Skip to main content
Select Source:

Louis XVI (France) (1754–1793; Ruled 1774–1792)

LOUIS XVI (FRANCE) (17541793; ruled 17741792)

LOUIS XVI (FRANCE) (17541793; ruled 17741792), king of France. Louis-Auguste, duc de Berry was the second surviving son of the heir to the throne (dauphin) Louis-Ferdinand and his second wife, Marie-Thérèse-Antoinette-Raphaëlle, daughter of Augustus III, elector of Saxony and king of Poland. Louis's elder brother, the duc de Bourgogne, died in 1761, so when their father died in 1765, he became eldest male heir to his grandfather, Louis XV. Once thought a dull child, recent research has shown that he was a well-taught, reflective, and intelligent student, particularly interested in the sciences (mathematics, physics, geography) and history. He was raised and remained a convinced, but intellectually curious, Catholic; he had a taste for empirical facts, and brevity in expressing them, which, together with natural taciturnity and the secretiveness he inherited from his grandfather, often made him frustrating to work with. His political principles, which became settled in his adolescence, combined the moral politics of François de Salignac de La Mothe Fénelon with a firm belief in his traditional rights as an absolute king. In 1770, he married Marie-Antoinette, youngest daughter of Maria Theresa, the ruler of Austria, but it was not until 1776 that the marriage was consummated; Derek Beales has conclusively demonstrated that the delay was caused not by a physical impediment but rather by sexual ignorance, finally rectified by advice from the queen's brother, Emperor Joseph II, who subsequently received heartfelt written thanks from the royal pair.

Louis's marriage had been designed to cement the alliance with Austria that had been concluded in 1756 and was supported by the dominant party at Louis XV's court, led by the duke of Choiseul and Madame de Pompadour. The young dauphin approved Louis XV's decision to drop Choiseul, as well as his reassertion of royal authority against the parlements in 1771, so when the old king died in 1774, it was thought that the new ruler would continue on this course. But, worried by his own youth and inexperience, he chose as close advisor and informal prime minister Jean Frédéric Phélypeaux, count of Maurepas, a veteran minister who had been disgraced in 1749 but was close to the royal family. Maurepas wanted to rebuild confidence in the monarchy, whose image had suffered from the coup of 17701771. He persuaded Louis to recall the old parlements, impose restrictions on their rights of judicial review of legislation through remonstrance, and choose a ministry that included the fashionable liberals Chrétien de Malesherbes and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. The new ministry proved politically inept (for example, in their insistence on bringing back free trade in foodstuffs during the crisis year 17741775). Maurepas and Louis replaced them with a team that included, by late 1776, the Genevan banker and reputed financial wizard Jacques Necker as financial counsellor and the veteran diplomat Charles Gravier, the count of Vergennes, as foreign secretary.

Louis XVI, along with a large body of public opinion, enthusiastically supported France's alliance with the rebellious American colonists against Britain; he and Vergennes managed to keep the other European powers out of the conflict and avoid engagement on Austria's side in Joseph II's various adventures. The outcome in 1783 was diplomatic and military success: freedom of the seas and the restoration of France's position in Europe, although trade with the new republic did not develop as quickly as expected. Necker had hoped to finance the war on life-annuity loans serviced by economies and recovered revenue as earlier state loans were amortised, but the war went on too long, taxes had to be increased, and the usual flood of postwar claims on the government created a potential crisis. In the meantime, the political scene had changed. During the reign, two principal factions fought for control within the ministrythe remains of Choiseul's friends, grouped around Queen Marie-Antoinette and the Austrian alliance, and the socalled "king's party," which hankered after the methods of 17701774 and distrusted Austria. Maurepas successfully played them off against each other, but he died in 1781. Necker himself resigned that year.

Henceforward, Louis was more directly involved in politics, generally coming down on the side of the "king's party," represented in the ministry by Vergennes and Charles Alexandre de Calonne. Louis agreed with these two on the need for root-and-branch reform of the tax system to eliminate privilege and establish fiscal uniformity; with them he arranged to call an Assembly of Notables in 1787, to create a tide of public opinion to force these and other reforms through the Parlement of Paris. But Vergennes died just before the Notables met, leaving Louis and Calonne alone. They did not manage the assembly well, and Calonne, whose reforms threatened them and their like through the country, got caught in a stockmarket scandal, and had to be dismissed; he was replaced by Étienne Charles Loménie de Brienne, a partisan of Necker. John Hardman has argued that this constituted a turning point in Louis's life, leading to prolonged bouts of depression, cynicism, and dependency that dogged his behavior thereafter. Brienne attempted to ram reforms somewhat similar to Calonne's through the notables and, when that failed, through the Parlement of Paris; finally he tried to rule without them. But Louis was forced by a credit crisis to drop Brienne and bring back Necker in 1788, and, in 1789, to call the Estates-General.

Though willing to admit constitutional reform, Louis and Necker proved indecisive over the method of representation in the Estates, thus setting the stage for the successful refusal by the deputies of the Third Estate, when they met in Versailles in May 1789, to meet except as a National Assembly with one vote for each deputy. Louis's instincts told him to go along with the Third Estate in the ensuing crisis, but, pressured by his advisors, he tried to slow or reverse the process of change. He put his wide-ranging reform plans, too late, to the Séance Royale (Royal Session) on 23 June as if nothing had happened. He consented to bring up troops to maintain order in Paris, but dismissed Necker, thus provoking the Parisian revolt in which the Bastille was stormed on 14 July; and he refused to withdraw from Versailles before the Parisian women and the national guard captured the royal family and forced them to return to Paris. Confined to the Tuileries, the king became in effect a prisoner and politically little more than a figurehead; he now secretly sent a message to his cousin Charles IV of Spain, disavowing any future actions he might take as being under duress. When matters settled down, however, he appears to have been willing to make an accommodation with the Revolution as long as the monarchy could play an active role in initiating legislation; Louis rightly refused to be a martyr to the diehard policies of the reactionary nobility, Marie-Antoinette, and his émigré brothers, the counts of Provençe and Artois. That was the nub of his program in the Royal Session, and also of the manifesto he left behind when he fled eastward and was captured at Varennes with his family on 2025 June 1791. The king seems to have viewed his flight not as a plan to invade France with the help of foreign troops, but as a demonstration of force to make the Constituent Assembly renegotiate his place in the monarchy. Forced to return, Louis made a deal with the assembly, who were frightened to dismiss him, fearing to open the way to a democratic republic. Basically, Louis intended to bide his time until the contradictions inherent in the new regime brought about its downfall, a policy of passive resistance well-suited to his character. He sanctioned the declaration of war against Austria and Prussia in April 1792, the better to demonstrate these contradictions. This strategy was cleverthere was much royalist support in the country and even in Parisbut he never thought through how to translate it into constitutional change. In the meantime, popular militants in Paris and radical volunteers from the provincial National Guards stormed the Tuileries palace in a coup d'état on 10 August 1792, driving the royal family to take refuge in the Legislative Assembly. As in the crises of 1789, Louis once again drew back from using his troops in a way that would cause major bloodshed. The rump of the assembly, from which the moderate deputies had fled, convoked a new Constitutional Convention; the Convention proclaimed a democratic Republic on 22 September, put the king on trial, and found him guilty of "conspiracy against public freedom and attacks on general state security." Louis died bravely on 21 January 1793.

See also American Independence, War of (17751783) ; BourbonDynasty(France);Estates-General, French ; France ; Louis XV (France) ; Marie-Antoinette ; Revolutions, Age of .


Primary Sources

Bombelles, Marc, marquis de. Journal. Geneva, 1977.

Louis XVI. Louis XVI and the comte de Vergennes: Correspondence, 17741787. Edited and with an introduction by John Hardman and Munro Price. Oxford, 1998.

Maria Theresa. Marie-Antoinette: Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le comte de Mercy-Argenteau. Edited by Alfred d'Arneth. Paris, 18741875.

Mercy-Argenteau, Florimond de. Correspondance secrète du comte de Mercy-Argenteau avec l'empereur Joseph II et le prince de Kaunitz. Edited by Alfred d'Arneth and Jules Flammermont. Paris, 18891891.

Véri, Joseph Alphonse de. Journal de l'abbédeVéri. Paris, 1933.

Secondary Sources

Beales, Derek. Joseph II. Vol. 1, In the Shadow of Maria Theresa. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Girault de Coursac, Pierette. L'éducation d'un roi: Louis XVI. Paris, 1972.

Hardman, John. French Politics from the Accession of Louis XVI to the Bastille. London, 1995.

. Louis XVI. New Haven, 1993.

Jordan, David P. The King's Trial: The French Revolution vs. Louis XVI. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1979.

Lever, Evelyne. Louis XVI. Paris, 1985.

Lewis-Beck, M. S., A. Hildreth, and A. Spitzer. "Was There a Girondist Faction in the National Convention, 17921793?" French Historical Studies 15, no. 3 (1988): 519536. Analyzes voting in Louis XVI's trial.

Murphy, Orville T. Charles Gravier Comte de Vergennes, French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 17191787. Albany, N.Y., 1982.

Price, Munro. Preserving the Monarchy: The Comte de Vergennes, 17741787. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

. The Road from Versailles: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Fall of the French Monarchy. New York, 2002.

T. J. A. Le Goff

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Louis XVI (France) (1754–1793; Ruled 1774–1792)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Louis XVI (France) (1754–1793; Ruled 1774–1792)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 13, 2017).

"Louis XVI (France) (1754–1793; Ruled 1774–1792)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Louis XVI

Louis XVI

Louis XVI (1754-1793) was king of France from 1774 to 1792. He failed to understand the revolutionary forces at work in France and thus contributed to the fall of the monarchy.

Louis XVI had the virtues of an admirable private individual but few of those required for a successful ruler, particularly during a turbulent period. He was a devoted father and husband, uncommon virtues for royalty in his day (in 1770 he married Marie Antoinette, daughter of Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa). His chief vices were a tendency to overeat and a love of hunting. Although historians often cite with some condescension his skill as a locksmith, Louis was not entirely devoid of intellectual interests, particularly in the area of the sciences and geography. However, although sincerely interested in the well-being of his people, he was indecisive, was easily influenced, and lacked the strength to support reforming ministers against the hostility of the Queen, his family, the court, and the privileged classes whose position was threatened by change.

At the beginning of his reign Louis XVI restored the powers of the Parlement, for long the main obstacle to reform, thus reversing the actions of Louis XV, who had drastically curtailed its authority. However, at the same time he appointed as controller general (actually first minister) A. R. J. Turgot, a friend of the philosophes and advocate of reform. At first Louis supported the attempts of his minister to accomplish such reforms as abolition of the monopoly of the guilds, the royal corvée (required labor on roads and bridges), and the elimination of internal barriers to the circulation of grain. However, he was unable to resist the pressure of those opposed to reform and in 1776 reluctantly dismissed the minister, saying, "You and I, M. Turgot, are the only ones who really love the people."

Turgot was succeeded by the Genevan banker Jacques Necker, who acquired a reputation as a financial genius for his skill in negotiating loans; he financed French aid to the American colonies in their struggle against England without raising taxes. Necker's popularity became even greater when the King yielded to pressure from the court and privileged groups and also dismissed Necker.

After several brief ministries C. A. de Calonne was named controller general in 1783. In 1787, after attempting various expedients, Calonne, like several of his predecessors, concluded that the only solution for the growing deficit was to tax the privileged groups. Once more Louis XVI failed to support his minister, who had to resign. By 1788, however, as it became clear that France was on the verge of bankruptcy, pressure mounted on Louis XVI to convoke the Estates General, which had not met for 175 years, to deal with the fiscal crisis. In the summer of 1788 the King yielded to the popular outcry, and the following year (May 1789) the Estates General met at Versailles, opening the era of the French Revolution.

French Revolution

From the outset Louis XVI's actions and failure to act pushed the French people (as of May 1789 almost all accepted the institution of monarchy) along the path to revolution. Before the meeting of the Estates General he had agreed at the urging of Necker, who had been recalled to office, to allow the Third Estate representation equal to that of the other two Estates combined. The King was vague, however, on whether each Estate would meet and vote separately, in which case the privileged Estates could outvote the Third, or whether the vote would be by "head." On June 23 the King finally ordered the three Estates to meet separately, but when the Third Estate refused to obey, Louis XVI, characteristically, yielded. Before this the Estates General had adopted the title National Constituent Assembly, sign of its determination to give France a written constitution.

The response of the King, under the influence of reactionary court circles, was to summon troops to Versailles and to dismiss Necker, who had urged cooperation with the Third Estate. This was the immediate cause for the taking of the royal fortress, the Bastille, by the Parisian crowd (July 14).

Such acts as the refusal of the King to approve the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the decrees of Aug. 4-5, 1789, abolishing the remnants of the seigneurial regime, as well as a severe inflation, led to the Revolutionary days of Oct. 5-6, 1789, when a Parisian crowd forced the court to move from Versailles to Paris, where it could be controlled more easily. On June 20-21, 1791, Louis XVI sought to escape from Paris to eastern France, in the hope that with the aid of loyal troops he could return to Paris and reestablish his authority. However, at Varennes the royal party was recognized and forced to return to Paris, where the Revolutionaries had lost all confidence in the monarchy.

In September 1791 the National Assembly adjourned and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly. By now Louis believed that the only hope for the monarchy was foreign intervention. He anticipated that the French armies, severely weakened by the desertion of royalist officers, would be quickly defeated and that the country would then turn to him to obtain more favorable terms. For reasons of their own some of the Revolutionaries, the Girondists, also wanted war. On April 20, 1792, France declared war on Austria, which was soon joined by Prussia.

From the outbreak of the war, events moved rapidly. Revolutionary France was incensed by the manifesto of the Prussian commander, the Duke of Brunswick, threatening dire punishment on Paris if the royal family were harmed. On Aug. 10, 1792, the crowd forced the Legislative Assembly to suspend the King, who, with the royal family, became prisoner of the Commune of Paris. The National Convention, which succeeded the Legislative Assembly, abolished the monarchy and decided to try "Citizen Capet, " as Louis XVI was now called, for treason. He was found guilty, sentenced to death, and on Jan. 21, 1793, guillotined.

Further Reading

Most biographies of Louis are either partisan or the work of popularizers. Recommended in English is Saul K. Padover, The Life and Death of Louis XVI (1939; new ed. 1963). Bernard Fay, Louis XVI; or The End of a World (1961; trans. 1968), is a royalist account. An old but still useful source is Sophia H. MacLehose, The Last Days of the French Monarchy (1901). For background see G. Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution (1939; trans. 1947), a minor classic by the greatest historian of the Revolution in the 20th century.

Additional Sources

Cronin, Vincent, Louis and Antoinette, New York: Morrow, 1975, 1974.

Hardman, John, Louis XVI, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Jordan, David P., The king's trial: the French Revolution vs. Louis XVI, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

Ross, Maurice, Louis XVI, America's forgotten founding father, with a survey of the Franco-American alliance of the Revolutionary period, New York: Vantage Press, 1976.

Webster, Nesta Helen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the Revolution, New York: Gordon Press, 1976, 1938. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Louis XVI." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Louis XVI." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 13, 2017).

"Louis XVI." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Louis XVI (king of France)

Louis XVI, 1754–93, king of France (1774–92), third son of the dauphin (Louis) and Marie Josèphe of Saxony, grandson and successor of King Louis XV. In 1770 he married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette. His early attempts to enact reforms and to appoint competent and upright ministers met with general approval, but his character was unsuited to provide the leadership needed to control the complex social and political conflict smoldering in France. Shy, dull, and corpulent, he preferred the hunting field and his locksmith's workshop to the council chamber; indecisiveness made him subject to the poor advice of his intimates.

The reforms begun by his able ministers A. R. J. Turgot and Chrétien de Malesherbes were opposed by the court faction, including Marie Antoinette. A more important obstacle to Turgot's plans was the opposition of the parlements, which were revived after the dismissal of René de Maupeou. Turgot was dismissed in May, 1776, and Louis appointed (Oct., 1776) Jacques Necker director of the treasury. The king supported most of Necker's reforms and economies, but the costly French intervention in the American Revolution more than canceled the savings, and Necker's borrowing greatly swelled the debt. Necker's attempt to gain greater control over policy by courting public opinion was rebuffed at court, and he resigned in protest in May, 1781.

Necker's successors, Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1783–87) and Étienne Charles Loménie de Brienne (1787–88), were unable to ward off bankruptcy. When the interest-bearing debt had risen to a huge figure, the king convoked (1787) the Assembly of Notables and asked their consent to tax the privileged classes. The notables made a few minor reforms but refused to consent to taxation, referring this to the States-General.

Louis finally convoked the States-General in 1789. Necker, restored in 1788, prevailed upon Louis to double the number of deputies from the third, or popular estate. This increase, however, would be meaningless if the estates met separately and voted as units rather than as individuals; the nobles (first estate) and the clergy (second estate), could still outvote the third estate. The king's opposition to the combined meeting of the estates and his procrastination on this issue led the third estate to proclaim itself a National Assembly, thus signaling the end of absolutism in France. Louis ordered the estates to meet and vote separately, but he was forced (June 27, 1789) to yield and allow the estates to sit together and vote by head.

Shortly afterward Louis sent troops to Paris, where he suspected the French Guards of being too sympathetic to the assembly. Rumors circulated that the king intended to suppress the assembly, and the dismissal of the popular Necker provoked the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789). Louis again had to capitulate; he ordered the withdrawal of the royal troops, reinstated Necker, and accepted the new national red, white, and blue cockade. Despite his outward acceptance of the revolution, Louis allowed reactionary plotting of the queen and court, and in August refused to approve the abolition of feudal rights.

In Oct., 1789, a crowd marched on Versailles and forced the royal family to return to Paris, where they were confined in the Tuileries palace. Louis's position, further compromised by the plots of émigré circles, was definitively ruined when the royal family attempted (June, 1791) to flee France in disguise. They were apprehended at Varennes, and their attempted flight was considered proof of their treasonable dealings with foreign powers. Louis was forced to accept the constitution of 1791, which limited his power, but preserved the royal veto and his power to appoint ministers.

After his return he was in communication with Austria and Prussia, urging them to rescue him. In 1792 the early reverses of the French army in the war with Austria and Prussia and the duke of Brunswick's threat to destroy Paris if the royal family were harmed infuriated the Paris sans-culottes. The king and his family were imprisoned in the Temple (Aug 10, 1792). In September, simultaneously with the defeat of the Prussians at Valmy, the Convention declared a Republic. Incriminating evidence against Louis was later found, and he was tried (Dec.–Jan.) by the Convention. Found guilty by a unanimous vote, he was sentenced to death by a vote of 361 to 288, with 72 calling for a delay. He was guillotined on Jan. 21, 1793, facing death with courage.

See biographies by S. K. Padover (new ed. 1963) and B. Fay (tr. 1968); M. Walzer, Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI (1974); D. Jordan, The Trial of Louis XVI (1980).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Louis XVI (king of France)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Louis XVI (king of France)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 13, 2017).

"Louis XVI (king of France)." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

Louis XVI

Louis XVI (1754–93) King of France (1774–92). Grandson and successor of Louis XVI, he married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette in 1770. Louis' lack of leadership qualities allowed the parlements (supreme courts) and aristocracy to defeat the efforts of government ministers, such as Jacques Necker, to carry out vital economic reforms. The massive public debt forced Louis to convoke the States-General in order to raise taxation. His indecisiveness on the composition of the States-General led the third (popular) estate to proclaim itself a National Assembly, signalling the start of the French Revolution. The dismissal of Necker and rumours that Louis intended to forcibly suppress the Assembly led to the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789). Louis was forced to reinstate Necker, but continued to allow the Queen and court to conspire against the revolution. In October 1789, the royal family were confined to the Tuileries Palace. In June 1791, their attempt to flee France failed and Louis was forced to recognize the new constitution. Louis sought support from foreign powers. Early French defeats in the war against Austria and Prussia led to the declaration of a republic. Louis was tried for treason by the Convention and found guilty. He was guillotined on January 21, 1793.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Louis XVI." World Encyclopedia. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Louis XVI." World Encyclopedia. . (December 13, 2017).

"Louis XVI." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from