Gateway to the Classics: The Story of France by Mary Macgregor
The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

The Flight of the Royal Family

The royal family soon found that the palace was in reality a prison.

Louis xvi. could not leave the gates of the Tuileries without being followed by a number of the National Guards. The same soldiers escorted him if he went to hunt, the chase during these dark days being his chief solace.

Many of the nobles had, you remember, deserted the king, and were now doing all they could to encourage foreign princes to invade France.

Rumours of armies that would overrun their country reached the ears of the French people, and made the nobles, or aristocrats as they were now called, more hated than ever.

Unfortunately the people believed not only that the king and queen were eager to see the foreign soldiers in France, but that they were actually in league with the aristocrats abroad. Thus the mob became ever more surly and suspicious.

In July 1790, as though to allay suspicion, Louis xvi. sent to the Assembly to say that he would visit it and pledge himself to support the new form of government which it had drawn up.

So on the 14th July, exactly a year after the Bastille had been rased to the ground, a great meeting was held in the Champ de Mars.

The Champ de Mars, which means the Field of the War God, was a large open space in Paris, on the left bank of the Seine.

Here the Assembly, the National Guards, and a great number of people gathered, to hear the king take a solemn oath to be true to the new Constitution.

Marie Antoinette and her little son were also present. As the Assembly in its turn swore to be faithful to Louis xvi. , the queen lifted the dauphin in her arms that all might see him and know that he, too, shared in the promises made by the Assembly to their king.

It was a day of great rejoicing, and when the royal family had gone back to the palace, the people stayed to dance upon the spot where, but a year before, that grim fortress, the Bastille, had stood.

The troubles of France were certainly drawing to a close, thought the people. But they did not know the bitterness that was in the heart of the king, the anger that was in the heart of the queen, because they had been forced to yield so many of their royal rights.

Until now Mirabeau had been the real head of the Assembly. Again and again his eloquence had restrained the more violent of the deputies. He was trusted both by the Republicans, as the fiercer reformers were called, and by the court.

He had an interview with the queen after the meeting at the Champ de Mars, and, touched by her beauty and her sadness, he had forgotten that he was not a marquis, and bending low he had kissed her hand, saying, "Madame, the monarchy is saved."And this rugged man, with his iron will and power of speech, might have been able, had he lived, to save the king, but early in 1791 Mirabeau died.

After the death of the great orator the National Assembly was dissolved. New deputies were chosen by the people and called the Legislative Assembly. In it sat Robespierre, Danton and Marat, three of the most violent Republicans in France. They, with others who shared their opinions, belonged to a club called the Club of the Jacobins, and were known as Red Republicans. Now that Mirabeau no longer lived to control the king's enemies, Louis felt that even his life was in danger, that there was safety only in flight.

So Louis xvi. and his queen determined to leave the country. Across the frontier an army awaited them, led by French nobles who had already fled from France.

At midnight, on June 20, 1791, the royal family set out from Paris. The little dauphin was disguised in his sister's clothes, but this was the only precaution taken to escape discovery.

Louis xvi. , well-meaning but often foolish, instead of driving quietly away in an ordinary coach, insisted on travelling in a new coach. He also ordered his couriers and bodyguard to wear their yellow liveries.

In spite of this the little company got safely out of the city. As they journeyed along as quickly as they dared, one of the horses' traces broke, and a whole hour was wasted before it was repaired.

On and on drove the fugitives. Each mile as it passed left the king more cheerful. He even ventured at last to put his head out of the window. Alas, although they did not suspect it, they had been recognised and were being followed.

But now that they were so near the French frontier no harm, they thought, could overtake them. Soon they would reach the troops and loyal servants who were waiting impatiently to welcome the hapless king.

At length the royal party reached a village called Varennes, close to the frontier. Here they expected fresh horses, which were actually ready on the farther bank of the river. But the yellow-liveried courier who had gone on before to find them, never dreamed of crossing the bridge to look for the horses. He reported to Louis that there were none to be found anywhere.

Drouet, for this was the name of the man who had pursued the fugitives, now also reached Varennes.

While the king tried in vain to make the sleepy postillions drive their horses one stage farther, Drouet alarmed the village, blocked and guarded the bridge.

Thus it was that when the postillions, urged by bribes and also by threats, drove sullenly on, it was too late. The bridge could no longer be crossed.

There, awaiting the travellers, was Drouet with the Mayor of Varennes, who demanded the travellers' passports. They must be examined before the coach could proceed.

The royal party not being allowed to go on, was forced to spend the night in the mayor's house. This delay was fatal. In the morning the troops sent by the Assembly reached the village, their officer carrying with him an order to arrest the royal fugitives.

As the warrant was handed to Louis xvi. , he read it and said sadly, "There is no longer any King of France."

Soon the long journey back to Paris was begun. It was made bitter by the jeers and insults of those who thronged the road to see their captured king.

When at length the royal party was again in Paris they were taken back to the Tuileries, where both Louis and Mane Antoinette were now closely guarded. Sentinels were posted in the palace, and even in the bedrooms of the king and queen soldiers kept watch.

The princes of Europe heard of Louis's captivity with anger, and the King of Austria, with other sovereigns, demanded that he should be set free.

But the Red Republicans were in no mood to listen to princes. Their answer was to send three armies to the frontiers, lest the King of Austria with other princes should invade France and restore Louis to freedom.

Louis himself was forced to agree that the armies should be sent, but when the Assembly demanded that he should declare that all the emigrant nobles were traitors, he absolutely refused to do as they wished.

The mob heard of the king's brave refusal, for brave it was, yet it felt no admiration for his courage, but only anger because he had dared to defy the Assembly.

Again the people rose, as they had done when they marched to Versailles, and forced their way into the Tuileries, even into the room where Louis xvi. himself stood with his guards and a few friends.

Finding themselves in the presence of their king, the rough men shrank back for a moment abashed. Then, pressed forward by those behind, they took courage and shouted that Louis should do as the Assembly wished and denounce the nobles as traitors.

Brave and steadfast the king answered, "This is not the time and place to do as you desire."


"This is not the time or place to do as you desire."

His courage awed the mob, and one of the men handed him a red cap, the symbol of liberty, and Louis put it on his head. The queen also was offered a red cap, which she put on the head of the little dauphin.

Seeing this the leader of the mob was touched, and said, "Madame, this people loves you more than you think."

It was four o'clock in the afternoon when the mob entered the Tuileries; it was eight in the evening before the palace was free from its unwelcome guests.

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