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Louis XVI of France

Louis XVI
Louis XVI

Louis XVI of France (August 23, 1754 - January 21, 1793) succeeded his grandfather (Louis XV of France) as King of France on May 10, 1774; he was crowned on June 11, 1775. His father, the Louis dauphin son of Marie Leszczynska, had died in 1765. Louis was his father's third son by Marie Josephe of Saxony.

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 de 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 de Calonne and de Brienne before being restored in 1788. A further taxes reform was sought, but the nobility resisted at the Assembly of Notables (1787).

In 1788 Louis ordered the first election of an 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 (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 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 on the principles of popular control of government, some, notably Honoré Mirabeau, secretly plotting to restore the power of the Crown in a new form of constitutionality.

However Mirabeau's sudden death, and Louis's depression, fatally weakened developments in that area. While 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) 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.

On June 21, 1791, Louis attempted to flee secretly from Paris to the regions with his family in the hope of forcing a moderate swing in the revolution than was deemed possible in radical Paris but flaws in the escape plan caused sufficient delays to enable them to be recognised and captured at Varennes. 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, an threatened 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 with 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.

Preceded by:
Louis XV
King of France Succeeded by:
Louis XVIII of France (nominally)
Louis XVII of France (unofficially)
Napoleon I (effectively)

Last updated: 11-08-2004 11:20:32