Marie Antoinette Month: Louis XVI

800px-Louis16-1775Despite the name of this blog, the Lazy Historian didn’t actually get lazy. She got busy with work and book stuff. SIGH. But I’m back with another post for Marie Antoinette Month, in honor of the doomed queen’s 260th birthday. This post discusses her husband, Louis XVI of France.


Expectations would be high for any descendant of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, the legendary ruler who built the lavish Palace of Versailles. The awesomeness of Louis XIV must have faded as the generations went down the line. His great-grandson became the next King of France, Louis XV, as a very young child. His son, also called Louis, died of consumption and his son (again, named Louis) inherited the throne. That brings us to Louis-Auguste, also known as Louis XVI.

He was born and raised at the Palace of Versailles, surrounded by relatives, courtiers and nobles. His older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne (yes, another Louis), was the favorite but he died at age nine. Young Louis-Auguste enjoyed hunting, was intelligent, scholarly and was fascinated with locks. He was painfully shy and generally awkward. Although his education was rigorous, it didn’t really prepare him for ruling France. From what I’ve read about him, he seems like the type who would have given up the throne in a heartbeat if given the option.

MTIwNjA4NjMzNTQ5MzI1ODM2He probably should have just abdicated…

He married Marie Antoinette, the youngest daughter of the Austrian empress, in 1770 at the age of 15. The people of France didn’t like her much because she was, well, not French. The relationship between Louis and Marie Antoinette had some snags, mostly due to the lack of an heir showing up. It’s hard for a princess/queen to have a child when there’s no action happening in the bedroom. After many years of marriage, they finally did the deed and children followed shortly after. You can read more about that in the two-part Marie Antoinette post.

Upon the death of his grandfather, Louis became King at the age of 19. When he heard the news, his first words were, “O God! Guide us, protect us. We are too young to reign.” Not a terribly good sign.

Antoine-François_Callet_-_Louis_XVI,_roi_de_France_et_de_Navarre_(1754-1793),_revêtu_du_grand_costume_royal_en_1779_-_Google_Art_ProjectHe would prove to be inept at ruling the country. He also inherited the massive debt of his grandfather, and Louis XIV before him. The building of Versailles had been a huge undertaking and cost the country more money than France had, so the debt was passed from one king to the next. Plus, the current French courtiers gambled and spent a lot of money, adding to the debt. In addition to this weight on his shoulders, the current king was also terrible at making decisions and mostly just went with the suggestions of the advisor who spoke to him last.

The French, with their everlasting rivalry with England, loved that the United States was telling England where to stick it. King Louis supported the American War of Independence financially, adding more fuel to the fire of France’s debt load. He was also aware that the American Revolution might give the people of France their own ideas.

When the war across the Atlantic ended in America’s independence, France celebrated. Louis expected a large thank-you monetary gift from America since the French had supported the war. That gift never came. The money would not be paid back and America continued to trade with England. *sad trombone*

Louis_XVI_et_La_PérouseAs things were getting worse in France, the cost of bread skyrocketed. The people were starving. Their taxes were very high. In Paris, the damage of the country’s debt was all around, but tucked away in Versailles, the royals and nobles didn’t see much of this. Plus, the nobility wasn’t taxed. The clergy weren’t taxed. The people who could afford to pay taxes didn’t have to. Instead, commoners had to.

As things got really bad, Louis was forced to act.

Louis asked the Assembly of Notables to pass a new law: everyone would pay taxes, including the nobility and the clergy. Unfortunately, the people who had the power to pass such a law were nobles and high-ranking clergy. Why would they pass a law that would hurt them financially? They wouldn’t, and they didn’t.

The Third Estate, the group of people who spoke for anyone in France not nobility or clergy (so, 80% of the country) declared themselves the National Assembly and formed a new government without the permission of the nobility. In July 1789, the Bastille was stormed and its store of weaponry seized. The Revolution was born, and Louis was helpless to stop it.

In early October, a mob of hungry/angry/hangry women marched all the way from Paris with weapons and a canon, demanding the royal couple leave the palace and go to Paris. Many called for the death of the queen. In the wee hours of the morning on the 6th, an unguarded gate was discovered by some of the women and many entered the palace in search of the queen. Marie Antoinette was able to escape through a secret passageway with the children but her bedchamber was shredded by the protestors. One of them was shot and killed by a guard. At least two guards were beheaded that night. That afternoon, the King, Queen and their children were moved from Versailles to a smaller, simpler castle in Paris. They would never see Versailles again.

execlouisThe royal couple lived at Tuileries Palace in Paris under house arrest, but they did not remain royal for much longer. The French Revolution was just beginning but in order for it to truly begin, the monarchy would have to be abolished.

The King was forced to relinquish his title and power in September 1792. But this did not go far enough for many of the Revolutionaries. Louis-Auguste, known as Louis Capet at this point, was guillotined on January 21, 1793. Marie Antoinette was executed several months later.


Links of interest:

Marie Antoinette (2006) – Yes, the film has some interesting music and casting choices but it’s like a cupcake for your eyeballs. I love it.

Official Versailles website

The Rise and Fall of Versailles Part 3 of 3 – This whole series is available on YouTube. Part 1 features Louis XIV and the building of Versailles, Part 2 is Louis XV and Part 3 is about Louis and the Revolution


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jillianne hamilton headshotJillianne Hamilton is an author, history enthusiast, book lover and graphic designer. Her debut novel, Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, was shortlisted for the 2016 Prince Edward Island Book Award. Her debut non-fiction book, The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII is now available. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada's beautiful east coast.
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