The French Revolution for visitors to France

As a traveller in France the main signs you will see of the French revolution are castles that were damaged - many so badly that you won't see them at all, some still in ruins, and others that have subsequently been renovated. So you will frequently be seeing the 'after-effects' of the French revolution as you explore...without realising it!

Guide to the events before, during and after the French Revolution

The calm before the storm: King Louis XVI, the Sun King

In 1643, France was appointed a new King who would reign for seventy-two years until 1715 and gain the title of longest reigning monarch in European history. At the tender age of four, Louis Dieudonne (as he was named at birth) was crowned King. He didn’t begin his control of the government however, until 1661 when Jules Mazarin (the chief minister) died.

During his reign, King Louis XIV was nicknamed the ‘Sun King’, and his contemporaries saw him strongly connected with the Greek god Apollo. In astrological terms, the planets revolve around the sun, just as the French government considered France to revolve around King Louis.

During his childhood, King Louis was not blessed with the best of luck. His parents neglected him and the noble people of Paris revolted against the monarchy as he grew up, holding Louis and his Mother captive. These unfortunate events are said to have shaped the archetypal ‘King-like’ qualities that Louis exhibited in later life.

Not only was King Louis’ a highly successful monarch, working to protect and maintain his state, but he also built France to be one of the strongest countries in Europe. Its culture was transformed from medieval depravity to one of majestic beauty. This was portrayed in 1661, when Louie transformed a Versailles lodge into his glorious palace.

The Sun King led France through four great wars and dealt with his fair share of critique and conflict. For example, in 1708 the town of Lille was captured. However, King Louis never once doubted his right to be King and he is still known as one of the few true absolutist monarchs (a government which has no bodies of law that have power over the ruling monarch).

To some, this monarchical form seems dangerous and unwise, but for the people of France during the 17th century, it was a fine way to have their government controlled. This was all thanks to their King’s extraordinary ability to do in 54 years what previous monarchs had been striving to achieve for hundreds of years.

However, not only did King Louis create a powerful France, but also his death in 1715 left the country in large amounts of debt after the construction of his palaces, the wars won and the wars lost. These elements, coupled with the persecution of the Protestant Reformed Church of France set France up for the revolution which followed in the 18th century.

Marie Antoinette, a foreign queen

Born in Vienna in 1755, Marie Antoinette was the fifteenth child of the Roman Emperor Francis I and grew up in an environment which mixed regal and judicial living (Marie Antoinette’s parents governed the basic changed in the European courts). She became Queen of France at the age of just fourteen, when she married Louis Auguste (King Louis XVI). This 18th century Archduchess of Austria was originally named ‘Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen’ at birth and met her untimely execution for treason in 1793.

Marie and Louis’ early marriage was somewhat unhappy and unconsummated due to Louis’ impotence. She became tiresome of the daily responsibilities that came with being a Queen i.e. Court rituals and etiquette. The Petit Trianon was an 18th century chateau with both Neoclassical and Rococo styles of architecture and it soon became a retreat and sanctuary for Marie Antoinette. She renovated the building with the aim of recreating her picturesque and peaceful childhood in Vienna, which she missed so much. Here she ignored her Imperial life, pretending to be a milk maid.

Born into a life of riches and royalty, Marie Antoinette was blissfully unaware of what was to become her ill-fated downfall at the hands of the French Revolution. She became infamous for her frivolous and expensive life of gambling, masquerade balls and night-time promenades. As a result there was a large amount of scandal surrounding her name, the most notable of which being the ‘Diamond Necklace Affair' which implied that she took part in a fraudulent plan to steal a necklace from the crown jewellers.

Marie Antoinette gained a very unpopular reputation between French nobility and even the French public, worsened by the fact that France had been at war with Austria since the early 1700’s.

As the court hearing of the Diamond Necklace Affair ended and Marie Antoinette escaped imprisonment, she and Louis’ resolved their problems in the bedroom and she produced four children. As her social life settled, her bad reputation remained and in 1789 the French people rebelled against the monarchy in an attempt to gain more power - the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette managed to convince King Louis’ to not give in and maintain royal control. This only increased her unpopularity amongst the public. In 1792 Marie’s husband Louis XVI was tried and executed for treason. After being separated from her son, daughter and sister-in-law Marie was put in a Concierge prison, where she would remain under close watch until her beheading in 1793.

Storming of the Bastille

In 1789 the Storming of the Bastille occurred in Paris on the 14th July. The medieval fortress known as the Bastille only held 7 prisoners but the fall of the fortress was one of the starting points of the French Revolution.


It is said that around 600 people were involved and the total of the crowd was probably less than a thousand. The crowd assembled outside the Bastille around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the guns and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress to bargain, and another was allowed in around noon with exact demands. However, the negotiations dragged on and the crowd grew and became impatient.

Later on in the day (it’s said to be around 1.30pm) the crowd rushed into the outer courtyard and the drawbridge chains to the inner courtyard were cut. About this time gunfire began, though which side actually fired first will never be known. The crowd seemed to have felt they had been drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organize a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers.

The firing continued and at around 3.00pm the attackers were helped by other men from among the regular troops, carrying weapons taken from the Invalides building earlier in the day. With the possibility of a reciprocated slaughter suddenly apparent Governor de Launay ordered a ceasefire at 5pm. A letter stating his terms was stuck through a gap in the inner gates. The demands were refused but de Launay gave in and opened gates to the inner courtyard and the vainqueurs raced in to release the fortress at 5.30pm.

Ninety-eight attackers and just one defender had died in the actual fighting. De Launay was captured and dragged towards the Hôtel de Ville in a rage of abuse. Outside the Hôtel a discussion as to his fate began. The anguished de Launay who had been badly beaten shouted “Enough! Let me die!”

De Launay was then stabbed repeatedly and fell to the ground; his head was sawn off and fixed on a pike to be carried through the streets.

The blame for the fall of the Bastille would in large part appear to lie with the inaction of the commanders of the substantial force of Royal Army troops on the Champs de Mars, who made no effort to get involved when the nearby Hotel des Invalides or the Bastille itself came under attack.

The French Revolution and King Louis XVI

King Louis XVI was king during this time and had married the very young Marie Antoinette who gained the public perception that she did not care about anything except for her appearance and position. She continued to use up the treasury to pay for her over-spending even though the country was in financial despair. King Louis XVI did not care about ruling his country at all and was very easily influenced so that anyone who wanted to get a point across to Louis would be able to change his mind in a matter of minutes. He was more interested in hunting than matters of state.

In the year 1789 the French people revolted against the monarchy and upper classes, using violence and murder to overthrow those in power. Many saw the French revolution as inspirational, a model of how the ordinary, disadvantaged people could gain power.

The changes for improvement were based on the Enlightenment ideas of democracy, citizenship and patent rights.

Neighbouring countries were afraid that France's revolution would soon spread as an example beyond French land and start rebellions in other countries. Other countries issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which demanded that the French people return Louis XVI to the throne. Many French leaders thought the declaration was aggressive so they declared war on Austria and Prussia.

Ironically, Robespierre had presented a speech to Louis and Marie when he was a child about how much he appreciated their work for the country, but when Robespierre grew up, his speech turned out to be the end of King Louis, and perhaps later also the end of the Revolutionary ideal. Robespierre grew very suspicious about counter-revolutionary powers, so he started the Reign of Terror during 1793-1794. More than 15,000 people were beheaded at the guillotine.

When the French army successfully defeated foreign attackers and the economy finally become secure, Robespierre had no more excuses for his zealous actions, and he was arrested in July 1794 and executed.

During that time, French armies led by the young general Napoleon Bonaparte were very successful in development in almost every direction. Napoleon eventually became the leader of France and with him as ruler, the Bloody Revolution ended, and France went into a fifteen-year period of military rule.

Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror started around 15 months after the beginning of the French Revolution, when struggles between rival factions led to the people involved wanting to sort everything out. This led to violence and mass executions of enemies of the revolution.

The official start date of the Reign of Terror was 5th September 1793. The Reign of Terror was at it’s largest during June and July of 1794 when several members of the Reign of Terror were themselves executed. The Terror took the lives of about 40,000 French men and woman.

During the “Reign of Terror”, everyone was afraid that that day would be their last day to live, because anyone reported to be dubious of being a traitor to the new government would be taken in account and the persons would be taken captive and later beheaded at the guillotine.

In summer of 1794, France was threatened by both inside enemies as well as conspirators, and by foreign European monarchies fearing that it would spread. Almost all European governments in that period were based on monarchy rather than the popular independence declared by the revolutionary French.

Foreign powers wanted to restrain the democratic and republican ideas, which they feared would pose a threat to their own particular government solidity. Their armies were pressing on the border of France, leading the new Republic into a series of wars against its monarchist neighbours. Foreign powers had already threatened the French population with retaliation if they did not free King Louis XVI and reinstate him as a monarch. The Prussian Duke of Brunswick threatened to filch Paris if the Parisians dared to touch the royal family, which only enraged Paris.

Louis XVI himself was suspected of conspiring with foreign powers who wished to invade France and restore absolute monarchy. The former French nobility, having lost its inherited privileges, had a stake in the failure of the Revolution. The Roman Catholic Church as well was generally against the Revolution, which had turned the clergy into employees of the state and had required that they take an oath of loyalty to the nation. About half of the clergy, mainly in western France, refused the oath, making them known as disobedient priests.

Members of the Catholic clergy and the former nobility entered into conspiracies, often calling upon foreign military involvement. In the western region known as the Vendée, priests and former nobles led a small revolution, which began in spring 1793 and was supported by Great Britain. The reconciliation of the region was so brutal that some historians claim the actions of the revolutionaries constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.

Finally on the 27th June 1794 the Reign of Terror was at an end due to the decisive military victory over Austria at the Battle of Fleurus, Robespierre was overthrown by a conspiracy of certain members of the Convention.

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon was born on 15th August 1769 and was a French military and political leader who had significant impact on modern European history. He was a general during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns against the first and second Coalition.

In late 1799, Napoleon staged a “coup d'état” and established himself as First Consul; five years later he became the Emperor of the French. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, he turned the armies of France against almost every large European power, taking over continental Europe through a long stretch of military victories and through the construction of wide spread alliance structures. He appointed close friends and several members of his family as monarchs and important government figures of French-dominated states.

The devastating French invasion of Russia in 1812 marked a turning point in Napoleon's luck. The campaign wrecked the Grande Armée, which never got back to its previous strength. In October 1813, the Sixth Coalition defeated his forces at Leipzig and then invaded France. The coalition forced Napoleon to resign in April 1814, banishing him to the island of Elba.

Less than a year later, he returned to France and regained control of the government in the Hundred Days (les Cent Jours) prior to his final defeat at Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Napoleon spent the remaining six years of his life under British regulation on the island of St. Helena. Napoleon developed relatively few military advances, although his placement of artillery into batteries and the elevation of the army corps as the standard all-arms unit have become accepted policies in virtually all large modern armies. He drew his best tactics from a variety of sources and scored several major victories with a modernized and reformed French army. His campaigns are studied at military academies all over the world and he is widely regarded as one of history's greatest commanders.

Aside from his military achievements, Napoleon is also remembered for the founding of the Napoleonic Code (Code Napoléon), which laid the bureaucratic fundamentals for the modern French state.

A great leader and commander Napoleon died on the 5th May 1821 and was buried at Les Invalides, Paris. The cause of Napoleon's death has been uncertain on a number of occasions. Francesco Antommarchi, the physician chosen by Napoleon's family and the leader of the post mortem examination, gave stomach cancer as a reason for Napoleon's death on his death certificate.

In the later half of the twentieth century, a different theory arose speculating that Napoleon was the victim of arsenic poisoning.

Napoleonic Wars

From 1799 to 1815 France was at war with much of the rest of Europe. The French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte was at the heart of the conflicts and caused an end to what was later known as the ‘second hundred years war’ between Britain and France (1689 to 1815).

The trial and execution of King Louis XVI in 1792 caused an escalation of tension between Europe and France, already having suffered the French Revolution of 1789. Before the wars began, Napoleon had been campaigning in Egypt, and upon his return to France on November 9th 1799, he clinched the French government and replaced its executive directory with three consuls, known as ‘the consulate’. These consuls were Napoleon himself, Jean Jacques Regis de Cambaceres and Charles-Francois Lebrun who together completely overhauled the French military by mass conscription.

Napoleon’s army won three battles against the Austrians, leaving a second coalition in tatters. However, the United Kingdom remained a force to be reckoned with as it had influential power throughout the world, and France would need to either defeat the UK, or sign a treaty with it if there were to ever be peace. A treaty known as the ‘Treaty of Amiens’ was initially signed, although neither party stuck to its legislation. Conflict between Britain and France resumed in 1803 and another war began.

Napoleon’s formation of the ‘Berlin Decrees’ minimised the threat of the British Army, as it eliminated the UK from French trade. It was at this time that Napoleon made France an Empire, crowning himself as Emperor.

In 1805 a third coalition was established and Napoleon succeeded in fending off Austria and Britain. However, Russia had also joined the coalition and their power was yet to be unleashed. It was ultimately Napoleon's forays into Russia that were to bring his downfall. After the fourth, fifth and sixth coalitions consisting collectively of Russia, Prussia, Saxony, Sweden, Britain, Austria, selected German states and the Netherlands failed to defeat Napoleon; a seventh was formed in 1815, which would see his demise.

Visitors will be interested to know that after Napoleon was first sent into exile (in 1814) he returned to briefly reclaim power in 1815. the route he followed to reach Paris is now a popular route with tourists called the Route Napoleon.

The Battle of Waterloo marked the end of Napoleonic wars, after which Napoleon was deported to Saint Helena and died in 1821 of unconfirmed circumstances. His post-mortem examination certificate states that he died of stomach cancer, although a popular conspiracy theory claims he was poisoned with arsenic.

The defeat of Napoleon resulted in an era named the ‘Restoration’, whereby Napoleon’s allies restored the Bourbon Dynasty as the French monarchy. This event had been strongly desired since 1803 in close conjunction with the death of Napoleon.

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