Louis XVI: Reign, Trial & Execution

Instructor: Victoria Savage
This lesson explores the life and death of Louis XVI: last king of France. We will examine Louis's role in the downfall of the monarchy and the events that led to the French Revolution. Was he a tyrant opposed to freedom or was he a victim of a nation's thirst for blood?

Who Was Louis XVI?

On a dark night at 3:15 in the morning on May 10, 1774, the aged King Louis XV died and his grandson Louis XVI became King. Louis and his Queen Marie Antoinette became France's last ruling monarchs. Typically stereotyped as being a stupid, lazy, selfish King, Louis XVI during and after his life was prey to vicious media propaganda, and as a result was hated and scorned by many. But who was this King? How did his reign and death lead to the French Revolution and the downfall of the monarchy?

Early Years

Louis was born on August 23, 1754, to Marie-Josephe of Saxony, wife of the Dauphin Louis, son of King Louis XV. He was the third grandson of the King and was christened Louis-Auguste. Throughout his childhood, Louis was neglected and forgotten, living under the shadow of his older brother who was heir to the throne after his father. Sadly, his brother died of illness at the age of ten and Louis became next in line to the throne after his father. Tragedy struck again when, in Louis's eleventh year, his father died of tuberculous and his mother died of the same thing a few months later. As a result of his isolated upbringing, Louis was withdrawn, shy, and slow at making decisions because he easily became distressed that he might be making the wrong choice. At sixteen years old he married fifteen-year-old Archduchess Maria-Antonia (later known as Marie-Antoinette), daughter of the Empress of Austria.

Coronation portrait of Louis XVI


Louis succeeded his grandfather as King at the age of nineteen. Along with the crown, Louis inherited a country in the midst of economic crisis. He tried to help the situation by appointing new Cabinet members, demanding that the nobility pay their debts, and cutting positions at the palace Versailles, which was also the location of the French government. However these actions made him very unpopular at court and led to the creation of many enemies. When rebellion broke out in the American colonies in 1775, Louis's ministers convinced him to enter the war. Louis's ministers convinced him that with the loss of America, Britain would be weakened and that a colonial balance of power would be restored.

The war brought France major financial burdens and increased the nation's debt and economic crisis even more. The country was near bankrupt thanks to the costly American Revolution and as a result the nation was plagued with fear, instability, and unrest. Louis was quickly losing popularity and support. His drastic spending cuts at Versailles took away privilege from the nobility and served to anger and alienate them. Furthermore, his constant change of ministers showed his indecisiveness and self-doubt. By 1789 half of Paris's workers were unemployed and drought caused severe bread shortages. Riots occurred frequently across France and in 1789 an angry mob took the Bastille, freeing the prisoners and then marched to the palace.

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