King Louis XVI of France

Louis XVI
Louis XVI. Wikimedia Commons

Louis XVI was the French king whose reign collapsed into the French Revolution. His failure to grasp the situation and compromise, coupled with his discussions for foreign intervention, led to the creation of a republic and his execution.

Youth

The future Louis XVI was born on August 23rd 1754, to the heir to the French throne; he was called Louis-Auguste. Although the third son born to his father, on the latter’s death in 1765 Louis himself was the new heir to the throne.

He appears to have been a keen student of language and history, and was good at technical subjects and deeply interested in geography, but historians are divided as to the level of his intelligence; overall, it looks like he was clever. He was reserved, and had been taught to be so, but this was sometimes mistaken for stupidity.

His mother died in 1767, and Louis now grew close to his grandfather, the reigning king. In 1770 he married Marie-Antoinette, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, but problems, possibly to do with Louis’ psychology and technique rather than a physical ailment, prevented them from consummating the marriage for many years, although Marie received much of the popular blame for the initial lack of children. Louis was always slightly afraid of Marie having too much influence over him – as Marie’s family craved – possibly due to the influence of childhood teachings. Origins of the French Revolution.

King of France

When Louis XV died in 1774 Louis succeeded as Louis XVI, aged 19. He appears to have been aloof and quiet, but possessed of a genuine interest in the affairs of his kingdom, both internal and external. He was obsessed with lists and figures, comfortable when hunting but timid and awkward everywhere else, an expert on the French navy and a devotee of mechanics and engineering, although this has been overemphasised by historians.

He liked English history and politics, and was determined to learn from accounts of Charles I, the English king who beheaded by his parliament. He also watched people coming and going from Versailles through a telescope.

Louis restored the position of the French parlements which Louis XV had tried to reduce, largely because he believed it was what the people wanted, and partly because the pro-parlementary faction in his government had worked hard to convince Louis it was his idea. This earned him popularity but obstructed royal power, an act which, to some historians, contributed to the French Revolution. Louis was unable to unite his court; indeed, Louis’ dislike of ceremony and of maintaining a dialogue with nobles he disliked meant that court took on a lesser role, and many nobles ceased to attend. In this way, Louis undermined his own position among the aristocracy. He turned being silent into both an art form and act of state, simply refusing to reply to people, or over issues, with which he disagreed.

Louis saw himself as a reforming monarch, but took little lead. He allowed the attempted reforms of Turgot at the start, and did promote an outsider in the form of Necker, but he consistently failed to either take a strong role in government, or appoint someone like a Prime Minister to take one, and the result was a regime riven by factions, lacking a clear direction, and muddling along.

War and Calonne

Louis then approved support of the US revolutionaries against Britain in the American Revolutionary War, giving their old British enemy a bloody nose and restoring French confidence in their military. Equally, Louis was determined not to use the war as a way of grabbing new territory for France. However, in doing so France accrued even greater debts than they already had, dangerously destabilising the country. Louis turned to Calonne to try and save France from bankruptcy, but was forced to call an Assembly of Notables in an attempt to force through fiscal measures and other major reforms, as the cornerstone of Ancien Regime politics, the relation between the King and the parlements, had collapsed.

Louis was prepared to turn France into a constitutional monarchy, and to do so – the Notables proving unwilling – Louis called an Estates-General.

The historian John Hardman has argued that the rejection of Calonne’s reforms, which Louis had given personal backing, led to a nervous breakdown from which he never had time to recover, changing the king’s personality, leaving him sentimental, weepy, distant and depressed. (Hardman, Louis XVI (2000), p. xvi and Louis XVI (1993) p. 126.) Indeed, Louis had so closely supported Calonne that when the Notables, and seemingly France, rejected the reforms, Louis was damaged politically and personally when he had to sack his minister.

Louis XVI and the Early Revolution

The gathering of the Estates General soon turned revolutionary, and Louis was caught up in a fervour which wished to reshape France. At first there was little desire to abolish the monarchy, and Louis might have remained in charge of a newly created constitutional monarchy if he had been able to chart a clear path through the momentous events as someone with a clearer and more decisive vision might have. Instead he was muddled, distant, uncompromising, and so silent he appeared open to all interpretations. As his eldest son fell ill and died, Louis divorced himself from what was happening at key moments. Louis was torn this way and that by court faction and his own tendency to think long about issues, and so when proposals were finally put forward to the Estates, they had already formed into a National Assembly, which Louis initially called “a phase”. Louis then misjudged and disappointed the radicalised Estates, misjudging his response, proving inconsistent in his vision, and arguably too late.

However, despite this Louis was able to publically accept developments like the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and his public support increased when it appeared he would allow himself to be recast in a new role. There is no proof Louis ever intended to overthrow the National Assembly by force of arms, being afraid of civil war, and he initially refused to flee and gather forces. But there was a deep seated tension, as Louis believed France needed a constitutional monarchy in which he had an equal say in government.

He disliked having no say in the creation of legislation, and was only given a suppressive veto that would undermine him every time he used it.

Flight to Vergennes and Collapse of the Monarchy

As the revolution progressed, Louis remained opposed to many of the changes desired by the deputies, privately believing the revolution would run its course and the status quo returned. As frustration with Louis grew he was forced to move to Paris, where he was effectively imprisoned. The position of the monarchy was further eroded, and Louis began to hope for a settlement that would mimic the English system; he was also horrified by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which offended his religious beliefs.

He then made what would prove to be a major mistake: he attempted to flee to safety and gather forces to protect his family; he had no intention, now as ever, of starting a civil war, nor of bringing back the Ancien Regime, but wanted a constitutional monarchy. Leaving in disguise on June 21st 1791, he was caught at Varennes and bought back to Paris. His reputation was damaged. The flight did not destroy the monarchy – sections of the government tried to portray Louis as the victim of a kidnap to protect the future settlement – but it did polarise people’s views. When fleeing Louis left behind a declaration, which is often accused of damaging him, but in practice gave constructive criticism on aspects of the revolutionary government which deputies tried to work into the new constitution before being blocked. The Estates General / Recreating France.

Louis was now forced to accept a constitution neither he, nor few other people, really believed in. Louis resolved to execute the constitution literally in order to make other people aware of it’s need for reform, but others simply saw the need for a republic, and the deputies who supported a constitutional monarchy suffered. Louis also used his veto, and in doing so walked into a trap set by deputies who wished to damage the king by making him veto. There were more escape plans, but Louis feared being usurped, either by his brother or a general, and refused to take part.

When French declared a pre-emptive war against Austria in April 1792, Louis – who had hoped his position would be strengthened but remained terrified war would doom them- was seen increasingly as an enemy. The king grew even more silent and depressed, being forced into more vetos, before the Paris crowd were pushed into triggering the declaration of a French Republic. Louis and his family were arrested and imprisoned.

Execution

Louis’ safety came further under threat when secret papers were discovered hidden in the Tuileries palace where Louis had been staying, and they used by enemies to claim the former king had engaged in counter-revolutionary activity. Louis was put on trail; although he had hoped to avoid one, fearing that it would prevent the return of a French monarchy for a long time. He was found guilty – the only, inevitable result - and narrowly condemned to death after refusing an attempt at bribing his way to survival. He was executed by guillotine on January 21st 1793, but not before ordering his son to pardon those responsible if he had the chance. The Republican Revolution / Purges and Revolts / The Terror / Thermidor.

Reputation

Louis XVI is generally portrayed as the fat, slow, silent monarch who oversaw the collapse of absolute monarchy, or as close as France ever got to this ideal. The reality of his life – that he tried to reform France to a degree few would ever have dreamed about before the Estates General was called – is generally lost. The key argument is what responsibility Louis holds for the events of the revolution, or whether he happened to preside over France at a moment when much greater forces conspired to provoke massive change. The ideology of absolute rule was collapsing, but at the same time it was Louis who consciously entered into the American Revolutionary War, and Louis whose indecision and mangled attempts at government and ceremony alienated the Third Estate deputies and provoked the first creation of the National Assembly.

Letters to Vergennes

Studies of Louis XVI have been affected by the decision, taken in the 1990s by the descendants of Louis’ Foreign Minister Vergennes, to release a set of letters written to him by Louis. As letters from Louis pre-revolution are rare, this has increased the material historians have to work with.