Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Insurrection of Women

On Monday morning, the 5th of October, Paris awoke to face once more a day of bitter want. Mothers heard their children crying for the bread which they could not give them; and when they sallied forth to see what could be got, they met others on the same dreary errand.

One young woman seized a drum and beat it, crying out at the same time to all mothers to assemble and go somewhere. A vast mob soon flocked to the sound of her drum; and they bent their steps first of all toward the Town-hall, or Hotel de Ville, which they reached about seven o'clock. The patrol were greatly surprised to see eight or ten thousand women mount the outer stairs, and the foremost leveled their bayonets to keep them back, but this was found impossible. The soldiers had to open their ranks and let the women through. They then hurried up the stairs, along the passages, and through the rooms. The major-general, Gouvion, was in the building; but what to do he knew not. He chanced to have a cunning man with him, named Maillard; and Maillard stole out by a secret staircase, and caught hold of another drum, which he beat furiously outside. He thus drew off the women, who were doing much mischief. Angry at not finding the mayor, or any one to help them, they seized Abbe Lefevre in the belfry and nearly hanged him; they splintered doors with axes, took away guns, and even cannon and bags of money, and were on the point of setting the fine old place on fire.

When Maillard's drum was heard outside, the women streamed forth, and shouts of "To Versailles! to Versailles!" rent the air. Cart-horses were made to draw the cannon; and on they all went to the Champs Elysees, where they halted. Maillard here persuaded them to nominate officers, and then to march with some kind of order, and with as few arms as possible, to present their request for bread to the king and Assembly at Versailles. The day was miserable; and on the sloppy road walked many a lady in her shoes of silk,—not because she liked it, but because she was compelled.

The news flew before the mob, and Mirabeau whispered to the President: "Paris is marching upon us. Go over to the Chateau and tell them." As soon as the women were well on the road, Gouvion collected a large force of National Guards. These men had felt the insult offered in the dinner business, and they sent to their general, Lafayette, to say that they would never turn their bayonets on the women, but they would go and abolish that insolent regiment of Flanders, and those Body Guards who had trampled on the tricolor cockade. They would then bring the king to Paris, where he ought to live. The general was amazed, and argued half the day against it; then he tried to escape, but his men would not let him go, and there he sat on his white charger for hours, while the soldiers and people kept shouting "To Versailles!" At length the general gave way, and about three o'clock moved thither with thirty thousand men; a vast mob, irregularly armed, going on in front.

Insurrection of Women


Maillard and his women halted on a rise above Versailles, and he pointed out the place where the Assembly was then debating. "Now," said he, "let us put these arms out of sight, and all appearance of sorrow, and let us sing." And so the women advanced up the dripping elm avenue, singing "Henri Quatre." The king, who had gone shooting, was hastily fetched back, and the soldiers were dispersed, about the palace in a posture of defense. While Mirabeau and the others were debating, in came Maillard and fifteen draggled women. He had had to use all his powers to keep the others outside. He spoke, and then the women cried out, "Bread! bread!" It was agreed that the president should take some of the women to the palace, and he went out with them. But others crowded round him, begging to be taken also; and he was obliged to add twelve more. As they went they were scattered by some insolent horse soldiers who rode among their ranks, and it was only with much difficulty that they managed to reach the gate.

Five of them were allowed to see the king; and one of these, a maker of figures, and a handsome girl, nearly fainted; whereupon the king supported her in his arms. When they went again into the crowd, this same young woman was nearly strangled by the others, who were angry at the notice taken of her by Louis. "She has no children that want bread," cried they; "only alabaster dolls which cannot eat." Poor Louison was in peril of death. The garter was round her neck, and strong arms pulling at each end, when she was rescued by two soldiers.

It was a most miserable afternoon, and the soldiers were wet, and losing patience, and slashing at people every now and then with their swords. One had his arm broken by a stray bullet, and the horse of another was killed; of course these things did not mend matters. The cannon which had been trailed all the way from the Hotel de Ville were now leveled at the palace gate, but the powder was too damp to ignite. At length the Body Guards were ordered to retire, as their presence was irritating to the mob; and whenever one showed himself at door or window, he was cursed and fired at. Then a rumor flew about that the king had got his coach ready as if for flight, and a sharp look-out was kept on the back gates.

There was a certain draper, named Lecointre, who was rather famous in these times of trouble. He now rode off to ask the mayor for six hundred loaves, but he could not get them nor aught else at present; so they skinned and roasted the dead war-horse, and ate its flesh with much relish.

When the president got back, he found his Assembly-hall filled with women, making speeches and passing resolutions. A stout woman was comfortably seated in his own chair. Before she would give it up she told him they were all very hungry and must have something to eat. He took the hint, and sent round for food, which came at last,—bread, sausages, and some wine. The members now edged their way in, and began to discuss the Penal Code. One of the women said, "What is the use of the Penal Code? What we want is bread!"

About the middle of that strange night Lafayette and his Nationals arrived, having spent nine hours on the road. Before reaching Versailles he had made his men swear to respect the king's house. He was admitted to an audience, and told Louis he must do four things for the sake of peace,—he must be guarded by the National Guards; he must get bread for the people; he must have all the prisoners in Paris tried, and, if found innocent, set free; and lastly, he must come and live in Paris. The king granted the first three readily, the last not so readily.

Toward three in the morning, the sentries having been set, and other business done, sleep fell on the distracted multitudes; and after two more hours of consultation with his officers, Lafayette flung himself on his bed, tired out.

In the early dawn a Body Guard, looking out of a window in the palace, saw some prowling fellows below. Ill words were spoken; and the soldier, waxing wroth, fired off his piece. Others returned it, and after some shots a young man in the crowd received his death-blow. Then there arose a fearful shriek from the mob, and a rush at the outer gate, which swept it open. The inner gate was also battered in, and then the people rushed up the grand staircase into the palace. Two sentries were trodden down and murdered, and the rest had to retire into a room and barricade the door, which was soon shivered to pieces.

The savage mob went raging on toward the queen's suite of rooms, in the farthest of which she was now sleeping. Some sentries beforehand with the crowd knocked, and cried, "Save the queen!" Two officers of the Body Guard showed vast courage at that terrible hour, and by their heroic efforts stemmed the flood until the queen was able to get into the king's bedchamber. One of these men, Mismandre, was left for dead at the outside of the queen's door, but he was able to crawl away and join his comrades.

From the king's bedroom they could hear afar off the noise of axes and hammers thundering on the doors. The rage of the people was directed mainly against the Body Guards, who were now driven into a large hall, and who heaped all sorts of things against the door. It shook under the blows dealt on it; but at the very moment it was giving way the blows ceased suddenly, and a voice from the other side told that a body of friends were there. By this time, also, Lafayette and his Nationals were on the scene, and the mob were soon driven out of the palace to rage in the courts below. The two Body Guards who had been killed on the staircase were beheaded, and their heads carried on long pikes through the streets and away to Paris.

"The king to Paris!"—such was the cry now everywhere. "The king must come to Paris!" Nothing else would do. So at one o'clock the king agreed to start to Paris. When Lafayette announced the king's consent, there was a shout and a discharge of fire-arms. It was the knell of the glory of Versailles.

Cartloads of bread arrived from Paris, enough for all; and great was the joy of those who munched it. More than that, fifty wagon-loads of corn were found in Versailles, and carried in triumph to the famishing city.

The king was now the prisoner of the mob, and most men saw what a grave thing it was. He had been conquered, and the people had once more learned their own strength. Many people now left France, and sixty thousand emigrated to Switzerland alone.

One o'clock arrived, and the royal family entered their carriages; but they did not start for another hour,—so long did it take to arrange the motley procession. What a sight it was! Men carrying loaves on pike-points, or guns with green boughs sticking out of the barrels. Some rode on cannons; and others, trying to mount the king's horses, were thrown, much to the amusement of the fickle mob.

"We shall not lack bread now," said some witty Parisian, "for we are bringing with us the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's boy."

At the Town-hall the king was made to step on a balcony by torchlight. He wore an immense tricolor cockade in his hat. It was not until eleven o'clock on Tuesday night that he reached the Tuileries, sad enough no doubt. This was the sixth day of October, 1789.