In my third post on my continuing series discussing the history of the Château de Versailles, I examined several key events that took place from 1786 – June 20, 1789 in the lead-up to the French Revolution. The post concluded with the evolution of the Third Estate of the Estates-General into the National Assembly, and with its members pledging the Oath of the Jeau de Paume on June 20, 1789. In this fourth post, I’m going to focus on several key events of the French Revolution that happened next within a four-month period between June 23 and October 6, 1789.
Before continuing with the story, I’m going to briefly talk about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Louis XVI was not a terrible man, but in 1789 he was in way over his head. He was more naturally inclined to be a scholar than a King, and he was completely unsuited to the political and social challenges of his time. To be fair, it would have taken an exceptional personality to rise to the extraordinary changes that were suddenly sweeping through French society. Maybe Louis XIV would have stood a chance. But Louis XVI was not cut from the same cloth as his great-great-great grandfather. Louis XVI had never been a firm and confident decision-maker, and he frequently shied away from conflict. He was a stress-napper and often fell asleep in council meetings—his subsequent snores did little to endear him with or earn the respect of those around him. He also struggled with his mental health. He had been exhibiting symptoms of major depression since August 1787, which would have only been compounded in June 1789 by his grief over the loss of his son.
Marie Antoinette was even less prepared for the task at hand. Marie Antoinette grew up in an age when noble women received very little education or training beyond preparing them to be delightful, entertaining, and (most importantly) obedient wives. Some women successfully overcame the limitations of such an upbringing—her own mother, Maria-Theresa of Austria, comes to mind—but this was not the case for Marie Antoinette. Her education had been largely neglected throughout her childhood1. She came to France as a fourteen-year old princess full of charm and eager to please, but she could barely read. It was just as well that political intrigues did not suit her, as French Queens were actively discouraged from taking on a political role anyway. Marie Antoinette was an accomplished musician and a devoted mother, happiest when spending time away from court with her children and closest friends; the death of two children in a span of two years would have been devastating. On the few occasions where Marie Antoinette did try to exert the limited political influence she had, she was harshly criticized. The Austrian princess was not welcome in the French political arena, a message that had been made abundantly clear to her by all levels of French society. Further, recent years had seen Marie Antoinette become a target for the simmering anger that the lower class felt for the monarchy. By this point in 1789, she was the most hated person in all of France.
On June 23, Louis XVI held a seance royal (royal session) in which he tried to break up the National Assembly. Louis XVI had his court master of ceremonies, Henri Evard the marquis de Dreux-Brézé, relay the King’s order that the Three Estates should meet in their separate chambers. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the Comte de Mirabeau, hotly replied: “We are here by the will of the people, we shall only go away by the force of bayonets!” Dreux-Brézé and Louis XVI wisely backed down. On June 24, more nobles crossed the floor to join the National Assembly. On June 27, Louis XVI changed tactics in an effort to appear like he was in control of the situation: he ordered all remaining members of the Second Estate to join the National Assembly (the entire First Estate had already done so). He also acquiesced to the demand for “voting by the head.” However, at the same time he also issued orders for the army to mobilize and gather outside of Paris and Versailles.
Rumours and speculation circulated about the King’s intentions with the military deployment. Was he really a supporter of the will of the people, as he claimed? Or was he about to follow up on Mirabeau’s challenge and violently suppress them with bayonets? There was reason to be concerned, as Louis XVI’s typical indecisiveness had him wavering between supporting the Third Estate and the National Assembly one day, and opposing them the next. The King’s younger brothers and several other conservative royalist figures were urging him to hold firm on the absolutist power of the monarchy and push back against the National Assembly. They also wanted him to fire Jacques Necker, whose progressive reforms and support of the Third Estate as Controller-General of Finance had earned their enmity.
On July 6, the National Assembly appointed a committee to begin drafting a national constitution. On July 8, they petitioned Louis XVI to remove his troops from the outskirts of Paris. The recent arrival of several foreign regiments, their obedience to Louis XVI bought and paid for, had worryingly added to their number. Louis XVI shrugged off their request, saying that the deployment was a precautionary measure. He also casually suggested that the National Assembly relocate itself to Noyon or Soissons, two cities that were located 100 kms (62 miles) northeast of Paris. But he wasn’t fooling anyone with this gesture. There was no way the Assembly was going to move that far out from the centre of its growing power at Versailles nor away from the potent support provided by the people of Paris. On July 9 the National Assembly took another revolutionary step forward when they reorganized themselves into the National Constituent Assembly, and claimed that they had the power to make laws. (Note: it was common practice at the time to continue referring to this body as the “National Assembly,” but I am going to start calling it the “National Constituent Assembly to help keep them straight).
On July 11 a member of the National Constituent Assembly proposed that France adopt a “Declaration of Rights” based on the American Declaration of Independence. This was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and military officer who had distinguished himself as a war hero during the American War of Independence while commanding American troops in several battles. Lafayette and many of his French comrades returned from America changed by their experiences there, with new ideas about the role of the monarchy and the power of the common people. Lafayette worked on drafting a French Declaration of Rights through the summer of 1789. He consulted with his close friend Thomas Jefferson, and gathered input from the Abbé Sieyès and Mirabeau as well.
July 11 was also the day when Louis XVI had Necker terminated as the Controller-General of Finance. When news reached the citizens of Paris on July 12, they became outraged. Necker was popular with the common people; there had been celebratory fireworks in Paris when he was recalled to his position back in August 1788. This dismissal of Necker by Louis XVI was interpreted by Parisians as an attack on the National Constituent Assembly. They were also paranoid that the 30,000 soldiers gathered around the city were preparing to shut the Assembly down. This perceived royal interference with the National Constituent Assembly, combined with Parisians’ anger over the current bread price of 14.5 sous, incensed the local populace. Demonstrators took to the streets. A crowd marched from the Palais Royal to the Tuileries Palace, carrying wax busts of Necker and the Duke of Orléans that they had stolen from a local museum while en route. Although the crowd was unarmed, they started to throw stones and garbage at a small group of soldiers when they reached the Tuileries Gardens. The soldiers were part of a German-speaking regiment of the Royal Army, the Royal-Allemand Dragoons, and half of them were made up of Swiss and German mercenaries. Their leader, Charles-Eugène, the Prince of Lambesc, led his troops as they charged at the mob on horseback, armed with sabres. One person was killed and many were injured, including several innocent civilians. A detachment of the French Guards, a permanent local infantry garrison with strong ties to the people of Paris, fired at the Royal-Allemand cavalrymen in response to their attack.
This incident pushed Paris into full-blown rebellion. Louis XVI’s mercenary troops had demonstrated that they were willing to hurt people, and the Paris-based soldiers of the French Guards showed that their loyalties were divided. Rumours that the King was imposing martial law spread like wildfire, and Parisians sought to arm themselves. From the afternoon of July 12 through to the morning of July 14 mobs broke into gun stores, private homes, small armouries, customs posts, and even a convent. They beat or chased away any royal official who tried to prevent them from seizing guns and ammunition. One imaginative group broke into the opera house, only to be disappointed when they discovered that all the cannons and guns used on stage were made of cardboard. The French Guard were ordered to quell the insurrection, but they refused to fire on civilians; instead, many of them broke ranks and joined the insurrectionists.
The National Constituent Assembly held an emergency meeting on the evening of July 12. Since the French Guard had failed in their duty, the deputies came up with a plan to create a new citizens’ militia, the National Guard. This new city guard would defend Paris from external threats and maintain order in the capital. It would operate independently of the army and beyond the reach of the King; its loyalty would be with the National Constituent Assembly alone. The National Guard would use the city of Paris’ red and blue flag as its standard; soldiers would wear cockades (a cloth rosette) sporting the same colours. The formation of the National Guard was met with popular support throughout Paris. Within a few hours of its first establishment in the early hours of July 13, several National Guard groups had formed throughout the city. There were a lot of volunteers eager to make up its intended rank of 48,000 men including soldiers from the French Guard. They dressed in the requisite red and blue and assembled at the Hôtel de Ville, where they awaited instructions. Enthusiasm was in readier supply than organization, however. Arms were in short supply, and so the National Guard could only sit back as mob violence continued to escalate throughout Paris on July 13.
On the morning of July 14 a crowd marched on the Hôtel des Invalides. Although the Invalides had been primarily used as a military infirmary, it had a large store of rifles and artillery in its basement. The guardsmen at the Invalides stood aside and allowed the group to ransack the premises, with some of them even defecting and joining the looters. The mob found 30,000 rifles but little ammunition. But the Invalides guardsmen knew where the solution to that problem could be found: 250 pounds of gunpowder had been recently stored at the Bastille. Once the crowd was informed of this, they duly set off on the 4 km (2.5 mile) trek between the Hôtel des Invalides and the Bastille.
The Bastille had been originally built as a fortress from 1370-1380 to protect the eastern city wall of Paris and the entrance gate at the Porte-Saint-Antoine. It cut a formidable profile, consisting of eight towers with crenellated walls that stood 25 metres (82 feet) high above the streets. In 1417, the Bastille became a state prison. Over the centuries it had become a symbol of feudalistic tyranny, although by the 1700s it rarely held more than 20-30 prisoners at a time. The majority of these inmates were not common criminals; instead, they tended to be rebellious nobles, religious heretics or critics, seditious journalists, propagandists, and debt-ridden aristocrats who had displeased the King. There were seven prisoners being held at the Bastille that fateful morning of June 14, 1789: four forgers, a nobly-born criminal, and two men who were mentally ill.
As the mob from the Invalides gathered outside the Bastille they were joined by a large number of residents from the nearby working-class neighbourhood, the Fauborg Saint-Antoine. At 10:00 am the commander of the Bastille, Bernard-René de Launay, allowed two members of this 900-strong group in to negotiate. De Launay was in a tough spot. He had 114 soldiers assigned to the Bastille, but 82 of them were veteran soldiers who were considered no longer suitable for service in the field—not exactly a collection of elite, competent fighters. And although the construction of the Bastille made it virtually impregnable, the prison only had two days’ food at hand and no source of water; it would not withstand a long siege. On top of that, there was not a lot of room for compromise as de Launay had orders to hold the Bastille at all costs. He was not willing to give up the Bastille’s cannons and gunpowder—the acquiring of which was the sole purpose of this mob— so negotiations quickly failed.
At around 1:30 pm, chaos broke out as a small group gained access to the Bastille’s outer courtyard. De Launay ordered his soldiers to fire on the invaders. A frenzied battle took place within the confined space. When news spread that the garrison had opened fire on the people, swarms of additional people descended upon the Bastille. Two detachments of the French Guard joined them around 3:00 pm, bringing with them trained infantry officers as well as their guns. The fighting intensified. The mob found that their weaponry was too light to inflict damage on the stone walls of the Bastille, so instead they focused their cannons on the main wooden gate. For three and a half long hours, the Bastille was under siege. At one point De Launay threatened to blow up the Bastille and, along with it, most of eastern Paris. When this bluff failed, he ordered a cease-fire and surrendered the Bastille at 5:00 pm. The drawbridge came down at 5:30 pm and the revolutionaries stormed into the fortress. De Launay was dragged into the streets where he was severely beaten and then killed; his severed head was raised up and paraded on a pike. The gunpowder and weapons were seized and the seven prisoners released2.
There were nearly 100 people killed and 70 wounded during the course of the actual fighting. Only one Bastille soldier died during the battle due to the protection offered by the fortress’ thick walls, but De Launay and three other officers were slain after the fact. The victorious mob then set out on the short 1.5 km (0.9 mile) distance that lay between the Bastille and the Hôtel de Ville. When they arrived at the Hôtel de Ville they demanded to see Jacques de Fleselles, the provost of the merchants of Paris (a position roughly equal to City Mayor); he was suspected of having royalist sympathies. De Fleselles obliged and had just begun addressing the crowd when he was gunned down. Like De Launay, De Fleselles’ head was severed and paraded on a pike through the streets of Paris. Other city officials quickly (and understandably) fled the Hôtel de Ville. Back at Versailles, Louis XVI was already in bed when news of the Bastille reached him late in the evening of July 14. “Is it a revolt?” the King asked François-Alexandre Frédéric, the Duke of Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who had come to break the news. “No, majesty, it is a revolution!” the Duke replied.
On July 15, electors from the 60 districts of Paris gathered to form a new municipal government that they called the Paris Commune. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the astronomer who had been appointed President of the National Assembly, was elected as Paris’ first City Mayor. At Versailles, the National Constituent Assembly nominated Lafayette as the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard. Lafayette had stellar credentials: he was a nobleman, a liberal, and a respected military veteran. He was a moderate leader that all Three Estates, aristocrat and common man alike, were willing to rally behind. While Lafayette was uniquely qualified to have the simultaneous backing of the monarchy, the National Constituent Assembly, and the people of Paris at a time when all three of these bodies were coming into increasing conflict with each other, this also meant that he would be responsible for reciprocating their support. Circumstances would soon force him to choose whether his greater loyalties rested with Louis XVI, the National Guardsmen, or the revolutionaries. But for now, one of Lafayette’s first moves as Commander of the National Guard was to add white, the colour of the Bourbon monarchy, to the red and blue cockade of the National Guard. Thus the famous red, white, and blue tricolour of the French Revolution was born.
Louis XVI visited the National Constituent Assembly on July 15 at Versailles. He returned on July 16 and agreed to several concessions they presented to him. He recalled Necker to his position as Controller-General of Finance, and ordered the withdrawal of his troops from around Paris and Versailles. On July 17, Louis XVI travelled to Paris on a mission of goodwill to meet with the new Paris Commune. He met with Bailly at the Hôtel de Ville, and was then taken out on a balcony to face a large waiting audience of Parisians. Bailly presented Louis XVI with keys to the city of Paris and then a large red and blue cockade. Both items were gratefully accepted by the King, who immediately pinned the cockade to his hat. Cheers erupted from the crowd below, along with cries of “Vive la nation!” (Long live the nation!) and “Vive le roi!” (Long live the King!). This appearance by Louis XVI achieved what it had set out to do: it confirmed that the French monarch had bent to the will of the people, and the combustible violence in Paris dissipated… for now.
1789 was a long, strange summer in France. There were sporadic displays of violence and paranoia in the capital city and throughout the countryside. On July 22 one of the King’s ministers, Joseph-François Foullon de Doué, was found hiding in Paris. De Doué had temporarily acted as Necker’s replacement, which was enough to earn him the enmity of the people of Paris. On top of that, Parisian newspapers accused him of saying, probably falsely, that hungry people should eat hay. De Doué was seized by an angry mob that cut off his head and pointedly stuffed it with hay, before placing it on a pike and parading it through Paris3. Another man, French public servant Louis-Bénigne-François Bertier de Sauvigny, was forced out of his home in Compiegne and brought to Paris. De Sauvigny, whose duties included securing provisions for the royal army, was accused of purposefully causing food shortages in Paris. De Sauvigny was shown the severed head of his father-in-law, De Doué, before being hanged from a lamppost in front of the Hôtel de Ville. Gouverneur Morris, an American statesman and Revolutionary who was visiting Paris at the time, witnessed the gruesome spectacle. In a letter to Lafayette, he expressed his horror: “Gracious God, what a people! […] Have we gone backward centuries to pagan atrocities? And you talk of making this people the supreme authority in France? Your party is mad!”
In rural France, rumours that Louis XVI and/or his fellow aristocrats had hired gangs of brigands or mercenaries to destroy their crops and property set off a panic known as “the Great Fear.” The peasants took up arms to defend themselves and then embarked on their own riotous mission of looting, burning, and destroying châteaux—ironically becoming what they had initially been frightened of. Property damage was extensive, and a number of people were killed (3 according to official reports). Peasants also sought out and tore up ledgers that contained information about the taxes, labour, and other feudal obligations they owed to their landlords. Nobles were chased out of their homes and, in some cases, ransomed into renouncing their feudal rights. News of this unrest galvanized the National Constituent Assembly. While the Great Fear had begun as a preparatory action against a rumoured aristocratic counter-revolution, it evolved into a demonstration of the strong hatred the peasants had for feudalism.
The Great Fear encouraged members of the National Constituent Assembly to consider an abolition of all feudal privileges, which was first suggested on August 3, 1789. They moved forward into making this law on the evening of August 4. All of the deputies of the Second Estate stood and voluntarily renounced their hereditary privileges and feudal rights. Members of the First Estate were at first reluctant, but eventually they joined in as well by renouncing their titles and abolishing the church tithe (a 10% tax gathered by the First Estate). It was a euphoric moment of liberal idealism that transcended the Estate system. The Assembly formalized these agreements over the following days with the passing of the August Decrees. These nineteen decrees abolished seigneurial feudalism and sought to create a new society that was based on equality and individual merit.
On August 25, Marie Antoinette hosted a traditional party at Versailles celebrating the Feast of Saint Louis. There, she received a group of women known as the Dames des Halles4. The Dames were retailers who sold fish, fruit, eggs, butter, cheese, herbs, vegetables, and flowers out of Les Halles, the central marketplace of Paris. The majority of these (approximately) 1,000 women sold fish, which is why they’re also often called Les Poissardes (“the fishwives”). Les Halles was the geographic heart of Paris and suppliers could not legally bypass it to sell elsewhere. As such, the Dames who worked in Les Halles (known as “the stomach of Paris”) acted as the distribution lynchpin between countryside suppliers and urban Parisian consumers. This role gave the Dames a lot of local influence: both royal and municipal authorities knew it was crucial to keep them happy. The centrality of Les Halles allowed the market to help set the political tone for the rest of Paris. If the Dames became upset about an issue such as a shortage of food, the entire city would soon reverberate with it.
For centuries, the Dames had been widely recognized as being representatives of the common Parisian people. At the same time, they also enjoyed having a close symbolic relationship with the French sovereign that dated back to King/Saint Louis IX in the 13th century. They were granted the privilege of an audience with the King and/or some of his high officials several times a year either at Versailles or in Paris. On feast days and royal celebrations the Dames presented the King with bouquets and compliments to signify their approval. Generations of Dames had formally met and addressed the King at least 350 times between 1614 (the year of the previous meeting of the Estates-General) and 1789. However, it’s important to note that the sovereign didn’t always have the Dames’ unconditional support. The Dames tended to side with the Parlement de Paris in times when its rulings conflicted with the wishes of the King. In August 1787, the Dames were furious when Louis XVI suspended the Parlement de Paris and exiled its members. They refused to travel to Versailles on August 15 for the Feast of the Assumption, and nearly did the same just over a week later for the Feast of Saint Louis on August 25. City officials pressed them into doing so, as it would have been too provocative for them to snub the King on his own Feast Day (since his name was Louis as well). Now, two years later, the Dames were present at Versailles for the Feast of Saint Louis once more. The traditional bouquets and habitual compliments were offered, but not as easily as before. Little did anyone know that the Dames would soon be making another journey to Versailles but, instead of flowers, they would be bringing cannons.
On August 26, 1789 the last of the 17 articles of the Declaration des Droits de L’Homme et du Citoyen (“Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen”), the document that Lafayette and several of his peers had been working on, was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly. The articles were brief and their language was clear, universal, and unambiguous. They secured individual rights of liberty, property, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of religion, and equal treatment before the law. The articles asserted that law and government existed to serve the public rather than control it. They also established that taxation would be paid by all people in proportion to their means—the elusive goal that had set Louis XVI and his successive finance ministers down this bitter (to them) path in the first place. Although this Declaration did contain some gaps and shortcomings, it quickly became a cornerstone document of the French Revolution and of western liberal democracy itself. Its legacy endures today, as it helped inspire the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
During this same time period, the National Constituent Assembly was also trying to decide what power the monarchy should have moving forward in this new political era. Should Louis XVI have an absolute right of veto on legislation, or was the legislative power of the Assembly paramount? On September 11, the Assembly voted to give Louis XVI a suspensive veto —he could delay the implementation of a new law, but not block it entirely. Louis XVI was furious, as he believed the monarch was entitled to an absolute veto. In protest, on September 15 he used his suspensive veto to refuse endorsement of the August Decrees and the Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. On October 1, the National Constituent Assembly agreed in principle to the idea of a constitutional monarchy. They were ready to strip Louis XVI of all real political authority, if he made this necessary. But there was another incident that took place at Versailles that same day that forestalled such a measure, as it prompted the people of France to check the King’s power in a way that was more dramatic than anything the National Constituent Assembly could have devised.
On the evening of October 1, the Château de Versailles welcomed soldiers of the Royal Flanders Regiment with a banquet held in the Royal Opera House. The troops had come from a town in northern France, Douai, to strengthen the King’s royal bodyguard. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were present at the beginning of the festivities, but retired early. The celebration got rowdier after the monarchs left, as large volumes of wine were consumed throughout the course of the evening. Several drunk soldiers climbed onto the tables and began to sing songs, including verses from André Grétry’s 1784 comic opera Richard Cœur-de-Lion. Although the tone of the evening was largely benign, the Parisian press was aflame with indignation the next day. Jean-Paul Marat, a French political writer, physician, and scientist, was especially critical of the event in his radical newspaper L’Ami du peuple (“Friend of the people”). He reported that the soldiers had purposefully insulted the revolution by throwing tricolour cockades on the ground and then stomping and urinating on them. In their place, the soldiers had worn black and white cockades—which were representative of the Bourbon monarchy. Marat claimed that Louis XVI had been present and approving of all this provocation. Whether these details were true or not, the banquet was surely in poor taste: many men and women in France were starving, unable to find a loaf of bread at any cost, while these royal soldiers were being heartily fed and entertained. It’s understandable that news of the reception would further antagonize a population that was on high-alert for signs of royal excess and contempt.
On the morning of October 5, a group of women at a market in the Fauborg Saint-Antoine—the same neighbourhood whose working-class members had taken part in the storming of the Bastille—began to unite in their fury over the continued scarcity of bread. Lineups outside of city bakeries stretched the length of entire city blocks, with many Parisians waiting for hours only to leave empty-handed. The harvest had just been collected in September, so there was no logical reason why there was still a shortage of food. Rumours began to circulate, with their content intensifying as frustrated people gathered on the streets. No food for Paris! And yet, only a few nights ago the royals and their soldiers had feasted at Versailles! How could this be? Perhaps the royals were trying to starve the people into submission! The soldiers had pissed on their cockades, after all! And, did you hear, the King was there? He even smiled and made a toast to them! The outrage was infectious. Someone started banging a marching drum, and the women urged a nearby church to start ringing its bells. More women from other markets joined in, with the Dames des Halles soon taking charge. Other churches added their bells to the growing storm.
The Dames led the women in a march on the Hôtel de Ville where they were joined by other agitators, including men. The crowd swelled until it numbered around 6,000-7,000 people, perhaps even up to 10,000. They demanded that the municipal authorities provide them with bread. The officials handed over the small supply that was available to them, but it wasn’t enough. The group wanted assurance that food would be made continually available and affordable. When the municipal authorities told them that this wasn’t something they could guarantee, the Dames des Halles asked for weapons. Two cannons and assorted small arms were given to them. An idea surged through the group: they should go to Versailles to demand more bread from the King! And then they should make him return with them to Paris! The people felt they could hold Louis XVI more accountable if he was in the capital, rather than at a remove in his palace at Versailles. The idea became action when Stanslas-Marie Maillard, a National Guardsman who had been among the first revolutionaries to break into the Bastille, grabbed a drum and cried out, “à Versailles!” (to Versailles!). The Women’s March on Versailles had begun.
As this first group of demonstrators began to depart the Hôtel de Ville for Versailles, a new one began to assemble in their place. Members of the National Guard had been dispatched to the Hôtel de Ville to try and contain the mob that had gathered there. Although they were tasked by the National Constituent Assembly to keep public order, a large number of the guardsmen were sympathetic to the concerns of the Women’s March—many of their number were working- and lower-class citizens, after all. Their Commander, Lafayette, was surprised to find that his men were on the verge of mutiny. As the tide of guardsmen turned toward Versailles, they ordered Lafayette to either lead, get out of the way, or be killed. Rather than leaving them to their own devices, Lafayette reluctantly took his place at the head of the 15,000 men as they left Paris. He sent a rider to run ahead to Versailles and sound the alarm. He hoped that along the way he would find a way to protect the King and regain control of the escalating situation.
There had been numerous calls over the preceding months for a mass demonstration at the King’s primary residence, and now it was finally happening5,6. It took over six hours for the agitators to march the 21 kms (13 miles) to Versailles in the hard autumn rain, with the first group arriving around 4:00 pm and the main body between 5:00-6:00 pm. They were armed with kitchen knives, pitchforks, scythes, two cannons, muskets, and other makeshift weapons. When the women had first united that morning in the market, hunger and despair had been their motivation. As they were joined by more people with varying agendas their demands grew in number, ambiguity, and ferocity. During the march they cheered the idea of dragging the King (whom they called “the baker”) back to Paris and then killing the Queen (“the baker’s wife”). Several women were overheard saying it was a good thing they were wearing their aprons, since they intended to pull out the Queen’s entrails and use them to make cockades. The more constitutionally-minded folks expressed their desire to force Louis XVI to accept the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
As the demonstrators neared Versailles, they were met by members of the National Constituent Assembly, who invited Maillard into their hall at the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs. Several marchers piled into the hall behind Maillard and sat on the members’ benches. They were wet, tired, and hungry. The outnumbered and unguarded assembly members had no choice but to admit them. Maximilien Robespierre, a member who was still largely unknown at the time, welcomed the crowd warmly. His efforts helped soften the group’s hostility and contributed to his later popularity. A group of six women were nominated by the crowd to go in to the Château and speak with Louis XVI. At this point, their demands had refocused on the supply of food. The King, who was meeting with his ministers in the Œil-de-Boeuf Antechamber, agreed to speak with one of the women. Louis XVI made arrangements to provide the crowd with bread from the royal stores, and promised that he would tell the directors of two granaries to release all possible reserves. The King then commissioned a carriage so that Maillard and a few of the women could return to Paris and deliver the news.
However, most of the marchers remained behind in Versailles to continue their protest. They spilled out onto the grounds surrounding the Château. In an attempt to pacify them, Louis XVI came out to address them around 6:00 pm. He announced that he was prepared to make several political concessions such as accepting the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen without qualification. Still, the crowd did not disperse. Later in the evening, Lafayette arrived with his contingent of National Guardsmen. He immediately went inside the Château to see Louis XVI where he announced, “I have come to die at the feet of your Majesty!” Many of the men he had left outside called him a traitor, and allied themselves with the group of marchers who had remained at Versailles. Throughout the evening and into the early hours of October 6, the hostility of this combined group reached a fever pitch. Around 4:00 am, they forced open the gate to the Prince’s Courtyard and charged first into the Royal Courtyard, and then into the residence. Chaos erupted as they stormed through the halls, looking for the Queen’s Bedchamber. They swarmed and beat any member of the Royal Guard who got in their way, killing at least two and placing their heads on pikes. Marie Antoinette and her ladies escaped her room through a secret door and staircase7, running barefoot to the King’s Bedchamber. They pounded on his locked door, unheard for long moments above the screams and gunfire, before they were finally admitted. They had barely escaped in time. Back in Marie Antoinette’s room the mob defiantly stabbed her bed with their pikes, making sure she wasn’t hiding inside it.
Lafayette was eventually able to defuse the situation by mediating between the National Guardsmen and members of the Royal Guard. The fighting ceased and the residence was cleared of agitators. However, an angry mob remained outside. They demanded that Louis XVI return with them to Paris. Lafayette convinced Louis XVI to address the crowd from a balcony. As Louis XVI stepped outside, uncertain as to what was about to happen, the crowd unexpectedly cried out: “Vive le Roi!” (Long live the King!”). Surprised and relieved by this change in mood, Louis XVI announced: “My Friends, I shall go with you to Paris with my wife and children. It is to my good and faithful subjects that I confide all that is most precious to me.” The demonstrators then demanded a similar appearance by Marie Antoinette. At first, the Queen came out onto the balcony with her young daughter and son. But the mob, still armed with muskets, commanded her to send the children back inside. Several of the guns were pointed directly at her. From the very beginning of the march, people had rejoiced at the idea of murdering the Queen. Their attitude towards her had been more hostile than the one they had regarding the King. They had broken into the Château that very morning and chased after her through the hallways, beating and killing others along the way. Ordering her to dismiss her children and face them alone was fearfully ominous. It seemed like the blood-thirsty crowd would finally get what they had come for: regicide. Marie bravely faced the crowd with her arms crossed over her chest. And then cheers of “Vive La Reine!” (Long live the Queen!) broke out through the audience. Lafayette knelt before her and kissed her hand, a display that further delighted the crowd. It was a moment that had danced delicately across a razor’s edge. The royal couple had been met with positivity and celebration rather than bloodshed and mutiny. Several heads had already ended up on pikes; theirs could have very easily followed suit. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were undoubtedly relieved to come away from that balcony alive, but they were no longer free. The crowd may have cheered for them, but their directive was still clear: the royal family was going to Paris.
At 1:25 pm on October 6, the royal family began their trip back to Paris, escorted by a crowd that now numbered around 60,000 people. Louis XVI left the Château in the care of his Minister of War, Jean-Frédéric, the Comte de la Tour du Pin Gouvernet, with the words, “try and save my poor Versailles!” He had hoped to return, but his departure would prove final. Versailles would never again serve as a royal residence. The journey to Paris took nine hours with the National Guard leading the way. Loaves of bread were paraded on the points of bayonets alongside pikes with the decapitated heads of members of the Royal Guard. Celebratory gunshots were fired over the royal carriage into the sky. The King and the French people knew fully who was now in charge of whom. Louis XVI and his family were taken to the Tuileries Palace and, ever the scholar, he asked for a book to be brought to him from the library: it was a history of Charles I, the deposed and (ominously) executed King of England.
Two weeks later, the members of the National Constituent Assembly followed Louis XVI to Paris. They set up shop at a former riding school, the Salle du Mènage, close to the Tuileries Palace. Louis XVI and his family remained at the Tuileries for the next three years, effectively prisoners, as the country tried to work out a plan for governance. Versailles was closed in their absence and left in the care of the township of Versailles. The Tuileries had not been occupied since the time of Louis XIV and was a considerable downgrade from their previous residence, but the royal family did their best to adapt. Louis-Charles complained, saying of the Tuileries: “it’s very ugly here, Maman.” Marie Antoinette replied, “Mon fils (my son), Louis XIV lived here once and found it very comfortable.” A respectful gesture, certainly, but Louis XIV had built the Château de Versailles with the purpose of leaving Paris and the Tuileries behind. Nearly two years after their arrival in October 1789, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette tried to do the same. During the night of June 20-21, 1791 Louis XVI and his family fled their captivity in Paris, but were caught and arrested a short while later in the small town of Varennes. This escape attempt turned public opinion against Louis XVI even further, and talk shifted from the possibility of establishing a constitutional monarchy to abolishing it outright. Further, the National Constituent Assembly declared that with this flight attempt the royal family had effectively abandoned all of their possessions. The King and Queen’s standing quickly deteriorated from there.
During the Insurrection of August 10, 1792 the Tuileries Palace was stormed by the National Guard (for more information on this, see my post on the Arc de Triomphe). Louis XVI and his family fled the palace and sought refuge with the Legislative Assembly (the name for the new governing body that had replaced the National Constituent Assembly on October 1, 1791). On August 13, the royal family was imprisoned in the Temple of the Conciergerie. On September 21, 1792, the monarchy was abolished. Louis XVI and Marie were stripped of their royal titles and referred to as Citoyen and Citoyenne Capet. On October 19, the interior minister of France proposed that all of the furnishings in the Château and its related residences (the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, the Hameau de la Reine, etc.) be sold. Louis XVI was separated from his family in December 1792 and put on trial. On January 15, he was found guilty of treason and condemned to death by a majority of one vote8. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine at the age of 38.
On April 6, 1793 the Committee of Public Safety became the de-facto government of France as the Reign of Terror kicked into full gear. Marie’s son, Louis-Charles, was taken away from her on July 3. He was placed in the care of Antoine Simon, a cobbler who was tasked with turning him against his mother and into a “proper republican citizen.” Louis-Charles would later die of tuberculosis on June 8, 1795. Marie Antoinette was put on trial by the Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14, 1793. Her verdict was effectively a foregone conclusion: she was found guilty of treason, depletion of the national treasury, and conspiracy against the security of the state. On October 16, at the age of 37, Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine. Her daughter, Marie-Thérèse, remained imprisoned and was not informed of the death of her mother or brother until late August 1795. She was finally released on the eve of her 17th birthday on December 18, 1795, in exchange for six prominent French prisoners. She was taken to Vienna where her cousin, Francis II, was ruling as the Holy Roman Emperor.
I’m going to pause my recap of the history of the Château de Versailles at this point, with the death of two of its most famous inhabitants. I’ll pick up the story again in part 5 where I’ll examine how the Château began to transition from being a royal residence to a public museum. That post will include the last Louis of our story, Louis-Philippe I, as well as two controversial French political figures who also share a name: Bonaparte. Thank you for reading!
1 Marie Antoinette’s mother, Maria-Theresa of Austria, had sixteen children. Ten of them survived to adulthood: six girls and four boys. Of the six who died, there were three girls who died during their infancy (ages 1-3) and three other children (two girls, one boy) who died between the ages of 12-15. As the fifteenth child and youngest daughter of this large brood, Marie Antoinette was not slated to be a significant political pawn. It’s not surprising that her education was neglected, as there was a lot going on in this household. However, a surprising new alliance was made between France and Austria in 1756-1758 after most of Maria-Theresa’s other daughters had already been married off to secure other political negotiations. Maria-Carolina, the 13th of Maria-Theresa’s children and the 2nd-youngest daughter, was actually who Maria-Theresa planned to have wed to the heir of the King of France. But on October 15, 1767 her 12th child (and 3rd-youngest daughter), Maria-Josepha, died of smallpox at the age of 16. Maria-Josepha passed away on the very day she was due to leave Vienna to marry King Ferdinand of Naples and Sicily. This meant that King Ferdinand was still in need of a bride. So Maria-Carolina was sent to Naples in Maria-Josepha’s stead. Marie Antoinette was the last daughter standing, and so she went on to become Queen of France. Maria-Carolina lived until the age of 62, when she died of a stroke in 1814: a longer life than if she had wed Louis XVI instead. However, Maria-Carolina’s influence later extended to France as two of her descendants, granddaughter Marie-Louise (second wife of Napoleon) and daughter Marie-Amélie (wife of Louis-Philippe I), served as Empress (1810-1814) and Queen of the French (1830-1848), respectively.
2a There was some debate in the days after the storming of the Bastille about what to do with it. Suggestions included having it set up as a monument to liberation or using it as a depot for the National Guard. Others, including Mirabeau, were eager to see it torn down—recognizing the growing value the conquered fortress had as a revolutionary symbol. On July 16 the Permanent Committee of Municipal Electors at the Hôtel de Ville commissioned Pierre-François Palloy, a building contractor, to disassemble it. 1,000 workers completed the task within 5 months. Some of the stones were used to build the Pont de la Concorde bridge. Palloy also took bricks from the Bastille and had them carved into replicas of the fortress, some of which he sold and some he sent as gifts to spread the revolutionary message throughout France.
2b There were 954 people who claimed to have stormed the Bastille, Palloy being one of them. They received certificates from the National Constituent Assembly in 1790 recognizing them as Les Vainqueurs de la Bastille (Vanquishers of the Bastille).
2c In 1793, a large revolutionary fountain featuring a statue of Isis was planned for the former site of the Bastille, which became known as the Place de la Bastille. A foundation stone was laid, but the project never advanced beyond that. Louis-Philippe I had a column built there in 1835-1840 that commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 that placed him in power. In 1899, excavations in the area for the new Paris underground Métro station unearthed the foundations of the Liberté tower. They were moved to the corner of the Boulevard Henri IV, where they can still be seen today. The key to the Bastille was given to George Washington by Lafayette in 1790.
2d Only one of the seven liberated criminals, Hubert de Solages, remained free after the fall of the Bastille. The four counterfeiters (Jean La Corrège, Jean Béchade, Bernard Laroche, Jean-Antoine Pujade) were taken to a new prison a few days later and the two mentally ill men (James F.X. Whyte, Jean-Antoine Pujade) were admitted into an asylum. De Solages was a member of a minor noble family from Languedoc. He had tried to help his 25-year old sister, Pauline, escape from her abusive husband, Jean-Antoine Barrau, by pretending to kidnap her. Their plan failed, and Barrau ensured that de Solages was imprisoned “due to his dissipation and bad conduct” while Pauline was sent to a convent. De Solages lived until 1824.
3 Did Marie Antoinette actually say, “let them eat cake?” I discuss this further in footnote 5 of my post on the Hameau de la Reine. In short, no. Contemporary accounts from French revolutionaries did not attribute this quote to Marie Antoinette, and they certainly would have been happy to do so if she had. She was the most hated person in France. If she had said such a thing, there would have been a big reaction to it. De Doué was merely rumoured to have said “let them eat hay!” and, well, you can see how that turned out.
4 For more about the Dames des Halles, please see Katie Jarvis’ excellent book, Politics in the Marketplace: Work, Gender, and Citizenship in Revolutionary France by Oxford University Press, 2019. All information I have on the Dames des Halles (including the use of the term “Dames des Halles” to refer to them) comes from this work. All other sources I have read regarding the Women’s March on Versailles simply refer to the women (somewhat dismissively) as “the fishwives” or “the market-women.” It was very interesting to learn about the very existence of the Dames des Halles, and the prominent role they played in the French Revolution. How easily their historic impact (and that of many other women) is trivialized and forgotten!
5 Just three weeks earlier, on September 13, a bread riot had taken place in the town of Versailles. A baker was half-hanged for allegedly favouring his richer customers with better quality loaves. Tensions were escalating in the lead-up to the Women’s March on Versailles.
6 October 5 began as just another normal day at Versailles. Marie Antoinette was at the Petit Trianon and Louis XVI was out hunting. They both raced back to the main residence, arriving there around 3:00 pm—an hour before the first marchers arrived. They debated whether they should flee to somewhere safer, such as the Château de Rambouillet located 33 kms (20.5 miles) to the southwest of Versailles. They chose not to, as Louis XVI didn’t want to be perceived as a fugitive King; he later said that he regretted that decision. Marie Antoinette stated that her place was by the King’s side, an attitude she held throughout their captivity.
7 This was the same secret staircase that Louis XVI had installed in the summer of 1775 so that he could privately visit the Queen in her bedchamber. Previously, he had to walk across the Œeil-de-Boeuf Antechamber where he had to endure the taunts of members of the court. On the night of October 5-6, it was suggested that Marie Antoinette stay in the King’s Bedchamber where she would be safer. But she didn’t want to put her husband or children in danger, as she knew that the crowd outside wanted to hurt her. At 2:00 am she went to lie, sleepless, in her Bedchamber with some of her ladies.
8 The King’s cousin, Louis-Philippe-Joseph, the Duke d’Orléans, provided one of those votes in favour of Louis XVI’s execution. He was the same man who spoke up against Louis XVI at a lit de justice held on November 19, 1787 and was exiled by one of Louis XVI’s lettres de cachet. He also marched with the deputies of the Third Estate during the procession of the Estates-General on on May 4, 1789. Louis-Philippe-Joseph changed his name to Philippe Égalité in the fall of 1792. He would later face the guillotine himself during the Reign of Terror on November 6, 1793. Interestingly, he spent a few months imprisoned at Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille before being sent back to Paris for his execution.