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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Louis XVI of France and the American Revolution

Louis XVI at the age of 20
Joseph Duplessis, 1776 
I’m currently working on The Return, Book 2 of my Northkill Amish Series, co-authored with BobHostetler. It publishes in April next year, and as soon as it’s off my desk, I’m going to get back to my American Patriot Series. In Book 6, Refiner’s Fire, my heroine, Elizabeth Howard, is in danger, and in Jonathan Carleton’s absence, his uncle, le comte de Caledonne, takes her to France for safety. Caledonne is an admiral in the French navy; an intimate of the French king, Louis XVI; and a master of spies, which will give me an opportunity offer readers a glimpse into the machinations of the 18th century French court. In my next post we’re going to take a look at the American commissioners to France during the Revolution and the intrigues surrounding them, but first, Louis!

He was born Louis-Auguste on August 23, 1754, in the Palace of Versailles, the second son and one of 7 children of Louis, the dauphin of France, and Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, the daughter of Frederick Augustus II, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Louis-Auguste’s grandparents were Louis XV and Maria Leszczyńska. At birth Louis-Auguste received the title Duc de Berry.

His parents favored his handsome older brother, Louis, duc de Bourgogne, who unfortunately died in 1761 at the age of nine, rather than their second son. Louis-Auguste was very shy, but he was fit and healthy and enjoying hunting with his grandfather and rough-and-tumble play with his brothers. He excelled as a student as well, with Latin, history, geography, and astronomy his favorite subjects. He also became fluent in Italian and English. As a young child he developed an interest in locksmithing, and this became a hobby as he grew older.

In 1765 Louis-Auguste’s father died of tuberculosis. Since his older brother had died several years earlier, this made eleven-year-old Louis-Auguste the new dauphin. Two years later his mother also died from tuberculosis, leaving him and his brothers and sisters orphans whose care and education were supervised by royal tutors.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children
Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1787
Louis-Auguste was only fifteen when he married 14-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia, better known by the French form of her name: Marie Antoinette, in May 1770. She was his second cousin once removed, the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa, a formidable force of nature who may have influenced her daughter’s indifferent response, “Let them eat cake,” many years later when she was informed that the French peasants had no bread and were starving. The two young people had met only two days before their wedding and were almost total strangers. That, along with his shyness and both their youth and inexperience, was problem enough. It didn’t help that the French public was hostile to this union. After all, France’s alliance with Austria had drawn the country into the disastrous Seven Years’War that ended in defeat at the hands of the British in both Europe and North America, the loss of Canada and France’s Caribbean colonies, and a massive national debt.

Louis XVI of France
Antoine-François Callet, 1789
The young couple’s relationship was strained during the first years of their marriage, as one might expect. In fact, it wasn’t until 1777 that their union was consummated, and in the fishbowl of a royal court, rumors were bound to fly. They certainly did, including the claim that Louis-Auguste was incapable of sexual relations. His cold behavior toward Marie in public fueled the gossip but was evidently due to his fear that she would attempt to manipulate him in favor of Austrian interests. They overcame these obstacles over time, however, and eventually had four children together.

Louis-Auguste’s grandfather died in 1774 on the eve of the American Revolution, and at the age of 19 Louis succeeded to the throne—and to the disastrous baggage of the French and Indian War. For Vergennes, the French foreign secretary, the Americans’ fight for independence offered an opportunity for France to humiliate their long-standing enemy and recover the territory they’d lost during the Seven Years’ War. Louis was persuaded to secretly send supplies, ammunition, and guns to the rebels, and in early 1778 he signed a formal Treaty of Alliance with the United States. Later that year France was once again at war with Britain, with Spain and the Netherlands soon joining in an anti-British coalition.

Washington and Rochambeau giving last orders before battle
Auguste Crowder, 1836
At first the French dragged their feet when it came to actually giving the Americans military aide. But finally in 1780 France sent large land and naval forces under Rochambeau and de Grasse, which arrived in North America in July 1780. Then in October 1781 a French naval blockade forced Cornwallis’s army to surrender at Yorktown. Lord North’s government fell as soon as news of this disaster reached London, and Great Britain was left no choice but to sue for peace. Although France delayed the end of the war into 1783, hoping to overrun more British colonies in India and the West Indies, in the end they gained little from the 1783 Treaty of Paris except a couple of small colonies.

The war cost France 1,066 million livres, which had to be financed through loans at high interest and later led to more oppressive taxes. Heaped on top of the debt remaining from the French and Indian War, this led to a financial crisis that increased the French people’s resentment of the aristocracy and the absolute monarchy of the French kings. Riots broke out in Paris in 1789, and the storming of the Bastille inaugurated the French Revolution. In June 1791, four months before the constitutional monarchy was declared, the situation was so unstable that Louis fled to Varennes, which gave credit to rumors that he was hoping for a foreign invasion to save his throne. In the eyes of the common people he became a hated symbol of the Ancien Régime’s tyranny.

Louis XVI was arrested and deposed during the insurrection of August 10, 1792. A little over a month later, on September 21, France’s constitutional monarchy was abolished and the First French Republic proclaimed. Louis was tried by the National Convention, found guilty of high treason, and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793, as French citizen Louis Capet. The name referred to Hugh Capet, the founder of the Capetian dynasty, which the revolutionaries interpreted as Louis’ family name. Louis XVI was the only king of France ever to be executed. His death brought an end to more than a thousand years of French monarchy.

J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers, an author, editor, and publisher, and a lifelong student of history. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Her novel Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill AmishSeries coauthored with bestselling author Bob Hostetler, won ForeWord Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, releases in Spring 2017. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


  1. Boy, he had an interesting life! And a sad from an early age!

  2. It really was, Bev--starting with his parents favoring his older brother. I wonder what happened when he died. Did his parents begin to pay more attention to Louis-Auguste or neglect him even more. And then they both died too. It doesn't look like he had a whole lot of happiness in his life.

  3. Interesting post, can't imagine getting married at age 15! I hope he found some happiness in his life.

    1. I know, Tina--way too young! No wonder they had problems. It doesn't sound like he had much happiness in his life, sadly. All things considered, I think we're fortunate not to be royalty!

  4. Having read about many of the European royal families, I'm always reminded that wealth and power do not bring happiness.

  5. I think what's worse than marrying at fifteen is becoming king at nineteen. Imagine the responsibility and having to deal with the mess that Louis XV left.


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