Born in 1774 in Paris, Cécile-Aimée Renault arrived at the foot of the guillotine on 17 June 1794 in what is now the Place de la Nation. It all began one day when the 20-year-old seamstress presented herself at the home of the Duplay family, where Maximilien Robespierre was temporarily staying. She asked to speak to him, and as she was young and appeared harmless, she was ushered into his anti-chamber. She waited for a long time and was eventually told that he was unavailable and that she should leave. She replied:
“A public man … ought to receive at all times, those who have occasion to approach him.”
Because Renault would not leave and because she became insistent that she needed to see Robespierre, a guard was called. He conducted a search and supposedly discovered she was carrying two small knives. Although the knives were hardly large enough to kill anyone, it was decided she had intended to murder Robespierre and was taken before the Committee of Public Safety where she was asked to explain herself. Eventually, the committee learned her name and that she was the one of seven children and the daughter of a paper maker, who was a royalist supporter. Continue reading →
Grace Dalrymple Elliott was considered a great beauty in her times, but a bad omen accompanied her birth in 1754. She had been educated in France at a convent, returned to Scotland, and met and married Sir John Elliot,* a respected physician. Yet, despite being married, she fell in love with a Lord Valentia, whom she ran away with in 1774. Elliot was bitter over the affair and divorced her. Soon after her divorce, Grace found herself back in France at the convent, but convent life was not for her, and after a short stay, she returned to England.
It was around this time that the Prince of Wales saw a miniature of Grace. The miniature so enamored the Prince that when Grace arrived in England, he met her. He found to his delight a warm-hearted, well-mannered, and fascinating young woman. His interest in her also resulted in them having an affair and a daughter, who was born on 30 March 1782 and baptized at St. Marylebone as Georgiana Augusta Frederica Seymour.
Reine Audu, a heroine of the French Revolution, was born Louise-Renée Leduc. She became a French fruit seller in Paris and first gained recognition in October of 1789, when she and others led the Women’s March on Versailles. The marchers were upset about the constant threat of famine and the high prices and scarcity of bread.
What started as a demand for bread soon took on a much more ambitious goal. Marchers decided they wanted several things: First, they wanted an assurance that bread would once again be plentiful and cheap; and, second, they wanted to replace the King’s guards with National Guardsmen, a group loyal to middle-class interests and under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. Additionally, the marchers wanted Louis XVI and his court to reside in Paris so that the King would be nearer to the people. Continue reading →
Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. Three weeks after his execution, a revolutionary journal called Thermomètre du jour published an inaccurate account claiming the King was led to the scaffold with a pistol to his temple, the guillotine struck his neck instead of his head, and the King died without courage. Because the newspaper story was so inaccurate, the executioner’s account of Louis XVI’s execution was published.
Louis XVI’s executioner was Charles-Henri Sanson. Sanson’s reply to the editor of the Thermomètre du jour provided what Sanson called an “accurate” description of what happened. Sanson dated his account 20 February 1793, and here is that account almost verbatim. Continue reading →
In 1793, during the Reign of Terror, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a member of the Revolutionary Tribunal, was sent to Nantes to suppress a revolt by anti-revolutionaries. Later, in his capacity as the représentant en mission, Carrier set up what was called the “Legion of Marat.” The Legion of Marat was composed of soldiers who received “ten livres a day.” Their job was to watch the inhabitants of Nantes and give mandates of arrest against persons they suspected of being disloyal to the revolution. Moreover, the soldiers could search any suspect’s house and request doors be broken down if inhabitants did not willing open them. Continue reading →
Located in a department in the Pays-de-la-Loire region in west-central France is the region called Vendée. It was in Vendée in 1793 that a peasant revolt occurred. Those revolting formed an army, which became known as the Royalists. The Royalists opposed the Republicans and saw those revolting as counter-revolutionaries. Because the Republicans disliked anyone who held royalist sentiments, they gathered an army to put down the revolt and that army became known as the “Bleues.” Continue reading →
Before the guillotine, there were other beheading devices. One early one used in the town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, in the sixteenth century was an alternative to beheading by axe or sword and called the Halifax Gibbet. Yet, the decapitation machine that would become the most well-known was the French guillotine, named for Dr. Joseph-Ignance Guillotin.
Interestingly, Dr. Guillotin was opposed to the death penalty and hoped it would be abolished. As that seemed unlikely, he gave a speech and proposed a decapitation machine he thought less painful and more humane. He said, “Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!” His statement quickly became a joke and resulted in the circulation of a humorous song that thereafter tied his name to the machine and caused many people to believe he invented it.
Besides the guillotine not being the first decapitation device and Dr. Guillotin not being the inventor of the guillotine, there are 21 other interesting facts about the guillotine. Continue reading →
Between the 2nd and 7th of September of 1792, a slew of massacres took place in Paris that became known as the September Massacres. The massacres were caused by exaggerated fears that foreign and royalist armies were posed to attack Parisians and France. Parisians also thought inmates in local jails would join the foreign and royalists armies and that all Parisians would be slaughtered.
The September Massacres began on 2 September when twenty-four non-juring priests were being transported to the prison of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A mob attacked them as they attempted to enter the prison. The attack was described in a dispatch from the English Ambassador as a “barbarity too shocking to describe.” The frenzy spread. More priests were executed later that afternoon — primarily by sans-culottes — and over the next two days mobs breached Paris prisons and demanded blood. Continue reading →
Scottish born John Moore continued to record his observations about the 10 August storming of the Tuileries Palace in 1792. He made the following notations in his journal on 11 August, which are provided below almost verbatim:
When the King and Queen entered the hall of the National Assembly, they were accompanied by the Dauphin, their daughter, and the Princess Elizabeth, and attended by the ministers and some members of the municipality of Paris. Continue reading →
Scottish born John Moore obtained his medical degree in Glasgow, served with the army in Flanders during the Seven Years’ War, and eventually settled in France, where he was attached to the household of the British ambassador. In 1792, he accompanied James Maitland, 8th Earl of Lauderdale, to Paris and witnessed the revolution. Among the events he witnessed was the storming of the Tuileries Palace by insurgents on 10 August 1792, which became known as “10 August.” His observations on 10 August were published in the Chester Chronicle and said to be an extract taken from his book, Journal During a Residence in France. His account for August 10th is provided below and is almost verbatim: Continue reading →