The French Revolution The Trial of King Louis XVI instruction Booklet for Week 8

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The French Revolution
The Trial of King Louis XVI

Instruction Booklet for Week 8


Explanation and Preparation

What you need to know

Questions to consider

Roles and reading

Further reading

Other points of view


In Week 8 we substitute the regular lecture and tutorial format for a role-play exercise based on the trial of King Louis XVI, which took place from 11 December 1792 to 17 January 1793, culminating in the King’s execution on 21 January 1793.

The objective of the role play exercise is not to recreate the trial itself. Indeed, normal judiciary processes were suspended for the trial of the King, and the National Convention itself acted as judge and jury. The aim, instead, is to foster understanding of the processes by which Louis was brought to 'justice' and the debates surrounding his fate; and the more general development of the regime from constitutional monarchy to republic. You will be encouraged to think within the mental frameworks and experiences of your assigned roles and to consider how this particular episode of revolutionary 'justice' illuminates broader trends, structures and processes in the revolutionary period as a whole.
What is role-play?

This role-play exercise will allow you to get inside the skin of the past by understanding the experiences and attitudes of one or more historical agents (whether a revolutionary leader, a working-class woman or the King himself), with respect to the trial of Louis XVI. It is NOT a performance of acting ability, requires no dressing up, no props (definitely no guillotine!), no audience and NO THEATRICALITY. There is no stage: rather, you will conduct the exercise in your regular study cells merely as a different kind of tutorial discussion. In other words, there will be several such ‘structured discussions’ taking place simultaneously.

Why do role-play?

This exercise has been inserted into the lecture and tutorial programme to liven up our regular format by giving you something different, and more fun, to do. In getting inside the skin of your character, in empathizing with them and understanding their point of view, you will have a chance to explain the character’s motives and outlook to the rest of your small group, thus increasing your level of tutorial participation. Secondly, you will be engaging directly with various kinds of primary source material, the very evidence that professional historians themselves explore in order to produce historical knowledge. Finally, you will understand how the episode of the trial and execution of Louis XVI illuminates the broader politics and society of the early 1790s.

Explanation and Preparation

Each study cell will conduct its own role-play exercise based on the trial and explore issues surrounding it by following the guidelines below. Each member will choose a role (either an individual actor or a group of actors) and will have prepared for it by reading the relevant primary source documents, and having completed some reading in the secondary sources if necessary. You must be able to discuss – perhaps even to answer – the questions appended to your role in the relevant section below.

How will the role-play exercise take place?

Once we’ve arranged the furniture to allow the most comfortable and effective discussion, I will introduce the events of the trial and the political landscape in which it occurred, summarizing the main points of the ‘evidence’ presented against the King. The defenders of the King, including the King himself, will initiate the structured discussion in the study cells by outlining their feelings and arguments about the trial and the death sentence. The Jacobins and Girondins will then (separately) be given time to explain if, how and why the King should be tried and executed. Finally, the women of Paris, various aristocrats and representatives of the press will have a chance to explain how they have responded to these events.

After the discussion in the study cells, a plenary discussion will take place in which you will have a chance to comment on the experience of representing your ‘character(s)’; and each group will suggest conclusions to be drawn from the episode of the trial and the context which permitted it to take place, with particular reference to the ‘questions to consider’ section below. Any outstanding questions or concerns you have will be discussed in this plenary part of the session. There may need to be some more small-group discussion during the plenary, to allow you to gather your thoughts and responses before voicing them.

Setting up

5 minutes


15 minutes

Small-group discussion

30 minutes (5 minutes per ‘role’)


5 minutes

Plenary discussion

45 minutes

How do I prepare for the exercise?

You will:

  • Read this booklet in detail to understand the nature and point of the exercise.

  • Read the primary sources outlined for your particular role.

  • Do any secondary source reading necessary to aid understanding of the context of the trial and your role's participation in it or response to it.

  • Be prepared to discuss and to answer, as outlined below, the particular questions pertaining to your role and the general questions to consider.

What you need to know about the trial and execution of Louis XVI
Chronology of the King’s trial

20 June 1791

King’s flight to Varennes

16 July 1791

Reinstatement of Louis XVI

14 September 1791

Louis XVI accepts constitution

12 November 1791

Louis XVI vetoes émigré decree

19 December 1791

Louis XVI vetoes decree against priests

10 August 1792

Overthrow of monarchy

21 September 1792

Declaration of Republic

1 November 1792

Committee asked to consider legal problems of the trial

6 November 1792

Mailhe commission reported

20 November 1792

Roland announces armoire de fer discovery to Convention

3 December 1792

Decision taken to try Louis XVI

4 December 1792

Robespierre argued for immediate death of King

5 December 1792

Indictment to be drawn up by Robert Lindet

11 December 1792

Barère interrogates Louis XVI in the Convention

Malesherbes asks Convention if he can represent the King

26 December 1792

Louis XVI’s defence is presented to the Convention

27 December 1792

Girondin Salle proposed appeal to the people

4 January 1793

Barère’s rebuttal to Girondin ‘appeal to the people’

15 January 1793

Voting begins on verdict, appeal to the people, sentence

16-17 January 1793

Vote deciding on the death penalty for the King

18 January 1793

Thomas Paine’s attempt to secure a reprieve

20 January 1793

Verdict read to Louis XVI by Convention delegation

21 January 1793

Execution of the King

23 January 1793

Proclamation of the Convention to the French people

We have already seen that the King had an ambiguous role in the first ‘liberal’ phase of the Revolution, when France was a constitutional monarchy. He was head of state and possessed a suspensive veto to check the excesses of the Assembly, yet he offered only grudging acceptance of the new regime and it was no secret that he despised the constitution of 1791 which he only very reluctantly ratified, and continued to think of himself as the divinely-ordained King of France.

Hostility to the King increased throughout 1791, especially after his June 1791 attempted escape from the country (the so-called flight to Varennes) to meet with counter-revolutionary forces across the north-eastern border. This action demonstrated once and for all that he was not to be trusted and would not seek a genuine accommodation with the Revolution. Yet, in exchange for his acceptance of the constitution, the King was reinstated in September 1791.
But the problem of what to do with the King persisted. The failure of the Legislative Assembly properly to make the King accountable for these actions, and the worsening of the international war, helped to foster popular insurrectionary spirit against the constitutional monarchy. On 10 August 1792, largely as the result of Paris Commune and sans-culotte action by way of an attack on the Tuileries Palace where the King and his family now lived, the monarchy was overthrown. In order to cleanse Paris of royalist prisoners amid a panic about Prussian invasion of Paris, the sans-culottes carried out the September Massacres, killing over 1 000 prisoners in Paris, whether royalist or not. Elections soon returned a more radical group of deputies to the new parliament, the National Convention, which had to decide once and for all how it would deal with the continuing problem of the King’s place in French political life. Thus began the republican phase of the Revolution.
Since 13 August 1792, the King and his family had been imprisoned in a prison in central Paris known as ‘the Temple’. The guards were deliberately rude to the royal family, although general conditions were not harsh. Louis was deprived of newspapers but had a catering staff of 13 and could request books to be brought to him. He read poetry, Roman histories, devotional manuals and natural history during his incarceration.
The process by which the deputies decided to solve the problem of what to do with the King after his deposition provides the case study for this role play exercise. By the end of 1792 the Convention had decided to stage a trial for the King, and to this end, they established committees to find evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the King and to draft an indictment which attested to the King’s alleged crimes. The decision to try the King was only arrived at after considerable debate in the National Convention, however, in which the question of his inviolability was discussed with passion. These debates, and the eventual trial itself, all took place in the building in central Paris that housed the National Convention, the Manège.

The King was read the charges made in the indictment on 11 December 1792, and merely declared himself innocent of the charges contained in it. The indictment charges the King essentially with treason, consisting in ‘a multitude of crimes in order to establish your tyranny by destroying its liberty’. What follows is a condensed and simplified version of the indictment. NB For the full text of the indictment, see J.H. Stewart, A Documentary survey of the French Revolution, 1969, pp. 384-391.

20 June 1789: you locked the doors of the Third Estate hall preventing the Third Estate from meeting, and essentially drove them to take the Tennis Court Oath on the same day. Your royal declaration to the ‘National Assembly’ of 23 June demanded that the estates must vote by order, suggesting that you hadn’t yet accepted the existence of a National Assembly.
14 July 1789: you were prepared to send in the royal troops against the citizens of Paris when they stormed the Bastille.
You delayed sanctioning the decrees of 11 August 1789 concerning the abolition of feudalism and the tithe and didn’t recognize the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
14 July 1790: you took an oath to the Revolution at the Festival of the Federation that was not kept, and subsequently conspired with Mirabeau to ‘impart a counter-revolutionary movement in the provinces’.
You contemplated flight over a long period, evidence for which is provided by a number of nobles and officers who worked at the Tuileries Palace. On 21 June 1791 you attempted to flee on a false passport and left behind a document stating your hatred of the constitution. After that flight, you still conspired against the Revolution.
The blood of the citizens massacred at the Champs de Mars (17 July 1791) is on your hands. There is a letter from you to Lafayette stating as much. You paid to support the counter-revolutionary pamphlets and armies.
You were silent when Leopold II of Austria announced his intention to foster anti-revolutionary links against France.
‘Nîmes, Montauban, and Jalès experienced great disturbances from the first days of liberty; you did nothing to stifle this germ of counter-revolution’.
‘Your brothers, enemies of the state, have rallied the émigrés under their colours; they have raised regiments, borrowed money, and contracted alliances in your name; you disavowed them only when you were quite certain that you could not harm their plans.’
‘You issued an order to the commanders of the troops to disorganize the army, to drive entire regiments to desertion, and to have them cross the Rhine in order to place them at the disposal of your brothers and Leopold of Austria; this fact is proved by a letter from Toulongeon, commander of Franche-Comté.’
You hampered the Assembly’s decrees against rebellious priests and tried to bribe members of the Constituent and Legislative Assemblies.
‘On 10 August [1792] you reviewed the Swiss Guards at five o’clock in the morning; and the Swiss Guards fired first on the citizens.
You caused the blood of Frenchmen to flow.’
The King faced the National Convention only once more throughout the period of the trial, on 26 December 1792, when Louis’ lawyers answered these charges with a defence of the King. After many more hours of debate in the Convention as to how and when to punish the King, a series of votes on his fate was taken. First of all, some Girondins wanted an ‘appeal to the people’ wherein a popular vote of the electorate would decide both the verdict and the punishment for the King. The Convention voted on 3 questions: the guilt of the King (693 found him guilty); whether there should be an ‘appeal to the people’ (defeated by 424-283); what the sentence should be. In an all-night session of the Convention on 16-17 January 1793, the voting on the sentence took place. The results, which represented a majority for death of 75 (361 + those voting death with conditions), were as follows:
Votes on sentence or fate of King after the trial (749 deputies, casting 721 votes):


Imprisonment in irons


Detention and banishment after war, or immediate banishment, or solitary confinement, or a combination of the above including death under specific conditions


Death without conditions


Mailhe amendment (for later vote on a reprieve, which went on to be defeated 380-310)


Death with conditions attached (only after expulsion of all Bourbons, only after war, only when constitution approved, etc)

On the foggy morning of 21 January 1793, the death sentence was carried out. Thousands of soldiers lined the streets to maintain civil order and the slow ride of the King to the guillotine at the Place de la Condorde from the Temple took two hours. As the drum roll signalled his final moments, Louis declared to the crowd: ‘I die innocent of all the crimes of which I have been charged. I pardon those who have brought about my death and I pray that the blood you are about to shed may never be required of France.’

Questions to consider

  • What factors motivated the arrest of the King?

  • With what crimes was the King charged in December 1792?

  • Which groups were in favour of the King's execution?

  • Was the trial of the King just?

  • Was the trial of the King necessary to secure the legitimacy of the new Republic?

  • Was the trial of the King the first incident of the Terror?

  • Why did France cease to be a constitutional monarchy in August 1792?

  • Who were the republicans and how did their beliefs and programmes differ from those groups who were prepared to accept the constitutional monarchy?

  • How legal was the execution of the King?

  • How far did the war against Austria influence the decision to try and execute the King?

  • What role did Robespierre play in bringing the King to 'justice'?

  • Were the Girondins 'cryptoroyalists'?

  • Was there such a thing as popular monarchism, 1789-1792?

  • How did the press respond to the trial of the King?

  • How did aristocrats respond to the arrest, trial and execution of the King?

  • What issues divided the factions in the Legislative Assembly and National Convention?

Roles and reading

  1. Louis XVI and his defenders

How do these documents illuminate the response of Louis XVI and his defenders to the trial?

Why did the King and Marie-Antoinette decide to flee the country in June 1791?

What arguments were made in the royal couple's defence before and during the trial?

How did the King himself respond to the trial and the vote for his death?

What was the fate of the Queen, Marie Antoinette?


Defence offered by Charles-François-Gabriel Morisson, lawyer from the Vendée and one of the only deputies to defend the King, 13 November 1792, in M. Walzer, (ed.), Regicide and Revolution: speeches at the trial of Louis XVI, (1974), pp. 110-120.

Comments by King Louis XVI, extracts from his will, and the observations of his valet, in P. Vansittart, (ed.), Voices of the Revolution, (1989), pp. 211-216.

  1. Jacobins

Choose only one of these Jacobins as your historical character: Saint-Just, Robespierre, or Marat.

How do these documents illuminate the response of Jacobins to the trial?

What attitudes to the monarchy did Robespierre express before 1792?

How did he defend his desire to see the King executed?

What was his role in the trial of the King?

What was the relationship between Robespierre and the Jacobins?

How did Marat and Saint-Just respond to the trial of the King?

Did they share the views of Robespierre?

What was the fate of the Jacobins?

Sources: speeches by Louis-Antoine-Léon Saint-Just, pp. 120-127, 166-177; by Maximilien Robespierre, pp. 130-138, 178-194; by Jean-Paul Marat, pp. 158-166; all in M. Walzer, (ed.), Regicide and Revolution: speeches at the trial of Louis XVI, (1974)
3. Girondins
Choose only one of these Girondin leaders (Paine, Condorcet, or Vergniaud) as your historical character, although all Girondins should read Brissot’s very short contribution.
How do these documents illuminate the response of Girondins to the trial?

What differentiated the Girondin position from that of the Jacobins?

How and why did the Girondins defend the King?

Did Paine, Condorcet, Vergniaud and Brissot all express the same attitude with respect to the trial of the King?

How did the conduct of Girondins during the trial go on to haunt them under the new republican regime?

What was the fate of the Girondins?


Marquis de Condorcet, pp. 139-158; Thomas Paine, pp. 127-130, 208-214; and Pierre-Victurnien Vergniaud, pp. 194-208; in M. Walzer, (ed.), Regicide and Revolution: speeches at the trial of Louis XVI, (1974)

Jacques-Pierre Brissot, in P. Vansittart, Voices of the Revolution, (1989), p. 211.
4. French women of all classes
Choose either the women petitioners and Rosalie Lamorlière; or the King’s daughter and the Duchess de Tourzel as your historical characters.
How do these documents illuminate the response of French women to the King and to the trial of the King?

How and why did female members of the Third Estate communicate to the King during the Revolution?

What does the petition tell us about popular female attitudes to the King in 1789?

How did women of different social classes - and ‘orders’ - respond to the arrest, trial and execution of the King?


'Petition of women of the Third Estate to the King', January 1789, in D. Levy et al, (eds.), Women in revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795: selected documents, (1979), pp. 18-21.

Excerpts from M. Yalom, Blood sisters: the French Revolution in women's memory, (1995), featuring the responses to the trial by the King's daughter (the Duchess d'Angoulême), Rosalie Lamorlière (illiterate servant in the Conciergerie prison during Marie-Antoinette's captivity), and the Duchess de Tourzel (last governess to the children of the King). See chapters 3 and 4, pp. 35-73.
5. Aristocratic observers
Choose only one of these aristocrats as your historical character: Gouverneur Morris, Madame Campan, or Grace Dalrymple Elliot.
How do these documents illuminate the response of aristocratic observers to the trial?

What was the shape and nature of the aristocratic community in France in 1792?

How did aristocrats express support or hostility towards the King?

Were all aristocrats counter-revolutionaries?

What role, if any, did aristocrats play in the trial and execution of Louis XVI?

How did aristocratic responses to the trial and execution of the King differ?


A Diary of the French Revolution, by Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816), (1939), pp. 586-602.

Memoirs of the Court of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, by Madame Campan, first lady to the bedchamber to the Queen, (1843), pp. 262-273.

Journal of my life during the French Revolution, by Grace Dalrymple Elliot, [date unknown], pp. 79-99.

6. Press and the journalists of Paris
How do these documents illuminate the response of the press and journalists to the trial?

What attitudes to the King and monarchy were expressed in the press of Paris before 1792?

How was the trial and execution of Louis XVI covered in contemporary newspapers?

What differences were there in the reporting of these incidents in the French press?

Did all newspapers adhere to the same set of attitudes towards the King and his trial?

How did the British press respond to these events?

What was the fate of Hébert?

La Gazette de Paris, 10 August 1792; La Feuille villageoisie, 27 September 1792; Le Courrier des départements, 10 October 1792; Le Père Duchesne, August 1792; La Sentinelle, January 1793; Le Courrier des départements, 17 January 1793; Les Annales patriotiques, 20 January 1793; Le Père Duchesne, January 1793; The Times, 25 January 1793.

From: J. Gilchrist and W.J. Murray, (eds.) The Press in the French Revolution: a selection of documents taken from the press of the Revolution for the years 1789-1794, (1971), pp. 150-156, 229-230.

Further reading

The trial of Louis XVI is mentioned in most general accounts of the 1789 Revolution. After all, the execution of the King represented the revolution's initiation into bloodshed (and perhaps blasphemy), and, moreover, the proceedings occurred in a period of the Revolution in which the constitutional monarchy was collapsing into a Republic.
The Hartley Library (on 24 hour loan) holds two book-length studies of this episode, one of which is mainly a collection of primary sources. See M. Walzer (ed.), Regicide and Revolution: speeches at the trial of Louix XVI, (1974).
For a book-length secondary source, see D.P. Jordan, The King's trial: the French Revolution versus Louis XVI, (1979), also on 24 hour loan.
A short general piece on the trial is placed in Avenue Short Loan in the tutor box (JLT): M. Walzer, 'The King's trial and the political culture of the revolution', in C. Lucas (ed.), The French Revolution and the creation of modern political culture, vol. 2, The Political culture of the French Revolution, (1988), pp. 183-192.
Also in the (JLT) tutor box is a compelling extract from Simon Schama’s Citizens: a chronicle of the French Revolution, (1989), pp. 644-765, which describes the process of the trial and execution in some harrowing colour.

Other points of view

Let us cut the Pig's throat! Divide him into as many pieces as there are Departments, so as to despatch a bit of him to each! Let the head stay here in Paris, hanging from the ceiling of this hall of ours!

Deputy Louis Legendre, at the Cordeliers' Club
My people, what have I done to you?

Virtue I loved, justice was my breath,

Your happiness was my only aim,

And now you drag me to my death,

And now you drag me to my death.

Paris street-song, about King Louis XVI

The back of the hall was converted to boxes like a theatre, and here ladies in most delightful costume ate ices and oranges, and imbibed liqueurs. Deputies would go and greet whoever they were wished to, then resume their seats. The ushers did the job of those women who escort you to your box at the Opera. Throughout they could be seen opening the reserved sections of the galleries and with gestures of gallantry showing in the mistresses of the Duc d'Orleans, strewn with tricolour ribbons. Though all signs of assent or protest were prohibited, nevertheless, from where deputies of the Mountain, the extremists sat, the Jacobin Amazons would bawl long, noisy laughter when not screaming for the death penalty. The top galleries, open to the general public, were always crowded with foreigners and people of all sorts, swigging wine and brandy as if in some vulgar, smoky tavern. In every nearby café, bets were being wagered on the verdict.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Nouveau Tableau de Paris, on the trial of King Louis XVI

The Tree of Liberty pines unless refreshed by royal blood. My vote is for death.

Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac

Source: P. Vansittart, (ed.), Voices of the Revolution, (1989)

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