Understanding the French Revolution

What was the French Revolution?

The French Revolution was a period of time in France between 1789 and 1799 when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were the king and queen. This was the time when the people overthrew the monarchy and took control of the government. Why? Because the wealthy people – the monarchy and the nobles – had all the money and power and didn’t share it with the poor.

In fact, the poor people had to pay most of their wage in tax, but the wealthy land owners had barely any taxes to pay!

With so many poor people in France dying of hunger, bad living conditions and treatable diseases, it’s no wonder the people called for a revolt – for a new France ruled by the people.

Causes of the Revolution

  1. The price of bread sky-rocketed after a bad few years wheat harvest. Since bread was the main food source for poor people, this meant that many people were unable to buy food.
  2. Workers were paid very low wages but had the burden of most of the country’s taxes. This made them dislike the rich nobles, who had the money to eat well and build huge houses.
  3. France was supporting the American Revolution – sending money and supplies to the cause. So much was being sent overseas that France incurred a huge national debt.

In short, the rich people had most of the money and power and the poor people had no opportunities to better their circumstances.

The ‘Estates-General’

Troisordres

Caricature of the Third Estate carrying the First Estate and the Second Estate on its back.

Before the Revolution, France was divided into three Estates.

The First Estate was the Clergy (the church). It made up 1% of the population.

The Second Estate was the Nobles, which also made up 1% of the population.

The Third Estate, 98% of the population, was everybody else.

The Estates-General was a political body made up of representatives from each Estate.

In May 1789, the Estates-General was called together by the King to deal with France’s national debt. They met at the Palace of Versailles.

The Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles
Image by Nathalia Dorma

The Third Estate were angry. They were the poorest people but they were being taxed the most. They brought a list of demands to the Estates-General which demanded that the Church and the Nobility pay more taxes to make a fairer system. Not surprisingly, the First and Seconds estates did not want any changes made.

The Storming of the Bastille

The Storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789; painting by Jean-Pierre Houël
The Storming of the Bastille
on 14 July, 1789; painting by Jean-Pierre Houël

The French Revolution lasted 10 years from 1789 to 1799. It began on July 14, 1789 when revolutionaries stormed a prison called the Bastille. This prison was a symbol of the monarchy’s power as this was where all the king’s political prisoners were sent and where many weapons were held.

Seven prisoners were released, the weapons were looted and the prison Governor was killed. The people cut off his head and put it on a spike.

The Takeover

The Members of the Third Estate took over Paris. The president of the National Assembly, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, became mayor of the city. Soon, the King visited Paris and wore the red, white and blue (tricolor) ribbons (cockade) that the revolutionaries were wearing to show his support for the reform.

The Women’s March

In Paris, women were becoming angry about the scarcity of bread. Whatever bread there was available was very expensive.

Women marching on Versailles carrying weapons
Women’s March on Versailles
Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of October 5, 1789, a group of women in a Paris marketplace began to revolt. They began their march through Paris demanding bread at a fair price. The crowd built as the women marched – very soon there were thousands joined in revolt – all headed to Versailles to confront the king.

At the Palace

It took the revolutionaries six hours to walk from Paris to Versailles in the rain. They were cold, hungry and angry. They demanded to meet the king. A small group of women were actually allowed into the palace for a conference with the king. Louis XVI agreed to give them food from his own stores and promised to make sure more food got to the people.

Not Good Enough

Not everybody was satisfied with the king;s word. Thousands of people stayed all night protesting at the palace gates, and by morning the violence began.

Some of the royal guards actually changed sides to join the revolution, and any who didn’t were killed. The crowd went looking for Marie Antoinette, who was very nearly caught and killed. A maid helped her escape through a secret passageway to the king’s bedroom.

Drawing of Lafayette on balcony with Marie Antoinette
Drawing of Lafayette on balcony with Marie Antoinette
Artist Unknown

King Louis XVI spoke to the crowd from his balcony where he agreed to their demand that he return to Paris with them. When the crowd demanded to see Marie Antoinette, she stood humbly in front of them where she was threatened with guns. She could have been killed.

Later that very day the king and queen moved with their family into the Tuilleries Palace in Paris to be kept under guard. The would never go home again.

A New Government

The National Assembly had to make some decisions about how they would now rule France. Should the king have any power? Who would be allowed to vote?

Some of the new laws were:

  • The king had limited power and only a small part to play in the running of the country.
  • The Roman Catholic Church would have much less power than they had before, and all the Church’s property was taken by the state. The State also cancelled all taxes and powers of the Church.
  • Nobles, all except the king, could no longer pass their titles to their children.

Royal Family Tries To Escape

Louis XVI and his family, dressed as commoners, arrested in Varennes. Picture by Thomas Falcon Marshall (1854)

Louis XVI and his family, dressed as commoners, arrested in Varennes. Picture by Thomas Falcon Marshall (1854)

Understandably, the royal family were scared. They made a plan to escape France for fear of their lives. Their plan was to dress as commoners and escape into Belgium, but made the mistake of using a royal carriage. They were recognised and brought back to Paris where they, with their children, were sent under house arrest to the Tuilleries Palace.

War

Louis XVI was briefly put back on the throne with very limited powers, however some people thought that he was trying to get help from outside, such as from his wife’s family in Austria. When Austria and Prussia attacked France the people saw this as proof of Louis’ betrayal of the new government. The Tuilleries Palace was attacked on the 10th August 1792, and the king and queen were taken prisoner.

Reign of Terror

The darkest period of the French Revolution is called the Reign of Terror. From 1793 to 1794 a man named Robespierre led the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. He believed that to get rid of anyone against the revolution there had to be fear in the people’s hearts; he called for a rule of “Terror.” He based his beliefs in the motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité – liberty for all, equality for all, brotherhood for all. He was, so he said, a man for the people.

Laws were passed so that anyone suspected of treason could be arrested and executed by guillotine. It was under his rule that the king, the queen and their first born son were killed.

Sadly, after all the suspicion about Louis plotting with Austria and Prussia, the National Convention voted and found Louis XVI guilty of “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety.”

On the 21st January, 1793, the king was executed using the guillotine. Queen Marie Antoinette was also executed in October. Read more about the execution of Marie Antoinette.

The End

Napoleon Bonaparte

Jacques-Louis David: The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries  

Napoleon Bonaparte

On 9 November 1799 Bonaparte took power. He set up a new government, overthrowing the revolutionary government, called the Consulate and declared himself Dictator. In 1804 he became the Emperor of France.

The Outcome

The French Revolution completely changed France forever. By the end of the Revolution, the monarchy and the power of the Church were abolished. Common people had power, rights and freedom, and slavery was abolished entirely. Women were given rights for the first time in French history.

It was a bloody, cold and terrifying affair which, sadly, led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. However, terrible though these events were, it did lead to a fairer system for the French which the people desperately needed.


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