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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Louis XVI of France


Louis XVI of France was born Louis-Auguste in the Palace of Versailles on August 23, 1754. Out of seven children, he was the second son of Louis, the Dauphin of France, and thus the grandson of Louis XV of France. His mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.

Louis-Auguste excelled in his studies and had a strong taste for astronomy, geography, history, and Latin, and became fluent in Italian and English.

He enjoyed physical activities such as hunting with his grandfather, and rough-playing with his younger brothers, Louis-Stanislas, comte de Provence, and Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois.


Louis-Auguste married the fourteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette) on May 16, 1770, at the age of fifteen. She was his second cousin once removed and the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa.  It was hoped their union would strengthen Austria's alliance in France.

Their marriage was conducted within hours of Marie Antoinette arriving at Versailles. Louis-Auguste and Marie Antoinette were married in front of the Court, with the bride wearing a magnificent dress with huge white hoops covered in diamonds and pearls.

There was a formal dinner after the ceremony, in which the guests ate in front of the crowd. Louis-Auguste consumed an enormous amount. When the King told him to eat less, Louis-Auguste replied "Why? I always sleep better when I have a full stomach!" The Court then conducted the young couple to their bed, which had just been blessed by the Archbishop of Rheims. However, the marriage was not consummated that night.

They did not consummate their marriage until seven years after their wedding but Louis loved Marie Antoinette deeply and refused to follow tradition and take a mistress.

Obscene pamphlets called libelles were published. These libelles mocked their failure to produce children. One questioned, "Can the King do it? Can't the King do it?"

In the end, Louis and Marie Antoinette had four children:
Marie Thérèse of France (December 19, 1778)
Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France (October 22, 1781)
Louis XVII of France (March 27, 1785)
Sophie of France (July 9, 1787)

Marie Antoinette Queen of France with her three eldest children, Marie-Thérèse, Louis-Charles and Louis-Joseph.
After Louis Joseph died at age seven of tuberculosis, the King sank into sporadic bouts of clinical depression.


When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne on May 10, 1774, he was 19 years old.

Louis XVI at the age of 20

The following year, Louis reduced the tax on fish substantially to help the poor people and also to encourage the rather lapsed observance of Lent.

Louis and Marie Antoinette ate their dinner in public. Anyone who was decently dressed was permitted to come and watch the royals eating their meal. Louis-Auguste ate enormous amounts of food, while Marie-Antoinette consumed almost nothing when she was in public.

The city of Louisville, Kentucky, is named for Louis XVI. In 1780, the Virginia General Assembly bestowed this name in honor of the French king, whose soldiers were aiding the American side in the Revolutionary War. The Virginia General Assembly saw the King as a noble man, but many other Continental delegates disagreed. (At that time, Kentucky was a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Kentucky became the 15th State of the United States in 1792.)

In 1785 Louis issued a decree that all handkerchiefs must be square.

Louis in 1779. By Antoine-François Callet 

When William Wilberforce met the French king he thought Louis in his clumsy boots was so strange a being that it was worth going a 100 miles to see him.


From an early age, Louis-Auguste had been encouraged in locksmithing, which was seen as a 'useful' pursuit for a child. As an adult, Louis delighted in making and mending locks.

Louis XVI was such a chocoholic that he employed a special courtier whose principal duty was to keep the king supplied with favorite chocolate drink.

Louis and Marie were yo-yo enthusiasts The dangling toy became associated with aristocratic French families fleeing the guillotine.


The French Revolution began when a group of middle class rebels-took over the administration with the help of the Paris mob and tried to set up a constitutional monarchy. The French National Assembly adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man.

On October 5, 1789, an agitated assembly of women demanding bread marched to Versailles. The mob wanted the royal family to come with them to Paris, and Louis acquiesced to the people's demands. With a heavy heart, the French king added his signature to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and loaded his family into the royal carriage.

An illustration of the Women's March on Versailles, 5 October 1789

Louis XVI and his family were brought to the Tuileries Palace where they were kept under surveillance. The king had allies beyond France's borders who wanted to see him regain the throne. Louis and his family planned an escape and broke from the Tuileries on the night of June 21, 1791, under the guise of servants (the king was dressed as a valet). The royal family was close to the Austrian border when its carriage was apprehended at the town of Varennes. When Louis and his family were brought back to their quarters at the Tuileries, they were kept under heavier watch.

On August 10, 1792 insurrectionists in Paris stormed the Tuileries Palace. King Louis XVI was arrested and taken into custody as his Swiss Guards were massacred by the Parisian mob.

On September 21, 1792 the National Assembly declared France to be a republic and abolished the monarchy.

King Louis XVI was put on trial for treason by the National Convention on December 11, 1792 and was quickly proclaimed guilty.

Louis XVI imprisoned at the Tour du Temple, by Jean-François Garneray (1755–1837)

Louis was guillotined on January 21 1793. As he mounted the scaffold, the former French king appeared dignified and resigned. He delivered a short speech in which he prayed, "I trust that my death will be for the happiness of my people, but I grieve for France, and I fear that she may suffer the anger of the Lord," but his speech was drowned out by a roll of drums.

Louis' neck was so fat, the guillotine failed to slice his head off the first time. However, it did manage to come off after a second attempt.

Louis XVI was the only king of France to be executed.

Execution of Louis XVI – copperplate engraving 1793

Both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's bodies were exhumed on January 18, 1815, during the Bourbon Restoration, when the comte de Provence had ascended the newly re-established throne as Louis XVIII, King of France and Navarre. Christian burial of the royal remains took place three days later in the necropolis of French kings at the Basilica of St Denis.

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