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Louis XVI (1754-93) was the last king of France before the French Revolution. He succeeded his grandfather, Louis XV, in 1774. He had married Marie Antoinette, daughter of the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, at the age of 16. Louis was a well-meaning but feeble man. His failure to support reforming ministers, his expensive intervention on the rebels' side in the American War of Independence and the extravagance of his queen, all helped to precipitate the revolution. He tried to make concessions to all classes. This did not save his throne, which he lost in 1792, nor his life.
The French Revolution was a deep-rooted revolt by many classes against the whole order of society. It stemmed from long-standing grievances. In the 18th century, France was in crisis. The country was impoverished as a result of three major wars since 1740, and harvest failures had pushed up food prices. Political power was centred in the royal court at Versailles and criticism of the regime was illegal. The country aristocracy still ruled like feudal lords, extracting ever higher dues from the poor farming peasants, who also bore the main burden of taxation. Professional middle classes, stirred by their readings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, had also begun to agitate for reform.
The government was facing bankruptcy. To get more money Louis could either borrow it or raise taxes. He wanted to tax aristocrats, but only an elected national assembly with members from the three estates (aristocrats, clergy and commoners) could pass such laws. First Louis would have to recall an ancient assembly, the States-General, which had not met for 175 years. Discontent among the middle-class led to the third estate (commoners) breaking away, and the States-General turning itself into a new National Assembly which demanded reform. Louis responded by locking the third estate out of the meeting hall, so the Assembly met in the palace tennis court. They swore not to disband until France had a new, fairer government to represent the people - not the king, church and nobles. The nervous king agreed to some of their demands.
Nobody trusted the king. Louis believed he could keep power with help from the army, but he misjudged the mood of the people - the bad harvest and the doubled bread prices had left them hungry and angry. He sent troops to try and dismiss the Assembly, but when the Paris citizens heard this, they rebelled. In the countryside, the peasants also rioted. On 14 July 1789, the citizens of Paris, supported by some police and soldiers, attacked the Bastille prison. The Revolution quickly spread out from Paris to other cities, and to the countryside, where four out of five French people lived. Terrified aristocrats fled abroad. Many peasants attacked their landlords' castles. Often their aim was to destroy the records that kept track of the hated taxes they were forced to pay.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man made all Frenchmen equal. Women could not vote, but they still played an important part in the Revolution. On 5 October, Parisian women angered by bread shortages marched 23 km (15 miles) to Versailles to demand that the king live in Paris. The women knew that the guards would not shoot them. The king meekly obeyed.
Intending to reach allies in Austria, Louis and his family fled Paris in disguise. The king was dressed as a valet. But a post-master recognized them and alerted the authorities. Guards arrested the royal family at Varennes, 200 km (125 miles) east of Paris, and took them back in disgrace. Exhausted after 24 hours on the road, the family did not resist capture.
The Assembly introduced a new government in 1791, with laws based on freedom and equality. In 1792 the monarchy was abolished, and a republic established. The royal family tried to escape, but were arrested and imprisoned, as were thousands of nobles. In 1793 Louis and Marie Antoinette tried to flee the country, but were brought back as prisoners and beheaded for treason. Louis was guillotined on 21 January 1793; Marie Antoinette followed in October. By this time the revolutionary government was at war with most European states, who were frightened that revolution might spread to their countries. To defend France, a Committee of Public Safety seized power. They executed anyone who opposed them in a Reign of Terror, but they saved France from invasion.
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