Louis XVI Biography. King (1754–1793)
Louis XVI was the last king of France (1774–92) in the line of Bourbon monarchs preceding the French Revolution of 1789. He was executed for treason by guillotine in 1793.
Louis XVI became the heir to the throne and the last Bourbon king of France upon his father’s death in 1765. In 1770, he married Austrian archduchess Marie-Antoinette, the daughter of Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. After a slew of governing missteps, Louis XVI brought the French Revolution crashing down upon himself, and in 1793 he was executed. His wife, Marie-Antoinette, was executed nine months later.
Louis XVI was born on August 23, 1754, in the Palace of Versailles. Named Louis Auguste de France, he was given the title Du de Berry signifying his junior status in the French Court. He was the third son of Louis, Dauphin of France and grandson of Louis XV of France. His mother, Marie-Josephe of Saxony, was the daughter of Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, also the King of Poland.
Louis Auguste grew up strong and healthy, though very shy. He was tutored by French noblemen and studied religion, morality, and humanities. He excelled in Latin, history, geography, and astronomy and achieved fluency in Italian and English. With his good health, he enjoyed physical activities such as hunting and wrestling and from an early age he enjoyed locksmithing, which became a life-long hobby.
Louis’s parents paid little attention to him, instead focusing on his older brother, the heir apparent, Louis duc de Bourgogne, who died at age 9 in 1761. Then, on December 20, 1765, his father died of tuberculosis, and Louis Auguste became Dauphin at age 11. His mother never recovered from the family tragedies and also succumbed to tuberculosis on March 13, 1767. Louis Auguste was ill prepared for the throne he was soon to inherit. Following the death of his parents, Louis’s tutors provided him with poor interpersonal skills. They exacerbated his shyness by teaching him that austerity was a sign of a strong character in monarchs. As a result, he presented himself as being very indecisive.
At age 15 (in May 1770), Louis married the 14 year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (Marie Antoinette), his second cousin once removed, in an arranged marriage. She was the youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Teresa. The marriage was met with some skepticism by members of the French court, as they remembered a previous alliance with the Habsburgs pulled France into the Seven Years War. Though initially charmed by her personality, the French people eventually came to loathe her, accusing her of being promiscuous and sympathetic to French enemies.
The first few years of marriage for Louis and Marie were amicable but distant. His shyness kept him distant from her in private and his fear of her manipulation made him cold to her in public. It is believed the couple did not consummate their marriage for some time, having their first child eight years after their wedding. Historians debate the cause, but most likely, Louis suffered from a physiological dysfunction that took time to rectify. Eventually, the couple had four children, all of whom but one died in childhood.
On May 10, 1774, Louis Auguste became Louis XVI, with the death of his grandfather Louis XV. Only 20 years old at the time, Louis XVI was immature and lacked self-confidence. He wanted to be a good king and help his subjects, but he faced enormous debt and rising resentment towards a despotic monarchy. His failure to successfully address serious fiscal problems would dog him for most of his reign. Louis lacked sufficient strength of character and decisiveness to combat the influence of court factions or give support to reformers in their efforts to improve France’s government.
In the early years of his reign, Louis XVI focused on religious uniformity and foreign policy. On the homefront, he invoked an edict that granted French non-Catholics legal status and the right to openly practice their faith. Louis XVI’s early foreign policy success was supporting the American colonies’ fight for independence from France’s archenemy Great Britain. However, the policy of taking out international loans and not raising taxes increased the debt and drove the country to near bankruptcy by the mid-1780s. This forced the king to support radical fiscal reforms not favorable with the nobles or the people.
When the pressure mounted, Louis XVI reverted to his earlier teaching of being austere and uncommunicative, posing no solution to the problem, and not responding to others who offered help. His failure to address France’s problems set in motion the Revolution that would eventually descend upon him. He made matters worse by often escaping to more pleasurable activities like hunting and locksmithing. Modern historians attribute this behavior to a clinical depression that left him prone to paralyzing indecisiveness.
By 1789, the situation was deteriorating rapidly. In May of that year, to address the fiscal crisis, Louis XVI convened the Estates General, an advisory assembly of different estates or socio-economic classes (the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners). The meeting did not go well. By June, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly, aligned with the bourgeoisie, and set out to develop a constitution. Initially, Louis XVI resisted, declared the Assembly null and void, and called out the army to restore order. Public dissention grew and a National Guard formed to resist the King’s actions. By July 1789, he was forced to acknowledge the National Assembly’s authority. On July 14, riots broke out in Paris and crowds stormed the Bastille prison in a show of defiance toward the King.
For a time, it seemed that Louis XVI could mollify the masses saying he would acquiesce to their demands. However, he accepted bad advice from the nobility’s hard line conservatives and his wife, Marie Antoinette. He talked of reform but resisted demands for it. The royal family was forcibly transferred from Versailles to Paris on October 6, 1789. Louis ignored advice from advisors and refused to abdicate his responsibilities, and then agreed to a disastrous attempt to escape to the eastern frontier in June 1791. He and his family were brought back to Paris, and he lost all credibility as a monarch.
In the final two years of his reign, events moved rapidly. In the fall of 1791, Louis XVI tied his hopes on the dubious prospect of war with Austria in hopes that a military defeat would pave the way for a restoration of his authority. War broke out in April 1792. Suspicions of treason led to the capture of the royal palace and the temporary suspension of the king’s powers.
On September 21, 1792, the Legislative Assembly proclaimed the First French Republic. That November, proof of Louis XVI’s secret dealings and counter-revolutionary intrigues was discovered, and he and his family were charged with treason. Louis was soon found guilty by the National Assembly and condemned to death. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined in the Palace de la Revolution. His wife, Marie Antoinette, met the same fate nine months later, on October 16, 1793.
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