Execution of Louis XVI

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"Day of 21 January 1793 the death of Louis Capet on the Place de la Révolution" – French engraving.

The execution of Louis XVI, by means of the guillotine, took place on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Révolution ("Revolution Square", formerly Place Louis XV, and renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795) in Paris. It was a major event of the French Revolution. After events on the 10 August 1792, which saw the fall of the monarchy after the attack on the Tuileries by insurgents, Louis was arrested, interned in the Temple prison with his family, tried for high treason before the National Convention, convicted in a near-unanimous vote (while no one voted 'not guilty,' several deputies abstained), and condemned to death by a slight majority. His execution made him the first victim of the Reign of Terror. His wife Marie Antoinette was guillotined on 16 October, the same year.

Louis' hostility towards the National Assembly had aroused discontent with his rule. Louis had previously attempted to escape from France in June 1791 to garner support for the re-establishment of the old regime, an event named "Flight to Varennes" where he was caught before he and his family could reach the fortress of Montmédy, a royalist stronghold, across the border of Austrian Netherlands. Public opinion began to sway against him after he was returned under guard to Paris.

Journey from the Temple prison to the Place de la Révolution[edit]

Louis XVI awoke at 5 o'clock and after being helped to dress by his valet Jean-Baptiste Cléry, went to meet with the non-juring Irish Priest Father Henry Essex Edgeworth de Firmont to make his confession. He heard his last Mass, served by Cléry, and received Communion. The Mass requisites were provided by special direction of the authorities. Upon Father Edgeworth's advice he avoided a last farewell scene with his family. At 7 o'clock he confided his last wishes to the priest. His Royal seal was to go to the Dauphin and his wedding ring to the Queen. After receiving the priest's blessing he went to meet Antoine Joseph Santerre, Commander of the Guard. A green carriage was waiting in the second court. He seated himself in it with the priest, with two militiamen sitting opposite them. The carriage left the Temple at approximately 9 o'clock. For more than an hour the carriage, preceded by drummers playing to drown out any support for the King and escorted by a cavalry troop with drawn sabres, made its way through Paris along a route lined with 80,000 men at arms and soldiers of the National Guard and Sans-culottes.

In the neighbourhood of the present rue de Cléry, Baron Batz, a supporter of the Royal family who had financed the flight to Varennes, had summoned 300 Royalists to enable the King's escape. Louis was to be hidden in a house in the rue de Cléry belonging to the Count of Marsan. Baron Batz leaped forward calling "Follow me, my friends, let us save the King!", but his associates had been denounced and only a few had been able to turn up. Three of them were killed, but Baron Batz managed to escape.

At 10 o'clock, the carriage arrived at Place de la Révolution and proceeded to a space surrounded by guns and drums, and a crowd carrying pikes and bayonets, which had been kept free at the foot of the scaffold.

Witness accounts[edit]

"The Death of Louis XVI King of France" from an English engraving, published 1798.

Father Edgeworth[edit]

Press of the day[edit]

13 February issue of the Thermomètre du jour ('Daily Thermometer'), a moderate Republican newspaper, described the King as shouting "I am lost!", citing as its source the executioner, Charles Henri Sanson.[citation needed]

Charles Henri Sanson[edit]

Charles Sanson responded to the story by offering his own version of events in a letter dated 20 February 1793. The account of Sanson states that

In his letter, published along with its French mistakes in the Thermomètre of Thursday, 21 February 1793, Sanson emphasises that the King "bore all this with a composure and a firmness which has surprised us all. I remain strongly convinced that he derived this firmness from the principles of the religion by which he seemed penetrated and persuaded as no other man."

Henri Sanson[edit]

"Execution of Louis XVI" – German copperplate engraving, 1793, by Georg Heinrich Sieveking

In his Causeries, Alexandre Dumas refers to a meeting circa 1830 with Henri Sanson, eldest son of Charles Sanson, who had been present at the time.

"Now then, you were saying you wanted something, Monsieur Dumas?"

"You know how much playwrights need accurate information, Monsieur Sanson. The moment may come for me to put Louis XVI on the stage. How much truth is there in the story of the wrestling bout between him and your father's assistants at the foot of the scaffold?"
"Oh, I can tell you that, Monsieur, I was there."
"I know, that's why it is you I'm asking."
"Well listen. The King had been driven to the scaffold in his own carriage and his hands were free. At the foot of the scaffold we decided to tie his hands, but less because we feared that he might defend himself than because we thought he might by an involuntary movement spoil his execution or make it more painful. So one assistant waited with a rope, while another said to him 'It is necessary to tie your hands'. On hearing these unexpected words, at the unexpected sight of that rope, Louis XVI made an involuntary gesture of repulsion. 'Never!' he cried, 'never!' and pushed back the man holding the rope. The other three assistants, believing that a struggle was imminent, dashed forward. That is the explanation of the moment of confusion interpreted after their fashion by the historians. It was then that my father approached and said, in the most respectful tone of voice imaginable, 'With a handkerchief, Sire'. At the word 'Sire', which he had not heard for so long, Louis XVI winced, and at the same moment his confessor had addressed a few words to him from the carriage,[2] said 'So be it, then, that too, my God!' and held out his hands."

Henri Sanson was family appointed Executioner of Paris from April 1793, and would later execute Marie Antoinette.[citation needed]

Madame de Staël[edit]

Leboucher[edit]

Speaking to Victor Hugo in 1840, Leboucher, who had arrived in Paris from Bourges in December 1792 and was present at the execution of Louis XVI, recalled vividly:

Louis Mercier[edit]

In Le nouveau Paris, Louis Sébastien Mercier describes the execution of Louis XVI in these words:

Jacques de Molay[edit]

A popular but apocryphal legend associated with the execution states that as soon as the guillotine fell, an anonymous Freemason leaped on the scaffolding, plunged his hand into the blood, splashed drips of it onto the crown, and shouted, "Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!" (usually translated as, "Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged"). De Molay (died 1314), the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, had reportedly cursed Louis' ancestor Philip the Fair, after the latter had sentenced him to burn at the stake based on false confessions. The story spread widely and the phrase remains in use today to indicate the triumph of reason and logic over "religious superstition".[5]

Burial in the cemetery of the Madeleine[edit]

The body of Louis XVI was immediately transported to the old Church of the Madeleine (demolished in 1799), since the legislation in force forbade burial of his remains beside those of his father, the Dauphin Louis de France, at Sens. Two curates who had sworn fealty to the Revolution held a short memorial service at the church. One of them, Damoureau, stated in evidence:

On 21 January 1815 Louis XVI and his wife's remains were re-buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis where in 1816 his brother, King Louis XVIII, had a funerary monument erected by Edme Gaulle.

Today[edit]

The area where Louis XVI and later (16 October 1793) Marie Antoinette were buried, in the churchyard of St. Mary Magdaleine's, is today the "Square Louis XVI" greenspace, containing the classically self-effacing Expiatory Chapel completed in 1826 during the reign of Louis' youngest brother Charles X. The crypt altar stands above the exact spot where the remains of the Royal couple were originally laid to rest. The chapel narrowly escaped destruction on politico-ideological grounds during the violently anti-clerical period at the beginning of the 20th century.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Necker, Anne Louise Germaine, Considerations on the principal events of the French Revolution (1818)
  • Hugo, Victor, The Memoirs of Victor Hugo (1899)
  • Thompson, J.M., English Witnesses of the French Revolution (1938)

Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac have written a number of works on Louis XVI, including:

  • Louis XVI, Roi Martyr (1982) Tequi
  • Louis XVI, un Visage retrouvé (1990) O.E.I.L.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ From his Memoirs, published 1815.
  2. ^ Father Edgeworth had reminded the King that on Good Friday Jesus had offered his hands to be tied.
  3. ^ Considerations on the principal events of the French Revolution.
  4. ^ "The Memoirs of Victor Hugo". 
  5. ^ DuQuette, Lon Milo (2006-04-01). The Key to Solomon's Key: Secrets of Magic and Masonry. CCC Publishing. pp. 47–48. ISBN 978-1-888729-14-6. Retrieved 20 August 2011.