Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Execution of the King

From the time that he decided to leave the Tuileries, and his brave Swiss Guard, and the gallant gentlemen who had come to fight for him, Louis became a mere puppet in the hands of the Paris municipal officers. He might have made a better fight for his crown, no doubt, but he was a quiet, peace-loving man, who shrank from bloodshed, and no doubt he did what he thought was for the best. It was a very bad best for him, though, to be cooped up, and his queenly wife as well, in a grim old tower, with thick walls and iron-grated little windows, where he could neither eat nor read nor write without some impudent fellow watching him. Was ever man so the football of a fickle fortune?

There was, however, one blessedness in his lot. His sorrows did not last long. The men who at that time ruled France soon dismissed their victims. Robespierre and Marat had this grace about them,—they were for a speedy death; and that is surely better than twenty or thirty years' imprisonment in a noisome dungeon without fire or candle. Louis had the ordinary comforts of life during his abode in the tower; but he was wounded in his spirit, day after day, by insults, which to a finely strung mind are worse than the pains of death. He was separated from his wife and children, and had but one friend to whom he could talk; and that was his valet, Clery, who has left behind him a truthful account of his poor master's imprisonment and last hours on earth.

The Revolution was, without doubt, dead against kings and queens, and it had a delight in stripping royalty of its robes; but royalty showed itself dignified, nay, even grand, when stripped. Never did Louis appear more kinglike than in his last mournful hours.

When the Convention had decreed that he was to die so soon, the Minister of Justice was sent to the tower that Sunday about noon, or a little after, with the dreadful news. He said, when he was going, "What a frightful task for a man to have to do!"

When Louis heard that he had to die so soon, he begged hard for a respite of three days in which to prepare for his end; but they turned deaf ears to his prayer. He also asked for the consolations of religion, and this request was mercifully granted. The Abbe Edgeworth was sent to administer to his dying king all the ghostly comfort he could, and the last rites of the Church as well. The valet Clery has given us many affecting memorials of the closing scenes in the life of his master, whom he truly loved. The king's apartments were a sitting-room and bedroom, and a small circular closet which he used as a place of prayer. It was round, from being in a round turret at a corner of the large square tower. The top was finished off outside with a roof shaped like the extinguisher of a candle. Here lived the dethroned Louis from August, 1792, until the 21st of January, 1793, when his feeble light of life was suddenly put out by the sharp edge of the axe.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette


On the Sunday evening, at half-past eight, he had his farewell meeting with his wife and family, who descended from the chamber above by a winding stone stair in one of the round turrets. It was a most affecting scene,—that last interview between the doomed king and his heartbroken family. It lasted an hour and three quarters, and was seen by Clery and the officials through a glass panel in the door. They could not, however, hear a word that passed. The king was seated, with the queen on his left hand, and Madame Elizabeth, his excellent sister, on his right; the Princess Royal was in front, and the little Prince stood between his father's knees. And so they (that forlorn family brought so low) spent the last Sabbath evening they were to be together in this world. When they tore themselves asunder, the king promised that he would see them again early on the morrow, but he did not keep his word. When they left him that Sunday night, it was forever.

The king slept well, Clery keeping watch in a chair, and the Abbe snatching a few hours of repose on the valet's bed. At five o'clock Clery lit the fire; and the noise he made aroused the king, who got up and dressed himself. A dark January morning, cold and misty, hung over the city; but in that chilly gloom men by the hundred thousand were astir. One great event, and only one, was in everybody's mind. The city shops were kept shut, the city streets were empty; no vehicle but one was allowed to move that morning in the highways of Paris. There was a drumming and the gathering of troops from a very early hour, and all the streets from the Temple to the Place de la Revolution were lined with armed men.

In the tower itself there was a solemn service held at half-past six that morning, which was probably the most real as it was the most affecting of any in the borders of Christ's kingdom that day. It was the dethroned king of France receiving his last sacrament. A chest of drawers formed the altar on this singular occasion. At eight o'clock the officers of justice came for him, and an hour afterward the sad procession left the tower. The king held a book of prayers in his hand, and fixed his eyes on it as the carriage rolled slowly along the hushed streets. The city was like a city of the dead, so silent was it then. Everyone seemed awestruck, as well he might be, by the spectacle of a people putting its king to death.

At ten o'clock the carriage arrived at the Place de la Revolution. Did the king hope for a rescue? Did he hope that he might hear the cry of "Vive le Roi!" and see a solid body of his friends burst through the lines of National Guards that surrounded the guillotine? Alas! it was not so to be. At the Temple gate some pitiful women did lift up their feeble voices on his behalf; but no man dared to cry, "God save him." If anyone did feel anger or pity, he was afraid to show it; and so Louis went through a dumb city to his death, bewailed no doubt by many, but with none to strike a blow in his defense.

When he stood on the scaffold, he began a speech, in which he had just time again to avow his innocence. Fearing lest his words might produce an upstir in his favor, the officer in command ordered the drums to be beaten, and the king's voice was drowned. The officer then said, "Executioners, do your duty!" and six men seized Louis and bound him to a plank. The Abbe Edgeworth kept near, and just as the heavy axe was falling, said, "Son of Saint Louis, ascend to heaven!"

The executioner, whose name was Samson, lifted up the head, and held it out for the people to look at. Loud shouts of "Vive la Republique!" arose; and some of the people dipped their handkerchiefs, and others the points of their pikes, in the blood. "It is done! it is done!" cried the king's foes. It was indeed done, and could not be undone; but it divided the friends and it united the enemies of the Revolution.

The deputy who had been stabbed in the eating-house was buried on the Thursday after, with a great show of lamentation. The whole Convention in a body and the entire Club of the Jacobins were at the funeral.

Many who had been ardent promoters of the Revolution were horrified at the murder of the king; and especially the Girondins, who from that hour became the enemies of the more advanced men, and who, being the smaller and less popular party, were brought into the dust of death, as we shall see hereafter, though not before they had had a gallant but hopeless fight for their own principles of constitutional liberty.