Read The Days of the French Revolution Online

Authors: Christopher Hibbert

The Days of the French Revolution

BOOK: The Days of the French Revolution
The Days of the French Revolution
Christopher Hibbert




This is a narrative history of the French Revolution from the meeting of the Estates General at Versailles in 1789 to the
coup d’état
of 18
which brought Napoleon to power ten years later. It concentrates upon events and people rather than ideas, particularly upon those
which helped to decide the course of the Revolution and upon those men and women involved in them. It is written for the general reader unfamiliar with the subject rather than the student, though I hope the student to whom the field is new may find it a readable introduction to the works of those historians to whom I myself am indebted. I want particularly to mention, and to thank, Professors Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, Alfred Cobban, Richard Cobb, George Rudé, A. Goodwin and Norman Hampson. I am most grateful to Richard Cobb, Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford, for having read the typescript and for having given me much valuable advice for the book’s improvement.

I want also to thank my friends, Mr R. H. Owen, who helped me with various translations when we were working on the book in Paris, and Mr John Guest who has been my most skilful and trusted editor for over twenty years. For their help in a variety of other ways I am deeply indebted to Mrs John Rae, Mrs Francis Pollen, Mrs John Street and to my wife for compiling the index.

C. H.

Appendix 1 provides some information about the fate of characters whose end is not recorded in the text;

Appendix 2 is a glossary of French terms used in the text;

Appendix 3 is a table of the principal events in France from 1788 to 1799.



‘Never was any such event so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen’


In a quiet corner of the park at Versailles stands that delightful little
of honey-coloured stone known as the Petit Trianon. Designed for Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s entertaining mistress, it had become His Majesty’s favourite retreat. He was staying here in April 1774 when it was noticed by the light of a candle as he bent over a table that his cheeks were blotched with red marks, symptoms of smallpox. At sixty-four, with a constitution weakened by excess, he was not expected to recover. With little hope of doing so himself he said that he would like to die where he was. He was advised, however, that the setting was inappropriate. So the doctors wrapped him in a cloak, carried him down to a waiting coach and had him transported back to the palace. And here, in his bedchamber, while priests listened to his confession and his face became swollen and dark, a candle was placed in the window to be snuffed out when he died.

His grandson, who was to succeed him, repeatedly glanced at the candle through the windows of his own room. It was still burning when he went to bed on 9 May. But in the early hours of the following morning the flame was extinguished. The Lord Chamberlain came out into the antechamber known as the Oeil de Boeuf to announce to the courtiers waiting behind the railings, ‘Gentlemen, the King is dead.’


The new King, Louis XVI, was nineteen years old. Although kind and generous by nature, his manner was usually brusque, cold and formal, marked by fits of ill humour and sharp retorts. His Keeper of the Seals had ‘never known anyone whose character was more contradicted by outward appearances’. He was ‘really good and tender-hearted’. You could ‘never speak to him of disasters or accidents to people without seeing a look of compassion come over his face, yet his replies [were] often hard, his tone harsh, his manner unfeeling’. Hesitant, reserved and ungainly, his appearance, too, was unprepossessing. He had clear blue eyes and abundant fair hair, but his mouth was over-full and flabby and his chin was pale and fat.

He was so short-sighted that he could not recognize anyone at a distance of more than three paces [one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, the Comtesse de La Tour du Pin, wrote in her memoirs]. He was stout, about five foot six or seven inches tall, square shouldered and with the worst possible bearing. He looked like some peasant shambling along behind his plough. There was nothing in the least stately in his clothes, putting on whatever was offered to him…His sword was a perpetual embarrassment to him.


Possessed of great physical strength, he spent days on end hunting, galloping at reckless speed through his forests after stags and deer, roebuck and boar, but he could never keep his weight down for his appetite for rich food was voracious. Religious and most exact about Mass, he ate nothing between breakfast and supper in Lent, but at other times of the year he indulged himself to the full. It was said that one morning before going down to the stables he had consumed ‘four cutlets, a chicken, a plateful of ham, half a dozen eggs in sauce and a bottle and a half of champagne’. Even at his wedding banquet-though he had appeared nervous, embarrassed and gloomily apprehensive at the preceding marriage ceremony – the guests in their tiered boxes in the Salle de Spectacle had seen him put down his head with gusto at the royal family’s balustraded table in the centre of the floor. ‘You really should not stuff yourself so on a night like this,’ his grandfather had admonished him. ‘Why not?’ he had asked. ‘I always sleep better after a good meal.’

He had been fifteen then. His bride, Marie Antoinette, was just over a year younger, though she looked little more than twelve years old. Alert, affectionate, highly strung and wilful, she was the daughter of the formidable Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria who who had given birth to her, the fifteenth of her children, in an armchair at the Hofburg and had then almost immediately returned to the examination of her state papers which the labour pains had briefly interrupted. Marie Antoinette had been extremely badly educated but, although she had few interests and was not in the least intellectual, her mind was much sharper and she was far more vivacious. When she had said goodbye to her family – and had been carried away in a vast cavalcade to an island in the Rhine where she
had been stripped of all her Austrian clothing in a tent before being handed over naked to the French – she had burst into tears. But on arrival at Versailles she had soon recovered herself. She had found the Dauphin, whom she had been sent to marry, not nearly so ‘horrid’ as she had feared he might be, and on the day of the wedding she was seen to be looking quite happy and calm. Occasionally she betrayed a hint of nervousness during the service; yet, beside the trembling, blushing figure of her husband, she seemed a model of composure, and, indeed – with her lovely complexion, clear blue eyes and shining fair hair – of beauty.

The Dauphin’s nervousness was understandable. Not only had he never known a girl of his own age, but he had been brought up in the belief that attractive women were a danger to the soul. His gloomy, fastidious father, who had died when he was eleven, had pointed out his grandfather’s many mistresses to him as representatives of the kind of excess against which he himself must always be on his guard. So had his mother, a kindly, pious woman who had not long outlived her husband. So had his maiden aunts with whom he had spent much of his time after his parents’ early death. Nor was it only attractive women against whom he had been warned: he had been taught to beware of the wiles of Austria, France’s traditional enemy. A pretty Austrian girl was, therefore, doubly hazardous.

After supper on his wedding night he and his bride were escorted to the Dauphine’s bedroom on the ground floor. Watched by numerous courtiers, the Dauphine’s ladies ritually removed her jewellery, shoes and dress as custom dictated; the Dauphin then undressed while the King stood ready to hand him his nightshirt. Bride and bridegroom then climbed into the marital bed, whose sheets had been sprinkled with holy water, and were addressed by a bishop with reverentially hopeful prayers. The curtains were then drawn back to reveal the seated couple before being closed again. Soon afterwards the Dauphin went to sleep.

For a long time after their first uneventful night together, the Dauphin did not venture again into his wife’s bedroom; and when, eventually, he did so, having overcome his early suspicions and fallen in love with her, it seems from Marie Antoinette’s letters to
her mother that he derived as little pleasure from these visits as he was able to give her. It was the stated opinion of the Austrian Ambassador, Comte Florimond Claude de Mercy, who was naturally anxious to blame Louis rather than Marie Antoinette for their failure to have children, that the Dauphin was hampered by a physical deformity. Marie Antoinette’s brother, who became Emperor Joseph II on their mother’s death, believed, on the contrary, that Louis’s ‘laziness, clumsiness and apathy were the only obstacles’. ‘As for my sister,’ he added, ‘she is not amorously inclined and when they are together they are a couple of awkward nincompoops.’ Certainly Marie Antoinette appears to have been extremely modest: in her bath she wore a flannel shift, buttoned from neck to ankle, and when she emerged she required her maids to hold up a sheet as a screen between her body and her ladies. But there were those who hinted that this modesty was merely the affectation of a fundamentally libidinous nature. It was rumoured not only that the King was impotent but also that the Queen sought her pleasures elsewhere, both with men and with women.

Neither the King nor the Queen was an unpopular figure with the people as a whole in the early years of their marriage; on their first visit to Paris they were warmly welcomed by cheering crowds in streets decorated with flowers and triumphal arches. But pamphlets, at first attacking Marie Antoinette as a meddlesome, troublesome foreigner, then accusing her of adultery and lesbianism, had already begun to appear and were soon in wide circulation. Her passionate friendships with the excessively sensitive widow, the Princesse de Lamballe, the Superintendent of her Household – who lost consciousness so readily that she once swooned away at the sight of a lobster in a painting – and with the pretty, high-spirited Duchesse de Polignac, were described in these pamphlets in obscene terms that gave much satisfaction to her enemies. It was said that these two ladies, on whom she lavished money, offices, apartments and gifts, helped her widen ‘
la porte de Cythère
’ so that her husband’s
‘jeanchouart’, ‘toujours molle et toujours croche’
, could more easily enter it.

Whatever the difficulties of the young couple may have been, it was not until August 1773, over three years after the marriage and
thanks, so some reports had it, to an operation performed on the Dauphin’s foreskin, that Marie Antoinette was able to report to her mother, and then rather doubtfully, ‘I think our marriage has been consummated.’ And a further four years were to pass before she could write more confidently that the marriage had at last been ‘
parfaitement consommé
’, that she was ‘
dans le bonheur le plus essentiel pour toute ma vie
’. In the spring of 1778 she discovered herself to be pregnant, and just before Christmas that year, following the
’s announcement, ‘The Queen is entering labour’, a crowd of Ministers, Court dignitaries and others rushed into her bedroom to witness the delivery, two men clambering on to a sofa to obtain an unobstructed view of the bed, which had been placed near the fire, behind a low screen. So intense was the crush, so hot the room that the Princesse de Lamballe lost consciousness for several hours. For fear lest his wife might suffocate, the King with unaccustomed decision tore off the tapes which hermetically sealed the windows to let in some air. A few moments later, the child, a daughter, was born.

Three other children followed her, a brother in 1781, another brother, the future Louis XVII, in 1785 and a sister in 1786. But, while his family grew, the King’s self-assurance did not. He continued hesitant, undignified, clumsy, reticent and self-doubting. He appeared to have no will of his own, to act only under pressure. ‘Imagine,’ said one of his brothers, ‘a handful of oiled ivory balls that you are trying to keep together!’ Had he had any choice in the matter he would certainly not have been a king: he once remarked to one of his Ministers who relinquished office, ‘How lucky you are! Why can’t
resign, too?’ Still impressionable and sensitive, his true feelings remained concealed behind a façade at once blunt and severe. As kind-hearted as ever, he could not bring himself to be gracious to his courtiers, to offer them sympathy in grief or illness, to speak to them other than off-handedly or with harsh and tactless banter. He still indulged in horseplay and tiresome practical jokes, trying to trip his pages up with his
cordon bleu
, making a face and childishly running away when his nightgown was handed to him, walking with his breeches hanging around his ankles. Laboriously painstaking, he occupied himself for hours with petty details, minor
cash accounts and lists of game killed in the forests, as though to avoid consideration of the wider, complicated problems of the state. He preferred to work with his hands, beating out bronze and copper, carving wood, constructing locks, building stone walls – all of which tasks he performed with competence – rather than to discuss with his Ministers their departmental affairs. He gave the impression of studiousness: he built a fine white and gold library at Versailles, he purchased a second-hand set of the
, he read a great deal – both newspapers and books, he taught himself to read English and, after a fashion, Italian and Spanish. But he rarely seemed to profit from his study or to show that he remembered what he had read.

His day began at six o’clock when one of his four
valets de chambre
, who had passed the night on a truckle bed, threw back the curtains of the four-poster to awaken him. He rose immediately, put on his dressing-gown, shaved, dressed in the clothes that the valets ceremonially presented to him, had the Star of the Holy Spirit – France’s highest order – fixed to his left breast. When his hair had been satisfactorily curled, powdered and decorated with a silk ribbon round the queue, he went for a walk, returning precisely at eight o’clock for the
petit lever
during which Ministers and officials of the Household were admitted to discuss business with him. He then went up to his private apartments to read or tinker in his workshop. Mass was said at noon.

Dinner, which was usually over at half-past one, was eaten in public. The King and Queen sat next to each other in armchairs, their backs to the fireplace, a row of stools arranged in a semi-circle in front of their small table. On these stools sat various female members of the royal family and the senior ladies of the enormous Household, and behind them stood other ladies of the Household and as many spectators as could be admitted into the room. One day in November 1775 these spectators included Samuel Johnson and his friend, Hester Thrale. ‘They had a damask tablecloth neither coarse nor fine,’ Mrs Thrale noticed. ‘Their dishes were silver…and their dinner consisted of five dishes at a course. The Queen ate heartily of a pye which the King helped her to. They did not speak at all to each other, as I remember, but sometimes talked to the Lord-in-Waiting.’

In the afternoon the King and Queen sometimes went to a play performed for their benefit in the Salle de Spectacle; and in the evening the Court settled down to play card games, billiards, backgammon or cavagnole, the King disapproving of – but refraining from objecting to – the high stakes gambled by his wife and his two brothers.

These two extravagant brothers, whose debts the King always paid, were the Comte de Provence, later Louis XVIII, and the Comte d’Artois, later Charles X. Provence, known as Monsieur, was a year younger than the King, an intelligent, sometimes witty, well-read, rather sickly young man with highly expensive tastes and a rigid belief in absolute monarchy. The Comte d’Artois was not so intelligent but much more athletic and dashing, taking a lively interest in women, clothes and race horses. He shared Monsieur’s political views and was to be much given to declaiming his wish to fight for the monarchy, to draw ‘the sword of his fathers’. The King was ill advised by both of them and trusted neither.

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