International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 13 juin 2018  
Unit 4 - Lesson 4 - From the Bastille to the Guillotine
What really happened at the Bastille?

The fall of the Bastille was one of the most famous events of the French Revolution. It was a symbol of the victory of ordinary people over the power of their rulers. It is the day the French have chosen as their national day. Their victory was recorded in many thousands of drawings and paintings. Novelists like Dickens have written about the drama of the day. His book has been turned into a feature film.

Contemporary images of the storming of the Bastille Video from 1958 English feature film adaptation
of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities.
Copies of pictures like these appeared in their thousands. They were seen all over France, and they created images of the Bastille that everybody could recognise. Foreigners were fascinated by them, and artists abroad produced their own versions of events.

But were these images accurate? If cameras had existed then, could they have filmed such images? According to this account of what the attackers found, written by a leading French historian, the answer must be no:

'The attackers were astonished to find so few captives. Many believed there were others, hidden in some secret cavern or dungeon ... On 18 July the four gaolers were questioned separately. They confirmed that the Bastille contained, on 14 July, only seven prisoners: Solages, Whyte, Tavernier, Bechade, La Correge, Pujade and Laroche. The latter four, common law prisoners accused of forgery, disappeared soon after and were never seen again. The Count of Solages had been imprisoned at the request of his family ... Whyte was an Englishman, afflicted by madness, and on 15 July he was imprisoned in Charenton. Tavernier was equally mad and he too was sent to Charenton.'

Jacques Godechot, La Prise de la Bastille', 1965

Now try comparing the pictures with another kind of evidence. The following sources are extracts from the diary of the Marquis de Sade who was a prisoner inside the Bastille until a week before it was attacked. One is a list of some of the meals he ate there. The other is an account of his spending for the month of December 1787.



1. Compare and contrast the myth of the Bastille with the reality.
2. Why do you think a myth grew up around the storming of the Bastille?

How and why did the king lose control of France between 1789 and 1791?

The National Guard and the Paris Commune.

Louis XVI considered sending his army into Paris to recapture the Bastille. His war minister, however, warned him that the soldiers would probably refuse orders to do so. Louis therefore had to give up control of Paris. He ordered his army back to its barracks. To keep order in Paris he allowed the people to set up their own military force, the National Guard. To run the city, leading officials of the third estate formed a new local government, the Paris Commune. Towns and cities all over France followed the example of Paris. Rioting crowds attacked town halls, forced out the royal officials, and set up their own communes and National Guard units.

The Great Fear

The violence then spread into the countryside, where unemployment was high and millions were hungry. Many thousands of people had left home to seek work or to beg, and were now wandering around the countryside looking for food. Farmers lived in fear of gangs of wanderers who stole food from their fields and damaged their farms.

As harvest time approached, rumours swept the countryside that nobles were trying to starve the people by hoarding grain. The rumours also said that nobles were paying the gangs of wanderers to attack farms and terrorise the peasants. Angry peasants responded to the rumours by refusing to pay their feudal dues. In many places they broke into their lords' homes and burned records of their dues. As the violence spread, fear of gangs increased. Villagers who thought they saw gangs rang the church bells to warn neighbouring villages. The warnings, passed from town to town, spread the panic to many parts of France. By late July, the whole country was gripped by a 'Great Fear'.

Related image

The Assembly begins its work

The deputies in the National Assembly were scared by the violence of the peasants. They took drastic measures to end it. On the night of 4 August, noble deputies, one by one, announced that they would give up their feudal rights and dues. By the next morning hunting rights, tithes, the corvee, and the rights of the mill and the oven had all been abolished. Feudalism was dead.

Three weeks later, the Assembly made another important change to French society. It issued a 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen'. This stated that all men were free and equal in rights. It said people should have the right to speak and write freely. It changed the laws of arrest and imprisonment, and banned torture. Above all, it said that power in France belonged to the entire people, not just the king.

The women march to Versailles (The October March)

Louis XVI disliked these decisions of the Assembly. He refused to sign them, which meant they could not become law. Then, early in October, he brought more soldiers to Versailles to add to his bodyguard. Again it looked as if he was going to break up the Assembly by armed force.

When news of this reached Paris, crowds of market women gathered in the streets. They marched through the city, collecting weapons. On 5 October, armed with knives, sticks, rifles and two cannons, they marched to Versailles to protest. Supported by National Guardsmen, they complained to the king about the high price of bread and about the extra soldiers in Versailles. They asked him to leave Versailles and come with them to live in Paris. This would allow them to keep an eye on his activities.

Louis did not want to go. He changed his mind when a group of the women smashed their way into his palace, killed two bodyguards and threatened to kill the queen. On 6 October Louis, Marie Antoinette and their oldest son travelled in a coach to Paris, surrounded by a crowd of 60,000 people. The Palace of Versailles was locked and boarded up. From then on they lived in the Tuileries Palace in the centre of Paris.

An illustration of a crowd of women marching with various weapons

Reforms of the National Assembly

The deputies of the National Assembly followed the royal family to Paris, where they took over an old riding school as a meeting place. Over the next two years the Assembly made many new laws, changing the way France was organised and run. Consider the list of reforms opposite? Which reforms weakened feudalism and the aristocracy? Which reforms were particularly influenced by influenced Enlightenment ideas?

The reform of the Church

Most people welcomed these reforms. On one issue, however, they were divided. That was the reform of the Church. On one side of the argument were growing numbers of people who thought the Church had too much power, too much land and too much money. They also thought that many of the clergy lived unholy lives.  See the image below which an engraving from 1789 which is critical of the church.

On the other side were millions of God-fearing Catholics who had never questioned the way the Church was run, and who could see no reason to change it. So when the National Assembly began to take land and money from the Church, many Catholics protested. Their protests grew louder in July 1790 when the Assembly drew up a law reducing the power of the Church. The law, called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, said that priests and bishops must be elected like other public officials. It ordered all clergy to take an oath of loyalty to the French nation and the law.

Over half the clergy refused to take this oath. They said that the Assembly had no right to interfere in Church affairs. The Pope supported their protest by condemning the new law. From then on, the clergy were divided between those who took the oath and who supported the revolution, and those who refused the oath and opposed the revolution. Millions of people followed the examples set by their priests. Before long, therefore, the entire nation was divided by the question of the Church and its power.

The flight to Varennes

Louis XVI was deeply unhappy with the Civil Constitution. He sided with the priests who refused to take the oath. This made it look, yet again, as if he opposed the revolution. Angry crowds protested at the gates of the Tuileries Palace. Urged on by his wife and by members of his court, Louis now decided to leave France. Their aim was to get help from the French princes who had already left France and had built up armies just across the frontier (see the map above). They also hoped for assistance from Marie Antoinette's brother Leopold, the Emperor of Austria. They would then be able to invade France, get rid of the Assembly, and take back the power they had lost.

Leaving France, however, was far from easy. Because the Assembly suspected that Louis might try to escape, there were guards at every door in the Palace. Louis and his family therefore had to make a secret escape. Close to midnight on 21 June 1791, Louis, Antoinette and their children, all in disguise, crept out of the palace through a temporarily unguarded door. A waiting carriage then took them eastwards towards Montmedy, close to the frontier 250 km away.

They were still 50 km from the frontier when they were recognised. News of their escape was sent ahead and the local authorities were waiting for them in the little town of Varennes. They were arrested and sent back to Paris the next day. As they went, crowds shouted insults and spat at the windows.

Extract from Revolution in France, Josh Brooman.

Reforms of the National Assembly

1. Male tax-payers over 25 years old were given the right to vote.
2. All Church land was confiscated so that it could be sold to pay France's debts.
3. The Assembly paid off France's debts with bank notes called assignats: people who were owed money were given assignats with which they could buy confiscated church land.
4. Local government was re-organised. Local councils were elected by citizens.
5. Protestants were given the same voting rights as Catholics.
6. France was divided into 83 Departments, each run by an elected council.
7. Jews were given the same voting rights as everyone else.
8. The salt tax [gabelle) was abolished.
9. Most monasteries and convents were closed down.
10. Assignats became France's legal currency.
11. Noble titles were abolished.
12. The Church was reformed: a 'Civil Constitution of the Clergy' said that bishops and priests must be elected by the people and must take an oath of loyalty to France.
13. A new system of law courts was created. Judges were to be elected by citizens.
14. The traites taxes were abolished.
15. A tax on land was introduced.
16. Trade guilds were abolished.
17. The aides taxes were abolished.
18. The taille tax was abolished.
19. Black people in French colonies were given the same rights as white people.
20. Slavery in France was abolished.
21. The Assembly introduced a constitution* describing how France would be governed.

Watch the film and read the text above and download and complete the following table 'Bastille to Varennes - how did Louis XVI lose control of France?' 


June 1791- January 1793 - Why did the French Execute Louis XVI?

The revolutionary leaders in the National Assembly were now divided about what should happen to the King. Many moderate deputies, known as Girondins, still wanted Louis to have a place in France's new constitution. More radical deputies, known as Jacobins, felt that the King could not be trusted and should be deposed. Many ordinary citizens supported the Jacobins.

7 July 1791: The Republican Petition - A large crowd of people gathered in the Champ de Mars in Paris to sign a petition demanding the deposition of the King. The petition was laid out on a kind of altar and people filed past to sign their names. Two men, a hairdresser and an invalid with a wooden leg, were discovered under the steps leading to the altar. Someone accused them of being royalist spies. The crowd dragged the men out and hanged them on the spot. The National Guards were determined to keep order. They fired into the crowd killing about fifty demonstrators.

14 September 1791: The new constitution - The King accepted the new constitution which had been written by the National Assembly. Louis was still allowed to veto new laws, but most of his powers were removed. At the ceremony for the new constitution, Louis was forced to sit on a simple chair rather than a throne. The deputies kept their hats on when the King spoke. Louis felt humiliated. When he returned to the Tuileries he slumped into an armchair and cried.
Image result for September 1791: The new constitution

20 April 1792: War declared on Austria - To the east of France was the huge Austrian Empire. It was ruled by the Emperor Leopold, Marie Antoinette's brother. Leopold was protecting nobles who had fled from France and who were plotting against the Revolution. On 20 April 1792, the National Assembly declared war on Austria. But the war started badly France.

20 June 1792: The sans culottes attack the Tuileries - The sans culottes were working people in Paris who hated the monarchy. They thought that ordinary people like themselves should have power. The sans culottes suspected that Louis actually wanted France to lose the war with Austria. On 20 June 1792, a crowd of 8,000 armed sans culottes broke into the Tuileries. They forced the King to wear the red cap of liberty and to toast the people of Paris. The mob had spared the King's life, but this was another humiliation for Louis.

25 July 1792: The Brunswick Manifesto - By July 1792 Prussia had joined Austria in the war against France. The leader of the enemy forces was the Duke of Brunswick. On 25 July he signed a document known as the Brunswick Manifesto. This stated that if the Tuileries was attacked again the invading armies would totally destroy Paris, The sans culottes were outraged. On the streets of Paris the King and Queen became even more unpopular.

10 August 1792: Massacre at the Tuileries - At the beginning of a boiling hot August, rumours spread that the King was secretly supporting the invading foreign armies. Early in the morning of 10 August, around 10,000 angry revolutionaries from all over Paris marched towards the Tuileries. They broke into the palace and began to butcher the King's soldiers and servants. The royal family fled and took refuge in the sweaty reporters' box at the National Assembly. By evening, the mutilated corpses of over 500 of the King's men were already stinking in the heat.

2-6 September 1792: The September Massacres - At the beginning of September, there was panic in Paris. People feared that the Prussians were about to capture the city. Rumours spread that the priests and nobles in the overcrowded prisons were plotting to escape, kill the citizens of Paris and hand over the city to the Prussians. On 2 September, the sans culottes began the brutal murder of the prisoners. The massacre lasted for five days. Nearly 1,500 prisoners were killed. The Revolution had suddenly become much more violent.

21 September 1792; The royal family imprisoned - To most revolutionaries the King now seemed like a useless burden to France. Six weeks after the massacre at the Tuileries a new Assembly (now called the Convention) voted to abolish the monarchy and set up a republic. The people would elect their own rulers and the King would no longer play any part in the government of France. The Convention decided that Louis and his family should be locked away.

The King and his family spent the autumn of 1792 imprisoned in two floors of a damp tower in the centre of Paris. It was called the Temple. Life in the Temple was not pleasant. The prison guards showed the royal family a lack of respect. They called the King simply 'Louis'. They blew pipe-smoke in the faces of the royal family. Worst of all was the graffiti that the guards scrawled on the walls. One picture showed a stick man wearing a crown and hanging from a gibbet; underneath the guard had written, 'Louis taking a bath in the air'. Each day, when the royal family took their afternoon walk in the Temple grounds, hundreds of people gathered outside the Temple and shouted insults at them.

The King had been deposed and imprisoned, but some of the revolutionaries thought that the Convention had not gone far enough. As long as Louis was alive there might be a counter-revolution. Some of the Jacobin deputies in the Convention demanded the trial and execution of the King. Their demands gained more support at the end of November when an iron box containing the King's documents was discovered at the Tuileries. It was clear from some of the King's letters in this box that he had been plotting to overthrow the Revolution.

On the morning of 11 December, soldiers arrived at the Temple to escort Louis for trial at the Convention. The King, dressed in a green silk coat, stood before the Convention until the President gave him permission to sit down.

Over thirty charges against Louis were then read out. These included:

Using force against the National Assembly
Secretly plotting to overthrow the Revolution
Accepting the Constitution which he despised
Attempting to escape from France
Bankrupting the country

On 4 January the Convention reached its verdict. 693 deputies voted for Louis' guilt. Some deputies were absent, but not one deputy voted for Louis' innocence. The question of the penalty that Louis should pay caused more disagreement. Some deputies wanted the King to be imprisoned for life. Others felt that he should be banished to America. But in the end just over half the deputies thought the King should pay with his life. On 17 January Louis XVI was sentenced to death.

The King was executed on 21 January 1793. The guards in the Temple woke Louis at around 6am. The King dressed in simple clothes. He took off his wedding ring and asked his valet to give it to Marie Antoinette. Louis was placed in a closed carriage and taken through the damp, foggy streets of Paris to the Place de la Revolution. The people lining the streets watched in silence. The steps to the scaffold were so steep that Louis had to lean on his priest for support. The executioner cut the King's hair roughly. Louis then attempted to address the 20,000 people in the square:

"I die innocent of all the crimes of which I have been charged. I pardon those who have brought about my death and I pray that the blood you are about to shed may never be required of France."

But the King's words were drowned out by a roll of drums. The executioner strapped Louis to a plank and pulled the cord on the guillotine. The blade hissed down and sliced through the King's neck. The executioner pulled Louis' head from the basket and showed it, dripping with blood, to the people.

Extract from Byrom et al Citizens Minds: The French Revolution


It is December 1792 and you are an elected member of the French Convention. You have not decided yet whether the king should be executed, so you write two speeches: one from a Jacobin perspective, a second from a Girondin perspective. Each speech should be no more than two minutes in length. As well as knowledge of the historical perspective and philosophical arguments in support of either side, students are expected to use the techniques they have learnt in their English lessons. You will be filmed making one of your speeches. 

The execution of Louis XVI

The History Guide

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Tom Paine's opposition
Robespierre's support



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