Louis XVI of France - World Leaders in History

Louis XVI was the last of a series of consecutive leaders that ruled France as monarchs from the 5th Century AD until 1792.

5. Early Life

Louis XVI, born Louis-Auguste de France, was born in the French Palace of Versailles on August 23rd, 1754. He was the second son of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Marie-Josephe of Saxony. He was the grandson of Louis XV. As a child, Louis was neglected by his parents, so he devoted most of his time to his own education. Shy and indecisive, he immersed himself in the studies of religion, morality, and humanities. Along with excelling in Latin, history, and geography, he spoke Italian and English fluently in addition to his native French. He also was very good at physical activities. In 1770, he married Marie Antoinette, the daughter of the Emperor and Empress of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire.

4. Rise to Power

Louis's older brother, Louis duc de Bourgogne, died at the age of nine in 1761. Four years later his father died. He was followed by Louis's mother, who died in 1767, leaving Louis as the next in line for the crown. After his grandfather, Louis XV, died in 1774, Louis XVI succeeded to the throne in 1774, at the age of 19. He was the fifth monarch of the House of Bourbon, and the last before the French Revolution. Until that time, monarchs had ruled France since the unification of the Frankish tribes in the late 400s AD.

3. Contributions

Louis XVI's major contributions lay in his promotion and support of civil liberties and freedom within France. Influenced by the Enlightenment movement, he was dedicated to realize progressive ideas within France. In 1787, he signed the Edicat of Versailles, which is also known as the Edict of Tolerance, which granted non-Catholics, including Calvinists, Huguenots, Lutherans and Jews, better civil and legal status in France, and also allowed them to openly practice their faiths. He also decided to help the American colonies in the American Revolutionary War, helping them to defeat the British and achieve their own independence.

2. Challenges

Louis XVI inherited a country that faced numerous fiscal problems and a foreign environment hostile to France. His decision to participate in the American War for Independence further impoverished the country, and had brought it to the verge of bankruptcy by the mid-1780s. The perceived lavishness and extravagance of the royal family was also considered to serve as an important contributing factor to France's financial crisis, challenging his legitimacy as an effective ruler. Facing such crises, Louis agreed to summon the parliament in order to come up with a means to raise taxes, though he refused to allow the three estates, which was similar to a body of National Assembly, to meet at the same time. This action greatly angered the French people. Not long thereafter, the assembly provoked the public to storm the Bastille prison, triggering the French Revolution that eventually ended Louis's reign.

1. Death and Legacy

Facing growing public discontent and rage, Louis and his family attempted to escape, which further irritated the people and convinced them that Louis had committed treason. The increasingly radicalized revolutionary leadership eventually found Louis guilty of treason, and executed him at the guillotine on January 21, 1793. Louis's incapacity to rule and his poor political judgement, as well as his desire to uphold absolute power, was said to have directly triggered the French Revolution. His own bloody execution was a pivotal moment in French history, as it ended more than a thousand years of French monarchy. This event, and the violence of the French Revolution as a whole, remains an important subject for philosophical and historical reflections, with the event also being a popular topic in film and literature.


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