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The execution of Louis XVI by means of the guillotine, a major event of the French Revolution, took place on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Révolution ("Revolution Square", formerly Place Louis XV, and renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795) in Paris. The National Convention had convicted the king (17 January 1793) in a near-unanimous vote (while no one voted "not guilty", several deputies abstained) and condemned him to death by a simple majority.
A guillotine is an apparatus designed for efficiently carrying out executions by beheading. The device consists of a tall, upright frame in which a weighted and angled blade is raised to the top and suspended. The condemned person is secured with stocks at the bottom of the frame, positioning the neck directly below the blade. The blade is then released, to quickly fall and forcefully decapitate the victim with a single, clean pass so that the head falls into a basket below.
The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.
The Place de la Concorde is one of the major public squares in Paris, France. Measuring 7.6 ha in area, it is the largest square in the French capital. It is located in the city's eighth arrondissement, at the eastern end of the Champs-Élysées. It was the site of many notable public executions during the French Revolution.
Louis XVI awoke at 5 o'clock.[ citation needed ] After dressing with the aid of his valet Jean-Baptiste Cléry, he went to meet with the non-juring Irish priest Henry Essex Edgeworth to make his confession. He heard his last Mass, served by Cléry, and received Communion. The Mass requisites were provided by special direction of the authorities. On Father Edgeworth's advice, Louis avoided a last farewell scene with his family. At 7 o'clock he confided his last wishes to the priest. His Royal seal was to go to the Dauphin and his wedding ring to the Queen. After receiving the priest's blessing, he went to meet Antoine Joseph Santerre, Commander of the Guard. A green carriage waited in the second court. He seated himself in it with the priest, with two militiamen sitting opposite them. The carriage left the Temple at approximately 9 o'clock. For more than an hour the carriage, preceded by drummers playing to drown out any support for the King and escorted by a cavalry troop with drawn sabres, made its way through Paris along a route lined with 80,000 men-at-arms and soldiers of the National Guard and sans-culottes.
Louis XVI, born Louis-Auguste, was the last king of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution. He was referred to as citizen Louis Capet during the four months before he was guillotined. In 1765, at the death of his father, Louis, son and heir apparent of Louis XV, Louis-Auguste became the new dauphin of France. Upon his grandfather's death on 10 May 1774, he assumed the title "King of France and Navarre", which he used until 4 September 1791, when he received the title of "King of the French" until the monarchy was abolished on 21 September 1792.
Jean-Baptiste Cléry (1759–1809) was the personal valet to King Louis XVI.
In the neighbourhood of the present-day rue de Cléry, the Baron de Batz, a supporter of the Royal family who had financed the flight to Varennes, had summoned 300 Royalists to enable the King's escape. Louis was to be hidden in a house in the rue de Cléry belonging to the Count of Marsan. The Baron leaped forward calling "Follow me, my friends, let us save the King!", but his associates had been denounced and only a few had been able to turn up. Three of them were killed, but de Batz managed to escape.
Jean Pierre de Batz, Baron de Sainte-Croix, known as the Baron de Batz or de Bance,, was a French royalist and businessman. He was born in Goutz-les-Tartas (Gers), and died in Chadieu, near Vic-le-Comte (Puy-de-Dôme).
The royal Flight to Varennes during the night of 20–21 June 1791 was a significant episode in the French Revolution in which King Louis XVI of France, his queen Marie Antoinette, and their immediate family unsuccessfully attempted to escape from Paris in order to initiate a counter-revolution at the head of loyal troops under royalist officers concentrated at Montmédy near the frontier. They escaped only as far as the small town of Varennes, where they were arrested after having been recognized at their previous stop in Sainte-Menehould.
At 10 o'clock, the carriage arrived at Place de la Révolution and proceeded to an area where a scaffold had been erected, in a space surrounded by guns and drums, and by a crowd carrying pikes and bayonets.
After initially refusing to have his hands tied, Louis XVI relented when the executioner proposed to use his handkerchief instead of rope. After this his hair was cut and the collar of his shirt was removed. After being led upon the scaffold, Louis tried to give a speech but the noise of the drums made this difficult to understand. He was then laid on the bench, the collar closed over his neck and then the blade came down. According to reports the blade did not sever his neck but cut through the back of his skull and into his jaw.
Edgeworth, Louis' Irish confessor, wrote in his memoirs:
The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass; the King was obliged to lean on my arm, and from the slowness with which he proceeded, I feared for a moment that his courage might fail; but what was my astonishment, when arrived at the last step, I felt that he suddenly let go my arm, and I saw him cross with a firm foot the breadth of the whole scaffold; silence, by his look alone, fifteen or twenty drums that were placed opposite to me; and in a voice so loud, that it must have been heard at the Pont Tournant, I heard him pronounce distinctly these memorable words: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."
The 13 February issue of the Thermomètre du jour ('Daily Thermometer'), a moderate Republican newspaper, described the King as shouting "I am lost!", citing as its source the executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson.[ citation needed ]
Charles-Henri Sanson, full title Chevalier Charles-Henri Sanson de Longval, was the royal executioner of France during the reign of King Louis XVI, and High Executioner of the First French Republic. He administered capital punishment in the city of Paris for over forty years, and by his own hand executed nearly 3,000 people, including the King himself.
Charles-Henri Sanson responded to the story by offering his own version of events in a letter dated 20 February 1793. The account of Sanson states:
Arriving at the foot of the guillotine, Louis XVI looked for a moment at the instruments of his execution and asked Sanson why the drums had stopped beating. He came forward to speak, but there were shouts to the executioners to get on with their work. As he was strapped down, he exclaimed "My people, I die innocent!" Then, turning towards his executioners, Louis XVI declared "Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French." The blade fell. It was 10:22 am. One of the assistants of Sanson showed the head of Louis XVI to the people, whereupon a huge cry of "Vive la Nation! Vive la République!" arose and an artillery salute rang out which reached the ears of the imprisoned Royal family.
In his letter, published along with its French mistakes in the Thermomètre of Thursday, 21 February 1793, Sanson emphasises that the King "bore all this with a composure and a firmness which has surprised us all. I remained strongly convinced that he derived this firmness from the principles of the religion by which he seemed penetrated and persuaded as no other man."
In his Causeries, Alexandre Dumas refers to a meeting circa 1830 with Henri Sanson, eldest son of Charles-Henri Sanson, who had also been present at the execution.
"Now then, you were saying you wanted something, Monsieur Dumas?"
"You know how much playwrights need accurate information, Monsieur Sanson. The moment may come for me to put Louis XVI on the stage. How much truth is there in the story of the wrestling bout between him and your father's assistants at the foot of the scaffold?"
"Oh, I can tell you that, Monsieur, I was there."
"I know, that's why it is you I'm asking."
"Well listen. The King had been driven to the scaffold in his own carriage and his hands were free. At the foot of the scaffold we decided to tie his hands, but less because we feared that he might defend himself than because we thought he might by an involuntary movement spoil his execution or make it more painful. So one assistant waited with a rope, while another said to him 'It is necessary to tie your hands'. On hearing these unexpected words, at the unexpected sight of that rope, Louis XVI made an involuntary gesture of repulsion. 'Never!' he cried, 'never!' and pushed back the man holding the rope. The other three assistants, believing that a struggle was imminent, dashed forward. That is the explanation of the moment of confusion interpreted after their fashion by the historians. It was then that my father approached and said, in the most respectful tone of voice imaginable, 'With a handkerchief, Sire'. At the word 'Sire', which he had not heard for so long, Louis XVI winced, and at the same moment his confessor had addressed a few words to him from the carriage, said 'So be it, then, that too, my God!' and held out his hands."
Henri Sanson was family appointed Executioner of Paris from April 1793, and would later execute Marie Antoinette.[ citation needed ]
Speaking to Victor Hugo in 1840, a man called Leboucher, who had arrived in Paris from Bourges in December 1792 and was present at the execution of Louis XVI, recalled vividly:
Here are some unknown details. The executioners numbered four; two only performed the execution; the third stayed at the foot of the ladder, and the fourth was on the wagon which was to convey the King's body to the Madeleine Cemetery and which was waiting a few feet from the scaffold.
The executioners wore breeches, coats in the French style as the Revolution had modified it, and three-cornered hats with enormous tri-colour cockades.
They executed the King with their hats on, and it was without taking his hat off that Samson,[ sic ] seizing by the hair the severed head of Louis XVI., showed it to the people, and for a few moments let the blood from it trickle upon the scaffold.
In Le nouveau Paris, Mercier describes the execution of Louis XVI in these words:
... is this really the same man that I see being jostled by four assistant executioners, forcibly undressed, his voice drowned out by the drums, trussed to a plank, still struggling, and receiving the heavy blade so badly that the cut does not go through his neck, but through the back of his head and his jaw, horribly?
A popular but apocryphal legend holds that as soon as the guillotine fell, an anonymous Freemason leaped on the scaffolding, plunged his hand into the blood, splashed drips of it onto the crown, and shouted, " Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!" (usually translated as, "Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged"). De Molay (died 1314), the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, had reportedly cursed Louis' ancestor Philip the Fair, after the latter had sentenced him to burn at the stake based on false confessions. The story spread widely and the phrase remains in use today to indicate the triumph of reason and logic over "religious superstition".
The body of Louis XVI was immediately transported to the old Church of the Madeleine (demolished in 1799), since the legislation in force forbade burial of his remains beside those of his father, the Dauphin Louis de France, at Sens. Two curates who had sworn fealty to the Revolution held a short memorial service at the church. One of them, Damoureau, stated in evidence:
Arriving at the cemetery, I called for silence. A detachment of Gendarmes showed us the body. It was clothed in a white vest and grey silk breeches with matching stockings. We chanted Vespers and the service for the dead. In pursuance of an executive order, the body lying in its open coffin was thrown onto a bed of quicklime at the bottom of the pit and covered by one of earth, the whole being firmly and thoroughly tamped down. Louis XVI's head was placed at his feet.
On 21 January 1815 Louis XVI and his wife's remains were re-buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis where in 1816 his brother, King Louis XVIII, had a funerary monument erected by Edme Gaulle.
The area where Louis XVI and later (16 October 1793) Marie Antoinette were buried, in the churchyard of St. Mary Magdaleine's, is today the "Square Louis XVI" greenspace, containing the classically self-effacing Expiatory Chapel completed in 1826 during the reign of Louis's youngest brother Charles X. The crypt altar stands above the exact spot where the remains of the Royal couple were originally laid to rest. The chapel narrowly escaped destruction on politico-ideological grounds during the violently anti-clerical period at the beginning of the 20th century.
Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac have written a number of works on Louis XVI, including:
Louis Philippe I was King of the French from 1830 to 1848. As Duke of Chartres he distinguished himself commanding troops during the Revolutionary Wars but broke with the Republic over its decision to execute King Louis XVI. He fled to Switzerland in 1793 after being connected with a plot to restore France's monarchy. His father Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans fell under suspicion and was executed, and Louis Philippe remained in exile for 21 years until the Bourbon Restoration. He was proclaimed king in 1830 after his cousin Charles X was forced to abdicate by the July Revolution. The reign of Louis Philippe is known as the July Monarchy and was dominated by wealthy industrialists and bankers. He followed conservative policies, especially under the influence of French statesman François Guizot during the period 1840–48. He also promoted friendship with Britain and sponsored colonial expansion, notably the French conquest of Algeria. His popularity faded as economic conditions in France deteriorated in 1847, and he was forced to abdicate after the outbreak of the French Revolution of 1848. He lived out his life in exile in the United Kingdom. His supporters were known as Orléanists, as opposed to Legitimists who supported the main line of the House of Bourbon.
Lucie-Simplice-Camille-Benoît Desmoulins was a journalist and politician who played an important role in the French Revolution. Desmoulins was tried and executed alongside Danton when the Committee of Public Safety reacted against Dantonist opposition. He was a schoolmate of Maximilien Robespierre and a close friend and political ally of Georges Danton, who were influential figures in the French Revolution.
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Henry Essex Edgeworth, also known as L'Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, was an Irish Catholic priest and confessor of Louis XVI.
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