What is now considered a watershed moment in European history, was once a decade-long struggle between the classes. While the commoners lived in squalor, the rich lived flamboyant lives, fueling the lower classes’ resentment against the monarchs. In 1789, France’s political landscape was reshaped by the French Revolution, but what do you really know about it? Keep on reading to find the answers with these 55 facts about the French Revolution.
Fact 1: The French Revolution erupted in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s.
- Towards the end of the revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte came into power.
Fact 2: During the revolution, a number of people were sent to the guillotine to be beheaded.
- The Committee on Public Safety, led by Maximillian Robespierre, implemented a system of Terror in an effort to root out counter-revolutionaries and to preserve the new Republic.
Fact 3: The kindled unrest and upset of the peasants, and the urban poor were shown through riots, lootings, and strikings.
- The French population’s resentment was due to 2 decades of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease, skyrocketing bread prices, and the depletion of the royal coffers.
Fact 4: The French Revolution changed France’s political landscape, leading to the abolishment of an absolute monarch and their feudal system, and the creation of the French Republic.
- However, the Revolution did not really result in a permanent democratic rule being established in France since Napoleon Bonaparte seized power at the end of the upheaval.
Fact 5: The ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman’ and of the Citizen’, pamphlet by Olympe de Gouges was published in France in 1791.
- Gouges’ manifesto asserted that women should be entitled to the same citizenship rights as men, since both genders are equal.
Fact 6: The French Revolution was a display of the inherent power and the will of the people in France, and served as a key player in shaping modern nations.
- Despite failing to achieve all of its goals, and at times degenerating into a chaotic bloodbath, the revolution still had a lasting effect not only to France but to all other countries as well.
Fact 7: Only seven prisoners were found inside the Bastille when the building was stormed on July 14, 1789.
- The French revolutionaries burst into the Bastille in search of gunpowder.
Fact 8: After the revolution ended, King Louis XVI was beheaded on January 12, 1793.
- The king was charged with treason for conspiring with Austria and Prussia who were enemies of France at the time.
Fact 9: The peasants always got the short end of the stick while the Catholic Church got off scot-free.
- Commoners paid disproportionately high taxes, while the Church and nobles were largely excluded from paying hefty taxes. To add fuel to the fire, the Church even separately taxed the nobles and the peasants.
Fact 10: 9 months after her husband’s death, Marie Antoinette followed King Louis XVI to the guillotine.
- Marie Antoinette was seen by the people of France as someone who flaunted her wealth and privilege, creating a great deal of resentment towards her.
Fact 11: In an act of dramatic defiance from being locked out of the traditional assembly in Versailles, the Third Estate (representatives of the non-privileged classes of the French nation) took part in the Tennis Court Oath on June 20, 1789.
- There they took an oath to never separate until a written constitution had been established for France. Finally, King Louis XVI relented, and on June 27 ordered the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly.
Fact 12: In the fall of 1786, Charles Alexandre de Calonne proposed a financial reform package that forced the privileged classes to pay land tax.
- Knowing that the Parlement of Paris was against the reform, Calonne presented his proposal directly to the king and handpicked an Assembly of Notables in 1787 to approve new taxes. But they rejected the reform, Calonne’s reputation spiralled as well, forcing him to leave France.
Fact 13: Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” was set during the French Revolution.
- In the book, Dickens asserted his belief in the possibility of resurrection and transformation through the narrative, suggesting that Sydney Carton’s death secures a new, peaceful life for Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and even Carton himself.
Fact 14: Before the French Revolution erupted, worshipping as a Jew or as a Protestant was illegal.
- However, post-revolution people were free to practice their own religions.
Fact 15: Roughly 40,000 people were beheaded at the guillotine during the French Revolution.
- The number of public executions and massacres peaked during the ‘Reign of Terror’ from September 5, 1793, to July 27, 1794.
Fact 16: 10,000 African slaves were freed because of the French
- In 1794, a law was passed freeing all slaves, however, this was short-lived, because Napoleon Bonaparte became the new emperor of France and he reintroduced slavery.
Fact 17: On April 20, 1972, France declared war on Russia and Austria.
- The revolutionaries had a genuine desire to spread the ideas of the revolution to all of Europe. Moreover, they thought that the best way to unify a country would be to wage a war.
Fact 18: France officially adopted its first written constitution on September 3, 1791.
- Although the new constitution retained the monarchy, sovereignty effectively resided in the legislative body whose members were elected by a system of indirect voting.
Fact 19: French philosophers, Voltaire and Rousseau, championed the humanist ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, and asserted for the rights of all men.
- Their political philosophies and Rousseau’s social contract theory strongly influenced the French Revolution.
Fact 20: Just 10 days before the Bastille was stormed by French revolutionaries, the infamous Marquis de Sade was transferred to Charenton.
- On July 14, 1789, just a few days before the raid of Bastille, de Sade had shouted through a window, “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.”
Fact 21: Maximilien de Robespierre was one of the main players of the French Revolution and was known for sending his opponents to the Guillotine.
- Ironically, he was captured and beheaded in 1794.
Fact 22: In the French legislature, members of the poorer classes were represented by the “Third Estate” who were all commoners as well.
- With around 27 million people, the Third Estate was by far the largest of the French society’s 3 class orders.
Fact 23: On July 11, 1789, the director-general of finances, Jacques Necker was fired for suggesting that the royal family go on a ‘budget cut’ to help conserve funds.
- Necker was not on good terms with the king prior to his suggestion.
Fact 24: The French Revolution was considered a turning point in modern European history.
- Not only did it birth the modern nation-state, it also ended the last vestiges of feudalism in Western and Central Europe.
Fact 25: France’s national anthem was conceived during the French Revolution.
- “La Marseillaise” was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg, after France declared war against Austria.
Fact 26: Political labels “Left” and “Right” were invented during the French Revolution.
- Leftists believe that a society can only be served well when the government is leading. Those on the Right-wing, however, believe that the best way forward is when individual rights and civil liberties are paramount and the role of the government is minimized.
Fact 27: It was Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup of 18 Brumaire that ended the revolution.
- It also marked the beginning of Napoleon Bonaparte’s dictatorship.
Fact 28: France’s popular tricolour flag was inspired by the cockades worn by the French revolutionaries.
- The colours red, white and blue represent the core ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity.
Fact 29: Napoleon Bonaparte seized political power in France through a 1799 coup d’état, and crowned himself emperor in 1804.
- Bonaparte was the first Emperor of France who conquered much of Europe before being defeated and sent into exile.
Fact 30: It is believed that 3 key reasons fueled the French Revolution.
- These were political (French monarchs had unlimited power at the time), social (exploitation of the commoners) and economic (France became poor due to the foreign wars of Louis XIV) causes.
Fact 31: Marie Antoinette’s last words were “I’m sorry”.
- She apologized for stepping on the executioner’s toe and supposedly gave the executioner a purse full of gold, to make sure that her death would be quick and clean.
Fact 32: Historians have tried many times to rebuild Marie Antoinette’s poor reputation.
- However, the attempts were futile. Not only was she sentenced to death for treason, her son was also forced to accuse her of sexual abuse and incest.
Fact 33: King Louis XVI walked to the guillotine and was executed at Place de la Concorde.
- He was the last King of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution.
Fact 34: Each year on the 14th of July, France celebrates its Independence with a parade on Champs Elysees.
- This is followed by many other events and festivities such as dances, concerts and parties throughout the country.
Fact 35: Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s identity were actually hidden from the commoners, and they were only recognized by those living in Versailles.
- This served as a precaution, when the time came when they needed to escape, they could successfully do so without being recognized by the peasants.
Fact 36: Remarkably, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette managed to escape and reached the country’s border without being identified.
- However, the couple’s plan was foiled when King Louis XVI got recognized because of the small pieces of gold coins he took with him.
Fact 37: You could distinguish a person’s social class by what he or she wore during the revolution.
- The militiamen of the lower classes dressed themselves as the ‘sans-culottes’ which was in direct opposition to the clothes preferred by the French nobility, which were knee-length silk breeches.
Fact 38: Blood definitely wasn’t thicker than water in King Louis XVI’s family since his own cousin voted in favour of the king’s execution.
- This cousin was Louis Philippe d’Orléans, one of the wealthiest men in France.
Fact 39: 361 members of the Parliament voted in favour of King Louis XVI’s execution.
- The other 288 voted against it.
Fact 40: During the revolution, the guillotine earned the moniker, “France’s national razor”.
- The actual inventor of the prototype was a man named Tobias Schmidt, but the device gained infamy in France when Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed that the French government adopt a gentler method of execution.
Fact 41: Certain items of clothing during the French Revolution symbolized liberty such as the long trousers called ‘pantalons’, short-skirted coats known as ‘carmagnoles’, clogs called ‘sabots’, and red coloured caps.
- To this day, the Rue du Chapeau Rouge which was derived from the revolutionary getup remains to be a popular street name in France.
Fact 42: Skyrocketing prices of bread fueled a women’s march on Versailles in October, 1789.
- This was known as the ‘October march’ and is one of the earliest and most significant events during the French Revolution.
Fact 43: The French Revolutionary Calendar replaced the Gregorian calendar from 1793 to 1805.
- The revolutionary calendar still had 12 months but they were divided into three ten-day weeks, each ending in a day of rest.
Fact 44: In the French revolutionary calendar, each day was split into 10 hours.
- Every hour had 100 minutes, and each minute lasted 100 seconds.
Fact 45: The guillotine remained a legal form of public execution in France for over 2 centuries after the revolution.
- However, in 1981, capital punishment was finally abolished in the country.
Fact 46: The church only added to the resentment of the French masses.
- Under the Ancien Régime, the Church owned 10% of the land in the kingdom, making it the largest single landowner in the country. Furthermore, the Church was exempt from paying taxes to the government, while it levied a tithe to the commoners.
Fact 47: A 1793 decree from the National Assembly required all privately owned exotic animals to be transferred to the menagerie at the Palace of Versailles, or killed, stuffed and donated to the scientists of Paris’ Jardin des Plantes.
- Thankfully, none of the animals were killed and the old menagerie soon closed down.
Fact 48: Before the revolution, it was impossible for a commoner to gain wealth.
- To fund the cost of war, the monarchy imposed heavy taxes on the commoners who were left with barely enough money to live on.
Fact 49: The public, which included the lower classes, were allowed free entry into The Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes.
- The menagerie’s founder, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, believed that the public should be educated about exotic animals kept in their natural environment.
Fact 50: Prior to the French revolution, a loaf of bread was already equivalent to a commoner’s week-worth of wages.
- During this time, the cost of food was so high that a number of peasants starved to death.
Fact 51: The guillotine also earned several other nicknames during its active years.
- Among these were “The Widow,” “The Regretful Climb,” “The Patriotic Shortener,” and “The Silence Mill”.
Fact 52: Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais just about escaped execution herself.
- She then lived to meet Napoleon in 1795, and became France’s first empress.
Fact 53: Napoleon is sometimes described as being short with a height of only 5’2”.
- However, Napoleon’s wasn’t actually that short and stood at a height of about 5’6″.
Fact 54: During the French Revolution, the summer months were called “Thermidor” which meant “summer heat” in Greek.
- “Brumaire” occurred in late October, and “Frimaire” which meant “frost” in French started in late November.
Fact 55: A large portion of France’s nobles fled the country during a time that became known as the “Great Fear”.
- This further inspired the end of feudalism, which was officially abolished on August 4, 1789.