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Episode 3.14, The Women’s March on Versailles. So last time, we talked about the conservative-ish reaction in the National Assembly to the chaos of the summer of 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man had been passed, sure.


But as France’s new political constitution began to take shape, the moderately conservative Munartian, led by Jean-Joseph Meunier, had taken over the Assembly. The king had been given what looked an awful lot like a permanent veto over future legislation, and he still hadn’t signed the August 11 Decree or the Declaration of the Rights of Man. As a result of all this, the radicals in the Assembly started getting a little depressed about how things were shaking out. They thought the drama of the last few months was going to blast France into a new age. But now it seems like maybe the old days were going to start coming back bit by little bit.


But today, the pendulum is going to swing wildly back into the radicals’ favor. And in the span of just about 24 hours in early October 1789, the conservative tilt will be reversed, and France will once again find itself hurtling into new and uncharted territory. So we left off last time in mid-September 1789 with the vote to give the king a Suspensive Veto, which in theory seemed like a nice check on his powers, but which was then drawn up to be almost impossible to overturn in practice.


Though these votes looked reasonable to the delegates within the Assembly—after all, they were the ones voting for them—when word got back to Paris what the Assembly had just done, it did not look anywhere near reasonable to the Parisians.


It looked to them like the Revolution was about to be sold out. And as you will recall, agitators in Paris had basically declared themselves to be the defenders of the Revolution. Up until now, that had meant defending the National Assembly. But if they themselves turned against the people, then ought not the Assembly be purged? Ought not the evil aristocrats pulling the strings behind the scenes be strung up on the nearest lamppost? Sentiments along these lines started filling the pages of the daily and weekly newspapers that were now flooding off the Paris presses.


The whole newspaper industry had just been growing exponentially ever since the summer of 1788—that was back when Archbishop Brienne had invited the nation to chime in on how the Estates General should be formed. This open invitation to publish meant that anyone could just set up shop one day, start putting out a paper where he could say whatever he wanted to say. And so, just as the debate over the King’s veto swirled, one such anyone decided it was time to get in on the action, and push back strongly against those who would betray the Revolution. On September the 12th, 1789, new daily newspapers started up that would soon be called La Mi du Publè, the friend of the people. The sole writer, editor, and publisher was a wily little piece of… name Jean-Paul Marat.


Jean-Paul Marat was born in what is now Switzerland in 1741. He moved to France at 16, and got set up as a tutor to children of a merchant trader in Bordeaux. After that, he moved to Paris to study medicine, but never completed his degree. In 1765, he moved up to London and started climbing his way into the world of Enlightenment discourse, with a particular focus on science and political philosophy. He moved up to Newcastle a few years later, and a paper he wrote earned him a degree from St. Andrews.


After ten years in England, he returned to Paris in 1776, and finagled his way into an appointment as physician to the personal bodyguard of the Comte d’Artois. This opened up a lot of doors for him, and he was soon earning pretty good money as a doctor to various aristocratic families. Marat then used the money he earned to fund his real passion, which turned out to be scientific research. In those days, practically everything was open to the new principles of scientific experimentation. And so, convinced of his own genius, Marat spent a lot of time trying to disprove the laws of Newton. And though he never quite pulled it off, he did publish a few well-regarded papers about optics. In 1786, he abandoned his medical practice to focus on his scientific pursuits full-time, though he did still crank out political commentary from time to time, including an essay on judicial reform. When the pre-revolutionary breakdown of the Ancien Régime really started to break down though, Marat dove headfirst into the middle of it, and he restyled himself as a staunch advocate for the rights of the Third Estate, and he himself published an essay that closely tracked the ideas in C.S.’s more famous work, What is the Third Estate?


The whole ordeal of 1789 then pushed Marat firmly on the path to political agitation, and as the debate over the Constitution swirled, he actually got some of his ideas introduced on the floor of the National Assembly. Then, as the tide seemed to be turning against the revolution, Marat launched the Friend of the People, and from that platform became the quintessential revolutionary polemicist. In time, he would go completely overboard and be a one-man engine for the bloody mania that was on the way. But for now, all he was calling for was the purging of the National Assembly of all conservatives and the stringing up of aristocratic swine. Pretty crazy stuff for the times, but man, not nearly as crazy as Marat is going to get.


Marat found a particularly willing audience for his special brand of overheated rhetoric in the fall of 1789 for many of the same reasons Paris had gone into revolt back in July. Hunger, stress, and fear.


Because though the harvest had finally come in and there probably was enough grain to go around, the weather had turned unseasonably dry, which left a lot of the creeks and rivers and streams that ran the flour mills too weak to grind the grain into flour. I mean, plants cannot catch a break here. By the end of September, bread was once again scarce and prices were sky high. Added to this was the fact that October the 1st was another one of those semi-annual deadlines for the settling of debts. Just as had happened back in July, when the King and the National Assembly appeared to be turning their backs on the revolution, they were doing it at a moment when the people of Paris were hungry and stressed out and very afraid. Paranoid rumors again started taking hold among the lower classes that the aristocrats were plotting to starve them out and trample their recently proclaimed rights and liberties. But the paranoia at that moment absolutely cut both ways, and more well-to-do citizens in Paris were always looking over their shoulder just waiting for that gang of ruffians on the corner to march over and lynch them just for having a silk shirt. The capital was an extraordinarily tense place to be living in in the fall of 1789.


With the atmosphere in Paris recharging, the Marquis de Lafayette and his newly organized National Guard found themselves scrambling to keep order. Lafayette had taken a page from Washington’s playbook and tried to instill in his newly formed regiments of citizen recruits a professional and patriotic esprit de corps. He designed and arranged for uniforms. He perfected the tricolor by adding the white of the Bourbons to the blue and red revolutionary cocaine. After all, the monarchy was not going to be overthrown, it was going to be a partner in the new constitutional regime.


Then Lafayette had his men swear all kinds of loyalty oaths to the nation. But their loyalties were immediately tested when grain riots started breaking out in the municipalities surrounding Paris, and then further when the grain that eventually made its way to the capital started being surrounded by gangs of housewives who had come to keep an eye on things, to make sure the grain didn’t get hoarded, and to make sure it was all sold at a fair price. Eventually men from the National Guard had to be posted at every bakery to protect the bakers from getting torn limb from limb when they ran out of bread for the day, which happened way too frequently, and way too early in the morning.


But as we are about to see, though they were currently being deployed to preserve order, when push came to shove the rank and file of the National Guard were far more loyal to the hungry women waiting in line for bread than their own fancy-pants leader Lafayette, who, for all his enlightened talk, was still just another aristocrat with a nice full belly. Now ironically, one of the key sparks that lit the fuse for everything that’s about to happen was not supposed to be a spark at all. It was supposed to be the opposite of that. It was supposed to be a wet, smothering blanket that would stop future explosions.


On September the 14th, that is, just a few days after the Suspensive Veto was passed, King Louis got together with his war minister and decided that in the interest of palace security they should call in from the northeastern frontier the Flanders Regiment. The Flanders Regiment was the crack in his crack squad in the French army. Close knit and highly disciplined, they could be counted on to provide the king a formidable defense should some great angry mob try to come calling in the middle of the night. But more than that, their very presence was supposed to warn off that angry mob before it even got going. Instead, as we will see in just one moment, it sucked in that angry mob like a moth to a flame. But it wasn’t just the Flanders Regiment that was the problem. Because after the king ordered them to come reinforce Versailles, Louis then decided to start waffling a bit on the promises he had just made to the National Assembly. Remember, he had basically said, give me a Suspensive Veto and let me help draw up the details, and I’ll sign on to the August 11 Decree and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.


Well, now that he had his veto, on the terms that he wanted, he turned around and said, you know, look, I like most of what’s in the August 11 Decree, but I can’t support all of it. And as if that alone wasn’t bad enough, one of the problems he pointed to was that it took insufficient account of the rights of German princes out on the borderlands who owned French property or had family claims to French noble privileges.


The moderate, uncommitted delegates who filled the center of the National Assembly now felt betrayed. They had negotiated a deal with the king in good faith, and now he was going to try to double-cross them so he could help the Germans? I mean, who cares about the Germans? And oh, by the way, if you’re looking to clamp down on rumors that the royal family is plotting with foreign powers against the people of France, maybe double-crossing the National Assembly as a favorite of some German princes isn’t maybe your best play right now. So once again, Louis’ vacillation is coming into play. He wouldn’t follow through on the hard line his wife and family had advocated, and now he wouldn’t follow through on the softer line public opinion seemed to demand. The guy just had no follow-through on anything, and mostly what he wanted to do was go out hunting, which is what he did almost every day through arguably the most critical months in the whole history of France.


King Louis was I think a decent and sensitive guy, but he was not a very good leader. When the king started making noises about amending the decrees, the National Assembly came back and said no, sign the thing as it stands and just get it out there. So what Louis did was say fine, I’ll publish it, but I won’t promulgate it. Now I’m personally a little unclear honestly about the technical difference, but there definitely was one, and I’m sure officially promulgating something means it goes out through whatever official mechanism the monarchy had for disseminating its decrees, while publishing meant just that and nothing more. You guys figure out how to distribute it, and this of course was taken as an insult.


So just as the king is playing this game with the National Assembly, the Flanders Regiment shows up, which in and of itself was not as troubling as the welcome that they received at the palace. First the conservative nobles and the royal family were openly jubilant to see this stiff reinforcement of troops now here to protect them for whatever the rabble might try and do. And when the conservative nobles and the royal family are jubilant, everyone else starts to get a little edgy.


Then on October the 1st, a welcome banquet was held in their honor. Now it does not matter in the slightest what actually happened at the banquet that night. All that matters is what was reported to have happened. The first account started to be published the very next day in Paris. First there were the regimental toasts, the endless rounds of toasts, and in the endless rounds there was not one, not a single one to the nation, the foundation of all sovereignty. That was a conspicuous oversight. But more galling was the report that someone had taken the revolutionary cocky, thrown it on the ground, and trampled it beneath his boots. That was a flagrant provocation. And what was worse, the king and the queen had somewhat unconventionally come down to the banquet themselves, so clearly this all met with their hearty approval.


So by now everything is adding up. The new veto power, the backtracking on signing his name or promulgating the revolutionary declarations, the lack of bread in Paris, the presence of the Flanders regiment, and now this public degradation of the physical symbol of the revolution. Clearly some kind of conservative coup was in the making. Then the king added one more affront to the list. On October the 4th he said he wasn’t too sure about the Declaration of the Rights of Men either, and he didn’t want to sign it unless a few small changes could be made here and there. All of these ingredients were thrown into a pot that finally boiled over on what the French now call the October Journée, or the October Days, which is a little formula that they use to designate the big popular uprisings of the revolution. So we’ll have the Journée of June the 20th and the Journée of August the 10th, that’s a really super big one. There’s actually a bunch of them over the next decade. But don’t worry, we’ll get to them all and in the order that they come.


So on to the October Days. On the morning of October the 5th, 1789, the people of Paris awoke to the sound of church bells ringing. These bells had started ringing at the rather intimidating request of a group of really super angry housewives who were organizing a mass demonstration to protest the lack of bread, the high prices for bread, and the unscrupulous merchants who were profiting from the people’s misery. Just the night before, a baker had narrowly escaped being lynched, but was saved by a few National Guardsmen.


On the fateful morning of October the 5th, General Lafayette was out of the city and the officer left in charge of central Paris had spread his men pretty thin. So when some six or seven thousand angry women suddenly started congregating outside the Hôtel de Ville, the Guardsmen left in the neighborhood were just totally outnumbered. With no one really to stop them, the women then busted into the Hôtel de Ville and started collecting all the weapons, the guns, and the cannons that they could find. I mean, this is some serious public disorder. The officer in charge of the National Guard was about to order his men to try to do something about all this when he was bluntly told, look, sir, we’re not going to fire on these ladies, so don’t even think about it.


So the angry wives and mothers of Paris were allowed to just carry on as they pleased. It actually got to the point where the women were about to light the Hôtel de Ville on fire and then someone suggested that dealing with the Paris city government was pointless and what they needed to do was go straight to the source where the impotent King Louis and his Austrian whore wife sat fat on their throne spitting on the cockades and plotting to kill them all. So they about faced and marched off in the direction of Versailles, picking up new recruits wherever they went.


Lafayette meanwhile was hustling back into town, but with the city immobilized by the demonstration he did not reach the Hôtel de Ville until 11 in the morning. There he found the women gone, but his men still waiting patiently for him, ready for the order to take off for Versailles themselves.


But it became immediately apparent to Lafayette that the men wanted to march off not to stop the demonstrators, but to join them. The idea had already taken root in the rank and file that the best way to preserve the revolution would be to dismiss the offensive Flanders regiment and substitute themselves as the King’s personal bodyguard. The King needed to be under their protection, you see, to keep him safe from reactionary aristocrats who might whisper evil things in his ear. Lafayette made a brief attempt to talk them out of all this, but he was abruptly confronted with the reality of the situation. He was told, you don’t seem to understand, we’re going to Versailles, you can either lead us there or we’ll just march right over you.


There was in this an implicit threat that they were ready to string up Lafayette himself if he tried to get in their way. So deciding that leading an organized march rather than dying and letting the National Guard go off as a headless but very well armed mob, Lafayette agreed to lead them. So off they went, just as some pretty heavy rain set in. Lafayette did, however, manage to send a rider off to warn both the King and the National Assembly that about 15,000 troops were now headed their way, loyalties TBD.


It was four o’clock in the afternoon by the time Lafayette got his men moving. By then, the ladies had already reached the gates of Versailles. There they were greeted coolly, but not with any overt hostility, though they were told in no uncertain terms that they weren’t getting into the palace ground, so just forget about that. So for the moment, the women did. They decided instead to go after the less well defended and hopefully more open to reason National Assembly, which was winding down its business for the day. The women first sent in one of the men who had come along to make a formal statement of their demands, but then they just bagged whatever stiff protocol they were trying to observe, and by the hundreds, they started streaming into the hall where the Assembly met, sitting in empty seats, confronting the delegates, and just kind of generally making themselves at home.


These Paris housewives are not the classiest bunch of ladies, and they made quite a little spectacle of themselves up to and including heaping abuse on any clergyman they spotted. I think they called the Archbishop of Paris a dog right through his face.


Meunier, recently elected President of the Assembly, took the floor and did his best to say whatever it was going to take to get the women out of the hall. And at the very least, his speech did eat up enough time for the ladies to decide it was time to go do what they had really come to do, which was go confront the king and queen and make them pay, do something, not do something. They weren’t too clear about that anymore. So out they went, to some very audible sighs of relief from the flustered delegates of the National Assembly.


Okay, so by now it’s getting past five o’clock. The king, who had been off on his daily hunt, rushed back to the palace when he was told that something like 10,000 armed women were at the gate sire, what should we do? And when he got back, he agreed to meet with a small delegation from the crowd. When the delegation arrived, he told them what was very likely the truth, that he knew they were suffering, he hated that they were suffering, and had already ordered all available grain to be gathered up and carted down to Paris to relieve the situation. This was all already in motion. So hopefully relief is on the way, but there’s not really a whole lot I can do right at this very second.


When the delegation returned to their comrades with the king’s response, a few of the more vocal agitators dismissed it as so many lies, but for the rest, the news that the king did seem to be doing everything he could did help dampen their wrath a bit. And that’s about when the rider showed up telling everyone that the National Guard was on the way, and who knows which side they are going to be on.


So Louis scrambled to keep the situation from getting out of hand, and he quickly let it be known that on second thought, he had decided to sign the August 11 decree, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man after all. See, I mean, yeah, I had my reservations about it, but I don’t know where you got this crazy idea that I wasn’t going to sign it at all. I mean, come on, give it to me, I’ll sign it. Just let’s not massacre me and my family, please.


It wasn’t until just about midnight, though, that the National Guard finally showed up. And by that point, it had gone through the ranks that not only were they going to become the king’s bodyguard, but that they were going to have to escort both the king and his family back to Paris. It simply wasn’t safe, or in keeping with the spirit of the times, for them to remain at Versailles anymore.


When they arrived at the scene, their nominal leader, Lafayette, beat a quick path over to the National Assembly, who were obviously still in emergency session, and told them, look, as much as I hate to admit it, my own men have basically come here on their own accord, and I couldn’t stop them. Then he said that there was a very quick way to defuse the situation. The Flanders regiment needed to be sent back to the frontier. The king needed to make some kind of positive gesture towards the besmirched cockade, and then the king needed to relocate to Paris.


This little list was then transmitted to the king, along with a request for a one-on-one meeting with Lafayette, so Lafayette could tell the king directly just what the score was. The meeting was granted, as long as Lafayette came alone and unarmed, and over the objection of his men, Lafayette agreed.


At the meeting, the king said, okay, look, I’ll dismiss the Flanders regiment, though for the record, all that stuff in the paper is made up, I’ll kiss the cockade, or hug the cockade, or whatever you want me to do, but I’m going to have to think about relocating to Paris. That’s a big request, and it will impact a lot of people, so you know, just let me think it over. So Lafayette returned to his men, and they all then sat around, awaiting the king’s decision. Lafayette himself stayed up until dawn, but as the sun broke, he started to nod off, just in time for the lid to blow off the whole thing.


At about 5.30 in the morning, someone, probably a sympathetic guard inside the palace, opened up the gates to the inner courtyard, and the camped women, who had just been sitting around all night in some pretty crappy weather, went rushing in, and they were in a foul mood. They then pushed their way right into the royal apartments. They were screaming and yelling, and looking for all the world like they were quite literally out for blood, with the queen number one on their hit list. As the mob came storming in, the palace guards did their thing. They tried to force them back, and there was sporadic gunfire, and a few on both sides soon lay dead.


But the alarm was raised quick enough for Marie Antoinette to slip out of her own room through a side door that took her directly over to the king’s room, and I’ve got a picture of that little door posted at that I took while we were in the royal apartments at Versailles on the last Revolutions tour. But of course, after Marie Antoinette hustled down the hall, she found the king’s door was locked, because Louis himself was off trying to locate their children and stick them someplace safe. So the queen pounded on this locked door for 10 or 15 minutes, trapped inside a narrow passageway with a bloodthirsty mob literally breaking in the doors and calling for her head. So this is not really the greatest 10 to 15 minutes of Marie Antoinette’s life. But before the mob got her, the door to the king’s room finally opened, and the royal family all hunkered down together.


They were rescued, at least for the moment, by a contingent of national guardsmen led by a young officer named Lazar Hoche, who will in time become one of the most successful of the revolutionary generals, but that’s all for later. For now, Hoche and his men secured the royal family, and the women protesters were steadily but firmly pushed back out into the grounds, though by now they had cut off the heads of two dead bodyguards and were parading them around in triumph, so it’s not like all order had been restored.


Lafayette by this point had managed to push his own way into the palace and made his way to the room where the royal family was being held, quite likely fearing the worst. But when he got there, he found the king chatting calmly with the guardsmen, who had apparently told the king that they wanted now to be his bodyguard, and they had gone ahead and sworn a loyalty oath to him right then and there on the spot. Okay, so that’s good. So Lafayette got together with the king and said, look sire, here’s what you’re going to have to do. You have to go out on your balcony and present yourself to everyone assembled outside. We’ll think of something to rehabilitate the cockade, and then you’re going to have to announce your willingness to relocate to Paris.


This being no time to argue, the king agreed. He and Lafayette went out on the balcony, where the king was greeted by great cheering even more so when he announced that yes indeed, he and his family would be relocating to Paris to be closer to their people. Then Lafayette brought out a non-commissioned officer from the Flanders regiment and pinned a tri-color cockade on his jacket. The crowd went nuts. Finally, at Lafayette’s insistence, Marie Antoinette was brought out onto the balcony too. Now, a lot of those women out there had been calling for her head just a few minutes earlier, so the queen was understandably hesitant. But in the moment, the crowd did not bury her in catcalls and heckling insults. Instead, there was vaguely positive murmuring, and even a few long-lived queens.


So it was settled. The royal family now belonged to the people. Shortly thereafter, the king and queen hastily packed up, as did their ministers and courtiers and servants. Then everyone—the protesting housewives, the National Guard, the entire royal retinue, something like 60,000 people in Lafayette’s estimation—slowly started out on the road back to Paris. Upon hearing that the king was leaving, the National Assembly immediately declared that they were inseparable from him and voted to relocate to Paris as well. Once everyone was gone, the palace at Versailles was locked up and guarded by a few soldiers who would prevent locals from trashing the place while the royal family was away.


But as it turned out, the royal family would never be coming back. When the king and queen and their children left Versailles on October 6, 1789, the great Palace of the Sun King was done forever as the center of the French kingdom. It was the most visible and opulent symbol of the Ancien Régime, and it was now permanently abandoned. The march of the Paris housewives shuttered it for good.


With the benefit of hindsight, we also now know that those Paris housewives also brought to a close what I’ll call the first phase of the French Revolution, which had begun with the calling of the Estates General, and then produced the National Assembly, the Tennis Court Oath, the Fault of the Bastille, the Night of August the Fourth, and then the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It had, in many ways, been a revolution of the bourgeoisie, as men of that general rank, demeanor, and education found themselves elevated into positions of major authority, not just in the national government, but also the government of Paris and municipalities across France.


These guys stood for the principles of 1789, enlightenment philosophy and science, free trade, national sovereignty, constitutional government. But with the women’s march on Versailles, and the carrying away of the king back to Paris, a new phase of the revolution is about to begin, one that would be marked by everyone trying to make the new constitutional system work, and quickly finding that no one was committed to making it work. The conservatives would constantly try to undermine it, and more radical elements would constantly try to extend it even further.


So though there would be a great party on July the 14th, 1790, to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille and revel in the brotherhood of man that had been born of it, it turned out that just under the surface, everyone was ready to tear everyone else limb from limb.


Before we go today, I should probably mention that I was just recently a guest on Cameron Reilly and Ray Harris’s new Life of Caesar podcast, which was a great deal of fun. We spent almost an hour and a half loosely talking around the life and times of my old friend Julius Caesar. There is other stuff that’s mixed in there too, and apparently nothing got edited out. So if you want a little freewheeling conversational history, go to the Life of Caesar podcast and find the episode starring me, Mike Duncan, because Cameron assures me that the other episodes are complete rot. So don’t even bother.


I’m kidding. It’s a good show. Check out Life of Caesar. I’ll see you in the next video.


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Episode Info

In October 1789 some angry houswives changed the course of the French Revolution. 

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