Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

To Versailles

There were riots in the provinces, equaling in violence the riot for the unpopular minister's life-blood. Nobles were besieged in their castles and forced to hide in remote places from the fury of the tenants, who remembered bitter days of injury. The idea had seized the peasant that he would be free for ever if he could only destroy the papers which bound him to ignoble bondage. They were too poor and hungry to care for the reforms of a National Assembly. They wanted that cruel "right of dove-cote" abolished, and all the feudal dues and forced labour of the past.

The nobles scarcely ventured to resist since they were overpowered by numbers. They took refuge from flaming mansions in the inns of the district, and thence emigrated to other lands, unless they lacked money. Meantime, the marauders feasted royally and had their fill of destruction. The agents were roughly handled because they had been accustomed to extort tribute for the absentee.

The whole nation must be in arms to maintain any sort of order. The citizens would be the best soldiers, it was thought, and soon the old French Guard was formally dissolved. The National Guard took its place in September. They declared one day that they would go to Versailles, and no leader could resist this decision. All Lafayette could do was to reinforce the Versailles militia by a regiment from Flanders, which would probably defend the Court.

There were rumours in Paris that the King would escape to Metz, the border fortress whence further flight could be rendered easy. It was the growing resolve of the people that the King must come to Paris. He would be under the eye of the National leaders there, and would have less chance of flight once in the capital.

The Queen was unpopular as ever and earned a new nickname, "Madame Veto." It arose from Mirabeau's upholding of the King's right to veto absolutely any measure passed by the National Assembly. The Royalist party would have the monarchy still honoured, but they were beaten, and a fresh insult from Versailles caused a blaze of wrath in Paris.

The Regiment of Flanders had been warmly welcomed by their brothers in arms—the Body-Guard of the King and royal family. These were the ancient retinue of the greatest Louis—these had retained the magnificence of Versailles in its glory. They were handsome men of gallant bearing, clad in dazzling uniforms of blue and silver, with swords and scarlet-lined cloaks and hats adorned with black cockades. They offered a banquet to their new comrades, and held it in the Great Hall of the Opera by the special favour of the King.

It was an extravagant feast for a time of famine, the food of each guest being reckoned at some thirty livres (sixty francs). The three hundred guests did not fill the vast room, which was illuminated by candles. It was a Court function, and must be brilliant even if the mass of the French people were crying aloud for bread. The beauties of Versailles filled the boxes to honor the soldiers they intended to win over to their party. These officers might defend their lives and property against a vile crowd of ruffians. Smiles and bright jewels and fine dresses were lures that made appeal to the bravest men.

The common soldiers were admitted at a certain stage of the banquet, and plied with wine which made them loyal as their officers under the influence of the Court and its perilous fascination. They drank the Queen's health and remembered all the charm of the fair Austrian. She entered the Hall and stood among them, a vision of queenly grace. She advanced with the Dauphin in her arms and the King by her side, still dressed for the chase, his favourite pleasure. Royalty had its day again. There were cheers and delighted salutations while Marie Antoinette went graciously round the tables. Swords were flashing now from scabbards, and the band began to play the popular air, "O Richard, O my King." When the Queen had slowly glided from the Assembly, hearts were at her feet as in the old days when her beauty dazzled and she was untarnished by suspicion.

The black cockade of Austria replaced the national tricolour. The red, white and blue she would not wear though the King had accepted the ribbon from his people. They trampled the Revolutionary emblem under foot at Versailles, and the story spread to Paris among a people palpitating with new rage.

If the Court would not come to the capital, the people would go to Versailles. The resolution was taken suddenly, and it was taken by the women dwelling in the meanest streets of Paris. The men were inactive and did nothing to make the bread cheaper. It was foolish to see one's family starving when Louis' heart was kind, and he would give food if he knew the want of it. The women in the narrow streets of Paris talked incessantly and then they acted on the impulse of the moment.

Events had been canvassed eagerly by women of the market, always to the fore on public occasions and tenacious of their privileges. The narrow streets of Saint-Antoine, the poorest quarter, had its Amazons in the humble shops where cloth was sold and shoes and wine, perhaps, though that was the proper trade for men. Those who lived in squalid garrets lingered long over their purchases, and told the piteous tale of weeping children. Soon there would be nothing, not a slice of bread, not a soul to buy it. And these lazy rascals in the Town Hall! They were wasting time and money while they wrangled there. It was as if they did not heed the suffering of their own order. Why had the Estates been summoned? To relieve the poor of burdens, not to create important posts for such as Bailly, the Mayor, and Lafayette the General.

So they talked fiercely and answered the summons of a drum that some young woman seized and beat to call the others. From the streets and staircases, from the shops and houses they mustered, clutching weapons in toil-worn hands and trying to emulate the first successful rioters. The National soldiers kept Paris in some sort of order, but were powerless to check this wild onrush of women pouring in thousands toward the Town Hall where those others only talked.

The women swept through the building, headed by their leaders, who were neatly dressed in white and bore themselves courageously. They captured the Town Hall as though they were making holiday, dancing and singing till they became angry when neither Lafayette nor Bailly appeared to answer their demands. Men came readily to their help and would have done great damage, for there was talk of burning papers, but Maillard, one of the Bastille heroes, made himself their leader and he would not suffer lawlessness. A young man of twenty-six, clad in sombre black, he had coolness and determination. He was known as a brave soldier. In a trice he had the regiment of women behind him, marching to Versailles from Paris.

[Illustration] from Story of the French Revolution by Alice Birkhead


Through the King's gardens of the Tuileries they insisted on passing though a guard attempted to check them on the march. They had increased in numbers and made spectators shudder—a reckless mob, decked with gay ribbons, and shouting "To Versailles" whenever they ceased the cry for bread. The market women were prominent, and with them they dragged women of higher rank, whom they met along the road, impressing them into their ranks. There were pretty young girls among them, but soon these were as terrible as their coarser companions. It was a wet autumn day, and mud splashed their garments and disfigured their faces. They presented a sorry spectacle before the town of Sevres was reached.

Here Maillard had to halt and reason with the fiercest in order that he might keep them from plunder of the houses. They were out for food and would take it where they found it. The general of the forces protected the Sevres potteries from damage as well as the bakers' shops. He had a hard task but proved equal to it, marshalling the tired women toward Versailles with their hunger unappeased.

Couriers from Paris were accosted and made to dismount from their horses, which the viragoes bestrode in triumph. Ladies in silk shoes, whose carriages met this wild procession, had to foot it on the dreadful roads. It was useless to expostulate. The numbers were formidable long before Versailles was reached.

It was four o'clock in the afternoon and dusk was falling. The National Assembly were rudely disturbed at their council by the shrieking women. It was Maillard who earned their gratitude by suggesting a delegation. Fifteen were chosen to approach the bar of the Revolutionary meeting.

Maillard spoke for the women, declaring that actual famine was the cause of their strange disorder—and that subtle insult which had trampled the tricolour at Versailles. He spoke well and the Assembly listened, consenting to dispatch their President, Mounier, to the King.

Five women accompanied the President to the King's presence, among them one, Pierrette Chabry, who was chosen to speak to His Majesty, but fainted at the ordeal. She was received with great kindness by Louis, who gave her wine and kissed her in a fatherly fashion. He promised everything that the timid envoy demanded, but it went ill with her when she faced the mob outside the palace. Soldiers saved her from actual violence, and she returned to the royal presence and received an assurance in writing that the King would comply with her request. The King was genial and wrote the document, afterwards showing himself on the balcony to the women who were assembled round his palace. Bread had been promised. The good news was sent to Paris, while the National Assembly had a sorry time of it in the absence of the President.

Mounier came back to find a woman in his place instead of the Bishop of Langres, whom he had left there. The Assembly had been the scene of ludicrous conclaves, the deputies attempting to go on debating while the invaders denounced and; insulted the unpopular deputies, kissed their favorites and cried "Bread, not so much speaking!" It was useless to strive against such interruptions. Mounier was shocked by the sight on his return.

The market dame was ejected from the President's chair and the absent deputies recalled to receive the announcement that the King had formally accepted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He then gave orders that the people of Paris should be fed, and a wild banquet took place with guests too noisy for that solemn council.

Drums beat loudly to herald the arrival of Lafayette from Paris. Torches revealed the wet, splashed soldiers he had brought to defend the palace. He went forthwith to ask the King's orders, and assured him that his life was at the sovereign's service, that his men were loyal.

Necker was at Court now but he did nothing to meet the dangers of the crisis. Lafayette obtained the King's sanction to the demand that the Body-Guard should be replaced by the citizens of Paris. The rabble had succeeded in their march on Versailles, and made merry that November night, sitting round bonfires and exulting with weird cries.