After the issuing of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Clerical Oath by the Legislative Assembly, Louis XVI was deeply troubled by what he felt was the marginalisation of religion, which was central to his identity as a Christian monarch, as his divine right to rule was bestowed by God meaning that he had an obligation to rule the French nation.
The will of the Constituent Assembly seemed considerably divergent from the values of the Royal family, causing Louis XVI and his family to feel that they were effectively the prisoners of the Revolution. This was accentuated by the fact that Louis’ brothers the Comte d’Artois and the Comte de Provence had fled France between 17-18 July 1789, leaving Louis and his family as the only representatives of the Bourbon monarchy in France.
As such, Louis XVI and his family began making plans to leave France themselves and go to Austria, and reside there under the protection and with the support of his brother-in-law Emperor Leopold II, who could subsequently help restore the French monarchy with the additional support of Charles IV of Spain
On 20 June 1791, the Royal family left France for the Austrian border, where Louis XVI left a memorandum behind in his chambers explaining why he had left. This note allowed the National Guard to quickly and easily track the Royal family, with the King, Marie-Antoinette and their children being captured at Varennes, a small town very close to the Austrian border, after being recognised by a local postmaster. They were subsequently returned to Paris on 25 June 1791.
The Flight to Varennes was a pivotal point in the Revolution. Not only did it completely undermine the King’s standing amongst the French people, losing all respect from the public who did not remove their hats upon the return of the King, but it also removed any last vestiges of power which the monarchy still had, rendering obsolete the King’s suspensive veto power in the 1791 Constitution. It meant that the National Constituent Assembly now absorbed the role of being the executive as well as the legislature for the nation, subverting the ideal of separation of powers. French historian, Richet, commented that “by fleeing one King had renounced his sovereignty while another king, the people, looked on”, and Tackett argued that it “would prove a turning point in the history of the Revolution and of the French monarchy”1.
More importantly, it catalysed political factionalism. The republican movement drew strength from the obvious display of lack of revolutionary support from the King, radicalising political thought. It was thus that the key political parties of the Cordeliers and the Jacobins came to the forefront of French governance. Those who still believed in the idea of a constitutional monarchy, such as the Feuillants, believed the popularised, but false, story of the Royal family actually having been kidnapped and subsequently rescued by the National Guard.
Fenwick, J & Anderson, J. Liberating France. p.105 ↩
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