Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Execution of Louis XVI and the End of Monarchy

Louis XVI in the Temple prison
A superb article from History Today about Louis XVI and the desacralization of the French Monarchy. (Via Once I Was A Clever Boy.) To quote:
It sometimes seems as if historians brought up in republics (whether American or French) expect too much of those born as subjects of monarchs, who can accept a status quo while knowing nothing of how learned men justify it. Subjects can also tolerate, join in, and even welcome a level of discussion of the royal family's private life which poses no necessary threat to the institution of monarchy. There is plenty of evidence, in fact, of both mauvais discours and libelles detailing the private depravities of French kings in previous centuries. And if Henry III's preference for young men brought censure in the 1570s and '80s, his successor's exploits with women, every bit as spectacular as Louis XV's, seem to have moved many of his subjects to admiration. Even under Louis XIV, malcontents grumbled openly about royal extravagance, warmongering, religious persecution, and the king's subjection to the women in his life. Nor was assassination anything new in French history. It cost Henry III his life, and Henry IV too, after a number of failed attempts. It is not, indeed, obvious that assassination should be regarded as any evidence at all of disenchantment with a monarchy. Leaving as idle the fact that assassins are often lone obsessives, those who try to kill kings normally do so not because they have lost faith in monarchy. Quite the reverse: in their eyes the king must die because he has not lived up to what his office demands. He is perceived as having broken in some way the rules of the institution – which is more important, and much more durable, than the transient individuals who happen to embody it.

None of this is to say, on the other hand, that the subjects of Louis XV and Louis XVI had no reverence for or belief in their sovereigns. When Louis XV fell dangerously ill at Metz in 1744 there were kingdom-wide prayers for his recovery. The fact that he had by then stopped touching for Scrofula had clearly not damaged him. In a curious way it showed respect for religious values. And if a string of military defeats, religious misjudgements and finally his all-out attack on the parlements discredited Louis XV, the accession of his grandson in 1774 was greeted with rapture, and at his coronation the next year he touched 2,400 Scrofula sufferers. The personal popularity of Louis XVI, libelles notwithstanding, lasted until at least September 1789. Most of what went wrong until then was blamed upon his wicked, despotic, deceiving ministers – or, later, upon his Austrian wife. Indeed, as his blood streamed through the floorboards of the scaffold on 21 January 1793 people rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the mystical fluid while others reproached them for sacrilege. Clearly, Louis XVI still had the capacity to inspire a reverence that was at least semi-religious, right to the end. (Read entire article.)

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