Day in History 21 January – Louis XVI

On this day in 1793, King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, then King of the French from 1791 to 1792, Louis XVI, was executed by guillotine at the age of 37 at the Place de la Révolution, now known as the Place de la Concorde in Paris.  Born Louis Auguste de France, Duc de Berry on 23 August 1754 in the Palace of Versailles.  Louis-Auguste was the third son of Louis, the Dauphin of France, and thus the grandson of Louis XV of France.  His brothers and father predeceased Louis XV, thus Louis-Auguste became the new Dauphin.  On 16 May 1770, at the age of fifteen, Louis-Auguste married the fourteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), his second cousin once removed and the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa.  Louis XV died on 10 May 1774 and Louis-Auguste Dauphin was crowned king on 11 June 1775 at the age of 20.  Suspended and arrested as part of the insurrection of the 10th of August in 1792 during the French Revolution, he was tried by the National Convention and found guilty of high treason, the only king of France ever to be executed.  Although Louis XVI was beloved at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism led some elements of the people of France to eventually view him as a symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Régime and gave him the nickname Oncle Louis (“Uncle Louis”).  Louis was also nicknamed Louis le Dernier (Louis the Last), a derisive use of the traditional nicknaming of French kings.

Louis XVI Called to Immortality, Sustained by an Angel, by Francois Joseph Bosio

The Final Footprint – Upon arrival at the Place de la Révolution, Louis stepped out of the carriage and removed his outer garments, refusing any offers of help, and folded them neatly.  The gendarmes made a move to bind his hands, but Louis recoiled, and a struggle seemed imminent, until Father Edgeworth reminded him that Jesus had suffered his hands to be bound on Good Friday.  Louis said, “So be it, then, that too, my God,” and offered his hands to be bound.  He ascended the steps to the scaffold alone, with strength and determination.  Upon reaching the top, he addressed the people:

I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.

He would have said more, but a man on horseback called for the drums, and the crowd called for the execution, which was hastily carried out.  A young guard picked up the severed head and promenaded it around the scaffold.  The silence was broken with a cry of “Vive la République!” and thousands began cheering the death of the king.  Louis XVI’s body was interred in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of L’église de la Madeleine.  When Marie was guillotined on 16 October 1793, she was interred there as well.  The Chapelle expiatoire was partly constructed on the grounds of the former Madeleine Cemetery.  There is an inscription above the entrance, which reads (translated): “King Louis XVIII raised this monumnet to consecrate the place where the mortal remains of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, transferred on 21 January 1815 in the royal tomb of Saint-Denis, reposed for 21 years.  It was finished during the second year of the reign of Charles X , year of grace 1826.”  During Napoleon’s exile in Elba, the restored Bourbons ordered a search for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie.  The few remains, a few bones that were presumably the king’s and a clump of greyish matter containing a lady’s garter, were found on 21 January 1815, brought to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis and entombed in the crypt.

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