Nearly 1,000 years of French Monarchy all led to Louis XVI. There were a lot of terrible kings in that time. Ruthless schemers, deranged madmen, and extravagant hedonists. Yet it was Louis XVI who paid for their crimes. So where did it all go wrong? How did Louis end up with his head lying at the base of a guillotine? Dive into this doomed monarch's dark history and find out for yourself.
You ever go back to your childhood home and realize it's a lot smaller than you remember? Louis XVI wouldn't know what that's like: He was born Louis-Auguste in the opulent Palace of Versailles in 1754. He had every comfort, every luxury that you could imagine from the moment he was born. But while life in the palace was fancy, Louis did lack for one thing: His parents' love.
From the moment Louis was born, he could never be anything other than second best, for one reason.
Louis XVI ended up being a terrible king, but cut him a little slack: He was never supposed to be king in the first place. You see, Louis had an older brother, and because this was France, he was also named Louis. His older brother was bright, handsome, and charismatic; the perfect choice to become king one day. Their parents showered their eldest with praise and gifts while mostly ignoring the younger Louis-Auguste.
The neglect had a profound effect on the man Louis later became—but his grandfather's treatment of him was even worse.
Those close to young Louis XVI described him as intelligent, yet extremely shy and withdrawn. Apparently, his grandfather, King Louis XV, didn't have patience for that. He outwardly called his grandson "ungainly" and "dimwitted" and, like the boy's parents, lavished all of his attention on Louis' much more impressive older brother.
But this isn't the story of Louis XVI, brother to the king of France. In 1761, a terrible tragedy changed the course of history forever.
Louis' older brother, the golden child, suddenly fell ill when he was just nine years old. Doctors tried everything they could to save him, including a risky operation while the boy was still completely conscious, but there was nothing they could do. The boy passed, and the loss devastated the family. Louis had to deal with the loss of his brother and the sudden pressure of realizing he was now in line to inherit the throne.
But he didn't have much time to think about that for now. They say deaths come in threes, and for Louis' cursed family, that proved true.
OK, so Louis' older brother was gone and he was now in line to become the King of France, but that wouldn't be for a really long time, right? His grandfather was still alive, and when he passed, his father would become king and probably have a long and healthy rule, right? Right?? Nope. Just a few years later, Louis' father, the Dauphin, caught tuberculosis at just 36 years old. He didn't make it.
Shy little Louis was now next in line to be the King. But wait, didn't we say something about deaths coming in threes?
The loss of Louis' father hit his mother like a ton of bricks. She'd now buried her favorite son and her beloved husband, and her timid son Louis apparently wasn't enough for her to keep going. She became a frail, shadow of a woman and succumbed to her own illness just two years after the Dauphin. Louis XVI was now an orphan, though let's be honest, it's not like his parents were that great when they were alive.
Either way, Louis had to hurry up and get over it. He had to start preparing to become king. So how did that go? Not great...
The world remembers Louis XVI as one of the worst kings in history. The irony, then, is that the guy was honestly quite smart. He was a good student and he soon became fluent in both Italian and English. Louis proved himself a quick study in history, geography, astronomy, and Latin. He clearly had the brains—the main problem was that he was shy, cautious, and about as charismatic as a stick in the mud.
His laughably horrible teachers didn't help things either.
Louis XVI's teachers were supposed to show him how to be a good king—however, they didn't seem to have any clue themselves. One teacher taught him that a king should be timid and overly cautious. Another told him to never let anyone know what he was thinking. You don't have to be a genius to realize that's terrible advice.
But bad teachers were just one of the things that doomed Louis XVI. Another thing that set him on the dark path to the guillotine? One of the most infamous marriages in history.
If you're the Dauphin of France, you don't get much time to enjoy your teenage years. You've got to get married and start making more little princes and princesses! That's why Louis married Marie Antoinette, an Austrian princess, when he was just 15 and she was 14. By all accounts, Marie Antoinette was beautiful, sociable, and an all-around catch.
Too bad the union would a complete and utter trainwreck—and the horrific events of their wedding were a bad omen of things to come.
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5,000 people attended Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's extravagant wedding. In an almost too-perfect piece of pathetic fallacy, massive, foreboding storm clouds hung over the entire ceremony, threatening to burst at any moment. But that was nothing compared to the disaster that happened after the wedding. Louis wanted to give the people of Paris a fireworks display to mark the occasion. He never could have known how badly it would go...
Louis ordered a massive podium set up in one of Paris's largest public squares to give the city one of the greatest fireworks displays it had ever seen. People crowded into the square to get the best possible view of the spectacle. I know what you're thinking: Thousands of people crammed into a tight space around a wooden platform holding piles and piles of gunpowder—what could go wrong?
Louis' grand fireworks display went up in flames, literally. The platform caught on fire, and within moments, the crowded masses started to panic. That's when the day took a chilling turn. A stampede ensued as Parisians fled from the ticking timebomb at the center of the square. Nearly 130 people lost their lives in the chaos. Nothing like mass casualties to put a damper on your wedding day.
However, in an odd twist, Louis managed to spin the tragedy to make people fall in love with him.
Here's the saddest thing about Louis XVI: He desperately wanted his people to love him. After the stampede at his wedding, he personally met with the victims' families and supported them with money from his own purse. This was no heartless ruler who cared nothing for his subjects. The timid, bookish Louis did have a heart, he was just hopelessly unequipped for the job.
And it definitely didn't help matters that his marriage to Marie Antoinette only got worse after the stampede.
Louis XVI's marriage was doomed from the start. France's alliance with Austria had dragged them into the brutal Seven Years' War. The conflict drained the treasury, cost thousands of lives, and they lost to boot! When the Austrian Marie Antoinette came to town, the people hated her from the very beginning. But that's OK, as long as Louis liked her, they'd be fine. Well, about that...
You know how shy teenage boys aren't exactly the best at talking to girls? Well, how do you think Louis did when he met his vivacious, attractive bride just two days before their wedding? Yeah, not great. He was nice enough, sure, but extremely distant. Then there's their brutally awkward wedding night to consider.
The most important part of any royal wedding came last: the consummation. Technically, for the marriage to be official, the bride and groom had to get down. Were they teenagers? Yes. Was it creepy and awkward? Yes. But they had to do it anyway. The only issue? Louis just...couldn't. Louis and Marie didn't consummate their marriage on their wedding night, or the next night...
Years passed and Louis still just couldn't do it. This was going to become a BIG problem very quickly—but for now, Louis had more immediate issues to deal with.
In 1774, the day we've all been waiting for happened. King Louis XV passed, and our guy Louis-Auguste became King Louis XVI, the last King of France (though no one knew that just yet). He was 19, yet still every bit as shy and nervous as he'd been as a boy. And to make matters worse, he couldn't have inherited a bigger mess. Louis XV had been a pretty crummy king himself, and the people were starting to get fed up with the whole "monarchy" thing. There was also the government's crippling debt to consider.
It would take a seriously capable king to steer France out of this crisis. Louis himself felt horribly unqualified for the challenge—and as you'll see, he totally was.
Louis was prepared to make some pretty radical decisions to try and get France back on track. He even brought back the "parlements," which were courts whose decisions could potentially even challenge his authority. French kings usually hated the parlements, but Louis brought them back to make people happy. When someone asked him about it, he said, "It may be considered politically unwise, but it seems to me to be the general wish and I want to be loved."
Well, I've got terrible news for you Louis: It was politically unwise, and people still hated you in the end. But bringing back the parlements wasn't the only terrible idea Louis had.
Another of Louis' brilliant ideas was to completely deregulate France's grain market. How'd that go? Bread prices instantly skyrocketed, then after a bad harvest, widespread famine led the people to revolt. The resulting Flour War saw France descend into chaos, with riots breaking out all over the country. It took five long months to bring everything back under control. Oh, and did we mention? This debacle happened in the first year of Louis' reign. Talk about a bad start.
And as if his political problems weren't bad enough, Louis still had his personal issues to deal with...
Did you forget that Louis and Marie Antoinette never actually consummated their marriage? Well, people in France sure didn't. Though the couple had it leaked that they'd consummated in 1773, that was completely bogus. Their marital bed was as cold as ever. And based on how Louis treated her, I doubt Marie Antoinette was too interested in fixing that.
Maybe he was just shy, maybe he just didn't trust her yet, but Louis was noticeably cold toward his wife in public. Unfortunately for him, that's the kind of thing people notice, and scandalous rumors started to spread.
The people of France weren't happy with Marie Antoinette to begin with. Then the years started to pass by with no babies in sight. What, did you think they were going to take the high road? The royal couple was the talk of the town in every corner of France, with people speculating as to why they couldn't have children. Mocking pamphlets appeared, questioning the King's manhood: "Can the King do it? Can't the King do it?"
The stress of the entire situation pushed the already distant couple even further apart, but the question remained: Why couldn't they have children? Well, one of Louis' doctors suggested an, ahem...delicate reason.
You might have heard the stories: Louis XVI suffered from a particular deformation of his...private area that prevented him from fathering children. Called phimosis, it would have made relations with his wife extremely uncomfortable. Royal duty or not, that, coupled with Louis' intense shyness and Marie Antoinette's disinterest, would certainly have explained the lack of babies.
However, the truth is far more complicated than that.
Several historians claimed that Louis XVI had phimosis and that he underwent an adult circumcision to treat it. At least, that would have explained Marie Antoinette's miraculous pregnancy in 1777. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but it almost definitely didn't happen. As you can imagine, adult circumcision before anesthetics and modern medical practices would be a complete nightmare.
Louis' doctors—and I'm sure Louis himself!—decided that circumcision was not an option. So how did they end up finally getting pregnant? Well, turns out, Louis just needed a little...help.
In 1777, a mysterious man named the Comte de Falkenstein arrived at Versailles for an extended stay. Except, the House of Falkenstein had gone extinct centuries earlier—not that anyone in France knew that. In reality, the Comte was none other than Marie Antoinette's brother: Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor. He came to visit his sister and see the sights in Paris, but there was a secret reason for the trip.
Joseph II had heard the rumors about Louis and Marie's pregnancy struggles, and he was going to get to the bottom of it one way or another.
You know you're doing it wrong if your brother-in-law has to come to town to show you how to get his sister pregnant. Joseph II had a lot riding on their marriage because it ensured France's alliance with Austria. He didn't want the couple's lack of babies to ruin the whole thing. And since Joseph II was a hands-on kind of guy, he personally traveled to France to see what the deal was.
Warning: This is where Louis and Marie Antoinette's marriage goes from uncomfortable to brutally awkward.
Contrary to the bawdy pamphlets circulating on the streets of Paris, Louis XVI was perfectly capable of physical relations with his wife. Joseph himself personally confirmed this when he visited the couple in France. Like I said, Joseph II was going to get to the bottom of this one way or another. He got both Louis and Marie Antoinette to spill the beans about their baby-making sessions—and the results were not good.
Joseph II couldn't believe his ears when Louis and Marie Antoinette told him about their bedroom activities. In a letter home, he called them a pair of "complete fumblers," hardly able to contain his shock at their lack of ability. For her part, his sister was completely uninterested in her husband, despite the fact that entire geopolitical alliances rested on their marriage.
Joseph knew this was an issue—but then he heard Louis' side of the story...
This has to be the most uncomfortable conversation of all time. Joseph cornered Louis and straight-up asked, "What are you doing when you're in bed with my sister?" I'm not sure there's a right answer to that question, but one thing is for sure: Louis gave the wrong answer. In a letter back home, Joseph wrote that Louis told him that he "introduces the member," but then, "stays there without moving for about two minutes." Then he would just...get up and leave.
Yeah...I think I see the problem here.
Louis XVI was in his early 20s at this point, but it seems clear that he and his wife hadn't had children yet because he literally didn't know how to do it. Thankfully, Joseph finished their unbelievably uncomfortable conversation with some pointers. With some fresh advice from his brother-in-law, Louis returned to his marital bed with a whole new outlook.
Do we think Louis became some kind of dynamo in the sack? Not for a second. But guess what was right around the corner...
Joseph II didn't have any magic solutions for Lous and Marie Antoinette, but a year after his visit, their prayers were answered: Marie Antoinette became pregnant! Hooray! The couple was ecstatic, and they even sent their pal Joe a thank-you letter for finally getting them on the right track. Finally, Louis had that monkey off his back.
But the couple couldn't enjoy their happiness for long. As soon as the child was born, the rumor mill started up again.
It took eight years, but Louis and Marie Antoinette finally had a child. So did France celebrate the new Dauphine along with the happy couple? Not exactly. People were a little...skeptical. And, can you really blame them? Everyone knew Louis and Marie Antoinette weren't very close, and what are the odds that, after eight years of failure, they suddenly had a kid now?
Louis got to spend about one second enjoying the birth of his daughter before new scandalous pamphlets hit the streets. This time, they claimed that Marie Antoinette had had an affair and that Louis wasn't the girl's father. Gosh, can't this guy catch a break for even one second?
Joseph's advice must have worked, because Louis and Marie Antoinette would go on to have four children—but this sudden burst of offspring only brought new heartache. Marie Antoinette suffered two miscarriages in the subsequent years, one mere months after the birth of their first child. In a painfully bittersweet twist, this actually brought Louis and his wife closer than ever before.
After the loss, Louis spent hours at Marie Antoinette's bedside, mourning together. After almost a decade together, it finally seemed as though the couple was actually starting to like each other—which is a good thing, too, because their house was about to get pretty busy.
Louis and Marie Antoinette had four children of their own, and they also adopted six more. For all her frivolity, Antoinette had something of a soft spot for little ones, and she just couldn't say no when an unfortunate child with a sad story came across her path. One of the kids they adopted, Jean Amilcar, was actually a slave given to Antoinette as a gift.
Antoinette freed the boy, had him baptized, adopted him, and set him up with a pension. It seemed like Amilcar had hit the jackpot—but sadly, he ended up meeting an incredibly dark fate.
Jean Amilcar lived the high life off the pension he received as the king's own adopted child. But, spoiler alert, Louis and Marie Antoinette wouldn't be around forever to pay for it. After the French Revolution, Amilcar no longer received his lavish pension. He was expelled from his school and forced to take up begging on the streets, where he allegedly starved.
Louis XVI was cursed, and even those he attempted to save ended up pulled down with him.
Even as Louis and Marie Antoinette had several more children, the rumors of infidelity dogged them everywhere they went. Now, of course, rumors were inevitable. The people still didn't love their Austrian queen, and lots of people had political agendas behind their attacks against the royals. But then, in 1785, Marie Antoinette gave birth to their second son, and the rumors of an affair got even louder—all thanks to one really big coincidence.
Though Lous and Marie Antoinette grew closer, they still weren't exactly the picture of a happy couple. But Antoinette turned into a whole different person whenever the Swedish count Axel von Fersen was around. Half of France thought the queen was having an affair with the dashing Swede—and the fact that their second son was born almost exactly nine months after von Fersen returned to Versailles from a trip abroad didn't help matters. Awkward...
Though most historians agree the boy was likely Louis' son, that didn't stop the people from having a field day. With each passing day, Louis was becoming more and more of a laughingstock—it was only a matter of time before his subjects moved against him.
By many accounts, Louis XVI was fairly intelligent and kind, if just cripplingly shy. However, he did have one disturbing hobby: He loved to shoot cats. Apparently, his cruel grandfather Louis XV loved the felines and allowed them to roam all over Versailles, where they quickly multiplied. Louis XVI didn't share grandpa's fondness, and when he took over, he loved to pass the time by shooting any cats he came across on the grounds.
Not a great look if you ask me, Louis—so I'd say it was karma when this gruesome activity came back to bite him.
Most of the cats on the grounds of Versailles were strays, but not all of them were. Apparently, Louis was the "shoot first, ask questions later" type of cat hunter, and he once shot a female courtier's beloved pet. To his credit, he felt terrible, apologized over and over, and bought the lady a new cat. But if the King of France shot my dog, no amount of "I'm sorries" would ever cut it.
When he wasn't dealing with his distant wife, rumors of his inability in bed, or shooting cats, Louis XVI still had a country to run. And guess what: In the years since the weak-willed and indecisive king had taken over, things had gotten even worse! The country was now on the brink of financial ruin. Louis planned a series of reforms to try and right the ship, but the problem was, no one would listen to him.
Louis XVI wasn't the kind of guy who inspired confidence, and the Parlement just refused him every time. Finally, Louis decided to take matters into his own hands. He was the king, after all! It...did not go well.
When the Parlement wouldn't pass his reforms, Louis tried to flex his divine right and push them through anyway. He exiled a bunch of magistrates, jailed two high-ranking lawmakers, and then finally dissolved the entire Parlement and did what he wanted without them. Now, that isn't too crazy in the grand scheme of things—kings used to do that kind of thing all the time. But Louis XVI just didn't have the same backbone as most kings.
Louis truly believed his reforms could help the country, but every single time he tried to impose them, he backed down to public pressure and revoked them. Nothing ever got done, and France's economic situation just kept getting more and more out of hand. Louis might not have realized it yet, but his clock was ticking.
Everyone in France realized that Louis couldn't handle the task in front of him. People began calling for a drastic solution: The people wanted Louis to convoke the Estates-General. This was essentially the French Congress, and it hadn't met in over a century. Desperate to get his financial reforms passed, Louis relented and called the Estates-General for the first time since 1614.
It was a hail mary pass. Little did he know, he had just sealed his own fate.
Louis XVI was terrible at this whole "politics" thing, and if he'd had his choice, he'd have spent all his time hidden away in his workshop. You see, Louis was something of a nerd. He was obsessed with locks, and loved nothing more than tinkering away, making locks for no one in particular. He eventually took up the humble art of carpentry and started making furniture.
Louis even tried to use his talents to bridge the gap between himself and his wife—but as with most things he did, the plan was a total failure.
Using his newfound carpentry skills, Louis allegedly made his wife a spinning wheel. He knew she adored dresses, and it was his way of connecting with her. Honestly, a pretty cute present. Well, so the story goes, Marie Antoinette thanked him...then promptly gave the spinning wheel away. Swing and a miss, Louis.
Louis and Marie Antoinette still just weren't that close—but another terrible tragedy was on the horizon.
Louis suffered every parent's nightmare in 1789. His son Louis Joseph had always been a frail child. The boy suffered from frequent fevers and had trouble walking thanks to an irregularly curved spine. The years went by and he only grew more fragile. Finally, at seven years old, the fevers came back, and the boy couldn't fight it off any longer. He passed, and the loss devastated his parents.
And, to put salt in the wound, the country didn't mourn with them. France couldn't care less that little Louis Joseph passed—they had other things on their mind.
Louis had finally agreed to call the Estates-General, but up to this point, the assembly had little to no actual power. That was all about to change. Mere days after the Dauphin passed, the Third Estate took the infamous Tennis Court Oath. They began calling themselves the National Assembly, and they vowed not to disassemble until they had established the French Constitution.
Basically, they borrowed a page from the Americans and decided to take power back from the king. The French Revolution had begun, and Louis was in serious danger.
Louis wasn't very capable of asserting himself in general, but the Tennis Court Oath couldn't have happened at a worse time. Public hatred for him, and especially for his foreign wife Marie Antoinette, had reached its peak. Yet the royal couple, busy mourning their eldest son, couldn't face this latest crisis head-on. Once Louis got back on track, it was already too late. They were doomed.
Maybe Louis XVI could still convince himself he was the true power in the land after the Tennis Court Oath, but not after one harrowing day in October 1789. An angry mob stormed the Palace of Versailles, and they were out for blood. For over a century, the French Monarchy hid themselves away within the lavish walls of the palace. The people decided it was time for that to end.
The people didn't like Louis one bit at this point, but they despised Marie Antoinette. Her lavish spending and foreign heritage represented everything they hated about the monarchy. When the mob stormed Versailles, they wanted the queen's head. They infiltrated the palace and allegedly made it all the way to the queen's bedroom mere minutes after her attendants had spirited her away.
The royal family escaped with their lives, but they were about to enter a whole new nightmare.
Lafayette, the head of the Garde National that had stormed the Bastille mere months before, managed to diffuse the situation at Versailles. He saved the lives of Louis XVI and his family that day, but they didn't get off scot-free. The people dragged the royal family to the old Tuileries Palace in Paris. They figured it would be easier to hold Louis accountable in Paris, rather than miles away in Versailles.
Louis had no choice but to accept their demands. So began the final, harrowing chapter of his life as a prisoner of his own people.
At this point, Louis' best bet was to create a constitutional monarchy. Sure, that would strip him of almost all of his powers, but at least he'd still be king. The problem is, France was way too divided to accept that. The Third Estate wanted to get rid of the monarchy completely, meanwhile, Louis' brothers in the country were trying to launch counter-coups and take back the country. The counter-coups only served to convince the Revolutionaries that the monarchy had to go once and for all.
Through all of this, Louis and his family sat in Tuileries Palace, prisoners in a gilded cage. Louis finally decided he had to act to save his family—but like pretty much everything he tried, it was a complete and utter failure.
Louis had no power while the Revolutionaries kept him trapped in the Palace. If he wanted to take his country back, he'd have to get out. So, with the help of his wife's maybe-lover, Axel von Fersen, Louis planned a daring escape. He and his family would flee to Austria, where he could lick his wounds, gather a force, and take Paris back from the rebels.
It was a decent plan. It went wrong so fast.
Give Louis credit for one thing: At least he managed to get his family out of Tuileries alright. The royals dressed as servants and slipped out of the palace under the cover of night. If everything went according to plan, they'd be safe in Austria within days, ready to gather their strength and take back their country. Within a year, this whole nightmare would be over, a mere footnote in a long and healthy reign.
Yeah, things didn't go according to plan.
Louis must have felt pretty confident before the flight from the Tuileries. He left behind a 16-page manifesto in which he rejected the constitutional system and asserted his dominance as king. Pretty big words from a guy who was running with his tail between his legs. If everything had worked out the way he'd hoped, the manifesto would have become prophecy. He'd have returned to Paris triumphant to make his words a reality.
Instead, the manifesto ended up being a 16-page death sentence. Publishers re-printed his words and disseminated them throughout Paris. When the time came, those pages would be exhibit #1 to prove Louis was guilty of high treason.
Planning a daring escape, writing a dramatic manifesto, none of this really sounds like the Louis XVI we've come to know. Well, how about this: Mostly thanks to Louis' indecisiveness, poor planning, and a series of constant delays, the escape from Tuileries failed miserably. Now that sounds more like Louis XVI! The family made it as far as a small village near the Austrian border and they probably felt pretty good about themselves.
But there's one thing they didn't count on...
Here's the thing about being the King of France: You're kinda recognizable. Hard to go undercover when your face is literally on everyone's money. A local man allegedly recognized the king's face from the 50 livres bill and called in the authorities. Less than a day after leaving the palace, guards rounded up Louis and his family and dragged them right back to Paris.
I understand why Louis wanted to escape, but it ended up just making things a lot worse. If anyone thought they could work with Louis before, his attempted flight sealed their suspicions once and for all. But for Louis, it was even worse than that. The failed escape proved just how naive he'd been.
This entire time, Louis had assumed that the "revolution" was just some upstart Paris yuppies acting on their own. He firmly believed that the real people out in the country adored him and prayed for his success. In his own warped world, even after everything that had happened, Louis still believed he was beloved. The villager's betrayal during his flight shattered those illusions.
Louis began to realize just how alone he really was—and now he had to deal with the fallout from his actions.
The escape from the Tuileries had the exact opposite effect that Louis wanted. He hoped he'd get to safety, then return triumphantly to an adoring public to kick out those pesky Revolutionaries. Instead, he ended up locked in the palace under a closer watch than ever. Even worse, pretty much anyone who'd still supported him felt like he'd betrayed them. By trying to flee to Austria, he was essentially joining the enemy.
The French Revolution had been simmering for months until that point—but now, it burst into flame.
The final nail in Louis' coffin came just a few months after the failed escape. Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and Frederick William II of Prussia issued a joint declaration condemning the French Revolution. They declared to all the monarchs of Europe that the safety and well-being of Louis XVI and his family were in their best interest. They also threatened vague but dire consequences should anything happen to them.
It makes sense: The other monarchies of Europe definitely didn't want revolution to start going around. However, they vastly underestimated how serious the French revolutionaries were.
The National Assembly took Leopold and Frederick William's declaration as an open threat, and they responded in kind. With Louis' support (not like he had a choice), they declared war on Austria. It was a complete fiasco, with a terribly organized army failing miserably to invade Austria, but it didn't matter. What came next finally gave the Revolutionaries the reason they needed to get rid of Louis once and for all.
The Austrians fought back the disorganized French forces and turned the fight back on them, invading France that summer. After taking key fortresses near the border, the leader of the Austrians, the Duke of Brunswick, issued the Brunswick Manifesto. In it, he flat-out said what the Revolutionaries suspected all along: The Austrians intended to restore Louis to his full powers, and they threatened to use force against anyone who stood in their way.
Brunswick talked a pretty big game, seeing as the revolutionaries still held Louis captive. I guess he thought they were just bluffing. They were not.
The Brunswick Manifesto finally pushed the people of France over the edge. Louis could no longer claim that he believed in a constitution now that a foreign army invaded French soil with the expressed intent of restoring the monarchy. A mob stormed the Tuileries and, in an ironic twist, Louis and his family had to hide out with the Legislative Assembly.
Louis had seen angry mobs before, but this was different. After years of delay, his time had finally come.
Revolutionaries officially arrested Louis XVI three days after the mob stormed the palace. They locked him up in the Temple, an ancient fortress, and debated his ultimate fate. A month later, the National Assembly—the same group Louis himself had convoked just a few years earlier—declared France a republic. They abolished the monarchy and stripped Louis of all his titles and honors.
From that day on, he was no longer King Louis XVI—he was merely Citizen Louis Capet. Not that he'd wear that name for long...
In the end, one of Louis' closest confidants dealt him a devastating betrayal. Francois Gamain had been the locksmith at Versailles, and he'd taught Louis everything he knew about the craft. Louis had known him for over 20 years, but Gamain sold him out just like that. He revealed the location of Louis' secret iron chest, in which he kept his most confidential papers.
Revolutionaries broke upon the chest and found documents that proved—in their eyes—that Louis was an enemy of the people. Marie Antoinette had allegedly warned Louis that they couldn't trust Gamain, but Louis ignored her. He couldn't imagine his close friend betraying him...which made it hurt all the more when he did.
After months locked away, the National Assembly finally dragged Louis out to face trial. An eerily silent crowd came out to see their one-time king in shackles. He received his own council to present his defense against the charges of treason—but behind closed doors, Louis gathered those advisors and made a shocking confession.
A bolder king might have been able to stand up for himself, but not Louis XVI. By the time of his trial, he'd completely given up. He told his lawyers to try their best, but he realized that the courts would find him guilty and have him executed. Even before the verdict, he'd accepted his fate; his only concern was to fight to have people remember him as a good king who tried his best.
Well, for once in his life, Louis was right: He was well and truly doomed.
When Louis' sentence came down, it fell to his councilor, Malesherbes, to break the news. The once-king's response was heartbreaking. Louis kept on a smile, told Malesherbes that he'd see him again in a happier life, and said he'd regret leaving a friend like him behind. The last thing he told his friend was to control his tears, because all of France would be looking to him in the days that followed.
Louis was a total failure of a king, but when his end came, he met it with his head held high.
Louis XVI, now Citizen Louis Capet, was beheaded by guillotine on January 21, 1793, at the Place de la Révolution. On that fateful day, he approached the scaffold with dignity, appearing resigned to his fate. In his final moments, he took the time to deliver one last, tragic speech.
From the moment he became king, Louis XVI wanted one thing: For his people to love him. Even when they were moments from killing him, this never wavered for a second. During his short speech, Louis pardoned all of those who had voted against him. He declared his innocence and prayed that his blood would not fall back on France. He appeared ready to say more, but a general cut him off by ordering a drum roll.
Even in his final moments, Louis XVI still just couldn't assert himself. He kneeled willingly beneath the guillotine, and the blade relieved him of his head in a swift stroke. The French Monarchy was dead. But for Louis' family, the nightmare was only beginning.
After Louis' execution, Marie Antoinette became "Widow Capet." Though she and Louis had had a strained marriage, their shared experience of the last few years had finally brought them close together. With Louis gone, she plunged into mourning. She held out hope that somehow, someway, her last remaining son, Louis-Charles, might claim the throne and continue the monarchy.
She didn't realize that her enemies would use her own son against her in the cruelest way possible.
The weeks passed, and Marie Antoinette's hopes of escape grew dimmer. One the Revolutionaries guillotined Louis XVI, resistance crumbled. Some Royalists did attempt to break her out of prison, but all of these plots failed. Marie Antoinette would face trial—but after the brutal treatment she received in the Tour du Temple, any escape would seem like a vacation.
Oh how far a queen can fall. The people have France had never loved Marie Antoinette, and their hatred only grew more passionate over the years. By the time of the Revolution, she became maybe the most hated person in the entire country—even more so than Louis. Guards neglected her and her children and constantly threw sordid insults their way. Some even blew smoke in the queen's face as they laughed at her misfortune.
Marie Antoinette faced the guards' derision with as much dignity as she could muster—but what they did to her son broke her for good.
Louis XVI's legacy wasn't completely doomed yet. His son, now Louis XVII, still offered some hope that royalists could restore the monarchy. The revolutionaries, of course, had other ideas. They ripped the boy from his mother's grasp and tried to brainwash him into a young revolutionary. What better way to destroy the monarchy for good than to have the rightful heir to the throne support the Revolution?
Marie Antoinette spent her final days in the Temple trying desperately to catch a glimpse of her son, to no avail. It broke her heart—but when she finally did get to see him again, the words that came out of his mouth absolutely leveled her.
Marie Antoinette finally faced trial nearly a year after her husband's execution. The court made several accusations against her, but the most shocking claim came last. Her own son, Louis XVII, accused her of incest. Radicals had coached the poor boy to say it, of course, but that didn't matter much to the tribunal who already hated her guts.
In the end, it didn't really matter anyway. Nothing was going to save her now.
A few days after the trial began, the tribunal declared Marie Antoinette guilty on the main charges against her. Like her husband before her, Marie Antoinette and her council expected this. They didn't expect what came next, though. At the very worst, she expected life imprisonment. At least that gave her time to hope the winds changed and she might end up free once again.
The death sentence came down like a hammer blow.
Still likely in shock, Marie Antionette followed in her husband's footsteps and faced the guillotine around noon on October 16, 1793. Unlike Louis, she had no stirring speech professing her innocence. Her final words were a polite apology to the executioner after she'd accidentally stepped on his foot. Now that just left Louis' son, poor Louis XVII, as the last hope of the monarchy.
But his fate was the most disturbing of them all.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette both lost their heads, but that was an easier way to go than what their son got. The National Assembly named a cobbler, Antoine Simons, as the boy's guardian. Simons, a radical revolutionary, didn't care too much for the boy's well-being, and it's not like the Assembly feared for his safety either. That's how Louis XVII ended up locked in a dark room like a caged animal, surrounded by his own filth.
Honestly, it's a miracle he survived as long as he did.
Louis XVII passed, likely from tuberculosis, in March 1795, after several years as a neglected captive. The doctor who performed the autopsy gave a chilling report on the boy king's body. Scars covered his skin from the gross mistreatment he suffered in his final years. He was just 10 years old. With him, Louis XVI's final heir was gone, his legacy dead forever.
Louis XVI wasn't a bad man, just a terrible king. He paid for the atrocities of the heartless and out-of-touch kings before him who believed their divine right allowed them to grossly mistreat their people. Perhaps a stronger king could have saved the monarchy, but Louis XVI just wasn't the man for the job.
When the National Convention voted to decide Louis' fate, of the 721 deputies involved, 693 voted guilty, and not one voted for acquittal. Next, came the hard part: What to do with the disgraced former king? We all know how this ended, but the final decision was remarkably close. The convention condemned Louis to execution by a majority of just a single vote—and one of those votes came from a shocking source.
Louis was probably getting used to betrayal by now, but this one must have hurt the most.
One of the men who voted for Louis XVI's execution was his own cousin, the former Duke of Orléans. The Duke was one of the richest men in the country and everything the Revolutionaries hated about the old regime, but he made a spineless attempt to save his own skin. In an empty gesture, the Duke changed his name to Philippe Égalité and voted against the king in a show of support.
Philippe's one vote was the difference between life and death for Louis XVI. But don't you worry—the cowardly duke got what was coming to him in the end.
Not that it could help Louis, but Philippe Égalité's betrayal didn't end up saving him. Within just months of Louis' execution, Égalité found himself staring down the very same guillotine in the Place de la Révolution. Despite changing his name and stabbing his cousin in the back, nothing would make the people forget he was once one of the richest aristocrats in France.
Philippe Égalité lost his head on November 6, 1793, and we don't really feel that sorry for him.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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