Louis XVI

(Louis XVI of France)


Louis XVI was the last monarch of France before the French Revolution. Although beloved at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism eventually led to a decline in popularity. His death in 1793 marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror, one of the bloodiest events in French history.

Born Louis-Auguste, the young prince was largely neglected by his parents, who openly preferred his older brother. Still, he was a bright young man, and he excelled in his studies as well as physical activities such as hunting. After the untimely passing of his brother, followed shortly by his parents’ deaths, Louis-August became the dauphin of France. At fourteen, he married Maria Antoinette, but the union was not well taken by the French people, who were angered by an alliance with Austria and the disastrous Seven Years’ War that resulted. Marie was seen as an unwelcome foreigner, and even Louis, afraid of his wife’s influence, acted distant toward her until several years into their marriage. After a long period of infertility, Marie gave birth to four children, though none of them would have the opportunity to rule France.

Louis officially became King of France and Navarre in 1774. By this time, the government was deeply in debt, and many resented the idea of a despotic monarchy. Louis determined to refer to public opinion on all his decisions, and he appointed several skilled consultants to assist him in his goal of financial recovery. Unfortunately, their many fiscal reforms and money-making schemes angered the nobility, and one after another, his advisors were dismissed. As the national debt skyrocketed, Louis was at last forced to give up absolute rule and consult the Estates-General in an attempt to save his country. The Estates-General had not convened since 1614, but they quickly moved into the old divisions of First, Second, and Third Estate, made up of the three classes of people, that met to discuss the future of the government. The event quickly led to talk of Revolution and the establishment of a National Assembly by the largely-excluded Third Estate. The storming of the Bastille on July 14 emphasized their determination and reflected the changing opinions of the masses. Later that year, Louis and Marie were brought from Versailles to live among the people at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The king initially retained his popularity but was soon overcome by depression, leaving his wife to reign in his stead. He was given several opportunities to escape and launch a counter-coup, but his indecisive nature ultimately failed him. He finally attempted to escape in 1791 but was unsuccessful, and upon their return the royal family was placed under house arrest. Louis was officially detained in 1792 and imprisoned in the Temple. While the Girondists were content with his arrest, other, more radical leaders, rallied for the king’s death. Accused of high treason and crimes against the State, Louis’s verdict was final: he died beneath the guillotine’s blade in January 1793, the only French king ever to be executed.

Key events during the life of Louis XVI:

Brother died
Father died of tuberculosis
Mother died of tuberculosis
Married Marie Antoinette
Became King of France
Met with the Estates-General
Moved from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris
Attempted to escape but was caught and placed under house arrest
Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria
Arrested and imprisoned in the Tower
Executed by guillotine

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
French Revolution  in  France: Peeps at History  by  John Finnemore
Beginning of a Great Reign  in  The Story of Old France  by  H. A. Guerber
Fishwives at Versailles  in  The Story of France  by  Mary Macgregor
Louis XVI Is Executed  in  The Story of France  by  Mary Macgregor
Flight of the King  in  Historical Tales: French  by  Charles Morris
Flight to Varennes  in  Brave Men and Brave Deeds  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

The French King, Louis XVI, brought to Paris by the people
 in The Hanoverians

This is not the time or place to do as you desire.'
 in The Story of France

Frenchmen', he said, 'I die innocent. I pardon my enemies.'
 in The Story of France

Drouet comparing the face on the assignat with the face under the round hat.
 in  Stories of the French Revolution

The Flight to Varennes
 in Brave Men and Brave Deeds

The King's last farewell.
 in  The Little Dauphin

Short Biography
Robespierre Key figure of the French Revolution. Leader of the Reign of Terror.
Jean-Paul Marat Radical Doctor who became Leader of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.
Georges Danton Key figure of the French Revolution who was eventually lost his head.
Maria Antoinette Extravagant Queen of France. Beheaded during French Revolution.
Napoleon Victorious general who rose to power during the French Revolution. Crowned himself Emperor and restored France to greatness.