In a small French village, far from the glittering lights of Paris and away from the lavish life he had once had in Versailles, Louis XVI was absconding. Together with Marie Antoinette and the rest of their immediate family, the Royals were on the run. Here’s the story of how Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes marked the beginning of the end for the French monarchy…
The French Revolution and the State of the Royals
Louis XVI was not the kind of person who could cope with a revolution, let alone be the one in charge of fixing things when it all went wrong. King at just aged 19, he’d married Marie Antoinette (one year his junior) at age 15. While Marie Antoinette was depicted as spoilt and uncaring for her subjects. (Where else do you think the rumour that Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake‘ came from?), Louis XVI was largely regarded as incompetent and not fit to be the ruler of France.
The first rumblings of revolution came to a head in 1789 when the Bastille was stormed by angry Parisians demanding better treatment. France was in the midst of an economic crisis. This was in part as a result of its intervention in the American Civil War and also as taxes were at an all-time high. The Bastille, a medieval and fortified prison, was the symbol of the Monarchy and rule of the King in Paris. Such was the significance of the Bastille, was that when it was stormed, it was deemed that the King had lost complete control of his subjects in the capital.
And it only got worse for Louis XVI.
Following the storming of the Bastille, the Royals (as well as their power base) were threatened once more when a second angry group attacked the lavish palace of Versailles. They were forced to flee to their equally sumptuous Palace in the Tuileries (this palace stood near what we know as the Louvre Museum today). The Royals were on their way out.
Flight to Varennes: Fuite à Varennes
The King gradually lost more and more power over the two following years. The Royals felt like virtual prisoners in Paris- if prisoners were allowed to live in grand Palaces and eat the best food. And so, on 20 June 1791, Louis XVI and his entourage fled Paris in the middle of the night, hoping to seek safe passage through France and then perhaps refuge with other royals in Europe (though we’ll never know the exact plan as it was shrouded in secrecy).
The plan was devised by Count Axel de Fersen, a Swedish officer in the French army and rumoured lover of Marie Antoinette (it’s thought that she had one of her children by Axel de Fersen and that she used her Palace of Petit Trianon to conduct their affair).
Unfortunately for the King and his close family, they were recognised mere hours away from Paris by a postmaster. They were captured in the middle of the night, in the small and sleepy town of Varennes. If you visit the house of the Registrat of Passports, in the very heart of Varennes, today, you’ll see a small plaque indicating that this is the very spot where Louis XVI and his entourage were recognised and captured. Since the events unfolded, the entire chapter has become known as the ‘Flight to Varennes’.
In the end, Marie Antoinette was left languishing in the Conciergerie, while Louis XVI was seen as a coward and traitor to both the people of France, and to the Revolution. He was no longer a credible leader. The beginnings of the end for the French monarchy ensued Serious talks in favour of a Republic of France began. By 1793, Loui XVI was dead. Executed. And, well, the rest is history…
Although the small French town of Varennes is best known for being the site where Louis XVI was captured, it has seen plenty of other history over the years- much of it tragic. Located in the Meuse area of the Grand-Est region, you would never guess that this sleepy little town was once located in the Zone Rouge during the First World War, and so much of it destroyed or damaged. One of the only reminders is that in the middle of the town, you’ll find the Pennsylvania World War One Memorial, dedicated to the American troops who fought in the area.
The Town in the aftermath of the fighting that decimated much of Varennes-en-Argonne during WWI. Pictured here in 1918, the decision was taken to completely rebuild the town after the war. Many other towns were left unbuilt, signifying that these communities had ‘died for France’ and a small reminder so that the war is never forgotten.
The Pennsylvania war memorial just outside the town centre of Varennes-en-Argonne, November 2017.
Feature image: On the trail of Louis XVI and the Flight to Varennes, Oil on Canvas, painted 1854, via Wikipedia