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.
Compare and contrast the myth of the Bastille with the
2. Why do you think a myth grew up around the storming of
How and why did the king lose control of
France between 1789 and 1791?
The National Guard and the Paris
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
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'.
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
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
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.
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,
Reforms of the National
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
6. France was divided into 83 Departments, each
run by an elected council.
7. Jews were given the same voting rights as
8. The salt tax [gabelle) was abolished.
9. Most monasteries and convents were closed
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.
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.
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
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
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
Over thirty charges against Louis were then read out.
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
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.