As the situation spiralled out of control, a plan was hatched to allow the family to escape. Marie Antoinette told the Count of Mercy in early May, “Our situation here is frightful, in a way that those who do not have to endure it cannot hope to understand.”1
The plan was set in motion. The destination was to be Montmédy, through Varennes. It had been largely planned by Count Axel von Fersen and Baron de Breteuil. In the main carriage were the King and Queen, their two children, the King’s sister Madame Elisabeth and the Dauphin’s governess, the Marquise de Tourzel. Two equerries were to ride outside as bodyguards, along with the courier, the Count of Valory. Two waiting-women, Madame Brunier and Madame de Neuville, followed in a lighter carriage. Count Axel von Fersen was to drive the carriage the first part of the way out of Paris before separating from the royal party.
Marie Antoinette’s brother Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, continued to advise her to remain in Paris, even as late as early June. Marie Antoinette had made up her mind, though, and wrote, “The glory of the escape must be ours…”2 The first date they settled on was 12 June 1791, but that was the eve of the Feast of Pentecost and Louis feared that there would be more people in the streets.
On the evening of 12 June, the hairdresser Léonard went to the Tuileries and was admitted with a note from Marie Antoinette. He was then entrusted with the baton of a Marshal of France, which was to be given to the Marquis of Bouillé at Montmédy. He was also entrusted with Marie Antoinette’s personal casket of jewellery, which was to be sent to Brussels. Marie Antoinette kept only a set of pearls, some diamond drops and two diamond rings. The actual Crown Jewels were already in the possession of the National Assembly.
As a new date of 19 June loomed, several loyal servants were tipped off for their own safety, and Louis and Marie Antoinette went to the opera as usual. Then Louis objected to the 19th being on a Sunday, and the departure was again delayed for a day. Marie Antoinette wrote to the Count of Mercy, “We go, Monday, at midnight, and nothing can alter that plan, we should expose those who are working for us in the enterprise to too much danger.”3
Throughout the day, Marie Antoinette tried to keep her normal routine. Louis spoke with Count Fersen once more, and he told him to get out himself if the plan was to fail. Marie Antoinette also bid farewell to Count Fersen, which was hoped to be only a temporary farewell. In the afternoon, she took her children for a drive to the Tivoli Gardens and walked in public with them. It was here that Marie Antoinette finally let her daughter know of the plan. As they returned to the Tuileries, Marie Antoinette asked the guards to prepare for a similar outing the next day.
The Dauphin went up to his rooms at 8.30 p.m., and his governess joined him at 10 p.m. The Count and Countess of Provence arrived for a family dinner, and it was only then that they were informed of the plan. Marie Joséphine was told to flee separately with a lady-in-waiting while the Count was told to eventually join the King. They ended the evening in a tender embrace.
They then withdrew to their room just before 11 p.m. By then, the Dauphin had been awakened by his governess and dressed in girl’s clothes. Marie Thérèse later described herself as being bewildered, despite being warned that the escape was to take place. The family escaped from the palace itself on foot through an unused and unguarded ground-floor apartment. Count Axel von Fersen and the carriage waited for them in a side courtyard on the north side of the Tuileries, known as the Cour des Suisses.
Slowly, the royal party slipped past the guards, with Marie Antoinette being the last to leave. This was done in case she was discovered and would allow the rest of the party to escape. When Marie Antoinette finally managed to escape, her husband embraced her with the words, “How happy am I to see you!”4 Finally, it was time to leave as they pretended to be a Baroness, her children and her servants.
It wasn’t until 1.30 a.m. that the carriages reached the city border at the Porte Saint-Martin. At Bondy, Count Axel von Fersen left his post as coachman as previously agreed. The carriages kept up a good pace at six to seven miles per hour as they travelled on. There were a few breathing stops along the way. After a horse stumbled, breaking the harness, the carriages were delayed for two hours.
This delay caused the Duke of Choiseul, who was waiting at the Somme-Vesle post, to believe the mission had gone awry. He did not await the arrival of the courier and took his dragoons back towards Montmédy. News that the plan had supposedly gone awry was passed along to all the other posts. When the courier finally arrived at the Somme-Vesle post at 6 p.m., he was appalled to find it without the dragoons. The carriages arrived 30 minutes later, and the party was horrified. Did the Duke’s absence mean that they had been found out? They decided to keep moving, even if they did not have extra military support.
They arrived at Sainte-Menehould at around 8 p.m., and here they finally found 40 dragoons, although they had unsaddled by that time. It was at this post that an official named Drouet recognised the King, but he was unsure, and the carriage was allowed to leave again. Nevertheless, from this point on, rumours about their true identity now began to spread. An hour and a half later, Drouet and another man set off in pursuit.
By then, the carriages had reached Clermont, where the Count of Damas was awaiting their arrival with 140 men. He, too, had heard the news that the plan had gone awry and had allowed his men to go to sleep. The carriage continued on to Varennes, taking a sharp turn north through wooded hills. Finally, at 11 p.m., the royal part reached Varennes, and they desperately needed fresh horses. However, they had no idea where these horses were supposed to be, and this caused yet further delay. An overturned furniture wagon on the bridge also added to their worries. Eventually, the family sought refuge with a man named Sauce, and the children promptly went to sleep. Outside, the rumours and clamour had caused several peasants to gather outside the windows. At one point, Louis appeared before them and told them he had no intention of leaving France.
Perhaps at this point, military intervention could have still saved the family, but there was no action. At six a.m., emissaries from the National Assembly began to arrive and ordered the immediate return of the King to Paris. An exhausted Marie Antoinette shouted, “What audacity! What cruelty! Subjects having the temerity to pretend to give orders to their King!”5
It had taken 22 hours to reach Varennes, it took them four days to return to Paris. From this point, the hostility towards the royal family would only grow.