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21 January 2012

On this day in history: Louis XVI executed, 1793

The position of King Louis XVI and his family became increasingly tenuous following his attempt to escape revolutionary France in June 1791. The authorities arrested them at Varennes-en-Argonne, returned them to Paris, and placed them under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace. The royal houses of Europe became increasingly concerned about the fate of Louis and as a result the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II - the Austrian brother of Queen Marie Antoinette - and King Frederick William II of Prussia made the Declaration of Pilnitz in August, after consulting French émigré nobles.

The Declaration warned the revolutionaries that they could expect swift reprisals should any harm befall the French royal family. Hoping to restore favour with his people, Louis accepted the Legislative Assembly's declaration of war against the Holy Roman Empire in April 1792. The French army, devastated by revolution, faired badly resulting in a Prussian invasion. In July, the commander in chief of the allied forces, the Duke of Brunswick, declared that the Austrians and Prussians intended to restore Louis to his full powers, effectively undoing the revolution.

While the Duke and his émigré advisers hoped that this declaration would ensure the safety of the King, the actual effect was the opposite of this. Many saw this as collusion between Louis and the foreign powers and the on the night of 10th August supporters of the hard-liner municipal government in the capital, the Paris Commune, besieged the Tuileries. The King sought sanctuary with the Legislative Assembly, which suspended the monarchy. Three days later the authorities arrested the King for High Treason and other offences against the State, imprisoning him in the Temple fortress.

The Legislative Assembly also created a National Convention to draw up a new constitution. When it first met on 20th September it became the de facto executive power in France and the next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. On 11th December the King was brought before the Convention to face the charges brought against him. The King's counsel, Raymond Desèze detailed Louis' defence on the 26th, speaking for three hours he explained that the charges were unconstitutional and questioned the right of the Convention to sit as judge and jury over the monarch.

On 15th January 1793 the 721 deputies of the Convention made a decision on the verdict; 693 of them voted that he was guilty, none of them voted for an acquittal. The next day they voted on the king's punishment; 361 voted for his immediate execution, 72 voted for delayed execution on certain conditions and, 288 voted for an alternative punishment. When the Convention voted down a motion to grant a reprieve the next day - 380 to 310 - the King's fate was sealed.

On Monday 21st January 1793, stripped of all titles, Citizen Louis Capet ascended the scaffold at the Place de la Révolution (formerly the Place Louis XV, now the Place de la Concorde). He started to make a speech to the jubilant crowd in which he declared his innocence and pardoned those that had sent him to his fate. Louis continued to speak but a general in the National Guard, Antoine-Joseph Santerre, cut him short by ordering a drum-roll. Accounts suggest that the guillotine blade did not sever the neck on the first attempt. Following the decapitation many members of the crowd dipped handkerchiefs in Louis' blood as a memento of that fateful day.

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Meeting of the French Estates-General: 5th May 1789
The Tennis Court Oath: 20th June 1789
Parisian women brought Louis XVI back to Paris: 6th October 1789
Guillotine used for first time: 25th April 1792
Louis XVI executed: 21st January 1793
Prince Murat executed: 13th October 1815