History : Jul-Aug 2016
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HISTORY 75 “I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed will never fall on France.” –l ouis xvi, king of france JOAN TAFALLA ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AT THE AUTONOMOUS UNIVERSITY OF BARCELONA, SPAIN, TAFALLA IS A SPECIALIST ON ROBESPIERRE. came back, with a clear majority against a pleb- iscite. The king, therefore, was guilty, and the sentence of the Convention would be definitive. January 16 dawned, a day on which the fates not just of the doomed king rested, but also of many of the deputies present. There only re- mained the question of what the king’s sen- tence should be. The consequences of the Con- vention’s decision would be well remembered in the state-sponsored terror looming ahead. The Girondins, struggling to press the case for a non-capital sentence, requested the voting bar be raised to require two-thirds of the Con- vention. But it was decided, in a severe blow for the king, that a simple majority would suffice. Voting lasted all day and stretched into the night of the 17th. The vote was close, but those opting for capital punishment—whether im- mediate or deferred—had a clear majority. Some deputies voted in favor of death, with the provi- so that the sentence should be deferred, but the final vote showed a total of 361 deputies voted for a death sentence to be carried out immedi- ately, against 334 deputies who voted in favor of other types of punishment. On the morning on January 18, the Girondin Pierre Vergniaud delivered the results: “I declare, in the name of the Convention, that the punishment decreed against Louis Capet, is death.” Malesherbes, who had nearly fainted in his final desperate attempts to defend the king’s life before the deputies, went to the Temple to break the bad news to Louis. The Guillotine Falls Louis reacted calmly. On January 20 he made three requests: a stay of execution to prepare for death, authorization to see his family in private, and permission for his confessor to be Hen- ry Essex Edgeworth de Firmont, an Irish-born priest who had refused to swear loyalty to the revolutionary Constitution. The first request, for a stay of execution, was flatly denied. The other two petitions were granted, and that eve- ning, Edgeworth de Firmont was admitted to Louis’s rooms. The next day, the morning of his death, the former king rose at five to attend Mass, which was celebrated by Edgeworth de Firmont. He was taken to see Marie-Antoinette for the last time, and requested, unsuccessfully, to be able to cut his own hair in preparation for the guillotine’s blade. The chief of the National Guard of Paris, arrived to escort him to the scaffold at around 8:30. The journey between the Temple and the Place de la Révolution (today the Place de la Concorde) lasted an hour and a half, with many thousands of nation- al guards, armed with pikes and rifles, posted along the route. Finally, at ten o’clock, the former king and his escorts reached the foot of the scaffold, located opposite the Tuileries Palace from whose opu- lence he had once ruled. The square was filled with thousands of soldiers. The king took off his coat, and his hands were tied. He mounted the scaffold accompanied by Edgeworth de Firmont, from where he attempted to address the crowd, proclaiming his innocence. According to the testimony of Edgeworth de Firmont, he said:“I die innocent of all the crimes of which I am charged. I forgive the authors of my death and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed will never fall on France.” The words were lost in the growing drum roll. His executioner later recorded the moment after the blade fell, at exactly 10:22 a.m. One of his assistants, he said, lifted the head of the dead king to the people, whereupon a huge cry arose: “Vive la Nation! Vive la République!” Louis XVI’s death was unprecedented; he was the only King of France to be executed by his own people. His death closed the door on hundreds of years of continuous French monarchy and opened up a time of revolution. AKG/ALBUM ROSETTE OF THE REVOLUTION “Tyranny Is No More. Long Live the French Republic,” reads the legend on this cocarde—rosette— from the 1790s, whose colors live on in France’s national tricolor flag.