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Black Widow:

The Royal Death That Sparked A Revolution



By Chris Oakley



Part 3



Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com




Summary: In the first two episodes of this series we recalled the unlikely string of events that led to Queen Marie Antoinette’s installation as ruler of France and the outbreak of the subsequent rebellion against her. In this chapter we’ll deal with Axel Fersson’s plans to smuggle Marie out of the country and the bloody battle between the Grand Legion of the Republic and the royalist army for control of the Tuileries.


As Axel Fersson was detailing his rescue plan to Marie Antoinette, Grand Legion of the Republic troops were mounting a ferocious assault on the Tuileries Palace, one of the last major strategic positions in Paris still under royalist control. It was not entirely certain that the Legion would win the battle for the Tuileries; while the Legion forces might have had the numerical advantage, the royalist troops had better weapons and more experienced commanders. But whichever way the battle turned out, one thing was certain: it would be long and bloody. The commander of the royalist forces, in fact, privately admitted to his chief of staff that he expected the fight for the palace to last well into the coming winter.

Both the royalists holding the Tuileries and the rebels trying to capture it made liberal use of artillery fire throughout the battle. Travel and commerce along the Seine River, part of which flowed past the palace, was hampered by the almost endless cannonades between the royalists and the Legion troops; the palace itself sustained so many hits from cannonballs that much of it was in ruins before the battle was over.1

On September 13th, 1787 a particularly devastating such hit touched off several barrels of gunpowder that had formed part of the reserve supply for the royalist troops defending the Tuileries. The resulting explosion and fire caused a full one-quarter of the palace to collapse on itself, killing dozens of men and forcing the remaining soldiers in the royalist garrison to redeploy to less fire-scarred sections of the palace...sections which by an unfortunate coincidence happened to be largely right in the line of fire of Legion guns. Three days later,  Legion troops began occupying the undamaged sections of the palace, anaction which signaled the beginning of the end for the beleaguered royalists.

At dawn on September 18th, the most senior surviving officer among the royalist forces at the Tuileries sent a messenger under flag of truce over to the rebel lines requesting terms of surrender. Two hours later, the Legion forces sent a similar messenger with a dispatch that instructed the royalists to lay down their arms and begin evacuating the Tuileries no later that 8:00 AM on September 19th. Anxious to spare his men any further bloodshed, the royalist officer was quick to agree to those terms.

By 3:25 PM that afternoon the remnants of the royalist garrison had started the process of evacuation and the Legion forces were shifting their positions to be ready to occupy the Tuileries once the royalists had finished pulling out. Though sporadic fighting would continue in other parts of Paris for the next three days, the Legion had in effect won the battle for control of the French capital. The first crack had appeared in the monolith of Bourbon dynastic power, and other cracks would materialize and widen as the months passed; the collapse of the French monarchy, which had seemed unthinkable before Marie Antoinette took the throne, was now a real-- and, to monarchists, terrifying -- possibility.


Axel Fersson’s plan for sneaking Queen Marie Antoinette out of France and back to her old homeland to escape the vengeance of the more radical elements of the French Revolution reads like something out of a third-rate romance novel. He proposed to disguise himself and her as peasants so that they could slip through Legion patrols unnoticed; when they got to the border of Austrian-occupied Belgium, they would make contact with Emperor Franz Joseph’s soldiers, who would then escort them to safety in Vienna.

At first Marie was a bit hesitant about going along with Fersson’s idea; she was convinced to follow his lead, however, when a royalist dispatch rider came to the Versailles Palace with the news of the fall of the Tuileries. With the Tuileries in Legion hands, the chances of the queen living to see another day-- let along long enough to reclaim political control of France --were diminishing with each passing hour. Early on the morning of September 20th, Marie and a few servants, who like her were disguised in peasant garb, boarded a nondescript-looking carriage with Fersson and left Versailles.

It was fortunate for Marie that she left when she did; even as she packed what few personal effects she could carry with her, the Grand Legion of the Republic was assembling an arrest party to seize her and bring her back to metropolitan Paris for trial. Although the party was too late to capture Marie they did succeed in getting hold of a chest of papers she’d inadvertantly left behind in her haste to escape; the papers shed further light on her aborted plot to retain her throne by force and would later serve as the basis for an indictment against her in absentia on treason charges.

Despite the Legionnaires’ best efforts to track her down, Marie and her small entourage gave them the slip time and again, and late on the afternoon of September 24th Marie’s party safely crossed the border into Austrian-occupied Belgium. Once they reached Belgium, Emperor Franz Joseph’s personal bodyguard detachment escorted them to Vienna, where Marie was reunited with her brother and children on September 26th, 1787.


The French Revolution was by no means over once the Grand Legion of the Republic had secured control of Paris and Marie Antoinette had fled into exile; if anything, the queen’s departure back to her native Austria incited monarchist factions in France to rise up and start a  counterrevolution against the Danton-Robespierre coalition government. The next two years would see the country racked by civil war as the republicans and the monarchists battled each other for the right to shape France’s future; at the height of the war a sizable number of French cities witnessed street fighting that in some respects was a foreshadowing of the urban skirmishes of the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. During one such engagement, in which monarchists attempted to seize the republican garrison at Toulon, a young Corsican-born artillery lieutenant made a name for himself by smashing a monarchist cavalry force that outnumbered his own regiment two to one.

The lieutenant’s name was Napoleon Bonaparte, and his innovative use of grapeshot to break up the center of the monarchist battle lines made him a nationally recognized figure.2 When the Revolution ended in 1789, Napoleon, who by that point had been promoted to captain, was rewarded for his service in combat with an appointment to command an outpost guarding the Franco-Belgian border. Shortly after he took charge of his new post, rumors began filtering back to him that the Austrian army was joining forces with a volunteer monarchist French émigré brigade to mount a new invasion of France in the coming spring aimed at putting Queen Marie back on the throne; the Corsican wasted little time before starting to stockpile supplies and munitions for resisting the threatened assault.

When the assault finally came in the spring of 1791, Napoleon’s garrison was one of the first French bases to come under attack; in keeping with his fiery nature, Napoleon confronted the attackers head- on and drove them back with severe losses; his determined stand was a serious disruption to the Austrian battle plan as a whole and earned him a promotion to major. Over the next two years of the Austro-French war he would continue to rise through the ranks of the French regular army, eventually reaching the rank of colonel by the time Austria sued for peace in June of 1793.

Marie Antoinette’s physical and emotional health went into swift decline following the republican victory, and by October she was dead from apoplexy; her heirs, never to occupy the French throne, would spend the rest of their lives in exile. As for the monarchists who had hoped to one day restore her to power, many of them would also end their days in exile, either in Marie’s native Austria or across the Channel in Britain. Many others, however, would gradually return to France and acclimate themselves to the new order, in the process gaining considerable influence in post-revolutionary French culture and politics.

It was right about this time that the Danton-Robespierre coalition, always tenuous to begin with, began to self-destruct. Robespierre and Danton had always disagreed with each other on many issues but stifled those disagreements in order to achieve their common goal of toppling the Bourbon dynasty; with this aim fulfilled, those differences would resurface with a vengeance, setting the stage for a political crisis that would tear France asunder and witness Napoleon Bonaparte rising to greater heights than even Bonaparte himself had thought possible...


Sadly for the people of France, the overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty and the victory in the 1791-93 war with Austria hadn’t done much to solve one rather critical internal problem-- how to revive the struggling French economy, which had been in dire trouble even before the monarchy collapsed. Thousands of people couldn’t find work, and some of those who did have work found it increasingly difficult to support themselves and their families; even in the upper classes there was a touch of anxiety about the future that awaited the Republic if the hard times continued.

The hardship touched off a new wave of demonstrations in France as thousands of ordinary French citizens berated the government for not doing more to alleviate their plight. This reaction to France’s economic difficulties was in turn to launch a new political crisis as the Danton-Robespierre coalition groped for a way to deal with the protestors. Robespierre, convinced that the turmoil had been purposely instigated by monarchists seeking to undermine the Republic, was quite adamant that the government should take the hardest possible line with the demonstrators. But Danton, his sympathies with the downtrodden as strong as ever, advocated a more conciliatory approach to dealing with the protests; the gulf between the Danton and Robespierre camps on this issue proved insurmountable, and within a year after the Austrian war ended the Danton-Robespierre alliance had crumbled and Robespierre was maneuvering to gain sole domination of the French government.

The tactics Robespierre used in his campaign to take over the Republic’s executive branch would have unnerved Lady Macbeth. He had no scruples whatsoever about framing his political adversaries on charges grave enough to shatter their reputations; once they’d been sufficiently disgraced, he could use his influence to jail them-- or execute them. At first those condemned to die were hanged, but this changed when a physician and ally of Robespierre, one Dr. Joseph Guillotine, perfected a tool that could decapitate a human body instantly; this tool, which came to be called a "guillotine" after its inventor, made it possible to perform mass executions much more quickly and efficiently.

Like an 18th century Tony Soprano, Robespierre used a mix of charm and brutality to maintain his rule. One shudders to imagine how much more damage he could have inflicted had he enjoyed access to the tools of mass persuasion and repression at the disposal of modern tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam; as it was, he became a slave to his ambitions, destroying the very principles for which the revolution had been waged in order to accrue personal power.

By 1795 most of Danton’s allies had either been killed, rendered impotent, or imprisoned, and Danton himself might have met a rather unpleasant fate had a sympathetic clerk from Robespierre’s staff not warned him of his ex-colleague’s plan to have him jailed on trumped- up sedition charges.3 Rather than go into hiding, as many of his friends and supporters had urged him to do, the ever-defiant Danton got a pistol and challenged Robespierre’s henchmen to come after him.

Come after him they did--in May of 1795 alone there were no less than a half-dozen attempts on Danton’s life, and in every case the perpetrators of those attempts were later found to have been linked to Robespierre either directly or through intermediaries working on Robespierre’s behalf. One of those attempts would dramatically change the course of French history: a pistol shot meant for Danton instead hit the commander-in-chief of the French army’s Paris garrison and killed him instantly. The loss of this man, a battle-hardened veteran of the 1791-93 Austrian war, left a void in the garrison’s chain of command at exactly the moment when the French government most needed an experienced general to direct the garrison’s troops in protecting the peace of the city against any possible insurrection attempts by opponents of Robespierre.

To remedy this situation, Robespierre had his war minister, Antoine Louis de Saint-Just, summon Napoleon Bonaparte to the French capital; Bonaparte, who at the time of the summons had been leading a punitive expedition in Belgium against remnants of the old monarchist militias, was made a general on his arrival and appointed new C-in-C of the Paris garrison. He was given full power to take whatever measures he deemed necessary to neutralize any would-be rebellions-- and he would make the fullest use of that power...


One of Bonaparte’s first targets was the Jacobin Society, the political club Danton had founded in the last days of the Bourbon dynasty. So named because the club’s first meetings had been held in a Dominican church along the Rue St.Jacques4, it was in those days the primary stronghold for anti-Robespierre sentiment in Paris. In late late July of 1795 Bonaparte got an anonymous tip that the Jacobins would shortly be holding a rally to call for Robespierre to resign as president of the Republic; this same tip suggested that some of the marchers at the rally would be carrying guns and knives.

Convinced that the demonstrators were about to stage an armed rebellion against the government5, Bonaparte ordered the club seized and its members arrested. Thus on August 3rd, 1795 two battalions from his garrison occupied the club’s offices and seized many of Danton’s associates in the club; Danton himself, however, slipped through the soldiers’ fingers when he slipped out a back door at the last minute. His escape made little difference to Robespierre, who exulted that he had-- at least in his own opinion --stripped his worst political enemy of his power base.6

Napoleon and Robespierre would both soon have bigger fish to fry: Austria, branding Napoleon’s punitive campaigns in Belgium a direct violation of the treaty that ended the 1791-93 war and believing that France’s internal turmoil constituted a sign of weakness that could be exploited to Austria’s advantage, was massing its armies for another military showdown with the French....


To Be Continued



1 To put it in perspective for modern readers, the effect of all that cannon fire on the Tuileries was roughly equivalent to that of launching 500 cruise missiles simultaneously at the Pentagon.

2 Prior to the French Revolution, the conventional use of grapeshot by artillery had been to blend small groups of cannon loaded with this type of ammunition with batteries employing the more traditional cannonball. Napoleon opted instead to mass his grapeshot cannons into a single vast front to maximize the damage that could be inflicted; once the grapeshot had done its work on the monarchists’ front, republican infantry and cavalry troops attacked their flanks to put an end to the assault. Some military historians believe that this tactic may have been a forebearer of the blitzkrieg strategy employed by the Germans in the early years of World War II.

3 Just after the Danton-Robespierre partnership collapsed, Danton had published three newspaper articles suggesting that France was headed for what he called "a reign of terror" if Robespierre achieved full control of the French government. Robespierre took these articles as a personal insult and vowed to crush Danton at all costs in retaliation for them.

4 "Jacobin" was a pun of sorts on the street name.

5 Most modern historians have concluded that these weapons were in fact intended for self-defense should government troops attack the demonstrators.

6 The striking irony in regard to Napoleon’s seizure of the Jacobin Society’s headquarters is that Robespierre had been a charter member of the society along with Danton back when the two men were still political allies.


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