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The Women's March on Versailles: October 5, 1789

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. See digital samples, here.

A satirical print of King Louis XVI, dressed as a revolutionary but secretly planning to overthrow the revolution

Though he hesitated at first, King Louis XVI at last signed the Declaration, for he had little choice. In approving a document that made the people, not the king, the supreme authority in France, Louis XVI was simply recognizing what had come to pass – a reality he was powerless to change and that would be dangerous for him to resist.

But even though the king signed the Declaration, in his heart he opposed it. Louis XVI was not a tyrant. He was not greedy for power. He truly wanted to better the lives of his people. Yet Louis believed that as king of France, he had been given authority from God, and no one could take that from him. He had agreed to the limits placed on his authority because he felt he must, to keep his throne. But in doing so, he saw himself as giving in to force. He thus did not think he was bound to keep to the agreements he had made, if he were once again free.

Those immediately surrounding him encouraged the king’s secret opposition to the revolution—especially Queen Marie Antoinette. The queen believed firmly in the absolute authority of kings—she was, after all, the daughter of Maria Theresia and sister to the reigning Holy Roman Emperor, Josef II. In the years before the revolution, the queen had gained a good deal of influence over her husband. This was unfortunate, for Marie Antoinette was unpopular with the French people – and, more importantly, she was not a wise adviser.

A 1787 painting depicting Marie Antoinette with her children

The king basically had no say in the debates over the constitution the Assembly was drawing up for France. It was clear he would not be removed from office, for the French people were very attached to their king. He was the king “father” for many; for nearly all, he was a necessary part of the government. Only a few French intellectuals entertained ideas of a kingless France. For most of the French, France was unthinkable without the king.

Although France would keep her king, it was unclear how much power the Assembly would let him have. One of the fiercest debates in the Assembly was over the king’s veto—the power he would have to block laws passed by the Assembly. Some, like Mirabeau, thought the king should have an absolute veto – that is, the power to block any law passed by the Assembly – but the Assembly on September 11, 1789, granted the king only a suspensive veto. He could veto a law only twice; if the Assembly passed it a third time, the king was powerless to block it.

With only a suspensive veto, the king had little say over the laws. Even so, as the chief executive of the state, he still controlled the regular military. Louis, however, was uncertain how faithful his French soldiers were to him. Without his French regiments, he would have to rely on his foreign mercenaries; but the last time he did that, Paris rebelled and the Bastille fell. The king was thus unwilling to risk a military action against the Assembly.

So it was probably not to overthrow the Assembly, but merely to protect his palace, that in September Louis ordered mercenary troops from the Flanders garrisons to come to Versailles.

On the night of October 1, 1789, officers of the French Guard hosted a supper at Versailles to welcome the officers of the Flanders garrison. The officers ate heartily and toasted one another with glasses filled with wine. The queen was present, and royalist songs were sung. This was the extent of the event; but when the news of it reached Paris, the crowds were stung to anger. While the people starved, the king’s soldiers feasted! And why did the king bring soldiers to Versailles, anyhow? Was it to crush the Assembly, to end the revolution?

A 1789 engraving of the women’s march on Versailles

Armed with sticks and clubs and shouting, “Bread!” a mob of women and men (some dressed as women) marched the 12 miles from Paris to Versailles on the night of October 5, 1789. Behind them, at a distance, Lafayette followed with the National Guard. Upon reaching Versailles, the mob surrounded the palace; but the bayonets of the royal troops held them off until Lafayette and his Guard could take over the defense of the palace. Assaults by the mob continued through the night, and some broke into the palace, killing several members of the queen’s guard. By morning, the king agreed to surrender to the mob and, with it, leave Versailles for Paris.

The next day witnessed a strange spectacle—the royal family packed into an ornate carriage traveling along the road to Paris, guarded by troops of the National Guard and surrounded by a swarming, jubilant mob of the poor of Paris. “We have the baker and the baker’s wife and the little cook-boy,” they cried. “Now we shall have the bread!” The people were joyful not only from hopes of bread to fill their empty stomachs but because the king, their father, was returning to his capital, Paris. For over 100 years, the French kings had been at Versailles and so were strangers to their people. The return of the king awakened hopes that the king father would once more be one with his “children.”

It was a false hope. The Assembly would soon turn the king entirely against the revolution. Meanwhile, as a “prisoner” at the Tuileries, his palace in Paris, the king would despair of ever overthrowing the rebellion by his own power alone. The desperate Louis, fearful for his life and that of his family, fell completely under the sway of Queen Marie Antoinette, whose plots for the safety of the court and the royal family would forever besmirch the honor and dignity of the royal house in the eyes of all France.

Meanwhile, in Aristocratic, Imperial Vienna…

The composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, had just completed (on September 29) his Clarinet Quintet in A Major. Here it is performed by I Solisti Aquilani.

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