Saturday is Bastille Day where they celebrate the 1789 storming of the Bastille which was the start of the French Revolution. Since I don’t write long posts on the weekends I thought I would take the celebration of Bastille Day to examine how monarchies adapt and survive. Although Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, did not survive the French Revolution the monarchy in France did limp on for a few decades after it was restored following the Napoleonic period. The question I ask is where did Louis XVI go wrong? Where did Charles I of England & Scotland go wrong in the 1640s culminating in his beheading in 1649? Did each have a part to play in their demise? Ah, so many questions. I often think history is complex and I personally eschew simple cause and effect answers. Generally many factors play into the events of history. So in this small little blog I will examine some of the factors that caused the downfall of these people and also examine, in the big picture, how monarchies that survive to this day, have been able to adapt.
Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre (1774-1792)
Shortly after the storming of the Bastille the French royal family was forcibly removed from the opulent Palace at Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in Paris where they lived as virtual prisoners. For a brief period of time Louis did enjoy a considerable level of popularity. Initially the abolition of the monarchy was not the goal of the revolutionaries. If they had a clear goal it was to end the absolutist nature of the crown and to bring it under the control of a constitution which limited its powers. Much of the fight was between those supporting changes, sometimes radical changes, and those who wished to preserve the monarchy. Louis was indecisive and in his heart he was the King and his heritage and tradition taught that it was the king that wielded the reigns of power. Other factors were his unpopular wife, and Austrian royal by birth, and many rightfully feared that the king and the queen would draw Austria and other absolute monarchies to their side. Invasion of France by foreign powers in support of the monarchy was a constant threat. There was distrust all around on both sides. In the end because of their shoddy treatment Louis and his family tried to escape their prison like existence in the Tuileries Palace but were caught and returned to Paris. Louis was also secretly planning, with the aid of loyal ministers, his escape once again and the appeal to foreign powers for their aid in restoring the monarchy and ending the revolution. Before they could implement these plans Louis and Marie Antoinette were arrested and the evidence of their dealings with foreign powers to regain power was their undoing and the reasons for being executed for high treason. What if questions are impossible to answer. Had Louis not conspired with foreign powers, had his queen been more popular, would he have lost his head, or was it inevitable?
Charles I, King of England and Scotland (1625-1649)
For eleven years Charles ruled as an absolute monarch in a country not used to absolute monarchs. during that time he ruled without calling Parliament. Even his more powerful predecessors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, still had to wrestle with ministers and Parliament from time to time. Henry had a formidable will and Elizabeth also had a formidable will along with diplomatic skills and feminine charm. As with the case with Louis XVI the seeds for revolution were sown in the past. For Charles the problem concerned with who wielded the power, the Crown or Parliament? The struggle for power between the two entities had a long tradition and in viewing the threads of history it can be seen that the the two would eventually bump heads. Charles did abuse his power during those eleven years of personal rule. He raised taxes illegally and forced loans upon his people. In 1640 the call of war beckoned in the form of the Bishops War when Charles wanted to force an episcopal style of worship on his Scottish subjects. In order to accomplish his tasks he needed to raise funds and for that he needed Parliament. Charles called two Parliaments within a short time which were distrusting of the king. There was actually distrust on both sides. Despite many concessions given to Parliament by the king there was still a struggle between both the Crown and Parliament. An event that pushed the two parties closer to war was the handling of Lord Strafford. Lord Strafford was the king’s deputy in Ireland and when Parliament could not prove a charge of treason against him the House of Commons resorted to passing a Bill of Attainder which did not require proof of guilt for the conviction of high treason only the king’s signature. The king knew Strafford to be innocent of the charges and yet the king also knew to ignore the Bill from the House of Commons would trigger war. So the king sent Strafford to slaughter as a sacrificial lamb. Upon Straffords death Ireland fell into chaos fearing reprisals by a protestant army. As tensions continued to rise Charles entered Parliament with 400 troops to arrest 5 members on charges of treason. This failed miserably as the members had been tipped off and flew the coup. The speaker of the House of Commons told the king he was a servant of Parliament and not the king. Fearing for his safety Charles left London and the English Civil War had begun. It would last, off and on, until 1649 with the defeat of the king and his execution for high treason. Even with an assured victory for Parliament at the end of the war it was still possible for the king to keep not only his head but his crown as well. Toward the end of 1648 the king was willing to negotiate and accept the concessions of Parliament and rule with limited powers. Parliament was willing to accept him and have him return to power. So what happened? Colonel Thomas Pride and his troops scored a military coup d’état and purged Parliament of all those that supported the king. With nothing left but the rump of the Long Parliament and the remaining members who were anti-monarchist, Charles was convicted of high treason and executed.
I could go one with more examples, such as Wilhelm II of Germany, Nicholas II of Russia, Constantine II of Greece etc. It may be impossible to examine these monarchies and answer the question “was there something these monarchs could have done differently to save either themselves or their thrones?” Was their demise inevitable? We’ll never know. One thing I do observe from the tapestry of history is that the monarchies that have survived were the ones that were willing to adapt to changes. Those that wanted to keep the status quo and retain power were the ones that failed and ended up in the trash bin of history. The source of the change seems to have come from the majority of the people in these states and the problem seems to be that the monarchies would not, or could not, either listen to the changes in the wind or see the proverbial hand writing on the wall.