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The Origins of the French Revolution

This revision podcast presents the background to the French Revolution.  Beginning with the impact of the Enlightenment on 18th Century Europe, it goes on to examine a variety of factors that led to the Revolution.  Long-term issues that are covered include the Estates System, the emergence of the bourgeoisie and the changing economy, taxation and financial problems, and the effect of the population increase.  Shorter term causes that are explained include the impact of King Louis XVI, the Assembly of the Notables, the Estates General, and the Tennis Court Oath.  Factors are explained thematically to make it easier to organise ideas during revision, and it’s hoped that this will in turn help you create a well-structured answer.

          

 

Tennis Court Oath

The Tennis Court Oath – 20th June 1789

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 first phase of the French Revolution, 1789 – 91

This revision podcast is designed for students studying the French Revolution.  Beginning with the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, this episode explores the first phase of the revolution up to the summer of 1791.  Beginning with the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it goes on to explore the challenges faced by the Constituent Assembly.  The terms of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy are explained before going on to present an overview of the terms of the Constitution published in September.  The podcast then explores the challenges to the revolution including the emigrées, divisions between the Jacobins and the Girondins, and the role of foreign powers.  The episode concludes with an overview of the Flight to Varennes and the demonstration at the Champs de Mars.

          

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Storming of the Bastille

Short overview of the storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789

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.

The execution of Louis XVI

The French Revolution: Radicalisation of the Revolution, 1791-93

This revision podcast follows events from the first meeting of the Legislative Assembly in October 1791 to the execution of the King in January 1793.  Growing tension between the revolutionaries and the King are explained through Louis’s decision to continue vetoing laws, the issuing of the Brunswick manifesto, and the King’s imprisonment in the Temple.  As well as struggling to fight a war against Austria and Prussia, the revolutionary government was faced with internal struggles.  The divisions between the deputies in the newly-elected National Convention are discussed against the backdrop of the September Massacres of 1792.  The episode ends with an overview of the trial of Louis and his eventual execution by guillotine on January 21st 1793.

          

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The guillotine

First execution using the guillotine

An overview of the invention of the Guillotine and its first use in an execution on 25th April 1792.

La Marseillaise first sung

The origins of ‘La Marseillaise’

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.

10th August

France’s ‘Second Revolution’: the storming of the Tuileries Palace

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.

Execution of Louis XVI

A brief overview of the execution of Louis XVI

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.

Marat murdered in his bath

The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat – background and consequences

On the 13th July 1793, the radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.

Marat, the second of nine children, had left home at sixteen in search of opportunities to pursue his interest in medicine. Having decided to move to northern England in 1770, he settled in Newcastle upon Tyne where he gained a reputation as a highly effective doctor, but also developed an increasing suspicion of the established political order.

Marat moved back to France six years later where his medical skills earned him the patronage of various members of the aristocracy. He used the wealth he earned from this position to establish a scientific laboratory where he engaged in research regarding fire, heat, electricity and light. Although he was visited by the American polymath Benjamin Franklin, the French Academy of Sciences was sceptical of his conclusions, and relations between Marat and the powerful Academy quickly broke down.

Despite Marat’s wealth and privilege, he maintained his passion for social justice throughout the years preceding the French Revolution. As Louis XVI struggled to secure his rule in the late 1780s, Marat put his scientific and medical career on hold, and instead dedicated his time to writing arguments in favour of political, economic and social reform. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, he established his own radical newspaper which soon adopted the name L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”).

Marat’s writings were vicious in their attacks on all those he perceived as being enemies of the people, by whom he meant the lower classes of the Third Estate. His newspaper often called for violence against the upper class and members of the government, even resulting in him fleeing to London for a few months in early 1790. On his return to Paris he continued his fierce criticism of the government, and even began to target less radical revolutionaries with his call for their execution as enemies of the people. He continued to have to go into hiding on occasion, and began to utilise Paris’ extensive sewer network, where it is believed he developed the debilitating skin condition that later saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.

Despite his reputation as a radical agitator, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 where he was a passionate supporter of the decision to declare France a Republic. He soon turned his anger on the members of the Girondin component of the National Convention who opposed the execution of the King. Within six months these moderates had been ousted from the government, and Marat turned to working from home due to his worsening skin condition.

On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to a young woman from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. The 24-year old Charlotte Corday claimed to have information about Girondin deputies who had escaped Paris, and presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors. Corday, however, was actually a Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the Norman Girondins, she pulled out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest, severing a major artery and causing him to die almost immediately of massive blood loss.

Corday was placed on trial and was guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, but described Marat as a ‘monster’. She explained that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’, but the assassination contributed to the growing fear of counter-revolution that fuelled the subsequent Terror – in which thousands of moderate and conservative Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Marat was virtually deified by the revolutionaries. At his funeral, the Marquis de Sade – the infamous sexual predator who had joined with the most radical elements of the National Convention after being freed from prison – gave the eulogy. Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, were later bought by the Musée Grévin in Paris and are now on display as part of a waxwork scene depicting the assassination.

Interestingly, Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum had also offered to buy the bathtub – but their letter got lost in the post and arrived after a sale had already been agreed. Madame Tussaud’s in London does, however, own the guillotine blade that beheaded the former queen Marie Antoinette on October 16th 1793. The founder of the museum, Marie Tussaud, was a famed wax sculptor before the revolution, and had even had her hair cut in preparation for execution during the Terror due to her connections to the aristocracy. However, it was decided that her talents could better serve the Revolution, and so she was spared in order to create death masks of the guillotine’s many famous victims.

The guillotine is, of course, synonymous with the worst violence of the French Revolution, but the machine was actually created to represent equality. In France prior to 1789, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility.  Commoners were usually subjected to longer and more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, and to bring about equality in death as well as life, the new revolutionary National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.

It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome way to carry out the death sentence.  Mary Queen of Scots, who I mentioned earlier as someone who visited the town of Buxton where we are recording this episode of HistoryPod, was only beheaded after three blows of the executioner’s axe. The Yorkshire town of Halifax had tried to improve the precision of beheadings with the creation of the Halifax Gibbet – a guillotine-like machine in which an axe head was fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two tall uprights – a whole two centuries before the French invention. However, this device didn’t make it out of Yorkshire. In the face of continued manual beheadings therefore, on 10th October 1789 French physician Joseph Guillotin argued that the new government of France should ensure that every execution was both swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.

Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine.  Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antoine Louis who should be credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries Guillotin’s name.

The first execution using the device was conducted on 25th April 1792.  Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, had the dubious honour of being the guillotine’s first victim. Contemporary accounts reveal that the execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’.  Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency…although this was, of course, the whole point.