Flight to Varennes

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Louis XVI and his family, dressed as bourgeois, arrested in Varennes.

The royal Flight to Varennes (French: Fuite de Varennes) during the night of 20/21 June 1791 was a significant episode in the French Revolution during which King Louis XVI of France, his wife Marie Antoinette, and their immediate family attempted unsuccessfully to escape from Paris in order to initiate a counter-revolution. They wanted to go to Austria, Marie Antoinette's homeland, and hoped they would find safety in their newly found French Austrian agreement. Their escape only led them as far as the small town of Varennes, where they were arrested after having been recognized at their previous stop in Sainte-Menehould.

The incident was a turning point after which popular hostility towards the French monarchy as an institution, as well as towards the king and queen as individuals, became much more pronounced. The king's attempted flight provoked the charges of treason which ultimately led to his execution in 1793.

The failure of the escape plans was due to a series of misadventures, delays, misinterpretations, and poor judgments.[1] In a wider perspective, the failure was due to the King's indecision - he repeatedly postponed the schedule, allowing for smaller problems to become severe. Furthermore, he totally misunderstood France's political situation. He thought only a small number of radicals in Paris were promoting a revolution that the people as a whole rejected. He thought, mistakenly, that he was beloved by the peasants and the common folk.[2]

The king's flight in the short term was traumatic for France, inciting a wave of emotions that ranged from anxiety to violence to full-scale panic. Everyone realized that war was imminent. The deeper realization that the king had in fact repudiated the revolution, was an even greater shock for people who, until then, had seen him as a good king who governed as a manifestation of God's will. They felt betrayed. Republicanism then burst out of the coffee houses and became a dominating philosophy of the rapidly radicalized French revolution.[3]

Attempt to flee Paris[edit]

Jean-Baptiste Drouet, who recognised the royal family.
Drouet recognized the king thanks to his profile on coins and assignats.
The return of the royal family to Paris on June 25th, 1791: colored copperplate after a drawing of Jean-Louis Prieur

Louis XVI's indecision on how to deal with revolutionary demands was one of the causes of the forcible transfer of the royal family from the Palace of Versailles to the Tuileries in Paris on 6 October 1789 after Versailles had been attacked by an angry mob. Henceforth, the king seems to have become emotionally paralyzed, leaving most important decisions to the politically untrained queen. Prodded by the queen, Louis committed himself and his family to a disastrous attempt to escape from the capital to the eastern frontier on 21 June 1791. With the dauphin's governess, the Marquise de Tourzel taking on the role of a Russian baroness, the queen and the king's sister Madame Élisabeth playing her maids, the king her butler, and the royal children her daughters, the royal family made their escape. The escape was largely planned by Count Axel von Fersen and the Baron de Breteuil. Due to the cumulative effect of a host of errors, which in and of themselves would not have condemned the mission to failure, the royal family was thwarted in its escape after Jean-Baptiste Drouet, the postmaster of Sainte-Menehould, recognized the king from his portrait printed on an assignat in his possession.[4] The king and his family were eventually arrested in the town of Varennes, 50 km (31 Miles) from their ultimate destination, the heavily fortified royalist citadel of Montmédy.


When the royal family finally returned under guard to Paris, the revolutionary crowd met the royal carriage with uncharacteristic silence and consequently, complete shock rippled throughout the crowd at the sight of their loathed king. The royal family was confined to the Tuileries Palace. From this point forward, the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic became an ever increasing possibility. The credibility of the king as a constitutional monarch had been seriously undermined by the escape attempt.

From the autumn of 1791 on, the king tied his hopes of political salvation to the dubious prospects of foreign intervention. At the same time, he encouraged the Girondin faction in the Legislative Assembly in their policy of war with Austria, in the expectation that a French military disaster would pave the way for the restoration of his royal authority. Prompted by Marie Antoinette, Louis rejected the advice of the moderate constitutionalists, led by Antoine Barnave, to fully implement the Constitution of 1791, which he had sworn to maintain, and committed himself instead to a policy of covert counter-revolution.

At the same time, the king's failed escape attempt alarmed many other European monarchs, who feared that the revolutionary fervor would spread to their countries and result in instability outside France. Relations between France and its neighbors, already strained because of the revolution, deteriorated even further with some foreign ministries calling for war against the revolutionary government.

The outbreak of the war with Austria in April 1792 and the publication of a manifesto by the Austrian commander, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, threatening the destruction of Paris if the safety of the royal family was again endangered, led to the storming of the Tuileries by Parisian radicals on 10 August 1792. This attack led in turn to the suspension of the king's powers by the Legislative Assembly and the proclamation of the First French Republic on 21 September. In November, proof of Louis XVI's secret dealings with the deceased revolutionary politician, Mirabeau, and of his counterrevolutionary intrigues with foreigners was found in a secret iron chest, the armoire de fer, in the Tuileries. It was now no longer possible to pretend that the reforms of the French Revolution had been made with the free consent of the king. Some Republicans called for his deposition, others for his trial for alleged treason and intended defection to the enemies of the French Nation. On 3 December, it was decided that Louis XVI, who together with his family had been imprisoned since August, should be brought to trial for treason. He appeared twice, on 11 and 23 December, before the National Convention.

Convicted, Louis was sent to the guillotine on 21 January 1793. Later the same year, Marie Antoinette was also convicted of treason and beheaded nine months after her husband on 16 October.


  1. ^ J.M. Thompson, The French Revolution (1943) identifies a series of major and minor mistakes and mishaps, pp. 224-227
  2. ^ Timothy Tackett, When the King Took Flight (2003) ch. 3
  3. ^ Timothy Tackett, When the King Took Flight (2003) p. 222
  4. ^ Récit fait par M. Drouet, maître de poste à Ste Menehould, de la manière dont il a reconnu le Roi, et a été cause de son arrestation à Varennes: honneurs rendus à ce citoyen et à deux de ses camarades. Auteur; Drouet, Jean-Baptiste, 1791, Collection: Les archives de la Révolution française, Bibliothèque nationale de France: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k40773x/f3.image

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Thompson, J. M. The French Revolution (1943) 206-27, detailed narrative with explanation of what went wrong

The article also draws material from the out-of-copyright History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 (link no longer working), by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.

External links[edit]

Primary sources[edit]