Vive la république!

By Judith Hickon, Curator, Social History, Queensland Museum

To commemorate Bastille Day we delved into the Museum’s collections to see what objects we could find which relate to this momentous event in French history.

The storming of the military fortress prison, the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, was a violent uprising against the monarchy that helped usher in the French Revolution. These coins and banknote from the numismatics collection combine to tell the story of the historic reign of Louis XVI from 1774 to his fateful end by beheading in Place de la Révolution in 1793.

French coin, 1 dram, 1774.  Collection: Queensland Museum. N2660.

The last King of France before the fall of the monarchy in the French Revolution, Louis XVI (1754 – 1793) ascended the throne of France in 1774 following the death of his grandfather, assuming the title ‘King of France and Navarre’. The coin above depicting a crowned shield on its obverse and an effigy of Louis XV on its reverse was minted in 1774. The words ‘France’ and ‘Navarre’ and 1774 are clearly visible along the outer edge of the coin.

Only nineteen years of age when he succeeded to the throne, Louis’ initial goodwill and attempts at reform during his rule were tempered by his indecisiveness and conservatism.  These traits later became seen as a symbol of the oppression and domination of the Ancien Régime (the political and social system of the Kingdom of France from the late 1400s until 1789) and led to a rapid decline in his popularity.

By 1789, despite looming economic disaster fuelled by enormous national debt (according to finance minister, Jacques Necker, over fifty-six million pounds) and disastrous crop yields in 1788 and 1789 leading to widespread famine and unemployment, Louis and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, refused to curb their extravagant spending. Following a series of violent food riots which erupted throughout France, unrest and protests continued to grow until July 14 when angry crowds gathered on the streets of Paris and stormed the Bastille, itself a symbol of the tyranny and cold-heartedness of the French aristocracy.

Assignats, inflation and the road to Revolution

Assignats were first issued in 1790 as a form of printed currency representing the value of church properties confiscated by the French government in an effort to overcome bankruptcy. As befitting his status as reigning monarch, a ‘portrait royale’ of Louis XVI was portrayed on the first assignats. Unfortunately for Louis, this royal portrait was instrumental in his final undoing.

From 1789 Louis’s authority steadily declined until, after an attack in October 1791, the family was forced to leave the Palace of Versailles and move to the Tuilleries Palace in Paris where they became virtual prisoners and experienced increasing hostility.  A fateful decision to flee with his family, ended in their capture. A chance encounter with Jean-Baptiste Drouet, postmaster of Sainte-Menehoulde, who recognised Louis from his portrait on an assignat, led to the family’s arrest in Varrennes and their return to imprisonment in Paris.

Devaluing the King

Louis XVI’s portrait soon disappeared from bank notes to be replaced by revolutionary symbols including  on France’s bank notes was soon replaced by a new series of notes containing Republican symbols and slogans propagandizing the new regime.

On the assignat (above, also from the Museum’s collections) Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture, is seated upon a central plinth with a spade and rooster, holding a laurel wreath in her outstretched hand. Two bundles of bound wooden rods, or fasces, and a Phrygian, or Liberty, cap is featured on the plinth above the words ‘Liberté Égalité’.  Though difficult to see from this image, an embossed seal on lower left of note depicts Hercules killing the Hydra. Epitomising strength and power, the symbol of the Greek hero, Hercules, was first adopted by the Ancien Régime to represent the sovereign authority of the French Monarchy and later appropriated by the Republican movement to symbolise the overthrow of the monarchy.

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French Revolutionary assignat de cinquante livres (50 pounds) 1792. Collection: Queensland Museum. N600.

As history has shown, printing more money has never solved an economic crisis …

Inevitably, a lack of government oversight led to the value of printed assignats exceeding that of the confiscated properties.  Following a devastating economic period caused by massive hyperinflation and further exacerbated by continuing food shortages, the abolition of the monarchy and Louis’ reign came to an end on 22 September 1792. The two sols coin, below, is dated 1792, the final year of Louis XVI’s reign. The coin obverse depicts a Liberty cap above a fasces surrounded by an oak wreath. On the reverse the ‘portrait royale’ of Louis XVI is still visible.

On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was tried for high treason and executed by guillotine, under the name of ‘Citizen Louis Capet’. Nine months later, Marie Antoinette was also convicted of treason, and was beheaded on 16 October.

French coin, 2 sols, 1992. Collection: Queensland Museum. N2628.

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