“The carriage proceeded thus in silence to the Place de Louis XV, and stopped in the middle of a large space that had been left round the scaffold: this space was surrounded with cannon, and beyond, an armed multitude extended as far as the eye could reach. As soon as the King perceived that the carriage stopped, he turned and whispered to me, ‘We are arrived, if I mistake not.’ My silence answered that we were.”
This was how Henry Essex Edgeworth recalled one of the last moments of Louis XVI (above), who was executed by the guillotine on today’s date, January 21 in 1793. Edgeworth was an Englishman, a priest living in France during this time, and had been requested by Louis as the man who would hear his final confession. Edgeworth heard the final confession of Louis, and then stayed with him on his ride to his place of execution.
The Fall of Louis XVI
Louis XVI was as Nicholas II (the last Czar of Russia) would prove to be a century and a quarter later, the wrong man at the wrong time. He ascended to the throne of France in 1774, a time when his country had been driven nearly to the point of bankruptcy by the excessive spending on luxurious living committed by his royal predecessors, Louis XIV, and Louis XV. Indeed it was Louis XV who was said to have spoken the
infamous phrase “Après moi le déluge” (“After me, the deluge”), meaning that after the wild excesses of his reign, the “deluge”, or the “flood” would come and sweep away his successors. Louis XVI was a decent man, but a man who lacked any genuine understanding of the economic and social forces which were combining to overwhelm him. Plus, Louis had an unpopular foreign-born wife, Marie Atoinette (above), who being from Austria, became the object of the xenophobia of the lower classes, who blamed her for all of the nation’s problems.
The Road to Execution
As the financial crisis deepened, there were calls for the King to call “the Estates General”, an old legislative body, which had not met since 1614. Louis did in fact convoke that body, which met on May 1, 1789. In my Blog posting for July 14, “Bastille Day” I give a detailed account of why “the Estates General” didn’t work (“France and Her Revolutionary Crisis”). For our purposes here let it suffice to say
Louis wound up being deposed as King, and he and his family were eventually imprisoned in the Tuileries Palace (See my posting for Jan. 4: “Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in Captivity”). When the royal family attempted to escape to Austria on June 21, 1791, they were recaptured (above) and thereafter were seen as plotting with a foreign government against France, thus losing any popular respect he still had. He was tried by the National Assembly for crimes against the people in 1792, and was convicted on Jan. 20, leading to his execution on January 21, 1793.
Louis Goes to the Guillotine
Edgeworth then describes how after an attempt was made to bind his hands Louis mounted the scaffold and went to the guillotine (a new form of execution named in 1789 for it’s inventor, and was then hailed as a more humane form of capitol punishment) with bravery and dignity:
“The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass…. 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 it 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.'”
“Many voices were at the same time heard encouraging the executioners. They seemed reanimated themselves, in seizing with violence the most virtuous of Kings, they dragged him under the axe of the guillotine, which with one stroke severed his head from his body. All this passed in a moment. The youngest of the guards, who seemed about eighteen, immediately seized the head, and showed it to the people as he walked round the scaffold; he accompanied this monstrous ceremony with the most atrocious and indecent gestures. At first an awful silence prevailed; at length some cries of ‘Vive la Republique!’ were heard.”
Marie Antoinette would follow her husband to the guillotine on October 19 of 1793. The body of Louis XVI was interred at the old Church of the Madeleine. 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.