The Arrest of the King at Varennes

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On the evening of June 20th 1791 Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, their daughter Elisabeth, the Dauphin (Eldest son of the King) and his sister all left the Tuileries palace in disguise intending to flee the capital. It seems the royal family hoped to reach the army commanded by the marquis de Bouillé in the East. The King may have hoped to regain control of Paris by force or simply have wanted to flee the danger of a violent uprising by the Parisians. That Easter the people of Paris had prevented the monarch from attending mass in StCloud given by a priest who had not signed the Civil Constitutional of the Church.

Whatever Louis's intentions, the plan went badly wrong and opened the door to radical anti-monarchist fervour and finally to death of the royal family. They royal party made much slower progress than hoped and missed their rendezvous with de Bouillé in the East. Worse still, they were recognised at a staging poste and arrested by the local procurator at Varennes. The little provincial town was strongly pro-revolutionary and de Bouillé was unable or unwilling to rescue the royal party. The record also shows that Louis did not wish blood to be spilt for his sake.

When the news reached Paris, the Assembly sent three representatives (Bailly, Pétion and La Tour-Maubourg) to meet the prisoners. The family had spent an uncomfortable night in a back-room in Varennes and were escorted back to Paris. The royal party were subjected to a humiliating three-day journey back to the capital, often followed along the road by jeering crowds. On their arrival in Paris the crowds were silent; orders had been given that anyone cheering would be arrested and anyone jeering would be hanged!

Back in Paris the king's flight posed a problem; the constitution that had been prepared and was ready to be adopted required a king at the head of the state. A motion was passed stating that the king had not fled but been 'kidnapped'. This story enraged the left-wing patriots who wanted the king to be executed and the monarchy abolished. On July 17th a deputation presented a petition at the Champs-de-Mars demanding the impeachment of the king. Tensions were running high and the episode ended in a bloody suppression of the demonstrators. This event added to the tensions and pushed the revolution further down the path towards extremism and violence.

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

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