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20 June 2009

On this day in history: The Tennis Court Oath, 1789

On 5th May 1789 the Estates General of France met at Versailles for the first time in 175 years to ratify various proposed reforms that the King's ministers hoped would end the financial crisis that France found itself mired in. Rather than discuss the new taxes, the representatives of the third-estate were more interested in discussing the organisation of the Estates General. Their concern was that whilst they represented the vast majority of the nation, the other two estates - the clergy and the nobility - would vote together against them since each estate only had one vote.

Attempts at diplomacy between the estates failed, and on 17th June the representatives of the third-estate - by then calling themselves les communes ('the commons') - and a number of delegates from the other two estates who had joined them renamed themselves the National Assembly. They defiantly declared that that since they represented most of the French people then national sovereignty resided with them; although, initially at least, they still recognised the authority of King Louis XVI whose consent they would seek in order to pass any new laws.

Louis, however, was not about to be dictated to. Rather, on 19th June, he chose to go to the National Assembly, annul any degrees it had made, command the clerical and noble delegates to return to their respective orders, and then draw up popular legislation to bring the third-estate back into the fold. He ordered that the hall in which the National Assembly met be locked and a guard be placed there to prevent them meeting while he met in session with leading courtiers to plan how to proceed.

Consequently, on 20th June 1789 the National Assembly found itself without a place to meet. The delegates commandeered an indoor-tennis court that was close by. Once gathered inside, the recalcitrant deputies took a collective oath in defiance of the King to continue meeting until an acceptable constitution be established for the French nation. This act of unity and defiance that consolidated the revolution enjoyed widespread popularity in France. As a result Louis had little choice but to order the remaining delegates of the first- and second-estate to join the National Assembly.

The History Guide site has a page with the full text of The Oath of the Tennis Court.

Related posts
Meeting of the French Estates-General, 5th May 1789
Feudalism abolished in France, 4th August 1789
Parisian women bring Louis XVI back to Paris, 6th October 1789
France reorganised into 83 départements, 4th March 1790
Paris celebrates la Fête de la Fédération, 14th July 1790
Guillotine used for first time, 25th April 1792
September Massacres begin, 2nd September 1792
Louis XVI executed, 21st January 1793

2 comments:

allroundus said...

Nice post. I'm wondering how do you get this information...

Stepterix said...

I have a number of books about the French Revolution. I used The Oxford History of the French Revolution by William Doyle for this post (if my memory serves me well). Also, Simon Schama's Citizens is a very good read on the subject.