What happened to the French royal navy during the french-revolution?

What happened to the French royal navy during the french-revolution?

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Similar to my other question about her colonies I am interested in knowing what happened to the french royal navy of the period. Some ships must have been at sea and only learned the news as they returned to port and their unfortunate captains and officers, possibly, executed or jailed? Furthermore, what of the fleets in port, did the sailors mutineer or hold steadfast? Were some ships sabotaged, sunk or torched to stop them landing in revolutionary hands? The question is mostly centered on the early 1790s.

The French navy suffered considerably due to the French revolution. Having finished the American War of Independence on something approaching a high (comparatively speaking), the French navy suffered a reverse that it never fully recovered from until well after the finish of the Napoleonic Wars.

Like most other European navies of the time, the officers were often from the upper-classes and, as you probably guessed, there was a large-scale purge of these officers in the early period in question. Their replacements were rarely of high quality and, too often, had little or no experience of commanding a warship at sea, much less a warship in combat. Many of the aristocratic officer class fled the country (or failed to return) and these emigrés wound up in the navies of Britain, Austria and Russia fighting against their former homeland.

Also the fervour of revolution and its ideal of equality meant that these replacement officers often had little control over the ship's crews. As an example, at the start of 1793 Vice-Admiral Morard de Galles took a small squadron to sea from Brest, upon their return he commented on the crew:

The vaunted ardour which is attributed to them, consists uniquely of the words of "patriot" and "patriotism" which they repeat ceaselessly, and the acclamations of "Vive la Nation", "Vive la République" when they are flattered. Nothing can make them attend their duties.

Another consequence of the revolution was the disbanding of the Marine Artillery Corps (over 5,000 men), whose skilled crew men were considered too elitist. This left the navy with untrained men servicing the guns and the result was to limit the navy's fighting ability considerably.

In addition, the dockyards were not immune to the revolution and were centres of uprisings as much as the big cities. After the revolution, like the new ship's officers, the dockyard managers and commandants found that the workforce wasn't as keen on taking orders as it had been. This lead to a loss in efficiency in building and repairing vessels (and an increase in other losses), with the natural result that fewer ships in the navy were fully fit to go to sea.

While the French army was saved from destruction during the revolution by men such as Carnot and the emergence of Napoleon, there was no equivalent saviour for the French navy.

To add to the self-made destruction, the royalist french forces occupying Toulon invited in the British and Spanish to assist them (August 1793). The British helped themselves to a number of ships in the port, including the 120-gun Commerce de Marseilles (one of the largest warships of the period), the Spanish took a couple and the Neapolitans had a trio of sloops. When Napoleon finally overran Toulon, the evacuating forces sank and/or burned a significant number of the remaining ships, including 9 ships-of-the-line. This left the French Mediterranean fleet in something of a state (although, thanks to events elsewhere this didn't prove too much of a problem until after the Battle of the Nile in 1798)

While the Atlantic ports didn't suffer in the same way as Toulon, they did have their own problems as can be seen with the situation at Brest. At Brest, Rear-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse (who, despite his noble birth, was trusted by the post-revolutionary governments) had taken a firm hand when he replaced Admiral de Galles and brought both the port and fleet under some control. He was able to get a number of squadrons to sea to cover incoming grain shipments from America. Despite losing 7 ships of the line during the "Glorious First of June" battle with the British Fleet, his successes in saving these merchant shipments, let him keep his head and control of the fleet.

However, the poverty of the Brest shipyard at the time is illustrated by a sortie by the fleet intended to cover three squadron operations in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and West Indies at the end of 1794. Many of the ships left port without fitting out properly and most left with just two weeks worth of provisions on board (by comparision, British ships of the time typically went to sea with 3-6 months of provisions). This lack of equipment is said to have contributed to the loss of five ships from the fleet in a storm.

refs: "Navies of the Napoleonic Era", D. Smith (Schiffer Military History, 2004) "A History of the French Navy", E.H.Jenkins (Macdonald and Janes, 1973) "Fleet Battle and Blockade", ed. R.Gardiner (Chatham Publishing, 1996)

Siege of Toulon

The siege of Toulon (29 August – 19 December 1793) was a military engagement that took place during the Federalist revolts of the French Revolutionary Wars. It was undertaken by Republican forces against Royalist rebels supported by Anglo-Spanish forces in the southern French city of Toulon. It was during this siege that young Napoleon Bonaparte first won fame and promotion when his plan, involving the capture of fortifications above the harbor, was credited with forcing the city to capitulate and the Anglo-Spanish fleet to withdraw. The British siege of 1793 marked the first involvement of the Royal Navy with the French Revolution.

French Republican victory

1,700 dead or wounded [2]

French Revolution timeline – to 1788

This French Revolution timeline lists significant events and developments up to and including 1788. This timeline has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest an event for inclusion in this timeline please contact Alpha History.

The Enlightenment, a period of intellectual curiosity, scientific investigation, philosophical and political debate, begins to reach its peak in France.

April: The War of the Austrian Succession is ended by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. This war ended in a stalemate, with no advantage for France, however it greatly expanded the French national debt.
October: Baron de Montesquieu publishes The Spirit of the Laws, a treatise on political philosophy. Montesquieu’s book explored different systems and conceptions of government, particularly the separation of powers.

August 23rd: Louis, Duc de Berry – the future Louis XVI – is born at Versailles.

November 2nd: Marie Antoinette, youngest daughter of Maria Theresa and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, is born in Vienna.

May 18th: The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War with Britain and her colonies, which further exacerbates the French debt crisis.

The French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishes The Social Contract, which explores the relationship between individuals, liberty and the state.

December 20th: Louis, Dauphin of France, dies of tuberculosis at Fointainebleau. His son, the future Louis XVI, becomes heir to the French throne.

May 16th: The marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France (the future Louis XVI) and the 14-year-old Austrian princess Marie Antoinette.

May 10th: The death of King Louis XV. His grandson, the Dauphin, becomes King Louis XVI.
August 24th: The new king appoints the French economist Anne Robert Turgot as his finance minister.
August-September: Poor grain harvests are recorded across France. The government implements emergency measures and the new king agrees to fix the price of bread.

April: The American Revolutionary War begins, after American colonists and British soldiers open fire at Lexington.
June: Louis XVI is crowned as king.

May: After attempting some limited economic reform, finance minister Anne Robert Turgot is dismissed by Louis XVI.
October: Swiss banker Jacques Necker is appointed as Turgot’s successor.

July: The young French nobleman Marquis de Lafayette sails to America and volunteers to fight with the American revolutionaries. He is later given a general’s commission in the American Continental Army.

February: The French government signs a military alliance with the American Continental Congress.
July: Louis XVI formally declares war on Britain and orders a full mobilisation of the French army and navy.

January: Jacques Necker publishes Compte Rendu, a comprehensive though rather misleading account of the national finances of France.
May 19th: Necker resigns as the controller-general of finances, after failures to implement reform and opposition from several quarters of the government.
October 22nd: Marie Antoinette gives birth to a son, Louis Joseph Xavier, Dauphin of France.

De Laclos publishes Les Liaisons Dangereuse (‘Dangerous Liaisons’), novel that depicts the French nobility as leisure loving, amoral and debauched.

September 3rd: The Treaty of Paris brings the American Revolutionary War to a close. Involvement in the war has cost the French government more than 1.8 billion livres.
November 3rd: The king appoints lawyer Charles de Calonne as the controller-general of finances.

August: Marie Antoinette and her inner circle become embroiled in the ‘Diamond Necklace affair’, following the theft of a necklace valued at around 2 million livres.

May 31st: Cardinal de Rohan and others are acquitted by the Paris parlement for their role in the ‘Diamond Necklace affair’. While she was not involved or implicated in the trial, Marie Antoinette is discredited by rumours.
August 20th: New finance minister Charles de Calonne informs Louis XVI that the nation is facing bankruptcy. He proposes immediate reforms including a new land tax, a stamp duty and commutation of the corvee.
September 26th: French ministers sign a trade agreement with England, containing reductions in duty for certain imports and exports.
December 29th: Seeking to push through his reforms and bypass the parlements, Calonne orders the convocation of the Assembly of Notables.

February 22nd: The first Assembly of Notables opens. Over the following days it hears evidence and testimony about the nation’s financial plight.
March: Calonne publicly floats his tax reforms, however they are opposed by the Assembly of Notables.
April 8th: Louis attempts to break the stalemate by dismissing Calonne as finance minister.
May 1st: The king appoints Etienne Brienne as finance minister, a move intended to win support from the Assembly of Notables.
May 25th: After debating and rejecting Brienne’s own package of taxation reforms, the first Assembly of Notables is dissolved.
June: Brienne sends bills proposing taxation reform to the parlements.
June 27th: The Brienne government issues an edict commuting the corvee and replacing it with a money tax, approximately one-sixth of the taille.
July: The Paris parlement rejects Brienne’s legislative proposals for reforming the taxation system.
August: The king dismisses the Paris and Bordeaux parlements, ordering them into exile.
September: Unable to register his taxation reforms, Brienne withdraws them and settles for an extension of the vingtieme.
October: The king allows the exiled parlements to be recalled and re-seated.
November 19th: At Brienne’s suggestion, the king calls a lit de justice to push through several reforms. This triggers protests from the parlement and the Duke of Orleans.
November 20th: The Duke of Orleans is exiled from Paris and Versailles by lettre de cachet after criticising the king’s treatment of the parlements.

January: The parlement registers further national loans but declares all lettres de cachet to be illegal.
May 3rd: The Paris parlement issues a “Declaration of the Fundamental Laws of France”. Among its clauses were strong criticisms of lettres de cachet and a demand that the Estates-General be convoked to verify any tax reforms.
May 4th: In response to the declaration above, the king issues lettres de cachet ordering the arrest of two members of the Paris parlement.
May 8th: The king and his ministers issue edicts removing some of the powers of parlements and formally abolishing the use of torture.
June 7th: Mobs protest in Grenoble and Brittany, demanding the reinstatement of their local parlement.
June: Church representatives authorise a don gratuit of only 1.8 million livres, less than one quarter the figure sought by the government.
July: Several provincial assemblies and gatherings demand the reinstatement of the parlements and the convocation of the Estates-General.
July 13th: Much of France is struck by a severe storm with prolonged heavy hail. This decimates already struggling crops and contributes to poor returns at harvest time.
August 8th: After learning the state is unable to meet its loan repayments, Brienne schedules the Estates-General for May 1789.
August 16th: Now virtually bankrupt, the government suspends making interest payments on some of its debts.
August 25th: Brienne resigns as finance minister and is replaced by Necker. His resignation triggers celebrations in Paris. Critics of Brienne are released from arrest or exile.
September 25th: The parlement decrees that the Estates-General convenes with the same structures and procedures as its previous assembly (1614). Several days later the parlement attempts to ban publications which demand political representation for the Third Estate.
October 5th: Necker convenes another Assembly of Notables to discuss arrangements for the Estates-General. He proposes that representation for the Third Estate be doubled.
November: The Society of Thirty, a group of liberal nobles in favour of constitutional reform, is formed at Versailles.
December 12th: After refusing Necker’s proposal to increase Third Estate representation and failing to provide any solutions to the taxation crisis, the second Assembly of Notables is dissolved.

Battle of Trafalgar

Part of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), the Battle of Trafalgar featured a clash of Franco-Spanish and British fleets off the western mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar. Commanded by Vice Admiral Nelson, the onslaught broke the allied line and exposed its center and rear to overwhelming force, resulting in the capture of 19 of the 33 Franco-Spanish ships. Although Lord Nelson was killed in the battle, he was largely credited for thwarting Napoleon’s plans to concentrate a fleet in the Channel for the invasion of Britain.

This battle was fought off the western mouth of the Straits of Gibraltar between a Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty-three ships of the line commanded by Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve and Admiral Don Federico Gravina, and a British squadron of twenty-seven ships under Vice Admiral Horatio,Lord Nelson. The allied fleet, steering north in a very irregular line, was attacked by the British in two columns, running before the wind from the westward. This was a dangerous tactic, exposing the leading ships to the risk of heavy damage, but Nelson correctly counted on superior British training and discipline, and on the initiative of captains whom he had thoroughly imbued with his ideas. He also placed his biggest ships at the head of the columns (rather than in the center, as usual), himself leading one in the Victory, while Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood led the other in the Royal Sovereign. The result was to break up the allied line and expose its center and rear to overwhelming force, bringing a crushing victory in which nineteen ships were captured (though all but four of the prizes were wrecked, sunk, or retaken in a subsequent gale). The British lost no ships, but Nelson was killed.

How the French Revolution Worked

On Oct. 5, 1789, an agitated assembly of women demanding bread marched to Versailles. They surged effortlessly past the palace guards and thundered into the queen's bedroom mere minutes after she fled. The mob wanted the royal family to come with them to Paris, and the ever-faltering Louis at last acquiesced to the people's demands. With a heavy heart, he added his signature to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and loaded his family into the royal carriage. As they rolled somberly alongside the crowd, the heads of their dead guards bobbed mockingly beside their windows.

But Louis wouldn't be content as puppet king for very long. Even though he was imprisoned by the people in the Tuileries Palace, he had allies beyond France's borders who wanted to see him regain the throne.

As the events of the French Revolution slowly unfolded, the rest of the world had been watching guardedly from a distance. Britain and other European nations were delighted to watch the superpower implode, but they'd later be horrified at the escalating bloodiness of the revolution. Americans were a degree more sympathetic France had largely funded their revolution. One difference between the nations was that the United States had emerged as a republic (a government in which the power lies in the people's hands and popular vote decides the leaders), and France was still a constitutional monarchy (a limited monarchy in which the king or queen is limited in legislative powers).

As prisoner of the people in the Tuileries, Louis was surrounded by all the revolutionary action in Paris. The National Assembly had followed suit behind the king, shifting their headquarters from Versailles to Paris. The city was veritably bursting with the spirit of change. And for at least two years, the degenerating monarchy cooperated with the National Assembly. Louis signed the new government's legislative policies while Marie Antoinette looked on in disbelief.

With her family members reigning as active monarchs in neighboring Austria, she saw no reason that Louis should relinquish control to bloodthirsty peasants. At last, she won her husband over. (For more on Marie Antoinette's perspectives, read Top 5 Marie Antoinette Scandals.) They planned an escape and broke from the Tuileries on the night of June 21, 1791, under the guise of servants. The royal family was close to the Austrian border when its carriage was apprehended at the town of Varennes.

When Louis and his family were brought back to their quarters at the Tuileries, they were kept under heavier watch. At this point, even the king's sympathizers could no longer feel affection for the monarch -- in France's darkest hour, he'd scurried away like a rat in the night. The French people began to suspect that Marie Antoinette's connections in Austria might be planning to wage war against them, so under the booming recommendation of Jacques Pierre Brissot, the National Assembly declared war on both Austria and Prussia in April 1792.

Suspicions against the royal family continued to mount, including founded or unfounded beliefs that Marie Antoinette was writing to her family about confidential military maneuvers. In an act of misguided duty to the monarchies of Europe, Prussia's Duke of Brunswick wrote that he would raze Paris to the ground if the king were harmed. The Parisian press printed the letter for the whole city to see, and an enraged mob stormed the Tuileries. Louis was made to go on trial as an ordinary citizen, and he was quickly proclaimed guilty.

The matter of what to do with a dethroned traitor effectively split the National Assembly in two.

What happened to France’s monarchy?

The most well-known episode regarding the ending of France’s monarchy is the 1789 Revolution which led to the deaths of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. But while this event did lead to the end of the absolute monarchy, it was only for a short time and the monarchy did not actually end for good until 1870.

The French Revolution

The first real attempt to end the monarchy in France happened in 1789, and it is probably the most well-known event that led to the end of the monarchy. The current King in 1789 was King Louis XVI who was married to the famous Queen Marie-Antoinette. King Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774 and was a member of the House of Bourbons who had ruled over France since 1589. King Louis XVI’s reign was complicated from the beginning as he ascended the throne in the middle of a financial crisis that wouldn’t end during his reign and a rising anger in the French people. This led him to call the Estates-General in 1789, a sign that the monarchy was weakened as it was the first time the body was called since 1614. The Estates-General were split into three estates: the clergy, the nobility and the rest of France – the Third Estate. But the middle class created the National Assembly and were soon joined by the Third Estate. They took the Tennis Court Oath under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. They were joined by the Clergy as well as 47 members of the nobility.

Photo: Jean-Louis Prieur (dessin) Pierre-Gabriel Berthault (graveur) – Archives Nationales (France) Cote

When Louis XVI fired Necker – the Finance Minister- a few days later after he published an inaccurate account of the government’s debts, a lot of Parisians thought the King did it to undermine the National Assembly which made them even angrier. On July 14th, insurgents stormed the Bastille fortress in order to take the weapons and ammunition. However, despite the storming of the Bastille being probably the most well-known episode of the French Revolution, it only lasted for a few hours, and the Revolution lasted until 1792. The Bastille episode did act as a symbol and example in other parts of France and civil authority rapidly deteriorated which caused a lot of members of the nobility to flee France as they were fearing for their security.

Photo: Jean-Pierre Houël – Bibliothèque nationale de France

Other important episodes of the French Revolution are the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August 1789 (directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson) and the Women’s March on Versailles in October 1789 which led to the King and Queen leaving Versailles to live at the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Indeed, the people tried to kill Queen Marie-Antoinette as they felt she was living a lavish lifestyle that was provocative considering the financial crisis in France. They felt that if the royal couple lived in Paris inside of Versailles, it would be easier to make them accountable if they were living among the people in Paris.

Worried about his family safety and dismayed by the direction the Revolution was taking, King Louis XVI decided to flee with his family from Paris to the Austrian border in June 1791. However, he was recognised during the trip, in Varennes, and brought back to Paris. The Assembly suspended him, and the King and Queen were held under guards. His attempted flight did not go down well with the public and would ultimately lead to his death.

Photo: Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1750-1818), d’après un dessin de Jean-Louis Prieur. Reproduction par P. G. Berthault dans les Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française

The Revolution’s goal was to abolish the absolute monarchy (called the Ancien Régime), but the Assembly was split on whether France should become a constitutional monarchy or a republic. Ultimately, they settled on a constitutional monarchy with the King only having a representative role. The writing of the First Constitution in 1791, and it stated that there would be one Assembly and that the King would only have a suspensive veto. However, a lot of people were still angry that the King had attempted to flee and raised the point that since he had been suspended from his powers after being arrested in Varennes. He was now deposed and shouldn’t be the King of the new constitutional monarchy. However, despite huge protests, the First Constitution was signed on 3 September 1791, and the National Assembly gave way to the new Legislative Assembly that would share power with the King.

Photo: Pierre-Gabriel Berthault –

While it seemed like this was the end of the troubles for King Louis XVI and the monarchy, things only got worse from there when foreign monarchies got involved at a time when the French people were trying to assert their sovereignty. It had already started in August 1791 when the King’s brother-in-law, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, King Frederick William II of Prussia, and the King’s brother, Charles-Philippe, Comte d’Artois, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, declaring their intention to bring the French king in the position “to consolidate the basis of a monarchical government” and that they were preparing their own troops for action.

Photo: Pierre-Gabriel Berthault –

In April 1792, the Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria over territories claims. However, the French army was completely disorganised due to the Revolution, and they lost. In July, the Duke of Brunswick and his troops took the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun and on July 25th, he issued a statement written by King Louis XVI’s cousin, the Prince de Condé saying that the Austrians and Prussians intended to restore the King to his full powers. This was the downfall of King Louis XVI, as on August 10th, an armed mob invaded the Tuileries Palace while the King and his family took shelter in the Legislative Assembly. King Louis XVI was arrested on August 13th, and France was declared a Republic on September 21st, 1792.

Photo: „SG“ – Hampel Auctions

King Louis XVI was beheaded on January 21th, 1793 while Queen Marie-Antoinette was beheaded a few months later on October 16th, 1793. This was the true end of the absolute monarchy in France but not the end of the monarchy altogether as France would alternate between Empires, Monarchies, and Republics from 1792 to 1870.

The First French Republic and the First French Empire

By Jacques-Louis David – zQEbF0AA9NhCXQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

France became a republic in September 1792 and remained one until 1804 – although the form of the government changed several times. In 1799, after a coup, the government became the Consulate with Napoleon Bonaparte – one of the co-conspirators- being the Consul (equivalent to the head of government). However, in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor of the French thus ending the First French Republic and starting the First French Empire. During his time as Emperor, Napoleon took part in many wars and was very successful which allowed him to solidify his grip over Europe. But he had a lot of enemies, and in 1813, Prussian and Austrian armies joined forces with the Russian army in the Sixth Coalition War against France and invaded the country in 1814 which forced Napoleon to abdicate. He was exiled to the Island of Elba.

The restoration of the Bourbon monarchy

By François Gérard – Unknown, Public Domain,

After Napoleon’s abdication, the monarchy was restored with the Bourbons in power. King Louis XVI’s younger brother, Louis Stanislas was crowned as Louis XVIII in April 1814. However, Napoleon came back less than a year later in March 1815. He returned from exile and took back control of the throne. Under his control, France took part in the Seventh Coalition War, but they had few resources and Napoleon ultimately lost the Battle of Waterloo. He then tried to abdicate in favour of his son, but the Bourbon monarchy was restored instead. Napoleon was exiled again, and he would die in 1821. Since his rule only lasted 111 days, it is now known as The Hundred Days.

The next fifteen years were quiet in terms of regime change as King Louis XVIII ruled France until his death in 1824 and his younger brother succeeded him as King Charles X until 1830.

The 1830 July Revolution and the reign of the Orléans

By Henry Bone –, Public Domain,

In March 1830, King Charles X dissolved parliament after 221 members of the Chambers of Deputies passed a motion of no confidence, and he also delayed the elections for two months. In the meantime, the �” were held as heroes by the liberals as the King had become really unpopular. The government was defeated in the next elections, and on April 30th, King Charles X dissolved the National Guard of Paris – a voluntary group of citizens – on the grounds that it had behaved in an inappropriate manner towards the King. On July 25th, the King signed the July Ordinances that suspended the liberty of the press, dissolved the newly elected Chamber of Deputies, and excluded the commercial middle-class from future elections. This would lead to the end of the Bourbon monarchy in just three days.

Indeed, from July 27th to July 29th, the French people started a revolution against the King and his government, and they won over most of the important institutions of Paris, capturing the Tuileries Palace, the Hotel de Ville, the Louvre and the Archbishop’s Palace among others.

On August 2nd, King Charles X and his son, Louis Antoine abdicated their rights for the throne and left for Great Britain. Charles X had hoped his grandson would takeover as Henry V, but the members of the former government decided otherwise. As a result, they chose to elect Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans as King. A fact that is not often well-known is that Charles X’s son only renounced his rights to the throne after a 20 minute argument with his father, and he is, thus, considered by the monarchists as King Louis XIX Antoine even though he only “ruled” for 20 minutes. Historians usually don’t count him as a King of France.

This decision made significant changes for the French monarchy. King Louis-Philippe I was chosen because he was more liberal and the regime officially changed to the July monarchy – still a constitutional monarchy but a more liberal one – and it officially ended the Bourbons monarchy as Charles X was the last Bourbon to rule over France. It also started a division between the Bourbons and the Orléans with the Bourbons supporters being called Legitimists and the Orléans supporters being called Orléanists. This division still exists today.

By Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Portraits officiels: Louis-Philippe et Napoléon III, uploaded by user:Rlbberlin, Public Domain,

During his reign from 1830 to 1848, King Louis-Philippe I had the title of King of the French (as opposed to King of France) and was very liberal. However, he grew more and more conservative, and when a new revolution started because of a very tense economic and social climate in the country, he fled to Great-Britain. The Second French Republic was declared in February 1848, marking a new change of regime in France, the fifth one in less than 60 years.

The Second French Republic and the Second French Empire

By After Franz Xaver Winterhalter – Unknown, Public Domain,

The Second French Republic lasted from 1848 to 1852 with Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as President. Louis-Napoléon was the nephew of Napoléon I. He was the first French head of state to hold the title of president, the first elected by a direct popular vote. However, the Constitution stated that a President could not seek re-election after his four year term. Louis-Napoléon spent the first half of 1851 trying to convince the National Assembly to change the constitution, but when the Assembly voted against his suggestion, he organised a coup d’état in December 1851. A Parisian insurrection started, but the insurgents were quickly defeated. The Assembly was dissolved and a new Constitution was drafted.

Following a referendum, the new constitution was adopted in January 1852 with more legislative power to the President, and the President was now elected for ten years with no term limits. However, Louis-Napoléon followed his uncle Napoléon I’s footsteps as he quickly decided to become Emperor, and after another referendum, the Second French Empire was proclaimed in November 1852. Louis-Napoléon chose to be proclaimed Emperor on December 2th as it was a very symbolic date, one year after his coup and 48 years to the day after Napoléon I’s coronation. He became Napoléon III and ruled until 1870.

The real end of the monarchy and the start of France as a long-standing Republic

In September 1870, Napoléon III and his army were made prisoners during the Franco-Prussian war and Napoléon III had to surrender. When the news reached Paris, a group of Republican deputies gathered at the City Hall and proclaimed the return of the Republic and the creation of a Government of National Defence. It was the end of the Second French Empire and the start of a long-standing republic regime, marking the end of the monarchy in any of its forms in France. Napoléon III was, thus, the last French monarch ever.

France has been under the regime of the Fifth Republic since 1958. And while 1789 and the Revolution are the events that started it all, it took 81 years for the monarchy to completely disappear in France. However, there are still monarchists in the country today, most of them split between two pretenders. Indeed, there are several claimants to the throne of France, but the main two are the Bourbons and the Orléans. The current Bourbon pretender is Louis de Bourbon as Head of the House of Bourbon since 1989. The current Orléans pretender is Henri d’Orléans as the head of the House of Orléans although his son and heir, Jean d’Orléans, Dauphin de France and Duc de Vendôme is quite well-known.

The Directory and revolutionary expansion

The constitution of the year III, which the National Convention had approved, placed executive power in a Directory of five members and legislative power in two chambers, the Council of Ancients and the Council of the Five Hundred (together called the Corps Législatif). This regime, a bourgeois republic, might have achieved stability had not war perpetuated the struggle between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries throughout Europe. The war, moreover, embittered existing antagonisms between the Directory and the legislative councils in France and often gave rise to new ones. These disputes were settled by coups d’état, chiefly those of 18 Fructidor, year V (September 4, 1797), which removed the royalists from the Directory and from the councils, and of 18 Brumaire, year VIII (November 9, 1799), in which Bonaparte abolished the Directory and became the leader of France as its “first consul.”

After the victory of Fleurus, the progress of the French armies in Europe had continued. The Rhineland and Holland were occupied, and in 1795 Holland, Tuscany, Prussia, and Spain negotiated for peace. When the French army under Bonaparte entered Italy (1796), Sardinia came quickly to terms. Austria was the last to give in ( Treaty of Campo Formio, 1797). Most of the countries occupied by the French were organized as “sister republics,” with institutions modeled on those of Revolutionary France.

Peace on the continent of Europe, however, did not end revolutionary expansion. The majority of the directors had inherited the Girondin desire to spread the Revolution over Europe and listened to the appeals of Jacobins abroad. Thus French troops in 1798 and 1799 entered Switzerland, the Papal States, and Naples and set up the Helvetic, Roman, and Parthenopean republics. Great Britain, however, remained at war with France. Unable to effect a landing in England, the Directory, on Bonaparte’s request, decided to threaten the British in India by occupying Egypt. An expeditionary corps under Bonaparte easily occupied Malta and Egypt, but the squadron that had convoyed it was destroyed by Horatio Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile on 14 Thermidor, year VI (August 1, 1798). This disaster encouraged the formation of a Second Coalition of powers alarmed by the progress of the Revolution. This coalition of Austria, Russia, Turkey, and Great Britain won great successes during the spring and summer of 1799 and drove back the French armies to the frontiers. Bonaparte thereupon returned to France to exploit his own great prestige and the disrepute into which the military reverses had brought the government. His coup d’état of 18 Brumaire overthrew the Directory and substituted the consulate. Although Bonaparte proclaimed the end of the Revolution, he himself was to spread it in new forms throughout Europe.

Emmanuel, count de las Cases

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Emmanuel, count de las Cases, in full Emmanuel-augustin-dieudonné-joseph, Count De Las Cases, (born June 21, 1766, Languedoc, France—died May 15, 1842, Passy), French historian best known as the recorder of Napoleon’s last conversations on St. Helena, the publication of which contributed greatly to the Napoleonic legend in Europe.

An officer of the royal navy, Las Cases in 1790 emigrated from France to England, where he wrote and published his Atlas Historique . . . (1802), a work that attracted Napoleon’s attention. Consequently, on his return to France (1809) with other Royalists rallying to Napoleon, Las Cases was given a minor position on the council of state and created count in 1810. After Napoleon’s defeat (1814), he returned to England but joined Napoleon during the Hundred Days (1815), following him into exile at St. Helena. For 18 months he recorded his conversations with Napoleon on his principles of warfare, his identification of the French Revolution with the Empire, his political philosophy, and his sentiments on religion and philosophy. A letter of complaint about Napoleon’s treatment led to Las Cases’ deportation and to the seizure of his manuscript by the British government. Forbidden to enter England, he traveled in Germany and Belgium until he was allowed to return to France after the death of Napoleon in 1822. Recovering his manuscript, he published his Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (1823), which at once became extremely popular. A deputy for Saint-Denis (1831–34 1835–39), he sat with the extreme left, opposing the rule of Louis-Philippe.

Las Cases’ Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène was the first defense of Napoleon after his defeat. Although prejudiced in Napoleon’s favour, the identification of the idea of the Revolution with Napoleon furthered a union of liberals with Bonapartists, thus contributing to the rise of Napoleon III.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.

The July Monarchy (1830-1848)

In 1830, Louis-Philippe I became king. Convinced that he had an important political role to play, and keen to distance himself from his cousins and predecessors Louis XVIII and Charles X, Louis-Philippe refused to be crowned King of France. He instead took the title King of the French, breaking with established royal tradition.

But who was Louis-Philippe?

Here he is in a painting by François-Xavier Dupré:

Louis-Philippe I er , King of the French - François-Xavier Dupré
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Louis-Philippe was at pains to emphasise his break with monarchical tradition. On 31 July 1830 he left the Palais-Royal and headed for the Hôtel de Ville. Artist Horace Vernet’s depiction of that day portrays the French people united in their unanimous enthusiasm for this “saviour” of the Republic.

Vernet’s painting "The Duc d'Orléans leaves the Palais-Royal for the Hôtel de Ville" is a glorious scene in which Louis-Philippe is the hero. Vernet’s vision is somewhat detached from reality, since he fails to include the riots which actually took place in the capital in the last days of July.

Louis-Philippe promised a new regime inspired by the British model: a parliamentary monarchy. On 9 August 1830 he swore an oath before the assembled Chambers of Parliament to abide by the Constitutional Charter (the Charter of 1830, proclaimed on 14 August). Artist Eugène Devéria captured this historic scene in a painting which you can explore in the video below (english subtitles):

Louis-Philippe, the "Citizen King,” sought to distance himself from both the preceding monarchy and the Republic. Keenly aware of the political divisions which had riven the country since 1789, his aim was to unite the French people. It was partly for this reason that he decided to transform the Palace of Versailles, the former home of the Kings of France, into a museum dedicated to “all the glories of France" – as per the inscription still visible on the Dufour and Gabriel pavilions which flank the main palace.

Louis-Philippe I, King of the French, and the Charter of 1830 - Franz-Xaver Winterhalter
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Inside the Palace, the famous Gallery of Battles, inaugurated in June 1837, perfectly embodies Louis-Philippe unifying ambitions.

But, faced with growing opposition, Louis-Philippe was eventually toppled by another revolution in February 1848. The King had become increasingly conservative and removed from the French people: the July Monarchy came to an end with his abdication, on 24 February 1848.

The Raft of the Medusa

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The Raft of the Medusa, painting (1819) by French Romantic artist Théodore Géricault depicting the survivors of a shipwreck adrift and starving on a raft. Géricault astonished viewers by painting, in harrowing detail, not an antique and noble subject but a recent gruesome incident.

The French Revolution greatly stimulated interest in the depiction of contemporary events, but, after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, few artists were disposed to depict such subjects. Géricault was something of an exception, but he was separated from his immediate predecessors both by temperament and by the sincerity of his approach. Individual suffering rather than collective drama is vividly portrayed in The Raft of the Medusa. The large painting (13.75 × 23.5 feet [4.91 × 7.16 metres]) depicts the aftermath of the 1816 wreck of the French Royal Navy frigate the Medusa, which ran aground off the coast of Senegal. Because of a shortage of lifeboats, some 150 survivors embarked on a raft and were decimated by starvation during a 13-day ordeal, which descended into murder and cannibalism. Only a handful remained when they were rescued at sea.

The shipwreck had scandalous political implications in France—the incompetent captain, who had gained the position because of connections to the Bourbon Restoration government, fought to save himself and senior officers while leaving the lower ranks to die—and so Géricault’s picture of the raft and its inhabitants was greeted with hostility by the government. The work’s macabre realism, its treatment of the raft incident as epic-heroic tragedy, and the virtuosity of its drawing and tonalities combine to give the painting great dignity and carry it far beyond mere contemporary reportage. The portrayal of the dead and dying, developed within a dramatic, carefully constructed composition, addressed a contemporary subject with remarkable and unprecedented passion.

Géricault showed the work at the 1819 Salon, an annual exhibition of contemporary French art at the Louvre. It was awarded a gold medal, but many critics decried the grisly subject and repellant realism. Disappointed by the reception of The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault took the painting to England in 1820, where it was received as a sensational success. After the painter’s death in 1824, Louvre director the comte de Forbin purchased the work from Géricault’s heirs for the museum.

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