Pétion - the republican deputy, who escorted the royal family back from Varennes. See extract. Tried to save lives in September Massacres.

Parisians found Pétion’s account hilarious when it was first published two hundred years ago. They were amused because the pompous deputy thought himself so drop-dead gorgeous that he believed that the King’s maidenly young sister had fallen for him hook, line and sinker, and was prepared to surrender herself to him! Really?


Pétion: The Assembly nominated me, and deputies Maubourg and Barnave, to escort the King and the people who had accompanied him, back to Paris after he had been arrested.

We discussed how to deal with the King. Someone said: “That fat swine is embarrassing.” Another person suggested locking him up. Yet others asked whether he should even be permitted to reign, and we discussed whether he should maybe be forced to accept advisers.

Lafayette cracked jokes and sniggered. Duport said very little. Everyone was slightly hysterical, but nonetheless I realised that underlying their hysteria, was an undercurrent of reserve. I could not allow myself to trust people who were obviously playing their cards close to their chest, and who had already, without doubt, decided upon a plan of conduct.

We parted from the others at the gates of Paris, but then Barnave, Maubourg and I were slightly delayed as the National Guard were not letting anyone pass through, and for a moment I thought we would be obliged to return to the Assembly. [The guardsmen were so jittery after the escape of the King, that at first they would not even permit their own deputies to leave Paris, to go to collect the arrested royal family.]

On our journey, the people in every village and town which we passed through welcomed us rapturously.

When we arrived at Dormans, couriers came to inform us that the King had left Châlons in the morning and that he would soon be near Épernay. Others assured us that he had been shadowed throughout his journey by General Bouillé’s troops, and that they were bound to be carrying him off at any moment. In fact several people even insisted that they had seen cavalry moving stealthily through the woods.

Nothing seemed more natural to us than that Bouillé would make a final attempt to rescue the King, because he was such a daring character.

We only permitted ourselves enough time to have a little something to eat and have a quick drink whenever we stopped to change horses, and then we would set off again immediately.

Throughout the journey, my travelling companions were very discreet and reserved with me. We only spoke about trivial matters. There was only one occasion when I became suspicious of them. We were again discussing how to treat the King. Maubourg had already said: “It’s difficult to say what I think of him. He’s only a poor soul who allows himself to be led on by others. It’s a shame for him. In fact I pity him.”

Barnave observed that the King could in fact be regarded as an idiot. “What do you think, Pétion?” he asked me. At the same time he made a sign to Maubourg – a sign not intended to be seen by me. However I suppose it is possible that, knowing how resolute and principled I am, he only intended to imply: “Pétion will condemn him with all the rigour of the law, just as he would if he were a mere citizen.” [Needless to say, Pétion had a very high opinion of himself.]

I replied that I did not totally dismiss the idea of treating him as an imbecile, incapable of reigning, who required advisers to help him govern. I added that these advisors could be formed from a council composed of representatives from across the nation. Then they put their points of view. We spoke about the possibility of regency, and of the difficulty of choosing a regent.

The enthusiasm of the good people in the towns and villages we passed through was truly wonderful to behold. They gathered from all over, old men, women and children. Some carried spits, some scythes. Others had cudgels, sabres, or old rifles. They were as happy as if they were going to a wedding. Husbands embraced their wives, saying: “Well, if necessary we’ll go to the border and kill off these rascals.” They ran alongside us, keeping pace with the carriage. They applauded us as we passed by and called out: “Long live the nation!” I was enchanted and overwhelmed by this amazing sight.

When we were a league and a half away from Épernay, travelling in a beautiful area, we spotted a cloud of dust in the distance, and heard a great noise. Several people approached our carriage, calling out: “Here comes the King!” We ordered the postilions to slow down, and as we moved forward, we noticed a huge crowd. As soon as they in turn spotted us, they called out: “Here come the deputies from the National Assembly!” They made way for us and some called for order and silence.

The procession looked superb. Some national guardsmen were mounted, some on foot. Some wore uniform, others none. They had all sorts of arms. The setting sun cast its glow on this wonderful spectacle, in the midst of the tranquil countryside. I cannot tell you just how much respect everyone showed us. How powerful our Assembly is, I thought. What an impression it has made on the people! [Pétion was a bit of a frustrated author, as you can guess!]

We reached the door of the carriage, to the accompaniment of the restless sound of the horses, the clattering of arms, and the applause of the crowds who pressed around us. Confused sounds emanated from inside the coach. The Queen and Princess Elisabeth seemed very emotional and tearful. [Pétion has obviously embellished this description of Marie Antoinette a little! The proud Marie Antoinette would never have grasped Pétion’s hands.] “Gentlemen,” they said anxiously, tears in their eyes, grasping our hands, “please don’t let anything happen which will be regretted later. Please don’t let the people who accompanied us, be butchered. The King had no intention of leaving France.”

“No, gentlemen,” said the King, “I did not intend leaving the country. That’s the truth, I swear.”

That moving scene only lasted for a moment, but how it affected me! I responded with a few insignificant words which were dignified without being harsh, gentle without being affected. Then, breaking the spell, I announced our mission to the King. Silence reigned. [Barnave and Pétion took their seats in the carriage with the royal family, and they continued the journey back to Paris. Maubourg went into the other carriage containing the attendants.]    

We had not travelled ten paces before they began once more to repeat their protestations that the King had not intended to leave the kingdom. They also said once again, how worried they were about the fate of the gentlemen of the bodyguard, who were travelling on the outer seat of the carriage. As they spoke, they rushed their words, they talked over each other, and they each said the same thing. Nothing they said was calm and measured. Their conversation was not dignified. It was impossible to detect in them even the slightest trace of the nobility which is often etched by misfortune, onto the faces of those possessing elevated souls.

Once the initial outbursts were over, the royal family settled into a simple and cosy family routine which was quite charming. There were no longer royal airs and graces, but now the members of the family acted in a good-natured way, and were at ease with each other. The Queen called Princess Elisabeth her little sister, and Princess Elisabeth replied in the same manner. The Queen danced the Prince upon her knee. Princess Marie-Thérèse, although more reserved, played with her brother. The King watched everything that was going on with a contented smile, but he seemed generally unresponsive and reticent. [This account does seem quite charming at this stage, and reveals the contented domesticity of the royal family – at moments – although Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law Elisabeth were often at loggerheads with each other.]

I examined the travellers’ clothing. It could not have been shabbier. The King wore a brown outfit and his linen was dirty. The women wore a very common style of morning dress.

The King talked about an aristocrat who had recently had his throat cut, and he seemed very upset by the incident. The Queen said that what had happened was deplorable, and that moreover the aristocrat in question had done a lot of good on his land, but nonetheless, it had been his own peasants who had killed him. [At this time, there were riots and demonstrations right across France and some of the countryfolk were turning on the local landowners, who had oppressed them for years.]

Something else upset her. She complained bitterly about how suspicious our escorts were of her. “Can you believe it?” she asked me. “I tried to give a chicken thigh to a national guardsman who seemed to be very attentive to us, but everyone called out, ‘Don’t eat it, don’t trust her!’ and implied that it was poisoned. I must admit that I was hurt by their attitude, and I immediately gave some of it to my children, and ate the rest myself.”

The King said very little. The Queen spoke to Barnave and Princess Elisabeth spoke to me, as if they had previously come to an arrangement about this.

Night was falling and the moon was beginning to cast its gentle light. Princess Elisabeth was gazing at me tenderly and seemed pleasantly relaxed. Her unfortunate circumstances only added to her allure. At times our eyes met with unspoken understanding and attraction. Princess Elisabeth took Princess Marie-Thérèse half on her knees, half on mine. Her head leaned sometimes on my hand, sometimes on her own.

Princess Marie-Thérèse fell asleep. I stretched out my arm, and Princess Elisabeth stretched hers over mine. Our arms were interlaced; mine touched her beneath her armpit. I could feel hurried movements, a warmth which emanated from beneath her clothing. Princess Elisabeth’s expression seemed to me to become even warmer. I detected a certain abandon in her bearing, her eyes were moist, melancholy mingled with a sort of voluptuous pleasure. I could be wrong, it is easy to confuse the sensitivity of misfortune with the sensitivity of pleasure, but I believe that, if we had been alone, if, by some sort of magic, everyone else had disappeared, she would have permitted herself to fall into my arms, and would have abandoned herself to the promptings of nature. [Even 200 years ago, Pétion’s assessment of his own drop-dead-gorgeous attributes, caused hilarity in Paris when this account was published. However, needless to say, any criticisms wafted over Pétion entirely.]

This idea struck me so forcibly that I immediately asked myself, what is going on? Is this a ploy to bribe me? Did Princess Elisabeth agree to sacrifice her honour in order to make me loose mine? Yes, I would not be at all surprised. At court, morals count for nothing. They are capable of anything, in fact, the Queen probably dreamt up the idea. [Pétion and many of the other republicans despised the Queen. Needless to say, she reciprocated.]

But then, when I thought about how natural her expression was, I realised that she probably thought I was very attractive. She was at an age when women are very passionate. I easily persuaded myself that her passionate feelings for me were tormenting her, and that she herself wished that we were all alone. In these circumstances, I would use gentle, tentative, delicate caresses which would overcome her modesty without offending her, as her passionate nature alone would be at fault. However I was careful not to compromise myself, and I believe she realised that even the most seductive approaches would not succeed with me, as I soon detected a certain coolness in her manner.

Soon we had arrived at Dormans, without even noticing how far we had travelled. I studied Barnave several times, and although in the half-light it was impossible to be sure, it seemed to me that his manner with the Queen was courteous but reserved, and their conversation did not seem at all mysterious. [In fact, Pétion was not very perceptive, as the still alluring Marie Antoinette was sussing Barnave out, and, just after the return to Paris, she began a secret correspondence with the overawed young deputy – who had fallen head over heels for Marie Antoinette. After all, what red blooded man travelling in a carriage with a suffering, dewy eyed Marie Antoinette, would not fall for her – apart from the uncouth Pétion?]

We arrived at Dormans between midnight and one in the morning. There were no cries of: “Long live the King!” but rather: “Long live the nation! Long live the National Assembly!” and sometimes even: “Long live Barnave and Pétion!” That scene was repeated throughout our journey.

I went to bed at three in the morning. Barnave slept in the same bed. We rose at five o’clock. It was difficult to sleep because the national guardsmen and crowds of local people were celebrating outside all night long, drinking, singing and dancing, to the accompaniment of local musicians.    

Once back in the carriage, the King tried to make conversation with me. First he asked me trivial questions such as whether I was married and had children. I replied that I was married and that my son was older than his. From time to time, I said to him: “Look at the countryside. Isn’t it beautiful?” Then I watched the King’s face to see what impression the passing landscape made upon him, but his expression was totally uninterested, and apathetic. I could not believe it. Truth be told, that heap of flesh was incapable of feeling anything at all.

The King wanted to talk to me about the British, their industry, and about the commercial genius of that nation. He made one or two points, then became embarrassed and realised his embarrassment and blushed. This difficulty in expressing himself gave the impression he was timid. I noticed this several times. Those who did not know him were inclined to believe that this timidity equated with stupidity, but they were wrong. Very rarely did a misplaced phrase escape him, and I never heard him say anything stupid.

He applied himself carefully to studying some maps which he had brought with him, saying: “We are now in such and such a region, such and such a district, and such and such a spot.”

The Queen chatted to me in a simple and relaxed manner. She spoke to me about the education of her children. She spoke as a mother and as a well-educated woman. She seemed to have what I considered to be very just principles, at least in relation to the education of her children. She said that Princes must be brought up without flattery, and must always be told the truth. But I have since learned that that was the fashionable thing to say at that time, in all the courts of Europe.

In fact, it was not long before I realised that everything the Queen said to me was quite superficial. She was actually a very shallow person with no opinions at all worthy of someone who truly reflected on matters. She had neither the appearance nor the attitude that someone in her position of power should have.

I took the opportunity of telling the Queen quite openly what was thought of the court, and what was said about the intriguers who frequented the palace. We spoke about the National Assembly, with the ease of friends. I reported to her several phrases which were always being used by the court, which then became public and disturbed many people. I even mentioned the journals which the King read. [The revolutionaries had spies in the King’s palace in Paris, and at other courts, so they easily discovered that the King was lying to them, when he later swore to maintain the new Constitution the deputies had drafted, which enshrined the rights of the people to liberty and equality.]

“That is all very well,” she told me. “They always blame the King, but they do not understand his position. He is constantly being given contradictory advice and he does not know what to believe.” [Needless to say, most Kings have their own opinions!]

“Well madame,” I replied. “I am a republican, indeed one of the leaders of the republican party. I believe that it is true that, almost everywhere they are to be found, Kings bring unhappiness to their people. They regard their fellow creatures as their property. If only the King had behaved well, by sincerely adhering to the Revolution, then the troubles which disturb our peace would not exist, the Constitution would be completed and the enemies on our borders would respect us. The people are unfortunately only too inclined to love and idolise Kings.”

I reported, with some emphasis, the great calm which had descended on Paris at the news of the King’s departure. The King, Queen and Princess Elisabeth said not a word in reply, except to say that that was very fortunate. However I believe they were really very annoyed at this, and at least were honest enough not to appear happy at the news. [In fact many Parisians were terrified, believing that foreign armies were on their way to Paris, to punish them for daring to be disrespectful to their King and Queen.]

No journey was ever longer or more tiring. The heat was intense and clouds of dust enveloped the carriage all the time. The King poured a drink for me several times. We remained in the carriage for twelve hours without a break. What surprised me was that the Queen, Princess Elisabeth and Madame de Tourzel did not seem bothered by this. However the young Prince passed water two or three times. The King himself opened the buttons of his trousers and held a sort of silver potty in place for him.

At one time there was nearly a brawl between different groups of soldiers. The atmosphere became quite lively. People were swearing at each other and nearly exchanging blows. However, what was most alarming for us was that bayonets were swaying around outside the carriage, and we were concerned because the carriage windows had been lowered because of the stifling heat.

In the midst of all this chaos, it would have been very easy for someone with a grudge, to kill the Queen. I had already noticed some soldiers who seemed to be very angry with her, and glared constantly at her. Some enraged men even began swearing at her: “Just look at that bitch. Why is she even bothering to show us her son, doesn’t she realise we know it’s not the King’s anyway?” The King heard everything that was said, quite clearly. The young Prince was terrified because of the din from the crowd and the clatter of arms, and he shrieked in alarm. The Queen held him close to her, soothing him, tears in her eyes. [Why did the King not jump up and defend his Queen from the accusations, you might ask?]

Barnave and I, realising that matters might quickly become very serious, stuck our heads out of the carriage windows and harangued the people on both sides. The grenadiers immediately swore that nothing untoward would happen.

When we arrived in Paris, the streets were thronged with people, and it seemed as if all the people in Paris and the surrounding districts had poured into the Champs-Élysées. Never had such an imposing sight been seen by man. The roofs of the houses were covered with men, women and children, the railings bristling with them, and the trees full of them. All the men wore their hats on their heads. [As a sign of lack of respect for the King.] The most majestic silence reigned. The National Guard held their weapons with the butt uppermost. [Another sign of lack of respect for the King.] This severe stillness was sometimes interrupted by cries of: “Long live the nation!” [Two years later the same streets would be thronged as Marie Antoinette travelled to the guillotine in a simple wooden cart.]

The names of Barnave and myself were sometimes mingled with these cries, and at these times, my companions, especially Princess Elisabeth, seemed to flinch. What was truly remarkable was that nowhere did I hear even the slightest derogatory word spoken against the King. People were content merely to call out: “Long live the nation!” [Lafayette, commander of Paris National Guard, had announced that anyone who shouted threats at the royal family would be arrested.]

There were crowds of people in the Tuileries Palace when we arrived there, many of whom were national guards. Some deputies came out of a reception room as our carriage drew up, to witness our arrival.

M. de Lafayette appeared on horseback in the midst of the bayonets of the national guards.    

The doors of the carriage were opened. The King came out and was met with silence. The Queen came out and a violent murmur went round the crowd. [The people believed that the unpopular Queen had bullied their beloved King into agreeing to leave Paris. Louis said nothing to convince them that he had freely decided on this journey, himself.] The children were received kindly, even movingly.

I went up to the apartments. The King and his family were in the room which leads into the King’s bedroom. They seemed like ordinary tired travellers, leaning wearily against the furniture.

Then a very strange thing happened. Corollaire approached the King, and, speaking in a biting and pompous tone, scolded the King as if he were a schoolboy. “Well, wasn’t that a fine old jaunt? That’s what happens when you are surrounded by badly-chosen advisers! You’re a good person and we love you, but what a stupid thing to do.” Then he started crying. It was all very strange.

Several minutes later, we all went into the King’s apartments. All the valets were already there in their usual livery. It was as if the King had just come back from the hunt. He began to remove his outer clothes. Watching the King, you could never guess what had just happened. He was as calm and impassive as if nothing at all had happened. Everyone around him acted as if the King had simply gone away on a trip for several days, and then returned. I was amazed by it all.


In August 1793, the following year, Louis XVI was deposed by Parisians, as German armies marched on France at the secret request of the King, to restore his absolute monarchy and abolish the National Assembly. Pétion, by now mayor of Paris, proved that he was not simply a foolish, pompous man. He began to protest against the increasingly violent turn the Revolution was taking and eventually the inner circle of revolutionaries lost patience with him and issued an order for his arrest. Pétion fled Paris, and was found some time later in woods, his body partially devoured by wolves. In despair, he had taken his own life. [Translated by the author and subject to copyright.]