The following was a college essay written by Meagan Montanari. It has been edited and approved by Aidan McIntosh. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.
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By Meagan Montanari, Christendom College
To quote the Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc: “Every major question in history is a religious question. It has more effect in molding life than nationalism or a common language.” Historians writing about any era or event, must keep this fact in mind. When it comes to a historical assessment of the King of France during the French Revolution, Louis XVI, this historical interpretation is all the more crucial. Many historians seem to miss the mark, especially when forming a narrative on the life and death of Louis. Historians have largely ignored him as a religious figure or even worse, have maligned him as a weak, indecisive king who was destined to be exterminated at the dawn of modernity. This brief essay seeks to not only restore the reputation of this heroic man, who met his death with the spiritual courage of the martyrs of old, but to also argue that the wrong interpretation of his life and death results in an erroneous view of modernity. If the view is taken of the Good King that he was a tyrant, needing to be exterminated so that “free democracy” could finally reign after throwing off the shackles of organized religion, then modernity will seem quite luminous. The mass secularization and rejection of dogma results in the dawn of the Rights of Man and the victory of reason over faith. In the words of St. Just at Louis’ trial: “The Revolution begins when the tyrant ends.”
If, however, Louis XVI is viewed as a heroic Catholic King who came face to face with the wickedness of his subjects who sought to overthrow the Catholic Church and everything it stood for, then the view of modernity that follows will be very different. Mass secularization and the triumph of the anti-dogmatic principle is observed with a heavy pessimism. The death of the Good King is understood as the beginning of a rejection of God and His Church. The loss of Louis XVI for the world will be intimately felt, but also heaven’s gain will be acknowledged. Louis does not appear as vanquished in this great fight called the French Revolution, but arises the victor, united to Christ who was his recompense. These are the two choices laid out for the reader of history in regards the religious and moral character of King Louis XVI. Although most historians lean toward the former view, much historical evidence justifies a rethinking of Louis’ life and legacy.
For the purpose of this essay, two modern historical accounts of the person of Louis XVI will be analyzed: Regicide and Revolution by Michael Walzer and The Life of Louis XVI by John Hardman. While Hardman’s book is much more favorable to Louis, it is clear they both lack the perspective of the king as a religious figure. In Walzer’s book, he begins with an essay of his assessment of the regicide of Louis XVI by the revolutionary government. He then follows the essay with the speeches by the attorneys at Louis’ trial who were his accusers, but curiously, Walzer makes no mention of the defense attorney’s speeches, nor does he include them in his book. So, just from observing the layout of the book the reader is left with no ambiguity as regards the leanings of the author. Walzer begins with describing two types of regicide. The first type is basically that of a usurper, only wanting to kill the current king so that he can take over the throne for himself. This first type leaves the monarchy in place, never thinking of the possibility of doing away with it. The second type was inaugurated, so to speak, by Oliver Cromwell at the execution of Charles I of England. Cromwell wanted not only the king, but also the crown to be brought to the scaffold. This was the type of regicide that sought to abolish the monarchy altogether. It is when the king is judged and executed by a court of his inferiors after he has been deemed nothing more than an ordinary citizen, that the whole institution of the monarchy is in peril. As Walzer says, “Public regicide is not a denial of the king’s legislative power or of his executive prerogative, but of his personal inviolability…” After this event, Walzer argues, monarchy is never the same. One execution abolishes the old regime when it had survived thousands of assassinations in the past. There is no coming back for publicly executed kings or their successors. Certainly, not in the same way in which they existed before the revolutionary turn.
Walzer’s account of the regicide of Louis XVI paints it as a necessary occurrence for the emergence of a free democracy. “Louis was being killed in accordance with new political principles…only then would his execution mark the triumph not of a new set of men but of a new kind of government.” The king is described as a promoter of superstitions, always prideful of his make-believe divine right: “It is as if every king until the revolution preened himself before the same magic mirror and saw the same gratifying images: himself God’s deputy, head and soul of the body politic, sole knower of the mysteries of state, father of his subjects, husband of the realm, healer, peacemaker, sovereign lord. The characteristic sin of kings is pride.” Simply put, by Walzer’s analysis, the king was nothing more than a puffed up, self-important fraud; claiming to have Divine right but underneath nothing more than a power-hungry magician. This is the ideology of kingship described in Walzer’s essay and it is a far cry from the historical account given by the Church that all civil power truly comes from God directed toward the common good.
Another contemporary biographer of Louis XVI, John Hardman, along with Walzer, also misses the religious character of Louis during his trial and death. In his book The Life of Louis XVI, Hardman paints a much more favorable picture of Louis and the monarchy in France at the time of the revolution. However, the historical account of the Good King is lacking in a perspective that is altogether religious and explicitly Catholic. Hardman does bring out a lot of details about Louis that are most helpful; however, as it is important to remember that Louis was also very much interested in political issues as well as other hobbies of interest. Hardman goes into great detail over the Revolutionary War in America and Louis’ hand in aiding the rebels. Given the almost thirty-page bibliography, one is amazed at the level of scholarship that Hardman undertook to write the book. He does not describe Louis as a tyrant and is honest in his assessment of his character for the most part. What is glaringly clear, however, is the lack of emphasis on Louis’ religious sentiments all throughout the nearly five-hundred-page book. Hardman goes into great detail regarding the financial reforms initiated by Louis in France as well as many of his economic initiatives. While there are some hints of Louis religious belief throughout the book, this aspect of his character is by no means the focal point. What is of particular interest for this essay is the way Hardman portrays Louis’ trial and execution. While there is a stark contrast between the way Hardman writes of the king and that of Walzer, there is still no real analysis of the eternal significance of the king’s death and legacy. Hardman does give many details in his book about the religious nature of Louis, and so the work seems promising at first. Then, at the very end of nearly five hundred pages of an exhaustive biography, the narrative abruptly ends. Hardman makes no real effort to discover any ongoing religious devotion to the martyred king and even claims that no cult ever resulted from his life or death. This seems to contradict the allocution made by Pius VI and the evidence of the Expiatory Chapel built on the site where his body was found, not to mention the fact that a solemn Mass is offered at the Cathedral of Saint Denis every year on the anniversary of his death. In Memoirs of the Sansons : From Private Notes and Documents, there is an account of the illegitimate son of Louis XIV seeking out the son of Louis’ executioner in order to ask for a relic that the family had safeguarded sine the time of the king’s execution. The death of the king had always haunted Henri Sanson, who was his executioner, and his memoirs recount that he would seek out a hidden priest during the time of the terror to offer masses for the repose of the soul of Louis. Surely this historical evidence alone warranted a more thorough investigation by Hardman into the pervasiveness of the cult of Louis after his death.
A RETHINKING OF LOUIS LIFE, DEATH AND LEGACY
In order to understand King Louis XVI one must see him as a fundamentally religious figure. To neglect this aspect of who he is, is to miss him entirely. The background of his early life is significant, and should be kept in mind when forming an estimate of the moral and religious character of the future king of France. His life from the very beginning was imbued with Catholicism. He continued to live out his faith until the very end when he succumbed to the blade of the guillotine on January 21st, 1793. A careful study of his life and his policies as king will reveal that his deeply rooted faith influenced every decision he made. This is the life, lived out in faith, that many historians seem to mention only in passing or to pass over it entirely. Given that even a cursory reading of the events of his life will show forth countless examples of Louis’ Catholicism, it is an amazing feat indeed for a modern historian to write an account of the King without any mention of his deeply held religious beliefs. This short essay seeks to fill in this gap in the historiography of the Good King. I will show through many examples from Louis’ life that most fundamentally, he should be understood as a religious figure—a martyr even, to use the words of the Pope at the time, Pius VI. I claim that only with this understanding of the king’s life, and in particular, his death, can modern man truly understand the historical time in which he lives.
It seems appropriate to start our inquiry at the beginning. Louis-Auguste, also known as the Duc de Berry, beginning in childhood loved to read history books. The work he loved to read the most was David Hume’s History of England. The section he especially liked was the account of the death of Charles I. The life of the martyr-king inspired a young Louis with religious sentiment. Louis-Auguste was also the name of Louis IX (1214-70) who had been canonized by the Church as St. Louis. This namesake of his would come to bear profound religious significance at the end of his life. But first he would have to grow up and confront the Revolution. Louis-August was one of three sons of Louis the Dauphin of France (son of Louis XV) and his Polish Queen, Marie-Josephe of Saxony. His great-great-great grandfather was Louis XIV of France, who is well known to have led a morally corrupt life at court. His reputation stands in stark contrast that of Louis XVI who would not choose to follow in his ancestors footsteps, both as an absolute monarch as well as a womanizer. Louis XVI’s grandmother, Marie Leszczynska, was the leader of the “Pious Party.” The “Pious Party” included all those in the court who rallied around the “Good Queen,” who was a devout Roman Catholic and her marriage to Louis-August’s grandfather was an inspiring example of conjugal fidelity, at least on her part. Louis-August attended Mass daily from an early age as the royal family’s life was centered around their faith. Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth who has a cause for her beatification currently progressing, would later follow her brother and his Queen, Marie Antionette to the guillotine during the terror.
Louis was educated by private tutors, like any other royal at the time, who stressed the need for retenue to him. This would be a key word throughout his life. It means reserve or restraint. One is reminded of the virtue of prudence and even of the fruit of the Holy Spirit: self-control. In a report given to Louis-August’s father, Berthier (the tutor) explained the disposition of the future king: “though timidity, common with children who possess good judgement, prevents them from speaking, this silence stems from retenue, not stupidity.” One is reminded of the “silence” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was often chided by his peers as the “dumb ox.” Louis’ reserve and lack of superficial banter would later compel those who write about his death to compare him to Christ, silent before the direct questioning of Pilate.
THE CHAPEL AT VERSAILLES
The Palace at Versailles is the center of the French Government and the chapel is at the heart of it. Louis XIV completed the chapel in 1710. A new altar, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was then added; built between 1765 and 1773. The Sacred Heart devotion, at the time, was controversial and not well-known outside of France. The Sacred Heart devotion was closely associated with the Jesuit order at a time when their support or condemnation separated the French court among very well-defined lines. What is of interest to the historian are the reasons for the building of this altar and for the royal family’s endorsement of the anti-Jansenist Jesuit order at this time in France. The monarchy’s promotion of the Sacred Heart devotion would become prominent in French religious history along with the well-documented proof of the royal family’s personal pious devotions. This is significant for understanding Louis XVI, for this was the world he was born into and grew up in. When Louis XV became king, he continued all of the religious practices performed by his ancestors and believed these rituals were central to his role as a sacred person. The person of particular significance to the religious upbringing of the young Louis XVI was his grandmother Marie Leszczynska. She was a very pious women who raised her children in a faith centered household. Her daughter became a Carmelite nun while the rest of her children were also particularly devout. In 1713, a papal bull was issued known as Unigenitus, which condemned the errors of the Jansenist movement. This bull caused divisions in the eighteenth-century French Catholic Church but was strongly supported by the more conservative Bishops, the Jesuits and the monarchy. A very devout anti-Jansenist party was formed at Versailles with the queen as their head. The Jansenists emphasized human depravity and predestination which directly ran contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Jesuits were the Jansinest’s natural enemies due to their strong loyalty to the papacy, who had condemned the Jansinest’s teachings as heretical. Finally, the Jansenists worked through the government to have the Jesuit order suppressed in France and even officially dissolved in 1764. Even with all their power within the government in France, the Jansenists could not prevent the altar devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus occupying a prestigious and honored place in the Palace at Versailles. Even after the Jesuit’s suppression, in the later years of his life, Louis XV insisted on having a Jesuit protégé for his confessor thus defying the ban on the religious order. Certainly, the royal family was going against the grain at the time when most of France believed the Jesuits were a threat to national security given that they were deeply loyal to the Pope. It was at the urging of Louis XVI’s grandmother that the Sacred Heart Devotion gained acceptance through the Bishops of France in 1765. It was because of her prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus along with masses said in the chapel at Versailles that the queen became pregnant with a male heir to the throne who would be the only son to live past childhood. This male heir would live to be the father of Louis XVI. In fact, the symbol of the Sacred Heart would later become the badge of those who would rebel against the atheistic republican government in the Great War of the Vendee. Their motto was “Por Dieu et le Roi, “For God and the King.” It is clear that the religious influence of his family had a lasting effect on Louis XVI and helped to shape him into the Catholic monarch he would become.
After a somewhat dark and difficult childhood, Louis XVI’s father died on the 20th December 1765 from tuberculosis and his body was placed under the high altar in Sens Cathedral. All in the court knew that the advent of Louis XVI was close at hand, now the heir to the throne in France. It was clear to all that when he eventually took the throne, it would mean the advent of the “Pious Party,” given his devout religious upbringing. It was not long after Louis the Dauphin’s death, however, that Louis’ mother showed signs that she had contracted the disease from her husband. On the 13th of March, 1767, she died, but not before she gave her eldest son a jewel-encrusted reliquary containing a piece of the true cross along with another silver-gilt one containing a relic of Saint Louis IX. Every event of Louis XVI’s life as he grew into a man was marked by Catholic ritual and piety, all of which he would deeply internalize and hold fast to when the torrent of terror would sweep France during his reign. The death of both his parents marked the end of Louis-August’s childhood and now he turned his attention to soon ascending the throne of France.
When Louis was sixteen years old, he was married to the youngest daughter of Maria-Theresa of Habsburg: Marie-Antionette. On the 16 of May 1770 she arrived at Versailles to get ready for the official wedding in the Royal Chapel. The Dauphin (Louis XVI) was dressed in a gold a diamond covered habit of the Order of the Holy Spirit. Louis XVI was a member of The Order of the Holy Spirit which is an order of chivalry founded by Henry III of France in 1578. As King, Louis XVI was the Grand Master and so he made all the appointments to the order. There were three categories among members: ecclesiastic members, officers and knights. Members had to be Roman Catholic and also had to be a part of the nobility of France. Membership in this Order helped to increase Louis’ religious fervor and shows another way in which his life was imbued with Catholicism. The symbol for the order is the Cross of the Holy Spirit which has as its center a dove. Louis would later be forced to remove this insignia during his reception into the National Assembly for it was offensive to his enemies in the republican government who hated anything related to the Catholic Faith.
Even though more than a few of Louis XVI’s ministers deprecated the cost of what they deemed an excessively extravagant affair of the ceremony of Consecration, Louis’s deeply held religious beliefs and virtue would not permit him to dispense with the occasion. It was seen by Louis to be absolutely necessary to bring him in as King and he began right away to make all the preparations necessary for the spectacular and solemn event. As M. d’Yvignac writes:
…This ceremony…renews the alliance between the Church and the Sovereign of France. It sanctifies heredity. Until the head received the anointing oils, Jeanne d’Arc called Charles VII only the “gentle Dauphin”…Rheims is the place designated for this supreme rite…The whole country rejoiced. Even the philosopher d’Alembert could write Frederick of Prussia: ‘Louis XVI is the one we should have desired for King even if a propitious destiny had not given him to us…”
The event took place in May 1775 but first there were rehearsals and solemn vespers followed by a sermon from the Archbishop of Aix who spoke about the sacred duties and privileges of kingship. On the Sunday of the actual ceremony, the consecration began with a meeting between the king and the Sacred Ampulla. The Holy Ampulla was a glass vial which held the sacred chrism for the coronation of the kings of France. Three nobles had retrieved it from the Abbey of Saint Remi but not before a special ceremony had been enacted there to the chant of the resident Benedictine monks. The nobleman had to solemnly swear upon the Bible that the ampulla would make it back to the monastery safely after the coronation of Louis XVI. When the Sacred Ampulla reached the cathedral, it was processed inside by two Bishops who then passed the sacred object to the Cardinal Archbishop-Duke of Rheims. As he takes possession of the ampulla, he is addresses thus: “I entrust you, Monseigneur, with this precious treasure sent down from heaven to our great Saint Remi for the consecration of Clovis and his successors upon the throne; but I entreat you in the ancient custom, to pledge yourself to return it to my hands after the anointing of our King Louis XVI.” Then the vows of the King took place shortly after. The King responded as thus: “I swear to devote myself sincerely and with all my power to annihilating heretics condemned by the Church in all lands under my rule…to maintain and uphold the Orders of the Holy Ghost and of Saint Louis, and to wear forever the cross of the latter on a flame-colored silken ribbon.” After the coronation ceremony, the King went out to his people to perform his sacred duty of touching those afflicted with scrofula; also known as the “King’s Evil.” Those with the disease would line up and wait for the King to touch them saying, “The king touches thee, may God cure thee.” King Louis understood that it was not himself that could heal the people but that he was only an instrument in the hands of God.
One of the first things Louis did when he ascended the throne is to finally send away his grandfather’s mistress, Madame du Berry, to a convent for her to do extensive penance. Clearly, the new king felt she would benefit from this time of reflection on her sins in order to repent. The king had daily mass celebrated in the Royal Chapel where he would practice his various devotions and also have time for adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. All of the king and queen’s lives were closely bound with the Catholic liturgical calendar as was shown when their first son was born. From the Journal of the American Revolution we get a glimpse into this special day of dedication for the newly born Duke:
But one particularly beautiful, but chilly day-April 1, 1785- had been set aside as a day of joyous celebration within the walls of Notre Dame. A son, the Duke of Normandy, had been born to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antionette…to give thanks, the French King and Queen declared that the Te Deum (a traditional Latin Christian hymn) was to be sung at Notre-Dame Cathedral with most of the French nobility present.
The Marquise de La Fayette, who had been instrumental in the success of the American Revolution, invited Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to this special event. Earlier, during the Revolutionary War, Louis ordered the Te Deum sung in all the churches in France for the Americans victory at Yorktown. In his letter, Louis explicitly thanks God for the victory in his letter to the Bishop of Nancy:
In looking at these events, and appreciating the skill of our generals and the valor of our soldiers, my principle aim is to excite in every heart as well as in mine, the deepest gratitude for the Giver of all prosperity. I write you this letter to inform you my intention is to have the “TE DEUM” sung in all the churches of your diocese with all the requisite ceremonies…I pray God to have you under His holy protection.Louis
The Te Deum ordered by the king after Yorktown shows how his religious piety affected the way that he celebrated victories and special occasions. His piety would also show itself in the way he accepts hardship and loss when terror would sweep France, precipitated by the king’s aid of America during their war with Britain.
Another major event in the early years of Louis XVI’s reign that showcases his religious tolerance is when he issued the Edict of Versailles on the 7th of November 1787. This edict left Roman Catholicism as the official state religion of France but offered relief to non-Catholic worshippers and ended religious persecution in France. Louis wanted to be loved by his people and often sought what would make his people the most content with his policies. He saw himself as their father and wanted to make sure they were cared for. It was not only the Catholic Frenchmen that were his concern, but all his people living under his authority. These sentiments of fatherly concern came from Louis’ religious faith. During Louis’ early reforms, he was often the first one to enact them. An example would be when he abolished serfdom and so then freed all the serfs on his own land as an example for the rest of the nobility in France. He also abolished dungeons for keeping prisoners and enacted reforms of the criminal justice system so as to avoid prisoner abuse. It is interesting to note that the title given to Louis by the National Assembly in the early days of the Revolution was Louis XVI: “Restorer of French Liberty.” Clearly, even Louis’ future enemies recognized the king’s role in liberating the people of France and aiding in reforms that had been needed for some time. All this would change when, even at the outset of the revolution, Louis began to be seen as an enemy to a new sense of “freedom” put forward by the National Assembly.
The reception of the king in the French National Assembly from 1789 to 1792, is a very telling affair. The progression from the throne to the simple house chair that the king was eventually made to sit on tells a story of gradual degradation of the king’s sacred person. Camille Desmoulins, a member of the assembly, remarked, “Let us recognize the constitutional king, but let us retain an appropriate attitude. Let us show the citizen king that we are by no means his subjects…” The king, progressively seen as an enemy to free men of France, was subjected to progressive ridicule by the assembly who sought to put him in his place. They took away his throne with all its trappings and replaced it with a humble house chair. The assembly refused to stand when the king entered the chambers and eventually refused to even pay him homage as he read out his acceptance of the constitution. All of these refusals of due piety to the king as a sacred person are very symbolic of the danger posed to Louis’ person as the revolution progressed towards destruction. The National Assembly recognized how the altar and throne were so intrinsically linked that to attempt to subvert one was to attack the other. They demanded that Louis remove his cordon bleu of the Order of the Holy Spirit, claiming it was an offense to assembly’s republican sensibilities. Soon it became clear to Louis that the republicans were not merely seeking reforms to a corrupt system, which the king was in favor of, but in fact the assembly intended to do away with the monarchy altogether and so to banish the Catholic religion from France. To quote the Dominican Theodore R. Smith: “It was the first attacks on religion and the Church that definitely set him in the unalterable opposition to it all. This is a fact conceded by almost all historians of the present day whether they are favorable or unfavorable to the King.” The way in which the National Assembly dealt with Louis, specifically with increasing contempt, is the tell-tale sign of the emergence of attitudes toward authority that would come to dominate modernity.
As the laws became progressively more anti-religious in nature, Louis found himself in a head to head confrontation with the revolutionary government. Smith describes it this way: “The source of the Revolution was the Godless philosophy of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, the irreligious political theories of Rousseau, atheistic and violently anti-Catholic to the core. The fruits of the Revolution were the broken shrines, the desecrated altars, the martyred priests, the uprooted Faith and the “goddess of reason” on the altar of Notre Dame.” The Revolutionary government made an attempt to subjugate the Church in France by issuing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Louis desperately sought a compromise, knowing the cost of human life if he could not find one. He knew the strict punishments in store for those priests who refused to take the oath. Due to the king’s religious piety, he began at once to correspond with the Pope at the time, Pius VI. After Louis was forced to sign the decree, the Pope issued his bull Charitas in 1791. He explains this intimate correspondence between the papacy and the king of France:
“The king would certainly have refrained from approving the Constitution, but the National Assembly finally forced him to lend his authority to the constitution as his letters to Us on July 28, September 6, and December 16 attest. He besought Us insistently to approve five, and later seven, articles at least provisionally. These articles were so similar in tenor that they formed a comprehensive summary of the new Constitution. We saw at once, of course, that We could approve or tolerate none of the articles since they were at variance with canonical regulations.”
The king, being a loyal son of the Church, sought the approval of the papacy to try to make a compromise before more French clergy were harmed by not taking the oath. Given that the signing of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy is the act most commonly held against Louis as his paramount moral failing as a Catholic, it is striking that even the Pope writes that the king was forced to sign out of duress. If the Pope himself recognized that the signing of the Constitution was against the will of the king, and that he only succumbed to signing out of forced coercion, Catholics should not take it upon themselves to condemn him for the same. In fact, in his bull, Pope Pius VI blames the schismatic Bishops for the passing of the Constitution rather than the king, for they were not seen by the Holy Father to have been forced, but willingly adopted the oath and so scandalized the French Church.
The piece de resistance for both sides finally came with the Decree of Deportation of all Non-Juring Priests on May 27 1792. This is where Louis sealed his fate and made the heroic and fateful decision that would set him decisively on course toward the scaffold. This decree would make it so that all the clergy that had not taken the oath (non-juring clergy) to the Constitution would be immediately deported into exile and if they were caught returning to France, they would be executed within 24 hours. The revolution had gone far enough and now Louis would stand his ground. Louis’ ministers begged him not to veto the decree, warning him of the terrible consequences that would follow if he did. The king replied: “I expect death and I pardon my murders beforehand.” After His Most Christian Majesty vetoed the decree, an angry mob stormed the palace and threatened him with death if he did not concede. Louis faced the murderous mob with patient fortitude and absolutely refused to sanction the decree. They promised they would return and when they did, the traitorous National Guard who had been placed to protect the king, allowed the insurgents to rush the royal residence with the cry, “Down with the Veto!” The Swiss guard heroically resisted their advance but eventually the king and royal family were taken into custody by the assembly. This marks the end—the last trail to the scaffold had begun.
The months that Louis spent in the temple prison served to prepare him for his upcoming passion. The days he spent in such harsh conditions, separated from his family, only served to strengthen his character. “He had entered a weak and bewildered Prince; he left a strong, heroic Christian.”
THE TRIAL AND SENTENCE
The trial of Louis XVI could hardly be described as one; it was a total farce. Three of the charges laid upon him are of interest to this study. He was accused of vetoing decrees against the clergy; of corresponding with the Bishop of Clermont, promising to restore Catholicism when he returned to power; and finally he was accused of standing in opposition to the theft of the Pope’s property in Avignon and Venaissin. Louis made no denial of these accusations and stated that he was well within his rights as sovereign to oppose such actions. Louis’ benevolent reign was summed up by one of his defense attorneys at the trial, de Seze, in this way: “Louis mounted the throne at the age of twenty…he always showed himself the constant friend of the people. The people wished for the destruction of a cruel tax, which weighed them down, he destroyed it. The people wished for the abolition of slavery (serfdom), he began by abolishing it on his estates…the people wished for liberty, he gave it to them.” Louis had truly been a king of admirable Christian charity but still the assembly wanted blood. They sentenced him to death for being a so-called traitor to the nation. The Good King had gone from “Louis XVI, Restorer of French Liberty,” to nothing more than a civilian, tried in court for high treason against the new form of freedom adopted by the Constitution. After the Convention read out the decree to the assembly, pronouncing the sentence of death, Louis produced a document requesting a three-day stay of exeution in order to “prepare myself to appear before the prescence of God, the right to see a priest of his choosing and to see his family without witnesses.”
Louis refused any attempts to rescue him that might have ended in harm to anyone. The king’s last days were spent in the temple, in isolation with his favorite book, Imitation of Christ as his companion. He requested a non-juring priest as his last confessor, the Abbe Edgeworth, an Irish priest who would accompany him in his last agony. Louis wrote his last will and testament, sincerely repenting for the damage he had done by signing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy:
In the name of the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; This day, the 25th day of Dec. 1792…I pity with all my heart, our brethren that may be in error, but I presume not to judge them, nor do I love them less in Jesus Christ…I pray God to pardon all my sins which I have endeavored scrupulously to recollect…particularly my profound repentance of having signed my name, although strongly against my will, to instruments which may be contrary to the faith and discipline of the Catholic Church, to which I have in my heart continued sincerely attached…I pardon with my whole heart, those who have made themselves my enemies, without my having given them any cause; and I pray to God that He will pardon them…”
After giving his young son most Christian counsel, Louis said goodbye to his wife, daughter and sister, never to see them again in this life. The Abbe Edgeworth spent the night in Louis’ cell on the eve of his execution, offered Mass and heard the king’s last confession. Finally, they both boarded the carriage the next day for the two-hour ride to the Place de la Revolution where the scaffold was waiting. On the way, Louis read the psalms for the dying and silently contemplated his fate. When the King arrived at the guillotine, the executioner attempted to bind his hands and initially Louis resisted. The Abbe Edgeworth was heard encouraging the king to imitate The Savior, who also had His hands bound before His passion. After this comparison made with the Savior to the tying if his hands, the king replied to his priest, “Assuredly, nothing less than His example would make me submit to such an affront. Then, turning to his executioners: “Do as you please, I will drain the chalice to the dregs.” He then allowed his hands to be bound.
The most striking proof of the astounding courage of Louis comes from his executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, who recorded how the moments before the king’s death transpired. A French journal had published an erroneous account of Louis’ execution three weeks after it occurred, painting him as a coward begging for his life, and Sanson felt he needed to set the record straight:
…But here is the exact truth as to what passed. On alighting from the carriage for execution, he was told that he must take off his coat. He made some difficulty, saying that they might as well execute him as he was. On [our] representation that was impossible, he himself assisted in taking off his coat.
He again made the same difficulty when his hands were to be tied, but he offered them himself when the person who accompanied him [his confessor] had told him that it was the last sacrifice [the Abbé Edgeworth had suggested to him that the Savior had submitted to the same indignity].
…He then allowed himself to be conducted to the spot, when he was attached to the instrument, and from which he exclaimed, in a loud voice, “People, I die innocent!” Then, turning round to us, he said, “Sir, I die innocent of all that has been imputed to me; I wish that my blood may cement the happiness of the French people.”
“These, Citizen, were his last and exact words…
And, as an homage to truth, I must add that he bore all this with a sang froid (composure) and firmness which astonished us all. I am convinced that he had derived this strength of mind from the principles of religion, of which no one could appear more persuaded and penetrated.Sanson
It is important to note that Sanson was not a supporter of the Monarchy, even though he was hesitant to execute the king as it had never been done in French history. Clearly, the religious example of Louis as he faced death had a profound effect on his executioner and assuredly many others who witnessed the event. When the blade of the guillotine fell, severing the sacred head of the king from his body, the Abbe Edgeworth dropped to his knees and cried out: “Son of Saint Louis, mount to heaven!”
When news reached Rome, the Pope shared this view of the Abbe that Louis was indeed among the blessed martyrs in heaven. Here are some excerpts from Pope Pius VI’s allocution delivered to the Sacred College on June 17th, 1793:
Why should tears and sobs not choke off Our words? Would not groans, rather than speech, better represent that pain of soul We are forced to express, as We inform you of the horrible spectacle of cruelty and barbarity done at Paris on the 21st of January this year?
By a conspiracy of impious men, the most Christian king Louis XVI has been condemned to death, and the sentence has been carried out.
Oh France, France! called by Our Predecessors the mirror of all Christendom, and the unmoved firmament of the Faith, inasmuch as you do not follow others in your fervor for the Christian faith and devotion to the Apostolic See, but rather lead them! How you have today been turned away from us! How hostile your mind has become to true religion! How you have become the most dangerous of all those who have ever beset it! But even if you wished to, you cannot ignore that the safety and solidity of kingdoms is the religion of faith, inasmuch as it restrains both the abuse of power and license among the subjects; and for this reason the envious enemies of royal powers aspire to subvert the Catholic faith, so that they might bring them down.
Here, Pope Pius expresses his dismay at the fact that France, especially under the rule of Louis XVI, had been the leader of Christian Europe in ways of orthodoxy and devotion to the Catholic faith, now has fallen away and rejected Christ and His Church. The ideas of the Enlightenment have made once pious French Catholics hostile to the true religion. Pius points out that this very same religion that is being rejected is the one that restrains the disordered passions of wicked men from unleashing their terror on the rest of society. He makes the connection between Louis XVI and the Church, pointing out that the “envious enemies” of royal power seek to take down the King and so banish the Church from their lands. It is very telling that the Pope himself makes this connection in his allocution. Pius continues:
Oh again France! you who demanded to be given a Catholic king, because the fundamental laws of the kingdom would not permit any king but a Catholic one, see today that you have killed the Catholic king you had for the very fact that he was Catholic!
His Holiness gives the reason the king was killed in this part of the speech. Louis XVI was killed because he was Catholic! Pius does not add any political or economic motives here for why Louis was out to death. This is a very important point the pope makes and is crucial to understanding the death of Louis at the hands of the National Assembly. Pope Pius then leaves his listeners with a more hopeful note, drawing his audience to the spiritual reality of heaven:
O day of triumph for Louis, to whom God gave endurance in his persecution, and victory in his passion! We believe that he happily exchanged an impermanent royal crown, and lilies that quickly fade, for another, permanent crown woven of the immortal lilies of the angels.
We have wished to say these things among you all, as a kind of solace for a most bitter event. And so that We may make an end of speaking, what remains is for Us to invite you to perform with Us a solemn funeral for the dead king, as is customary. Even though this funeral office of Our prayers might seem unnecessary for him, who is believed to have attained the name of Martyr, as St. Augustine says: the Church does not pray for martyrs, but rather commends herself to their prayers…
It is clear from the Holy Father himself, who knew better how to judge the religious sentiments of the late king, considered Louis to be a martyr. It seems that the Pope would also know the most intimate details of the historical events that transpired during the revolution and those specifically leading up to the execution of the king. Pius VI understood Louis as a fundamentally religious figure, as should the rest of us. The questions remain to be answered: what happened after Louis’ death in relation to a cult among the faithful? If one simply takes the word of more contemporary historians, then nothing happened. Louis was executed and that is the end of the story. However, this narrative holds little weight given the historical evidence to the contrary.
THE CULT OF THE GOOD KING
In February of 1929, a rumor surfaced in the Paris Letter of the N. C. W. C. News Service: “The Vatican will be asked to consider the beatification of Louis XVI, on the grounds that he was guillotined, not merely as a victim of political hatred, but as a defender of the Faith.” Shortly after this rumor surfaced it seems to vanish into thin air. Surely, there had to be a cult that had developed in France for the martyred king of the Revolution. Indeed, there is much historical evidence in this regard. After Louis was executed, his body was placed in an unmarked grave in the Madeline Cemetery in 1793, which was not far from the location of his death. The Chapelle Expiatoire (Expiatory Chapel) was built in the early nineteenth century by King Louis XVIII in honor of his brother, Louis XVI and his Queen Marie-Antionette. Their remains were exhumed in January of 1815 and reinterred in the Basilica of Saint-Denise. The examples of religious iconography and statuary dedicated to the late king and queen of France is a striking example of the cult devotion of the faithful in France. Inside the Expiatory Chapel, there are two large statues depicting Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Louis is seen looking upward to heaven as a magnificent angel seems to be pulling him up toward heaven signifying his salvation. The statue is named “Called to Immortality by an Angel” by the artist Francoise Joseph Bosio. There is a side altar as well with a candelabra overlooking a painting of Louis XVI at his writing desk in the temple, looking up toward heaven in his agony. It is clear from the religious art inside the chapel that indeed a religious cult developed in France to the martyred king of the revolution not to mention there had been rumors of a cause being sent to the Vatican, even though it ultimately went nowhere. The relatives of Louis XVI as well as crowds of the faithful still gather at the tomb of the martyred king every year to offer prayers on the anniversary of his death. These prayers are always proceeded by a solemn celebration of the Eucharist in the Cathedral of St. Denis.
In conclusion, the way that Louis XVI is understood, in his life but most importantly in the manner of his death, will shape the way modernity is viewed. If he is seen as a weak king, nothing more than a tyrant, then modernity will take on an air of jubilation, where man finally breaks free from the shackles of ancient religious superstition and embraces enlightened ways of thinking. If Louis XVI is understood correctly, in light of all the historical evidence backing up the claim, as a fundamentally religious figure, then people of faith will gaze on the modern era with a sense of regret at all that has been lost. If we are to take the narrative of Louis given by modern historians such as Walzer and Hardman at face value, then the picture of the King that emerges lacks any eternal significance and once his execution was carried out, that was ultimately the end of the story. Hardman ends his lengthy biography of Louis XVI this way: “ No real cult emerged of him either as martyr or as king…that is all.” Is that all? Surely the kings story and his legacy as a martyr of the Catholic faith is so much more than a throw away line. The significance of his witness, most importantly in the manner and cause of his death are of paramount importance to those of us living in the modern age. How can we hope to understand the world we live in without understanding the one we have lost? Louis XVI is the figurehead of this time gone past. A time when the Catholic faith did in fact have social and political bearing. What must it have been like to live in a time when society had supernatural faith? Modern man has no such knowledge but can only dream of such a time. How did we get here, to a mass-scale loss of belief in God and the supernatural? A world so secularized that God is banished from all corners of social and political life. This is a question all Christian historians should be asking. Louis helps us answer this question. To quote the famous Catholic historian and sociologist, Christopher Dawson, “The process of secularization arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.” As Dawson astutely observes, the moment when men feel religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and I would add, along with the Christian monarchy, this moment ushers in the regrettable turn toward secularization and the loss of supernatural faith. To answer the Church’s call to all of us, that to a New Evangelization, we much understand how our societies came to be the way they are today. Only then, can we truly know how to approach the situation, the people we encounter and the world at large in order to, in the words of Pope St. Pius X, “Restore all things in Christ.” Let us, along with Pope Pius VI, ask for the intercession of King Louis XVI and commend ourselves to this cause so dear to his heart of bringing all men back into the fold; back to the heart of Christ who longs for reunion with all the lost sheep.
De Baecque, Antoine. “From Royal Dignity to Republican Austerity: The Ritual for the Reception of Louis Xvi in the French National Assembly (1789-1792).” The Journal of Modern History 66, no. 4 (1994): 671–96.
Dunn, Susan. “Louis XVI and His Executioners.” L’esprit Créateur 27, no. 2 (1987): 42–55.
Edmunds, Martha Mel. “Gabriel’s Altar for the Palace Chapel at Versailles: Sacred Heart and Royal Court in Eighteenth-Century France.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 65, no. 4 (2006): 550–77.
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“King Louis Xvi Orders the Te Deum Sung in the Churches of France for Victory at Yorktown.” The American Catholic Historical Researches 3, no. 4 (1907): 289–89.
Kite, Elizabeth S. 1944. “The Unknown King—Louis Xvi.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia55 (2): 105–24.
Louis XVI. Last Will and Testament. Smithsonian Museum. Accessed November 10, 2020. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/last-will-and-testament-louis-xvi-24842
Pius VI. Quare Lacrymae. Accessed Nov 11, 2020. https://thejosias.com/2015/01/29/pius-vi-quare-lacrymae/.
Pius VI. Charitas. Accessed November 10, 2020. Vatican.va.
Sanson, Henri, and Charles Henri Sanson. Memoirs of the Sansons : From Private Notes and Documents (1688-1847). London: Chatto and Windus, 1876.
Smith, Theodore O.P., The Dominican Journal. Accessed Nov. 1, 2020. https://www.dominicanajournal.org/wp-content/files/old-journal-archive/vol15/no2/dominicanav15n2kinglouisxvibenefactoramericam.pdf.
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 Micheal Walzer, Regicide and Revolution, 4.
 Micheal Walzer, Regicide and Revolution, 5.
 Micheal Walzer, Regicide and Revolution, 6.
 Micheal Walzer, Regicide and Revolution, 9.
 Henri Sanson and Charles Henri Sanson, Memoirs of the Sansons : From Private Notes and Documents 1688-1847, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1876), 5.
 Pope Pius VI,
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 Martha Mel. Edmunds, “Gabriel’s Altar,” 553.
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An interesting perspective but one which leaves me to ponder whether the author pines for a return to absolute monarchy passed on by heredity rather than popular support or merit. Louis XVI became emblematic of an increasingly oppressive, greedy, corrupt few whose primary motivation was to maintain their own power, privilege and wealth. His refusal to increase taxes on French nobility, while destitute masses starved, was only one example of his preference for the status quo over fundamental fairness. That the church lost so much credibility because of it’s Faustian bargain to prop up such a decidedly unfair and unjust regime, in exchange for reciprocal support, should serve as a warning signal to church leaders willing to support and enable similarly morally bankrupt public officials who nominally and/or superficially advance select, common interests they allegedly hold in common.
John: You seem to miss the point of Louis’ actions in response to the mob acting through the assembly. He acceded to their wishes as far as he could but of course, never enough for the mob which was intent on suppressing the church and abolishing the monarchy. The Church had a checkered past in France without doubt but the winds of change from Rome had already started to blow. The independence of the United States and the rise of parliamentary government in England set the tone for the future of government on the continent in the progressive nations. Louis was clearly a transitional monarch whose efforts were cut short by the terror. Even today the trappings of monarchy remain in many forms such as honorary titles, civil law, military dress and title, etc. There is even a pretender to the French throne and a Count de Paris. Finally, the rise of Napoleon was partly due to a desire to return to some sort of monarchy which lasted intermittently until it was finally abolished in 1870.
Yes I agree with the points you made. My point is that there were fundamentally religious motives which drove the French Revolution…and given that the king and the Church were seen as one and the same thing…the revolutionaries had to dispense with the one to do away with the other. I think the thesis of the paper is being missed. My purpose was to rehabilitate the reputation of this good man (and save it from the popular false narrative that claims he was a greedy despot) by showing ample historical proof of his merits as a Catholic martyr. I also wanted to argue that the way we view the events of the French Revolution and most specifically the death of Louis XVI, will affect our assessment of modernity.
But no, I am not a staunch monarchist by any means. So, to assume that would be just that…assuming.
I’m remain steadfastly unconvinced religion, per se, motivated the mobs of the French Revolution more than empty stomachs and dire living conditions. Had the church been viewed as an ally of the masses, rather than one of the monarchy and small minority of nobles, how likely is it that it would have been a mob target? To suggest Louis XVI was “martyred” defending the faith, rather than killed for not going far enough to crush an unjust, unholy alliance of church, state and nobility (i.e., preserving his own earthly wealth, prerogatives and status as well as that of the church and ,nobility), seems to be a stretch. It takes little imagination to envision a self-serving paradigm of defending/propping up a church eager to return the favor for similarly self-interested purposes.
Some trouble with your Roman numerals there. You refer several times to Louis XV as Louis XIV and on at least one occasion you refer to Louis XVI as Louis XIV.
Ok. Can you point out where exactly please? It’s quite possible.
Oh yes I see it. I must have sent over the rough draft by mistake. Thank you for pointing it out!
It was not my intent to dispute anyone’s comments regarding the causes of the revolution. Certainly there were a number. I would note that the positions taken by the intellectual class (Voltaire, etc) and the mob regarding the Church, during the revolution and the terror, certainly colored their activities. No doubt these resentments began earlier but came to full bloom as circumstances allowed.
This was beautifully written. Thank you so much. I was completely in tears by the end of this account. I actually landed here after trying to analyze the band Coldplay’s song Viva la Vida, which is about how the band imagined Louis XVI’s to have felt on his way to the guillotine.
And I do hope Catholic Monarchy will be restored eventually. And that we will one day have a Catholic pope again as well. May the Novus Ordo be exposed and dismantled by the people who long for God and for truth.