When we think of the French Revolution, we often think of the rise of Napoleon and flag-waving at the barricades as popularised in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. By its end, the monarchy had fallen, the old political and social system – known as the ‘Ancien Régime’ – had ended, and an overzealous use of the guillotine had spread fear across the country.
The Revolution began in 1789. Though most of the working classes were poor and hungry, the aristocracy remained rich and well-fed in their palaces. These were the hallmarks of a feudal system that meant little had changed since the Middle Ages. The King wielded absolute power, having stripped political roles from the nobility, and the majority of French citizens had little hope of change.
The country had been bankrupted by war and the bourgeoisie (the upper and middle-classes) had limited political power. Educated citizens, influenced by the writers of the Enlightenment, became jaded with the absolutist regime that had been in place for centuries. They decided it was time for change. Different factions rose up within the various revolutionary governments, all with their own approaches and definitions of revolution.
The mob’s storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 signalled that a revolution had begun. Though mainly a symbolic attack – there were only a handful of prisoners in the Parisian fortress-prison – it was seen as an assault on royal authority. The King and his family were soon imprisoned, with a deadly fate awaiting them and many others across France.
This time of nationwide change brought into the public eye some colourful characters – many of whom lost their heads. We bring you the stories of some of the pivotal people who defined the Revolution.
Louis XVI, 23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793
As the figurehead of the despised Ancien Régime, King Louis XVI was blamed for the suffering felt by the people of France. The chasm between the monarchy and the working classes was vast. What’s more, support for the colonists in the American War of Independence, as well as France’s participation in a number of other costly wars, had seen the country sink deep into debt. But while his people struggled in poverty without enough food to eat, Louis XVI wielded absolute power from his opulent palace at Versailles. The decadence and indifference of the royal family would eventually become too much for the citizens of France to bear.
In an attempt to fix the financial crisis, Louis reluctantly agreed to summon the Estates-General – a form of parliament with representatives from the three estates, the clergy, the nobility and the commons – for the first time in 175 years.
They met in May 1789 and began arguing immediately. By 17 June, the frustrated Third Estate, representing the majority of the population, had had enough. Even though it had the most members, the Third Estate wasn’t permitted a vote for every man present, neutering its ability to bring about reform. So it renamed itself as the National Assembly, a body that would represent the people and not the estates themselves. Over the next few days, members of the clergy and nobility joined them and, on 27 June, the King surrendered power to the Assembly.
The royal family were moved from their comfortable surroundings in Versailles to virtual imprisonment at Tuileries Palace in Paris. In June 1791, they made a desperate attempt to escape Paris and launch a counter-revolution, but only made it as far as Varennes – 150 miles away – before being arrested and returned to Tuileries.
On 21 September 1792, the French monarchy was officially abolished, and the First French Republic established.
This wasn’t the end of Louis’ troubles however – the National Convention (a successor of the Assembly) found him guilty of treason on 15 January 1793, sending him to the guillotine. He was executed a few days later, to the rejoicing of jubilant crowds.
How many people were guillotined during the French revolution?
The extent of the violence seen during the revolution that erupted in France in 1789 remains difficult to capture in statistics. Estimates for the number of those guillotined for political reasons vary.
Beyond the centre of revolutionary ‘justice’, Paris, local officials set up portable guillotines across France. The ruthless efficiency of executions meant whole families could be decapitated in minutes. At least 17,000 were officially condemned to death during the ‘Reign of Terror’, which lasted from September 1793 to July 1794, with the age of victims ranging from 14 to 92. Some 247 people fell prey to the guillotine on Christmas Day 1793 alone.
It is suggested this number has to be doubled, at a conservative guess, to account for those killed in less official ways, such as while in prison awaiting sentence or at the hands of a mob (as was the fate of the Princess de Lamballe).
Marie Antoinette, 2 November 1775 – 16 October 1793
One of the most enduring images associated with the French Revolution is of Marie Antoinette facing her impending death, with disdain for the starving citizens of France. It’s a persisting myth that she said “Let them eat cake” – this quote was attributed to her 50 years after her death. However, her unpopularity in France was no tall tale. An Austrian princess, Marie Antoinette married the future Louis XVI when she was just 14 years old. Their union was intended to cement an alliance between Austria and France, which had been at war for many years.
Although initially charmed by this young princess, popular opinion soon turned sour and she became despised by the ordinary working-class French for her lavish spending and extravagance. She even commissioned a model village to be constructed at Versailles as her own personal retreat, which was widely seen as a mockery of peasant life. Rumours circulated that she was having a number of affairs and she began to embody everything that the revolutionaries hated about the Ancien Régime.
After the royal family’s failed attempt to flee Paris in June 1791, Antoinette spent the remaining months of her life in various prisons, and France’s declaration of war with Austria in April 1792 did nothing to help her situation. Her last prison, the Conciergerie, was infested with rats, and foul water ran through it from the nearby River Seine.
- Read more: The final days of Marie Antoinette
The execution of Louis XVI saw the Queen’s two surviving children separated from her, including eight-year-old Louis-Charles who was later made to testify against his mother at her trial. Nine months later, Marie Antoinette was brought before a tribunal and found guilty of treason. She was guillotined on 16 October 1793. Her last words were an apology for standing on the foot of her executioner.
Marie Antoinette’s body was thrown into an unmarked grave – her remains, and those of her husband, were exhumed in 1815 and relocated to the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
From infamous to immortals
London’s famous waxwork museum allows visitors to get up-close and personal with their favourite celebrities and figures from history, but it actually has quite a gruesome history itself. Marie Tussaud was a French artist who learnt how to create wax models in Paris, where she worked with Philippe Curtis – a modeller whose wax museums Tussaud inherited. Tussaud was imprisoned as a royalist after working as the art tutor for Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth. During the Reign of Terror, she was released on the grisly condition that she create death masks of those who had recently been guillotined – including those of Louis XVI and Robespierre. Tussaud eventually left France, taking her waxwork collection to Britain and establishing her Baker Street exhibition in 1835. The ‘Chamber of Horrors’ room was created to house some of the relics she had brought back from revolutionary France.
Princess Lamballe, 8 September 1749 – 3 September 1792
Marie-Thérèse-Louise de Savoie-Carignan, Princess de Lamballe, was an intimate companion of Queen Marie Antoinette, and her salon became a popular meeting place for royalist sympathisers after the Revolution began.
After a mob attack on Tuileries Palace on 10 August 1792 – where the royal family were being held – the Princess was taken to La Force prison. Between 2 and 4 September – a period later known as the September Massacres – prisoners were hauled in front of hastily-formed courts and sentenced to death. More than half of the 2,700 prisoners were killed, many by armed mobs, the Princess among them.
Refusing to swear an oath renouncing the monarchy on 3 September, Lamballe was delivered to a mob in the streets who awaited her. Various sensational and gruesome accounts of her death were circulated which included her being raped and mutilated. Most, however, agree that Lamballe’s head was severed and later processed through the streets, with the crowd intending to flaunt it before Marie Antoinette.
Charlotte Corday, 27 July 1768 – 17 July 1793
Events like the French Revolution demonstrate the extreme measures people can take in the name of their cause – in the case of Charlotte Corday, it was murder for liberty. Jean-Paul Marat was a journalist and one of the leading supporters of the Montagnards – a radical group within the Jacobin faction of the National Assembly, which advocated violence to achieve equality. It was led by one of the most influential, and ruthless, figures of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre.
In 1789, Marat began writing a newspaper – L’Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People) – which advocated the rights of the lower classes against the enemies of the people, namely the monarchy and the revolutionary governments that had sprung up.
The paper was accused of inciting violence and instigating the September Massacres and the Reign of Terror, a particularly dark period of the Revolution, which saw radicals take control of the revolutionary government and hundreds executed by the guillotine.
Charlotte Corday was a minor aristocrat from Caen and a sympathiser of the Girondins – a political group that advocated a less extreme revolution. She grew distressed at the direction in which the Revolution was going and reacted in desperation. On 13 July 1793, after giving assurances that she would betray the Girondins, Corday was invited to Marat’s Paris home. He was takinga medicinal bath at the time – due to a debilitating skin disorder – when Corday stabbed him in the chest. At her trial where she was sentenced to death, Corday explained her reasoning for killing Marat: “I knew that he, Marat, was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.”
According to one local legend, a man slapped the cheek of Corday’s severed head, causing it to take on an indignant expression. This fuelled the idea that guillotine victims may retain consciousness for a short while.
Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, 13 April 1747 – 6 November 1793
A surprising supporter of the Revolution came in the form of the King’s cousin – the Duke of Orléans. One of the wealthiest men in France, he favoured a transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. A champion of the poor, he would often use his wealth to feed the needy and opened up his residence, the Palais-Royal, to the public. Next in line to the throne after the immediate royal family, the Duke had a frosty relationship with his cousin and was openly hostile to Marie Antoinette.
In 1787, after challenging the King’s authority in front of the Parlement of Paris (one of the high courts of justice of the Ancien Régime), the Duke was temporarily exiled to his estates. He became a hero for many revolutionaries – especially those involved in the storming of the Bastille – and was elected to represent the nobles in the Estates- General, later joining the National Assembly.
After the fall of the monarchy, the Duke gave up his royal titles and was given the name Philippe Égalité (equality) by the Paris Commune – the government of Paris between 1792 and 1795. After learning that his cousin had called for his execution, the King said: “It really pains me to see that Monsieur d’Orléans, my kinsman, voted for my death.”
It would be the former Duke’s son, Louis Philippe, who would be his father’s downfall. In 1793, after several years serving in the French military, Louis Philippe defected to the Austrians, along with French general Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez. This caused outrage in Paris, and even though there was no evidence suggesting his father had committed any crime, his son’s actions were enough to condemn him. On 6 November 1793, Philippe Égalité was found guilty by the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined the same day.
Georges Danton, 26 October 1759 – 5 April 1794
Originally trained as a lawyer, Georges Danton was inspired to help the revolutionary cause, joining the civic guard (garde bourgeoise) in 1789. In 1790, along with some militant revolutionaries he founded the Cordeliers Club – created to prevent the abuse of power and violations against the rights of man. A brilliant public speaker, Danton quickly gained fans amongst the Jacobin faction and managed to secure a post in.the Paris Commune.
On 10 August 1792, Tuileries Palace was stormed by the National Guard of the Paris Commune – it’s unclear whether Danton actually took part in this overthrow of the monarchy, but he is credited with its success and was swiftly made Minister of Justice. By September, he had been elected into the National Convention. It’s believed that Danton had wanted to spare the King from execution but eventually voted for his death.
In April 1793, Danton became the Committee of Public Safety’s first president. Attempts were made to negotiate a peace with Austria, but when these failed Danton was left out of the next committee elections. As the revolution took a darker turn, Danton began to call for a more moderate approach. His continual challenges to Robespierre’s violent overtures led to his arrest on 30 March 1794, and he was beheaded a few days later.
Maximilien Robespierre, 6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794
One of the most influential figures during the Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre was originally a lawyer who was elected into the Estates-General and then served as part of the National Constituent Assembly, which had been formed from the National Assembly in 1789. He became popular with the people for his virulent attacks on the monarchy and calls for democratic reform.
In 1790, Robespierre became the president of the radical Jacobin Club and then first deputy for Paris to the National Convention. The Convention abolished the monarchy, declared France a republic, and charged Louis XVI with treason.
A power struggle ensued between the Jacobins and the more moderate Girondins. The Jacobins used their influence with the mob to seize control, and leaders of the Girondins were rounded up. The Committee of Public Safety took control of France, with Robespierre becoming its leading force.
The Reign of Terror was now underway. Anyone considered an enemy of the Revolution was guillotined, including Robespierre’s former friend Georges Danton. Some 17,000 people were officially executed during the 11 months of the Terror, as Robespierre attempted to consolidate his power.
This dangerous time is often remembered as Robespierre’s defining act during the Revolution – but he would soon encounter a fall from grace. Robespierre’s autocratic rule soon saw his popularity diminish – he had even tried to establish a new national religion known as the Cult of the Supreme Being. A plan was hatched by the Convention to overthrow him. On 27 July 1794, after some resistance, Robespierre was arrested after being denounced as a tyrant in a counter-revolution that became known as the Thermidorian Reaction. During the scuffle he was shot in the jaw – it’s unclear whether Robespierre shot himself or was shot by one of his captors.
The next day, Robespierre and 21 of his supporters were sent to the guillotine. The executioner tore off the bandage covering his jaw, causing him to cry out in agony before the falling blade silenced him forever. According to witnesses, the crowd cheered for 15 minutes at his demise.
What happened next?
Robespierre’s death ushered in a period known as the White Terror, during which the families of those killed during the Reign of Terror enacted their revenge. It was followed, in October 1795, by a royalist revolt against the National Convention – quashed by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Convention was disbanded in November 1795. In its place came the French Directory, a body that hope to reverse the quasidictatorship that had ruled France during the Terror. The number of executions began to fall and measures against royalists and the clergy were relaxed, but even so the Directory was full of corruption.
In November 1799, Napoleon led a coup against the Directory, establishing himself as First Consul. This ended the revolution butwould begin the Napoleonic era, throughout which he attempted to conquer most of Europe.
The monarchy was restored in 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat, with Louis XVI’s brothers, Louis XVIII and Charles X, ruling as constitutional monarchs. The July Revolution of 1830 saw Charles X forced to abdicate in favour of his cousin Louis Philippe I – son of the executed Duke of Orleans. Rebellions in 1832 against this ‘July Monarchy’ serve as the setting for Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Misérables.
Revolution revisited France again in 1848, when the wellspring of political upheaval washed over Western Europe. This time, the monarchy was abolished for good.
Emma Slattery Williams is Staff Writer on BBC History Revealed.