France’s King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris on this date in 1793, one of tens of thousands of victims of the French Revolution. He had ascended to the throne in 1774, when he was 20 years old, and he had inherited a mess. The kingdom was nearly bankrupt, the result of lavish spending by his predecessors. He was well liked by his subjects at first, although they were unhappy with his wife because she was a foreigner: Marie Antoinette of Austria. He was intelligent and compassionate, but he was indecisive, and conservative in military action.
By 1788, the unemployment rate in Paris was approaching 50 percent. Crops were failing and food prices were skyrocketing. Crippling bouts of depression left the king unable to make important decisions. The Estates-General, which was a national legislative assembly, curtailed his powers to such a degree that he was virtually under house arrest. He and his family attempted an escape in 1791, but were captured; in 1792, the newly elected National Convention declared France a republic, and formally arrested the king for treason. He was indicted in December, tried and convicted on January 15, 1793, and sentenced to death by guillotine on January 20, with the sentence to be carried out the next day. He spent his last evening with his family.
The former king arose early, around five o’clock, on the cold, wet morning of January 21. Louis’s valet helped him dress, and he was brought to an Irish priest, Henry Essex Edgeworth, who heard his last confession and administered the Mass. By eight, he was brought to a green carriage in the courtyard of the Temple prison; he asked Father Edgeworth to accompany him, and the two men took their seats in the carriage, opposite a pair of gendarmes, for the two-hour ride to the Place de la Révolution. They recited psalms together as the carriage moved in procession, led by drummers to drown out any expressions of support for the king. Citizens armed with pikes and guns lined the procession’s route, shouting epithets.
The king stepped out of the carriage and removed his outer garments, refusing any offers of help, and folded them neatly. The gendarmes made a move to bind his hands, but Louis recoiled in horror, and a struggle seemed imminent, until Father Edgeworth reminded him that Jesus had suffered his hands to be bound on Good Friday. Louis hesitated.
“With a handkerchief, Sire,” added Charles Sanson, the executioner, in a tone of respect. Finally, the king agreed.
“So be it, then, that too, my God!” Louis said with resignation, and offered his hands to be bound. He leaned on Edgeworth’s arm as he made his way over the rough path to the scaffold, but ascended the steps alone, with strength and determination. Upon reaching the top, he addressed the people:
“I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.”
He would have said more, but a man on horseback called for the drums, and the crowd called for the execution, which was hastily carried out. A young guard picked up the severed head and promenaded it around the scaffold. The stunned silence was broken with a cry of “Vive la République!” and, before long, thousands of voices were cheering the death of the king.
The 19th-century historian, Jules Michelet, attributed the restoration of the French monarchy to the sympathy that had been engendered by the execution of Louis XVI. 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. The two writers did not share the same sociopolitical vision, but they agreed that, even though the monarchy was rightly ended in 1792, 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. For the 20th century novelist Albert Camus the execution signaled the end of the role of God in history, for which he mourned. For the 20th century philosopher Jean-François 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.
His daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, the future Duchess of Angoulême, survived the French Revolution, and she lobbied in 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.
The Requiem in C minor for mixed chorus by Luigi Cherubini was written in 1816, in memory of Louis XVI.
The city of Louisville, Kentucky, is named for Louis XVI. In 1780, the Virginia General Assembly bestowed this name in honor of the French king, whose soldiers were aiding the American side in the Revolutionary War. The Virginia General Assembly saw the King as a noble man, but many other Continental delegates disagreed. (At that time, Kentucky was a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Kentucky became the 15th State of the United States in 1792.)
There are numerous other places named “Louisville”, such as Louisville, Alabama, Louisville, Georgia, Louisville, Illinois, Louisville, Kansas, Louisville, Nebraska, Louisville, New York, Louisville, Ohio and Louisville, Tennessee, all located in the United States.
- Louis XVI of France (waldina.com)
- This Day in History: LOUIS XVI OF FRANCE IS GUILLOTINED (1793) (euzicasa.wordpress.com)
- In Defense of ‘Marie Antoinette:’ Sofia Coppola’s Re-Imagining Surprisingly Feminist (opinionessoftheworld.com)
- Odd conjunction of history: January 21, Louis XVI and Vladimir I. Lenin (timpanogos.wordpress.com)