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The Reign of Terror

The Bungled Escape Attempt

Louis and the royal family had been model prisoners at the Tuileries for two years- pretending the whole time to support the reforms of the National Assembly while at the same time trying to figure out how they were going to get back to the way things used to be. The nobles who had fled France (called émigrés) wanted Louis to join them in Belgium and launch an army to crush the revolution. Louis had refused every invitation; that is until the National Assembly made a bold move against the Catholic Church. (We'll talk more about that later). On the night of June 20, 1791 the king and queen disguised themselves as peasants and set off for the border of Belgium 124 miles away from Paris. They almost got away too had it not been for a soldier who recognized the king from his image on a coin. The naughty royals were arrested in the town of Varennes, not far from the border and brought back to Paris in humiliation. The crowds that followed the carriage back to the city shouted insults like "fat pig" and "traitor". To the queen they were even less kind.

Once the royal carriage arrived back in Paris, they were greeted by an eerie scene. Everyone was 'menacingly quiet' and somewhere in the distance a drummer could be heard beating out a death march. People wore their hats as a sign of disrespect to the king.

After the botched escape attempt the people of Paris pretty much turned against the royals, suspicious that they were  secretly plotting with the other royal families in Europe to overthrow the revolution. Which they totally were!

Around 1791, France goes to war with Austria, Great Britain and Prussia who want to crush the revolution and restore Louis to the thrown. Paris is gripped by fear. No one believes that France stands a chance of winning. By 1792, Prussian armies are at the border of France and only miles away from Paris. 

This is where the revolution gets ugly. Radicals break into the prisons and massacre any nobles "enemies of the revolution". The next target: the king and queen. 

In January, 1793 the king is arrested and put on  trial. The trial is just a formality. Everyone knows how it will end. The king is convicted of treason and taken to the guillotine where a crowd of 2,000 people await the gruesome show. And a show they got. His royal chubbiness had one too many pastries over the years and when the blade of the guillotine struck it only went part way through his neck. The crowd was horrified. But some people took the opportunity to dip their handkerchiefs in the king's blood as a gory souvenir   With the king gone the revolution was safe. Or so everyone thought. 

Next, came Marie's turn a few month's later. For months she has been harassed and abused by the guards. Hating the queen was almost a pastime in France. Her biggest crime was that she was Austrian, a long-time enemy of France. There was never a shortage of gossip. She spent too much. She was secretly a spy for Austria. She mocked the poor... remember that whole 'Let Them Eat Cake' rumor?

Almost daily her jailers accuse her of perpetrating horrible acts against the people and even her own children. Her hair has turned gray from the stress.


Of course these accusations were nothing more than court gossip and mob frenzy but in times like these, nobody was interested in facts. In October, 1793 Marie is given a guillotine haircut and carted off to her death. Marie is so terrified that she has to be untied so that she can relieve herself in the corner of a courtyard. 

On the way to the scaffold, Marie accidently ​steps on the foot of her executioner. Her reply: "Excuse me, sir, I did not mean to do it."
The Terror


The death of Louis brought the revolution to a whole new level. The moderate girondins no longer had any control over the government. Radicals like Jean Paul Marat who wrote a gossip column called L’Ami du Peupel (friend of the people) had been responsible for the prison massacres. In his newspaper he listed enemies of the state, which included anyone from people loyal to the king, to people who did not wear a  tri-colour ribbon (the red white and blue) to show their support for the new government.

 The man in charge was a philosopher named Maximilien Robespierre, who at one time had been a great admirer of the king. Now Robespierre was the one pushing for the king's execution.

 L’Ami du Peuple reported daily about royalist spies and counter revolutionary traitors who roamed the streets of Paris trying to undermine the revolution. Of course, this was pure propaganda. Nobles with any sense had fled Paris long ago (or had been executed). As the terror began to take hold of Paris, neighbors reported one another as being traitors to the revolution. It didn't take much; eating white bread was often seen as being sympathetic to the nobility and was enough to win you a date with the guillotine.

The sans-culotte demanded that the counter revolutionary traitors be rooted out and destroyed. The Committee of Public Safety was the answer. The Committee led by Robespierre formed a special task force that was sent into the conservative countryside to root out any émigrés and counter revolutionaries. Thousands were rounded up and executed in hastily thrown together trials. A portable guillotine was even brought along to carry out the death sentences. But when that became too slow people were lined up and shot or blasted with cannon fire. Entire villages were burned.

The Committee had its work cut out for them throughout 1793 and 1794. Anyone questioning the revolution could be killed. Any spouse who showed remorse at the death of their newly departed could be killed as a traitor. Anyone wearing white, the symbol of royalty was also under suspicion. However, The Committee wasn't all about handing out punishments. It issued ‘Certificates of Good Citizenships’ to those loyal revolutionaries who made a good show of it.Of course, not having a certificate could also get you killed. After a year of Terror even die-hard radicals were beginning to question if Robespierre had gone too far. They were executed.Robespierre went too far when he started accusing his fellow Committee members of being traitors. When Robespierre read off their names on a list he had written, they quickly stood up and shouted  "One man paralyzes the will of the National Convention. That man is Robespierre!" The Terror apparently had come too close to home for some of the radicals. Robespierre was arrested as  -you guessed it- a traitor of the revolution and locked away to await trail. Robespierre knew what was coming; he even tried to commit suicide, but failed. On the evening of July 28 the blade of the guillotine ended the life of the man who had led to over 10,000 executions. The Terror was over. And so was the revolution.


Heads Are
Gonna Roll
In just 7 years over 18,000 people were executed by the Guillotine!!!




Le National Razor

In pre-revolutionary France even death was unequal. Wealthy criminals were given death sentences of a quick and painless beheading while the poor were subjected to slow and painful executions such as hanging. Clearly this was just one more thing that was wrong with the Ancien Regime. It was time for death to be more equal.

In comes a French doctor named Joseph Ignance Guillotin who argued that a beheading machine would be far more humane and egalitarian way to die. Even though the killing machine bears his name, Dr. Guillotin did not invent it. Some historians claim that the machine has been around in the British Isles ever since medieval times. But Guillotin's idea was popular with the revolutionaries who quickly began putting it to good use in 1791.

Ironically, it was King Louis XVI- who would find himself on the wrong end of the razor- who also agreed and signed a law making death by decapitation machine, the popular way to die in France. During the height of the revolution 1793-94, during a period of time known as The Terror, over 16,000 executions were ordered. There were so many executions that portable guillotines had to be built. The machine even acquired a nickname "The National Razor".

The guillotine even had a big impact on fashion during these dark times. Men and women wore red ribbons around their necks where the blade would strike its victim. Minature, toy guillotines were sold as well as women's earrings that were in the shape of tiny guillotines. The most popular souvenirs were often pieces of cloth dipped in the blood of famous victims like Louis and Marie.

The guillotine continued to be used long after the French Revolution, but this time for the execution of dangerous criminals- not political ones. The last public execution in France was carried out in 1931 and the honor for the very last death by guiolltining went to torturer-murderer  Hamida Djandoubi who got the axe in 1971.

Terror became a fashion statement. Parisian women began wearing guillotine earrings and red ribbons around their necks showing where the blade would strike its victims!
The Festival of Supreme Being became the new "Christmas" in revolutionary France. The most important holiday of the year was held on the 8th of June (sorry, Prairial the 20th)

1794 was the first and last celebration. It died out 50 days later with the execution of Robespierre.
Catholicism Under Fire

Under the Ancien Regime– the Catholic Church, which 95% of the French people belonged to, made up the First Estate. The Catholic Church-led by the Pope in Rome, was the largest landowner in France. It paid no taxes but collected rents on its land and tithes from the people. Like in medieval days the monks, nuns, and priests, were the keepers of knowledge. If you couldn’t afford a private tutor you were probably educated in a church school. The Catholic Church kept the birth, marriage, and death certificates of the people. In general, the First Estate had enormous control over the lives of the people of France. Then to top it off, most of the clergy who held fancy titles and a lot of power were from noble families so in reality there was hardly any difference between the First and Second Estates anyhow.

To do something about this, the revolutionary government seized church land and made the Catholic Church an employee of the state. Divorce was legalized and the special privileges of the clergy were stripped  away. This did not go over well with Pope Pius VI who denounced the revolutionaries, so the French army simply marched into Rome and arrested the Pope where he died a few years later in prison. Clergy had to swear an oath of loyalty to the French Republic, those who did not found themselves at the wrong end of the guillotine.

Then like pretty much everything else during the French Revolution things get all radical when the Robespierre and his band of Jacobins take power in 1791. The radicals declare an all-out war on Christianity, seeing it as outdated and against the spirit of the Enlightenment and Humanism that inspired the Revolution. Symbols of Christianity such as crosses and bells are taken down from churches across France. 

That most famous of all French cathedrals–Notre Dame (not the university in Indiana)–is converted into a Temple of Reason. The radicals try to erase any mention of Christianity. The religion of France was to be the Supreme Cult of Reason where God was replaced by a worship of truth, reason, and liberty. The inscription “To Philosophy” was carved above every cathedral Temple of Reason doorway.

Even the calendar–the Gregorian calendar which we still use today–wasn’t spared. The new Revolutionary calendar was rewritten on the new metric system that the revolutionaries also adopted. Each year would have 12 months with three ten day weeks. Each day would have 10 hours divided into 100 minutes divided into 100 seconds. The names of the new months like Brumaire (fog), germinal (germination) and messidor (harvest) were based on weather.

The period of de-Christianization didn’t last long. Once Napoleon took over as dictator of France, the Catholic Church was legalized once again putting an end to the whole Temple of Reason business. The Revolutionary Calendar also got the ax in 1801 after only 12 years. The metric system was the only one of these changes to survive from revolutionary days.

The French Revolution got rid of the 12 month calendar system. Now months would be renamed for the seasons rather than Christian saints  and distance would be based on units of 10, which became the metric system. 
The sign above the door at Notre Dame reads "To Philosophy" the slogan of Enlightment thinkers in France

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