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Flight to Varennes

The Flight to Varennes (June 20-21, 1791) forms a dramatic, romantic and symbolic event in the history of the French Revolution. The failure of the French royal family to escape abroad ultimately sealed their fate as proven non-supporters of the reforms and ultimately as convicted enemies of the French people.

Deprived of authority and in fact made virtually a prisoner by the initial events of the revolution from 1789, Louis XVI had for many months acquiesced in the decrees of the National Constituent Assembly. But the Civil Constitution of the Clergy[?] wounded him in his conscience as well as in his pride. From the autumn of 1790 onwards he began to scheme for his liberation. Himself incapable of strenuous effort, the King was spurred on by his wife Marie Antoinette, who keenly felt her own degradation and the curtailment of that royal prerogative which her son would one day expect to inherit.

The king and queen failed to measure the forces which had caused the Revolution. They ascribed all their misfortunes to the work of a malignant faction, and believed that, if they could escape from Paris, a display of force by Bourbon-friendly powers would enable them to restore the supremacy of the crown. But no foreign ruler, not even the emperor Leopold II, gave the king or queen any encouragement. Whatever secrecy they might observe, the adherents of the Revolution divined the royal wish to escape. When Louis tried to leave the Tuileries[?] for Saint-Cloud[?] at Easter 1791, in order to enjoy the ministrations of a nonjuring priest, the National Guards[?] of Paris would not let him budge. Mirabeau, who had always dissuaded the king from seeking foreign help, died on 2 April 1791. Finally the king and queen resolved to fly to the army of the East, which the marquis de Bouillé had in some measure kept under discipline. Sheltered by him they could await foreign help or a reaction at home.

On the evening of 20 June 1791 the royal couple escaped from the Tuileries. Louis left behind him a declaration complaining of the treatment which he had received and revoking his assent to all measures which had been laid before him while under restraint. On the following day the royal party was captured at Varennes and sent back to Paris. The king’s eldest brother, the Count of Provence, who had laid his plans more thoroughly, made his escape to Brussels and joined the émigrés[?].

It was now no longer possible to pretend that the Revolution had been made with the free consent of the king. Some Republicans called for his deposition, others for his trial for alleged treason and intended defection to the enemies of the French people. Afraid to take a course which involved danger both at home and abroad, the Assembly decreed that Louis should be suspended from his office. Mutual distrust between the Royalists and the revolutionaries deteriorated from this point, ultimately resulting in the guillotining of Louis (21 January 1793) and of Marie Antoinette (16 October 1793).

See also: Axel von Fersen

Original text from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica



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