On this day in 1793, Louis XVI, the last king of France (1774–92) in the line of Bourbon monarchs preceding the French Revolution of 1789, is executed for treason by guillotine at the Place de la Révolution. After a slew of governing missteps, and the revelation of a plot with Austria and other foreign interests to preserve his reign, Louis XVI brought the French Revolution crashing down upon himself.
This abrupt turn ended more than 1,000 years of continuous French monarchy, and is darkly ironic given Louis’ staunch and vital support for the American Revolution. The doomed king’s wife, Marie-Antoinette, was herself convicted of high treason and executed nine months later. Of interest to cat fanciers, before her death Antoinette attempted to escape to North America with the help of Captain Samuel Clough. Clough’s ship was loaded with her most prized possessions, including six of her favorite Turkish Angora cats. Though her escape was foiled, her pets safely reached the shores of Wiscasset, Maine, where they bred with other short-haired breeds and developed into the modern breed of the Maine Coon.
After his trial and conviction for treason before the Convention, Louis’ fate was sealed by majority of one vote for execution. That vote was in fact cast by Philippe Égalité, formerly the Duke of Orléans and Louis’ cousin, a cause of much future bitterness among French monarchists; E’galite’ himself would be guillotined on the same scaffold that following November.
After his parting speech was interrupted by a drum roll, Louis was placed face down into position. Some accounts of Louis’s beheading indicate the blade did not sever his neck entirely the first time. There are also accounts of a blood-curdling scream issuing from Louis after the blade fell but this is unlikely, since the blade severed Louis’s spine. The executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, testified that the former king had bravely met his fate.
While Louis’ blood dripped to the ground, several onlookers ran forward to dip their handkerchiefs in it. This account was corroborated in 2012, after a positive DNA match linked blood thought to be from Louis XVI’s beheading against DNA taken from tissue samples originating from what was long thought to be the mummified head of Henry IV of France. And as fate would have it, the revolution would not endure its own bloody chaos nor the autocracy of Napoleon as the king’s younger brother, Louis XVIII, was restored to the throne by 1814.
And here endeth the lesson.