The execution of Louis XVI by guillotine, a major event of the French Revolution, took place publicly on 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Révolution ("Revolution Square", formerly Place Louis XV, and renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795) in Paris. At a trial on 17 January 1793, the National Convention had convicted the king of high treason in a near-unanimous vote; while no one voted "not guilty", several deputies abstained. Ultimately, they condemned him to death by a simple majority. The execution was performed four days later by Charles-Henri Sanson, then High Executioner of the French First Republic and previously royal executioner under Louis.
Often viewed as a turning point in both French and European history, Louis' death inspired various reactions around the world. To some, his death at the hands of his former subjects symbolised the long-awaited end of an unbroken thousand-year period of absolute monarchy in France and the true beginning of democracy within the nation, although Louis would not be the last king of France. Others (even some who had supported major political reform) condemned the execution as an act of senseless bloodshed and saw it as a sign that France had devolved into a state of violent, amoral chaos.
Louis' death emboldened revolutionaries within France, who would continue to alter the country's political and social structure radically over the next several years. Nine months after Louis' death, his wife Marie Antoinette, herself the former queen of France, met her own death at the guillotine at the same location in Paris.
Louis XVI awoke early in the morning. After dressing with the aid of his valet Jean-Baptiste Cléry, he went to meet with the non-juring Irish priest Henry Essex Edgeworth to make his confession. He heard his last Mass, served by Cléry, and received Communion. The Mass requisites were provided by special direction of the authorities. On Edgeworth's advice, Louis avoided a last farewell scene with his family. At 7 o'clock he confided his last wishes to the priest. His royal seal was to go to the Dauphin and his wedding ring to the Queen. After receiving the priest's blessing, he went to meet Antoine Joseph Santerre, Commander of the Guard. A green carriage waited in the second court. He seated himself in it with the priest, with two militiamen sitting opposite them. The carriage left the Temple at approximately 9 o'clock. For more than an hour the carriage, preceded by drummers playing to drown out any support for the King and escorted by a cavalry troop with drawn sabres, made its way through Paris along a route lined with 80,000 men-at-arms (soldiers of the National Guard and sans-culottes).
In the neighbourhood of the present-day rue de Cléry, the Baron de Batz, a supporter of the Royal family who had financed the flight to Varennes, had summoned 300 Royalists to enable the King's escape. Louis was to be hidden in a house in the rue de Cléry belonging to the Count of Marsan. The Baron leaped forward calling "Follow me, my friends, let us save the King!", but his associates had been denounced and only a few had been able to turn up. Three of them were killed, but de Batz managed to escape.
At 10 o'clock, the carriage arrived at Place de la Révolution and proceeded to an area where a scaffold had been erected, in a space surrounded by guns and drums, and by a crowd carrying pikes and bayonets.
After initially refusing to permit Sanson and his assistants to bind his hands together, Louis XVI relented when Sanson proposed to use his handkerchief instead of rope. The executioner's men cut the king's hair, removed his shirt's collar, and followed him up the scaffold. Upon the platform, Louis proclaimed his innocence to the crowd and expressed his concern for the future of France. He tried to give an extensive speech, but a drum roll was ordered by Antoine Joseph Santerre and the resulting noise made his final words difficult to understand.
The executioners fastened him to the guillotine's bench (bascule), positioning his neck beneath the device's yoke (lunette) to hold it in place, and the blade swiftly decapitated him. Sanson grabbed his severed head out of the receptacle into which it fell and exhibited it to the cheering crowd. According to one witness report, the blade did not sever his neck but instead cut through the back of his skull and into his jaw. Some accounts state that members of the crowd rushed towards the scaffold with handkerchiefs to dip them in his blood and keep as souvenirs.
Edgeworth, Louis' Irish confessor, wrote in his memoirs:
The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass; the King was obliged to lean on my arm, and from the slowness with which he proceeded, I feared for a moment that his courage might fail; but what was my astonishment, when arrived at the last step, I felt that he suddenly let go my arm, and I saw him cross with a firm foot the breadth of the whole scaffold; silence, by his look alone, fifteen or twenty drums that were placed opposite to me; and in a voice so loud, that it must have been heard at the Pont Tournant, I heard him pronounce distinctly these memorable words: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."
The 13 February issue of the Thermomètre du jour ('Daily Thermometer'), a moderate Republican newspaper, described the King as shouting "I am lost!", citing as its source the executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson.
Charles-Henri Sanson responded to the story by offering his own version of events in a letter dated 20 February 1793. The account of Sanson states:
Arriving at the foot of the guillotine, Louis XVI looked for a moment at the instruments of his execution and asked Sanson why the drums had stopped beating. He came forward to speak, but there were shouts to the executioners to get on with their work. As he was strapped down, he exclaimed "My people, I die innocent!" Then, turning towards his executioners, Louis XVI declared "Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French." The blade fell. It was 10:22 am. One of the assistants of Sanson showed the head of Louis XVI to the people, whereupon a huge cry of "Vive la Nation! Vive la République!" arose and an artillery salute rang out which reached the ears of the imprisoned Royal family.
In his letter, published along with its French mistakes in the Thermomètre of Thursday, 21 February 1793, Sanson emphasises that the King "bore all this with a composure and a firmness which has surprised us all. I remained strongly convinced that he derived this firmness from the principles of the religion by which he seemed penetrated and persuaded as no other man."
"Now then, you were saying you wanted something, Monsieur Dumas?"
"You know how much playwrights need accurate information, Monsieur Sanson. The moment may come for me to put Louis XVI on the stage. How much truth is there in the story of the wrestling bout between him and your father's assistants at the foot of the scaffold?"
"Oh, I can tell you that, Monsieur, I was there."
"I know, that's why it is you I'm asking."
"Well listen. The King had been driven to the scaffold in his own carriage and his hands were free. At the foot of the scaffold we decided to tie his hands, but less because we feared that he might defend himself than because we thought he might by an involuntary movement spoil his execution or make it more painful. So one assistant waited with a rope, while another said to him 'It is necessary to tie your hands'. On hearing these unexpected words, at the unexpected sight of that rope, Louis XVI made an involuntary gesture of repulsion. 'Never!' he cried, 'never!' and pushed back the man holding the rope. The other three assistants, believing that a struggle was imminent, dashed forward. That is the explanation of the moment of confusion interpreted after their fashion by the historians. It was then that my father approached and said, in the most respectful tone of voice imaginable, 'With a handkerchief, Sire'. At the word 'Sire', which he had not heard for so long, Louis XVI winced, and at the same moment his confessor had addressed a few words to him from the carriage, said 'So be it, then, that too, my God!' and held out his hands."
Henri Sanson was appointed Executioner of Paris from April 1793, and would later execute Marie Antoinette.
Speaking to Victor Hugo in 1840, a man called Leboucher, who had arrived in Paris from Bourges in December 1792 and was present at the execution of Louis XVI, recalled vividly:
Here are some unknown details. The executioners numbered four; two only performed the execution; the third stayed at the foot of the ladder, and the fourth was on the wagon which was to convey the King's body to the Madeleine Cemetery and which was waiting a few feet from the scaffold.
The executioners wore breeches, coats in the French style as the Revolution had modified it, and three-cornered hats with enormous tri-colour cockades.
They executed the King with their hats on, and it was without taking his hat off that Samson, [sic] seizing by the hair the severed head of Louis XVI., showed it to the people, and for a few moments let the blood from it trickle upon the scaffold.
In Le nouveau Paris, Mercier describes the execution of Louis XVI in these words:
... is this really the same man that I see being jostled by four assistant executioners, forcibly undressed, his voice drowned out by the drums, trussed to a plank, still struggling, and receiving the heavy blade so badly that the cut does not go through his neck, but through the back of his head and his jaw, horribly?
A popular but apocryphal legend holds that as soon as the guillotine fell, an anonymous Freemason leaped on the scaffolding, plunged his hand into the blood, splashed drips of it onto the crown, and shouted, "Jacques de Molay, tu es vengé!" (usually translated as, "Jacques de Molay, thou art avenged"). De Molay (died 1314), the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, had reportedly cursed Louis' ancestor Philip the Fair, after the latter had sentenced him to burn at the stake based on false confessions. The story spread widely and the phrase remains in use today to indicate the triumph of reason and logic over "religious superstition".
The body of Louis XVI was immediately transported to the old Church of the Madeleine (demolished in 1799), since the legislation in force forbade burial of his remains beside those of his father, the Dauphin Louis de France, at Sens. Two curates who had sworn fealty to the Revolution held a short memorial service at the church. One of them, Damoureau, stated in evidence:
Arriving at the cemetery, I called for silence. A detachment of Gendarmes showed us the body. It was clothed in a white vest and grey silk breeches with matching stockings. We chanted Vespers and the service for the dead. In pursuance of an executive order, the body lying in its open coffin was thrown onto a bed of quicklime at the bottom of the pit and covered by one of earth, the whole being firmly and thoroughly tamped down. Louis XVI's head was placed at his feet.
The area where Louis XVI and later (16 October 1793) Marie Antoinette were buried, in the churchyard of St. Mary Magdaleine's, is today the "Square Louis XVI" greenspace, containing the classically self-effacing Expiatory Chapel completed in 1826 during the reign of Louis's youngest brother Charles X. The crypt altar stands above the exact spot where the remains of the Royal couple were originally laid to rest. The chapel narrowly escaped destruction on politico-ideological grounds during the violently anti-clerical period at the beginning of the 20th century.
Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac have written a number of works on Louis XVI, including: