Off with their heads! 5 French Revolution executions that changed history


“Louis must die so that the nation may live.”
Maximilien Robespierre

When revolution swept through France in the final decade of the eighteenth century, the landscape of the nation changed forever. The guillotine loomed large over Paris, its blade thundering down on necks both aristocratic and peasant with equal violence and by the time the Reign of Terror reached its blood drenched climax, 40,000 citizens of France lay dead. Not all went to the iconic National Razor though, and not all are remembered by name or memorialised in the basilicas and history books. Let’s take a look at five executions of the French Revolution that changed history, so if you have an aversion to blades, look away now!

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King Louis XVI

When King Louis XVI went to the guillotine on 21st January 1793, a seismic shift occurred in the history of France. Some called the monarchy repressive, others misguided and still more saw tragic martyrs. Whatever your take on it, when the blade fell and ended the king’s life, the world seemed like a very different place. The people had spoken and their voices were deafening, enough was enough and the Ancien Régime was swept aside on a tide of Revolution.


Marie Antoinette 

This iconic queen followed her husband to the scaffold on 16th October 1793 after long months in prison. Kept from her family and with little comfort, her execution has become perhaps the defining moment of the Revolution when viewed from centuries away. Glamorous, wealthy, privileged and encompassing everything that symbolised the glittering palaces of Versailles, this Austrian lady has risen to the status of near-legend, a symbol of the old France that was violently pushed aside in favour of the new.

Queen Marie Antoinette


Jean Sylvain Bailly

He may not be quite so famous as the executed king and queen, but Jean Sylvain Bailly’s death was an undeniably important moment. Bailly was a powerhouse of the Revolution and the Mayor of Paris but when he refused to testify against Marie Antoinette, his days were numbered. Brought before the court and sentenced to death, he met his maker on 12th November 1793 sending the clear message that nobody was above the reach of the Tribunal, no matter what their political persuasion.

JS Bailly


The Drownings at Nantes

The next execution is not of one person, but near four thousand. Between November 1793 and February 1794 mass executions took place at Nantes as thousands who were suspected of sympathising with the royalists or were simply Catholic clergy were drowned in the Loire. Under the unblinking eye of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, republican representative, a scorched earth policy took hold and Carrier presided as barges were piloted out into the river and sunk. The message this sent to the people of France was brutally clear; there was no longer any room for argument, let alone dissent, the nation must stand behind Revolution as one, or face the consequences.

Nantes drownings

Maximilien Robespierre

It’s really amazing that Robespierre didn’t see this one coming or, if he did, didn’t find a way to escape his inevitable fate. It was, of course, Robespierre who presided over the most famed prosecutions of the Terror. As a symbol of the revolutionary cause he wielded enormous power and made a lot of influential enemies as he sent those who had once been his trusted friends to the guillotine. Robespierre once declared starkly that “terror is justice” but when he found himself on trial, he attempted suicide and shot himself in the head. The attempt failed and a hideously wounded Robespierre went to the guillotine on 28th July 1794.

M Robespierre

From monarchy to republic and beyond, the French Revolution was a time of enormous instability. As the guillotine blade fell and the Revolutionary Wars raged, a soldier began to make his mark on the battlefield, emerging to lead his country and become a military legend in his own right. That man’s name was Napoleon, but his is a story for another day.

Catherine CurzonGlorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog at, Madame G can also be spotted on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, will be published by Pen and Sword Books.

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11 replies
  1. Jason
    Jason says:

    Robespierre is a great example of karma in action. Bet his execution gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure

  2. Regan Walker
    Regan Walker says:

    Thanks, Catherine, for a fascinating post. I didn’t know about the drownings. So sad. I’m glad America’s revolution did not come at the expense of perhaps some of the best and brightest. No wonder those remaining of the Ancien Regime took their revenge. Really scary stuff. And was France any better for it? One wonders.

    • Laura L
      Laura L says:

      Ironically, the French funding the American rebels and needing to raises taxes to pay for it, was one of the direct causes of the French Revolutiion.

      And if ealier the British hadn’t very reasonably, IMO, asked the American colonists to help pay the Seven Year War, where the British lost many of their best and brightest defending the American colonists against the French, then their probably wouldn’t have been an American Revolution.

      • Julia Robb
        Julia Robb says:

        Hilary Mantel wrote a wonderful book about the French Revolution, titled “A Place of Greater Safety.”

        As for Robespierre, he got what was coming to him (my opinion).

    • Catherine Curzon
      Catherine Curzon says:

      It really was a dark time, but an utterly fascinating one. I don’t know that France was any better in a lot of ways afterwards!

    • Catherine Curzon
      Catherine Curzon says:

      I was taking the jaw as part of the head but either way, not a happy way to end your days! 😉

  3. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    There are books written about how Louis XVI funded the American revolution even loaning money from his own personal accounts. There is a book Citizen tells of the horrors of the revolution. Perhaps it’s time to uncover and shine the light history on this event. It was truly a reign of terror unleashed on the French people by a small group of men with 1 insane idea to rid themselves of any royalist or anyone who questioned their motives


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