Louis XVI of France

Louis XVI was King of France (1754-1793). He succeeded to the throne at a time when the French monarchy was in decline. He attempted numerous reforms. French society finally became unstable and plunged into the French Revolution. He and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were executed by guillotine. As we see below, one of the main reasons why the French Revolution could not be averted was he great revolution that had taken place in other countries immediately before the Revolution.

Life of Louis XVI

 Louis XVI was the grandson of Louis XV. From an early age, he was interested in learning and acquired a broad knowledge. In 1770, at the behest of Louis XV, he married Marie-Antoinette. Antoinette was the daughter of Maria Theresa, the famous Austrian Empress. Louis XV decided on this political marriage to strengthen the alliance with Austria. As Maria Theresa was famous for her beauty, so was Antoinette.

 Louis XVI succeeded Louis XV as King of France in 1774. France’s finances were already strained under Louis XV. Due to the misrule of Louis XV, the authority of the French King itself was in a slump. Under these circumstances, Louis XVI succeeded to the throne.

 Louis XVI tried to confront the multifaceted crises he had faced so far. He tried to reform by appointing talented people such as Turgot. Turgot succeeded temporarily with policies such as reducing fiscal spending. However, he ultimately failed due to resistance from the aristocracy and clergy.

 American War of Independence

 Next, in 1776, Louis tried to reform again by appointing Necker. However, Necker gave up on financial reform and failed to achieve much success. Around this time, the American Revolutionary War began in 1775. This war was launched by the British North American colonies to win their independence from their sovereign, Britain. France supported the independence of the North American colonies.

 The American Revolution lasted until 1783, when the colonies won and became independent as the United States of America. France fulfilled its purpose of support. But its cost further strained its finances.

 After the American War of Independence, France’s economy recovered briefly. Louis entrusted the reforms to Calonne. Calonne promoted the development of industries by supplying a large amount of money to the market. He also promoted the construction of ports and roads. This, too, was frustrated by bad harvests and other problems.

 Louis XVI tried to improve the situation through the use of the Assembly of Notables. However, he was repeatedly met with strong resistance from the nobility. Louis was in conflict with the nobility and the bourgeoisie over taxation. In this vein, the bourgeois third class demanded the convening of the Estates General for resolving financial and other problems. The Estates General consisted of representatives of the clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie. Louis was forced to comply.

Louis XVI

 The French Revolution

 In 1789, the Estates General convened. The bourgeois Third Estate gained momentum from Sieyès’s pamphlet “What is the Third Estate”? They demanded equality in many aspects, including finance and politics. They wanted to use the Estates General to overthrow the ancient regime. They planned to transform the Estates General into a constitutional National Assembly, and to shift to a constitutional form of government. But the nobility opposed this demand because it would deprive them of their vested interests.

 Louis XVI took the side of the nobility. He tried to dissolve the National Assembly by force. As a result, the Bastille prison in Paris was stormed and the French Revolution began. The revolutionary wave soon reached Versailles, the royal palace. Louis was captured and transported to Paris.

 Louis XVI tried to regain power by using the Count of Mirabeau, La Fayette and others. But in the end, it did not work. So, in 1791, he attempted to flee the country, seeking support from Austria (the Flight to Varennes). They chose Austria because Marie Antoinette was the sister of the Archduke of Austria. However, this escape also failed. In the midst of all this, Louis was forced to agree to the Constitution of 1791 and accepted a constitutional monarchy.

 But Louis XVI did not give up. Austria and other powers launched a war of intervention against the French Revolution. He used thiese wars to regain power. Rebellions and armed conflicts took place repeatedly. Finally, in September 1792, the monarchy was abolished. Thus, Louis XVI was no longer king and became a private citizen.

 In December of the same year, the trial of the former King Louis began. It concluded on January 17, 1793, when more than 700 deputies voted to find him guilty of leading the counter-revolution and plotting. As for the method of execution, half favored the death penalty.

 On January 21, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in the Place de la Revolution (today’s the Place of the Concorde). This was a shocking event. Monarchy was common in Europe at that time. Therefore, neighboring countries interfered with the French Revolution. However, the revolutionary leaders not only deprived the king of his royal power, but also beheaded him. It was a landmark moment for a new era.

 Figures associated with Louis XVI

Marie-Antoinette: Wife of Louis XVI. She was from the Austrian House of Habsburg and has been the subject of many rumors and episodes.

Louis XV: Grandfather of Louis XVI and former king. What happened to the peak of the French monarchy during the reign of Louis XV?

Recommended or Selected references

ベルナール・ヴァンサン『ルイ16世』神田順子訳, 祥伝社, 2010

ティモシー・タケット『王の逃亡 : フランス革命を変えた夏』松浦義弘, 正岡和恵訳, 白水社, 2024

John Hardman, The life of Louis XVI, Yale University Press, 2016