Louis XVI (August 9, 1754, Versailles – January 21, 1793, Paris) was King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, and then King of the French in 1791-1793. Suspended and arrested during the Insurrection of le 10 août
, he was tried by the National Convention, found guilty of treason, and executed on le 21 janvier 1793
. His execution signaled the end of the absolutist monarchy in France and would eventually bring about the rise of Napoléon.
Beloved by the people at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism led the people to reject and persecute him for the perceived tyranny of the former kings of France. During the French Revolution, he was given the family name Capet, a reference to Hugh Capet, the founder of the dynasty, and was called Louis Capet in an attempt to desecrate his status as king. He was also informally nicknamed Louis le Dernier
, "Louis the Last", a derisive use of the traditional nicknaming of French kings. Today, historians and Frenchmen in general have a more sympathetic view of Louis XVI, who is seen as an honest man with good intentions but who was probably unfit for the Herculean task of reforming the monarchy, and who was used as a scapegoat by the Revolutionaries.
The Capet-Bourbon family crest
Louis' father, le Dauphin
(1729-1765), was the only son of Louis XV of France, and died at age 36, while Louis XV was still alive. His mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, second wife of the Dauphin, and the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.
On May 16, 1770, he married Marie Antoinette
, daughter of Francis I of Austria and Empress Maria Theresa.
The government was deeply in debt. The radical reforms of ministres de finance
, first Turgot then Malesherbes, disaffected the nobles. Turgot was dismissed and 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 Calonne and Brienne, before being restored in 1788.
In 1788, Louis ordered the first election of the 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 la assemblée Nationale
; Louis' attempts to control it resulted in the serment du jeu de paume
, "Tennis Court Oath," on le 20 juin
, the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly on le 9 juillet
, and the storming of the Bastille on le 14 juillet
. In octobre
, the royal family was forced to move from the Palace of Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris.
The Storming of la Bastille
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 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 the principles of popular control of government. Some, notably Honoré Mirabeau, secretly plotted to restore the power of the Crown in a new form.
However, Mirabeau's sudden death, and Louis's depression fatally weakened developments in that area. Louis was nowhere near as reactionary as his 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). However, 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 le 21 juin 1791
, Louis attempted to flee secretly from Paris to modern-day Belgium (then part of the Austrian Empire) with his family in the hope of forcing a more moderate swing in the revolution than was deemed possible in radical Paris. However, flaws in the escape plan caused sufficient delays to enable them to be recognised and captured at Varennes. Supposedly Louis was captured while trying to make a purchase at a store, where the clerk recognised his face on the coinage. He was returned to Paris, where he remained nominally as constitutional king, though under effective house-arrest until 1792.
On le 25 juillet 1792
, in a conspiracy against his own country. Louis was officially arrested on le 13 août 1792
. On le 21 septembre 1792, la assemblée Nationale
declared France to be a republic.
Louis was put on trial on le 11 décember 1792
and convicted of high treason before the Legislative Assembly. He was sentenced to death on le 17 janvier 1793
by guillotine by 361 votes to 288, with 72 effective abstentions.
Stripped of all titles and honorifics by the egalitarian, Republican government, Citizen Louis Capet was guillotined in front of a cheering crowd onle 21 janvier 1793
. On his death, his eight-year-old son, Louis-Charles, automatically became to royalists and some international states the de jure
King Louis XVII of France, despite the end having been declared of the monarchy.
The execution of Louis XVI. The executioner is holding Louis's head up for the crowd to see.
French Revolution: A History
Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy