Jan. 21, 2022

The Execution of King Louis XVI

The Execution of King Louis XVI

January 21, 1793. During the French Revolution, the King of France, King Louis XVI, is executed on the guillotine.

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Cold Open

It’s July 14th, 1789, in France.

A young man rushes through the backstreets of Paris. It’s early morning, but it feels as if the city has barely slept. There is an edge to the summer air, a quiver of anger and violence in the breeze. So much so that the young man can almost taste it, and it’s exhilarating.

As he emerges onto a wider avenue, a crowd of protesters surges past down the street. They’re ordinary people just like him – tradesmen and shopkeepers, cooks and butchers. Some are armed carrying swords, clubs, others with muskets. Drummers thump out the beat of a song as the marchers call on the people of Paris to join them; to rise up; to fight for liberty.

Eagerly, the young man falls in with the marchers and their song. He’s joined by throngs of people who pour out of every side street and building. There is no commander. No explicit orders are given. But everyone in the crowd knows where they are going.

Ahead of them, looming over the district is the Bastille.

This medieval prison has stood in Paris for centuries, a symbol of the authority of the all-powerful French King. But the young man and the other revolutionaries in the crowd have come to tear that symbol down. To send a message to the King and the rest of the country: change is coming in France.

By the end of the day, this crowd will break down the gates, seize control of the Bastille, and parade the decapitated head of the prison governor through the streets. This event, known as the Storming of the Bastille, signals the beginning of the French Revolution. But what starts on the streets of Paris, will end three and a half years later, on January 21st, 1793, with the fall of the French monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 21st: The Execution of Louis XVI.

Act One: A Bad King

It’s May 5th, 1789, four years before Louis XVI’s execution.

At the spectacular Royal Palace in Versailles, just outside Paris, the King has called a general assembly of various leaders in France - clergymen, nobility, even commoners. Hundreds of delegates, from all over the country, have journeyed to Versailles for this extremely rare meeting. The last time a French King called an assembly like this was 175 years ago. But these are desperate times for Louis XVI.

As a young boy, Louis had little expectation of becoming King. His grandfather was the King of France. His father was the heir to the crown, but Louis had an older brother who was next in line after that. But a series of tragedies changed Louis’ fortunes. After his older brother and father both died of tuberculosis, Louis suddenly found himself next in line to the throne. And when Louis’ grandfather died in 1774, the shy and quiet 19-year-old became King of France.

At the time, the country was an absolute monarchy, with the king wielding supreme power. But Louis XVI came to the throne at a perilous moment. France was deeply in debt and resentment towards the monarchy was on the rise. The precarious situation would have challenged even the most brilliant of leaders.

And Louis is intelligent but indecisive. Eager to be loved by the people but lacking the ability to charm or persuade. By 1789, the king has alienated most of the country. Armed protests are rampant, and the financial woes that have gripped the French government have grown unsustainable.

In a bid to pass desperately needed financial reforms and bring the country together, Louis called this rare meeting of delegates from the cross-section of French society: the clergy, nobility, and commoners.

In an elaborate, barrel-vaulted hall built especially for the occasion, the General Assembly watches as Louis XVI and his family enter the chamber, dressed in magnificent robes studded with diamonds and gold. From beneath a majestic canopy, Louis addresses the delegates. He calls himself a “peaceful king” and “the people’s greatest friend.”

But he doesn't act like it. Without hearing their input, he urges the Assembly to acquiesce to his demand for new taxes. But the delegates – especially those representing the common people of France – want nothing of it. The Assembly soon descends into bickering and shouting. The clergy and nobility will block any concessions to the commoners, and the King makes no progress.

So, on June 17th, 1789, the delegates elected to represent the commoners abandon the assembly. Sick of being sidelined, and tired of paying taxes without any say in government, these commoners announce that they are forming a new assembly, a National Assembly – and claiming supreme power in France for themselves.

One month later, on July 14th, 1789, there’s chaos in the streets of Paris. The protests began two days ago. In the immediate aftermath of the failed General Assembly, Louis XVI submitted to the commoners’ demands and recognized the new National Assembly. But then he changed his tune. Under the influence of his wife Marie Antoinette and his more conservative advisers, he removed his Finance Minister, who was seen as sympathetic to the people’s demands. Soon, rumors began to swirl that the king was mobilizing foreign mercenaries to crush the commoners’ rebellion against his rule.

In response, the people of Paris formed militias and scrambled to arm themselves. They’ve found plenty of guns but little of the gunpowder they need to fire them. Soon, word gets around that there are 250 barrels of gunpowder being held at the Bastille. So on the morning of July 14th, a mob of revolutionaries gather outside the ancient prison.

The one hundred troops guarding the Bastille are severely outnumbered. The mob sends in representatives who demand the prisoner’s governor release the barrels of gunpowder and any other weapons they might have. But as negotiations continue, the mob grows impatient. They break into an outer courtyard of the prison and, in the confusion that follows, gunshots ring out. A chaotic battle ensues. The walls of the Bastille are high and thick, but the prison governor knows he doesn’t have the men or supplies to hold out long. When the mob commandeers two artillery guns and threatens to blow the gates down, the governor surrenders.

The mob floods into the Bastille. They secure the gunpowder but more importantly they achieve a symbolic victory. By taking this ancient fortification, they have shown all of France that the days of Royal authority in Paris are over.

The next morning, at his palace at Versailles, Louis XVI will learn of the violent storming of the Bastille. The king will ask an adviser: "Is it a revolt?" And his adviser will reply: "No sire, it's not a revolt - it's a revolution.”

Act Two: Fight or Flight

It’s nearly midnight on June 20th, 1791 – eighteen months before the execution of Louis XVI.

On the banks of the River Seine in Paris, a man hurries furtively through the corridors of a royal palace. Wearing a plain coat and hat, he looks out of place in such a grand residence. But this man is no stranger to the palace, and he knows exactly where he’s going. Rushing down a flight of stairs and through an unlocked doorway, he heads out into the warm summer night.

In the courtyard, a carriage waits. The man clambers in and pulls off his hat. It’s the king of France, Louis XVI, disguised as a humble servant. He’s sneaking away under the cover of darkness to flee Paris.

Since the storming of the Bastille two years earlier, the king’s authority has slipped away. Louis and his family have been effectively held prisoner in a royal palace in the center of Paris. But the king believes that people outside the capital still support him. If he can get out of the city, he is sure he can rally them to his cause.

Waiting in the carriage is the Queen, Marie Antoinette, and their children – also in disguise. Soon they depart the palace and as the carriage rattles through the deserted streets of Paris and heads out into the countryside, Louis prays his plan will succeed.

Louis wants to join friendly forces loyal to him positioned over 200 miles away, near the border with the Netherlands. And after driving through the night and all the following day, Louis’ carriage finally approaches the town of Varennes, just 30 miles from the safety of their rendezvous. Exhausted from the journey, Louis and his family are fast asleep when suddenly the carriage jolts. Louis’ eyes dart open, and a voice outside cries to stop.

The king peers out – to find a gun barrel thrust in his face. The carriage is surrounded. A postmaster from the last town where they stopped recognized the king and his family, and rode ahead to Varennes to raise the alarm. Soon, Revolutionary Guards arrive to take the despondent king and his family back to Paris.

Louis’ failed escape destroys what remains of his credibility and it hardens people’s opinion against the monarchy. In the wake of his return to Paris, Louis realizes that he has only one hope left of crushing the rebellion and restoring his former glory: an invasion by a foreign power.


It’s August 10th, 1792, more than a year since Louis XVI tried to flee Paris.

In the royal residence in the heart of the city, Louis XVI is a prisoner in his own home; suspicious Revolutionary Guards watch his every move. Even if he could, the miserable king wouldn’t dare venture beyond palace gardens. From the windows of his apartment, Louis watches as Paris grows more hostile to him with each passing day.

The King accepted a new French constitution last September. It left the monarchy in place, but it gave the power to govern to the elected National Assembly. The King, now little more than a figurehead, feigned support for the new government. But secretly, and with his wife’s encouragement, he plotted to undermine it. He encouraged the Assembly to declare war on Austria, hoping a disastrous defeat for France would topple the new government and return him to power. Louis had plenty of support for his plan, mainly from the other Kings and Queens of Europe, who feared popular dissent might spread to their own territories. Hoping to strengthen Louis’ position in France, the commander of the Austrian forces declared to his new French enemies that if any harm befell the king or his family, he would raze Paris to the ground.

But the threat backfired. It enraged the people of Paris. Many of them came to believe the king was conspiring with the Austrians against France, and so they took to the streets in protest. 

And today, on August 10th, 1792, from the windows of the palace, Louis watches as a mob gathers outside his gates. His residence is defended by more than 3000 mercenaries and government troops. But at the sight of the angry crowd, King’s nerves fray. Before the first shot is fired, Louis and his family abandon the palace and seek refuge elsewhere in the city.

When the troops guarding the king realize he’s run away, their discipline crumbles. The mob presses forward and overpowers them.

Hundreds will die in the melee. Louis XVI survives. But his reign as a figurehead is now over. Backed by the Paris mob, a new, even more extreme revolutionary government will seize power in France. And soon, they will declare the country a Republic and put Louis XVI on trial for treason.

Act Three: The Execution of Louis XVI

It’s January 21st, 1793.

Thousands of armed men line the pavement as a military procession makes its way through the streets of Paris. 

At the front, drummers march and rap their instruments in time.

And behind them, a troop of cavalrymen flank a carriage as it rattles over the cobblestone streets. Inside, sits a priest, several armed guards, and Louis XVI, the deposed king. Louis recites psalms from a prayer book, but his thoughts are consumed by the fate that awaits him at the end of this carriage ride.

Four days ago, the king's new parliament convicted Louis of treason and sentenced him to death. Today, the king’s carriage makes the long journey from the fortress where he was held prisoner to the grand square where he will die.

At Place de la Révolution- or Revolution Square - three guards usher Louis out of the carriage. They start to undress him, but Louis resists. He insists on removing his coat and necktie himself. Once he’s finished, the guards lead Louis through the crowd of soldiers to the center of the square, where a wooden scaffold awaits. 

Louis climbs the steps to the top. He looks out over the square at the massed ranks of soldiers.

Their guns and bayonets glint in the morning light, transforming the square into a shimmering field of metal. Louis appeals to the crowd, saying loudly, “I die innocent of all 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.”

But few beyond those nearest to the king hear the words. The crowd is impatient and jeering as the executioners grab hold of Louis and manhandle him onto the guillotine’s bench. They thrust him headfirst into position and lock his neck in the place. Louis hears the scaffold creak as the men move away. He stares down and sees a basket below, waiting for his head. The king closes his eyes and tries to control the surge of panic that grips him. Then the crowd falls silent.

There’s a flash of dropping metal and a spurt of blood as the king’s head drops heavily into the basket.

Louis XVI is dead.

The King won’t be the last to die on the guillotine in the French Revolution. Nine months later, his wife, Marie Antoinette, will also be publicly executed. Soon, the Revolution will turn on itself, descending into factional, chaotic violence. By the end of the discord, a decade later, thousands of people will have shared Louis XVI’s fate.

In the century that follows, the country will be ruled by Kings, and then by Presidents and Emperors. Eventually, however, it will reemerge once again as a republic. The ideals of the revolution are stained with blood, but they endure. And the age of the absolute monarch, which came to an end on January 21st, 1793, with the execution of King Louis XVI will never return.


Next on History Daily. January 24th, 1536, King Henry VIII is badly injured in a jousting accident, turning the once athletic and wise king into a paranoid, overweight tyrant.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.