Episode 15: The October Days


Episode 15, “The October Days”, examines the causes and events of the revolt of the Parisian market women in October 1789.

The response to the royal veto

When the Assembly voted on the 11th of September to grant the King a suspensive veto, the decision outraged the revolutionary press. Radical writers such as Jean Paul Marat declared that the veto would, “make the King the supreme arbiter of the nation”. Furthermore, Marat denounced the criminal faction within the assembly which was progressing proposals that were, “the views of the aristocracy covered by the veil of the love of order and the public good”. According to radical journalists, the successful adoption of the royal veto heralded a new counter-revolutionary conspiracy. 

A new conspiracy 

A whole series of events lent credibility to the claims that a new counter-revolutionary plot was afoot. Firstly, on September the 28th, Mounier, the leader of the English bloc who had championed bicameralism and the absolute veto, became President of the National Assembly. Secondly, the King stalled on his promise to ratify the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Abolition of Privileges. Thirdly, many nobles began to emigrate from France and join the counter-revolutionary court of the Comte Artois. 

These events combined with the hardships of the people and the actions of the army to create a revolutionary firestorm. 

Hardships of the people

The evidence of a new conspiracy coincided with increased hardships for the common people. Unemployment was high, quarterly debts were being collected, and bread remained scarce.  

The conviction that the elites were responsible for this suffering was commonplace, and made even more believable in October 1789 than it had been months before. Since July, France had enjoyed a great harvest, yet the food supply was still woefully inadequate. The obvious answer was noble conspiracy. 

“Today the horrors of scarcity have been felt again, the shops of the Bakers are besieged, the people lack bread; and it is after the richest harvest, in the midst of abundance, that we are about to perish with hunger. Can we doubt that we are surrounded by traitors who seek to consummate our ruin? It would be to the rage of public enemies, to the greed of the monopolists, to the incompetence or infidelity of the administrators, that we owe this calmity.” – Jean-Paul Marat, 16th of September 1789

Actions of the Army (The Banquet of the Flanders Regiment)

By late September, the Flanders Regiment had arrived in Versailles from the frontier. Officially the regiment was there to ensure the safety of the King and National Assembly, but many suspected the regiment would ferry the King away from Versailles to escape the powerful orbit of Paris. 

On October 1,1789,  the 1050 men of the Flanders regiment indulged in a welcoming banquet alongside the royal bodyguard and members of the court. At some point in the night, ladies of the court began to distribute white and black cockades to the troops, a sign of support for the King and Queen respectively. Royalist songs were played by the band, and reportedly harsh words were spoken by some about the National Assembly.

The revolutionary press were outraged by this event. The feast was portrayed as a lavish orgy, orchestrated by Marie Antoinette and yet further proof that the Court was knee-deep in counter-revolutionary conspiracy and unjustified indulgence. Most shockingly, it was rumoured that the troops had stamped on their revolutionary cockades!

The press and radical agitators were outraged, and Paris was ready to revolt. 

“Marat alone made as much noise as the four trumpets of the day of judgement….” – Camille Desmoulins

“What is the remedy? Sweep from the Hotel de Ville all suspicious men, royal pensioners, prosecutors, advocates, academicians, advisors to the Chatlet, court clerks of the judiciary and Parlement, financiers, speculators and stock-exchange sharks, with the Bureau at their head.” – Jean-Paul Marat

“The report was industriously spread among the people that the banquet had been a sumptuous orgy, that the officers had torn the tricolor from their hats and other lies of the same kind. All the fears of an impending counter-revolution seemed now confirmed; the ferment spread among the people, and the life of a man who wore a cockade of one colour was no longer safe.” – Historian Heinrich Von Sybel

October the 5th, 1789 (The October Days)

Early on the morning of Monday the October 5, 1789, the tocsin had begun to sound in the Sainte-Marguerite church to signal a wider insurrection. In the central markets and public gardens, huge crowds of women had gathered to demand bread. Convening on the Hotel De Ville, the crowd of some six or seven thousand had one very simply question, “When we will have bread?”. This question was the title of a new pamphlet which ascribed the cause of food shortages to noble conspiracy, and the women chanted these words in chorus.

After looting the town hall, the crowd decided to march on Versailles and take their problems to both the National Assembly and the King.  The crowd has swelled to some 30,000 people, who were armed pikes, muskets, meat cleavers and even some cannons.

Arriving at about 5pm, the crowd was greeted in a friendly manner by the National Guard of Versailles. After invading the Assembly, a delegation of the crowd secured a meeting with the King. Louis pacified the delegation by ordering all the grain near Paris to be taken to the city immediately, and that the bread in Versailles would be distributed to the women who had just arrived. To solidify his position and further defuse the situation, later in the evening the King went on to accept both the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Abolition of Privileges.

The National Guard

In Paris, 15,000 National Guardsmen had gathered at the recently ransacked town hall. The men were intent on marching to Versailles, and threatened Lafayette with his life should he try to forbid it. 

Lafayette has marched by compulsion, guarded by his own troops, who suspect and threaten him. Dreadful situation! Obliged to do what he abhors, or suffer an ignominious death, with the certainty that the sacrifice of his life will not prevent the mischief.” – Gouverneur Morris 

Concerned for the safety of both the Assembly and the King, Lafayette sent a rider to warn Versailles of the Parisian Army marching upon it. Accounting for armed civilians joining the group, Lafayette was leading a force of more than 20,000. Louis’ ministers advised flight, but the King refused. Louis mistakenly thought his position was secure having signed the popular decrees of August.

Lafayette arrived at Versailles just before midnight. Whispers of the word ‘Cromwell’ could be heard by those in the palace as he made his way to the monarch. Lafafette snapped back, “Cromwell would not have come unarmed”.

Lafayette secured a meeting with the King, and asked his monarch to relocate to Paris. The King did not immediately agree to the request, and so, both men retired for the evening. 

The attack on the Queen

At roughly 5:30 in the morning on the 6th of October, an armed group from the crowd successfully infiltrated the palace grounds. Making their way into the royal apartments, they were fired upon by a Guard who discovered their intrusion. Enraged, the gang not only killed him, but any member of the royal bodyguard they could find. 

“Save the Queen. They’re going to kill her!” – An Unknown Guard 

Running barefoot in the palace, the queen sprinted for her life. Those in pursuit yelled that they were after the Austrian whore, that they would tear her heart out, fry her liver, and defile her body in all manners. Upon finding her bed chamber empty, the mob tore her bed to pieces with swords and axes.

After banging frantically on the door for several minutes, screaming for help, the King’s chambers opened, and the Queen was safe. National Guardsmen rushed in to protect the family. 

In response to the attack, the King agreed we would move to Paris. By the end of the day, in a procession of some 60,000 people, the royal family returned to Paris. The women of markets had brought back to Paris “the baker, the baker’s wife and the baker’s boy”. Forshadowing the future, when the Dauphin walked into the Tuileries Palace, he said to the Queen, “It’s very ugly here, mother”.

Yet for those with little sympathy for the monarchy, the October Days were a great success.

“The great monarchy of Versailles had come to an end. For the future there would be “Citizen Kings” or emperors who attained the throne by fraud; but the reign of the “Kings by the Grace of God” was gone. Once more, as on July 14, the people, by solidarity and by their action, had paralysed the plots of the Court and dealt a heavy blow at the old régime. The Revolution was making a leap forward.” – Historian Peter Kropotkin

The Duc of Orleans and the possible conspiracy of the October Days

There is a minority of historians who believe that the October Days were not spontaneous and that the Duc of Orleans orchestrated the revolt. The Duc was popular amongst the people and some sections of the Assembly, and it is believed by some that the Orleans sought to replace his cousin King Louis as the King of France. 

“This could not have been a matter of chance, but we have no knowledge of previous preparations.”  – Historian George Lefebvre

“Neither the circumstances nor the terms are known, but it is probable that some sort of agreement between Parisian revolutionaries and Patriot deputies was concluded. Probably, too, Mirabeau entered the game on behalf of the Duc of Orleans. Regardless of what Lafayette said, it seems that neither he nor Bailly disapproved of the plan, for they did nothing to stop it.” – Historian George Lefebvre

Historian Christopher Hibbert notes that the Marquis de Ferrieres wrote that the Duc of Orleans walked amongst the crowd outside Versailles stirring trouble, had paid men to dress as women, and directed the crowd’s anger towards the Queen and Lafayette. One British observer wrote that it was, “generally believed, that the Duke was disguised as a woman and headed those women who broke into the Queen’s apartment from which she so happily escaped in time.” Historian Jonathan Israel details that many women in the crowd supported the very popular Duc, and an inquiry held by the National Assembly into the origins of the revolt heard damning evidence. Witnesses stated that not only did they see the Duc walk amongst the crowd, but that he was actively giving the crowd directions to the Queen’s bed chambers.

Debate also rages over whether Mirabeau and/or Lafayette were in on the plot, or acting secretly in their own interests. 

Other historians reject these ideas.

“The failure of the harvest to relieve the scarcity of bread in Paris, the permanent state of alarm in which Paris had remained, and of suspicion for the safety of the Parliament which it continually entertained since the early part of the summer, needed no more to provoke an outbreak. It is an error to imagine that that outbreak was engineered or that such a movement could have been Factitious.” – Historian Hilaire Belloc

“The insurrection of the 5th and 6th of October was an entirely popular movement. We must not try to explain it by secret motives, nor attribute it to concealed ambition; it was provoked by the imprudence of the court. The banquet of the household troops, the reports of flight, the dread of civil war, and the scarcity of provisions alone brought Paris upon Versailles. If special instigators, which the most careful inquiries have still left doubtful, contributed to produce this movement, they did not change either its direction or its object. The result of this event was the destruction of the ancient régime of the court; it deprived it of its guard, it removed it from the royal residence at Versailles to the capital of the revolution, and placed it under the surveillance of the people.” – Historian Francois Mignet

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