The Terror

The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France

David Andress

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks

In the brief midsummer darkness of 20-21 June 1791, Louis XVI, King of the French, fled his capital and his people. Using secret passageways in the Tuileries palace, the royal family were spirited away by a small band of loyal followers, leaving central Paris in a hired hackney carriage driven by Axel von Fersen, a dashing young Swedish knight, and rumoured lover of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Outside the city walls Fersen left them to make his own escape, and the party embarked in a second-hand berline, a bulky coach pulled by a team of six horses. Louis had spurned the chance to flee in anything lighter and faster, because it would have meant traveling apart from his wife and their two children. Together, he reasoned, they were safer, but as the coach creaked and groaned eastwards towards the frontier fortress of Montmedy, laden down with the family, their attendants, bodyguards and luggage, it would prove a fatefully unwise choice.

The fugitives’ schedule had been carefully plotted, and relays of cavalry were to see them to safety, once they had passed into the jurisdiction of the marquis de Bouille, loyal governor of the frontier region. The departure had been delayed by several hours, however, by last-minute hesitations and confusions, and the berline was too slow to make up the time. The duc de Choiseul, commander of the first relay of horsemen, presumed the escape postponed (as it had been once already, after repeated earlier reschedulings), and ordered his men to withdraw to barracks, concerned that their presence was alarming the locals. He passed the same instruction to all the later relays. Ignorant of this critical decision, the royal party proceeded towards the first rendezvous. Escorted by only two horsemen, the berline meandered on across the rolling landscape of Champagne as morning turned to afternoon—twice the king ordered a rest-stop, and, casting aside all effort at concealment, chatted with passers-by as if nothing unusual was occurring.

Yet what was happening was amazing and traumatic. Not since the religious and political strife of the early seventeenth century had a king of France had to flee his people, and never had one made so brazenly—or so desperately—for the frontiers. This episode had been brought about by upheavals which were unprecedented in European history, with a long and tortured trail of antecedents reaching across Louis’ reign into that of his predecessor. If the king and his companions regarded their move with insouciance, this was a symptom of the wider delusions that the entire court laboured under, long after events had first decisively challenged their right to rule France as they saw fit…