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Useful Notes / Louis XVI

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Louis XVI in 1777 by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis

Sieyès, who had voted for death, once told Napoleon that Louis XVI was a tyrant and deserved to die: "M. l'abbé [Napoleon snapped], if he had been a tyrant I would not be here, and you would still be saying mass."
David P. Jordan, Napoleon and the Revolution.

Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793) was the King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791. Upon accepting the 1791 Constitution, he became "King of the French"note  until the 10 August 1792. He became king as a young man (20 years of age, which was still older than his three immediate predecessors, who became king at nine, five, and five, though it took them some more years to fully assume power of course) and his reign coincided with The Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, The American Revolution and The French Revolution.

The grandson of Louis XV, the Dauphin Louis Auguste inherited a system of absolute monarchy. All power was centralized in Versailles and invested with the personality and majesty of the King. The problem with this system was that it needed a ruler to have special fortitude and political genius. Coupled with this, Louis XVI wasn't raised to be the successor. Indeed he was neglected in his childhood in favor of his handsome older brother, Louis, Duc de Bourgogne. The death of his brother at the age of nine placed him next in line of succession. As a Prince, he had been noted for being physically active, constantly at ease at outdoors as well as being highly fit. He was also well educated in history, geography and literature, and was able to speak several languages. At the age of 15, he married the 14 year old Marie-Antoinette. Being personally quite timid and introverted, he didn't consummate his marriage with her at first. This fact led to quite a scandal at Versailles and Louis XVI was subject to much scorn and ridicule for being so prudish, which was considered highly unbecoming of a French King, especially in light of his predecessor Louis XV le bien-aimé. More seriously, not consummating the marriage meant no heir in sight, which was a great political and diplomatical problem. They consummated their marriage in due course of course and had four children. They never really fell in love but came to deeply care for each other as wife and husband as years passed.

Initially, Louis XVI was quite open to new ideas and embracing some of The Enlightenment reforms. Where his precessor had brutally shut down the parlementsnote  and railed against any reforms whatsoever, the King wanted to be popular and lessen some of the malcontent against his rule. In 1787, He signed into place the Edict of Versailles, which ended 102 years of Catholic subjugations of Protestants and Jews under the noxious Edict of Fontainebleau, giving them legal rights and civil status, a primitive form of reform that paved the way for the more decisive initiatives of the Revolution. The King's financial advisors — Malesherbes and Turgot — however faced opposition when they tried to put new taxes on the nobles, who despite having the money did not want to pay. Indeed, it was for reasons of solving a growing economic crisis and issuing monetary reform that Louis XVI convoked the meeting of the Estates-General in 1789, the first time in 150 years. This decision gave political representation and brought on to the national stage a generation that was as young as the King and with comparatively little political experience. The corrupt nobility and clergy regarded the King's reforms with scorn and they urged him to sideline the Third Estate, this led to the Tennis Court Oath and the forming of the National Assembly. A decision to send troops to Paris triggered the Fall of the Bastille and the real beginning of Revolution.

The Revolution was regarded by the nobility and the royal family as, understandably, an existential threat. This became even more clear after the Women's March to Versailles (October 1789), which brought the King to the long abandoned Tuileries Palace in Paris. This event made him a virtual prisoner to the National Guard, most of them drawn from Parisian radicals. The King was placed in virtual house arrest with his wife and children, under constant scrutiny. In the early years of the Revolution, the reformists and the people regarded Louis XVI as a good man, surrounded by bad advisors and they tended to scapegoat the Queen as power hungry. Some of them (Mirabeau) even went behind the backs of the Constituent Assembly to provide advise to the King on becoming a more popular monarch. This fiction ended with the Flight to Varennes, where Louis and his family tried to escape the Tuileries but not before sending a letter denouncing his treatment and the trajectory of the Revolution. He failed and was brought back to Paris but with his popularity in tatters.

The Constitution of 1791 which the King subsequently accepted gave him a suspensive veto on most state decisions as well as insisted that the King was inviolable. This ended with the Storming of the Tuilleries. The Royal Family took support with the Legislative Assembly who subsequently declared a Republic, the result being that the King was no longer protected by any laws, paving the way for his execution.

His death by execution marked the end of the Ancien Régime, absolute monarchy, and feudalism. It was also the death knell of the Divine Right of Kings as a concept of sovereignty, at least in Western Europe (it would hang on in Tsarist Russia for another century, but that ended even worse).

Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Adipose Rex: Revolutionary propaganda and caricature made fun of his portliness to paint an image of a lazy King. In reality he was personally highly fit and active physically.
  • The Ditherer: Generally agreed to be Louis's Fatal Flaw. He could probably have forged an alliance with the rising tide of enlightenment politicians in the Third Estate and ruled happily as a semi-constitutional monarch who nonetheless enjoyed broad powers within the new order, or cracked down on them and cemented royal power through force. But sadly, because Louis was a weathervane who wanted to be loved and blew with the wind, he tended to agree with the last person who talked to him, and this vacillation ultimately led him to his doom.
  • Hidden Depths: Known to work on clockwork as a hobby. Reportedly, as he was on the way to the guillotine he asked if anyone had any news of La Pérouse (an explorer whose ship ran ashore off the island of Vanikoro, northeast of Australia).
  • Historical Beauty Update: Inverted. Louis is often portrayed as short and squat, but while he did have a pronounced belly, his actual height was six (French) feet three inches or 193 centimeters, very tall for the time.
    • Strangely, it seems impossible to find a reliable source for his height and conflicting numbers are displayed. Even more confusing, contemporary accounts (from ambassadors for example) never emphasize Louis' supposedly high stature but rather his embarassing way of walking.
  • Historical Domain Character: Few works of the French Revolution neglect to include him in some way. Works generally show him as a weak-willed nice man betrayed by bad advisors and L'Autrichienne. Few works mention his more admirable early reign, namely his crucial support for The American Revolution.
    • Of course, it would prove ironic showing the Americans overthrowing the rule of one King with the assistance of an even more tyrannical King.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Most modern works featuring him make him a very nice guy, but just not king material. The page quote more or less sums up the modern historical evaluation of him: if he was half the tyrant his critics of the time painted him as, he very likely would have left the Revolution with his head intact, but his timid nature and constantly waffling on his public stance regarding the Revolution meant he never had control of the situation, and this eventually consumed him and his family.
  • Young and in Charge: He was 20 when he came to power and died at the age of 38. Most depictions, save for Marie Antoinette (2006) neglect this and usually cast older actors in the role of the King.

Appears in the following works:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • The Rose of Versailles: Portrayed as well-meaning but mostly unable to change the course of the dramatic events leading to the Revolution. There's also emphasis on his fondness for locks.

    Comic Books 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • La Marseillaise, 1938 French film by Jean Renoir which despite being highly pro-Revolutionary also has a very sympathetic King. Played by Pierre Renoir, the director's own brother.
  • Marie Antoinette (1938), played by Robert Morley.
  • Napoléon (1955), played by Gilbert Bokanowski.
  • Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (1956), played by Jacques Morel.
  • That Night in Varennes (1982) is about his and Marie-Antoinette's flight from Paris in 1791... but told from the point of view of a carriage following them. He's only briefly seen, played by Michel Piccoli.
  • Marie Antoinette (1989 Made-for-TV Movie), played by Dominique Besnehard.
  • La Révolution française, a two-part 1989 film made and released for the bicentennial of the Revolution. Played by Jean-François Balmer.
  • Jefferson in Paris - 1995 Merchant Ivory film which chronicles Thomas Jefferson's time as French Ambassador in the late 1780s. Michael Lonsdale plays the King.
  • Beaumarchais (in French Beaumarchais, l'insolent) - 1996 French film about the author of The Marriage of Figaro. Louis (played by Dominique Besnehard) listens to the play and bans it because of its criticism of the privileges of aristocracy. The Marriage... was effectively censored from 1778 to 1784.
  • Ridicule - 1996 French film set in 1783's Versailles Court. The movie is about a young aristocrat going to Versailles in order to get some money he needs to dry out swamps in his lands. Louis XVI himself (played by Urbain Cancelier) is a minor character of the movie.
  • Marie Antoinette (2006) - Played by Jason Schwartzman.
  • Farewell, My Queen, 2012 French film. Played by Xavier Beauvois.
  • The 1793 plot of Les Visiteurs: Bastille Day starts the day of Louis' death. Time-displaced 12th century knight Godefroy de Montmirail, while prisoner and surrounded by guards of the Republic and having never met him, dares to kneel, pray then stand up for him, having sworn loyalty to King Louis VI in 1123, then kicks the guards' butts and escapes with his squire.
  • Jeanne du Barry - Played by Diego Le Fur.

    Live-Action Television 

  • Mike Duncan has some nice things to say about Louis as a human being, but nearly none about him as a politician in his Revolutions podcast. While Mike will admit that the death of his son in the crucial early stages of the revolution was a pretty understandable distraction, none of his later attempts to regain control of the situation really worked.

    Video Games