“Louis must die so that the nation may live.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Glorious 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 www.madamegilflurt.com, 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.