The execution of King Louis XVI

execution louis xvi
(public domain)

Marie Antoinette’s husband, King Louis XVI, was officially arrested on 13 August 1792 and sent to the Temple prison.

Much like in Versailles, his life was governed by a daily routine. His jailers observed his every move, which they reported to the press. Louis began his day between 6 and 7 o’clock, shaved and dressed himself. He then took some time to study, and during his early imprisonment, he had access to a library.

He would be joined by his family around 9 o’clock for a breakfast with coffee, milk, fruit, bread and chocolate. An hour later, they moved to Marie Antoinette’s chambers on the third floor, where Louis tutored the Dauphin while the women sewed. Around noon, the family was allowed to walk outside, and they returned inside in the afternoon for the dÎner. This was still an elaborate affair with two main courses, champagne and wine. After the dÎner, they played games until Louis had a nap. Then, around six, there were more lessons. Following the supper at 9 o’clock, Louis retired to his study to read until midnight.

On 21 September, the National Convention proclaimed the Republic, and as the news spread, Louis ignored it and continued reading his book. Limitations to the family routine began to pile up. Mathematics lessons and embroidery were no longer allowed, just in case, they contained code. Louis was no longer allowed to shave in case he used the razor to commit suicide. Nevertheless, Louis took it all in stride and lived from day to day.

Louis had wanted to avoid a formal trial, and he also believed he could be assassinated at any moment. He even made his will on Christmas Day 1792. Despite his hopes, his trial began on 11 December. He had been tutoring the Dauphin, as usual, that day when two officers suddenly took his son away. Marie Antoinette and their daughter, Marie Thérèse, and Louis’s sister Élisabeth were denied access to him. He was told he could see his children, but only if they did not see their mother or aunt as long as the trial lasted. He refused this and was very upset when he missed Marie Thérèse’s 14th birthday. He did manage to get a present to her – an almanac for the year 1793. Louis appeared at the trial unshaven and in a brown coat.

The indictment consisted of 32 charges with a general accusation of “conspiring against liberty and an attempt against the safety of the state.”1 All the charges were read to him and required an immediate response – for over four hours, Louis listened and answered. He already knew how this was going to end and wrote, “I am under no illusions about my fate.”2 He compared himself to King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland and wrote, “I will suffer the fate of Charles I, and my blood will flow to punish me for never having shed any….”3 The trial continued throughout December and early January. The vote for his execution ended with 361 in favour – a majority of just one. Due to this close majority, another motion for a reprieve was made, which was rejected with a majority of 70.

(public domain)

On 20 January 1793, Louis was informed that he would be executed within 24 hours. Louis simply pointed to Article 8 of the Declaration of Rights pasted on his wall. It read, “The law should only prescribe punishments which are strictly and evidently necessary: no one should be punished except in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the offence is committed.”4 He then produced a document requesting a three-day stay to “prepare myself to appear before the presence of God”, to see a priest and to see his family.5 The three-day stay was denied, but the other two requests were granted.

That same evening, he was visited by his sister’s former confessor, and they talked until half past 8. And then, for the first time in six weeks, he was able to see his family. Marie Thérèse wrote of the meeting, “We found him greatly changed. He wept for our grief but not for his death. He told my mother about his trial, excusing the scoundrels who were bringing about his death. He repeated to my mother that people had wanted the primary assemblies but that he had not because that would have disturbed France. Then he gave sound religious teachings to my brother; above all, he commanded him to pardon those who were about to cause his death. He gave his blessing to my brother and myself. My mother desperately wanted us to spend the night with my father. He refused, having need of tranquillity.”6 As they were forced apart, the sobs echoed through the staircase. Marie Thérèse had to be carried out after fainting. 

At 11 o’clock at night, Louis ate two wings of a chicken and a few vegetables. After a few glasses of wine, he made an inventory of the 250 books he had read in prison. He went to bed at half past twelve. In the early morning, Louis was allowed to celebrate mass, but then at 9 o’clock came the moment of departure. He had asked to have his hair cut, but he was refused scissors. He said, “These men see daggers and poison everywhere, they fear I will kill myself. Alas, they know me very badly; to kill myself would be weakness. No, since die I must, I will die well.”7

A green carriage carried the former King to his place of execution. It took an hour and a half to reach the former Place Louis XV in the snow. He recited psalms for the dying during the ride with his sister’s confessor. As he stepped out of the carriage, he took off his coat and unfastened the collar of his shirt. His hands were then tied behind his back as he said, “Do as you please, I will drain the chalice to the dregs.”8 He was then led up the steep steps by the confessor who reportedly said, “Fils de Saint-Louis, ascendez au ciel” (Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven).9 Louis tried to address the crowd, but his exact words are lost to us. Reportedly, he ended with, “Indeed, I hope that the shedding of my blood will contribute to the happiness of France and you, unfortunate people…”10

Louis’s neck was too big to fit properly into the groove of the guillotine, and the back of his neck and jawbone were “mangled horribly” as the blade came down. The spectators were eager to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood that now flowed from the former King’s lifeless body. Finally, his body was taken to the Madeleine cemetery, where it would lie until 1815.

“Shouts of joy” reached the ears of Marie Antoinette and Madame Élisabeth, the latter of whom exclaimed, “The monsters! They are satisfied now!”11 Marie Antoinette was unable to speak, but she, her sister-in-law and her daughter curtsied deeply for the new – titular – King – her seven-year-old son King Louis XVII.

  1. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.433
  2. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.434
  3. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.434
  4. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.439
  5. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.439
  6. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.439
  7. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.440
  8. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.441
  9. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.441
  10. The life of Louis XVI by John Hardman p.441
  11. Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser p.399

About Moniek Bloks 2732 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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