Who Was Louis XVI of France?
Louis XVI was the last Bourbon king of France who was executed in 1793 for treason. In 1770 he married Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette, the daughter of Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. After a slew of governing missteps, Louis XVI brought the French Revolution crashing down upon himself. Louis was guillotined, followed by Marie Antoinette nine months later.
Louis XVI was born on August 23, 1754, in the Palace of Versailles. Named Louis Auguste de France, he was given the title Duc de Berry signifying his junior status in the French Court.
Louis XVI was the third son of Louis, Dauphin of France and grandson of Louis XV of France. His mother, Marie-Josephe of Saxony, was the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, also the King of Poland. Louis XVI’s great-great-great grandfather was Louis XIV of France (also known as the “Sun King”).
Louis XVI grew up strong and healthy, though very shy. He was tutored by French noblemen and studied religion, morality and humanities. He excelled in Latin, history, geography and astronomy and achieved fluency in Italian and English.
With his good health, Louis enjoyed physical activities including hunting and wrestling. From an early age, he enjoyed locksmithing, which became a lifelong hobby.
Louis' parents paid little attention to him, instead focusing on his older brother, the heir apparent, Louis duc de Bourgogne, who died at age nine in 1761. Then, on December 20, 1765, his father died of tuberculosis, and Louis Auguste became Dauphin at age 11. His mother never recovered from the family tragedies and also succumbed to tuberculosis on March 13, 1767.
Louis Auguste was ill-prepared for the throne he was soon to inherit. Following the death of his parents, Louis' tutors provided him with poor interpersonal skills. They exacerbated his shyness by teaching him that austerity was a sign of a strong character in monarchs. As a result, he presented himself as being very indecisive.
King Louis XVI of France
On May 10, 1774, Louis Auguste became Louis XVI upon the death of his grandfather, Louis XV. Only 20 years old at the time, Louis XVI was immature and lacked self-confidence.
While Louis XVI wanted to be a good king and help his subjects, he faced enormous debt and rising resentment towards a despotic monarchy. His failure to successfully address serious fiscal problems would dog him for most of his reign. Louis lacked sufficient strength of character and decisiveness to combat the influence of court factions or give support to reformers in their efforts to improve France's government.
King Louis XVI and the French Revolution
Louis XVI’s policy of not raising taxes and taking out international loans, including to fund the American Revolution, increased France’s debt, setting in motion the French Revolution. By the mid-1780s the country was near bankruptcy, which forced the king to support radical fiscal reforms not favorable with the nobles or the people.
When the pressure mounted, Louis XVI reverted to his earlier teaching of being austere and uncommunicative, posing no solution to the problem and not responding to others who offered help. By 1789, the situation was deteriorating rapidly.
Louis XVI Calls the Estates General
In May 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates General to address the fiscal crisis, an advisory assembly of different estates or socio-economic classes (the clergy, the nobility and the commoners). The meeting did not go well. By June, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly, aligned with the bourgeoisie and set out to develop a constitution.
Initially, Louis XVI resisted, declared the Assembly null and void and called out the army to restore order. Public dissension grew, and a National Guard formed to resist the King's actions. By July 1789, he was forced to acknowledge the National Assembly's authority.
On July 14, riots broke out in Paris and crowds stormed the Bastille prison in a show of defiance toward the King. The day is now commemorated in France as a national holiday and the start of the French Revolution.
For a time, it seemed that Louis XVI could mollify the masses by saying that he would acquiesce to their demands. However, he accepted bad advice from the nobility's hard-line conservatives and his wife, Marie Antoinette. He talked of reform but resisted demands for it.
The royal family was forcibly transferred from Versailles to Paris on October 6, 1789. Louis ignored advice from advisors and refused to abdicate his responsibilities as king of France, agreeing to a disastrous attempt to escape to the eastern frontier in June 1791. He and his family were brought back to Paris, and he lost all credibility as a monarch.
Louis XVI’s Execution
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed for treason. Louis had failed to address France's financial problems, instigating the French Revolution that eventually descended upon him. He made matters worse by often escaping to more pleasurable activities like hunting and locksmithing. Modern historians attribute this behavior to a clinical depression that left him prone to paralyzing indecisiveness.
In the final two years of Louis’ reign, events moved rapidly. In the fall of 1791, Louis XVI tied his hopes on the dubious prospect of war with Austria in hopes that a military defeat would pave the way for a restoration of his authority. War broke out in April 1792. Suspicions of treason led to the capture of the royal palace and the temporary suspension of the king’s powers.
On September 21, 1792, the Legislative Assembly proclaimed the First French Republic. That November, proof of Louis XVI's secret dealings and counter-revolutionary intrigues was discovered, and he and his family were charged with treason. Louis was soon found guilty by the National Assembly and condemned to death.
Louis XVI was guillotined in the Place de la Révolution on January 21, 1793. His wife, Marie Antoinette, met the same fate nine months later, on October 16, 1793. Their young son, Louis-Charles, died in prison where living conditions were horrible. Daughter Marie-Thérèse was released from prison in December 1795 into the custody of her family in Austria.
Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s Children
At age 15 (in May 1770), Louis married the 14 year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette), his second cousin once removed, in an arranged marriage. She was the youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa.
The marriage was met with some skepticism by members of the French court, as they remembered a previous alliance with the Habsburgs pulled France into the Seven Years War. Though initially charmed by her personality, the French people eventually came to loathe Marie Antoinette, accusing her of being promiscuous and sympathetic to French enemies.
The first few years of marriage for Louis and Marie were amicable but distant. His shyness kept him distant from her in private, and his fear of her manipulation made him cold to her in public.
It is believed the couple did not consummate their marriage for some time, having their first child eight years after their wedding. Historians debate the cause, but most likely, Louis suffered from a physiological dysfunction that took time to rectify.
Eventually, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had four children together: Marie-Thérèse, Louis-Joseph, Louis-Charles and Sophie-Beatrix. All but Marie-Thérèse died in childhood.
In the early years of his reign, Louis XVI focused on religious uniformity and foreign policy. On the homefront, he invoked an edict that granted French non-Catholics legal status and the right to openly practice their faith.
Louis XVI's early foreign policy success was supporting the American colonies' fight for independence from France's archenemy Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War.
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