Early on the morning of January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI heard his last Mass. Following Mass, the king was taken from his prison to the Palace Louis XV, where he would suffer the same fate on the same date as Agnes of Rome, the ancient martyr commemorated in the Mass of the day. This January marks the 225th anniversary of the beheading of King Louis XVI of France.
Louis is not a celebrated historical figure. He is commonly regarded as weak, indecisive or frivolous, unequal to the task of managing the French Revolution that took his life three and a half years after it began when the king summoned the Estates General in May 1789. But, in truth, Louis was a man of remarkable courage whose “mistakes” were largely the product of his Christian piety and refusal to engage in Machiavellian tactics and violence even to the peril of his power and, ultimately, his life.
In recent times, St. Thomas More has become a popular patron of heroic religious resistance to the unjust demands of the state. More, John Fisher and the other English martyrs are rightly revered for their refusal to accede to the Oath of Supremacy and to recognize the legitimacy of the marriage of Henry VIII to Ann Boleyn.
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Louis XVI and the French Church faced a crisis similar to the one that befell their English counterparts two centuries earlier. Indeed, it was the great conflict between the French revolutionaries and the Church that helped push the Revolution from its lofty ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” into anarchy and terror, of which the execution of the king was the great manifestation.
The King, Church and the Inception of the Revolution
Ironically, it was the Church that made possible the Revolution in the first instance. In the pivotal month of June 1789, the cures, the simple priests of the First Estate, along with a few bishops, broke the stalemate between the nobles of the Second Estate and the commoners of the Third Estate that had paralyzed the meeting of Estates General. The peasant clergy of the First Estate sympathized with the demands of the Third Estate for a reformed government and more just society. With the support of a handful of reform-minded bishops, the cures joined into session with the Third Estate, thereby destroying the traditional system of separate voting by “order.” The cures supported the transformation of the Estates General into the new National Assembly in which they, together with some bishops and lay noblemen, took seats on June 24, 1789.
Although initially resistant to the demands of the Third Estate, the king, in keeping with the course he would follow for the remainder of his reign, refused to use violence to break his opponents and to support the traditional order strongly favored by the nobles and most prelates. On June 27, 1789, the king commanded that the orders sit together as one body, cementing the foundation of the National Assembly, ending the ancien regime.
Yet by the fall of 1789, the National Assembly began to enact measures to restrict the prerogatives of the Church and confiscate its property. In October of 1789, the anarchic element of the Revolution emerged, as a mob of thousands of peasant women marched from Paris upon the royal palace at Versailles. Despite the danger to himself and his family, Louis refused to order any violent measures against the crowds, as he could not bring himself to shed the blood of his countrymen, even in defense of himself and of the general order. The king met with some of the invaders and assured them of his goodwill and solicitude for his people. He agreed to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and to move the Royal Family from Versailles to Paris.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy
In this early period, the king and leading French bishops held out hope that the Revolution would be marked by moderation and salutary reform. They were sympathetic towards the Revolution’s higher aims and believed its supposed principles were consonant with Christianity. The king continued to demonstrate his acceptance of the new order, going so far as to publicly pledge his fealty to the constitution at the grand festival held to celebrate the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille to the great delight of the crowds.
But cheering on the first “Bastille Day” masked the already disastrous course of the Revolution. On July 12, 1790, the Assembly had adopted the infamous Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The Civil Constitution was a legislative scheme designed to transform the Church into an arm of the state. Under the Civil Constitution, the state would erect the various dioceses and set the rules for their governance, instituting a system to elect bishops and appoint cures. Like Luther 250 years earlier, and like the post-Vatican II dissenters 200 years later, the proponents of the Civil Constitution claimed that their reforms were based upon the pure practices of the ancient Christianity, intended to restore, not tear down, the Church.
The moderate bishops, with the support of the king, looked incessantly for ways to reform the measure so that they might protect Church liberties while still demonstrating their embrace of the Revolution. On July 22, 1790, Louis informed the Assembly that he would give his sanction to the Civil Constitution. However, not unlike Thomas More before him, Louis delayed, searching for a compromise position that would allow him to secure some form of approbation of the legislation from Rome, and he withheld his official approval of the Civil Constitution for a month.
Pope Pius VI proceeded cautiously and refrained from public condemnation of the Civil Constitution. But he privately urged its unequivocal rejection. But the Assembly gave no ground and placed relentless pressure on the king. On August 24, 1790, after receiving greetings from the Assembly on the eve of his Name Day, Louis formally signed the Civil Constitution.
The passage of the Civil Constitution set the Revolution irrevocably on its tragic path. Its enforcement became an obsession of the revolutionary state, leading to ever more radical anti-religious policies in the face of the unwillingness of the Church to wholly capitulate to the government’s dictate.
On October 30, 1790, thirty leading bishops issued the Exposition of Principles, in which they reaffirmed their general support for the Revolution but rejected the Civil Constitution, insisting that the state could not intrude upon the prerogatives of the Church. Its author was the Archbishop Boisgelin of Aix, the very man who had presided over the session of the Estates General in which the clergy voted to merge with the Third Estate.
The Assembly ignored the Exposition and, on November 27, 1790, enacted a new law requiring all clergy to take an “Oath” whereby they would swear to uphold the Civil Constitution and to recognize the supremacy of the Revolutionary French state. The king was appalled. Yet again, he sought a compromise; he wished to avoid violence and further division in the Church. And again he played for time, delaying his official sanction of the legislation while he all but begged Pius VI to allow the clergy to take the Oath with some form of qualification.
Pius refused to give any sort of approval to the Oath and, in spite of the relentless efforts of the king and his bishop-advisors, the Assembly would give no ground on its wording. Seeing no other choice, Louis signed the legislation instituting the Oath on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1790. It would be his last official act in support of the Revolution.
The Resistance to the Oath by Altar and Throne
The Assembly reconvened to open the new year on January 4, 1791. In this session, the clerical members of the Assembly were required to publicly swear the Oath at the roll call. Yet the churchmen were defiant. Only two of the Assembly’s 44 bishops swore the Oath that day; two-thirds of the cures likewise refused.
For his part, Louis never accepted the so-called “Constitutional Church.” He would not receive the Sacrament from a “juring priest” (one who had sworn the Oath). In the summer of 1791, Louis wrote letters he intended to be read after he had escaped France in which he disavowed the Civil Constitution and expressed his regret for ever having signed it. To the consternation of most of his Revolutionary ministers, he retained a non-juring priest as his confessor.
Meanwhile, the new Legislative Assembly continued the obsessive war against the clergy who refused the Oath. In November 1791, it passed a measure requiring all priests to swear the Oath or forfeit their pensions and subject themselves to special government supervision. In May 1792, the Assembly went even further, enacting a law that mandated the deportation of any priest who would not swear and who was denounced by 20 citizens.
To these measures, Louis would not give his signature. He was unceasingly pressured to sanction the acts. The king nonetheless refused. Since the end of the Estates General, through years of abuse and virtual imprisonment, the king had always given ground to the Revolution. He had acceded to various policy demands, including even a declaration of war against Prussia and Austria. But he would no longer countermand his conscience on matters of religion.
On June 19, 1792, the king issued a formal message to the Assembly wherein he announced his refusal to sanction the deportation decree. His defiance precipitated the end of his life. The next day, the anniversary of the Tennis Court Oath in which so many clergy had participated at the inception of the Revolution, a mob of 20,000 Parisians demanded the right to march through the Legislative Chamber in protest of the king’s veto.
The crowd stormed the chamber and soon spilled into the royal palace, marauding its way into the private rooms of the royal family. The queen hid in the palace with her two children, but Louis would not flee. Accompanied by his sister and a few loyal guardsmen, he confronted the crowd, by which he was denounced as a traitor. They demanded he sign the deportation law. Through a day-long stand-off, the King calmly refused, attempting to make peace with the angry mob. As always, Louis took no action in anger and never looked to employ violence against the invaders.
The king’s efforts helped defuse the rage of the mob and the royal family escaped harm. But their reprieve was short lived. In the summer of 1792, radicals seized power in Paris and on August 10 a mob once more invaded the Tuileries. This time, they forced the royal family to flee and, within a few days, the family was confined to a prison within the “Temple,” a medieval fortress built by the Knights Templar.
The Death of the King
Louis spent his final months imprisoned with his beloved family. He read voraciously with a special affection for The Imitation of Christ. Meanwhile, the situation in Paris began to spin out of control. The Parisian radicals ordered the arrest of thousands of non-juring priests, many of whom were deported to a penal colony in New Guinea. In September, the mobs massacred hundreds of priests and other prisoners around Paris. On September 20, 1792, the odious “Convention,” the latest iteration of the nation’s governing body, voted to depose the king.
The Convention proceeded to act as Louis’ judge and jury. On December 11, 1792, the Convention indicted the king on 43 charges. The king denied them calmly, taking particularly exception to the claim that he had shed the blood of his countrymen, noting that, in truth, he had done everything possible to avoid violence against the people. Louis’ trial was set down for December 26, Feast of St. Stephen, two years to the day after he had approved the legislation imposing the Oath.
On Christmas Day 1792, Louis wrote out an extraordinary last will. The king entrusted his soul to the mercy of God, forgave his tormentors and confessed his total obedience to the Church. His one stated regret was that he had sanctioned acts against her unity and discipline.
The next day at the brief trial, Louis and his lawyers argued his innocence to no avail. On January 15, 1793, the Convention overwhelming voted to convict the king of treason. Two days later, the Convention sentenced him to death. The resolution to condemn was carried by a single vote.
On January 21, 1793, the King of France was accompanied to the scaffold by the non-juring priest who had offered Mass for him at his final sunrise. Before the guillotine and over the din of the drums, Louis called out his last words: “I die innocent of all the crimes imputed to me. I pardon those who have sought my death, and I pray to God that the blood you are about to shed never returns to plague France.”
What King Louis’ Death Means for Us
The life and death of Louis XVI offer many lessons to the Church of our own time. As the Church continues to struggle to cope with modernity, it is most useful to recall that this challenge did not arise in 1965. On the contrary, the conflicts between the Church and the modern world, and within the Church itself regarding how to approach modernity, have been raging since the Reformation. With the French Revolution these conflicts attained unprecedented levels.
The king accepted the need for reform, but he could not prevent the reform from devolving into revolution. In the aftermath of Louis’ death and the disasters and aggressions that beset her in the ensuing years, the Church sought to seal herself off against erroneous and anti-religious ideologies that came to dominate what was once Christendom.
When the Second Vatican Council opened with its call to “throw open the windows,” the Church took up again the effort to reconcile herself with modernity that had come to a crashing halt with Louis’ execution nearly 170 years earlier. In many ways, the conflicts that have divided the Church over the Vatican Council amount to a divide between those who wish to forget or leave behind the experiences of the Church dating from 1789 and those who insist upon the continued relevance of those experiences to the situation of our own days.
Louis XVI, a pious man who wished only good for his country and his Church, planned for a small fire that would light the way to reform but instead found himself consumed by a raging inferno of revolutionary ideology that also turned his beloved Church to cinders. We might take a lesson from him and remind the present-day Church of how fine is the line between reform and revolution.
Author’s note: The primary sources for this article are two excellent works on the life of Louis XVI and the era of the revolution: Louis XVI and the French Revolution by Alison Johnson (2013) and The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages: Pius VI by Ludwig von Pastor (first published in 1930).
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Portrait of Louis XVI” painted by Antoine-François Callet in 1779.