Trial of Louis XVI - Reading the Charges Against Him

Trial of Louis XVI - Reading the Charges Against Him Famous Historical Events Famous People Social Studies Trials Crimes and Criminals

This drawing depicts a scene at the treason trial of Louis XVI when the charges against him were read to the court.

The King was tried by the National Convention. What, specifically, were the charges against him?

Louis, the French Nation accuses you of having committed a multitude of crimes to establish your tyranny, in destroying her freedom.

You have, on the 20th of June, 1789, attempted the sovereignty of the people, by suspending the assemblies of their representatives, and driving them with violence from the places of their sittings. This is proved in the Proces Veral set up at the Tennis-Court of Versailles by the members of the Constituent Assembly.

On the 23d of June you wanted to dictate laws to the nation — you surrounded their representatives with troops — you presented to them two royal declarations, subversive of all liberty, and ordered them to separate. Your own declarations, and the minutes of the Assembly prove these attempts — What have you to answer?

Did the King respond on his own behalf? If so, what did he say?

No laws were then existing to prevent me from it.

The President of the Assembly read the next charge:

You ordered an army to march against the citizens of Paris. Your satellites have spilt the blood of several of them, and you would not remove this army til the taking of the Bastille, and a general insurrection announced to you that the people were victorious.

The speeches you made on the 9th, 12th, and 14th of July, to the divers deputations of the constituent Assembly, shew what were your intentions; and the massacres of the Thuilleries rise in evidence against you. — What have you to answer?

Louis, once again, answered on his own behalf:

I was master at that time to order the troops to march; but I never had an intention of spilling blood.

The next charges, against Louis, included his refusal to give-up his position as the King of France:

After these events, and in spite of the promises which you made on the 15th, in the Constituent Assembly, and on the 17th in the Townhouse of Paris, you have persisted in your projects against national liberty; you have long eluded the execution of the decree of the 11th of August, respecting the abolition of personal servitude, the feudal government and tithes.

You have long refused acknowledging the rights of man; you have doubled the number of the life-guards, and called the regiment of Flanders to Versailles: You have permitted, in orgies held before your eyes, the national cockade to be trampled under foot, the white cockade to be hoisted, and the nation to be blasphemed.

At last, you have rendered necessary a fresh insurrection; occasioned the death of several citizens, and not changed your language till after your guards had been defeated, when you renewed your perfidious promises.

The proofs of these facts are in your observations of the 18th of September, in the decrees of the 11th of August, in the minutes of the Constituent Assembly, the the events of Versailles, of the 5th and 6th of October, and in the conversation you had on the same day, with a deputation of the Constituent Assembly, when you told them, You would enlighten yourself with their councils, and never recede from them. — What have you to answer?

In answering these charges, Louis explained his actions for the first two charges and denied the third:

I have made the observations which I thought just on the two first heads. As to the cockade, it is false: It did not happen before me.

The Assembly accused Louis of counter-revolutionary intrigues, despite his willingness to work within a changed political structure:

You have taken an oath, at the Federation of the 14th of July, which you did not keep. You soon tried to corrupt the public opinion, with the assistance of Talon, who acted in Paris, and Mirabeau, who was to have excited counter-revolutionary movements in the provinces. — What have you to answer?

In answering this charge, Louis acknowledged the new political reality in France when he affirmed his acceptance of the French Constitution:

I do not recollect what happened at that time, but the whole is anterior to my acceptance of the Constitution.

The President of the Assembly then accused the King of spending money needlessly and for agreeing to a plan of escape:

You have lavished millions of money to effect this corruption, and you would even use popularity as a means of enslaving the people. These facts are the result of a memorial of Talon, which you have made your marginal comments on in your own hand writing, and of a letter which Laporte wrote to you on the 19th of April, in which recapitulating a conversation he had with Rivarol, he told you, that the millions which you had been prevailed upon to throw away, had been productive of nothing.

For a long time you had meditated on a plan of escape. A memorial was delivered to you on the 18th of February, which pointed out the means for you to effect it; you approve of it by marginal notes. — What have you to answer?

Louis’ answer to this charge was to defend his actions and to point-out that they proved no ill-intent (“design”):

I felt no greater pleasure, than that of relieving the needy — This proves no design.

After Louis and his family moved from the Palace at Versailles to Paris, they were in greater danger from the new government. The President’s next charge had to do with specific details about the King’s escape plan:

On the 18th a great number of the nobles and military came into your apartments in the castle of the Thuilleries, to favour that escape; you wanted to quit Paris on the 10th of April to go to St. Cloud. — what have you to answer?

Louis flat-out denied that charge:

The accusation is absurd.

Then the President confronted the King with direct evidence - including a letter with his own handwriting in the margins - about his attempted escape (which had obviously failed):

But the resistance of the citizens made you sensible that distrust was great; you endeavoured to discard it by communicating to the Constituent Assembly a letter which you addressed to the agents of the nation near foreign powers, to announce to them, that you had freely accepted the Constitutional Articles, which had been presented to you; and notwithstanding on the 21st you took flight with a false passport; you left behind a protest against these self-same Constitutional Articles.

You ordered the ministers to sign none of the acts issued by the National Assembly; and you forbid the minister of justice to deliver up the seals of states. The public money was lavished to insure the success of this treachery, and the public force was to protect it, under the orders of Bouille, who shortly before had been charged with the massacre of Nancy, and to whom you wrote on this head, To take care of his popularity, because it would be of service to you.

These facts are proved by the memorial of the 23d of February, wth marginal comments in your own hand-writing: by your declaration of the 20th of June, wholly in your own hand-writing: by your letter of the 4th of September, 1790, to Bouille; and by a note of the latter, in which he gives you an account of the use he made of 993,000 livres [then the French currency], given by you, and employed partly in the trepanning of the troops who were to escort you. — What have you to answer?

The King had obviously made a journey, so how did he respond to these accusations?

I have no knowledge whatever of the memorial of the 23d of February. As to what related to my journey to Varennes, I appeal to what I said to the Commissaries of the Constituent Assembly, at that period.

When it came time to vote “guilty” or “not guilty” on the charges - on the 15th of January, 1793 - the vote against the King was unanimous. The Convention had 721 deputies; 693 voted guilty; none voted for his acquittal.

When it came to the penalty phase, however, the vote was less-close:

  • 288 Deputies voted against the death penalty (favoring incarceration or exile);
  • 72 Deputies voted for the death penalty (but with reservations or delays);
  • 361 Deputies voted for the King’s execution (without any delays).

Louis XVI was executed, by guillotine, soon after the end of his trial.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5139stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Nov 21, 2016

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy the University of California at Santa Barbara, Department of History. PD


Quoted passages, of the charges against Louis XVI, are from the actual proceedings against him. See “Proceedings of the French National Convention on the Trial of Louis XVI. Late King of France and Navarre; To Which Are Added, Several Interesting Occurrences and Particulars Attending the Treatment, Sentence, and Execution of the Ill-Fated Monarch; The Whole Carefully collected from Authentic Documents, and Republished with Additions, from the Paper of The World,” compiled by Joseph Trapp, A.M. London: Printed for the Author; Sold by Messrs. Murray, Kearsley, and Wenman and co. Fleet-street; Ridgeway, York-street, St. James’s; Deighton, Holborn; Downes, and McQueen, Strand; and at the World Office, 1793, at pages 53-58. Online via the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room.


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