Tag Archives: French Revolution
On the 20th June 1789 at Versailles in France, the National Assembly swore the Tennis Court Oath in which they vowed not to separate until a written constitution had been established for the country.
Faced with enormous financial difficulties, Louis XVI had called a meeting of the Estates General that first convened in early May. This involved representatives of the three Estates – the clergy, the nobility and the non-privileged common people known as the Third Estate – meeting with the king at Versailles in an attempt to solve the economic crisis. However, the allocation of votes was unfair so the representatives of the Third Estate separated themselves from the main group and met separately. On the 13th June, by which time they had been joined by some nobles and the majority of the clergy, they declared themselves the National Assembly.
However, when the king ordered their usual meeting room to be closed and guarded by soldiers, the National Assembly feared that the king was about to force them to disband. The National Assembly instead relocated to a nearby building used for playing jeu de paume, a forerunner of modern tennis, where they swore the oath. The Tennis Court Oath therefore didn’t really happen in a tennis court, but the name has stuck.
The Oath was significant for being a collective action by French citizens against their king. Faced with such opposition Louis finally relented and, on June 27th, he ordered the remaining nobles to join the National Assembly and ended the Estates General.
The morning of the 14th July 1789 saw the beginning of the French Revolution when Parisian revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, a large fortress, prison and ammunition store that symbolised everything that was wrong with the monarchy.
Despite having earlier legalised the National Assembly following the Tennis Court Oath, King Louis XVI had ordered royal troops to surround Paris and had dismissed his popular finance minister, Jacques Necker. These actions led the Parisian crowd to believe that Louis was preparing to overthrow the Assembly.
Although the Bastille had been a symbol of tyranny for its imprisonment of people without trial, when it was stormed it only contained seven prisoners. One was a deranged Irishman who believed himself to be God and Julius Caesar. In addition there was another so-called ‘lunatic’, four forgers, and the Comte de Solages – an aristocrat who had been imprisoned at the request of his own family for committing incest.
The fortress was not attacked in order to free these prisoners. The mob was much more interested in seizing gunpowder from the Bastille’s stores to use in the 28,000 muskets they had taken earlier that day from the Hôtel des Invalides. The fortress was guarded by 82 French soldiers and a further 32 Swiss mercenaries when the mob arrived. Despite initial attempts to calm the crowd the Bastille’s governor, Marquis Bernard-Rene de Launay, ordered the guards to open fire when around 300 rioters broke into the first courtyard. When a group of deserters from the French army joined the mob, de Launay surrendered. He was later beheaded by the crowd.
A great diagram to illustrate the political spectrum during the French Revolution. Original source unknown.
This lesson is aimed at A Level students studying the French Revolution. Inspiration comes from the classic (yet still excellent) SHP KS3 textbook ‘Societies in Change’.
I teach CIE AS Level 9389, although this lesson would work just as well for other specifications. My most recent examination breakdown highlighted the need to increase student engagement with sources, so I devised this lesson in which students take the role of the National Assembly after the Flight to Varennes and use a range of primary documents to form and justify their own judgements about how the Assembly should deal with Louis XVI.
Having studied the causes of the French Revolution and the collapse of the ancien regime in 1789, students are required to consider the changing relationship between Louis and the National Assembly that led to his execution. By using documents to consider the public and private attitude of Louis towards the Revolution, and how his attitude changed over time, students are equipped to understand why the Revolution became more radical.
While some of the sources used in this lesson have been edited for length, the text is presented as it is in the original translations in order to immerse students in the structures and language of the 18th century. You can download a single PDF containing all the sources by clicking here. Alternatively each one is linked to separately in the lesson overview below.
Set the scene by reading Source A, which is a letter by Marie Antoinette to her mother shortly after her marriage to Louis in 1770. Draw out the apparently positive relationship between the people and the royal family – it is especially interesting to discuss how Marie recognises the crushing taxes on the poor yet once queen did nothing to ease them.
Show Source B – a contemporary illustration of the royal family being returned to Paris after being captured at Varennes. Don’t share the story yet, but point out the date as being much later than the letter: it is after the Fall of the Bastille, the October Days, and the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Ask students to compare it to the previous source. If it isn’t mentioned by the students, it’s worth steering discussion towards the role of the guards – previously the guards were there to protect the royal family; now they are prison guards.
Discuss the change in the relationship between the two sources. What has changed? Why might that change have come about? Draw on previous knowledge of the August Decrees, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the drafts of the Constituent Assembly to show that now the people were exercising authority rather than the monarchy. How would the king react? They will probably identify that he could submit to them, continue to be an obstruction, or try to regain his authority. If the latter, how would he do that?
Show short video clip about the Flight to Varennes. Discuss how different interest groups in France would respond on his return – what options were open to the Assembly? Students may jump on the idea of the king being a ‘traitor’ it’s important at this point to remind them that there is no proof of treason – only a suspicion.
Study Source C, Source D and Source E. What do they reveal about the king’s reasons for escaping? Ensure that students make detailed reference to provenance to demonstrate the difference in explanations between the public and in private.
Introduce Source F. Explain that it was written before the Flight, but found afterwards during a search of the royal apartments. How does this affect previous judgements? Draw out comparisons with Source D – had the king’s opinion changed between April and June? In what way? Why?
Explain that it was against this background of evidence that the National Assembly had to decide what to do with Louis. The students now take the role of the Assembly and must prioritise five possible responses (printing a copy of these as A5 cards can help them visualise the debate).
- Welcome Louis back and carry on as before, with government and king trying to work together
- Keep Louis in prison until the constitution is ready for his agreement
- Replace Louis with his son, Louis Charles, aged six
- Proclaim Louis overthrown and declare a Republic
- Arrange a referendum to decide his future
As the discussion progresses, introduce new pieces of evidence. Begin with Source G, which is an editorial from the radical Le Père Duchêsne. Highlight that this is the sentiment of some people outside the walls of the Assembly. How might that affect the decision? Allow the discussion to progress, and continue to introduce new evidence at intervals:
- Source H – Louis accepting the Constitution
- Source I – Louis’ memorandum to his brother
- Source J – Louis’ letter to Frederick William II of Prussia
Source J is the only one that can be used to categorically prove treason. You should continue to monitor the discussion and remind students that confrontational action against the King could bring about reprisals from Austria. Similarly, leniancy could bring violence from the mob.
After all the evidence has been presented, students should reach a final judgement and present their rationale.
On the 30th July 1792, a group of volunteer soldiers from the city of Marseille were the first to introduce and sing “La Marseillaise” in Paris.
Written by the French army officer Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle and originally called “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” or “War Song for the Army of the Rhine”, it was designed to rally soldiers in Strasbourg during the French Revolutionary Wars. However, the song was soon adopted as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille after one of the volunteers sang it at a patriotic gathering in the city. The song became the official French National Anthem three years later, on the 14th July 1795.
The song was written when the French revolutionary army was facing significant military difficulties in the War of the First Coalition. Facing the combined forces of both Austria and Prussia, the disorganised and numerically inferior French army had suffered a number of defeats in the first weeks of the war. This helps to explain the militaristic lyrics of the song, since it was written at a time when France was facing the very real threat of invasion and defeat.
The song’s close ties with the French Revolution meant that it often suffered at the hands of those who were against the revolution. For example, when Louis XVIII – the deposed Louis XVI’s brother – was declared king of France after the defeat of Napoleon, he banned La Marseillaise outright. The song was restored to its position as the French national anthem in 1879.
On the 10th August 1792, French revolutionary troops stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Referred to by some historians as ‘the Second Revolution’ the events of the 10th August suspended the monarchy under King Louis XVI.
The royal family had lived in the Tuileries since the October Days of 1789 saw them brought back to Paris from Versailles. Louis and his family were virtually imprisoned, as proved when crowds barred them from moving to their summer residence in April 1791. This may have influenced Louis to carry out the failed Flight to Varennes two months later, after which the family were more officially held under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace.
The relationship between the royal family and the people of Paris continued to decline throughout 1792. The king did himself no favours by vetoing a range of decrees passed by the Legislative Assembly, but the situation grew worse with the threat of invasion from foreign armies. By the time of the Brunswick Manifesto on 1st August that lent foreign support to the royal family, the crowds of Paris held Louis and the concept of monarchy in absolute contempt.
On the morning of the 10th August, crowds massed outside the Tuileries. With Louis opting to take shelter in the Legislative Assembly building, his Swiss Guard who were left to defend the palace were eventually overrun after they ran out of ammunition. Approximately 800 people on the king’s side were killed, and Paris was put in the hands of the revolutionaries while the royal family were sent to the Temple prison.
On the 21st January 1793, former French King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine at the Place de la Revolution in Paris. The blade fell at 10.22am, after which it’s reported that a number of members of the public rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in his blood. His body was later buried and covered with quicklime.
Louis’ trial began on the 11th December 1792, and he was found guilty of treason by 693 of the National Convention’s 721 deputies on the 15th January. However, a much narrower majority of 387 to 334 voted for the death sentence on the 18th. His death warrant was finalised on the 20th January, and his execution was scheduled for the next day. A number of factors had contributed to him being found guilty, of which the Flight to Varennes and the events of the 10th August were the most significant.
On the morning of his execution, Louis woke at 5am after which he made his confession and attended mass. Accompanied by the Irish-born priest Father Henry Essex Edgeworth, his carriage left the Temple prison at around 9am. 80,000 armed men lined the route to the Place de la Revolution, where a crowd of around 100,000 people had assembled to see the execution.
Louis calmly took off his coat at the foot of the scaffold and, as he stood next to the guillotine, attempted to address the crowd. However, his speech was drowned out by the beating of the soldiers’ drums before he was seized, his hands quickly tied, and he was placed under the blade. Marie Antoinette was executed eight months later.
At 12.15pm on the afternoon of the 16th October 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine in the Place de la Revolution in Paris. Found guilty of treason earlier that morning, she was transported to her death in an open cart and later buried in an unmarked grave.
Following the execution of her husband, the former King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette had continued to be held prisoner in the Temple along with her children. Following the creation of the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror, calls for her trial grew louder and this become the National Convention’s preferred policy following the fall of the Girondins at the end of May.
After her son was sent to live with a Jacobin cobbler as a form of revolutionary re-education, Marie Antoinette was moved to an isolated cell in the Conciergerie from which she plotted a failed escape attempt known as “The Carnation Plot”. It’s argued by some that it was this that convinced the CPS to bring her to trial in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal on the 14th October.
Although the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, Marie Antoinette had expected a sentence of life imprisonment or exile. Despite this she showed courage throughout the remaining hours of her life including the verbal abuse she suffered on the hour-long journey to the guillotine. On climbing the steps to the scaffold she accidentally stepped on the foot of the executioner, reacting by saying, “Pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it”.
These were the last words she said before the blade fell.