October 5, 1789 The Women’s March

Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve, as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles away. 

We hear a lot this pre-election season, about “Left” and “Right”. “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right. Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

Imagine you are there, from the beginning. The year is 1789. Your politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your nation’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

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Cartoon of the period depicting the “3rd Estate” (Commoners) carrying the 1st (Clergy) and 2nd (Nobility) on his back

In medieval France, major constituent parts of French society broke into “Three Estates” being the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men.

French society of the late 18th century found itself at a crossroads of tectonic events, any one of which carried with it the potential for societal upheaval.

Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition, and a diminution of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Politically, the “Commons” had evolved into a caste of its own, with its own goals and a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution of a decade earlier.  The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI.

The situation was precarious for the King that May, when Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General.   Having reached an impasse, the Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” that  June, demanding a personal audience with the King, for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was hysterical, duplicitous or both, as the King and the Royal Family were in formal mourning at this time, following the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent to the french throne.  Traditionally, political matters were held at such times, until the King came out of mourning.

It was yet another custom, about to be thrown out the window.

Finding the chamber locked and under guard, all 577 members of the National Assembly converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the “Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

image-placeholder-title.jpgThe oath itself was a revolutionary act.  Unlike the English Parliament, the Estates-General were little more than an advisory body, whose authority was not required for Royal taxation or legislative initiatives.  The oath taken that day asserted that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared itself supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as Leftist and reformist factions coalesced from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French Right.

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” in July, when French revolutionaries converged on that age-old and hated symbol of the monarchy:  the Bastille. The fortress was guarded at this time by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting. The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

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On this day in 1789, hundreds of French women ransacked the markets of Paris, angry over the scarcity and the high price, of bread.  Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles distant.

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The women’s march, hailed and encouraged by onlookers, making its way toward the Palace at Versailles

Arriving soaking wet from a driving rain, the angry mob converged on Versailles demanding political reforms and a constitutional monarchy.  The confrontation was ugly, violent.  Marie Antoinette herself narrowly escaped destruction, fleeing down a secret passage to the King’s chambers.

The King himself agreed to address the crowd,  from his balcony. “My friends,” he began, “I will go to Paris with my wife and my children.”  It was a fatal error.

The insurrection at Paris raced across all of France as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years.  Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in January, 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette herself, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The Queen’s last words on mounting the scaffold were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.   She had accidentally stepped on her executioner’s toes.

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Execution of Louis XVI

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial before the hysteria died down. Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy.  The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8.  He would die there, miserable, sick and alone, at the age of 10.   

The whole exercise, seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.

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October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

Alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, and treaties were often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770 when Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife Maria Theresa, the formidable Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, married their daughter Maria Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was performed by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna while the groom stayed in Paris. At 12 she was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

Marie_Antoinette_girlThere was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This wasn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space.  This was the bizarre spectacle of a room full of courtiers, peering down at the proceedings, to make sure the marriage was consummated.

It was not, and that failure did damage to both of their reputations.

The people liked their new Dauphine at first, but the Royal Court was another story. They had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match, and called Marie Antoinette “The Austrian Woman”.  She would be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naive of the shark tank into which she’d been thrown. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, and Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out. The King’s daughters, on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry’s unsavory relations with their father. Antoinette couldn’t win. The sisters complained of feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting, she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter that she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Marie_Antoinette_by_Joseph_DucreuxLouis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side, though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described her supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

France had serious debt problems in the 1770s, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame. As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role, but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, Antoinette was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen took root in French mythology, as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Bastille

Food shortages magnified the unrest. In October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. In June they attempted to flee the escalating violence, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

marie-antoniette-french-historyUnrest turned to barbarity as Antoinette’s friend and supporter, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

Louis XVI was charged with undermining the First Republic in December 1792, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. He was 38.

Marie-Antoinette became prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and was frequently bleeding, possibly from uterine cancer.

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14, subjected to a sham trial whose outcome was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

marie-antoinette over the yearsMarie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

“Let them eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there’s no evidence that she ever said it. The phrase appears in the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Les Confessions”, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, it’s easy to believe that this was more of the same.