Episode 21, “Run Louis Run”, examines the Flight to Varennes and the factors destabilising the revolution prior to June 1791.
A Divided Nation
By the spring of 1791, the French Revolution was dangerously unstable. Division reigned supreme, and the enemies of the new regime were on the rise.
The National Assembly was deeply divided and tremendously unstable. This instability and division was reflected in the nation itself, a nation which had become increasingly radicalised and polarised as the revolution wore on.
Outside of the legislature, the weakest factions were the most powerful. Whereas the centre theoretically held the most votes, and thus power, in the Assembly, it was the Left and the Right which held power in the streets. More specifically, it was the extremes of the political spectrum which held that power.
The strengthening of the far-left
The events of 1790 undeniably empowered the far-left, particularly in the capital. An opportunity for the political clubs to escalate their activities came off the back of the terribly divisive religious debates which were gripping the country.
In March 1791, Pope Pius VI publicly denounced the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In response to the Pope’s condemnation, a fresh wave of both anticlerical sentiment and public unrest erupted throughout Paris. Unsurprisingly, the left-wing press and political clubs of the capital made the most of these anti-clerical sentiments, simultaneously encouraging disturbances while also radicalising the people.
“My blood boils. Tell me, Frenchmen, is it possible? If that man you call the Holy Father takes it into his head to oppose your laws, do you dare, are you stupid and base enough, to give them up? What do you expect from a Pope? Screw the Pope, believe me; it is your turn at last; for ten centuries the Pope has screwed you” – Jacques René Hébert, 28 November 1790
It wasn’t too difficult for radical agitators to channel the people’s anti-clerical attitudes against the King. The King’s own actions helped fuel the co-branding between the French monarchy and both the papacy and the counter-revolution. The religious reforms of 1790 weighed heavily on Louis’ conscience, and the Pope’s rejection of these reforms made this burden even more unbearable. Eventually, Louis decided he could not receive communion from a constitutional priest. He therefore replaced his chaplain who had taken the oath with one who had not. The revolutionary press was outraged. The far-left was fast able to harness the people’s anti-clerical attitudes to weaken the prestige and authority of the King, and thus, the prestige and authority of the new regime.
The rise of republicanism
The political clubs and societies also increased their efforts to radicalise the people of Paris. In these clubs, of which there were perhaps 30 in Paris by May 1791, members were encouraged to refer to each other as brother and sister, and pamphlets and posters were produced on a near daily basis advocating ideas like equality, fraternity, liberty and universal suffrage. The clubs, the sections, the press and even the theatres were propagating ideas that undermined the legitimacy of the new regime. The result of all of this was that Paris was increasingly a hotbed for radical populism and indeed republicanism.
“Until the winter of 1790 the Revolution had not shown signs of becoming anti-monarchical, but at the turn of the year republicanism at last raised its head.” – Historian Robert Johnson
The far-right and the empowerment of the counter-revolution
While the far-left was on the rise in the capital, the far-right was on the rise in the countryside. Throughout 1790, the Assembly had assaulted the key institutions of the Old Regime, particularly the Provinces, the Parlements, the Nobility and the Church. By spring 1791, these ancient institutions were fast becoming the four horsemen of the counter-revolutionary apocalypse.
Certain regions experienced notable disturbances as royalists agitated against the revolution. Towns which experienced unrest included Aix-en-Provence and Lyon, while instances of pro-church demonstrations occurred across the country.
Desires to escape
Before his death, Mirabeau’s solution to this increasingly unstable mess was simple. The King should flee Paris, call his banners, and wage civil war against the radical democrats in the capital.
Marie Antoinette also advocated flight, but her plan was different. The Queen suggested that the King flee to the frontier. Once across the border in the safety of Austrian territory, the King could dictate his terms to the Assembly from a position of strength. Not only could he call his banners and prepare for civil-war, but the forces of the monarchies of Europe could be enlisted to help.
18 April, 1791
Radical agitators in Paris had suspected an attempted flight for months, and the recent departure of the King’s aunts in February 1791 heightened suspicion that the King might try to escape. On the 18th of April, the King and his family tried to leave the Tuileries Palace for the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud. Fearing this was the rumoured escape attempt, a mob gathered to prevent the King’s departure. After almost 2 hours of commotion, both the royal family and the authorities finally gave up trying to remove the crowd.
“At least you will acknowledge, now, that we are not free !” – Queen Marie Antoinette
Catalyst for Flight
The events of the 18th of April 1791 were undeniably traumatic for the royal family. Historians such as Simon Schama and Hilaire Belloc present the opinion that the King’s inability to leave the palace on the 18th of April was what prompted Louis to finally decide to escape Paris. Other historians are not so sure, however. Historian Jonathan Israel notes that the 18th of April was commonly believed to be an attempt to flee, and emphasises that Louis’ real motivation to escape was fuelled by the King’s religious convictions.
“Until June, Louis XVI, characteristically, remained in two minds: loathing the Revolution privately while resisting pleas from advisors, family, and supporters to flee abroad and lead an international counterrevolution backed by the papacy, to defeat the Revolution and extinguish its principles. It was Louis’s religious sensibilities, and sense of guilt for approving Church reforms the papacy condemned, that finally persuaded him to risk life, family, and all he possessed—indeed, the monarchy itself—by repudiating the 1791 Constitution and liberal monarchism, and seeking to join the émigrés.” – Historian Jonathan Israel
Historian Eric Hazen agrees that the Pope’s rejection of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and Louis’ devout religious beliefs propelled the King to flight, but also notes the impact of Mirabeau’s death. With the Count dead, Hazen argues that this left Louis under the influence of the Queen. Furthermore, Historian John Dalberg-Acton asserts that the reason why the royal family fled Paris in June 1791 was because of the Queen’s secret diplomacy with the Austrian court. Possibly anticipating an Austrian invasion of France, Marie Antoinette supposedly feared both the people and the emigres according to Dalberg-Acton, and this finally prompted escape.
“The queen was persuaded that she would be murdered if she remained at Paris while her brother’s forces entered France. She believed that the emigres detested her; that they were prepared to sacrifice her husband and herself to their own cause; and that if their policy triumphed, the new masters would be worse than the old. She wrote to Mercy that it would become an intolerable slavery. She resolved to incur the utmost risk rather than owe her deliverance to d’Artois and his followers. ” – Historian John Dalberg-Acton
The Flight To Varennes
At 10pm on the night of the 20th of June 1791, the royal family began to escape Paris with the help of a Swedish noble named Axel Fersen. By 3am one the 21st of June, the royal family were successfully departing the outskirts of Paris.
The problem for the royal family was time. They had lost precious time escaping the capital, and, far from making it up, they kept losing it. This consistent haemorrhaging of time had two key consequences. Firstly, it played havoc with the planned rendevouz with military escorts. Secondly, it gave the revolutionaries in Paris the opportunity to catch up.
Upon travelling through the town of Sainte-Ménéhould, a postmaster named Drouet thought he recognised the King and Queen. When news arrived from Paris of their escape, he rode after them.
“He took the steep bank up into the trees with Guillaume, and though the two men knew the woods well, it was miraculous that they could thus gallop through a clouded night, through paths which I, who have followed them in full day, found tortuous and confused and often overgrown. He came down with his companion into Varennes town by the lane that leads from the forest above. It was asleep save for one light where men were sitting drinking. The hour was just on eleven. They could not tell whether they had won or lost in that great race. But Drouet, full of immediate decision, roused here a house and there another, blocked the bridge that led eastward to the farther part of the town and out toward the army by dragging across it an empty wagon that lay by, and then strode up the main street of the place to find whether he had lost or won.” – Historian Hilaire Belloc
Having arrived in Varennes at roughly 11pm, Drouet quickly summoned the local procureur, a man by the name of Sauce. As the royal carriage approached the bridge in the town, Drouet, Sauce and a group of National Guardsmen blockaded their path. Sauce inspected the (fake) documents of the Baroness and her associates (the disguised royal family), and all was in order. But Drouet insisted, “‘I tell you the King and Queen are in that carriage. I’ve seen them. If you let them go you’ll be guilty of treason.”
Sauce relented, and escorted the royal family into his nearby shop. They were subsequently recognised by a local judge by the name of Jacques Destez .
“‘Yes. I am, indeed, your King.” – Louis XVI
Even at this point, not all hope was lost. Having explained his motivations for escape, the King was actually making progress on talking his way out of this predicament according to Historian Christopher Hibbert. But, as the night wore on, men from Paris arrived, including Lafayette’s aides-de-camp. The men brought with them a decree from the National Assembly which stated that the royal family should be apprehended and returned to Paris.
“‘There is no longer a King in France.” – Louis XVI