In my previous two posts focusing on the history of the Château de Versailles, I discussed the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and that of Louis XVI until the year 1783, a few years prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution. In this third post, I’m going to examine how the French Revolution gained momentum at Versailles through some key events that took place there from 1786 – June 20, 1789. The causes of the French Revolution are numerous and complex; please note that brevity forces me to touch on only a few of them. As the Château de Versailles served as the centre of political power in 18th century France, it became the stage on which many of these pivotal activities played out.
Discontent with both royal and religious authority had been building in France over the last few decades. The French people were increasingly ready for a complete overhaul of their political, social, and religious systems. Privilege, corruption, and disenfranchisement are the cornerstones of a feudal system and France was increasingly due for an earthquake. France under the Ancien Régime (15th century-1789) understood its society as being divided into three separate classes, each of which provided the state with a separate service. The First Estate was made up of the clergy, who were considered responsible for education, religion, and charity. In 1789 they numbered only 10,000 people but owned 5-10% of all land, the most of any Estate. The Second Estate was the aristocratic/noble class, who viewed their contribution to the state as being fulfilled through military service and counsel to the sovereign; they were 400,00 in number, including women and children. The Third Estate, 25 million people strong, consisted of everybody else: the bourgeoisie, peasants, farmers, and the poor. They were responsible for fulfilling their state obligation through taxation, industry, and physical labour. The King was not a part of any Estate as he existed outside of them. There were a lot of problems with this system, the most prominent being that membership in the classes was deeply entrenched. It was impossible for members of the Third Estate to advance in this social hierarchy because the wealth, property, and privileges of the other two were legally and vigorously protected. Crucial to our story is that the First and Second Estates were exempt from taxation, so the people who had the most contributed the least.
The Estate system began to show signs of strain in the 18th century. New ways of thinking about society were percolating at this time. The Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement, is often cited by French historians as spanning the years 1715-1789; these same years mark the beginning of Louis XV’s reign and the outbreak of the French Revolution during Louis XVI’s. The Enlightenment focused on the importance of reason as the primary source of knowledge and included ideals such as individual liberty, religious tolerance, constitutional government, and the separation of church and state. These ideas challenged the fundamental structure of French feudal society, and they would feed the hungry flame of revolution when it began to flicker in 1788.
In 1786, however, it was not yet Enlightenment ideals that were the most pressing threat to the Estate system: taxes were. France had long relied on heavy taxation of the Third Estate, but the financial burden of the nation had now become too great for it to continue bearing alone. French military involvement in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and the American War of Independence (1775-1783) were ruinous to the country’s finances. By the late 1780s, nearly half of the total national budget was being used to service debts that had been run up while financing wars and the armed forces over the last century—a rate of 41% in 1788. Years of harsh winters and poor harvests led to price inflation and food shortages. A loaf of bread, the main food available to commoners, rose in price from 9 sous to 14.5 sous—almost a full day’s pay for an average worker. Further, there were times when there wasn’t enough grain available to even make this costly bread. People were angry, starving, and desperate. Levying more taxes on this suffering population was not an option as the Third Estate was stretched too thin.
Several successive financial ministers (Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot; Jacques Necker; Charles Alexandre Calonne) told Louis XVI that taxation reform was sorely needed. Louis XVI agreed, but both he and his ministers faced heavy opposition from the noble members of the Second Estate. The proposed tax measures were seen as attacks on their hereditary privileges, such as their right to carry a sword and bear a coat of arms. The nobility were inordinately proud of their titles, their family lineage, and the vast unique rights (especially the tax exemptions) that endorsed their perceived social superiority. It would be considered a humiliation for them to pay taxes like any regular commoner. After all, someone at some point in their esteemed family had served in some capacity in the King’s military or on an advisory committee at some point, surely. As far as the Second Estate was concerned, their duties to society had been paid. It was offensive to suggest that they should contribute anything more. (Never mind that military spending, and the proud counsel of the Second Estate that had encouraged it, was actually responsible for the larger portion of the country’s debt).
Louis XVI’s current Minister of Finance, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, proposed a new set of financial and administrative measures to the King on August 20, 1786 in his Précis d’un plan pour l’amélioration des finances (Precise plan for improving finances). Calonne sought to apply taxation in a more uniform and fair manner, with only the poor being protected from further burdens. It centered around a new land value tax that would be payable by all landowners without exception, even the Church. Calonne also outlined a system of provincial assemblies that would more effectively handle the administration of the nation’s affairs. Louis XVI supported Calonne’s ideas, but both he and Calonne knew that they were going to have trouble getting the measures passed through the regional parlements.
France had 13 regional parlements as of 1789, the most powerful of which was the Parlement de Paris. The parlements had historical medieval roots in the King’s Council. Its members were aristocratic members of the Second Estate who had bought or inherited their office, and they acted independently of the King. The parlements acted as a supreme court of final appeal for the judicial system and each body consisted of at least 12 magistrates, known as the noblesse du robe (nobles of the robe). They were not legislative bodies but they held a lot of power over a wide range of issues, including taxation. Laws and edicts issued by the Crown were not official until the parlements approved and registered them. Although the parlements could not initiate or amend laws, they were able to exercise a limited veto power on new ones. If the parlement refused to register a law, they would publish a remonstrance that explained why. If the King wished to move forward with an edict, he would then summon justices of the parlement to a session known as a lit de justice (bed/court of justice) where he could override the remonstrance and demand registration of the law. The King could also use lettres de cachet—an order that couldn’t be appealed in a letter bearing the King’s seal—to threaten, imprison, or exile magistrates of the parlement in order to force their compliance. In theory, the parlements were intended to work as a check against the absolute, central power of the King. They were tasked with upholding the Constitution and defending the rights of the French people as a whole. This theoretical mandate of the parlements lent them the popular support of the commoners, who believed that the parlements were their best protection against the authoritarian control of the King. In practice, however, the parlements were mostly dedicated to protecting the interests of the Second Estate, as its members were all nobles.
The Parlement de Paris had so far opposed any reform put forward by Louis XVI and his ministers that required the financial contribution of the aristocratic class, even though this was becoming increasingly crucial to the well-being of their nation. Louis XVI and Calonne knew they were not going to make headway with the Parlement de Paris, so they sought a new route to push through their reforms. Or, rather, an old route—one that hadn’t been used in 160 years, since the reign of Louis XIII in 1626. Calonne suggested that they summon the Assembly of Notables. This Assembly was a group of high-ranking nobles, clergymen, and state officials who convened on extraordinary occasions to advise the King on matters of state. The King hand-selected members for this council and, as such, could typically trust in their support. The Assembly of Notables acted in a consultatory capacity only, as they did not have any legislative or judicial powers. But a successful meeting of the Assembly would result in the King issuing one or more edicts based on their feedback. Louis XVI and Calonne hoped that Assembly endorsement of their taxation reforms would pressure the Parlement de Paris into accepting them as well.
Louis XVI named his candidates and the Assembly of Notables duly met at the Château de Versailles on February 22, 1787. There were 144 members present, of whom only two people were not aristocrats or high clergymen. The group included 36 prominent nobles, 14 bishops or archbishops, seven “Princes of the Blood”, magistrates from the parlements, provincial deputies, and city mayors. Calonne presented his reform package to the Assembly. However, rather than providing Louis XVI and Calonne with the obedient endorsement that was expected—the sole purpose of this exercise, after all—the Assembly erupted into debate and criticism. The measures remained too extreme for these members of the First and Second Estates, even the ones that Louis XVI had purposefully selected. What the Assembly did agree on was that these fiscal and administrative reforms needed to receive proper acceptance from the parlements or, barring that, from an institution that had not been summoned in a period of time even longer than that of the Assembly of Notables: the Estates-General, which had last met 175 years previously, in 1614.
The possibility of calling up the Estates-General charged the French political atmosphere in a whole new way. Like the Assembly of Notables, the Estates-General acted in an advisory capacity, with no legislative or judicial power. Unlike the Assembly of Notables, members were not selected by the King. Instead, the Three Estates had the power to choose their own representatives. It was a sensational prospect for all levels of French society, and Louis XVI was soon being pressured to convene it. But there was a reason the Estates-General had not met since early in the reign of Louis XIII: its very existence suggested that the people had more power than an absolutist monarchy was interested in sharing with them, especially the Third Estate. Three generations of Kings had worked to concentrate power solely in the hands of the monarch. After all, Louis XIV’s motto had been “the King rules alone.” His reign had been the height of this practice, especially thanks to his ability to curb the Second Estate’s impulses to strive for more power by challenging his own. But the system he had so effectively established at Versailles to do this had begun to erode towards the end of Louis XV’s reign, and it was proving to be like quicksand beneath Louis XVI’s feet. Calling up the Estates-General was the last thing Louis XVI wanted to do, and he resisted it for as long as he was able.
Calonne, frustrated with the refusal by the Assembly of Notables to endorse his reforms, tried to seek favour with the general public. He published information about the state’s fiscal crisis and his attempts to resolve it, revealing that the 1786 state deficit was 110 million livres. This infuriated Louis XVI and the members of the Assembly. For centuries, the Kings of France had controlled fiscal policy on their own terms—purposefully keeping the details private when faced with a credit crunch. By making the specifics of the deficit available for public scrutiny, Calonne opened the monarchy up to claims that it was weak, fallible, and corrupt. Calonne was dismissed from his position on April 8. The outraged public looked for someone to blame for this financial crisis, and a foreign princess from Austria was the perfect target. It helped that at the same time Marie Antoinette’s reputation was effectively being deliberated by the Parlement de Paris in a sensational trial concerning the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Although the Queen was innocent of any crime, her image took a severe hit when the Parlement chose to acquit those involved on May 31; a decision that was likely influenced by the political standoff currently taking place between the Parlement de Paris and Louis XVI. Although Marie Antoinette had long been the subject of salacious pamphlets, their hateful nature intensified at this point. It was during that summer in 1787 that people began to derisively call her by the name “Madame Deficit1.”
With Calonne gone, Louis XVI needed a new advisor to help him in his continued battle with the Assembly of Notables and the Parlement de Paris over tax reform. Calonne was replaced by Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, the Archbishop of Toulouse, on May 1. Brienne was a member of the Assembly of Notables and, in fact, had led the opposition to Louis XVI and Calonne. Louis XVI hoped that through Brienne’s appointment he would bring more members of the Assembly onside with him. But when Brienne presented his measures to the group on May 25, they were also defeated. As a consequence, Brienne had the Assembly of Notables dissolved. Louis XVI and Brienne then wrestled with the Parlement de Paris for months in an effort to get their measures made into law. They submitted reforms in June 1787, only to have them soundly rejected by July. On August 6, Louis XVI chose to force his measures through a lit de justice held at Versailles. When the parlements of Paris and Bordeaux objected, Louis XVI dissolved them on Brienne’s advice and composed several lettres de cachet that ordered their members into exile in Troyes—a city located 154 kms (96 miles) southeast of Paris.
Brienne expected that exile would encourage the magistrates to back down on their firm line of opposition. Instead, the magistrates wrote to other parlements urging them to refuse to register any tax edicts. There was also public backlash in Paris to the King’s behaviour, leading to several protests. On September 24, it was Louis XVI and Brienne who conceded. Louis XVI allowed the parlements to be recalled and reseated. They were cheered by a celebratory crowd when they returned to Paris in October. On November 19, Louis XVI held another session of the lit de justice at Versailles. This time it was the King’s cousin Louis-Philippe-Joseph, the Duke d’Orléans, who led the protest. In response, the King issued a lettre de cachet that sent the Duke into exile and two of his companions into prison. It was around this point in time that Louis XVI began entertaining the possibility of convening the Estates-General in five years’ time, but he would find that political tensions came to a head much sooner than that.
Louis XVI’s and Brienne’s tug-of-war with the Parlement de Paris continued throughout 1788. In January, the Parlement ruled that all lettres de cachet were illegal. On May 3 the Parlement issued a “Declaration of the Fundamental Laws of France” which sought to assert the parlements’ judicial independence. The declaration also contained strong criticisms of the lettres de cachet and demanded that the Estates-General be convened in order to verify any tax reforms. In response, Louis XVI issued two lettres de cachet on May 4 ordering the arrest of two members of the Parlement de Paris. On May 8, he summoned the parlements to Versailles. Using the lit de justice process he registered an edict that suspended all of the parlements and replaced them with 47 new provincial organizations that were more malleable to the will of the King. These measures were seen as despotic, and a wave of protest and violence swept through France. On June 7, mobs in Grenoble and Brittany threw tiles at government soldiers. In July, several provincial assemblies also demanded the reinstatement of the parlements, as well as the convocation of the Estates-General. On July 5, Louis XVI buckled; he made a preliminary declaration announcing that the Estates-General would be summoned at a future date in 1792. He also scheduled another meeting of the Assembly of Notables in November 1788. This time, the Assembly would provide guidance on how the Estates-General should be selected, how many would make up its number, and what voting procedures it would follow.
Although plans were put in motion for the Estates-General to convene in 1792, circumstances in France quickly became more dire. On July 13, a severe hailstorm decimated the impending harvest. On August 8, Brienne learned that the state was unable to meet its loan repayments. An official calculated that there was only enough money in the treasury to fund state expenditure for one or two days. Louis XVI was thus forced to advance the meeting of the Estates-General by three years, to May 1789. On August 16, the government suspended the payment of interest on some of its debts. On August 25, Brienne resigned. Jacques Necker, previously dismissed from his position of Controller-General of Finance, was recalled. So too were the parlements. Debate raged throughout the fall of 1788 regarding the composition of the Estates-General, particularly regarding the number of representatives that would make up the Third Estate. When the Estates-General had last met in 1614, there had been an equal number of delegates from all Three Estates. French society had drastically changed since then, and now the Third Estate wanted to have double representation—this had already been granted to them in the provincial assemblies. Louis XVI and Necker approved of this idea as they believed that the Third Estate would serve as a royal ally. Increased Third Estate representation would dilute the strength of the Second Estate, and so their much-desired tax reform might finally be approved. The Second Estate was aware of this and, consequently, was firmly opposed to double representation.
On September 25 the Parlement de Paris ruled that the upcoming meeting of the Estates-General would follow the same structures and procedures as when it had been previously summoned in 1614: the proportion of representatives would be equal amongst all three Estates, with no double representation granted for the Third; each Estate would meet and deliberate separately; and each of the Estates would cast one vote, in order, rather than having votes be decided by the ballots of individual deputies (“voting by the head”). Each of these edicts effectively curtailed whatever power the Third Estate had been hoping to exercise through the Estates-General, especially the voting procedure. It allowed the First and Second Estates (3% of the French population) to vote together to protect their own interests and easily overrule those of the Third (97%). The Assembly of Notables added their support to the decisions made by the Parlement de Paris when they met for the second time in November at Versailles. Louis XVI and Necker were disappointed with this outcome, so they had the Assembly of Notables dissolved for the second time.
The Third Estate was furious at the decisions made by the Parlement de Paris and the Assembly of Notables. There was a flood of heated political literature that criticized their rulings and demanded both political and fiscal reform. The parlements were finally exposed as being instruments of aristocratic self-interest and lost the support of the common people. The Third Estate pushed harder for double representation and for voting to be determined by individual ballots by all deputies. On December 27, Louis XVI agreed to double the number of delegates for the Third Estate. But he did not remedy the voting procedure. This meant that no matter how many representatives the Third Estate had, double or not, the result would be the same: they would still only have one group vote, and they would be overruled by the two votes held by the First and Second Estates. It was in this climate that Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, an Enlightenment-minded political theorist and Catholic abbot commonly known as the Abbé Sieyès, felt moved to publish his views on the political situation in January 1789. His pamphlet, titled Qu-est ce que le tiers-état? (What is the Third Estate?), stated: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire to be? Something.” His work was an immediate success, and it would soon become a manifesto of the French Revolution.
The winter of 1788-1789 was the most severe in living memory, with several people actually freezing to death as they made the journey between Paris and Versailles. Food stores were low due to the failed harvest of the previous season. Bread was in short supply and, when it was available, the prices were astronomical. Rumours of an aristocratic plot to “starve the poor” were rampant and readily believed. On January 24, rules and instructions for electing delegates to the Estates-General were finalised and sent out to the various districts. In February, elections for delegates to the Estates-General took place across France. Among the members successfully elected to the Third Estate were the Abbé Sieyès, thanks to the renown he had gained with his influential political pamphlet, as well as a radical nobleman named Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, the Comte de Mirabeau; the latter had failed to be elected to the Second Estate in his country district, but had managed to secure a seat with the Third Estate.
On April 27, the Réveillon riots broke out in Paris due to rumours that wage cuts were going to be made by the wallpaper manufacturer. Members of the French Guard, the city’s military garrison, were hit with stones, tiles, and other projectiles thrown at them by demonstrators. The French Guard reacted swiftly, even brutally, by firing on the protestors. Official reports stated that 25 people were killed, but the actual figure was probably somewhere between 100-300. This response by the French Guard had a severe effect on the relationship between the government and the people of Paris: the government believed that Parisians were becoming increasingly unmanageable, while the Parisians saw that government troops were prepared to use military action against them.
The 1,200 delegates of the Estates-General arrived at Versailles on May 2. On May 4, they were joined by the royal family in a procession that made its way through the town of Versailles. The group set out from the Church of Notre-Dame de Versailles, crossed the Place d’Armes, and concluded their march at the Church of Saint-Louis. The royal family led the procession dressed in their finest. Louis XVI wore a cloak made of gold cloth that was embellished by brilliant-cut diamonds. He also sported a diamond sword, diamond buttons, diamond shoe buckles and the largest diamond in the kingdom, the Regent diamond, on his hat (you can see a picture of this diamond in my post about the Louvre’s collections). Marie Antoinette wore a dress made of silver fabric and, in her hair, the Sancy diamond (which can also be seen in that post). She wore other diamonds as well, including two of the famous eighteen Mazarin diamonds (numbers 5 and 6). She did not wear a necklace. The crowds cheered for Louis XVI, but pointedly not for Marie Antoinette. It was safe to show disrespect for a foreign-born Queen, but not yet for their King.
The deputies of the Estates-General followed the royal family, and protocol was strict regarding what the members of each Estate were permitted to wear. The clergy of the First Estate wore their ecclesiastical dress. The nobility of the Second Estate wore black silk and white breeches with lace cravats and plumed hats; they carried swords to denote their rank. The Third Estate wore plain black and were forbidden to carry swords. Louis XVI’s troublesome cousin Louis-Philippe-Joseph, the Duke d’Orléans, decided to walk with the deputies of the Third Estate. This provocative act earned him cheers from the crowd—and the resentment of the King. At the Church of Saint-Louis a High Mass was held by Monseigneur de la Fare, the Bishop of Nancy. The Bishop seized the chance to deliver a now-famous sermon that severely rebuked the luxury of the court. Louis XVI fell asleep during the service (a typical reaction of his in times of stress), and Marie Antoinette pressed her lips together. The Bishop was applauded at the conclusion of his speech. The congregation’s applause was noteworthy, as it quite possibly marked the first time in history a Bishop’s sermon had been received in such a manner.
At long last the 1,200 delegates of the Estates-General finally convened on May 5, 1789 in a temporary hall at Versailles that had been built behind the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs2. This event is often considered to be the opening act of the French Revolution. The King and his family were seated at the end of the hall beneath a baldachin, with the deputies seated in rows around the edge. Louis XVI began the session with a speech that reviewed the circumstances leading up to the summoning of the Estates-General, and then laid out what he expected from the gathered delegates. He concluded by saying that he was a peaceful king, and declared himself “the people’s greatest friend.” Necker’s three-hour address to the assembly touched on the financial health of the state, constitutional monarchy, as well as institutional and political reforms. His voice hoarse from a cold, he had to quit speaking after fifteen minutes and have the Secretary of the Agricultural Society read the rest. Although Louis XVI and Necker had intended to focus the energy of the Estates-General solely on the matter of taxes, the group soon reached a deadlock on May 6 regarding voting procedure. The Third Estate insisted on having “voting by the head,” as they knew that their single group vote was not enough to exercise any degree of power in the face of the two votes that would surely oppose them. The Third Estate also wanted all of the Estates to meet together and deliberate on issues, rather than being divided and sent into separate chambers. They knew that their best hope to influence the decisions of the First and Second Estates were to have everyone assembled and in discussion together. The resultant controversy raged for days.
It was while the Estates-General was mired in this conflict that tragedy struck the royal family. On Thursday, June 4 the eight-year-old dauphin, Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François, died of tuberculosis. Although the boy’s health had been declining for awhile, his death came at a particularly bad time. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were understandably devastated, but the delegates of the Third Estate were too feverishly driven by the changing political climate to give them proper time to mourn. They were discovering that as they pushed, they were gaining more power and influence. Their demands were increasingly likely to earn them new rights; if they let up, the opportunity might be lost. Louis XVI was forced to meet with the Estates-General on Sunday, June 7, bitterly commenting: “So there are no fathers among the Third Estate?”
On Wednesday, June 10, the Abbé Sieyès proposed that members of the First and Second Estates join the Third and become a united body to represent the nation as a whole; he further suggested that the Third Estate had the right to consider those who refused this invitation to have defaulted on their national responsibility. On Saturday, June 13, several members of the First Estate crossed the floor in order to do just that. On Sunday, June 14 the royal family retreated to the Château de Marly for a week of official court mourning. On Wednesday, June 17 the Third Estate, now joined by several members of the First and Second Estates declared themselves the National Assembly of France; astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly was elected President. The Assembly considered itself to be a legitimate authority equal in power to the King and, as such, they were going to draw up a new constitution for France. Louis XVI’s mourning would have to be cut short.
On Friday, June 19 the entire First Estate voted to join the National Assembly. On Saturday, June 20 the group went to their usual hall at the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs. They were surprised to find the doors locked and guarded. Fearing a royal conspiracy, they hastened to the nearest open building where they found a hall that was used to play tennis. Here, led by Bailly, they swore an oath (quickly written by the Abbé Sieyès) that they would assemble, wherever circumstances required, and not separate before they had given France its new constitution. The Serment du Jeau de Paume (Tennis Court Oath) was a courageous act of defiance. It was revolutionary in its assertion that political authority derived from the people and their representatives, rather than the monarchy. The genie was out of the bottle.
It is at this point in the story, with the creation of the National Assembly and the swearing of the Oath of the Jeau de Paume, that I am going to pause. In my next post, I will cover a series of momentous events that took place between June 23 and October 6, 1789. Thank you for reading!
1a The painting of Marie Antoinette and her children done by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun in 1786-1787 was scheduled to be exhibited at the Salon of the Royal Academy at the end of August 1787. But the Queen’s increasing popularity led to fears that there would be demonstrations against her. The Chief of Paris Police, Jean-Charles Pierre Lenoir, advised her to stay away from the capital city. The painting was hurriedly withdrawn from the Salon, leaving only an empty frame. Someone pinned a note to it that read, “Behold the Deficit!” After the death of Louis-Joseph Xavier-François in June 1789, Marie Antoinette understandably found the portrait too painful to look at. She had it removed from the Salon de Mars in Versailles, where it had been displayed.
1b Court expenditure accounted for 6-7% of the 1788 budget. That’s a significant sum, especially considering the hardship that the majority of the French population was suffering. Still, Marie Antoinette’s expenses weren’t the sole, main reason France was on the verge of bankruptcy—although they were certainly depicted as such. And she wasn’t the only high-roller: that 6-7% includes spending by other members of the court and royal family, such as Louis XVI’s brothers and their wives.
2 The Menus-Plaisirs du Roi was a department of the French royal household that looked after the “lesser pleasures of the King.” It was in charge of the preparations for all ceremonies, events, and festivities, down to every last detail. During the reign of Louis XV the Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs was built in the town of Versailles, near the Chȃteau, to house the activities of this department. A provisional hall was set up behind this building to accommodate the Assembly of Notables in 1787 and 1788. In 1789, one of the courtyards was used to create the Salle des États, to house the Estates-General. The Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs still stands, and is now home to the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles.