Modern history


On July 14, 1789, Louis XVI’s journal consisted of the one-word entry “Rien” (Nothing). Historians invariably find this a comic symptom of the King’s hapless remoteness from political reality. But it was nothing of the sort. The journal was less a diary than one of his remorselessly enumerated lists of kills at the hunt. Since his favorite pastime had been more or less permanently interrupted, there could hardly have been a more negatively eloquent utterance on his predicament than “Rien.”

To be sure, he was, in large part, the author of his plight. His personal popularity, especially outside Paris, was still immense. And even after the Tennis Court Oath he had had many opportunities to exploit it as both Mirabeau and Necker had wanted, and to create an authentic constitutional monarchy. They had all been squandered. Worse still, Louis had shown himself either feebly submissive – as in the immediate aftermath of the séance royale – or deviously reactionary, as in the military buildup to Necker’s dismissal.

On the evening of the fourteenth, Lafayette’s brother-in-law and fellow revolutionary enthusiast, the Vicomte de Noailles, reported the day’s events in Paris to the National Assembly. In turn the Assembly decided to relay this information to the King, who preempted them by announcing that he had already determined to withdraw troops from the center of Paris to Sèvres and Saint-Cloud. He expressed sadness and disbelief that blood could possibly have been shed as the result of any orders given to the soldiers but did not offer, as the Assembly wanted, to restore Necker. Later that evening two of the Paris electors arrived confirming Noailles’ reports, but it appears that the full gravity of the situation was not yet apparent to the King.

Later that night, around eleven, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, yet another of the Lafayette circle, asked to see the King in his private apartments. A famous, anecdotal, version of the story has the citizen-noble informing Louis, for the first time, of the fall of the Bastille. The King reacts with the question “Is it a revolt?” and Liancourt replies, “No, Sire, it is a revolution.” While Louis already knew of the rising from Noailles and the electors, it is entirely possible that this exchange took place and probable that it was Liancourt’s apparently graphic account of the death of de Launay and de Flesselles that finally persuaded the King of the full enormity of the event. His military power in the capital had collapsed and with it any possible attempt to reverse the authority of the National Assembly by force.

In the Assembly the next morning, it was decided to send two deputies to see the King to demand the dismissal of the Breteuil ministry. As they were about to leave, Mirabeau made another of his famous interjections according to which the debauched lackeys of foreign powers were poised to trample underfoot the native rights of liberated France.

Tell the king that the foreign hordes by whom we are surrounded were visited by princes, princesses, favorites of both sexes who made much of them… all night long these foreign satellites gorged with gold and wine foretold in their impious songs the enslavement of France and the destruction of the Assembly; tell him that… courtiers danced to barbarous music and that a scene such as this preceded the Saint-Bartholomew’s massacre…

His speech had barely ended when Louis’ arrival was announced. Mirabeau again asserted himself to silence the spontaneous applause, urging a more frosty reception, at least until the King’s intentions were known. “The people’s silence,” he admonished, “is a lesson for kings.” He need not have bothered, for the manner of the King’s arrival was so astonishing, so disconcertingly naked, that it amounted to an abdication. He came on foot with no train or retinue, not even a single pantalooned and perruqued guard. At either side were his brothers, Provence and Artois, physically as well as ideologically to his left and right, respectively. To the Assembly he confirmed the withdrawal of the remaining troops from the Champ de Mars and expressly denied any design against the safety of its members.

Though the King stopped short of announcing the recall of Necker, the official confirmation of the end of a military threat was enough to earn a great wave of cheering inside the Assembly. It flowed into the crowd gathered outside and produced yet another of those demonstrations, half rapture, half threat, that required the presence of the royal family on the balcony of the palace. At two o’clock, an enormous cortège of eighty-eight deputies in forty carriages set out to report the good news to Paris. At their head was Lafayette, as vice-president of the Assembly. The last part of the journey, from the place Louis XV to the Hôtel de Ville, was made on foot and turned into a kind of triumphal march through the city. At the building where, forty-one years later, he would appear in a similar epiphany, Lafayette addressed the enormous crowd, which was covered in patriotic cockades. The King had been misled, he announced, but had now been returned to the full benevolence of his heart. In return the electors promised loyalty. And in what seems to have been an impromptu proposal (made by Lafayette’s friend Brissot de Warville) and taken up by the crowd, the Marquis accepted command of the new Paris militia. Bailly, likewise, became the mayor of the city. A Te Deum in Notre Dame followed in which Lafayette vowed to defend liberty with his life.

With the King’s penitential walk to the Assembly, the august court of the Bourbons had died. On the morning of the sixteenth of July the royal council met for the last time in its traditional form. It had serious things to discuss. Maréchal de Broglie made it quite clear that, given the disintegration of the army, any attempt at counter-attacking Paris was out of the question. What, then, could be salvaged? The Queen and Artois wanted the King to move to a provincial capital, the closer to a Prussian or an Austrian frontier the better – Metz, for example – and there to rally loyal troops. De Broglie, realistically, warned the King that with the chain of command disintegrating so quickly he could not possibly guarantee the King’s safety in any long journey.

There was nothing left but surrender, with as good a grace as he could muster.

For the King’s youngest brother and his set, the humiliation of the monarchy was insupportable. That same night, July 16, Artois, together with the princes de Conti and Condé, his friends the Polignacs and the Abbé Vermond, the Queen’s personal adviser since she had been a princess in Vienna, all departed Versailles for the frontier. The emigration vindicated everything revolutionary pamphlets said about the court: that it was a foreign enclave lodged at the expense of the nation. Now it would add to that odium the reputation of being a client of foreign armies on whom it depended to reassert its authority in France. Indeed, Artois made no secret of the fact that he expected some sort of alliance between loyal French regiments and as yet undetermined (but in all likelihood Austrian) forces to reverse the Revolution. He could hardly have expected, though, that it would take another fifteen years to accomplish the conquest.

The next day, the seventeenth, Louis XVI set out on his own road to Canossa. La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt had already urged him to show his personal goodwill by appearing in Paris, but it was only after the bitter realizations of the council on the sixteenth that he accepted the inevitable. His hand, in any case, had been forced over the matter of the government. Necker’s recall and the dismissal of the Breteuil ministry had been announced to general rejoicing and troops had already begun to pack up on the Champ de Mars and retire to Sèvres, where another seventy-five of them immediately deserted.

Not for the last time, Louis mustered a dignity in helpless impotence that failed him in his fitful moments of self-assertion. Without showing any signs of panic, he made provision to continue royal government should he not return. He made his will and testament, and empowered Provence, who alone among the royal princes had decided to remain in France, with authority as lieutenant-general of the kingdom. The King prayed in the Chapel Royal with his family and then set off, dressed in a simple fracmorning coat, without any of the usual appurtenances of majesty. Though his coach was drawn by eight black horses, it too was undecorated. Before it rode a small detachment of his personal bodyguard, who were outnumbered by a much larger escort of the Versailles militia in improvised, heavily cockaded uniforms. Behind them were a hundred deputies of the Assembly and a large, straggling retinue of Versailles townspeople, singing, shouting “Vive le roi” and “Vive la nation” and waving pikes, flintlocks and pruning hooks.

The weather, always described by contemporaries as though it were a revolutionary actor, was accomplice to the royal chagrin. For the sun that shone down resplendently on the procession to Paris announced the eclipse of the fantasy of the Sun King. Louis XIV had built Versailles as a retreat from the capital’s constraints, a place in which he could indulge his Apollonian will in stone and water, ritual and icons. In 1775, at his coronation at Reims, Louis XVI was supposed to have begun a new age of solar enlightenment. Instead the sun had been brought down to earth.

What sort of king was he supposed to be now? Everywhere he went the answer was the same: not Louis XIV but Henri IV. The cult of the first Bourbon, who had ended the wars of religion and had been assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, had now reached epidemic proportions. In his person was supposed to have been combined every manner of benevolence, humanity and wisdom; he was the prototype of the citizen-King that the still overwhelmingly royalist people of France hoped to see reincarnated in Louis. Above all else, Henri was described, in popular songs and verses, as the ideal King-Father, who could no more have done harm to the people of France than he could have murdered his own children. That same concept had been expressed in a grandiose design for a new monument to Henri IV expressly meant to associate the patriotic martyr with his new incarnation, Louis. A vast rotunda was to be encircled by a double row of columns. At its center was to be a statue of the fallen King “in the attitude of a good father in the middle of his children… dressed in the simple costume that he loved.” On the pedestal would be the inscription “To Henri IV from all humanity,” and on a great festive day Louis XVI was to place a crown on his head and pronounce the words (as if in self-tutorial) “Voilàle modèle des Souverains” (Here is the model for sovereigns).

It was no surprise, then, that greeting Louis XVI at the Porte de Chaillot, Bailly alluded to this incessantly recommended ancestor and in particular to his entry into Paris in 1604. Offering the King the keys to the city – a custom associated with triumphal entries – the mayor even improved on the original scene. “These are the same keys,” he said, “that were presented to Henri IV; he had conquered his people; now it is his people who have conquered their king.” Louis may not have appreciated the reversal of form.

Other serious amendments to triumphal royal entries then followed. The Valois kings of the French Renaissance – François I, Henri II and Charles IX – had each been greeted by arches proclaiming his identity as the Gallic Hercules, the master (sometimes even the emperor, in the manner of Charlemagne) of Gallia et Germania. Louis XVI was greeted instead by Lafayette in civilian dress, wearing the blue and red cockade of the city (and, ominously, the colors of the House of Orlé ans), and taken through streets lined with armed citizen-guards to the place Louis XV. The rear of the procession was joined by market women, dressed in the white costume they kept for ceremonials, draped in red and blue ribbon and bearing flowers. At the Hôtel de Ville, above the archway of unsheathed swords formed for him – as if both in homage and challenge – the King could read the official designation of his new identity:


Conceding this reinvention of kingship, Louis then accepted the cockade that Bailly offered him on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville and pinned it to his hat as trumpet and cannon shot accompanied bursts of cheering. After a brief and largely inaudible speech inside the Grand Salle, where the King attempted to express satisfaction with the appointments of Lafayette and Bailly – another legitimation of actions over which he had had no control – he showed himself again on the balcony, wearing the cockade.

At about ten that evening, Louis reached Versailles, exhausted and disoriented, though much relieved that the day had ended without bloodshed. He greeted his even more relieved wife and children affectionately. Their physical safety increasingly seemed his paramount concern. With his court virtually abolished and his royal ceremonial stripped from him, Louis XVI had become, at last, just another père de famille. And it was to protect them that he had consented to become at the same time the “bon père de la France.” The idealists of a revolutionary monarchy were to claim that the second title was but an extension of the first. Pessimists (the minority in 1789) could see family quarrels ahead. And in the eventuality of such a conflict it was not yet clear, especially to Louis XVI, to which of the families he would devote the remainder of his life.

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