Explained: The Flight to Varennes

Summary

The Flight to Varennes is the term used to describe the royal family’s failed attempt to escape the French Revolution. Disguised as a servant, King Louis XVI attempted to flee Paris on the night of 20-21 June 1791. Originally aiming for the border fortress of Montmédy, the royal family was identified and detained in the town of Varennes.

The event is considered a significant turning point for the French Revolution as it exposed the King’s hostility towards the revolution, which had previously been kept hidden. The failed escape attempt prompted calls for dethronement, the establishment of a republic, and directly led to the Champ de Mars Massacre a month later. Furthermore, the King’s rejection of the revolution contributed to the unworkability of the Constitution of 1791 and inspired significant hostility towards the monarchy as an institution. The Flight to Varennes is often cited by Historians as the key turning point which doomed efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy in France.

The Comte de Provence, the king’s brother, also fled on the same night. Aiming for Belgium, the prince succeeded in his escape attempt. The Comte de Provence would return to France decades later and reign as King Louis XVIII after the downfall of Napoleon Boneparte.

Background

The royal family had been forcibly transferred to Paris during the October Days of 1789. Having relocated to the Tuileries Palace in the capital, over time, the royals became de facto prisoners. Although they officially had the freedom to move where they wished, this was not the case in reality.

On 18 April 1791, a mob gathered to prevent the family from departing to the Parisian suburb of Saint-Cloud. The family had wished to visit Saint-Cloud as part of their preparations for Easter. Fearing this was the rumored escape attempt, the mob prevented the King’s departure. Lafayette, despite being the Commander of the National Gaurd, was unable to disperse the mob.

“At least you will acknowledge, now, that we are not free!”

– Queen Marie Antoinette to Lafayette on 18 April 1791

Why did the King attempt to flee France?

During their time in Paris, the royal family became increasingly hostile to the revolution. King Louis came to believe that unjust reforms were being forced upon him against his will and decided that aspects of the revolution needed to be reversed.

The causes of the Flight to Varennes are numerous. Of particular note, the King detested the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The reforms were rejected by the Pope, and Louis, a sincere Catholic, resented the laws which he perceived to be attacking honest priests. In addition to the Civil Constitution, Louis opposed laws that had abolished noble titles and stripped particular privileges from the First and Second Estates.

The reasons for the King’s flight were also personal. The King hated the ill-treatment of his family and the curtailment of their individual freedoms (including freedom of movement). Some historians even suggest that Louis feared for his own safety and that of his family, prompting the monarch to make the risky attempt to flee Paris.

The escape plan

Given the significant number of the King’s grievances, the King and his advisors decided that the monarch would need to negotiate with the revolutionaries from a position of strength. As the King was a de facto prisoner of the capital, any negotiations would need to occur after the King had escaped Paris.

The escape plan was largely hatched by the Sweedish aristocrat Axel von Fersen. Fersen, a handsome soldier and diplomat, was rumored to be Queen Marie Antoniette’s lover. Despite these rumors, both the King and Queen trusted Fersen to coordinate the daring escape.

Fersen devised a complicated escape plan that involved disguising the monarchs as servants for a fictional Baroness de Korff. The royal children would be dressed as the Russian baroness’ young daughters. In addition to costumes, Fernsen arranged fake passports, bodyguards, and an elaborate Berlin carriage to transport the family. The monarchs rejected the idea of the King traveling separately from the rest of the family. The decision to use one large, slow-moving carriage instead of two smaller, faster carriages may have singlehandedly led to the plan’s failure.

Assisting Fersen was the French General the Marquis de Bouillé. Bouillé was a committed royalist, although supportive of some reforms introduced by the revolution. Praised for his suppression of the Nancy Munity in 1790, Bouillé commanded the border fortress of Montmédy. The plotters believed Montmédy would offer the King a position of strength in which to negotiate terms with the National Assembly. Many of the soldiers at Montmédy had royalist sympathies, and the fortress was close to the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium). The proximity to Austrian domains meant that the family could rely on support from Austrian forces if necessary, or even retreat across the frontier. Bouillé had initially suggested a different route from Paris to Montmédy via Rheims, but King Louis rejected the idea as he feared being recognized (Rheims was the location of his coronation).

Escaping Paris

The royal family attempted their escape on the night of 20-21 June 1791. The flight had been planned for several earlier dates, but a variety of reasons had resulted in multiple delays. The plotters had reason to believe their plans had been detected by the authorities, resulting in a hasty departure on June 20.

At 10 pm on the evening of 20 June, the Queen helped the royal children escape the Tuileries through an unguarded entrance to the Palace. Using a key to an unoccupied part of the Tuileries, the Queen successfully delivered the disguised children to Count Fersen (who was disguised as a coach driver). Two hours later, the Queen was almost caught escaping from the sam entrance by the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was inspecting the palace due to reports of a possible escape attempt. In avoiding Lafayette, the Queen became disoriented and precious time was lost before she made it to Fernsen, who was waiting with the getaway carriage.

The escaped the Tuileries Palace by literally walking past his guards. For at least the previous week, a gentleman by the name of Chevalier de Coigny had deliberately left the palace at roughly the same time every night. Coigny consistently wore a specific brown suit and a green overcoat and had a similar physique to King Louis XVI. On the night of 20 June, the King wore a wig and a similar outfit to Coigny, disguising himself as the well-known gentleman. Guards took no notice of the King as he departed the palace, assuming it was Coigny.

The family succeeded in escaping Paris, although precious time had been lost.

Delays and Mistakes

The royal family departed Paris later than anticipated. Additional delays occurred when a wheel hit a stone post, breaking the straps which connected the carriage to the horses. Stopping for repairs, the royal family was losing valuable time.

The first consequence of these delays was the failure of the royal family to rendezvous with their military escorts. The first military escort meant to accompany the royal family waited for their carriage near a town named Pont de Sommeville. According to the plan, the royal family was meant to arrive no later than 2:30 pm, but by 4:30 pm there was still no sign of them. This was problematic because the commander of the forty hussars sent to escort the family, a gentleman named Duc de Choiseul, was being threatened by local peasants. The peasants didn’t believe Choiseul’s lie that his men had arrived to escort military funds to the frontier. Instead, they believed that he had come to collect long-overdue taxes. Facing threats and possible violence, Duc de Choiseul decided to withdraw at approximately 5:30 pm. The royal family arrived an hour later.

The inability to rendezvous with de Choiseul was severely problematic for the royal escapees. Not only did they lack military protection, but the Duc had sent a messenger to other military escorts that something must have gone wrong. As a result, when the royal family arrived in Sainte-Ménéhould, the military escort who was meant to be waiting for them was not prepared for their arrival. Instead, the dragoons in Sainte-Ménéhould had already dismounted and started to drink. Although the commander of the dragoons recognized the royals, he informed them to carry on without them. The royals would continue without military protection

Discovery and Arrest

Like the hussars at Pont de Sommeville, the dragoons in had roused suspension amongst the inhabitants of Sainte-Ménéhould. Critically, when the royal family arrived in Sainte-Ménéhould, the commander of the dragoons had saluted the large, attention-drawing carriage containing the royal family. This salute was spotted by the town’s postmaster X Drouet. Drouet was previously a dragoon himself and had seen the Queen a handful of times at Versaille during his years of service. Before the carriage continued towards the eastern frontier, Drouet caught a glimpse of the Queen and recognized her. Convinced that he had spotted the Queen, and convinced that the soldiers in the town had been sent to protect the disguised royal family, Drouet inspected a portrait of the King. Referencing the King’s portrait, Drouet became convinced he had spotted the royal family. Later that evening, news from Paris arrived that the King and Queen had escaped the capital. With the news confirming his suspensions, Drouet, an experienced rider due to his previous military service, set off in pursuit of the monarchs.

Traveling at a much greater speed than the cumbersome and slow-moving carriage, Drouet used treacherous back routes to arrive in the town of X before the royal family.

“[Drouet] 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 11 pm, Drouet quickly summoned the local procureur, a man named Sauce, and mobilized the town’s National Gaurd. As the royal carriage approached the bridge in the town, Drouet, Sauce and a group of National Guardsmen blockaded their path. Sauce inspected the documents of the travelers and could see no reason to prevent their travel. Drouet insisted that the occupants were the royal family.

“‘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.”

Drouet

Facing pressure from Frouet, Sauce relented and escorted the royal family into his nearby shop. A local judge named Jacques Destez was summoned, as he had lived at Versailles and could settle the matter beyond doubt. When Destez arrived, he immediately recognized the King.

As the inhabitants of Varennes debated as to whether or not to allow the monarch to continue his journey, news from Parris arrived. As Lafayette had ordered the detainment of the King, the townspeople of Varennes would prevent the King’s departure. The escape had failed.

“‘There is no longer a King in France.”

King Louis XVI, upon reading the decree authorising his apprehension and return to Paris

Reactions to the King’s Flight

Prior to the Flight to Varennes, the monarchy remained popular throughout large portions of the kingdom. These sentiments abruptly changed after the King’s failed escape, which was seen as deceitful and perhaps even traitorous. After the initial panic of the King’s escape subsided (when reports arrived of his apprehension), public perception of both King Louis and the monarchy as an institution deteriorated significantly.

The King’s escape empowered radical revolutionaries such as Danton and Brissot to push for dethronement. Furthermore, some clubs and political societies openly adopted pro-republican positions. Prior to the King’s flight, republican sympathies were seldomly displayed in public.

“It no longer exists, this pretence of a convention between a people and its king. Louis has abdicated the throne; now Louis means nothing to us, unless he becomes our enemy. Here we are then at the same point as we were when the Bastille was taken: free and without a king. It remains to be seen whether it is advantageous to appoint another… ”

A petition read in the radical Cordelier Club, 1791

“The republican party now began to appear. Hitherto it had remained either dependent or hidden, because it had been without any existence of its own, or because it wanted a pretext for displaying itself. The struggle, which lay at first between the assembly and the court, then between the constitutionalists and the aristocrats, and latterly among the constitutionalists themselves, was now about to commence between the constitutionalists and the republicans. In times of revolution such is the inevitable course of events.”

Historian Francois Mignet on the impact of the Flight to Varennes on republican sentiments

Consequences of the Flight to Varennes

After the King’s public rejection of the revolution, the deputies of the National Assembly became further divided. The key question facing the Assembly was what to do with the king.

Almost immediately the Jacobin Club was the scene of calls for dethronement. The club was deeply divided over how to proceed, given the King’s rejection of the constitutional monarchy which the revolution had spent the last two years working towards. In the heated debates of June and July, the Jacobins split in two, resulting in the formation of the Feulliant Club.

The following day, the Champ de Mars massacres occurred as a result of a petition to dethrone the King. In the aftermath, the newly formed Feulliant Club gained mastery of the Assembly and remained influential until the fall of the monarchy in August 1792.

The Flight to Varennes, the split of the Jacobins, and the Champ de Mars Massacre had important ramifications for the revolution. The King was now viewed as duplicitous and untrustworthy, and suspected of harboring aims contrary to the goals of the revolution and the will of the people. While the National Assembly officially declared that the King had been abducted by counter-revolutionary plotters, the King’s own words as to why he rejected the revolution made this impossible to believe. As a result, the escape attempt not only discredited Louis XVI, but the institution of the monarchy and the National Assembly which continued to support the King. The aim of establishing a constitutional monarchy in France suffered a tremendous blow from which it never recovered.

In addition to damaging the cause of constitutional monarchy, the Flight to Varennes discredited the moderate revolutionaries who had championed that goal. As the revolution faced numerous challenges in 1792, men like the Marquis de Lafayette would be far less influential due to their involvement in the King’s escape, the Champ De Mars Massacres, and efforts to preserve Louis on the throne.

Flight to Varennes Maps

Below are various maps of the Flight to Varness of June 1791.

Maps of the route of the Flight to Varennes

Map of the Flight to Varennes

Source: Wells, Herbert George. The Outline of History. The Macmillan Company.

A modern map of the Flight to Varennes of 1791

Source: Clark, William. Grey History Podcasts.

Note: Points on the map represent towns passed through by the royal family. The route between towns is only indicative.

Map of the final stages of the Flight to Varennes

A map of the late stages of the Flight to Varennes

Source: Schama, Simon. Citizens (p. 472). Penguin Books Ltd.

Quick Answers for Students on the Flight to Varennes

Why was the Flight to Varennes Important?

The Flight to Varennes made public the King’s rejection of the French Revolution. Henceforth, it was clear that King Louis XVI was hostile towards constitutional government and key reforms of the National Assembly. This public rebuke rendered constitutional government almost impossible, and considerably weakened the power and prestige of the monarchy as an institution. For the first time, leading revolutionaries began to publicly call for dethronement or even a republic

What date did the Flight to Varennes Occur?

The Flight to Varennes commenced on the night of 20-21 June 1791.

The Flight to Varennes Definition

The event in which King Louis XVI and the royal family attempted to escape Paris in June 1791. The royal family was apprehended in the town of Varennes, foiling their escape attempt and giving the event its name.

Where was King Louis attempting to go during the Flight to Varennes?

King Louis XVI’s goal was to flee to the French border fortress of Montmédy, not the town of Varennes. From the safety of Montmédy, King Louis XVI would be able to negotiate terms with the National Assembly. The name ‘Flight to Varennes’ is a misnomer, as the monarchs were not seeking to go to Varennes.

What caused the Flight to Varennes?

The French Revolution had been forced upon King Louis XVI. While residing in Paris against his will, the King had agreed to a variety of reforms that he later resented or felt forced upon him. Unable to resist the revolution from his residence in the capital, the King and his advisers decided that the only way to reverse the revolution was to negotiate from a position of strength outside of Paris. As the revolutionaries would never let the King depart the capital, the only option was to escape.

Key Events Related to the Flight to Varennes

The Champ De Mars Massacre
The Tricolour Terror
The October Days
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy

Additional Resources on the Flight to Varennes

The following podcast episodes cover the Flight to Varennes in great detail:

Episode 1.22 Run Louis Run

Episode 1.23 The Tricolour Terror

‘Grey History: The French Revoluton’ is available for free on all major podcast platforms and Spotify.

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