, , , , , , , , , , ,


Louis XVI and his family, dressed as bourgeois, arrested in Varennes. Picture by Thomas Falcon Marshall (1854)

Flight to Varennes

During the night of 20–21 June 1791, French King Louis XVI (1754 – 1793), his wife, Marie-Antoinette (1755 – 1793), their children, Louis-Charles (1785 – 1795), the dauphin, or heir apparent, and his sister Marie-Thérèse (1778 – 1851), the king’s sister Élisabeth of France (1764 – 1794) attempted to escape France. The Marquise de Tourzelle, the children’s governess, from 1789 until 1792, accompanied the royal family. As for the king’s brothers, Louis XVIII (17 November 1755 – 16 September 1824) and Charles X, they had fled. Despite their bourgeois clothing, the Royal family was recognized one stop before Varennes and arrested at Varennes. By 25 June 1789, they had returned to Paris. (See Flight to Varennes, Wikipedia.)

We know that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette would be guillotined during the Reign of Terror, 1793 – 1794), as well as Élisabeth de France, the king’s younger sister. Moreover, Louis-Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans (13 April 1747 – 6 November 1793), of the House of Orleans, a cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, would also be guillotined, on 6 November 1793. Consequently, hindsight invites approval of the Royal family’s attempt to flee what seemed imminent danger.

Hindsight is also forgiving. We can understand why Louis-Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans  changed his name to Philippe Égalité. He was afraid. But did he have to vote in favour of his cousin’s execution?

But weighing against Louis XVI – Marie-Antoinette, mainly, was “collusion with the invaders,” a view supported by the flight to Varennes. (See The Trial of Louis XVI, Wikipedia.)


The return of the royal family to Paris on 25 June 1791: colored copperplate after a drawing of Jean-Louis Prieur (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

La Fayette and the National Guard

  • 11 July 1789: Necker dismissed
  • 13 July 1789: a Bourgeois militia is formed
  • 14 July 1789: the Storming of the Bastille
  • 15 July 1789: Lafayette elected commander of the militia (The National Guard)
  • 16 July 1789: Necker reinstated

After the Tennis Court Oath, the National Assembly itself feared disorder. By and large, the French trusted Jacques Necker (30 September 1732 – 9 April 1804), but he had been replaced by the Marquis de Breteuil, on 11 July 1789. King Louis XVI’s faux pas led to immediate unrest.

On 13 July 1789, fearing disorder, the National Assembly created a Bourgeois militia and, on 15 July 1789, Lafayette (6 September 1757 – 20 May 1834) was elected to the post of commander of the Bourgeois militia, which would become the National Guard.

Gendarmes were required. Mobs stormed the Bastille (see The Storming of the Bastille, Wikipedia). Necker was reinstated on 16 July 1789 and would not leave France until 3 September 1790.

On 6 October 1789, were it not for the intervention of the National Guard, commanded by Lafayette, a mob may have killed members of the Royal family when Louis XVI’s family was forcibly removed from Versailles. (See The Women’s March on Versailles, Wikipedia.)

Emigration & the Day of the Daggers

  • 28 February 1791: the Day of the Daggers
  • the King asks Royalists to leave the Tuileries

The Royal family had been taken to the Tuileries Palace, in Paris, a royal residence. But Louis’ aunts, Madame Adélaïde and Madame Victoire, had fled to Rome, as though Royalists could not protect them and as though the Royals needed protection. On The Day of the Daggers, 28 February 1791, Royalists, carrying concealed daggers, tried to enter the Tuileries to save Louis XVI and his family. Louis himself asked them to leave and those who would not leave were forcibly removed. The Royalists were dismayed.

The Champ de Mars Massacre

  • 17 June 1791: the Champ de Mars Massacre
  • 20 June 1791: the Flight to Varennes
  • 15 July 1791: the King declared inviolable

On 17 June 1791, a crowd of 50,000 gathered at the Champ de Mars to sign a petition asking for the king’s removal. The National Guard under Lafayette, opened fire. The crowd returned later in the day, led by Danton and Camille Desmoulins. The National Guard fired again, killing as many as 15.

On 20 June 1791, the Royal family attempted to flee France, but were arrested at Varennes and taken back to the Tuileries Palace. However, on 15 July 1791, the National Assembly or Legislative Assembly declared the King inviolable until the ratification of a new Constitution.

The Assembly of Notables, revisited

A Constitutional Monarchy might have saved the French monarchy, but Louis did not know what a Constitutional Monarchy was. The delegates to the Assembly of Notables would not accept a land-value tax, but they were prepared to institute changes. If accurate, I believe it is, the following quotation is very revealing:

Yet what was truly astonishing about the debates of the Assembly is that they were marked by a conspicuous acceptance of principles like fiscal equality that even a few years before would have been unthinkable….Where disagreement occurred, it was not because Calonne had shocked the Notables with his announcement of a new fiscal and political world; it was either because he had not gone far enough or because they disliked the operational methods built into the program.[1]

(See Assembly of Notables, Wikipedia.)

The Notables knew that France was nearly bankrupt and that insolvency would bring not only the downfall of France, but also their own downfall. It was to their advantage to pay taxes. Louis XVI was not as fortunate as Louis XIV. Louis XIV’s Conseil d’en haut, the King’s Council, was very small, but it consisted of bourgeois. Moreover, they met en haut, i.e. upstairs, next to the King’s chamber, at Versailles. The King did not fear them. Louis XIV feared no one except the princes du sang, the Princes of the Blood.

The Storming of the Tuileries

  • 10 August 1792: the storming of the Tuileries
  • 10 August 1792: the National Guard turns against the Royalty
  • Lafayette flees France

After the flight to Varennes, Marie-Antoinette‘s idea mostly, Louis XVI was closely guarded in the Tuileries, home to the National Assembly and, later, to the National Constituent Assembly. The Legislative Assembly was the legislature of France from 1 October 1791 to 20 September 1792. King Louis XVI had “betrayed the French.” The Storming of the Tuileries, on 10 August 1792, would undo the King. Britannica uses the word “irresolution.”[2] But, additionally, the National Guard had turned against the Royalty and they were joined by sans-culottes and the fédérés, marseillais (from Marseilles, hence the title of the French national anthem La Marseillaise). Militants had come to Paris for the Fête de la Fédération, 14 July 1791. Lafayette, their commander, fled France.

The Collapse of the Monarchy

  • 13 August 1792: Royal family imprisoned in the Temple
  • 20 September 1792: the Battle of Valmy
  • 21 September 1792: proclamation of the abolition of the monarchy
  • 22 September 1792: declaration of the First Republic

On 13 August 1792, the Royal family was imprisoned in the Temple, a fortress built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. There was an invasion. On 20 September 1792, the Duke of Brunswick did attack the French, but he was defeated. The Battle of Valmy was a French victory. The Monarchy was abolished on 21 September 1792. (See Proclamation of the abolition of the monarchy, Wikipedia.) and France was declared a republic, the First Republic, on 22 September 1792.

“Collusion with the invaders”

As I wrote above, weighing against Louis XVI, or Marie-Antoinette, was “collusion with the invaders.” (See The Trial of Louis XVI, Wikipedia.) Louis XVI was executed on the grounds that he was a traitor. The King had tried to flee France, but could he tell that leaving France could be construed as treason, the worst of crimes. Revolutionaries did fear intervention from Royal families outside France and the flight to Varennes led to the Brunswick Manifesto (25 July 1792) and the Declaration of Pillnitz (27 August 1791). Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor (5 May 1747 – 1 March 1792), the Declaration’s main author, was Marie-Antoinette’s brother. Leopold may have wished to rescue his sister. She had attempted to leave France. Leopold II died on 1st March 1792.


The flight to Varennes sealed the Royal family’s fate. King Louis XVI had attempted to flee France, which the King of France could not do. One can understand King Louis XVI’s fears and Marie-Antoinette was adamant. But can one understand the Reign of Terror?

Love to everyone 

Tour_du_Temple_circa_1795_Ecole_Francaise_18th_century (1)

The Temple, a view of the Grosse Tour-circa 1795, École Française 18th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Abbey Sieyès’ The Third Estate (6 August 2018)
Cleric, Knight and Workman (31 July 2018)
The Tennis Court Oath (8 February 2014)
The Church of France & French Revolution (cont’d) (6 May 2014)
The Church of France during the French Revolution (2 May 2014)

Sources and Resources

Britannica, various entries
Wikipedia Timeline of the French Revolution & other entries
Chronology of the French Revolution (online)
Proclamation of the Duke of Brunswick or Brunswick Manifesto (online)
Major Events in the French Revolution (sutori.com)
Hilaire Belloc’s French Revolution (Internet Archive)
Thomas Carlisle’s The French Revolution is Gutenberg’s [EBook #1301]
M. Mignet’s History of the French Revolution from 1789 – 1814 is Gutenberg’s [EBook #9602]
… .


Below are the names of members of the Royal family who were executed and the date on which each one died.

House of Bourbon
Louis XVI: 21 January 1793, aged 38
Marie-Antoinette: 16 Otober 1793, aged 37
Elisabeth de France: 10 May 1794, aged 30

House of Orleans
Louis-Philippe II, duc d’Orléans: 6 November 1793, aged 46

[1] See Note 7 in Assembly of Notables, Wikipedia
[2] “Louis XVI,” Albert Goodwin and Jeremy David Popkin, Encyclopædia Britannica

Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine (words & translation)

Tour_du_Temple_circa_1795_Ecole_Francaise_18th_century (1)

Le Temple, Paris

© Micheline Walker
16 August 2018