Customised search for historical information

20 June 2008

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.


Jena Isle said...

This is interesting. It demonstrates that there is success in unity. The name Tennis Court Oath is indeed fitting, Thanks for that information.

Johnguru said...

I long ago heard the term "the Fourth Estate" to refer to the press; newsmen, newspapers, etc., but I always wondered what the other three "estates" were and what the origin of the terms was. Now I see that it has something to do with french government in the 18th c. Light dawns :-)

Borkiman said...

jen: The unity didn't last long. Within a few years many of the delegates that took the oath had suffered the death penalty.

john: I have also heard of trade unions as the Fifth Estate. Whilst most people seem to follow the French model for identifying the estates of the realm there were a few countries that had four estates, such as Sweden and Finland. Along with the first three - clergy, nobility, bourgeoisie - the peasants of these nations also elected delegates to their national assemblies.

Remember folks, if you enjoy the posts, please click on any ads that catch your eye - shameless ain't I? ;)