Severed Heads During the French Revolution

Suppose you see a severed head dripping blood on a pike. What do you feel? Revulsion? Terror? Severed heads were often a common image associated with the French Revolution. Why were they so prevalent and how prevalent were they?

Cartoon or poster of the French Revolution: “Aristocratic Heads on Pikes.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the first stories related to severed heads occurred two days before the storming of the Bastille on 12 July 1789. Madame Tussaud reported that protestors arrived knocking on the door of Philippe Mathé Curtius, her uncle and owner of a wax museum called the Salon de Cire. The museum was home to numerous wax figures that included a display of the French royal family dining or rather “exhibited in a ceremony called Grand Couvert [where] “the good  honest people from the country, after visiting the menageries to see the lions, tigers, and monkeys … hastened to the palace to see the king and queen take their soup.”[1]

According to Madame Tussaud, the protestors wanted two wax heads to carry in protest march. One was the Duke d’Orléans and the other was Louis XVI’s popular finance minister Jacques Necker, whom Louis XVI had dismissed. The protestors also wanted a full-size figure of the king, but Curtius refused stating that it would fall apart if carried, and, so, the protestors settled for the heads of d’Orléans and Necker.

Desmoulins rallying protestors. Courtesy of Larousse.

After the protestors got the heads, they placed them on pikes, held them aloft, and marched through Parisian streets beating drums. A journalist and dramatist named Louis-Abel, Beffroy de Reigny was informed about the protests and left the safety of his home to investigate. When he reached the Boulevard du Temple, he reported:

“There I saw about five or six thousand men marching fairly fast and without any order, some of them armed, others with sabers, spears, and pitchforks. They triumphantly carried the wax busts of the Duc d’Orléans and of M. Necker, whom they had asked of M. Curtius.”[2]

An engraving of the event soon surfaced. On 12 July, after journalist and politician Camille Desmoulins learned that Necker had been dismissed, he leapt onto a table and delivered an impassioned speech, calling the people to arms. Soon after the above engraving circulated showing Desmoulins rallying the protestors and them carrying the wax heads of Necker and the Duke.

Two days later, when the Bastille was stormed, severed heads once again became associated with protestors only this time the heads were not wax ones. They were the real thing and obtained by revolutionaries after they attacked the Bastille’s commander, Bernard-Rene Jordan, Marquis de Launay and the mayor of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles. Both men were killed, after which revolutionaries sawed off their heads, put them on pikes, and paraded them through the streets, which was likely no easy task as a human head weighs about 7kg or 15.4 lbs.

The next incident involving severed heads happened a few weeks later and involved Curtius’ neighbor of named Joseph-François Foullon of Doué and his son-in-law Louis-Jean Bertier of Sauvigny. Foullon had long been disliked and when he served in the Parlement of Paris prior to the revolution, he was nicknamed “âme damnée du Parlement,” which roughly translates to “henchman of Parlement.”[3] Yet, despite his unpopularity, when Necker was dismissed, Foullon was nominated in his place.

Joseph-François Foullon. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It did not take long before he became even more unpopular, despised, and hated. For instance, the fermier generals provided outsourced taxes, customs, and excise operations but disliked Foullon because they claimed he was too severe. The poor detested him because he was wealthy and exploited them. Parisians loathed him because of an unconfirmed rumor that alleged Foullon had said during the famine, “if the rascals have no bread they will eat hay.”[4]

After the deaths of de Launay and Flesselles, Foullon understood crowds could be brutal, and he feared for his life. Knowing that he was unpopular and that he was being accused of being treasonous to the revolution, he began to circulate false stories of his own death. He then fled to a friend’s estate just south of Paris. The ruse that he was dead did not last long because local peasants discovered him on his friend’s estate.

“The peasants placed a necklace of nettles on him, a bouquet of thistles in his button hole, and a truss of hay upon his shoulders, and fastening him behind a cart, with his hands tied, they dragged him to Paris. … He was thirsty; a glass of vinegar was offered to him.”[5]

Foullon mounted the steps at City hall on 22 July 1789, but there was a problem. Once inside, officials did not know what to do with him but finally decided to incarcerate him at Saint Germain. In the meantime, an angry crowd appeared at City Hall demanding Foullon. When he was not produced, the crowd went in search of him and soon found the 74-year old inside City Hall. They dragged him outside and took him to a lamp post in Place de Grève where it was reported:

“A rope is passed around his neck, and he is raised a certain height. … Twice did the rope break, and twice did the old man fall on his knees, crying for pity. Some of the people, moved with pity, raised their sabres to put an end to this agony. The executioners oppose them … After a delay of a quart of an hour, he is hung for the third time, and finally expires. … A wretch then cut off his head, filled the mouth with a gag formed of a handfull of hay, and ran to carry this horrid trophy through Paris.”[6]

Foullon’s son-in-law, Bertier, served as the intendant of the royal army and was tasked with providing food and provisions for the troops. He was charged with having concealed a quantity of flour from the people for military use, and it outraged the Third Estate because they were starving. Bertier was also suspected of speculating and causing grain prices to rise. Although Bertier may have been honest, he was haughty and insolent, which resulted in him having many enemies. Moreover, he was the son-in-law of the unpopular Foullon.

Portrait of Bertier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A search found Bertier in Compiegne at his country estate. He was retrieved and taken by armed horseman to Paris in a cabriolet because the people wanted him to answer for starving the Third Estate. During his return trip, Bertier was noticed because of his escort, and word soon spread that he had been arrested. Unhappy citizens began to surround him and his escort, and at one point they pulled off the cabriolet’s roof, so they could better see him. It was under such circumstances that he entered Paris on the same day his father-in-law died, and when he finally reached City Hall, sixteen-hundred persons were accompanying him. 

Along the way he had been stoned, beaten, and shown the gruesome head of his father-in-law, “soiled with blood and dust, on the end of a pike.”[7] The guards ushered him through the milling crowd outside City Hall, and he was taken inside, where it was ordered he be sent to prison. However, the crowd was so angry that when he reappeared, they decided prison was too good for him. They grabbed him, shot him, and hanged from the same lamp post as his father-in-law. They then cut off his head, put it on a pike, and carried his head with that of his father-in-law through Parisian streets chanting, “Kiss papa! Kiss papa!”

Foullon and Bertier’s severed heads were recorded for history in a pencil drawing by a French artist named Anne-Louis Girodet, a French painter who is best remembered for being a pupil of Jacques-Louis David and for creating exquisite paintings of Napoleon’s family. Girodet produced a vivid drawing of what happened in 1789 when he showed the men’s heads impaled on pikes and Foullon’s mouth stuffed full of hay.

Severed heads - drawing by Girodet.

Drawing by Girodet. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Another story of parading with a head involves the princesse de Lamballe. She was a close friend to Marie Antoinette and served as her Superintendent of the Household. The princesse was among the first of those killed during the September Massacres in 1792. After her death, her head was cut off and placed atop a pike. A parade then ensued with her severed head carried aloft and her dead body dragged through the streets. One Englishman who witnessed the spectacle wrote:

“I am filled with involuntary horror at the scenes which pass before me … They have dragged the dead and naked body of the princesse de Lamballe through the streets and treated it with all sorts of indignities.”[8]

Another witness to the irreverent mob reported that he was driving down the street when he unexpectedly came upon the parade and was “forced to salute the princesse’s severed head.”[9] A third witness was brother to the Duchess of Abrantes. According to the Duchess, her brother was driving in his cabriolet, and because he had poor eyesight, he could barely distinguish what was in front of him until suddenly he recognized a head before him. “The duchess then related, ‘My unhappy brother uttered an involuntary shriek. He had recognized the head of Madame de Lamballe!’”[10] Shortly after the Princesse de Lamballe’s demise, a print was released showing a view of the Temple and the tumult of the mob as they carried her decapitated head on a pike.

Severed heads - the Princesse de Lamballe

Detail of the mob with Princesse de Lamballe’s head. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

There would be more heads severed during the French Revolution, but these would not necessarily be paraded on pikes. Louis XVI was executed on January 21 1793, and although his head was not placed on a pike, in February, the Scottish caricaturist Isaac Cruikshank depicted d’Orléans raising his hat in one hand and gripping the freshly severed head of Louis XVI in the other. Cruikshank likely created the cartoon  because the Duke had voted for his cousin’s death. Cruikshank titled his drawing “The Martyr of Equality: Behold the progress of our system.” Ten months after Cruikshank’s cartoon appeared, the Duke d’Orléans was himself guillotined on 6 November 1793.

Severed heads - the Duke d'Orléans holding Louis XVI's head.

The Duke d’Orléans holding Louis XVI’s head. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Not to be forgotten are the numerous severed heads that became wax figures because of Curtius and Madame Tussaud. She listed some of them in her 1823 catalog where she reported that she had “taken immediately after … execution, by order of the National Assembly”[11] molds of Maximilien Robespierre, Jean Baptist Carrier, Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, and James Rene Hebert.

So why were severed heads such a part of the revolution? Various Frenchmen at the time had ideas why. For instance, one person claimed, “politicians and sympathetic journalists … asserted three defences … blame the tyranny of the old regime, argue self-defence, pre-emption, or sovereign right; and minimize the significance of the events.”[12] The French politician Antoine Barnave thought what happened to Foullon and Berthier’s occurred because “all revolutions carry with them unfortunate events, and that perhaps we ought to congratulate ourselves that this revolution only has to reproach itself with a small number of victims and little blood [spilled.]”[13] One of the most influential orators during the French Revolution was Honoré Mirabeau and he stated:

“[It was caused by centuries of despotism which corrupted the people’s character and, ‘If the anger of the people is terrible it is the cold blood of despotism that is atrocious. Its systematic cruelties do more damage in a day than popular insurrections destroy in a year.’”[14]

One twenty-first century historian summed up her opinion as to why such behavior with severed heads occurred, stating:

“When the people cut off and displayed the head of a ‘traitor,’ they made the ‘sovereignty of the people’ more than a pretty compliment. They enacted the sovereignty by exercising a traditional prerogative of the sovereign. Cutting off … heads … the rabble had re-defined themselves as the sovereign people. Instead of learning the old lesson of the heads, they teach a new one. … The lesson of the heads is that there has been a fundamental change in social hierarchies and the distribution of power. Article Three of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen declared that the people were ‘the source of sovereignty.’ [Thus,] taking a head transforms the menu peuple from the passive ‘source of sovereignty’ to the active executor of sovereign power.”[15]

Thomas Paine had a slightly different idea, which he proposed in his “Rights of Man,” a pamphlet that claimed political revolution was permissible when a government did not safeguard the natural rights of its people. Paine stated:

“They learn it from the governments they live under, and retaliate the punishments they have been accustomed to behold. … It may perhaps be said, that it signifies nothing to a man what is done to him after he is dead; but it signifies much to the living; it either tortures their feelings or hardens their heart; and in either case, it instructs them how to punish when power falls into their hands.”[16]

Thomas Paine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Walton, Geri, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, (London: Pen & Sword Books Limited, 2016), p. 54-55.
  • [2] Louis-Abel Beffroy de Reigny, Histoire de France, Pendant Trois Mois, Ou Relation exacte, impartiale, & suivie des événemens qui ont eu lieu à Paris, à Versailles & dans les Provinces (Paris: Belin, 1789), p. 24–25.
  • [3] Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (New York: P. F. Collier, 1897), p. 110.
  • [4] Edward Latham, Famous Sayings and Their Authors: A Collection of Historical Sayings in English, French, German, Greek, Italian, and Latin (Swan Sonnenschein, 1906), p. 172.
  • [5] Louis Blanc, History of the French Revolution of 1789 v. 1 (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1848), p. 556.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 558.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 561.
  • [8] Geri Walton, p. 197.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 198.
  • [11] Madame Tussaud and Sons, Biographical and descriptive sketches of the whole length composition figures and other works of art, forming the unrivalled Exhibition of Madame Tussaud, etc (Bristol: J. Bennett, 1823), p. 35.
  • [12] David Andress, The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (OUP Oxford, 2015)
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] Regina Janes, Losing Our Heads: Beheadings in Literature and Culture (NYU Press, 2005), p. 70–71.
  • [16] Thomas Paine, The political works of Thomas Paine (Springfield: Peter Raynolds, 1826), p. 27.

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  1. Monsieur Sans-Culotte on February 11, 2021 at 12:07 pm

    Have you ever heard of Nancy massacre ordered by the king himself when just within one day 3000 soldiers and civils were massacred ???

    • Geri Walton on February 15, 2021 at 10:50 am

      Nope haven’t heard of it.

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