The Royal Death That Sparked A Revolution
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
To say that Queen Marie Antoinette, the Austrian-born wife of France’s King Louis XVI, was unpopular in her adopted homeland would have been an understatement-- the French masses hated her with a passion, and she despised them just as much if not more. She wasn’t all that fond of her husband either, considering him stupid and clumsy; theirs had been an arranged marriage of political convenience, and had it not been for the strict moral code she’d been brought up in by her mother Empress Maria Theresa she most likely would have divorced him the first chance she got.
Yet she didn’t hesitate to use the king’s influence when it suited her purposes. One of the most blatant examples of this manipulation came in November of 1785, when she maneuvered her husband into making a revision to the French royal succession laws that would permit her to assume the throne should Louis die before the Dauphin came of age. In so doing, the king was effectively overturning the Salic Law that had governed French royal successions since the reign of Clovis I in the 6th century; that decree stated that no woman could inherit property or titles of any kind.
In the highly chauvinistic culture of 18th century France, the very fact that Marie had been able to bring such change about was sufficient to earn her a great deal of censure...but it would pale in comparison to the events that followed.
Marie Antoinette finally got her chance to claim the throne on August 19th, 1786, when Louis XVI was unexpectedly killed in a riding accident on the grounds of the royal estate at Versailles. No sooner had the royal physician officially confirmed the king’s demise than the queen rushed to invoke his decree allowing her to assume the throne in the Dauphin’s stead.
As one might expect, a hostile reception from the masses awaited her when she arrived in Paris for the official coronation ceremony ten days after the king’s funeral. Cries of "Murderess!"1 and "Austrian whore!" followed her coach all the way to Notre Dame Cathedral; it took almost a battalion of grenadiers to protect her as she made her way inside the cathedral to formally accept the crown. Regarding the crowd’s taunts as a personal insult, the new ruler of France ordered her bodyguard detail to arrest a dozen people at random and put them in prison as a warning to those who would dare to mock her.
They hastened to obey her edict, and as a result her already dismal reputation among her subjects took a turn for the worse. The murmurs of protest against the French monarch became shouts; in Paris, Marseilles, Strasbourg and other major cities rallies were held to demand the queen’s abdication. Some of the more radical protestors hanged her in effigy, which further infuriated an already very angry Marie Antoinette. With a ruthlessness that would have impressed any modern-day tyrant, she imposed martial law in Paris and sent the French army forth to crush would-be dissidents in other French cities.
By early 1787, as Americans were drafting their national constitution and British convicts were being shipped overseas to establish the first settlements in what would later become Australia, France had become a brutal dictatorship where one out of every three inmates in its jails was a political prisoner. The monarchy exerted strong powers of censorship over the country’s newspapers and any public assemblies not sanctioned by the queen or her officials were broken up at will-- sometimes with musket fire.
The Estates-General, the legislative body which was supposed to represent the interests of the French people but had not formally convened since 1614, was incensed by what they saw as a naked power grab and made up their minds to stop the queen by any means they could. Long-standing class differences were put aside as the nobles of the Second Estate and the clergy of the First Estate, alarmed by the lengths Louis XVI’s widow was willing to go to arrogate so much power for herself, joined forces with the ordinary citizens of the Third Estate to lay the foundations for a rebellion against the Austrian-born queen.
Even in Marie’s own army there were men who dreaded the changes she had wrought in France; one of them was the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution who came home to find that the very brand of tyranny he’d fought against overseas had now apparently taken root at home.
Sharing his distress was attorney Georges-Jacques Danton, a middle class man known not only for his rhetorical talents and his very fiery temper but also for championing the underdog. Since his teens Danton had held little truck with the aristocracy; legend has it that when he swam in the Seine he would shout curses at the Bastille, France’s most notorious prison and a convenient dumping ground for opponents of the Bourbon regime. In his eyes, King Louis’ 1785 succession decree and the queen’s imposition of martial law on Paris represented everything that had gone wrong with the French monarchy.
In May of 1787, Lafayette invited Danton to a secret meeting at a coffeehouse in one of Paris’ less fashionable districts to plan their strategy for ending Marie’s harsh rule and creating a more just French government. Both men were agreed that an armed revolution was France’s only hope for ending the oppressive reign of its ruthless foreign-born queen; the trick was to assemble enough people to make such a revolt possible...
Marie Antoinette, meanwhile, had gotten in touch with her brother, Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph, to seek his aid in controlling her increasingly truculent subjects. She was determined to keep France under her thumb no matter what the cost, but she had begun to sense that she might not be able to entirely trust her own armies to squash a rebellion should one arise. So she covertly arranged with him for Austrian troops to enter northern France in August of 1787 on the pretext of securing the borders of the Austrian Empire against the ongoing turmoil in France.
In reality, however, the Austrian expeditionary force would be mercenaries whose true primary function was to keep Marie Antoinette on the throne and neutralize any inclination her own soldiers might have towards rebelling against her. Once Franz Joseph’s troops were on French soil, Marie thought, she and her brother would effectively slit the throat of the Estates-General, rendering them permanently powerless.
But as anyone could have warned her would happen, her plans backfired to the 10th power. A security leak in the French royal court allowed the rebels to learn of the impending Austrian troop incursion five days before it was scheduled to happen-- and anti- Bourbon feeling in France exploded like a cannon shell.2 Riots tore nearly every major city in the nation; church halls rang with the echoes of fiery sermons demanding the queen’s abdication and exile. Scores of army officers ignored Marie’s orders not to interfere with the Austrians and joined their troops in preparing to fight Emperor Franz Joseph’s planned intervention.
Lafayette assumed command of the military wing of the fledgling anti-Bourbon rebellion; Danton shared its political leadership with a young, driven fellow attorney named Maximillian Robespierre. What Robespierre lacked in experience he made up for in brainpower, zeal, and a gift for rhetoric-- if, as modern French historians like to say, Lafayette was the French Revolution’s muscle and Danton was its soul, then Robespierre was its voice. Defying Marie Antoinette’s martial law decree for Paris and the censorship that hamstrung the national press, he called on his fellow countrymen to join him in the rebellion-- and thousands of them heeded that call, either enlisting in Lafayette’s Grand Legion du Republique3 or forming their own guerilla bands.
Yet the Legion’s first shots would be fired not at the Austrians but at the guards of the Bastille: on August 10th, 1787 Legion rifles and artillery assaulted the ancient prison’s massive stone walls with the twofold objective of (A)freeing the political prisoners jailed inside and (B)distracting the royalist forces’ attention from Legion efforts to thwart the Austrian invasion. Whether they were successful in their second objective is a still a matter of intense debate among historians, and not just in France; however, there’s no disputing that they succeeded brilliantly in accomplishing the first-- the guards at the Bastille, outnumbered and outgunned, were overwhelmed in less than three hours and the Legion troops wasted no time in releasing those unjustly imprisoned by France’s power-mad queen.
Marie Antoinette was horrified when she learned about the rebel victory at the Bastille. Not only had a host of dangerous prisoners escaped, but the collapse of the ancient jail’s defenses brought up the fearful possibility that an emboldened Legion might try to storm Versailles sooner or later. And the news concerning the operations of her brother’s troops along France’s northern border would do a great deal to heighten her fears....
To Be Continued
1There were allegations in some quarters that Marie had personally engineered her husband’s death; while no clear evidence has ever been found that the queen did anything to intentionally cause Louis’ demise, such allegations are revealing of the loathing most Frenchmen(and Frenchwomen for that matter) felt towards her.
2The suspected leaker later hanged himself; to see what might have happened if the rebels hadn’t been tipped off to Marie’s plans, read Paddy Griffith’s "Achtung Grenadier!" in the Peter G. Tsouras-edited book The Bastille Options: Alternate Decisions Of The French Revolution(copyright 2006 from Greenhill Books).
3"Grand Legion of the Republic"; the formal name for Lafayette’s rebel army.