Louis-Augusté de Bourbon of France, (August 23, 1754 – January 21, 1793) who was given the title Duc de Berry at birth, was born in the Palace of Versailles. One of seven children, he was the second surviving son of Louis, the Dauphin of France, and the grandson of King Louis XV of France and Navarre and of his consort, Maria Leszczyńska.
His mother was Marie-Josèphe of Saxony, the daughter of August III, Prince-Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and Archduchess Maria Josepha of Austria the eldest child of Joseph I, Holy Roman Emperor and Princess Wilhelmina Amalia of Brunswick-Lüneburg.
Louis-Augusté was overlooked by his parents who favored his older brother, Louis-Joseph, duc de Bourgogne, who was regarded as bright and handsome but who died at the age of nine in 1761.
Louis-Augusté, a strong and healthy boy but very shy, excelled in his studies and had a strong taste for Latin, history, geography, and astronomy and became fluent in Italian and English. He enjoyed physical activities such as hunting with his grandfather and rough play with his younger brothers, Louis-Stanislas, comte de Provence, and Charles-Philippe, comte d’Artois. From an early age, Louis-Augusté was encouraged in another of his interests, locksmithing, which was seen as a useful pursuit for a child.
Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre
When his father died of tuberculosis on December 20, 1765, the eleven-year-old Louis-Augusté became the new Dauphin.
On May 16, 1770, at the age of fifteen, Louis-Augusté married the fourteen-year-old Habsburg Archduchess Maria Antonia (better known by the French form of her name, Marie Antoinette), his second cousin once removed and the youngest daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Franz I and his wife, the Archduchess Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia.
This marriage was met with hostility from the French public. France’s alliance with Austria had pulled the country into the disastrous Seven Years’ War, in which it was defeated by the British and the Prussians, both in Europe and in North America.
By the time that Louis-Augusté and Marie-Antoinette were married, the French people generally disliked the Austrian alliance, and Marie-Antoinette was seen as an unwelcome foreigner. For the young couple, the marriage was initially amiable but distant.
Louis-Augusté’s shyness and, among other factors, the young age and inexperience of the newlyweds (who were near total strangers to each other: they had met only two days before their wedding) meant that the 15-year-old bridegroom failed to consummate the union with his 14-year-old bride.
His fear of being manipulated by her for imperial purposes caused him to behave coldly towards her in public. Over time, the couple became closer, though while their marriage was reportedly consummated in July 1773, it did not actually happen until 1777.
Upon his grandfather’s death on May 10, 1774, Louis-Augusté became King Louis XVI of France and Navarre, he was nineteen years old. He had an enormous responsibility, as the government was deeply in debt, and resentment of despotic monarchy was on the rise. He himself felt woefully unqualified to resolve the situation.
The first part of his reign was marked by attempts to reform the French government in accordance with Enlightenment ideas. These included efforts to abolish serfdom, remove the taille (land tax) and the corvée (labour tax), and increase tolerance toward non-Catholics as well as abolish the death penalty for deserters.
The French nobility reacted to the proposed reforms with hostility, and successfully opposed their implementation. Louis implemented deregulation of the grain market, advocated by his economic liberal minister Turgot, but it resulted in an increase in bread prices.
In periods of bad harvests, it led to food scarcity which, during a particularly bad harvest in 1775, prompted the masses to revolt. From 1776, Louis XVI actively supported the North American colonists, who were seeking their independence from Great Britain, which was realised in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The ensuing debt and financial crisis contributed to the unpopularity of the Ancien Régime.
Queen Marie Antoinette of France and Navarre
This led to the convening of the Estates-General of 1789. Discontent among the members of France’s middle and lower classes resulted in strengthened opposition to the French aristocracy and to the absolute monarchy, of which Louis XVI and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette were viewed as representatives. Increasing tensions and violence were marked by events such as the storming of the Bastille, during which riots in Paris forced Louis to definitively recognize the legislative authority of the National Assembly.
Louis’s indecisiveness and conservatism led some elements of the people of France to view him as a symbol of the perceived tyranny of the Ancien Régime, and his popularity deteriorated progressively. On September 4, 1791, Louis XVI received the title of King of the French.
His unsuccessful flight to Varennes in June 1791, four months before the constitutional monarchy was declared, seemed to justify the rumors that the king tied his hopes of political salvation to the prospects of foreign intervention.
The credibility of the king was deeply undermined, and the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic became an ever-increasing possibility. The growth of anti-clericalism among revolutionaries resulted in the abolition of the dîme (religious land tax) and several government policies aimed at the dechristianization of France.
In a context of civil and international war, Louis XVI was suspended and arrested at the time of the Insurrection of August 10, 1792. One month later, the monarchy was abolished and the First French Republic was proclaimed on September 21, 1792.
Louis was then tried by the National Convention (self-instituted as a tribunal for the occasion), found guilty of high treason and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793, as a desacralized French citizen under the name of Citizen Louis Capét, in reference to Hugh Capét, the founder of the Capetian dynasty – which the revolutionaries interpreted as Louis’s surname.
Louis XVI was the only king of France ever to be executed, and his death brought an end to more than a thousand years of continuous French monarchy. Both of his sons died in childhood, before the Bourbon Restoration; his only child to reach adulthood, Marie Thérèse, was given over to the Austrians in exchange for French prisoners of war. In 1799 she married her cousin Louis Antoine, Duke of Angoulême, the eldest son of Charles, Comte d’Artois, future King Charles X of France and Navarre. She eventually died childless in 1851.