A History of the Women's March on Versailles

Turning Point in the French Revolution

Women's March on Versailles, 1789
Women's March on Versailles, 1789. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The Women's March on Versailles, which took place in October 1789, is often credited with forcing the royal court and family to move from the traditional seat of government in Versailles to Paris, a major turning point in the French Revolution.

Context

In May of 1789, the Estates-General began to consider reforms and in July, the Bastille was stormed. A month later, in August, feudalism and many of the privileges of the nobility and royalty were abolished with the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” modeled on America’s Declaration of Independence and seen as a precursor to forming a new constitution.

It was clear that major upheaval was underway. 

In some ways, this meant that hopes were high for the French, but there was reason for despair or fear. Calls for more radical action were increasing, and many nobles and those who were not French nationals left France. 

Because of poor harvests for several years, grain was scarce, and the price of bread in Paris had increased beyond the ability of many of the poorer residents to buy bread. Sellers also were anxious about the shrinking market for their goods. 

The Crowd Assembles

This combination of a bread shortage and high prices angered many French women, who relied on bread sales to make a living. On October 5, one young woman began beating a drum at the market in eastern Paris. More and more women began to gather and, before long, a group of them were marching through Paris, gathering a larger crowd as they stormed through the streets. Initially demanding bread, they shortly began, possibly with the involvement of radicals who had joined in the march, to demand arms.

By the time the marchers arrived at the city hall in Paris, they numbered somewhere between six and ten thousand. They were armed with kitchen knives and many other simple weapons, with some carrying muskets and swords. They seized more weapons at city hall, and also seized the food that they could find there.

But they were not satisfied with some food for the day. They wanted the situation of food scarcity to end.

Attempts to Calm the March

Stanislas-Marie Maillard, who had been a captain and national guardsman and helped attack the Bastille in July, had joined the crowd. He was well known as a leader among the market women, and is credited with discouraging marchers from burning down the city hall or any other buildings. 

The Marquis de Lafayette, meanwhile, was trying to assemble the National Guardsmen, who were sympathetic to the marchers. He led some 15,000 troops and a few thousand civilians to Versailles, to help guide and protect the women marchers, and, he hoped, keep the crowd from turning into an uncontrollable mob.

March to Versailles

A new goal began to form among marchers: to bring the king, Louis XVI, back to Paris where he would be responsible to the people, and to the reforms that had begun to be passed earlier. Thus, they would march to the Palace of Versailles and demand that the king respond.

When the marchers reached Versailles, after a walk in driving rain, they experienced some confusion. Lafayette and Maillard convinced the king to announce his support for the Declaration and the August changes passed in the Assembly.

But the crowd did not trust that his queen, Marie Antoinette, would not talk him out of this, as she was known by then to oppose the reforms. Some of the crowd returned to Paris, but most remained in Versailles.

Early the next morning, a small group invaded the palace, attempting to find the queen’s rooms. At least two guards were killed, and their heads raised on pikes, before the fighting in the palace calmed.

The King's Promises

When the king was finally convinced by Lafayette to appear before the crowd, he was surprised to be greeted by the traditional “Vive le Roi!” The crowd then called for the queen’s, who emerged with two of her children. Some in the crowd called for the children to be removed, and there was fear that the crowd intended to kill the queen. The queen stayed present, and the crowd was apparently moved by her courage and calm.

  Some even chanted “Vive la Reine!”

Return to Paris

The crowd now numbered around sixty thousand, and they accompanied the royal family back to Paris, where the king and queen and their court took up residence at the Tuileries Palace. They ended the march on October 7. Two weeks later, the National Assembly also moved to Paris.

Significance of the March

The march became a rallying point through the next stages of the Revolution. Lafayette eventually attempted to leave France, as many thought he’d been too soft on the royal family; he was imprisoned and only released by Napoleon in 1797. Maillard remained a hero, but died in 1794, only 31 years old.

The king moving to Paris, and being forced to support the reforms, was a major turning point in the French Revolution. The marchers’ invasion of the palace removed all doubt that the monarchy was subject to the will of the people, and was a major defeat for the Ancien Régime. The women who initiated the march were heroines, called “Mothers of the Nation” in the Republican propaganda that followed.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A History of the Women's March on Versailles." ThoughtCo, Mar. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/womens-march-on-versailles-3529107. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, March 20). A History of the Women's March on Versailles. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-march-on-versailles-3529107 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A History of the Women's March on Versailles." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-march-on-versailles-3529107 (accessed November 24, 2017).