The 10th of August 1792: fall of the French monarchy

The 10th of August 1792 is one of the key dates of the French Revolution. Why was the populace of Paris so enraged at the King and Queen?

The war on Austria had been declared a few months earlier, and had turned into a military disaster for France. The Austrians and their Prussian allies were advancing fast into French territory. Reports of their atrocities spread to Paris. Along their path, villages were set ablaze, women were violated by entire battalions, civilians were slaughtered. Patriots volunteered to defend the Nation at this hour of desperate need. From the perspective of the King and Queen, the Austrians and Prussians would restore the monarchy under its traditional form, and their rapid success was welcome news. From the standpoint of the Parisians, foreign invaders were the enemy, and Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, along with their followers, were traitors. The divorce between the monarchy and Paris was now complete. The closer the foreign armies drew to Paris, the greater the royal family’s danger became. Preparations had been made openly for days for an attack on the royal palace of the Tuileries.

Tuileries during the French Revolution

In my first novel, Mistress of the Revolution, I chose to place my heroine, Gabrielle, at the Tuileries on the 10th of August. I based her recollections and reactions on the Memoirs of two eyewitnesses who saw the storming of the Tuileries from the inside of the palace: Madame de Tourzel, Governess of the Royal Children, and Madame Campan, First Chambermaid to the Queen. Here is an excerpt from the latter’s account, with my notes in brackets:

The tocsin [church bells tolling in unison to warn of a disaster] sounded at midnight. The Swiss Guards were drawn up like walls; and in the midst of their soldierlike silence, which formed a striking contrast with the perpetual din of the National Guard. The King informed M. de J––-, an officer of the staff, of the plan of defense laid down by General Viomenil. M. de J––- said to me, after this private conference, “Put your jewels and money into your pockets; our dangers are unavoidable; the means of defense are nil; safety might be obtained by some degree of energy in the King, but that is the only virtue in which he is deficient.”

Marie Antoinette Kucharski 1791

An hour after midnight the Queen [to the right, in a portrait painted at the Tuileries by Kucharski] and Madame Elisabeth said they would lie down on a sofa in a room in the entresol, the windows of which looked out on the courtyard of the Tuileries.

The Queen told me the King had just refused to put on his quilted under-waistcoat [a sort of bullet-proof vest]; that he had consented to wear it on the 14th of July because he was merely going to a ceremony where the blade of an assassin was to be feared, but that on a day on which his party might fight against the revolutionaries he thought there was something cowardly in preserving his life by such means.

During this time Madame Elisabeth removed some of her clothing in order to lie down on the sofa: she took a carnelian pin out of her kerchief, and before putting it down on a table, she showed it to me, and asked me to read the motto engraved upon it around a stalk of lilies. The words were: “Forget injuries, forgive offenses.”

“I much fear,” added that virtuous Princess, “this maxim carries but little weight with our enemies; but it ought not to be any less dear to us on that account.”

The Queen asked me to sit down by her; [she and Madame Elisabeth] could not sleep; they were discussing mournfully their situation when a musket was discharged in the courtyard. They both rose from the sofa, saying: “There is the first shot. Unfortunately it won’t be the last; let’s go to the King.” The Queen wanted me to follow her; several of her maids went with me.

At four o’clock [in the morning] the Queen came out of the King’s Bedchamber and told us she no longer had any hope; that Monsieur Mandat [commander in chief of the National Guard], who had gone to the City Hall to receive further orders, had just been murdered, and that the people were at that time carrying his head about the streets. Day came.

Louis XVI reviewing troops

Louis XVI reviewing troops

The King, the Queen, Madame Elisabeth, Madame [Madame Royale, daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette] and the Dauphin went down to pass through the ranks of the sections of the National Guard; the cry of “Long live King!” was heard from some quarters.

I was at a window on the garden side; I saw some of the gunners leave their posts, go up to the King, and shake their fists in his face, insulting him in the most brutal language. Messieurs de Salvert and de Bridges drove them off in a spirited manner. The King was as pale as a corpse. The royal family came back inside. The Queen told me that all was lost; that the King had shown no energy; and that this sort of review had done more harm than good.

I was in the billiard-room with my companions; we placed ourselves upon some high benches. I then saw M. d’Hervilly with a drawn sword in his hand, ordering the usher to open the door to the French nobility. Two hundred persons entered the room next to that in which the family were; others drew up in two lines in the preceding rooms. I saw a few men belonging to the Court, many others who were unknown to me, and a few who had technically no claim to the nobility, but whose devotion ennobled them at once.

They were all so poorly armed that even in that situation the indomitable French wit indulged in jests. M. de Saint-Souplet, one of the King’s equerries, and a page carried on their shoulders, instead of muskets, the fire tongs belonging to the King’s antechamber, which they had broken in two and divided between themselves. Another page, who had a pocket-pistol in his hand, stuck the end of it against the back of the person who stood before him, and who begged him to kindly rest it elsewhere. A sword and a pair of pistols were the only weapons of those who had taken the precaution to provide themselves with arms at all.

Meanwhile, the numerous bands from the suburbs, armed with pikes and cutlasses, filled the Carousel and the streets adjacent to the Tuileries. The sanguinary men from Marseilles were at their head, with cannons pointed on the Palace. In this emergency the King’s Council sent M. Dejoly, Minister of Justice, to the Assembly [legislative body] to request they send the King a deputation to serve as a safeguard to the executive power. His ruin was resolved on; they passed to the order of the day.

Royal family fleeing the Tuileries

At eight o’clock [still in the morning] … the procureur-syndic [Roederer, high ranking elected official of Paris] … went into the King’s Cabinet and requested to speak to him in private. The King received him in his Bedchamber; the Queen was with him. There Monsieur Roederer told him that the King, all his family, and the people who stayed with them would inevitably perish unless His Majesty immediately determined to go to the National Assembly. The Queen at first opposed this advice, but the procureur-syndic told her that she would bear responsibility for th
e deaths of the King, her children and all those in the palace. She no longer objected. The King then consented to go to the Assembly. As he set out, he said to the minister and persons who surrounded him, “Come, gentlemen, there is nothing more to be done here.”

The Queen said to me as she left the King’s Bedchamber, “Wait in my apartment; I will come to you, or I will send for you to go I know not whither.” She took with her only the Princesse de Lamballe [Head of the Queen’s Household and member of the royal family] and Madame de Tourzel [Governess to the royal children]

We saw the royal family pass between two lines formed by the Swiss grenadiers and those of the battalions of the Petits-Peres and the Filles Saint Thomas [two battalions of the National Guard still faithful to the monarchy]. They [the royal family] were so pressed upon by the crowd that during that short passage the Queen was robbed of her watch. A man of great height and horrible appearance, such as may be seen at the head of all insurrections, approached the Dauphin, whom the Queen was leading by the hand, and took him up in his arms. The Queen uttered a scream of terror, and was ready to faint. The man said to her: “Don’t be frightened, I won’t harm him!” and he gave him back to her at the entrance of the Chamber [of the Assembly.]

I leave to history all the details of that too memorable day, confining myself to recalling a few of the frightful scenes acted in the interior of the Tuileries after the King had left the palace.

The attackers did not know that the King and his family had left to go to the Assembly; and those who defended the palace were equally ignorant of it. It is supposed that if they had been aware of the fact the siege would never have taken place.

The men from Marseilles proceeded to drive from their posts several Swiss, who yielded without resistance; a few of the attackers fired at them; some of the Swiss officers, seeing their men fall, and perhaps thinking the King was still at the Tuileries, ordered a whole battalion to fire. The attackers disbanded, and the Carousel was cleared in a moment; but they soon returned, spurred on by rage and revenge. The Swiss Guards were but eight hundred strong; they retreated to the interior of the Palace. Some of the doors were battered in by guns, others broken through with hatchets; the populace rushed from all quarters into the palace; almost all the Swiss were massacred; the nobles, fleeing through the gallery which leads to the Louvre, were either stabbed or shot, and their bodies thrown out of the windows.

M. Pallas and M. de Marchais, ushers of the King’s chamber, were killed in defending the door of the Council Chamber; many others of the King’s servants fell victims to their fidelity. I mention these two persons in particular because, with their hats pulled over their brows and their swords in their hands, they exclaimed, as they defended themselves with unavailing courage, “We will not survive!–this is our post; our duty is to die at it.” M. Diet behaved in the same manner at the door of the Queen’s bedchamber; he met with the same fate. The Princesse de Tarente had fortunately opened the door of the [Queen’s] apartments; otherwise, the dreadful band seeing several women collected in the Queen’s salon would have fancied she was among us, and would have immediately massacred us had we resisted them. We were, indeed, all about to perish, when a man with a long beard came up, exclaiming, in the name of Petion [Mayor of Paris], “Spare the women! Don’t disgrace the nation!”

A particular circumstance placed me in greater danger than the others. In my confusion I imagined, a moment before the insurgents entered the Queen’s apartments, that my sister was not among the group of women collected there; and I went up into an entresol where I supposed she had taken refuge, to induce her to come down, fancying it safer that we should not be separated. I did not find her in the room in question; I saw there only our two chambermaids and one of the Queen’s two guards, a man of great height and military aspect. I saw that he was pale, and seated on a bed. I cried out to him, “Fly! the footmen and our people are already safe.” “I cannot,” said the man to me; “I am dying of fear.” As he spoke I heard a number of men rushing hastily up the staircase; they threw themselves upon him, and he was killed before my eyes.

I ran towards the staircase, followed by the maids. The murderers let go of the guard to come to me. The women threw themselves at their feet, and held their sabers. The narrowness of the staircase impeded the assassins; but I had already felt a horrid hand thrust into my back to seize me by my clothes, when someone called out from the bottom of the staircase: “What are you doing up there? We don’t kill women.” I was on my knees; my executioner let go of me and said with an atrocious accent: “Get up, you jade; the Nation pardons you.”

The brutality of these words did not prevent my suddenly experiencing an indescribable feeling which partook almost equally of the love of life and the idea that I was going to see again my son, and all that was dear to me. A moment before I had thought less of death than of the pain which the steel, suspended over my head, would cause me. Death is seldom seen at such close range without striking its blow. I heard every syllable uttered by the assassins, just as if I had been calm.

Five or six men seized me and my companions, and, having made us get up on benches placed before the windows, ordered us to cry “Long live the nation!”

I passed over several corpses; I recognized that of the old Vicomte de Broves, to whom the Queen had sent me at the beginning of the night to ask him and another elderly man to go home. These brave men asked me to tell her Majesty that they had but too strictly obeyed the King’s orders in all circumstances under which they ought to have exposed their lives in order to preserve his; and that for once they would not obey, though they would cherish the memory of the Queen’s kindness.

Near the gates, on the side next the bridge, the men who accompanied me asked whither I wished to go. Upon my inquiring, in turn, whether they were at liberty to take me wherever I might wish to go, one of them, a man from Marseilles, asked me while giving me a push with the butt of his musket, whether I still doubted the power of the people? I answered “No,” and I mentioned the number of my brother-in-law’s house. I saw my sister ascending the steps of the parapet of the bridge, surrounded by members of the National Guard. I called to her, and she turned round. “Do you want her to come with you?” said my guardian to me. I told him yes. They called the people who were taking my sister to prison; she joined me…

Our progress from the Tuileries to my sister’s house was most distressing. We saw several Swiss pursued and killed, and musket shots were crossing each other from all directions. We passed under the walls of the Louvre; they were firing from the parapet into the windows of the gallery, to hit the “knights of the dagger”; for thus did the populace designate those faithful subjects who had assembled at the Tuileries to defend the King.

Storming Tuileries 10 August 1792 Duplessis Bertaux

Storming Tuileries 10 August 1792 Duplessis Bertaux

The brigands broke some vessels of water in the Queen’s First Antechamber; the mixture of blood and water stained the skirts of our white gowns. The fishwives screamed after us in the streets that we were in the service of the Austrian Woman. Our protectors then showed some consideration for us, and made us go up a gateway to pull off our gowns; but our petticoats being too short, and making us look like persons in disguise, other fishwives began to bawl out that we were young Swiss Guards dressed up like women. We then saw a tribe of female cannibals enter the street, carrying the head of poor Mandat. Our guards made us hastily enter a little tavern, called for wine, and invited us to drink with them. They assured the owner that we were their sisters, and good patriots…

I trust Madame Campan’s account here, all the more so that it is confirmed by the unimpeachable Madame de Tourzel. You will note the numerous mentions of the “men from Marseilles” and their atrocious (to Madame Campan’s Parisian ear) accent. Those were volunteers who had come all the way from the South to Paris to enlist. Louis XVI, in one of his last acts as King, had vetoed the formation of a camp near Paris to gather them before they were sent to the front. Hence their distinctly hostile feelings towards the monarchy. Those men, while storming the Tuileries, were singing a new song, which was called La Marseillaise in their honor, and later became the French national anthem.

Louis XVI order to surrender 10 August 1792

Louis XVI order to surrender 10 August 1792

But let us go back to the 10th of August. The King, who arrived at the Assembly before nine in the morning, waited until the afternoon to order the Swiss Guards to surrender. Here is a copy of the order, signed in his own hand. It was too late. The death toll was horrendous: over 2,000 had died in a few hours, including most of the defenders (Swiss Guards, servants and noblemen) and 1,200 insurgents.

Why did the King wait so long? Why did he not order the Swiss Guards and the noblemen to surrender before he left the Tuileries for the Assembly? The slaughter could have been avoided, and the future might have been quite different, even though the abolition of the monarchy seemed a foregone conclusion. Louis XVI was a kind man, and he would not have wantonly let his most faithful supporters die to defend the Tuileries’ furniture. I believe there is a clue in Madame Campan’s account: note how Marie-Antoinette and another witness mention the King’s “lack of energy.” I am no fan of retrospective psychiatric diagnosis, but I believe Louis XVI suffered from clinical depression at the time.

Let us hear the conclusion of this tragic day from Gabrielle:

At the Assembly, the King and Queen had been at first received with respect, but, as the extent of the slaughter became known, they were ordered to sit in the reporters’ cubicle, a stifling space resembling a cage. All over Paris, the statues of the Kings, even those decorating the entrance to the cathedral of Notre-Dame, even that of the beloved Henri the Fourth on the Pont-Neuf, the New Bridge, were pulled down and broken. The next day, the Assembly suspended the monarchy. The royal family was imprisoned in the Temple, an enclosed compound in the middle of Paris, which, as its name indicated, had been the seat of the Templars.

The dynasty founded by Hughes Capet, Count de Paris, the most ancient reigning family in the world, had governed France without interruption for over eight centuries. It was overthrown in the course of these few days of August 1792. The former King was now a private citizen, and revolutionaries affected to call him simply “Louis Capet”, after the surname of his long departed ancestor. The Queen became the “Capet Woman”.

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