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King Louis XVI

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King Louis XVI

Louis XVI is famous for being the last king of France, his reign ending in his execution during an unprecedented upheaval of society that shocked the world over - The French Revolution. But how did this happen? How did Louis XVI go from an all-powerful monarch to 'Citizen Louis Capet' on the guillotine?

Louis XVI Facts

Louis XVI was born in 1754. As the second son, he was not initially supposed to become the King of France. However, after the death of his older brother in 1761 and his father in 1765, he became the heir to the throne.

louis xvi french revolution studysmarterLouis XVI, around 21 years old. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1770, Louis married Marie Antoinette, daughter of the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I. This was a poor political move; as a foreigner and Austrian no less, Marie Antoinette was unpopular amongst the French.

Louis XVI Reign

Louis XVI became king of France on the death of his grandfather Louis XV, on 20 December 1774. He inherited a troubled country. Discontent towards the monarchy was on the rise, and the country was in a lot of debt due to an outdated taxation system. As the French economy worsened during the 1780s, Louis XVI was forced to act.

King Louis XVI Financial Advisor

In 1787, Louis XVI's Finance Minister Calonne came up with reforms that would help solve France's finance problem. Louis and Calonne created to use a hand-picked group called the 'Assembly of Notables' - they hoped they would be easily manipulated into approving the reforms.

The conclusion of the Assembly was that they as cherry-picked notable individuals did not have the power approve the King's reforms. Louis XVI did not like this, and dismissed Calonne as finance minister. He replaced Calonne with Brienne, the Archbishop of Toulouse, who introduced new reforms alongside some of Calonne's.

louis xvi finance minister calonne studysmarterCharles Alexandre de Calonne, Finance Minister to Louis XVI. Wikimedia Commons.

The new Finance Minister Brienne attempted to get his reforms approved from the Parlement of Paris, the law courts of Paris. The Parlements rejected the reforms, saying they also did not have the power to approve such taxation. In response to this, Louis XVI exiled the Parlement.

This was very unpopular. At a time when confidence in the monarchy was already falling, this action seemed outrageous. Even the nobles and clergy were concerned with the actions of the King.

By August 1788, France was effectively bankrupt. Louis XVI was forced to call the Estates-General to resolve this issue.

King Louis Revolution

When Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General on 5 May 1789, little did he know it was the first in a chain of events that would lead to the overthrow of the monarchy and his own execution.

Summoning the Estates-General

Louis XVI expected the Estates-General to passively act, to validate his reforms without much opposition. However, the Estates General soon became a flashpoint for wider class concerns in France.

France was made up of Three Estates. The First Estate was made up of the clergy, the Second of the nobility, and the Third, the largest, was made up of everyone else - peasants, urban workers, merchants and the like. The Estates General followed a similar structure, with representatives for each estate.

Problems soon arose over the issue of voting. Louis XVI ordered that votes would be counted by Estate, not my numbers. This angered the much larger Third Estate representatives, as they could always be outvoted by the First and Second Estate. The Third Estate argued that it had no real power and on 10 June, broke off from the Estates General. On 17 June, they declared themselves the National Assembly, inviting representatives from the other Estates to join them, which they did.

The Storming of the Bastille

After the king's denial of the Estates wishes, the situation only got worse. More politicians joined the National Assembly and the cause of the Third Estate, and there were popular demonstrations in Paris in support of the Assembly.

Louis' reaction was to order military troops into Paris and Versailles. The National Assembly came to the conclusion that the King had planned to dissolve the National Assembly by force if necessary. Riots broke out against both the King and the dire economic situation.

storming of the bastille french revolution studysmarterStorming of the Bastille, 1789. Wikimedia Commons.

This was the people's revolt that eventually led to the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789. This was the result of tension that had been building between the ruling classes and the people, as well as the King and the Estates-General. The impact on Louis XVI and the monarchy was huge, massively undermining people's confidence in him.

The National Assembly was now called the National Constituent Assembly, to reflect their new purpose of writing a constitution for France.

The October Days

On 5 October, a group of around 7,000 women marched to Versailles to put their grievances about the food shortages to the king himself. They sent a deputation to the king, and he agreed to provide Paris with grain. This was not enough for the women. Their huge numbers and aggression forced the king and queen to march with them from Versailles all the way to Paris.

Under the increasing pressure, he also agreed to approve the August Decrees and the Declaration of Rights.

The August Decrees

These were a set of decrees that were set forward by the National Constituent Assembly that aimed to abolish all privileges of the nobility and clergy.

Flight to Varennes

By 1791, Louis XVI had been forced to agree to more and more of the National Assembly's demands and give up more and more of his power, something which he deeply resented.

On 20 June 1791, Louis XVI decided to flee Paris with his family. This event became known as the Flight to Varennes. It was likely Louis XVI was hoping to cross the border into the Netherlands, which was ruled by Austria. After he was caught, rumours that he was planning to use the Austrian army to launch a Counter-Revolution and restore his power circled through Paris. These rumours were likely accurate.

King Louis XVI Arrested

Louis XVI's attempted escape was cut short in the town of Varennes on 21 June. The local postmaster recognised the king from his likeness on the French coin. Louis XVI and his family were arrested and taken back to Paris.

flight to varennes louis xvi studysmarterA map illustrating the Royal Family's journey from Paris (in the west) to Varennes (in the east). Wikimedia Commons.

The Flight to Varennes was significant for many reasons. Firstly, for Louis XVI, it was a wakeup call as to the prevalence of Revolutionary sentiment in France. Before this, he had thought that it was limited to the Parisian radicals, but this proved that hostility to the monarchy was felt nationwide. Before leaving, Louis had left a letter boldly stating his opposition to the Revolution. This was not a smart move. The letter was used as evidence that the Revolutionaries could not trust the King.

In September 1791, the National Constituent Assembly had completed the new constitution, where the King and the Assembly would have joint power, but Louis XVI's actions meant this new constitution got off on a bad foot. Despite the flight to Varennes, Louis XVI would last for another whole year. What pushed the Revolutionaries to push Louis XVI off the throne and execute him?

Trial and Execution

So, how did Louis XVI seal his fate?

War with Austria

The war with Austria, which had started in April 1792, had a big impact on Louis XVI's situation, even though the Girondins had pushed for war to calm the tensions surrounding the king.

Firstly, there was increased paranoia that Louis XVI was allying himself with the Austrians in the hopes of reclaiming his power. The fact that his wife, Marie-Antoinette, was Austrian and therefore linked to the enemy, only encouraged remours. In addition, the military crisis in the summer of 1792 was severe - when French soldiers had crossed into the Austrian Netherlands, they were spooked at the Austrian defence and retreated, killing their commander in mutiny. Following this, several other sections had deserted the army.

The crisis helped fuel two popular risings, on 20 June and 10 August 1792. On 20 June, some 8000 protestors poured into the courtyard of the Tuileries palace, peacefully demanding that Louis agree to reforms that he had previously declined. Louis did not change his decision; however, he did not antagonise the protestors, keeping his cool in front of them and drinking to the health of the nation - this probably saved his life!

Yet on 10 August 1792, he was not so lucky. Several thousand troops advanced on the Tuileries palace. They were faced with troops still loyal to the king, and after an exchange of fire and attacks from the revolutionary troops, 600 of the king's Swiss guards were dead, along with nearly 400 Parisians. Louis was imprisoned, and the monarchy that had lasted nearly 1000 years was ended.

The Armoire de fer scandal

One of the short-term causes for Louis XVI's trial was the Armoire de Fer scandal. In November 1792, an iron chest was discovered at the Tuileries Palace which contained several incriminating documents against Louis XVI. The documents revealed that Louis had been in communication with the Austrian royal family - this was bad, as France had been at war with Austria since April 1792. To make matters worse, France struggling to keep the Austrians at bay, and fears of an invasion were very high.

Trial and Execution

Jean-Paul Marat, a prominent Jacobin, suggested that the Assembly vote on whether Louis was guilty of treason. Out of an assembly of 749 deputies, 693 voted that he was guilty. Initially, execution was not a popular choice, but speeches from prominent Republicans made deputies believe that execution was the only viable path forward. As a result, 387 deputies voted for execution, and 288 voted for life imprisonment.

louis xvi execution french revolution studysmarterExecution of Louis XVI by Sieveking, 1793. Wikimedia Commons.

Louis XVI, King of France, was executed on 21 January 1793. He went to the guillotine by the name of 'Citizen Louis Capet', stripped of his title to prove he was no greater than any other man.


The execution of Louis XVI sent shockwaves around Europe and escalated tensions between those who were pro-Revolution and those who were anti-Revolution. Within France, those loyal to the King saw his execution as one step too far from the Revolutionaries. Conservative provincial areas, such as in the Vendée, revolted in protest.

European rulers were also scandalised that the Revolutionaries had dared to execute Louis XVI and his family. The Austrians were outraged at the death of Marie Antoinette, and escalated the war against France. British shock meant they were soon drawn into the war as well.

Evaluating Louis XVI

One of the key debates surrounding Louis XVI is whether he can be called a 'good king' - did he bring the Revolution down on himself, or would it have happened regardless of his actions?

Yes, it was his fault!No, it wasn't his fault!
He consistently failed to resolve France's financial issues, when there were several compromises he could have made, prolonging the situation and turning more people against him.The impact of the war with Austria was a significant contributor to Louis' downfall, but it was not his fault - it was the Revolutionaries who had voted to go to war with Austria.
He failed to accept the experiment in Constitutional monarchy, which many of the Revolutionaries would have been happy with.Louis was heavily influenced by his family to take the strongest measures against the Revolutionaries - in particular, his wife Marie Antoinette urged him not to agree to certain reforms.
His treatment of the Estates-General, the Flight to Varennes and his reluctance to reform demonstrate how far out of touch Louis was with the state of France and the feelings of the French people. This meant he failed to understand that the Revolution was a nationwide phenomenon, and would not be going away any time soon!The growth of Revolutionary sentiment amongst political groups in France was born out of the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment - these ideas spread regardless of Louis' actions.
We must consider Louis' deeply held belief in Catholicism and the Divine Right of Kings. How was he supposed to willingly give up his throne or limit his power when he firmly believed that God had put him on the throne of France? In his mind, to give up his power would be blasphemous.
In conclusion, while Louis XVI did not cause the French Revolution, he helped fuel the fires of the Revolution through his lack of compromise and inability to deal with France's issues in the late 18th century,

King Louis XVI - Key takeaways

  • Louis XVI became king of France in 1774. He married Marie Antoinette, the daughter of the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor.
  • His reign was marked by financial and political crises. There was a growing tide of resentment towards the upper classes and France was nearly bankrupt.
  • Following France's bankruptcy and revolts in the provinces, Louis XVI was forced to call the Estates-General.
  • The French Revolution had begun. Louis XVI was engaged in a power struggle between the Crown and the National Assembly. Over a period of around 2 years, he was forced to accede more and more of his power to the National Assembly.
  • Louis attempted to flee the country with his family in June 1791, since he resented his loss of power. However, he was caught and forced to return to Paris.
  • France's decision to go to war with Austria in April 1792 put Louis in a difficult position. Austria's support of the royal family's plight meant many feared Louis would use the Austrian army to stage a coup and reclaim his power - this led to his eventual arrest and imprisonment.
  • Louis XVI was put on trial for treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. His execution took place on 21 January 1793.

Frequently Asked Questions about King Louis XVI

Louis XVI was the last king of France before the French Revolution began in 1789.

He failed to address the severe political and economic issues France was facing. He also resisted the Revolutionary reforms made by the government and did not want to get rid of the Ancien Regime.

He was executed on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Revolution in Paris.

He was executed on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Revolution in Paris.

Louis XVI was found guilty of treason by a Revolutionary tribunal in December 1792. He was executed on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Revolution in Paris.

Louis XVI was executed in the Palace de la Revolution, Paris. He was beheaded by the guillotine. 

Final King Louis XVI Quiz


When did Louis XVI become king?

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Which finance minister first introduced reforms to help France's financial situation?

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When were the Estates-General called?

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5 May 1789

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What were the two types of taxation in France?

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Direct and indirect

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When was France officially bankrupt?

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16 August 1788

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The Estates drew up a list of grievances to present to the King. What was it called?

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The Cahiers

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True or Fale: The Storming of the Bastille is considered the beginning of the French Revolution.

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The decrees abolishing the privileges of the clergy and nobility were called...

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The July Decrees

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When was Louis XVI executed?

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21 January 1793

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Which of these movements did Louis XVI's execution inspire?

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The Vendée Uprising

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