The Flight to Varennes and the National Assembly lesson plan
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.