Women's March on Versailles

An illustration of a crowd of women marching with various weapons
An illustration of the Women's March on Versailles, 5 October 1789

The Women's March on Versailles, also known as The October March, The October Days, or simply The March on Versailles, was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. The march began among women in the marketplaces of Paris who, on the morning of 5 October 1789, were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a mob of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles. The crowd besieged the palace, and in a dramatic and violent confrontation, they successfully pressed their demands upon King Louis XVI. The next day, the crowd compelled the king, his family, and most of the French Assembly to return with them to Paris.

These events ended the king's independence and signified the change of power and reforms about to overtake France. The march symbolized a new balance of power that displaced the ancient privileged orders of the French nobility and favored the nation's common people, collectively termed the Third Estate. Bringing together people representing sources of the Revolution in their largest numbers yet, the march on Versailles proved to be a defining moment of that Revolution.

Background

An illustration of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The revolutionary decrees passed by the Assembly in August 1789 culminated in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Following poor harvests, the deregulation of the grain market implemented by Turgot, Louis XVI's Controller-General of Finances, in 1774, was a main cause of the famine which led to the Flour War in 1775.[1] At the end of the Ancien Régime, the fear of famine became an ever-present dread for the lower strata of the Third Estate, and rumors of the "Pacte de Famine" to starve the poor were still rampant and readily believed.[2] Mere rumors of food shortage led to the Réveillon riots in April 1789. Rumors of a plot aiming to destroy wheat crops in order to starve the population provoked the Great Fear in the summer of 1789.

When the October journéesa took place, France's revolutionary decade, 1789–1799, had barely begun. The revolution's capacity for violence was as yet not fully realized. The storming of the Bastille had occurred less than three months earlier. Flush with newly discovered power, the common citizens of France – particularly in the teeming capital, Paris – felt a newly discovered desire to participate in politics and government. The poorest among them were almost exclusively concerned with the issue of food: most workers spent nearly half their income on bread. In the post-Bastille period, price inflation and severe shortages in Paris became commonplace, as did local incidents of violence in the marketplaces.[3]

The King's court and the deputies of the National Constituent Assembly were all in comfortable residence at the royal city of Versailles, where they were considering momentous changes to the French political system. Reformist deputies had managed to pass sweeping legislation in the weeks after the Bastille's fall, including the revolutionary August Decrees (which formally abolished most noble and clerical privileges) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.[4] Now their attention was turned to the creation of a permanent constitution. Monarchists and conservatives of all degrees had thus far been unable to resist the surging strength of the reformers, but by September their positions were beginning, however slightly, to improve. In constitutional negotiations they were able to secure a legislative veto power for the king. Many of the reformers were left aghast by this, and further negotiations were hobbled by contentiousness.[5]

Quiet Versailles, the seat of royal power, was a stifling environment for reformers. Their stronghold was in Paris. The bustling metropolis lay within walking distance, less than 21 kilometres (13 mi) to the northeast. The reformist deputies were well aware that the four hundred or more monarchist deputies were working to transfer the Assembly to the distant royalist city of Tours, a place even less hospitable to their efforts than Versailles.[6] Worse, many feared that the King, emboldened by the growing presence of royal troops, might simply dissolve the Assembly, or at least renege on the August decrees. The King was indeed considering this, and when on 18 September he issued a formal statement giving his approval to only a portion of the decrees, the deputies were incensed.[2] Stoking their anger even further, the King even stated on 4 October that he had reservations about the Declaration of the Rights of Man.[2]

Early plans

Despite its post-revolutionary mythology, the march was not a spontaneous event.[7] Numerous calls for a mass demonstration at Versailles had already been made; the Marquis of Saint-Huruge, one of the popular orators of the Palais-Royal, had called for just such a march in August to evict the obstructionist deputies who, he claimed, were protecting the King's veto power.[8] Although his efforts were foiled, revolutionaries continued to hold onto the idea of a march on Versailles to compel the King to accept the Assembly's laws.[8][9] Speakers at the Palais-Royal mentioned it regularly throughout the next month,[10] creating enduring suspicions of the proprietor, Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans.[11] The idea of a march on Versailles was widespread, and was even discussed in the pages of the Mercure de France (5 September 1789).[7] A menacing unrest was in the air,[12] and many nobles and foreigners fled the oppressive atmosphere.[13]

Royal banquet

Following the mutiny of the French Guards a few hours before the storming of the Bastille, the only troops immediately available for the security of the palace at Versailles were the aristocratic Garde du Corps (Body Guard) and the Cent-Suisses (Hundred Swiss). Both were primarily ceremonial units and lacked the numbers and training to provide effective protection for the royal family and the government. Accordingly, the Flanders Regiment (a regular infantry regiment of the Royal Army) was ordered to Versailles in late September 1789 by the king's minister of war, the Comte de Saint-Priest, as a precautionary measure.[14] On 1 October, the officers at Versailles held a welcoming banquet for the officers of the new troops, a customary practice when a unit changed its garrison. The royal family briefly attended the affair, walking amongst the tables set up in the opera house of the palace. Outside, in the cour de marbre (central courtyard), the soldiers' toasts and oaths of fealty to the king grew more demonstrative as the night wore on.[13]

The lavish banquet was certain to be an affront to those suffering in a time of severe austerity, but it was reported in the L'Ami du peuple and other firebrand newspapers as nothing short of a gluttonous orgy. Worst of all, the papers all dwelt scornfully on the reputed desecration of the tricolor cockade; drunken officers were said to have stamped upon this symbol of the nation and professed their allegiance solely to the white cockade of the House of Bourbon. This embellished tale of the royal banquet became the source of intense public outrage.[14]

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