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Louis XVI (August 23 1754 – January 21 1793), was King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, and then King of the French in 1791-1792. Suspended and arrested during the insurrection of the 10th of August, he was tried by the National Convention, found guilty of treason with the enemy, and guillotined on January 21 1793.
Beloved by the people at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism led the people to reject and hate in him the perceived tyranny of the former kings of France. During the French Revolution, he was given the family name Capet (a faulty reference to Hugh Capet, the founder of the dynasty), and was called Louis Capet in an attempt to desecrate his status as king. He was also informally nicknamed Louis le Dernier ("Louis the Last"), a derisive use of the traditional nicknaming of French kings. Today, historians and Frenchmen in general have a more nuanced view of Louis XVI, who is seen as an honest man with good intentions but who was probably unfit for the Herculean task of reforming the monarchy, and who was used as a scapegoat by the Revolutionaries.
Louis' father was Louis, dauphin de France (1729-1765), the only son of Louis XV who reached adulthood, and who died at age 36, while Louis XV was still alive. His mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony , the second wife Louis, dauphin de France, and the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.
On May 16 1770, he married Marie Antoinette, daughter of Francis I of Austria and Empress Maria Theresa, a Habsburg. They had four children:
The government was deeply in debt. The radical reforms of Turgot and Malesherbes disaffected the nobles (parlements), and Turgot was dismissed and Malesherbes resigned in 1776 to be replaced by Jacques Necker. Louis supported the American Revolution in 1778, but in the Treaty of Paris (1783), the French gained little except an addition to the country's enormous debt. Necker had resigned in 1781 to be replaced by Calonne and Brienne, before being restored in 1788. A further tax reform was sought, but the nobility resisted at the Assembly of Notables (1787).
In 1788, Louis ordered the first election of the Estates-General since 1614 in order to have the monetary reforms approved. The election was one of the events that transformed the general malaise into the French Revolution, which began in June 1789. The Third Estate had declared itself the National Assembly; Louis' attempts to control it resulted in the Tennis Court Oath (serment du jeu de paume, June 20), the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly on July 9, and the storming of the Bastille on July 14. In October, the royal family were forced to move from the Palace of Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
Louis himself was very popular and not unobliging to the social, political, and economic reforms of the Revolution. Recent scholarship has concluded that Louis suffered from clinical depression, which left him prone to bouts of severe indecisiveness, during which times his wife, the less intelligent and more unpopular Queen Marie Antoinette, assumed effective responsibility for acting for the Crown. The revolution's principles of popular sovereignty, though central to democratic principles of later eras, marked a decisive break from the absolute monarchical principle of throne and altar that was at the heart of contemporary governance. As a result, the revolution was opposed by almost all of the previous governing elite in France and by practically all the governments of Europe. Leading figures in the initial revolutionary movement themselves were questioning the principles of popular control of government. Some, notably Honoré Mirabeau, secretly plotted to restore the power of the Crown in a new form.
However, Mirabeau's sudden death, and Louis's depression fatally weakened developments in that area. Louis was nowhere near as reactionary as his right-wing brothers, the comte d'Artois and the comte de Provence, and he sent repeated messages publicly and privately calling on them to halt their attempts to launch counter-coups (often through his secretly nominated regent, former minister de Brienne). However, he was alienated from the new government both by its challenging of the traditional role of the monarch and in its treatment of him and his family. He was particularly irked by being kept effective prisoner in the Tuileries, where his wife was forced humiliatingly to have revolutionary soldiers in her private bedroom watching her as she slept, and by the refusal of the new regime to allow him to have Catholic confessors and priests of his choice rather than 'constitutional priests' created by the revolution.
End of reign
On June 21, 1791, Louis attempted to flee secretly from Paris to modern-day Belgium (then part of the Austrian Empire) with his family in the hope of forcing a moderate swing in the revolution than was deemed possible in radical Paris. However, flaws in the escape plan caused sufficient delays to enable them to be recognised and captured at Varennes. Supposedly Louis was captured while trying to make a purchase at a store, where the clerk recognised his face on the coinage. He was returned to Paris, where he remained nominally as constitutional king, though under effective house-arrest until 1792.
On July 25, 1792, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, commander of the Prussian forces, issued a manifesto (the so-called Brunswick Manifesto) threatening the inhabitants of Paris with exemplary vengeance if the Royal family was harmed and threatening the French public with exemplary punishment if they resisted the Imperial and Prussian armies or the forced reinstatement of the monarchy. The manifesto was taken to be the final proof of a collusion between Louis and foreign powers in a conspiracy against his own country. Louis was officially arrested on August 13 1792. On September 21 1792, the National Assembly declared France to be a republic.
Louis was tried (from December 11, 1792) and convicted of high treason before the National Assembly. He was sentenced to death (January 17, 1793) by guillotine by 361 votes to 288, with 72 effective abstentions.
King Louis XVI was guillotined in front of a cheering crowd on January 21, 1793. On his death, his eight-year-old son, Louis-Charles de France, automatically became to royalists and some international states the de jure King Louis XVII of France, the 'lost dauphin'.
His wife, Marie Antoinette, followed him to the guillotine on October 16, 1793.
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