Escape to Varennes

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Depiction of the arrest of Louis Capet on June 22, 1791. Drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur (1759–1795). Musée de la Révolution française .

As an escape to Varennes ( French Fuite à Varennes ) the escape attempt of the French King Louis XVI. and his family from revolutionary France on the night of June 20-21, 1791.

The escape with the original destination Metz ended prematurely in the small town of Varennes-en-Argonne after Ludwig was recognized by a postmaster. Capitaine Jean-Louis Romeuf led the royal family back to Paris under the protection of the Garde nationale , where the king was temporarily suspended from his offices. Since the deputies saw no alternative to the planned introduction of the constitutional monarchy in the constitution of 1791 at that time , they agreed in the French National Assembly to pass the attempted escape as a "kidnapping" and left Ludwig in office.

The confidence of most of the members of parliament in his good will had been shaken by Ludwig after his attempt to escape; the event gave a strong boost to Republican groups in the National Assembly. The members of the Club des Cordeliers declared on the day of their escape: “At last we are free and without a king”. A demonstration organized by them less than a month later ended in the so-called massacre on the Martian Field .


History and occasion

For a long time, Louis XVI. pronounced against an escape, which was particularly suggested to him by his wife. While the Queen is the humiliation and threats to life, which she and her family since the forced move to the Tuileries , on 5./6. Had to endure October 1789 by the Paris mob, could no longer endure and hoped to be able to take appropriate measures against the revolution from the security and freedom of exile in the Austrian Netherlands, Ludwig mistrusted the Habsburg hospitality. He was still of the opinion that the intrigues on the part of the Austrian imperial family had resulted in the death of his father. He also had to assume that after his escape a usurper , possibly the popular Duc d'Orléans ( Philippe Égalité ) or his ambitious brother, the Comte de Provence (later Louis XVIII ) would try to gain power. Admittedly, his brother fled after Favras' execution , but that gave the king no security. On April 2nd, Count Mirabeau , unofficial advisor to the king, died. According to a rumor, his last words, which he wrote on a piece of paper with a dying hand: “Flee! Flee! Flee! ”Ludwig stayed. A change of mind did not take place until the National Assembly and the Parisian population prevented the royal family's annual Easter excursion to Saint-Cloud on April 18 for fear that he might flee . Aware of their personal lack of freedom, the royal couple actually planned their escape to the still safe, royalist-ruled border area around Montmédy, from where the safe Austrian exile in Luxembourg would not have been far in case of danger.

The escape plan

It was planned that the royal family would not separate when they flee, as it would undoubtedly have been safer, but would first go to a fortified town near the border, such as Montmedy, only in an extreme emergency, driving together in a coach to leave for the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium and Luxembourg). The governess of the children, who later became Duchesse de Tourzel , from whose memoirs the details of the flight are known, was supposed to act as mistress of the tour company under the name of Baroness Korff. Queen Marie Antoinette was to play the chambermaid, the king the valet. Madame Elisabeth , the king's sister, pretended to be the nanny of little Dauphin ( Louis XVII ) and Madame Royale ( Marie Thérèse Charlotte ). In addition, 3 body guards traveled with them, who were also supposed to order the post horses and Marie-Antoinette's favorite Count Fersen , who had largely organized the escape and drove the carriage himself. The real Baroness Korff had driven the same route with the same number of escorts to be on the safe side. Nobody had asked for her passport. The commander-in-chief for Lorraine, Alsace and Franche-Comté, the Marquis de Bouillé , a confidante of the king, was to await the refugees behind Châlons with soldiers and escort them safely to Montmedy.

The escape

Minor incidents had delayed the escape, which had initially been postponed from June 12 to June 15, until June 20, a Monday. In order not to arouse suspicion, the queen and the children had taken a walk in the garden that evening. Marie Antoinette had given instructions for a small exit for the following day and then withdrew. The queen woke the children around 10 p.m. Then everyone changed their clothes, the Dauphin had to wear girls' clothes. Using a complicated path through the suite of rooms, they went in individual small groups through the staff exit to the outside, where Fersen in the uniform of a coachman was waiting for them in a cab. First came Tourzel with the children, then Madame Elisabeth with a bodyguard. She reported that General Lafayette and Mayor Bailly had attended an evening audience at short notice . The Queen returned to the drawing room, where her absence had not been noticed. At 10:45 p.m., the royal family parted as usual. The departure was delayed by almost two hours until Ludwig finally came and a little later Marie Antoinette.

The royal family's escape route

At midnight the car rolled off. He passed the city gate unmolested and reached the junction with the road to Bondy . A berline was supposed to be waiting for the refugees here, but Fersen first had to look for a long time because the car was parked a little way off. Now the family switched to the spacious touring car. Bondy was reached around two o'clock, where the rest of the bodyguards were waiting and Fersen was saying goodbye.

At six o'clock the berline rolled through Meaux , before seven o'clock through La Ferté-sous-Jouarre . Unforeseen pauses were made several times, during which farmers and postilons recognized the royal couple. There were further delays when the teams between Chaintrix and Châlons fell twice and tore the reins. It took more than an hour to repair the damage. In Châlons, too, travelers were recognized without being met with hostility. The delay of the refugees meanwhile embarrassed the soldiers Bouillés. They had caused a stir among the population, and if Bouillé did not fear that alarms would be sounded in the surrounding villages, Bouillé had to withdraw them from the road.

By now, the travelers knew, their absence had long been noticed. There had to be chaos in Paris. Madame de Tourzel told how the king had already looked at his watch that morning and said: “'La Fayette is not at all comfortable in his skin now.' She continues: 'It was difficult to put yourself in the position of the general's concern and to experience any other feeling than the joy of shaking off your dependence on him.' "

Indeed, at half past six the escape of the royal family had been noticed. Justice Minister Duport-Dutertre also presented to the National Assembly a manifesto left behind by the king stating that he had decided to regain his freedom and bring his family to safety. Despite this confession, the MPs joined the version of a kidnapping, which was justified by La Fayette, among others, which met with violent opposition from the radicals around Robespierre . The king was declared the victim of fanatical counterrevolutionaries, and couriers were hastily dispatched to the 83 departments to look for him.

It was only around six in the afternoon, three hours late, that the royal family arrived at the agreed meeting point with the armed units. But at the post office at Pont de Somme-Vesle behind Châlons, the forty hussars of the Régiment de Louzon, under the command of Sous-lieutenant Boudet, who were to be waiting for them, had already withdrawn at about half past five, assuming that their escape had failed.

Despite this bad news, the king had horses changed and drove on. Around eight o'clock in the evening the car reached Sainte-Menehould unmolested . Here the king committed a moment of carelessness. While his bodyguards were having a discussion in front of the post house, he poked his head out of the car window. The postmaster Drouet recognized Ludwig and, after he had reported about it, rode to Varennes with the district employee Guillaume on behalf of the city council to raise the alarm.

The king's carriage reached Varennes around 11 p.m. The stagecoach stopped at the first house and wanted to return with the horses because the postmaster needed them the next day. The bodyguards searched in vain for the post office. Finally the postillons were ready to drive into the town.

But Drouet arrived in the small town at the same time as the carriage and made sure that it was stopped. When the Berline pulled up at the Saint-Gengoult gateway, a dozen armed men stood in their way while the storm rang. The grocer Jean-Baptiste Sauce, mayor of the municipality, opened the door of the car, questioned the inmates and asked for passports. Since everything seemed to be okay, Sauce wanted to let the occupants drive on, but Drouet objected firmly. So Sauce let the travelers get off.

Depiction of the capture of the royal family in Varennes

The royal couple, Madame Elisabeth, Madame de Tourzel and the three bodyguards Moustiers, Malden and Valory went through the grocer's shop and up a flight of stairs into a room. There happened to be a portrait of the king hanging there, with whom he was now being compared while the children were getting into the bed of the little sauces. The state of siege was declared in Varennes. Ludwig denied it until a former resident of Versailles was brought before him to confirm his identity. Now the king gave up his resistance and declared that he had left Paris to bring his family to safety with good French. The citizens tried in vain to persuade the king to return voluntarily.

Around one o'clock in the morning the young Duke of Choiseul-Stainville, who had been privy to the escape plans, appeared at the king's house and offered to save him and his family with his forty hussars, but Ludwig refused. Later, Captain Deslon, who had been waiting for the king at Stenay , arrived at Varennes with sixty hussars. He asked the king for his orders, but the king described himself as a prisoner who could not give orders.

Towards morning Romeuf and Bayon came, the agents of the National Assembly, who brought the decree of arrest to the king. The calls "To Paris!" Rose louder and louder. At seven-thirty the king finally came out of his room and, followed by his followers, got back into the carriage to return to Paris.

Return to Paris

On June 22nd, Ludwig, Marie Antoinette, Madame Elisabeth, the "Children of France" and Mrs. von Tourzel had to return to Paris. A steadily growing crowd accompanied the car, uttered insults against the king and queen and was violent against the bodyguards who were sitting on the driver's seat. In Sainte-Menehould , the mayor wanted to accommodate the royal family for the rest of the day and the coming night. When the horses were unhitched, the crowd cursed the mayor as a traitor and forced his guests to drive on. Shortly after Sainte-Menehould, Count Dampierre tried to penetrate the king, but he was killed in front of his eyes.

The royal family stayed the first night in the directorate of Châlons . Here the king was offered an offer to flee, which he refused because he did not want to separate from his family. In Chouilly the king was spat in the face, the queen and Madame Elisabeth's dress torn. The panic of the peasants armed with scythes grew steadily out of the fear that troops loyal to the king would free the king and then take revenge on them. In Epernay , where the carriage stopped for an hour, the royal family ate a meal in a hostile environment while a woman sparingly sewed the clothes.

Return of Louis XVI. to Paris on June 25th 1791, colored copper engraving by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur

Even before Dormans was reached, three commissioners from the National Assembly arrived on June 23: Latour-Maubourg and the messieurs Antoine Barnave and Jerôme Pétion, who soon became popular . They should secure the return of the king. The king assured them emphatically that he had never intended to leave France. The second night was spent in a hostel in Dormans.

A third night took place in the episcopal palace of Meaux . In Bondy Forest, an angry crowd tried to storm the carriage. After four days on June 25th, the travelers reached the capital, where they were received by La Fayette and his general staff. The train moved at walking pace through a huge crowd, accompanied by national and Swiss guardsmen, towards the Tuileries Park and arrived in front of the palace at 7.45 p.m. The bodyguards, attacked by the crowd, were hurriedly dragged into the castle. Then the King got out of the carriage, followed by the Queen, who was supported by the Duke of Aiguillon and the deputies, while the Deputy Menou carried the Dauphin after her. Louis XVI immediately justified. his departure towards the deputies and accepted La Fayette's respectful reprimand. His trip showed that he misjudged the attitude of the French.


Flag awarded to the citizens of Varennes for the capture of Louis XVI, German Historical Museum (Berlin)

The National Assembly agreed to see a kidnapping of the king in the escape, which was made easier by the fact that Bouillé, who had fled France, took responsibility for the kidnapping. The weakened king, who had threatened the violent dissolution of the National Assembly in a memorandum left behind in Paris, had no choice but to swear to this institution the constitution of 1791, which gave the king's rule a suspensive right to veto laws drawn up by the National Assembly limited. In Paris there were increasing voices calling for the king to be deposed. The signing of a petition on this subject a month later, on July 17, 1791, led to the massacre on the Field of Mars .


In 1982, the flight of the royal family as part of a French-Italian co-production with the title was La Nuit De Varennes / Il mondo nuovo , German flight to Varennes , directed by Ettore Scola filmed.



  • Memoirs of the Duchesse de Tourzel (Abridged), in: The French Revolution. A reader with contemporary reports and documents . Reclam, Stuttgart 2000


  • David Andress: Massacre at the Champ de Mars: popular dissent and political culture in the French Revolution ; Woodbridge, Suffolk [u. a.] 2000; ISBN 0-86193-247-1
  • Paul Pialoux: Le marquis de Bouillé: un soldat entre deux mondes ; Brioude 1997
  • Herman Lindqvist: Axel von Fersen ; Stockholm 1991; ISBN 91-7054-657-6
  • Michel Winock: L'échec au roi: 1791–1792 ; Paris 1991; ISBN 2-85565-552-8
  • Evelyne Lever: Marie Antoinette. A biography ; after the French original edition from 1991 published by Weltbild Verlag Augsburg, 1995; ISBN 3-89350-948-8

Individual evidence

  1. Jules Michelet : History of the French Revolution ; Gutenberg Verlag Christensen & Co. Vienna, Hamburg, Berlin; Volume 2, Chapter 8