Reformers hard at work in the peaceful yet Royalist surroundings of Versailles were completely separated from their Paris power base. Twenty kilometres distant but the Monarchists were busy trying to move them to Tours, even further away and more of a Royalist area.
They began to fear that the King would be emboldened enough to disband the Assembly. Back in the Palais Royal there were regular calls for a march on Versailles to overcome the obstructions of the King’s veto and the feared plots.
Since the mutiny of the French Guards just before the storming of the Bastille the King and his court in Versailles had been protected by two ceremonial units, the Guarde de Corps (bodyguard) and the Cent-Suisses (100 Swiss).
In September 1789 the King’s minister-of-war ordered the combat-hardened Flanders Regiment of the Royal Army to come to Versailles. Their flamboyant arrival banquet and their toasts of loyalty to the King were not well received by those suffering under austerity around the country.
Newspapers and pamphlets characterised the banquet as an orgy of gluttony, they also rumoured that the officers had stamped upon the tricolor cockade and declared their loyalty only to the Bourbon white cockade.
Early in October 1789 a group of young women began to protest against shortages and the inflationary price of bread by beating a marching drum in the Parisian market of Faubourg Saint-Antoine. They had also managed to convince a local church to ring its bells.
They gathered numbers from other markets and toll of the bells expanded to reach a broader area. A number of the women took up makeshift weapons to brandish as they made their way to the Hôtel de Ville to demand bread and arms. The mob grew into many thousands as men joined them. They ransacked the civic building taking its supplies and threatened to string up the Abbé Lefèvre, its quarter-master.
Stanislas-Marie Maillard had been part of the group that had stormed the Bastille. He now took control of the crowd, banging a drum of his own and setting up the chant à Versailles! Intriguingly it was Lafayette, one author of the Rights of Man, who was in charge of the local military unit that sought to contain the crowd, but they soon threatened to mutiny and join the march.
Lafayette sent word to Versailles and then sought only to guide the crowd on its route rather than try to stop it which he judged would accelerate his men’s defection. Paradoxically Lafayette ended up leading the column of 15,000 soldiers and a swelling group of citizens.
The original protesters had gained one meal in their assault of the Hôtel de Ville but what of the future? Rumours were rife that the nobles were plotting to keep them hungry so they got swept along to achieve broader goals.
Plotters among the group suggested their goal should be to move the King and his court back in to Paris, among the people, where he should be guarded by the National Guardsmen rather than foreign troops. This notion soon proved of appeal to citizen and soldier alike.
The crowd augmented their impromptu weapons with several cannon they had taken from the Hôtel de Ville. It was raining and the march took six hours with their beliefs and goals hardening as their numbers grew. They wanted the king to move back among them and many were urging that his queen, Marie Antoinette, should be killed.
On arrival Maillard was greeted by the Assembly deputies and many of the marchers entered the hall declaring they wanted bread, they were wet and tired and their claim was compelling. One of the deputies Maximilien de Robespierre, not particularly well-known at this time, spoke in support of their demands and thus avoided any hostility developing between the marchers and the deputies. This event raised the profile of Robespierre among the Third Estate.
Maximilien de Robespierre – François Marie Isidore de Robespierre – was born in Arras, Artois. Some claim he was of Irish descent, his name being a contraction of Robert Speirs.
His mother died when he was six and his father left him to be brought up by elderly relatives. He qualified as a lawyer and was much influenced by the thinking of Rousseau.
He became a member of the Estates-General as an elected representative of the Third Estate. He was also appointed to the Constituent Assembly.
He was vociferous for equal rights, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and the abolition of the death penalty. But it was his espousal of the women marchers that brought him to general attention. He became a prominent individual in the Jacobin Club.
He was a powerful orator and soon assumed status in the Revolution. His speaking techniques were to constantly refer to virtue and moral correctness, he led a life of moral rectitude. He embroidered his speeches with personal experiences, asked rhetorical questions to illustrate his point and would regularly state that he was fully prepared to die for the Revolution – which he did!
He was never the President or leader of any of the bodies of the Revolution, but his oratorical prominence and popularity with the sans-culottes made him a major influence. He was to become the scapegoat for the Reign of Terror.
His memory is not much appreciated in France, there are no statues to him and his name today has only been applied to a metro station, not in a very chic part of Paris.
The President of the Assembly escorted a representative group of six market-women to meet with the King. Louis XVI treated them respectfully and agreed to issue food from the royal stores. Maillard and some of the marchers found this satisfactory and marched back to Paris expressing triumph.
But the bulk of the crowd remained believing that little had been achieved, that the Queen would convince Louis to retract his promises. Late in the afternoon the King tried to placate them by announcing that he would confirm the August decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man without proposing any changes. But the crowd remained gathered around the palace.
Early in the morning they found an unguarded entrance in to the palace and went off in search of Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber. The guards mustered and fired on the crowd, killing one, this angered the rest of the crowd who surged inside and attacked any guards they found.
Lafayette rallied his men with the remaining palace guards and halted the search for the Queen, who had barely escaped in to Louis’ chamber. Having halted the attacks the troops continued to show little willingness to oppose or attack the crowd.
Lafayette convinced the King to come out on to a balcony and address the crowd, who surprisingly put up the cry ‘Vive le Roi!’ The King promised to return to Paris and Lafayette ‘sealed the deal’ by pinning a tricolor cockade on to the hat of Louis’s nearest bodyguard.
Cockades – this circular array of ribbons was used to show support for a political notion, though earlier they had been part of the livery of a servant or slave. Worn on hats or in the hair they proclaimed a ‘membership’. French Bourbons used a white cockade. British Jacobites wore white and their Hanoverian opponents wore black cockades. Riots in London in 1870 had used blue ones.
In the American Revolution many colours were used as much to define rank given that few had uniforms. From this point on the cockade became more of a favourite for revolutionaries rather than establishment groups.
Early in the French Revolution a green cockade was used, but after the storming of the Bastille the sans-culottes created a tricolor cockade that merged the blue and red of Paris with the royal white.
The crowd at Versailles now called for the Queen to confirm the same, she stood bravely on the balcony and though guns were pointed at her the moment was relieved by cries of ‘Vive la Reine!’ – something the Queen had not heard for a while!
Early in the afternoon the crowd escorted the royal family and a hundred of the Assembly deputies back in to Paris. The crowd was now sixty thousand strong and the return journey took nine hours. The Ancien Regime had graphically been shown now to be in the control and at the behest of the people.
The King moved in to the Tuileries Palace that had become very dilapidated as it had not been used since Louis XIV’s time. The Assembly deputies moved in to the Salle du Manége, a disused riding school. Most of the rest of the deputies followed within a fortnight, though some of them, the more confirmed monarchists, did not join them.
The main protagonists had very different subsequent fortunes. Robespierre for his espousal of the marchers’ desires rose to become the dictator of the revolution. Lafayette for his defence of the king was forced in to exile. Maillard had a local hero-status and remained active but an illness saw him die at just thirty-one years old. The King had an appointment with the guillotine four years later.