Written by Expert Contributor, Dr Linda Porter
Less familiar than the fall of the Bastille and the coup against Robespierre on 9th Thermidor, Year II (26 July, 1794), the Revolution of August 10,1792 was, nevertheless, a pivotal point in the French Revolution. From that date onwards Louis XVI and his family, Marie Antoinette, their children, Marie-Thérèse and Louis Charles and the king’s sister, Madame Élisabeth, were effectively prisoners, though their formal incarceration did not begin for several days. The hawkish government of the Girondin faction, which had rashly gone to war with Austria and Prussia (though not, at this stage, Great Britain) was in disarray and the Legislative Assembly, the seat of French government, which they had tried to dominate, was falling apart.
None of this could have been unexpected. It had been a long summer of rising discontent and fear, not just in Paris but throughout France, as the threat of foreign invasion came ever closer. Could the king and his ministers have averted the bloody outcome of the attack on the Tuileries Palace on 10 August and salvaged the constitution of 1791, which Louis XVI had unenthusiastically accepted? The answer, given the king’s own view of his role, as well as the confusion of his advisers in the face of growing opposition from a determined, vocal minority of deputies soon to be known as the Mountain because of where they sat in the Assembly, is almost certainly no. Yet the extent of bloodshed on 10th August might certainly have been minimised if Louis had acted with more firmness. Decisiveness, however, had never been his strong point, as his increasingly desperate wife knew only too well.
The first serious sign of the violence that would follow occurred when an angry crowd of Parisians invaded the Tuileries at four in the afternoon of 20 June. This act did not come out of the blue. Tension between the king and his Girondin ministers had been growing since he was pushed by them into declaring war on the Austrians on 20 April. He had reluctantly appeared in the Legislative Assembly to declare war on his wife’s homeland in ‘a flat, faltering voice.’
The early months of the war were disastrous for France as its ill-disciplined soldiers, led by generals whose commitment was ambiguous, failed miserably against the oncoming Austrian forces on the Belgian border. General Dillon was murdered by his troops in Lille and Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolution, compelled to retreat. Panic seized Paris as a decree on 18 May placed all foreigners under surveillance. Blaming failure on a supposed ‘Austrian Committee’ at the Tuileries (a scarcely-veiled threat against Marie Antoinette), the Girondins propelled the king towards the edge of a precipice of their own making by further decrees against refractory clergy (those who had refused to take the oath to the 1791 constitution), disbanding his personal guard and bringing up from the provinces 20,000 National Guards who would be camped outside Paris to celebrate the feast of the Federation on 14 July. Conspicuous among these were the Marseillais, who had marched north singing the famous song that bears their name and is still the national anthem of France, though it was actually composed by Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg.
Backed into a corner, the king showed some spirit by informing his ministers that he would veto both decrees. This was the confrontation the Girondins had wanted, and three ministers, Roland, Servan and Clavière resigned, forcing a political crisis that was intensified by the reception of a letter from Lafayette demanding that the political clubs of Paris, regarded as the fomenters of discontent in the capital, be suppressed. He also laid out his case for the king’s tattered authority to be restored. Despite the support of a substantial number of deputies in the Assembly, his intervention merely served to enflame an already volatile situation. Would Lafayette, once so admired, lead a royalist coup d’état that would undo the Revolution? So the Girondins and many in Paris feared. Their response was a calculated escalation of tension. They would organise a mass demonstration for 20 June.
The invasion of the Tuileries on that day was a dress rehearsal for what took place on August 10, though the politicians who hoped to turn it to their advantage would find that unleashing the crowd set a very dangerous precedent, one that would turn disastrously against them as the year 1792 wore on and others, more adept at manipulating public opinion, began to use it to even more disruptive effect. The intention was certainly to create sufficient disorder to bring ditherers in the Assembly to heel and ensure that royal power was effectively at an end. This did not mean, however, that the Girondins were plotting to be rid of the monarchy altogether; they just did not want a king who interfered with their programme.
This Louis XVI knew perfectly well. A sensitive and intelligent man, he feared the worse, telling his confessor the previous day: ‘I have finished with men; I look to Heaven. Great misfortunes are expected tomorrow; I shall have courage.’ Often racked with depression, which merely added to his inability to make timely decisions, he did indeed behave with remarkable courage and equanimity when a furious mob, unhindered by the National Guard, broke into the palace with a cannon in tow. Having rampaged through the upper rooms, they found the king unguarded momentarily, with only his sister, Madame Elisabeth, to defend him by throwing herself across his body. Since they were both considerably overweight this must have been something of an achievement. The queen and her children, meanwhile, had taken refuge behind a barricade of upturned furniture hastily erected by a few loyal courtiers and a handful of grenadiers who had remained to defend the king.
Louis was the main target of the mob and he and his family were faced with a torrent of abuse with just a table separating them from the invaders. Unperturbed, he put on the red cap of liberty pushed towards him at the end of a pike, drank the nation’s health as demanded, but calmly refused to withdraw his vetos or reappoint his ministers. This stand-off continued until six in the evening until the mayor of Paris, Jerome Pétion, a Girondin ally, felt it might behove him to put in an appearance. He affected astonishment and claimed he had only just been informed of the king’s situation. Louis replied, with admirable restraint: ‘That is very surprising, since this has been going on for at least two hours.’ Seven weeks later, in an even more deadly situation, Pétion would quietly slip away from the Tuileries palace on the night of August 9-10, leaving the royal family in the lurch once again. On this occasion, he remained and the fury of the mob began to dissipate. By eight o’clock, they had drifted away, leaving the royal family to fester in a palace they had always disliked as the heat of the Parisian summer grew.
Any citizens of Paris who had gone to bed early on the oppressively sultry night of 9-10 August, 1792 would have been woken before midnight by the tocsin – the ringing of bells in the churches – and commotion in the streets. Jean-Baptiste Cléry, valet to the king’s eight-year-old son, had been out in the city in the evening and gave his own account of the first phase of the uprising: ‘At about 11pm I returned to the palace by the king’s apartments…I passed to the dauphin’s room , which I had scarcely entered when I heard the tocsin ringing and drums beating to arms in every quarter of the town.’ Little Louis Charles was sound asleep but most other residents of the palace were still up and about, unable to rest because of the heat and a growing sense of concern. A number of local politicians and government ministers were in the Tuileries with Louis XVI, including Pétion, the mayor, and Pierre-Louis Roederer, the procureur, or chief lawyer, of the departement of Paris. Their presence and the fact that the palace was not ill-prepared to counter an attack, (there were around 4000 defenders) meant that the situation was not yet hopeless. But the sense of dread inside the Tuileries was palpable. Pétion had already proved himself unreliable back in June and he had recently presented a petition to the Assembly calling for a decision to be made on whether the king should be deposed. Louis XVI slept briefly while the queen and her sister-in-law, surrounded by their anxious ladies, tried in vain to get some rest on sofas rather than retiring to their own apartments. By four in the morning they had given up, and while the king was still absent, preferring to pray with his confessor, Madame Élisabeth called the queen to the windows to see the first signs of dawn in the sky. The dramatic claims of some writers that this was the last time Marie Antoinette would see the sun are unlikely to be true. The royal family were allowed outside for exercise during their subsequent imprisonment. It was, though, very likely that she never saw the sun rise again.
Outside the situation was becoming more threatening by the hour and the queen was left to take counsel with the politicians as to how best to deal with it. By now a new Commune, the municipal body of Paris, had taken over during the night and its leaders were far more determined than the dithering deputies in the Assembly, or the confused and disheartened advisers in the Tuileries. Their ire was aimed as much at the legislators whose self-serving squabbles had weakened France, leading to the imminent danger of an onslaught by the Prussian army under the duke of Brunswick, which had advanced to within 100 miles of Paris. Well organised and with the support of a majority of citizens of varying social backgrounds in the capital, as well as the fédérés, the soldiers from all over France who had arrived outside Paris in recent weeks, a force of about 20,000 men was converging on the Tuileries.
At six in the morning, in an ill-conceived attempt to rally the palace’s defenders, the king went outside to address the troops who were to defend the exterior of the Tuileries. This was a major error of judgement, for Louis was uniquely unsuited to such public performances and notably lacking in charisma. Soon some members of the National Guard, whose loyalty was fraying, began to heckle the monarch. ‘My God,’ exclaimed one of the ministers watching from inside the palace, ‘they are booing the king! What the devil is he doing down there. Let’s go and fetch him quickly.’
Two and half hours later, with the Legislative Assembly already sitting in the nearby former riding-school, the Manège, and Pétion having conveniently slipped out of the palace during the hours of darkness, it fell to Roederer, a lawyer rather than politician, to take the lead in saving the royal family from being caught up in the violent assault on the palace that looked likely to come at any moment. He advised that they should leave without any further delay and take refuge in the Assembly. When Marie Antoinette, exhausted and frightened, but still more decisive than the king, challenged this judgement, Roederer told her bluntly that he could not answer for the safety of the royal family if they did not depart and that any harm that came to them if they stayed would be on her own head. The queen coloured but did not demur. Her cheeks were stained with tears and she knew that all was lost.
Accompanied by Roederer, the ministers who had remained, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, the Princesse de Lamballe and the children’s governess, Madame de Tourzel, protected by a small detachment of soldiers, the royal family made their way through the grounds of the Tuileries. The heat and dryness of the summer had already brought down many of the leaves on the trees and the dauphin, too young to understand the enormity of what was happening, kicked up the piles of them as he went along. ‘The leaves are falling early this year’, remarked the king., in his oddly detached manner. It remains a powerful and touching metaphor for the condition of the Bourbon monarchy itself and for the demise of the defenders of the palace, many of whose lives might have been saved if the king had not first told them to fire on their attackers and then to desist, leaving them to be slaughtered by the furious invaders of the Tuileries, who believed they had been lured into a trap. The Swiss Guard, in particular, having tried to defend the main staircase of the palace, were cut down as the withdrew through the gardens. Only a handful got away. A monument to their bravery can be seen in the Swiss city of Luzern, a fitting tribute to these little-known victims of the second revolution.
Inside the cramped box normally reserved for the press, the royal family sat through the continuous session of the floundering Legislative Assembly until two the next morning. ‘ I have come here,’ said Louis XVI, ‘ in order to avoid a great crime that might be committed, and I believe myself in safety – I, my family and my children – when I am among the representatives of the Nation I will stay here with my Ministers until calm is established.’ It soon became apparent that his confidence, if it was anything more than a front, was entirely misplaced. Marie Antoinette had understood more clearly than her husband the implications of throwing herself on the mercy of a body whose authority lay in tatters. The exhausted royal family were initially transferred to slightly larger but still restrictive accommodation in the nearby Convent of the Feuillants. Having fled in only the clothes they stood up in, they were thankful to be supplied with fresh linen by the wife of the British ambassador. On 13 August they were moved again to the former royal palace known as the Temple because it had once belonged to the Knights Templar. Here, their incarceration would steadily become much grimmer. From the whirlwind of revolutionary France that overtook them on that hot August night, only the king’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, would emerge alive.
Dr Linda Porter
I was born in Exeter, brought up in Kent and am a graduate of the University of York, from which I hold a BA and D. Phil in History. In a varied career, I have lived in Paris and New York, worked as a university lecturer and spent over twenty years in the corporate world. I’ve written five books, all published to critical acclaim. The latest, ‘Mistresses, sex and scandal at the court of Charles II’, came out in April 2020. My specialization is the 16th -18th centuries, with particular emphasis on the Tudors, the Stuarts and the French Revolution. I am a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and BBC History Magazine and have spoken at many literary festivals.