Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Mob at Versailles

Feeling that something must be done immediately to pacify the excited Parisians, Louis XVI. announced on the very next day the recall of Necker, and the dismissal of the troops. He also consented to the people's choice of Lafayette as general-in-chief of the National Guards,—the militia of Paris,—and Bailly as mayor of Paris, making them responsible for order in the capital. Then the king, who was no coward physically, drove straight off to Paris, where the mayor received him at the gates, presenting the keys, as usual, with this speech: "Sire, I am bringing to your Majesty the keys of your good city of Paris. They are the same that were presented to Henry IV. He had reconquered his people; now the people have reconquered their king!"

Proceeding to the city hall, the king was next met by Lafayette, who offered him a blue and red badge, the colors of Paris. The king graciously accepted this pledge of amity, suggesting, however, that the white of royalty be placed between them. The combined colors so pleased Lafayette,—already familiar with the American red, white, and blue,—that he exclaimed with enthusiasm, "Sire, this cockade will go around the world!"

But pretty speeches could not stop the ball once set rolling, and when the news sped from mouth to mouth through France that the Parisians had pulled down the Bastille, mobs elsewhere, fired by such an example, began to set fire to castles here and there. Besides, the cry of "Bread! Bread!" was heard on all sides, and many bread riots took place. One official was reported to have said to those who complained they had no bread, "Well, go out then and eat grass!" In a riot he was hanged from a street lamp bracket, then taken down, and his severed head was paraded through the streets with its mouth stuffed full of hay. Many others were summarily disposed of in this way, yet so fickle is a mob that we are told one man saved his life by dryly retorting, when they proposed to hang him up instead of the, lamp, "Well, will you see any better when you have done so?"

The report of murders, burning castles, and uncontrolled mobs proved more than the nerves of some aristocrats could endure, so they hastily packed up and left the country, fully intending to return as soon as all was safe. Because these nobles emigrated, or left their native country, they were generally known as "the émigrés". Among the first to go was the younger brother of the king, who hastened to put his precious head in safety, leaving his elders to manage as best they could. At first all tidings of such departures were hailed with delight, the people crying, "So much the better; France is being purged!" But later on the nation resented the flight of its aristocratic class, against which it nursed a bitter grudge.

There were still, however, many truly patriotic noblemen in France, who, seeing the people were angry because the nobles had "privileges,"—paid no direct taxes, paid no wages for a certain amount of labor from the peasants, etc.,—and hoping to prevent a general uprising of the peasants, volunteered to give up all their privileges and feudal rights. The States-General—known since the Tennis Court Oath as the National Assembly—accepted their offers, and issued, besides, many decrees in favor of the people, announcing among other things that thereafter all citizens should have the right to profess any religion they pleased in France, where "there was now but one land, one nation, one family, and one title—that of French citizen."

Just as it began to look as if things would quiet down, the people of Paris—who were nearly starving—became exasperated at news that a grand banquet had been given to a regiment at Versailles. When the king, queen, and Dauphin had appeared there for a moment, it was said, they were greeted by enthusiastic cries of, "Long live their Majesties!" and white cockades—the royal colors—were substituted for the red, white, and blue, which were basely trampled under foot.

Such a report proved enough to make the caldron boil madly again. One woman, seizing a drum, began to beat it loudly, proclaiming that all the women ought to march to Versailles to demand bread for themselves and their starving families. In less time than one would think possible, nine thousand women of the lowest class in the city set out for Versailles, shouting, "Bread! Bread!" every step of the way. Many men joined them. Lafayette, who was responsible for order in the city, after vainly trying to stop this mob, summoned his troops to follow, so as to see that no harm would ensue; but his movements proved so leisurely that the rabble reached Versailles before he did.

In front of the royal palace, the cries of this mob rose shriller and shriller, until the king came out to pacify them, promising even to return with them to Paris on the morrow. Then the mob began to clamor for the queen, but as she was known to be misjudged and disliked, king and ministers tried to prevent her from responding to these calls. Brave Marie Antoinette, however, taking a child in each hand, stepped quietly out on a balcony, in full view of the throng.

Silence received her, then all at once the yell arose:

"No children! No children!" Still without a tremor, Marie Antoinette led the children in, and came out again, alone, expecting to be stoned to death, but showing no fear. It was this dauntless courage that saved her, for the people stood paralyzed by astonishment, until Lafayette, who had just arrived, stepped out on the balcony, and in full view of the crowd respectfully kissed the royal hand. Then a sudden revulsion took place, cheers arose, and the queen could at last rejoin her anxious family.

Lafayette, thinking all was well, soon went off to bed, leaving the people camped in front of the palace, where, for lack of other food, some of them killed and ate one of the guard's horses. Then some of the rioters, unable to sleep on the hard stones, prowled around until they found a door open and unguarded, through which they entered the palace. Heated by drink for although they lacked bread, they never seemed to lack wine to excite them to commit deeds of violence, these men suddenly determined to kill Marie Antoinette, "the Austrian," "Madam Deficit," the cause of all their woes. They therefore boldly forced their way to her bedroom, two of her guards losing their lives in vain efforts to prevent their advance.

Fortunately, this struggle afforded the queen time to escape by a private passage to the king's room, just as the rioters burst into her chamber and began madly to thrust their swords and pikes through her curtains, blankets, and mattress. In fact, it was only when these were fairly riddled with holes, that the discovery was made that their hated victim was not there! The king, who was too soft-hearted to hurt anybody, and evidently unaware that "humanity to mobs often proves inhumanity to mankind," would not allow these men to be seized and punished, but had them coaxed out of the palace, to await morning and the promised departure of the royal family for Paris. Then, as he managed to delay the start until early afternoon, some of the mob set out in advance to announce his coming, bearing aloft as trophies the heads of the two murdered guards!

The journey to Paris was made terrible by the heat and dust, and by the coarse men and women who went with them all the way, shouting madly, "We are bringing the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's boy!" and pointing in confirmation to fifty cartloads of grain which they had found in a royal granary. This journey was termed the "Joyous Entry" by the populace, but was nothing short of torture for the haughty queen, and was never forgotten by the royal children, who were frightened almost out of their senses. Versailles was now deserted—a fact made clear by a sign which expressed popular sentiments and read:—

"Palace to rent,

Parliament for sale,

Ministers to hang,

Crown to give away!"

Palais a loner,

Parlement a vendre,

Ministres a pendre,

Couronne a donner!

The royal family were never to live in Versailles again, but were instead to occupy the palace called the Tuileries in Paris, which had not been prepared for their coming, and where they were very uncomfortable at first. But after a while things got better, and their Majesties held there many conferences with prominent men, Mirabeau, especially, promising at last to do all he could to serve them.