Louis XVI of France  

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"Louis XVI ruled as King of France from 1774 until 1791. His execution signaled the end of absolute monarchy in France and would eventually bring about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte."


execution of Louis XVI

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Louis XVI (23 August 1754 – 21 January 1793) ruled as King of France. He is best-known for his marriage to Marie Antoinette and his supposed sexual inadequacies. His execution signaled the end of absolute monarchy in France and would eventually bring about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Louis XVI ruled as King of France and Navarre from 1774 until 1791, and then as King of the French from 1791 to 1792. Suspended and arrested during the Insurrection of 10 August 1792, he was tried by the National Convention, found guilty of treason, and executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793. He was the only king of France to be executed.

Although Louis was beloved at first, his indecisiveness and conservatism led some elements of the people of France to eventually view him as a symbol of the tyranny of the Ancien Régime.

He is informally nicknamed Louis le Dernier (Louis the Last), a derisive use of the traditional nicknaming of French kings. Today, historians and French people in general have a more nuanced view of Louis XVI, who is seen as an honest man with good intentions, but who was probably unfit for the herculean task of reforming the monarchy, and who was used as a scapegoat by the revolutionaries.

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Family life

On 16 May 1770, at the age of sixteen, Louis-Auguste married the 15-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), his second cousin once removed and the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and his wife, the formidable Empress Maria Theresa.

The marriage was met with hostility by the French public. France's alliance with Austria had pulled France into the disastrous Seven Years War, in which they were soundly defeated by the British. By the time Louis-Auguste and Marie-Antoinette were married, the people of France regarded the Austrian alliance with intense dislike, and Marie-Antoinette was seen as an unwelcome foreigner. For the young couple, the marriage was initially amiable but distant — Louis-Auguste's shyness meant that he failed to consummate the union, much to his wife's distress, whilst his fear of being manipulated by her for Imperial purposes caused him to behave coldly towards her in public. Over time, the couple became closer, and the marriage was consummated in July 1773.

Nonetheless, the couple failed to produce children for several years after that, placing strain upon the marriage, whilst the situation was worsened by the publication of obscene pamphlets (libelles) which mocked the infertility of the pair. One questioned, "Can the King do it? Can't the King do it?"

The reasons behind the couple's initial failure to have children were vigorously debated even at the time, and have continued to be so since. One suggestion is that Louis-Auguste suffered from a sexual dysfunction, fperhaps phimosis (a tightness of the foreskin that inhibits erection and ejaculation in sufferers), a suggestion first made in late 1772 by the royal doctors. Historians adhering to this view suggest that he was circumcised (the common cure for phimosis) to relieve the condition seven years after the marriage. Louis's doctors were not in favor of it—the operation was delicate and traumatic, and capable of doing "as much harm as good" to an adult male. As late as 1777, the Prussian envoy, Baron Goltz, reported that the King had definitely declined to be operated upon.

Historical evidence further suggests that the King was not operated on. The Dauphine's doctor, Jean-Marie Lassonne, examining the Dauphin in 1773, found him 'well made', and judged that the problem was one of 'clumsiness and ignorance'. This incident was followed several months later by the above-mentioned consummation of July 1773. In addition, there is no record of the king being operated upon, or of him spending several weeks convalescing, as would have been necessary; the fact that his hunting journals show no such break, despite the impossibility of sitting in a saddle for several weeks after such an operation, strongly suggests that he did not in fact have it.

It has also been suggested, although her mother Maria-Theresa insisted otherwise, that the biological hindrance lay with Marie-Antoinette. Medical correspondence of the time stated that, though inexperienced, Louis was simply "too much of a gentleman" to force himself on his young and slender wife. Some sources suggest that it was Marie-Antoinette who underwent some minor surgical operation, which then enabled the royal couple to conceive.

The true cause of the couple's infertility may have been revealed in a letter written by Marie-Antoinette's brother, Joseph II, to another brother, Leopold II. Joseph in April 1777 visited Louis and Marie-Antoinette in France, and had a frank talk with both of them regarding sexual matters; from this, he discovered that the King slept with his wife from a sense of royal duty rather than for pleasure. There was no problem with the King's sexual organs: Joseph wrote, "he has strong perfectly satisfactory erections", and "he sometimes has night-time emissions"; the problem was that when the King and Queen slept together, "he introduces the member, stays there without moving for about two minutes, withdraws without ejaculating but still erect, and bids goodnight...when he is inside and going at it...[ejaculation] never happens." In the Emperor's opinion, the pair were "two complete blunderers", who had nothing wrong with them aside from lack of sexual knowledge and desire.

Joseph, it would appear, remedied the couple's ignorance during his 'talks' with the pair; by August, the marriage was finally consummated, and the pair had thanked him for his advice, to which they attributed the consummation.

Subsequently, the Royal couple had four children:

Image and memory

The regicide has loomed as a shadow over French history. The 19th-century historian, Jules Michelet, attributed the restoration of the French monarchy to sympathy engendered by the execution. Michelet's Histoire de la Révolution Française and Alphonse de Lamartine's Histoire des Girondins, in particular, showed the marks of the feelings aroused by the revolution's regicide. The two writers did not share the same sociopolitical vision, but they agreed that, even though the monarchy was rightly ended in 1792, the lives of the royal family should have been spared. Lack of compassion at that moment contributed to a radicalization of revolutionary violence and to greater divisiveness among Frenchmen. Because Louis XVI was a merciful man, the revolutionaries' passions needed to be balanced by compassion and by less fanatical sentiments. For 20th century novelist Albert Camus the execution signaled the end of the role of God in history, for which he mourned. For 20th century philosopher Jean-François Lyotard the regicide was the starting point of all French thought, the memory of which acts as a reminder that French modernity began under the sign of a crime.

The duchess of Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI, survived and lobbied Rome energetically for the canonization of her father as a saint of the Catholic Church. Despite his signing of the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy," Louis had been described as a martyr by Pope Pius VI in 1793. In 1820, however, a memorandum of the Congregation of Rites in Rome, declaring the impossibility of proving that Louis had been executed for religious rather than political reasons, put an end to hopes of canonization.

  • Louisville, Kentucky is named for Louis XVI. In 1780, the Virginia General Assembly bestowed this name in honor of the French king, whose soldiers were aiding the American side in the Revolutionary War. The Virginia General Assembly saw the King as a noble man, but many other continental delegates disagreed.

In films and literature

Louis XVI has been portrayed in numerous films depicting the French Revolution. In Marie Antoinette (1938), he was played by Robert Morley. In Sacha Guitry's Si Versailles m'était conté, he was portrayed by one of the film's producers, Gilbert Bokanowski (using the alias Gilbert Boka), who arguably resembled him. Several portrayals have upheld the image of a bumbling, almost foolish King, such as that by Jacques Morel in the 1956 French film Marie-Antoinette reine de France and that by Terence Budd in the Lady Oscar live action film. In Start the Revolution Without Me, Louis XVI is portrayed by Hugh Griffith as a laughable cuckold. Mel Brooks played a comic version of Louis the XVI in The History of the World Part 1, who was portrayed as a libertine who had such a distaste for the peasantry he used them as targets in skeet-shooting.

In the two-part film La Révolution française, Jean-François Balmer gave a critically-acclaimed performance as Louis XVI, whom he portrayed as an insecure, shy, yet decent and intelligent man. In Ridicule, the king was played by Urbain Cancelier. In Jefferson in Paris, Louis XVI was played by Michael Lonsdale who, at 64 years old, greatly exceeded the King's actual age. In Marie Antoinette (2006), he was played by Jason Schwartzman, in a movie known not to be historically accurate because the historical Louis was quite tall and is known to have gained a great deal of weight towards the end of his life. In the 1997 movie Titanic, a necklace called the Heart of the Ocean held a precious, heart-shaped blue diamond, supposedly fashioned from Louis XVI's crown, which disappeared after his execution. The history of the necklace was inspired by that of the Hope Diamond.

In the American supernatural television drama Moonlight, Louis XVI is mentioned as the progenitor of a vampiric bloodline which discovered a temporary cure for vampirism.


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