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Just three months after residents stormed the Bastille, the French Revolution gained steam on October 5, 1789 when a group of women frustrated with high food prices and rampant starvation broke marched through the streets of Paris, then turned toward the royal palace at Versailles. Joined by others filled with the spirit of rebellion, thousands ended up at the gates of the extravagant home of King Louis XVI. The absolute power of the monarchy would soon come to an end.
Ironically, the seeds for the protest had been laid in the wake of Bastille Day. After citizens broke through the gates of the prison on July 14th, Paris became a mish-mash of Enlightenment-era thinking about the nature of government and the proper method to proceed. Local merchants, noticing a shortage of vital goods and a slowing of production, gouged prices. The lower class, already struggling to buy necessities, felt the brunt of it -- bread alone cost nearly half some workers’ wages.
With the royal court away in Versailles negotiating a handful of concessions toward a constitutional monarchy, citizens rightly felt as though Louis and the National Assembly were out of touch. Much of the discussions between reformers and monarchists hardly made progress, leaving the residents of Paris little option but to strike back.
As early as August, rumblings started working through the dissatisfied populace that a large uprising -- thousands in the streets protesting -- might force the monarchy to agree to the changes. The idea grew to the point the Mercure de France, a national magazine, published editorials detailing opposing positions on the matter.
Feeling as though emotions might soon threaten the royal family and the court at Versailles, the king’s military advisor, Comte de Saint-Priest, ordered additional troops to the palace. When the new battalions arrived, the officers organized a banquet to welcome them according to French army tradition. The following morning, October 2nd, revolutionary journalists played up the affair as a flagrant display of disregard for the needs of those starving in the city to stir further anger.
On the morning of October 5, 1789, a group of women gathered in one of the many Paris markets intent to make their voices heard. Moving methodically to the city’s main administrative offices, the Hotel de Ville, more and more people joined the crowd. Traveling east, as many as 10,000 people stood outside the building shouting for officials to provide them with two things: bread and weapons.
Soaked by a heavy rain, the protestors pushed their way in and grabbed whatever they could. As the crowd returned to the street, Versailles became the rioters’ preferred destination. Thousands of French soldiers, eager to join the fray, left the Marquis de Lafayette in the unenviable position of having to see his command erode or turn against the king. Persuaded by city administrators to lead the march as a means of keeping the peace, one of the nation’s greatest heroes pulled to the front of a 15,000-strong mass headed for Versailles late in the afternoon.
As the hungry mob appealed to the wealthy nobles behind the gate -- or in some cases, hurled insults at Queen Marie Antoinette -- an invitation for leadership to speak with members of the National Assembly afforded the protestors an opportunity to slip onto the grounds and take seats in the home of France’s legislative body. Those who could not find a seat indoors walked the stunning grounds, waiting for word about the king’s reaction to their protest.
By morning, the protestors were once again ready for conflict. Rumors Louis had rebuffed the appeals of a small contingent of women allowed to speak with him circulated and brought the crowd to a fever pitch. Shortly after sunrise, they managed to squeeze through an open gate to the palace and attacked guards. But for the presence of Lafayette’s men, the people may have seized the royal family.
Having accepted some of the proposed reforms the previous evening, the king addressed the crowd and guaranteed the seat of government -- the royal family and National Assembly -- would return to Paris with them. The tension eased, Louis and Marie followed the exuberant crowd back to the city, taking up residence at the Palace de Tuileries, where the French people would end the monarchy three years later.
Also On This Day:
1793 - French law pushing for the abolition of Christianity is enacted
1864 - Kolkata, India is leveled by a cyclone, killing 60,000
1910 - Portuguese revolutionaries overthrow monarchy and declare the nation a republic
1914 - First confirmed kill in air-to-air combat of World War I
1962 - The first James Bond film, Dr. No, hits theaters