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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. However, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy wounded both his conscience and 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. The National Guards of Paris treated the royal family well, and protected them on several occacions from tumultuous crowds, but were determined to prevent their escape. When Louis tried to leave the Tuileries for Saint-Cloud at Easter 1791, in order to enjoy the ministrations of a nonjuring priest (one who had not taken the oath required by the Civil Constitution), they would not let him budge. Mirabeau, who had always dissuaded the king from seeking foreign help, died on April 2, 1791.
Encouraged by the émigrés to believe that revolutionary France was without effective military means of defense, representatives of Austria (represented in the discussions by the emperor Leopold II himself), Switzerland, Sardinia, and Spain, met at Mantua and on May 20, 1791 reached a secret agreement to go to war against France, supposedly on behalf of Louis. The British monarch also was part of the coalition in his role as Elector of Hannover. Prussia, while not an active participant, was well disposed. However, when the plan was conveyed to Louis XVI, he rejected this potentially treacherous source of aid, casting his lot instead with general Bouillé, who condemned both the emigration and the Assembly, and promised him refuge and support in his camp with the army of the East at Montmedy , where his loyal troops were ready to shelter the royal family and either await foreign help or to begin a counter-revolution.
Maintaining seemingly innocuous conduct to the last, and trusting very few with their secret plans, on the evening of June 20, 1791 the royal family left the Tuileries, one by one, in disguise. A carriage awaited them on the Boulevard to take them on the road to Châlons and Montmedy. 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.
In the morning, their disappearance was discovered. An angry crowd, reasonably fearing either an invasion of France or a civil war, accused both mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly and the marquis de Lafayette (head of the National Guard) of collusion. However, the Assembly soon established their control of the situation: it seized executive power, commissioned Montmorin, the minister of foreign affairs, to inform the European powers of its pacific intentions; sent commissioners to secure an oath of the troops to the Assembly (rather than to the King), and ordered the arrest of anyone attempting to leave the kingdom.
The king had the bad luck to be sighted, recognised, and arrested at Varennes late on the 21st. National Guards seized him; other troops on the scene did not oppose them; by the time Bouillé reached Varennes, the issue was decided and the royal family on their way back toward Paris under guard.
Pétion, Latour-Maubourg , and Barnave, representing the Assembly, met the royal family at Epernay and returned with them. From this time, Barnave became a counsellor and supporter of the royal family.
When they reached Paris, the crowd was silent. The Assembly provisionally suspended the king and kept the royal couple under guard. From this point forward, the possibility not only of the deposition or forced abdication of this particular king but of the establishment of a republic entered the political discourse.
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. Mutual distrust between the Royalists and the revolutionaries deteriorated from this point, ultimately resulting in the guillotining of Louis (January 21, 1793) and of Marie Antoinette (October 16, 1793).
See also: Axel von Fersen
Original text from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. Pleae update as needed.
The article also draws material from the out-of-copyright History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.
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