed to the subsequent Terror in which thousands of Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.
Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, are now on display at the Musée Grévin waxworks in Paris.
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.
On the 20th June 1789 at Versailles in France, the National Assembly swore the Tennis Court Oath in which they vowed not to separate until a written constitution had been established for the country.
Faced with enormous financial difficulties, Louis XVI had called a meeting of the Estates General that first convened in early May. This involved representatives of the three Estates – the clergy, the nobility and the non-privileged common people known as the Third Estate – meeting with the king at Versailles in an attempt to solve the economic crisis. However, the allocation of votes was unfair so the representatives of the Third Estate separated themselves from the main group and met separately. On the 13th June, by which time they had been joined by some nobles and the majority of the clergy, they declared themselves the National Assembly.
However, when the king ordered their usual meeting room to be closed and guarded by soldiers, the National Assembly feared that the king was about to force them to disband. The National Assembly instead relocated to a nearby building used for playing jeu de paume, a forerunner of modern tennis, where they swore the oath. The Tennis Court Oath therefore didn’t really happen in a tennis court, but the name has stuck.
The Oath was significant for being a collective action by French citizens against their king. Faced with such opposition Louis finally relented and, on June 27th, he ordered the remaining nobles to join the National Assembly and ended the Estates General.
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 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.