Marie Antoinette does not detail the threats she endured on her return journey from Varennes. We have to read the account by the republican deputy Pétion (which follows) to really understand her ordeal. She probably wanted to block these painful memories from her mind. Why were the mob so cruel to Marie Antoinette, while they readily forgave her husband, the King?
When the royal family returned to Paris after the failed escape attempt, they were watched carefully all day and especially at night, in their palace! However, courtiers were more or less free to come and go, and pay court to them. The deputies in the National Assembly were relieved that the royal family had been arrested. They knew that the neighbouring powers were threatening to invade France, and knew that, if the King had succeeded in escaping, they would have been facing war. They hoped to prevent this disastrous fate for France.
Campan writes: The first time I saw Her Majesty after the unfortunate attempt to escape from Paris, she was getting out of bed. Her face had not really changed, but when she took off her nightcap, she asked me to look at her hair. It had become, in one night, as white as that of a woman of seventy. [It’s possible that Campan exaggerated this slightly, as Rosalie, Marie Antoinette’s maid while she was in prison, described the Queen as having patches of white hair, only.]
The Queen was not able to talk to me immediately about all the distressing events which had recently taken place, as the guard on duty outside her room at that time, was someone she dreaded more than all the others. But next day the Queen had my bed placed very near to hers, as she knew the officer who was to be on duty that night, was discreet. She then requested the favour of having the door shut. When I was in bed she began to tell me all about the journey, and their unfortunate arrest at Varennes.
I asked her permission to put on my gown, and I knelt by her bedside until three o’clock in the morning, listening with grave and respectful interest to the account I am about to repeat.
The King had entrusted Count Fersen with all the preparations for their departure. The carriage was ordered by him. The passport, which was in the name of Madame de Korff, was obtained through Count Fersen’s connections with that lady, who was a foreigner [Madame de Korff lost a lot of money in this enterprise]. And finally, Count Fersen himself assumed the role of coachman and drove the royal family to Bondy, where the travellers got into their travelling coach.
Nothing much happened at the beginning of the journey. The travellers were detained for a short time, about twelve leagues from Paris, because the carriage required some repairs. Then the King chose to walk up a hill, and these two circumstances together caused a delay of three hours. This was the precise moment at which the carriage was supposed to have been met, just before reaching Varennes, by M. de Goguelat’s detachment. [What a moment to choose to walk up a hill! Any other day would have sufficed surely. The King should have been racing pell-mell for the border – like his brother. Marie Antoinette’s anxiety during this walk can only be imagined. The Queen’s fatalism probably prevented her from remonstrating with her husband.]
M. de Goguelat’s detachment was in fact punctually stationed at the agreed spot at that time, with orders to wait there for the arrival of a carriage containing a large sum of money, which it was to escort. However the peasants in the neighbourhood, alarmed by the sight of this large body of troops, armed themselves with clubs, and questioned them anxiously. M. de Goguelat then decided to leave because he was afraid that the situation might develop into a riot, and in any case there was no sign of the carriage arriving.
The King looked out of the carriage at St. Menehould, and asked several questions about the road. Drouet, the post-master, who was struck by how much this man resembled the picture of the King’s head on the paper currency, went up close to the carriage. He then became convinced that he recognised the Queen, and that the rest of the travellers were the royal family and their suite. So Drouet mounted his horse, reached Varennes before the royal fugitives, by travelling along the side roads, and then raised the alarm. [Neither the King nor the Queen wore disguise, and for the King to pop his head out of the carriage to ask directions, beggars belief. See his brother, Provence’s account.]
The Queen began to experience feelings of terror, when they did not meet the detachment, as they had expected. Her terror was only heightened when an unknown person passed close to the carriage, in full gallop. He bent towards the window without slackening his speed and called out: “You have been recognised!”
They arrived with beating hearts at the gates of Varennes, without encountering even one of the horsemen by whom they were to have been escorted into the place. They did not know where to find their relays, and some minutes were needlessly lost as they waited for them.
They were then accosted by the people and forced to leave the carriage. They entered the house of a grocer, who was mayor of Varennes. The King told the people why he had left Paris, in a warm and friendly manner. He tried to explain to the people around him that he had only left Paris, in order to be in a stronger position to negotiate with the Assembly. The King told them that he did not wish to be forced to swear an oath to uphold the new Constitution, but that he wished to freely choose to do so. He added that he would maintain the Constitution, although many of its clauses were incompatible with the dignity of the throne.
The Queen told me that nothing could have been more moving than this moment when the King felt obliged to communicate with the very humblest of his subjects. He stated his principles, and told them that all he wanted was to make his people happy.
Afterwards, while the King was speaking to the mayor, whose name was Sauce, the Queen spoke to his wife. Her Majesty was seated at the far end of the shop, among parcels of soap and candles [surely a new form of seating for the Queen!]. The Queen tried to make Madame Sauce understand that if she would persuade her husband to use his position as mayor to help the King and his family escape, she would be honoured by everyone for having contributed to restoring peace in France.
The woman was almost swayed by the Queen’s words. She was in tears, because it was difficult for her to resist the Queen’s pleas. But she could not be persuaded to say anything more than: “Good God, Madame, if I agreed to do as you say, it would mean M. Sauce would die. I love the King, but I love my husband as well, and he would be answerable for the decision, you see.” Whilst this strange scene was taking place in the shop, the people, hearing that the King had been arrested, continued to pour in from all over.
The Queen, still hoping to see M. de Bouillé [the loyal general who commanded troops stationed nearby] arrive in Varennes with a force large enough to extricate the King from his perilous situation, tried to prolong her stay at Varennes by every means in her power. But the authorities would not countenance any delay.
A horde of national guards, animated with fury and barbarous joy because of the successful arrest of the King and his family, surrounded the carriage all the way to Paris. [Pétion’s account, which follows, fleshes out this statement, detailing the aggression of the mob.]
Deputies Barnave and Pétion joined them at Épernay. The Queen told me that Barnave behaved in a perfectly correct manner during the journey, while Pétion’s republican rudeness was disgusting. She added that Pétion ate and drank in the King’s carriage in a slovenly manner, throwing the bones of the chickens out through the window, even although there was a risk they would blow back in and hit the King’s face.
At one time, the King began to talk to Pétion about the situation of France, and the motives for his departure. He then added that France could never be a republic. “Not yet, I agree,” replied Pétion, “because the French are not quite ready for such a step.” This daring and cruel reply silenced the King, who said nothing else until he reached Paris.
At another time, Pétion held the little Prince on his knee, and amused himself by curling the beautiful fair hair of the child round his fingers. However, as he gesticulated a lot while he spoke, he inadvertently pulled the child’s hair hard enough to make the Prince cry out. “Give my son back to me,” the Queen told him. “He is used to being treated in a gentle and considerate way, and is not used to being treated in such a rough manner.”
Later, a poor village priest was unwise enough to approach the King and try to talk to him. The cannibals who surrounded the carriage immediately rushed at him. “Gentlemen, are you going to let yourselves behave like animals? Brave warriors, have you become murderers?” These words were all that saved the priest from certain death, as he was already on the ground. Deputy Barnave, as he spoke these impassioned words, almost threw himself out of the coach window. Princess Elisabeth, moved by his courage, immediately seized the bottom of his frock coat, to stop him falling out of the window.
The Queen, when she recounted this event, admitted that even on the most solemn and momentous occasions, an incident could suddenly strike her as being ridiculous and amusing. On this occasion, seeing the pious and normally ever-so-reserved Elisabeth suddenly jumping up and desperately holding on to Barnave by the flap of his coat, the Queen was forced to stifle a smile.
[This anecdote surely reveals Marie Antoinette’s spirit – that she should be able to find amusement at such a moment, while surrounded by ruffians baying for her blood. In fact, Marie Antoinette’s wry sense of humour had often got her into trouble, in the past.]
At most of the inns where Marie Antoinette spent some time, she had private conversations with Barnave [and later, on the recommendation of her advisers, began a secret correspondence with Barnave, while her husband – did nothing].
When the royal family was brought back from Varennes to the Tuileries Palace, the measures Lafayette put into place for guarding the King, were rigorous with regard to gaining entrance to the palace, and insulting with regard to gaining entrance to the King’s private rooms. The officers of the National Guard were stationed in the room called the grand cabinet, which opened into the Queen’s bedroom. The officers were ordered to keep this door open all the time, so that they could keep an eye on the royal family. [Lafayette had been elected by the people as the commander of the newly formed Paris National Guard.]
This door remained open even during the night, when the Queen was in bed. At that time the officer seated himself in an armchair near the door, with his head turned towards Her Majesty. The royal family was only given permission to have the door shut, when the Queen was rising.
The Queen had the bed belonging to her first lady of the bedchamber placed very near to her own. This bed, which had curtains, and could be moved anywhere because it was on castors, hid the Queen from the officer’s sight.
The Queen’s attendants found it very difficult to gain access to her rooms. Lafayette had arranged matters such that the wardrobe woman, who was Lafayette’s spy, was the only person who could enter. M. de Lafayette’s aide-de-camp had had this woman’s portrait placed at the foot of the staircase which led to the Queen’s apartments, so that the guard would not let any other woman enter.
As soon as the Queen was informed of what was happening, she informed the King. His Majesty then summoned M. de Lafayette, and insisted on his freedom to choose the members of his own household, and even more particularly to choose the members of the Queen’s household. The King then ordered him to dismiss this spy, as no one trusted her. M. de Lafayette was forced to comply. [This is just one incident which reveals why Marie Antoinette detested Lafayette.]
Weeks later, most of these harsh measures were abandoned. The doors were not kept open. Greater respect was paid to the sovereign, because everyone knew that the Constitution, which was almost complete, would be accepted by the King. It was hoped that this acceptance would restore calm in the country.
Calm was restored after the King repaired to the National Assembly in September 1791, just a couple of months later, and swore to accept the new Constitution. However, that very night. while the people celebrated in the streets, the King wrote to all the neighbouring European powers, secretly begging them to invade and restore his absolute monarchy. It was impossible for such ‘secret’ negotiations to remain secret for long, as the revolutionaries had spies in the other European courts and besides, there were plenty of loose tongues.
A year later, in August 1792, as 80,000 German troops finally marched on France, the people, in a desperate struggle to maintain their new rights, deposed and imprisoned the King and Queen. They could then organise the defence of their country – a defence which the King had been sabotaging for weeks. It was the beginning of the end for Marie Antoinette and her husband.
One question about this unsuccessful escape attempt remains – why did the King not decide to race for the border to escape from the grip of the revolutionaries, like his brother Provence? Could it be that the King had changed his mind about escaping? Could it be that Louis XVI had realised that if the escape attempt succeeded, he would in all probability be required to place himself at the head of an army and take up arms against some of his subjects? Did he deliberately sabotage this escape attempt? After all, how much easier was it for this man who loved above all, an easy life, to let the escape attempt fail, let himself be brought back to Paris, and then bleat to the neighbouring powers that he had tried to escape and look where that had got him. The neighbouring powers would then feel obliged to invade France on Louis XVI’s behalf, while the apathetic Louis sat back in his palace and did nothing. As he did.