Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

A Reign of Terror

"When France in wrath, her giant limbs upraised,

And with that oath which smote air, earth, and sea,

Stamped her strong foot and said she would be free."


Guards were now placed inside the palace of the Tuileries as well as outside, sentinels stood in every passage, and the door of each room was kept open day and night. The king and queen dared not venture beyond the gardens for fear of insult and humiliation. From time to time they gave way to outbursts of tears, as they realised the agony of their position.

On June 20, 1792, a mob attacked the Tuileries, burst into the palace, and the royal family barely escaped with their lives.

Meanwhile the Revolution outside was becoming more and more fierce. Mirabeau, the man who might have saved for France her king, was dead. "I carry with me the ruin of a monarchy," he said with prophetic insight as he lay dying.

Lafayette, who had urged moderation, was no longer a power in the land. The country was practically in the hands of three men,—Marat, Danton, and Robespierre,—men whose desire it was, to see the monarchy overturned and a complete Republic established in France.

"Let us depose the king," was their cry.

Gradually Louis was stripped of every emblem of royalty. He was deprived of his sword, his orders of knighthood were taken from him. He was separated from his wife and children. At last he was accused of treason, for having conspired against the will of the people. His trial dragged on amid fierce discussion. When the verdict was given, he was found guilty of treason, and his punishment was death. A last agonised meeting with Marie Antoinette and his weeping children, a passionate entreaty to the little dauphin never to revenge his death, and Louis XVI. of France was led forth to die.

It was a bitter January day in the year 1793 when he was beheaded by the guillotine, a machine erected in a public square in Paris, and used largely during the Revolution.

"Frenchmen, I die innocent," cried the unhappy king to the vast crowds collected to see him die. I pardon my enemies."

"It is done! It is done!" muttered the Frenchmen who had ordained it, rubbing their hands as the crowds dispersed. But as yet they did not realise to the full what they had done. All Europe shuddered with horror at their deed.

"Let us cast down before Europe, as the gauntlet of battle, the head of a king," Danton had cried recklessly.

Austrian and Prussian armies had already collected on the frontiers of France. England, Holland, and Spain now joined in making war on France. Alone stood the stricken nation—alone against the powers of Europe, and rent by quarrels within.

A true Reign of Terror now broke over the whole country. The monarchy had fallen, the Republic was not yet established. The National Assembly, now called the Convention, ruled the country with absolute sway. Violent and ignorant men resolved to blot out all royalists from the country, by means of the guillotine, to accomplish their end. The cry, "Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!" rang from end to end of France. All titles were abolished. Every man and woman, whether noble or shoeblack, was addressed as "Citizen." Numbers left France to take refuge in England and other countries, but numbers were thrown into prison and afterwards guillotined, without even a show of trial. They were carried in carts, with their hands tied behind them, to the place of public execution, often hardly knowing the reason of their death. Peasant girls were beheaded for humming the tune of a royalist song, women for speaking with pity of the victims already perished. All traces of royalty must be swept from the land, cried the tyrants, and swiftly and surely the guillotine did its cruel work. Little children and aged men, ladies of title and women of wealth—all suffered alike. And still the cry rang through the land, "Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!"

At last the queen herself was sentenced. Already the beautiful little dauphin had been torn from her arms, and she had been sent to the common prison. As she passed through the low door she had hit her head. Her attendant had asked if she were hurt.

"No," she answered bitterly; "nothing can hurt me now."

All day long she sat in a kind of stupor, in a dungeon unfit for human use.

On October 13, 1793, she was brought forth to her trial. Aged and bent beyond her years, the once beautiful Marie Antoinette stood proudly before her accusers. The trial was short. Three days later, seated in a common cart, her hands bound, she was drawn from prison to the public square where the guillotine stood. There Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, was beheaded. "Oh Liberty! Liberty! How many crimes are committed in thy name!" exclaimed a well-known French lady, Madame Roland, who suffered death on the same spot three weeks later.

One day, when the troubles of the reign of terror were at their height, a young girl, Charlotte Corday, travelled from Normandy to Paris. She had heard of the crimes committed by the leaders of the Convention in the name of Liberty, and she reasoned to herself, if the tyrants could be disposed of, true liberty might be gained for France. She selected Marat for her victim. Going to his house, she obtained an interview with him, and as they talked she drew out a knife and killed him.

"I killed one man," she said, as she faced the death, that her act justly merited—"I killed one man to save a hundred thousand,—to give repose to my country."

Thus fell one of the leaders. The fate of the others was not far distant. Their violence had disgusted even their own party. Both Danton and Robespierre perished by that guillotine to which they had sent so many of their fellow-countrymen.

So the reign of terror ended. At last the object for which so many thousands of lives had been sacrificed was accomplished—France was a Republic. There was no king, there were no nobles. The government was conducted by five Presidents under the name of the Directory.