Last modified on April 21, 2020, at 05:32

Louis XVI

King Louis XVI of France

Louis XVI (1754-1793) was the king of France (1774-1792) who lost his throne during the French Revolution and was later beheaded by the revolutionaries, as was his wife Queen Marie Antoinette. After a century of wars and financial mismanagement, France was still large, rich and powerful, but could no longer pay its bills, or the exorbitant costs of royalty and aristocracy. Louis XVI, a weak administrator, attempted some tax relief and reforms, but was frustrated by opposition by the upper class and judges.

Louis XVI provided critical financial aid to the Americans, and joined in their war against the United Kingdom, 1778–83. This helped the Americans to win, but further drained the remaining credit of the French government. To raise money, in 1788 the king was forced to call into session a long-dormant representative governmental body called the Estates-General. On July 14, 1789, Parisians seized the notorious prison, the Bastille. The king attempted to escape, but was caught and imprisoned in 1791. In 1792, the new government declared France a republic and ordered the execution of Louis XVI by guillotine on January 21, 1793.


He was the grandson of King Louis XV and the third son of Louis, Dauphin of France, and of his second wife the Dauphiness, Marie Josèphe of Saxony. Born at Versailles on Aug. 23, 1754, he was baptized Louis Augustus, and during the lifetime of Louis XV bore the title of the Duke of Berry. He was tutored in religion, literature, science, mathematics, history, drawing, music, and foreign languages, and taught that he should defer to his older brother, who would become king. The man never outgrew the shyness and dullness of the boy; he was best at his locksmith hobby, or out hunting.

He was not expected to become king, but two older brothers died. Then in 1765 his father died and he became the Dauphin of France and heir to the throne. In 1767 his mother died. In 1770 his grandfather arranged a marriage alliance between the Bourbon and Hapsburg dynasties, and Louis Augustus was married at Versailles to an Austrian archduchess, Marie Antoinette (1755–93), daughter of Maria Theresa and the Emperor Francis I.[1] Their unhappy marriage remained unconsummated for seven years, as the queen surrounded herself with a dissolute clique and threw herself into a life of pleasure and careless extravagance. The personalities of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette helped undermine the prestige of the French monarchy and bring about the French Revolution. Louis lacked self-confidence, leadership abilities, and social skills. Marie Antoinette, conversely, appeared both frivolous and strong-willed. As a foreigner and a woman she offended the French by appearing to rule her husband. The seven-year delay in consummating their marriage led to malicious satire that Louis was impotent and Marie Antoinette promiscuous. When they did have children, their paternity was questioned. The public press portrayed Marie Antoinette as a whore or beast, and Louis as a cuckold, a drunk, and an idiot. Given the extraordinary times in which they lived, their personalities were fatal for the future of France and themselves.[2]


On May 10, 1774 Louis XV died, and his 19-year-old grandson succeeded to the throne as Louis XVI. At first the youthful king was popular with his subjects. Under Louis XV a Triumvirate had controlled the government and fought against the Parlements. Louis XVI restored the Parlements and removed the triumvirs from their posts.[3]

Louis XVI's appointment of Turgot (1727–81) as controller-general of finances seemed to presage the beginning of a period of reform of the political, economic, and social structure of France. The reforms were too little and too late, as his reign marked the culmination of long-term financial difficulties which for decades had sapped the financial stability of the government.

A weak and vacillating leader, Louis XVI proved incapable of pursuing any consistent policy. A series of finance ministers worsened the fiscal crisis, which led to louder and more urgent demands by supporters of liberal reforms. Turgot's program—"No bankruptcy, no increase in taxes, no borrowing, but economy"—demanded stringent reforms, so he abolished some monopolies, tried to reform the extraordinarily wasteful system of farming the taxes (i.e. having private persons collect them for a fee), and drastically cut spending; he managed to reduce part of the public debt. In 1774 his restoration of free circulation of grain inside the country antagonized the grain speculators; it was followed by a crop failure and widespread bread riots, as Turgot's popularity plunged. Turgot was ousted in 1776, and replaced by Jacques Necker as director of the treasury, who had the king's support.

American Revolution

In spring 1776 Vergennes, the Foreign Secretary, saw an opportunity to humiliate arch-foe Britain by supporting the American revolt. Louis XVI was convinced by Benjamin Franklin to send financial aid and large quantities of munitions, sign a formal treaty of alliance in 1778, and go to war with Britain. Spain and the Netherlands joined the French. The Americans gained their independence, and the war ministry rebuilt the French army. However, the British sank the main French fleet in 1782 and France gained little from the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the war,[4] except the war cost 1,066 million livres, financed by new loans at high interest (with no new taxes). Necker however concealed the crisis from the public (explaining only that ordinary revenues exceeded ordinary expenses, and not mentioning the loans.) After he was forced from office in 1781 new taxes were levied.[5]

Financial crises

Necker's attempt to gain greater control over policy by courting public opinion was rebuffed at court, and he quit in May, 1781. Necker's successors Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1783–87) had to borrow another 653 millions. Almost half the annual revenue was absorbed by debt-service, and the government borrowed against next year's anticipated revenue. France simply lacked a taxation system that would support its mounting debts, in contrast to Britain which successfully handled its debt. The powerful Parlement of Paris objected vehemently. To deal with the looming bankruptcy de Calonne proposed an elaborate set of new taxes. Louis XVI called an Assembly of Notables in 1787, but this body, generally hostile to reform, refused to raise taxes. Louis XVI alienated the notables by proclaiming his absolute powers to order a new loan; he tried to disable the parlements. This was no longer acceptable, and the parlements began defying the king. Even the clergy joined in.

Escalating political crisis

With the financial crisis growing worse, the treasury empty, prices soaring, and his political support eroding, the king had to retreat. Absolutism had failed and the nation increasingly demanded a new structure of government. Necker came back as a caretaker and recognized the irresistible demands for leadership by a higher authority, the Estates General; the kings had not allowed it to meet in 175 years. The representation of the Third Estate (businessmen or "bourgeoisie") was doubled, as this powerful new element was soon to dominate the government. Its position was explained by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836) whose pamphlet "What is the Third Estate?" (Jan. 1789) argued that there was no place for privileged groups of any sort. The third estate, which had counted for zero in politics, ought to be in control. A nation, Sieyès declared, was a body of associates living under a common law, and privileges by definition were exceptions to common law. The nobility were a caste of idle, burdensome usurpers, and there should be no question of allowing them to be chosen as third-estate deputies. Finances soon became secondary as profound constitutional issues took the stage and the king's power faded; the French Revolution was put in motion.[6]

French Revolution

see also French Revolution

In the Estates General a sharp quarrel broke out between representatives of the two privileged orders, the clergy and the nobility, and the members of the Third Estate, the bourgeoisie. Conceivably if Louis XVI had definitely taken the part of the bourgeoisie he might have recovered his strength, but he was dominated by conservative aristocrats at court and eventually decided upon the use of military force to destroy the reform movement. Necker was dismissed but before the king acted the Parisians, fearing a coup d'état, rose in rebellion on July 14, 1789. They captured and sacked the Bastille, an ancient fortress and prison in Paris which to many symbolized the despotism of the Bourbon regime. Early in October 1789, a Parisian mob went to Versailles and forced the royal family and the National Assembly (as the Estates General was then called) to return with them to Paris.

The royal family (Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their two children) were placed under strict guard in the palace of the Tuileries. In June 1791 Louis disguised his family and fled to the eastern frontier to join an army of émigrés assembled there with which he hoped to bring about a counterrevolution. At Varennes the royal family was intercepted and brought back to the Tuileries as a state prisoner. The episode was a turning point in the French Revolution; it led radical factions to call for the end of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. It escalated tensions across Europe as the revolutionary government initiated more repressive measures against nobles, emigrants, and refractory clergy. The attempted escape increased fears of foreign wars and paranoia about antirevolutionary plots and conspiracies, which in turn led to more state-sponsored violence and hastened the terror.[7]

Meanwhile, the National Assembly continued its political and economic reorganization of the French state. In September 1791 Louis XVI was forced to assent to the Constitution of 1791 which created a limited monarchy; royal powers were sharply curtailed. The secret opposition of Louis XVI to the progress of the Revolution, however, and the intrigues of his wife and the aristocrats continued. On Aug. 10, 1792, a Parisian insurrection caused Louis and his family to be interned in the Temple. In September the monarchy was abolished and the republic proclaimed. Evidence of the king's intrigues with foreign enemies was uncovered and in December 1792 Louis was formally arraigned by the Convention for conspiracy against the liberty of the country and attempts against state security. The prevailing political theory was that the king had two bodies: a natural body and a political body. The defenders of Louis XVI pleaded the inseparability of the two bodies. Thus the Girondins only wanted to condemn the natural body since this held open the possibility of a postponement because Louis XVI was as guilty as any other. The Montagnards wanted to condemn both the natural body and the political body. Found guilty by a unanimous vote, he was sentenced to death by a vote of 361 to 288, with 72 calling for a delay; he was publicly guillotined in Paris on the morning of Jan. 21, 1793. Marie Antoinette was guillotined Oct. 16, 1793, and the young dauphin (known as Louis XVII) (1785-1795?) was given over to a poor family and apparently died in 1795. Louis XVI's younger brother Louis XVIII (1755-1824) became King of France after the abdication of Napoleon in 1814.

Image and memory

The regicide has loomed as a shadow over French history. The 19th century historian, Jules Michelet, attributed the restoration of the French monarchy to sympathy engendered by the execution. Michelet's Histoire de la Révolution Française and Alphonse de Lamartine's Histoire des Girondins, in particular, showed the marks of the feelings aroused by the revolution's regicide. Though these two writers did not share the same sociopolitical vision, they agreed that though the monarchy was rightly ended in 1792 but the lives of the royal family should have been spared. Lack of compassion at that moment contributed to a radicalization of revolutionary violence and to greater divisiveness among Frenchmen. Because Louis XVI was a merciful man, the revolutionaries' passions needed to be balanced by compassion and by less fanatical sentiments. For 20th century novelist Albert Camus the execution signaled the end of the role of God in history, for which he mourned. For 20th century philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard the regicide was the starting point of all French thought, the memory of which acts as a reminder that French modernity began under the sign of a crime.[8]

The duchess of Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI, survived and lobbied Rome energetically for the canonization of her father as a saint of the Catholic Church. Despite his signing of the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy," Louis had been described as a martyr by Pope Pius VI in 1793. In 1820, however, a memorandum of the Congregation of Rites in Rome, declaring the impossibility of proving that Louis had been executed for religious rather than political reasons, put an end to hopes of canonization.


  1. At the wedding festivities, 132 people were killed when the crowd panicked. This eerie precursor to later history was hushed up by the police at the time.
  2. Nancy N. Barker, and commentary by James Friguglietti, "Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette: Revolutionary Personalities?" Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History 1992 19: 119-127. Issn: 0099-0329
  3. William O. Doyle, "The Parlements of France and the Breakdown of the Old Regime, 1771-1788." French Historical Studies 1970 6(4): 415-458. Issn: 0016-1071
  4. France gained the colonies of Tobago and Senegal.
  5. On finance see William Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989) p 67-74
  6. William Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989) ch 3-4
  7. Timothy Tackett, "The Flight to Varennes and the Coming of the Terror." Historical Reflections 2003 29(3): 469-493. Issn: 0315-7997
  8. See Susan Dunn, The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination. (1994).


  • Baecque, Antoine De. "From Royal Dignity to Republican Austerity: the Ritual for the Reception of Louis XVI in the French National Assembly (1789-1792)." Journal of Modern History 1994 66(4): 671–696. in Jstor
  • Burley, Peter. "A Bankrupt Regime." History Today (Jan 1984) 34:36-42. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext in EBSCO
  • Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution (3rd ed. 1999) online edition
  • Doyle, William. "The Execution of Louis XVI and the End of the French Monarchy." History Review. (2000) pp 21+ online edition
  • Dunn, Susan. The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination. (1994). 178 pp.
  • Hardman, John. Louis XVI: The Silent King (1994) 224 pages, the standard scholarly biography
  • Hardman, John. French Politics, 1774-1789: From the Accession of Louis XVI to the Fall of the Bastille. (1995). 283 pp.
  • Jones, Colin. The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Padover, Saul K. The Life and Death of Louis XVI (1939) online edition
  • Price, Munro. The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy (2004) 425 pp. excerpt and text search; also published as The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Baron de Breteuil. (2002)
  • Rigney, Ann. "Toward Varennes." New Literary History 1986 18(1): 77–98. Issn: 0028–6087; in Jstor, on historiography
  • Schama, Simon. Citizens. A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989), highly readable narrative by scholar excerpt and text search
  • Tackett, Timothy. When the King Took Flight. (2003). 270 pp. excerpt and text search

Primary sources

  • Marie Antoinette. Memoirs of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Wife of Louis XVI: Queen of France (1910) complete edition online
  • Doyle, William, ed. Old Regime France (2001)