21st of January 1793: death of Louis XVI on the guillotine


Louis XVI at the Temple, by Garnerey

As usual on this blog, I will strive to recount this dramatic event through the testimony of eyewitnesses.

Let us simply remember that, following the storming of the royal palace of the Tuileries on the 10th of August 1792, Louis XVI and his family (Marie-Antoinette, their two children, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte and Louis-Charles, and his sister Madame Elisabeth) were jailed in the medieval tower of the Temple.

Then, in December of 1792, the trial of the deposed King had commenced before the National Convention, the newly elected legislative body. The votes were tallied, counted and recounted for days, and it seemed that, though the guilty verdict on the counts of treason was a foregone conclusion, the King might receive a stay of the death sentence. Yet in the end by an extremely narrow margin (some say one single ballot) the Convention voted in favor of the immediate execution of Louis XVI. What happened next?

First we will listen to Madame Royale, the King’s daughter, then fourteen:

“About seven in the evening [of the 20th] we learned of the sentence by the newspapermen, who came shouting it under our windows: a decree of the Convention allowed us to see the King. We ran to his apartment, and found him much altered; he wept for us, not for fear of death; he related his trial to my mother, apologizing for the wretches who had condemned him; he told her that it was proposed to attempt to save him by appealing to the people, but that he would not consent, lest it should excite unrest in the country. He then gave my brother some religious advice, and desired him, above all, to forgive those who caused his death and he gave him his blessing, as well as to me. My mother was very desirous that the whole family should pass the night with my father; but he opposed this, observing to her how much he needed a few hours of repose and quiet. She asked at least to be allowed to see him next morning, to which he consented.”

Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte’s account may seem cold, but it is typical of her terse, unsentimental style of narration. In fact, the young girl was devoted to her father and utterly devastated, as the account of Jean-Baptiste Cléry, the King’s valet at the Temple, makes clear:

“The commissioner who was sent to fetch the royal family was absent a quarter of an hour; during which time the King went back to his cabinet, returning several times to the entrance-door, with signs of the deepest emotion. At half-past eight the door opened; the Queen appeared first, holding her son by the hand; then Madame Royale and Madame Elisabeth; they ran to the arms of the King.

A gloomy silence reigned for several minutes, interrupted only by sobs. The Queen made a movement to draw the King into his room. “No,” he said “let us go into the dining-room, I may see you only there.” They went there, and I closed the door, which was made of glass, behind them.

The King sat down, the Queen on his left, Madame Elisabeth on his right, Madame Royale nearly opposite to him, and the little prince between his knees. All were bending towards him and held him half-embraced. This scene of sorrow lasted seven quarters of an hour, during which it was impossible to hear anything; we could see only that after each sentence of the King the sobs of the princesses redoubled, lasting some minutes; then the King would resume what he was saying. It was easy to judge from their motions that the King himself was the first to tell them of his condemnation.

At a quarter past ten the King rose first; they all followed him; I opened the door; the Queen held the King by the right arm; Their Majesties each gave a hand to the Dauphin; Madame Royale on the left clasped the King’s body; Madame Elisabeth, on the same side but a little behind the rest, had caught the left arm of her brother. They made a few steps towards the entrance, uttering the most sorrowful moans.

“I assure you,” said the King, “that I will see you tomorrow at eight o’clock.”
“You promise?” they all cried.
“Yes, I promise.”
“Why not at seven o’clock?” said the Queen.
“Well, then, yes, at seven o’clock,” replied the King. “Adieu–”

Louis XVI farewell to his family

Louis XVI bids farewell to his family

“He uttered that “adieu” in so expressive a manner that the sobs redoubled. Madame Royale fell fainting at the King’s feet, which she clasped; I raised her and helped Madame Elisabeth to hold her. The King, wishing to put an end to this heart-breaking scene, gave them all a most tender embrace, and then had the strength to tear himself from their arms.

“Adieu–adieu,” he said, and re-entered his chamber.

The princesses went up to theirs. I wished to go too to carry Madame Royale; the municipal guards stopped me on the second stair and forced me to go back. Though the two doors were shut, we continued to hear the sobs and moans of the princesses on the staircase.

The King rejoined his confessor [the Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, whose account we shall follow later] in the tourelle. Half an hour later he came out and I served the supper. The King ate little, but with appetite. After supper, His Majesty having returned to his cabinet in the tourelle, his confessor came out an instant later and asked the commissioners to take him to the council-room. This was for the purpose of obtaining the sacerdotal robes, and other things necessary to say mass on the following morning. Monsieur de Firmont obtained with difficulty the granting of this request. It was to the Church of the Capuchins in the Marais, near the Soubise Mansion, which had lately been turned into a parish church, that they sent for the items required for divine service.

Returning from the council-room, Monsieur de Firmont went back to the King. They both re-entered the tourelle, where they remained until half an hour after midnight. Then I undressed the King, and as I was about to roll his hair, he said to me, “It is not necessary.” When I closed the curtains after he was in bed, he said, “Cléry, wake me at five o’clock.” He was hardly in bed before a deep sleep took possession of his senses; he slept until five o’clock without waking.

Monsieur de Firmont, whom His Majesty had urged to take a little rest, threw himself on my bed, and I passed the night on a chair in the King’s room, praying God to preserve both his strength and his courage. I heard five o’clock strike on the city clocks and I lit the fire. At the noise I made, the King awoke and said, opening his curtain, “Is it five o’clock?”
“Sire, it has struck five on several of the city clocks, but not here.”

The fire being lighted I went to his bedside.
“I have slept well,” he said; “I needed it, for yesterday tired me very much. Where is Monsieur de Firmont?”
“On my bed.”
“And you, where did you sleep?”
“In this chair.”
“I am sorry,” said the King.
“Ah Sire!” I exclaimed, “how can I think of myself at such a moment?”

He held out his hand to me and pressed mine with affection. I dressed the King and did his hair; while dressing, he took from his watch a seal, put it in the pocket of his waistcoat, and laid the watch upon the mantel piece; then, taking from his finger a ring, which he looked at many times, he put it in the same pocket where the seal was. He changed his shirt, put on a white waistcoat which he had worn the night before, and I helped him on with his coat. He took from his pockets his portfolio, his eye-glass, his snuff-box, and some other articles; he laid them with his purse on the mantel piece; all this in silence and before the municipal guards. His toilet completed, the King told me to inform Monsieur de Firmont. I went to call him; he was already up, and he followed His Majesty into the tourelle.

I then placed a bureau in the middle of the room and prepared it, like an altar, for mass. At two o’clock in the morning all the necessary articles had been brought. I took into my own room the priest’s cassock, and then, when everything was ready, I went to inform the King. He asked me if I could serve the mass. I answered yes, but that I did not know all the responses by heart. He had a book in his hand which he opened, found the place of the mass, and gave it to me, taking another book for himself. During this time the priest robed himself. I had placed an armchair before the altar and a large cushion on the floor for His Majesty. The King made me take away the cushion, and went himself into his cabinet to fetch another, smaller and covered with horsehair, which he used daily to say his prayers.

As soon as the priest entered, the municipal guards retired into the antechamber, and I half closed the door. Mass began at six o’clock. During this august ceremony a great silence reigned. The King, always on his knees, listened to the mass with deep attention, in a most noble attitude. His Majesty received the communion. After mass, he went into his cabinet, and the priest into my room to remove his sacerdotal vestments.

I seized that moment to enter the King’s cabinet. He took me by both hands and said in a touching voice:
“Cléry, I am satisfied with your services.”
“Ah, Sire!” I cried, throwing myself at his feet. “Why can I not die to satisfy your murderers and save a life so precious to good Frenchmen! Hope, Sire, they will not dare strike you.”
“Death does not alarm me,” he replied. “I am quite prepared; but you,” he continued, “do not expose yourself; I shall ask that you be kept near my son; give him all your care in this dreadful place; remind him, tell him often, how I have grieved for the misfortunes he must bear: some day he may be able to reward your zeal.”
“Ah! my master, my King, if the most absolute devotion, if my zeal and my care have been agreeable to you, the only reward I ask is to receive your blessing–do not refuse it to the last Frenchman who remains beside you.”
I was already at his feet, holding one of his hands; in that position he granted my prayer and gave me his blessing; then he raised me, and pressing me to his bosom said:
“Give it also to all who are attached to me; tell Turgy [another valet] I am satisfied of his services. Now, go back,” he added; “and do not get into trouble yourself.”
Then, calling me back and taking a paper from the table, he said, “See, here is a letter Pétion [then Mayor of Paris] wrote me at the time of your entrance to the Temple. It may be useful to you to remain here.”
I caught his hand again and kissed it, and went out.
“Adieu,” he said to me again, “Adieu.”

I returned to my chamber, where I found Monsieur de Firmont praying on his knees beside my bed.
“What a prince!” he said to me as he rose; “With what resignation, with what courage he looks at death! He was as tranquil as if he were hearing mass in his palace in the midst of his Court.”
“I have just received from him the most affecting farewell,” I said to him. “He has deigned to promise me that he will ask to have me remain in the Tower to wait on his son. Monsieur, I beg of you to remind him, for I shall not have the happiness to speak to him in private again.”
“Rest easy about that,” replied M. de Firmont as he turned to rejoin His Majesty.

At seven o’clock the King came out of his cabinet and called me; he took me to the window and said: “You will give this seal to my son–and this ring to the Queen; tell her that I part from it with pain and only at the last moment. This little packet encloses the hair of all my family; you will give her that also. Say to the Queen, to my dear children, to my sister, that although I promised to see them this morning, I wish to spare them the pain of so cruel a separation. How much it costs me to go without receiving their last embraces!”

He wiped away a few tears; then he added, with a most sorrowful accent, “I charge you to give them my farewell.” He immediately re-entered his cabinet. The municipal guards who were close at hand had heard His Majesty, and had seen him give me the different items I still held in my hands. They told me to surrender them; but one of them proposed to leave them in my hands pending a decision of the [Municipal] Council about them, and this opinion prevailed.

A quarter of an hour later the King came out of his cabinet.
“Ask,” he said to me, “if I can have scissors;” and he went in again.
I made the request of the commissioners.
“Do you know what he wants to do with them?”
I said I did not.
“You must let us know.”
I knocked at the door of the cabinet. The King came out. A municipal guard who followed me said to him:
“You have asked for scissors, but before we take your request to the Council we must know what you wish to do with them.”
His Majesty replied, “I wish Cléry to cut my hair.”

The municipal guards retired; one of them went down to the Council chamber, where, after half an hour’s deliberation, they refused the scissors. The municipal guards returned and announced that decision to the King.
“I should not have touched the scissors,” said His Majesty; “I should have requested Cléry to cut my hair in your presence; inquire again, Monsieur; I beg you to take charge of my request.”
The municipal guard returned to the council, which persisted in its refusal. It was then that I was told to be ready to accompany the King and undress him on the scaffold. At this announcement I was seized with terror but, collecting all my strength I was prepared to render this last duty to my master, to whom having this service done by the executioner would be repugnant, when another municipal came to tell me that I was not to go, adding, “The executioner is good enough for him.”

Paris was in arms from five in the morning; nothing was heard outside but the beating of drums, the rattle of arms, the trampling of horses, the movement of cannon, which they placed and displaced incessantly. All this echoed through the Tower [of the Temple]. At nine o’clock the noise increased, the gates opened with a crash; Santerre [Commander of the National Guard] accompanied by seven or eight municipal guards, entered at the head of ten gendarmes, whom he placed in two rows. At this disturbance the King came out of his cabinet.
“Have you come to fetch me?” he said to Santerre
“I ask you for one minute.”

The King entered his cabinet and came out again immediately, his confessor with him. He held his will in his hand, and, addressing a municipal guard, Jacques Roux by name, a priest who had taken the oath, and was the man nearest to him, he said:
“I beg you to give this paper to the Queen, to my wife.”
“It is none of my business,” replied the priest, refusing to take the document. “I am here to take you to the scaffold.”
His Majesty then addressed Gobau, another municipal guard.
“Give this paper, I beg you, to my wife. You can read it; it contains dispositions which I desire that the Municipality should know.”

Gobau took the document. I was behind the King, near the fireplace; he turned to me and I offered him his overcoat.
“I have no need of it,” he said, “just give me my hat.”
I gave it to him. His hand touched mine, which he pressed for the last time.
“Messieurs,” he said, addressing the municipal guards, “I desire that Cléry should remain near my son, who is accustomed to him; I hope that the Municipality will accede to my request.”

Then, looking at Santerre, he said, “Let us go.” Those were the last words that he said in his apar
tment. At the top of the staircase he met Mathey, porter of the Tower, and said to him:
“I was a little hasty to you the day before yesterday; do not bear me ill-will.”
Mathey made no answer; he even affected to turn away when the King spoke to him. I remained alone in the room, my heart wrung with sorrow, and almost without sensation. The drums and the trumpets announced that His Majesty had left the Tower.”

From now on, we will switch to the narrative of the Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, the confessor mentioned by Cléry. The Abbé was an Irish priest who attended to the English and Irish Catholic communities in Paris. He had been recommended to Louis XVI by Madame Elisabeth. The Abbé would no doubt have had much more to say about Louis XVI’s last thoughts, but he was bound by the seal of confession. Here he recounts the long ride to the guillotine:

“The King crossed the first courtyard (formerly the garden) on foot; he turned around once or twice to look back, as though to bid farewell to all he held most dear in this world, and by watching his movement, one could see he was summoning his strength and courage.

At the entrance to the second courtyard stood a carriage; two gendarmes held the door open. As the King approached, one of them stepped in and placed himself in front, the King stepped in next and sat with me on the back seat. The other gendarme jumped in last and closed the door…

The King, finding himself closeted in a carriage where he could neither speak to me nor hear me without witnesses, resolved to keep silent. I lent him forthwith my prayer book, the only book I carried with me. He seemed to receive it with pleasure, and even asked me to point out the psalms most appropriate to his situation: he recited them alternatively with me. The gendarmes, without opening their mouths, seemed mesmerized and puzzled at the same time by the tranquil piety of a monarch they had probably never seen so close.

The ride lasted almost two hours. All of the streets were lined with several rows of citizens armed, some with pikes, some with rifles. In addition, the carriage itself was surrounded by an imposing number of troops, composed no doubt by what was most corrupted in Paris. As a last precaution were placed, in front of the horses, a number of drummers, to drown out any cries that might have been heard in favor of the King. But how could one have been heard? No one appeared at the doors or windows, and one could only see on the streets the armed citizens, who, at least out of weakness, were complicit to a crime they may have detested from the bottom of their hearts.

The carriage reached, in the utmost silence, the Place Louis XV [modern-day Place de la Concorde] and stopped in the middle of a vast space left empty around the scaffold: this space was surrounded by cannons, and beyond, as far as the eye could see, was a multitude in arms.

As soon as the King felt the carriage had stopped, he turned around and whispered to my ear, “We have reached the place, if I am not mistaken.” My silence answered in the affirmative. Right away one of the executioners came to open the door; but the King stopped them, resting his hand on my knee.
“Gentlemen,” he said in a masterly tone, “I commend this gentleman to your attention; take care that, after my death, no insult be made to him; I entrust him to you.”
The two men answering nothing, the King wished to continue in a louder tone, but one of them interrupted him, “Yes, yes, we will take care of him, leave it to us,” and I must add these words were uttered in a tone that should have turned me to ice, had I been able to think of my own fate.

As soon as the King stepped out of the carriage, three executioners surrounded him and tried to remove his clothes; but he proudly pushed them back and removed them himself. He also took off his collar, his shirt and prepared himself. The executioners, whom the King’s proud countenance had taken aback for a moment, then resumed their audacity; they surrounded him again and tried to tie his hands…
“Bind me!” said the King indignantly. “No, I will never consent to that. Do what you are bid, but you shall not bind me; give up this plan.”
The executioners insisted; they raised their voices, and seemed ready to call for help to do it perforce.

This was the most horrible moment of this lamentable morning: one more minute, and the best of Kings would have received, under the eyes of his rebellious subjects, an outrage a thousand times worse than death itself, due the violence one wanted to use. He seemed to fear it himself and, turning to me, seemed to be asking for my advice. Alas! It was impossible for me to give him any; at first silence was my only response, but as he kept on looking at me, “Sire,” said I in tears, in this new outrage I see but one last similarity between Your Majesty and the Lord who will be his reward.”

At these words, he raised his eyes skywards with an expression of pain I could not begin to describe. “Assuredly,” he said, “I need nothing less than his example to submit to such an affront. Then, turning to the executioners, “Do as you wish. I will drink this cup to the dregs.”

The steps that led to the scaffold were very steep. The King had to lean on my arm and, from the trouble he seemed to be experiencing, I feared his courage would abandon him; but, to my astonishment, once he reached the last step, he escaped my hands, crossed with a firm step the whole width of the scaffold, silenced, with one look, fifteen or twenty drummers facing him, and, in a voice so strong it could be heard from the Pont-Tournant, distinctly uttered these memorable words:
“I die innocent of all the crimes of which I stand accused. I forgive the authors of my death and pray God that the blood you are going to shed may never fall back onto France.”

Execution of Louis XVI on the guillotine

Execution of Louis XVI on the guillotine

The published narrative of the Abbé de Firmont stops here. In my opinion, these three accounts, different as they are, need little comment. How telling that Madame Royale, who fainted during father’s adieux, chose not to speak of it when she recounted what must have been one of the most traumatic moments of her life. Some have tried to embellish on the narrative of the Abbé Edgeworth by having him say, “Son of Saint-Louis, ascend to heaven!” but he himself candidly admitted he did not remember uttering any such words.

The rest is known: Marie-Antoinette was guillotined later during the same year, on the 16th of October. Then it was the turn of Madame Elisabeth the following year. The young Louis-Charles, now Louis XVII, died of tuberculosis, aggravated by ill treatments, in the grim tower of the Temple in 1795. But Madame Royale, Cléry and the Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont all survived the Revolution. Needless to say, Cléry and the Abbé had put their lives at risk for their attendance during the King’s last moments.

And the mementos mentioned by Cléry were stolen at the Temple, apparently at the behest of Marie-Antoinette, and ultimately found their way into the hands of Louis XVI’s brothers.

Print Friendly