Modern history


Malesherbes carried his grief with him to the Temple that same morning. Announcing the sentence of the Convention, which he said had been carried by a majority of just five votes, he broke down again, falling at the King’s feet. Louis seemed more concerned with the old man’s condition than his own, raising him gently to his feet and embracing him. Malesherbes then related the voting in detail, and it was only when he came to Orléans’ vote that the King seemed to betray any bitterness. That same evening was the last time the King and the Minister saw each other. One account has the King telling him, “We will be reunited in a better world. But I am sorry to be leaving a friend such as you.” It is probably apocryphal since, according to Cléry, Louis in fact expected to see Malesherbes again and became increasingly upset at his absence in the days that followed. The old man had, in fact, made several attempts to visit the King and on each had been denied entrance on the express orders of the Commune and the Convention.

It was another small cruelty. Well before his trial Louis had resigned himself to expecting the worst. His principal concern was not to save his own life so much as to vindicate himself from the accusations made against him. And he was especially apprehensive (as well he might have been) for the safety of his family. Being separated from them since December 11 only made these fears more dramatic, and all these anxieties surfaced in the will he had dictated in Malesherbes’ presence, surely not coincidentally, on Christmas Day. This was not in any sense a political document, though it insisted on his innocence and expressed forgiveness to his enemies as well as to “those whom I may have offended through inadvertence (for I do not recollect having ever willingly given offence to anyone).” Much of the testament was devotional, reaffirming his faith in the sacred creed and the authority of the Church and commending his soul to the forgiveness of the Almighty. But a good deal of it was directed to his family, begging forgiveness of Marie-Antoinette for any sorrows that his own troubles may have brought on her. As if responding with husbandly gallantry to the grotesque libels that continued to issue from the popular press, Louis expressly declared that “I have never doubted her maternal tenderness” and even asked her pardon “for whatever vexations I may have caused her in the course of our union.”

Of his son Louis, the King wrote that, should he “have the misfortune to become King,” he was “to reflect that he ought to devote himself entirely to the happiness of his fellow citizens; that he should forget all hatred and resentment and particularly in what relates to the misfortunes and vexations I have suffered; that he cannot promote the happiness of a nation but by reigning according to the laws; yet at the same time that a King cannot enforce those laws and do the good his heart prompts unless he be possessed of the necessary authority, for otherwise being fettered in his operations and inspiring no respect he is more harmful than useful.”

It was, at last, a clear realization of the dilemma on which he had been impaled from the beginning to the end of his reign. How to do good without surrendering authority; how to make a people happy when they wanted to be free? Nothing the Revolution would do, and certainly not killing Louis Capet, would make the answer to that problem, perhaps the most deadly legacy left by Rousseau, any more obvious. Perhaps its intrinsic insolubility etched itself on the features of the King as he approached the end of his life, an expression of painful gravity caught in the half-profile drawn by Joseph Ducreux in the Temple.

In the Convention, from the eighteenth to the twentieth of January, last-ditch efforts were made to try to obtain a reprieve. Tom Paine, who had been elected a deputy on the strength of his reputation as the nemesis of Edmund Burke and who had come to Paris starry-eyed about the Revolution and speaking almost no French, now suggested through his interpreter, Bancal, that Louis be sent to the United States, where he might be rehabilitated as a decent citizen. Deputies on the Mountain who had been thrilled to see Paine arrive but had been suspicious about his friendship with Girondins (probably determined by the fact that they spoke better English), were now aghast at this intervention. Marat shouted that Paine was disqualified from expressing an opinion since he belonged to the sect of Quakers notorious for their opposition to the death penalty. But the proposal was taken no more seriously than Condorcet’s long and densely reasoned Beccarian attack on capital punishment. Mailhe’s amendment was pressed for the last time and lost, though again by a surprisingly close vote, 380 to 310.

It was, however, enough. On the evening of the twentieth, a deputation from the Convention, led by Grouvelle, came to the Temple to read Louis the final determination of the assembly. In response he asked for a three-day stay that he might better prepare for his execution; for a confessor of his own choice, naming the Irish priest Edgeworth de Firmont; and to be allowed to see his family. The first was denied and the last two granted. At about eight thirty that evening the family was reunited. No one had yet told them about the King’s fate, and from behind a glass door Cléry could see the women and children rocking with misery as he gave them the news. For an hour and three quarters they remained together, weeping, kissing and consoling each other as best they could, the little boy clinging to his father’s knees. When it was time to go, none of the family could bear the brutal weight of a final parting. Louis promised that he would see them all again at eight the next morning. “Why not seven?” said the Queen. “Of course, why not, seven.” They were on their way out when the Princesse Royale, the King’s daughter, suddenly threw herself at her father and collapsed in a dead faint. Bringing her round was the family’s last embrace.


The Guillotine had been set up on the square renamed the place de la Révolution and which is today the place de la Concorde. The greate questrian statue of Louis XV that had given the space its original name had been knocked down on the same day that Louis XIV had been struck from the place des Victoires. From his platform six feet above the crowd and the soldiers, Sanson could see the truncated pedestal still in place. Prepared to meet any kind of sympathetic demonstration, armed or otherwise, the Commune had turned Paris into an immense garrison. The city gates had been shut; a special escort of twelve hundred guards had been assigned to accompany Louis’ coach to the scaffold, and the streets were lined four deep with soldiers. Santerre, who was in charge of all these operations, had even stationed cannon at strategic points along the route and elsewhere in the city.

Louis was woken in the wintry dark by Cléry and received communion from Edgeworth at around six. He dressed simply, but it was already apparent that he would not see his family again, since he asked the valet to give his wedding ring to the Queen along with a packet containing locks of hair from all the family. A royal seal, taken from his watch, was to be passed to his son as a sign of succession. When representatives from the Commune arrived, he asked them if Cléry might not cut his hair to spare him the indignity of being cropped on the scaffold. Needless to say, permission was denied. He was, for the purposes of the executioner, just another head. At around eight Santerre arrived and, after shuffling around somewhat, was put out of his misery by Louis’ own command: “Partons.” The ride took two hours through Paris streets shrouded in damp fog. The sense of a blanket of quiet was strengthened by the closed shutters and windows which had been ordered by the Commune and the peculiar suspended animation of the crowds, who, on other occasions, had been vocal with both their cheers and their execration.

Not long into the drive a pathetic rescue attempt was made by the Baron de Batz and four followers shouting, “To me all those who want to save the King.” They were immediately set on, as was one of the Queen’s former secretaries, who tried to push his way through to the coach. At ten o’clock the procession arrived at the scaffold. Beneath the platform Sanson and his assistant prepared to undress the King and tie his hands, only to be told by the prisoner that he wanted to keep his coat on and have his hands free. He evidently felt so strongly about the last matter that it appeared for a moment he might even struggle, and it took a remark from Edgeworth comparing his ordeal to that of the Savior for Louis to resign himself to whatever further humiliations were to be heaped on him.

The steps to the scaffold were so steep that Louis had to lean on the priest for support as he mounted. His hair was cut with the professional briskness for which the Sanson family had become famous, and Louis attempted finally to address the great sea of twenty thousand faces packed into the square. “I die innocent of all the crimes of which I have been charged. I pardon those who have brought about my death and I pray that the blood you are about to shed may never be required of France…” At that moment Santerre ordered a roll of drums, drowning out whatever else the King might have had to say. Louis was strapped onto a plank which when pushed forward thrust his head into the enclosing brace. Sanson pulled on the cord and the twelve-inch blade fell, hissing through its grooves to its mark. In accordance with custom, the executioner pulled the head from the basket and showed it, dripping, to the people.

It was the relentless normality closing in around the spectacle that struck some witnesses as truly unbearable. Lucy de La Tour du Pin and her husband had heard the gates of Paris close earlier that morning and knew that hope had expired. They had strained their ears to listen for any sound of musket fire that might promise some kind of redemptive chaos. But there was nothing but silence in the murky fog. At ten thirty they heard the gates reopening “and the life of the city resumed its course, unchanged.”

Mercier was also watching. One might have expected him to feel some sense of vindication since he had, so often and so vehemently, prophesied exactly the kind of king-destroying apocalypse that was presently overtaking France. But he felt nothing of the sort. For all his literary violence, he was becoming steadily more disgusted by the real thing. Though he had absolutely no illusions about the King’s good faith during the Revolution, he had voted in the Convention against death, both for pity’s sake and because he believed, again prophetically, that Louis’ death would make a European war of unprecedented scale inevitable. He was startled, then, to see the kind of brutal festivities that seemed to greet the execution, once the immediate shock had passed.

His blood flowed and cries of joy from eighty thousand armed men struck my ears… I saw the schoolboys of the Quatre-Nations throw their hats in the air; his blood flowed and some dipped their fingers in it, or a pen or a piece of paper; one tasted it and said Il est bougrement salé [It is well-salted – alluding to the kind of livestock that was fattened on salt marshes (pré-salé)]. An executioner on the boards of the scaffold sold and distributed little packets of hair and the ribbon that bound them; each piece carried a little fragment of his clothes or some bloody vestige of that tragic scene. I saw people pass by, arm in arm, laughing, chatting familiarly as if they were at a fête.

Allowing for Mercier’s own predilection for the bizarre, much of his account is likely to have been true. Sanson was entitled to sell items of clothing and mementoes from the execution as part of his perquisites. Less reliably documented, but in keeping with other sacrificial deaths that happened in moments of historical crisis, are accounts of spectators saturating their handkerchiefs in the royal blood. Was this, if indeed it happened, a kind of inverted baptismal rite, as Daniel Arasse has suggested? Or was it rather a craving to partake collectively in a kind of expiratory sacrifice: a death which once shared by all could not be laid at the feet of any individual?

It was not, however, the only death in Paris. The day before, as Louis was preparing for his end, one of the regicide deputies was fatally stabbed in a café in the Palais-Royal. Moreover, the victim, Michel Lepeletier, was not an anonymous face in the Convention. Far more than the sleazy opportunism of Philippe d’Orléans, his conversion to militant Jacobinism expressed just how far the ancien régime had been destroyed by its own beneficiaries. For Lepeletier had come from the cream of the judicial aristocracy and had himself been not just a conseiller but a président of the Parlement of Paris. A close friend of Hérault de Séchelles, he had been one of the most active reformers in the Constituent Assembly, especially prominent in the Committee for Public Instruction, which drafted an ambitious project for free compulsory elementary education. He had also lent his legal expertise to the reform of the penal code and had proposed a carefully graduated tariff of punishments, in the Beccarian manner, to match differentiated crimes. Reserving capital punishment for premeditated murders, for instance, was supposed to make it awesome enough to deter the villain.

Considerations of this kind did not weigh very heavily on the mind of Lepeletier’s own assassin. A former member of the royal bodyguard named Pâris, he approached Lepeletier in the candlelit café amiably enough before pulling an enormous knife. Stabbing the deputy several times, he opened a gaping cavity in his chest.

The corpse of the martyr lay exposed for four days, laid out on a catafalque below which were written what were said to be his last words: “I die content that the tyrant is no more” (though it was unclear if, in fact, the King had predeceased him). Jacques-Louis David made a drawing, self-consciously based on a Renaissance pietà, that exposed Lepeletier’s wound like a holy gash and suspended a knife over the torso. In the same representation his head, which was in reality memorably ugly, with a great hooked nose and exophthalmic eyes, was turned into a Roman bust of exemplary beauty. During the funeral, organized by David, the body was laid out on the empty pedestal in the place Vendôme from which a statue, of Louis XIV, had been removed. David had a great flight of steps constructed with a little platform on top, so that before the ceremonies patriotic mourners could ascend to the bier, past two great smoking urns, and behold the Patriot on his Roman bed of death. At his feet, draped over a pike like a bloody flag, was the shirt in which he had been murdered, going brown-black in the January light. “I am satisfied to spill my blood for the country,” announced an engraved plaque below, “[for] I hope that it will serve to consolidate liberty and equality…”

After the eulogies, at which Robespierre was particularly sonorous, the body was lowered and borne through the streets, led by the holy chemise. With Lepeletier’s brother Félix at the head of the procession, it made its way to the Convention and then to the Jacobins. There Lepeletier’s daughter was declared to be “adopted by the nation,” though she scarcely had the need, Mercier tells us, since her father’s legacy came to some half-million livres. Later, this fille de la nation would become a passionate royalist. Tormented more by the memory of a regicide father than by his death, she concealed and possibly destroyed David’s painting. She also mutilated the engraved plate made after that work. A single copy survives still bearing the coup de grâce the daughter inflicted on the image of her already wounded father.

While the Republic was beatifying its first martyr, the body of its king was being turned into nothingness. The theoretical immortality by which, when a king died, royalty lived – Le roi est mort; vive le roi – was now reversed. It was the Citizen who had become the heroic immortal; it was the death of the King that was made to kill kingship. The intention was to obliterate the remains of Louis Capet so thoroughly that nothing at all would survive except mortal dirt. Following the execution, the head was placed between his legs in a basket and taken to the cemetery of the Madeleine. From there it was placed in a plain wooden coffin of the kind used for the poorest burials and covered with quicklime. The grave into which it was lowered was said to be ten feet deep. Eight months later, fearing a trade in relics, the Commune issued a further order requiring any surviving items of clothing or any objects whatsoever taken from the Temple to be burned in a public immolation.

The Rex Christianissimus, incarnation of the Sun, had become, by turns, the Restorer of French Liberty, the King of the French, the Pig of Varennes, the tyrant Capet and finally a nullity dissolving in the Paris soil. Those who disposed of him intended an irreversible demystification, something that would make the act of king-killing almost prosaic. Before long this process had gone so far that Sèvres demitasses could be boughtwith Duplessis’ design of Sanson holding up Louis’ head rendered on the side in dainty gold paint. Good republicans could sip their coffee demonstrating at the same time their human normality and their political singularity.

It was indeed the case that, for all the attempts at restoration in the nineteenth century, kingship in France was killed along with the King. But the fundamental conflict that had led to this dénouement did not go away on January 21. For the designated successor to royal authority – the Sovereign People – was no more capable than Louis XVI of reconciling freedom with power.

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