The French Revolution was one of the most prominent events known in the history of the world, particularly Europe. It had a profound impact in that continent specifically and also, the effects and impact spread over to every country outside, especially the Asian, the African, and the American colonies of European nation-states.
When we think of French Revolution, what usually comes to mind is Equality, Liberty, Fraternity.
The thing with France has been that there have been too many republics, in my opinion. And worse, in the pre-World War years, the country kept swinging from being an empire to a republic, something that is very fascinating for a person like me to note. All was well with France when the Bourbons came and became the ruling monarchs – and suddenly, Louis XVI, the weakest emperor ever, comes to the throne and bam! – people are clamouring for justice and equality. There had been revolutions in France before the Great one that occurred in 1789, which is the one we’re going to talk about here, but they were all easy to quell – I’ll tell you why soon.
Also, just as Britain is known for its Marys and Edwards and Georges, France is known for its Louises. I’m not even kidding–literally every king of the House of Bourbon except for the very first, is known as Louis [insert a number].
Europe in the Middle Ages was pretty brutal when it came to international relations. Although there were a lot of these new countries that popped up as a result of the fall of the Roman and the Byzantine Empires, there was a need to maintain a balance of power. This was especially due to the Thirty Years’ War that began as religious civil war between Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor but ended up including the rest of Europe. It’s a story for another day. This Thirty Years’ War came to an end with a series of peace treaties that were signed in the German province of Westphalia in 1648. This event is famously called the “Treaty of Westphalia”.
Now that we’ve got that figured out, let’s get right into the History of France in the 18th century.
France was at the peak of its power during the late 1600s and the beginning of the 1700s. It was the last years of King Louis XIV (then known as the Sun King), who seemed to have ruled the country with an iron-fist. It was he who introduced the divine mandate of rule in Europe – he said that he was chosen by god to rule the French Empire. Which made sense at the time of intricate and strong religious beliefs, and everyone believed him. You must understand that the 17th and the 18th centuries were times of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, but not many stood by these principles and questioned the blind belief system they followed. It was very few intellectuals, such as Voltaire who questioned these beliefs and tried to prove them wrong, and they were arrested for spreading false information. You might remember in your Science classes that when Galileo Galilee stepped forth and said that the Earth was in fact revolving around the Sun and not the other way around, he was arrested for spreading false information – in other words, going against the Church. Time might sound silly to-day, but those were times when god meant everything to the people – he was the ultimate saviour–Jesus. Religion and god were very closely connected in the minds of the people and anything unnatural that happened would be associated with sinful acts, or acts against god.
But, all this started falling apart when weak rulers took the place of their strong ancestors.
When Louis XIV’s great-grandson, Louis XV, ascended the throne after him, he found that the economy of the empire was largely in debt. Of course, he didn’t personally realise it then, since he was a mere five-year old; his father, the Duke of Burgundy, died only ten months after his father’s death (of measles), so the throne went to him. Duke of Orleans, Philippe II, was regent in his place, until he was old enough to rule by himself. Louis XIV had a tight grip over his subjects and his empire and so, revolts and rebellions were crushed in their buds and not allowed to flourish. Scholars like Voltaire and Rousseau were writing books about liberty, equality, and fraternity, that slowly got the attention of the common people, but nobody could do anything about it. Louis XV was dubbed “The Well-Beloved King”, and he was best known for contributing to the decline of the French Empire, which, again, is a story for another day.
Right now, let’s talk about what came after Louis XV died.
Louis XVI inherited the throne after his grandfather died in the year 1774. His wife was Marie Antoinette of Austria, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, and Empress Maria Theresa. The two were married as a peace-making treaty between the two countries. This was smack in the middle of the Age of Discovery and only three centuries ago, the continent of America was rediscovered by Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards. Eventually, there was the American War of Independence that was fought between the settled Europeans and the colonial government of the thirteen colonies of America. At the time, because of a lot of circumstances, the British and the French were rivals (one reason was differing religious beliefs); so, the Americans sought the help of the French for money, arms, and ammunition to defeat Britain and gain their independence. [The phrase “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” come to mind.] And since France was all for taking that one more peg off the British pedestal, Louis XVI agreed to do so. As a result, America’s thirteen colonies got their independence in 1776, while French financial crisis escalated.
That dialogue we all heard Queen Marie Antoinette say, “If you don’t have bread, then eat cake” is not really proven to be made by her.
The financial crisis was increasing, people were starving, and the royalty was enjoying eating and sleeping and doing literally nothing else in the palace of Versailles. This was the perfect environment for an all-out civil war between the two parties.
End of Part 1 of the French Revolution story. Part 2 coming up very soon!
For this article, I referred to the following sources for updated facts:
- BBC History
- The picture was taken from Wikipedia, depicting the storming of the Bastille