Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Burning of the Chateaux

Long had the French laboring-classes been trodden down by the French Nobles. We have not the faintest idea now of the miserable bondage in which the poor people were held before the days of the Great Revolution. The fall of the Bastille seems to have aroused them like a clap of thunder. They rubbed their eyes as men awakened from a deep sleep, and asked whether it were real, or whether they were like those who dream. The wretched down-trodden slaves rose up with the bitter recollection in their hearts of ages of ill-usage, and with a keen relish for vengeance. Amply did they revenge themselves on the seigneurs, as the lords were called. These men generally idled their lives away in their elegant country-mansions or in the gay circles of Paris. They drew their means of enjoyment from rack-rented estates and from grievous dues; and their tenants were ground down with penury and misery.

One day, it is said, Louis XV., when hunting gaily as his custom was, met a ragged peasant with a coffin at the corner of some green alley in the wood of Senart. He stopped the man and asked him who was going to be buried in the coffin, and the man told him.

"What did he die of?" inquired the king.

"Of hunger," replied the peasant.

It is to be feared that was a very common disease in those evil days. Every now and then this bitter hunger drove the people to rebellion; and in 1775 they gathered in great crowds, as we have already heard, around the palace of Versailles, clamoring for bread. The king showed himself on the balcony, and spoke soothing words to them; but two of their number were hanged on a new gallows forty feet in height, and that was the answer they got,—an answer not soon forgotten.

The old Marquis Mirabeau, in his Memoirs, has drawn a painful picture of the French peasantry. He describes them as "savages descending from the mountains," as "frightful men, or rather, frightful wild animals; . . . their faces haggard, and covered with long greasy hair; the upper part of the face pale, the lower part distorting itself into the attempt at a cruel laugh. You can fancy you may starve these people with impunity," said he, "always till the catastrophe comes. Such government as this will end in the general overturn." And it did come when those "haggard wretches," as the marquis called them, rose up against their superiors and drove them from their homes.

[Illustration] from Stories of the French Revolution by Walter Montgomery


Soon after the fall of the Bastille many of the highest in the land, afraid of losing their lives, hastily left the country, and some of them had much difficulty in escaping. Prince Conde was pursued to the Oise; and others fled in disguise, with friends in lieu of servants on their coach-boxes.

One immensely rich man named Foulon (whom the people hated with a deadly hatred because he had said they might eat grass) thought to escape them by pretending to be dead and buried; but about a week after the fall of the Bastille he was found alive, and one morning early the villagers of Vitry, where he lived, dragged him to Paris. Bareheaded and decked with nettles and thistles, he was hurried to the Hotel de Ville to be judged. After some time a man stepped forward and said, "What is the use of judging this man? Has he not been judged these thirty years?"

The yelling crowd applauded, and the old man was put to death without further loss of time. He was hanged to a lamp-iron, pleading for life, but in vain; and after he was dead his body was dragged through the streets, and his head was carried about on a pike-point, the mouth filled with grass.

His son-in-law named Berthier was also arrested and brought from Compiegne to Paris. He was a brave man, but his look became ashy when he met Foulon's head on a pike-point. Though Berthier was protected by a large body of men with drawn swords, the mob broke through them and snatched him out of his escort's hands. He seized hold of a musket and defended himself with the courage of a lion, but it was all in vain. He was hanged on the same lamp-iron, and his, head and his heart also flew over Paris.

These two may serve as instances of the hatred of the people toward their rich oppressors. "These men were the tyrants of the poor," said their murderers; "they drank the blood of the widow and of the orphan."

A great stillness had fallen on Versailles. How, different it was now from what it had been a year or two ago! The queen had become the most hated woman in France, and often shed many tears; and the king must have felt his throne tottering beneath him. It was a fearful hour. Bread was dear, and grew dearer day by day. Money was very scarce, and the people's hearts were heavy and bitter. An Englishman named Arthur Young has left a book behind him in which he tells of many things he saw in his travels through distracted France. He once overtook a poor woman who, though not yet twenty-eight, looked at least sixty years old. She told how hardly they had to live, she and her husband and seven children, and how poor they were after paying rents and quitrents, hens to one lord and sacks of oats to another. Besides these, and taxes to the king and other dues, the good man was obliged to do a certain amount of statute labor, for which he got no pay. It was no wonder that the poor woman said, "The dues and taxes crush us."

And now, when the Bastille had fallen and the people had found out their strength, the work of destruction went on all over France. Every night the darkness was dispelled by some great fire. The church bell of the village was rung, and the whole parish assembled to commit havoc as they chose. And they often chose to wreak their vengeance on the church itself; for the clergy, as being a privileged class, were almost as much hated as the great lords.

These great lords, with their delicate ladies and children, were obliged to fly, often by night, glad enough to escape with their lives. The tax-gatherers had to disappear, their occupation gone at least for a season.

The same Arthur Young says: "The grand seigneurs were shocking bad landlords. They lived in the midst of ill-managed fields and wastes, and great woods filled with deer, wild boars, and wolves. If I were King of France for one day," said he, "I would make these great lords skip again!"

They did not combine, as they perhaps might have done, in their own defense; but they were scattered widely over France, and were often jealous of each other, though no one doubts their courage. One man did indeed rid the earth of a number of his poorer neighbors by inviting them to a banquet at his chateau, and then killing them by igniting a barrel of gunpowder.

Of course law was not yet utterly powerless to put down robbery and mob violence. Some of the house-burning ruffians were tried, condemned, and hanged on trees by the roadside as a terror to evildoers.

Such, then, were the scenes common in France in the summer months of 1789. The wheels of industry ceased turning; the soldiers seemed disposed to be mutinous; and at Strasburg they openly embraced the mob, and helped them set fire to the Town-hall.

It was hardly safe, as Arthur Young found, to travel about France in those evil days. Many times shot and slugs came whistling about his ears, and sometimes his carriage was hit by them. Whether he was aimed at as an aristocrat flying the country, or whether the badly aiming peasants "shot at the pigeon and hit the crow," we are not told; but he complains of the thing in his book. During this autumn the "first emigration," as it is called, went on without ceasing; and many landed on the shores of England.

Meanwhile hunger pressed heavily on the people, who had to stand in long queues, or tails, at the bakers' shops. This was done so that they who came first were first served, and the others in the order of their coming. A man would sometimes stand half a day in a queue, and then receive only a bit of dear bad bread. A rigid search was made all over the country for grain; and farmers who would not sell, and bakers who adulterated their bread, were threatened with the halter. The bread at St. Denis was so bad and black that the people hanged the mayor for it. The corn-market at Paris had to be guarded by six hundred soldiers. Thus went on the French Revolution in the summer and autumn of 1789.