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Encyclopedia > Louis XVI
Louis XVI

Louis XVI (August 23, 1754 - January 21, 1793), was King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, and then King of the French in 1791-1792. Suspended and arrested during the insurrection of the 10th of August, he was tried by the National Convention, found guilty of treason with the enemy, and guillotined on January 21, 1793. Beloved by the people at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism led the people to reject him and hate in him the perceived tyranny of the former kings of France. During the French Revolution, he was given the family name Capet (a faulty 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 nuanced 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.

Louis XVI succeeded his grandfather (Louis XV of France) as King of France on May 10, 1774; he was crowned on June 11, 1775. His father, Louis, dauphin de France, son of Queen Marie Leszczynska and King Louis XV, had died in 1765. Louis XVI was his father's third and eldest surviving son by Marie-Josèphe of Saxony.

On May 16, 1770 he married Marie Antoinette, daughter of Francis I of Austria and Empress Maria Theresa, a Habsburg. They had four children:

The government was deeply in debt, the radical reforms of Turgot and Malesherbes disaffected the nobles (parlements) and 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. A further tax reform was sought, but the nobility resisted at the Assembly of Notables (1787).

In 1788 Louis ordered the first election of an 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 the National Assembly; Louis' attempts to control it resulted in the Tennis Court Oath (Jeu de Paume, June 20), the declaration of the National Constituent Assembly on July 9, and the storming of the Bastille on July 14. In October the royal family were forced to move to the Tuileries palace in Paris.

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 less intelligent and more 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 on the principles of popular control of government, some, notably Honoré Mirabeau, secretly plotting to restore the power of the Crown in a new form of constitutionality.

However Mirabeau's sudden death, and Louis's depression, fatally weakened developments in that area. While Louis was nowhere near as reactionary as his right wing 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) 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 June 21, 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 moderate swing in the revolution than was deemed possible in radical Paris but flaws in the escape plan caused sufficient delays to enable them to be recognised and captured at Varennes. He was returned to Paris where he remained nominally as constitutional king though under effective house-arrest until 1792.

On July 25, 1792, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, commander of the Prussian forces, issued a manifesto (the so-called Brunswick Manifesto) threatening the inhabitants of Paris with exemplary vengeance if the Royal family was harmed, and threatened the French public with exemplary punishment if they resisted the Imperial and Prussian armies or the forced reinstatement of the monarchy. The manifesto was taken to be the final proof of a collusion between Louis and foreign powers in a conspiracy against his own country. Louis was officially arrested on August 13, 1792. On September 21, 1792, the National Assembly declared France to be a republic.

Louis was tried (from December 11, 1792) and convicted of high treason before the National Assembly. He was sentenced to death (January 17, 1793) by guillotine with 361 votes to 288, with 72 effective abstentions.

King Louis XVI was guillotined in front of a cheering crowd on January 21, 1793. On his death, his eight-year-old son, Louis-Charles de France, automatically became to royalists and some international states the de jure King Louis XVII of France, the 'lost dauphin'.

His wife, Marie Antoinette, followed him to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. He died as Citizen Louis Capet.

Preceded by:
Louis XV
Head of State of France
Succeeded by:
Executive power vested in the National Convention
King of France
Succeeded by:
Louis XVII (not recognized, never reigned)

  Results from FactBites:
Louis XVI (479 words)
Louis realized this and often wished, even before the Revolution, that he were only a common man. His greatest fault was that he was always ready to listen to others and follow their advice.
Louis XVI became king of France in 1774.
The Convention brought Louis XVI to trial on the charge of conspiring with foreign countries for the invasion of France.
Louis XVI (784 words)
It is certain that Louis XVI failed to maintain the centralization of power; all the forces in France were conspiring to fragment power away from the monarchy.
   Louis ascended the throne at the age of twenty; he was of average intelligence, but was not overly concerned with the running of the country.
The Revolution took her and Louis by surprise; while she was vilified and hated by the Revolutionaries and the Third Estate, she had no part in any of the abuses of the government or the nobility which precipitated the Revolution.
  More results at FactBites »



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