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The execution of Louis XVI, by means of the guillotine, took place on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Révolution ("Revolution Square", formerly Place Louis XV, and renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795) in Paris. It was a major event of the French Revolution. After events on the 10 August 1792, which saw the fall of the monarchy after the attack on the Tuileries by insurgents, Louis was arrested, interned in the Temple prison with his family, tried for high treason before the National Convention, found guilty by almost all (and 'not guilty' by none), and condemned to death by a slight majority. His execution made him the first victim of the Reign of Terror. His wife Marie Antoinette was guillotined on 16 October, the same year.
Louis' hostility towards the National Assembly had aroused discontent with his rule. Louis had previously attempted to escape from France in June 1791 to garner support for the re-establishment of the old regime, an event named "Flight to Varennes" where he was caught before he and his family could reach the fortress of Montmédy, a royalist stronghold, across the border of Austrian Netherlands. Public opinion began to sway against him after he was returned under guard to Paris.
Louis XVI awoke at 5 o'clock and after being helped to dress by his valet Jean-Baptiste Cléry, went to meet with the non-juring Irish Priest Father Henry Essex Edgeworth de Firmont to make his confession. He heard his last Mass, served by Cléry, and received Communion. The Mass requisites were provided by special direction of the authorities. Upon Father Edgeworth's advice he avoided a last farewell scene with his family. At 7 o'clock he confided his last wishes to the priest. His Royal seal was to go to the Dauphin and his wedding ring to the Queen. After receiving the priest's blessing he went to meet Antoine Joseph Santerre, Commander of the Guard. A green carriage was waiting in the second court. He seated himself in it with the priest, with two militiamen sat opposite them. The carriage left the Temple at approximately 9 o'clock. For more than an hour the carriage, preceded by drummers playing to drown out any support for the King and escorted by a cavalry troop with drawn sabres, made its way through Paris along a route lined with 80,000 men at arms and soldiers of the National Guard and Sans-culottes.
In the neighbourhood of the present rue de Cléry, Baron Batz, a supporter of the Royal family who had financed the flight to Varennes, had summoned 300 Royalists to enable the King's escape. Louis was to be hidden in a house in the rue de Cléry belonging to the Count of Marsan. Baron Batz leaped forward calling "Follow me, my friends, let us save the King!", but his associates had been denounced and only a few had been able to turn up. Three of them were killed, but Baron Batz managed to escape.
At 10 o'clock, the carriage arrived at Place de la Révolution and proceeded to a space surrounded by guns and drums, and a crowd carrying pikes and bayonets, which had been kept free at the foot of the scaffold.
|“||The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass; the King was obliged to lean on my arm, and from the slowness with which he proceeded, I feared for a moment that his courage might fail; but what was my astonishment, when arrived at the last step, I felt that he suddenly let go my arm, and I saw him cross with a firm foot the breadth of the whole scaffold; silence, by his look alone, fifteen or twenty drums that were placed opposite to me; and in a voice so loud, that it must have been heard at the Pont Tournant, I heard him pronounce distinctly these memorable words: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."||”|
13 February issue of the Thermomètre du jour ('Daily Thermometer'), a moderate Republican newspaper, described the King as shouting "I am lost!", citing as its source the executioner, Charles Henri Sanson.
Charles Sanson responded to the story by offering his own version of events in a letter dated 20 February 1793. The account of Sanson states that
|“||arriving at the foot of the guillotine, Louis XVI looked for a moment at the instruments of his execution and asked Sanson why the drums had stopped beating. He came forward to speak, but there were shouts to the executioners to get on with their work. As he was strapped down, he exclaimed "My people, I die innocent!" Then, turning towards his executioners, Louis XVI declared "Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French." The blade fell. It was 10:22 am. One of the assistants of Sanson showed the head of Louis XVI to the people, whereupon a huge cry of "Vive la Nation! Vive la République!" arose and an artillery salute rang out which reached the ears of the imprisoned Royal family.||”|
In his letter, published along with its French mistakes in the Thermomètre of Thursday, 21 February 1793, Sanson emphasises that the King "bore all this with a composure and a firmness which has surprised us all. I remain strongly convinced that he derived this firmness from the principles of the religion by which he seemed penetrated and persuaded as no other man."
"Now then, you were saying you wanted something, Monsieur Dumas?"
"You know how much playwrights need accurate information, Monsieur Sanson. The moment may come for me to put Louis XVI on the stage. How much truth is there in the story of the wrestling bout between him and your father's assistants at the foot of the scaffold?"
"Oh, I can tell you that, Monsieur, I was there."
"I know, that's why it is you I'm asking."
"Well listen. The King had been driven to the scaffold in his own carriage and his hands were free. At the foot of the scaffold we decided to tie his hands, but less because we feared that he might defend himself than because we thought he might by an involuntary movement spoil his execution or make it more painful. So one assistant waited with a rope, while another said to him 'It is necessary to tie your hands'. On hearing these unexpected words, at the unexpected sight of that rope, Louis XVI made an involuntary gesture of repulsion. 'Never!' he cried, 'never!' and pushed back the man holding the rope. The other three assistants, believing that a struggle was imminent, dashed forward. That is the explanation of the moment of confusion interpreted after their fashion by the historians. It was then that my father approached and said, in the most respectful tone of voice imaginable, 'With a handkerchief, Sire'. At the word 'Sire', which he had not heard for so long, Louis XVI winced, and at the same moment his confessor had addressed a few words to him from the carriage, said 'So be it, then, that too, my God!' and held out his hands."
Henri Sanson was family appointed Executioner of Paris from April 1793, and would later execute Marie Antoinette.
|“||This man who lacked the strength necessary to hold on to his power, and made people doubt his courage every time he was in need of it to drive his enemies back; this man whose naturally timid intellect was unable either to believe in his own ideas, or even to adopt someone else's, showed himself abundantly capable of that most astonishing of determinations: to suffer and to die.||”|
Speaking to Victor Hugo in 1840, Leboucher, who had arrived in Paris from Bourges in December 1792 and was present at the execution of Louis XVI, recalled vividly:
|“||Here are some unknown details. The executioners numbered four; two only performed the execution; the third stayed at the foot of the ladder, and the fourth was on the waggon which was to convey the King's body to the Madeleine Cemetery and which was waiting a few feet from the scaffold.|
The executioners wore breeches, coats in the French style as the Revolution had modified it, and three-cornered hats with enormous tri-colour cockades.
They executed the King with their hats on, and it was without taking his hat off that Samson, [sic] seizing by the hair the severed head of Louis XVI., showed it to the people, and for a few moments let the blood from it trickle upon the scaffold.
In Le nouveau Paris, Louis Sébastien Mercier describes the execution of Louis XVI in these words:
|“||[...] is this really the same man that I see being jostled by four assistant executioners, forcibly undressed, his voice drowned out by the drums, trussed to a plank, still struggling, and receiving the heavy blade so badly that the cut does not go through his neck, but through the back of his head and his jaw, horribly?||”|
A popular but apocryphal legend associated with the execution states that as soon as the guillotine fell, an anonymous Freemason leaped on the scaffolding, plunged his hand into the blood, splashed drips of it onto the crown, and shouted, "Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!" (usually translated as, "Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged"). De Molay (died 1314), the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, had reportedly cursed Louis' ancestor Philip the Fair, after the latter had sentenced him to burn at the stake based on false confessions. The story spread widely and the phrase remains in use today to indicate the triumph of reason and logic over "religious superstition".
The body of Louis XVI was immediately transported to the old Church of the Madeleine (demolished in 1799), since the legislation in force forbade burial of his remains beside those of his father, the Dauphin Louis de France, at Sens. Two curates who had sworn fealty to the Revolution held a short memorial service at the church. One of them, Damoureau, stated in evidence:
|“||Arriving at the cemetery, I called for silence. A detachment of Gendarmes showed us the body. It was clothed in a white vest and grey silk breeches with matching stockings. We chanted Vespers and the service for the dead. In pursuance of an executive order, the body lying in its open coffin was thrown onto a bed of quicklime at the bottom of the pit and covered by one of earth, the whole being firmly and thoroughly tamped down. Louis XVI's head was placed at his feet.||”|
The area where Louis XVI and later (16 October 1793) Marie Antoinette were buried, in the churchyard of St. Mary Magdaleine's, is today the "Square Louis XVI" greenspace, containing the classically self-effacing Expiatory Chapel completed in 1826 during the reign of Louis' youngest brother Charles X. The crypt altar stands above the exact spot where the remains of the Royal couple were originally laid to rest. The chapel narrowly escaped destruction on politico-ideological grounds during the violently anti-clerical period at the beginning of the 20th century.
Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac have written a number of works on Louis XVI, including: