Few places have such a contrasting history as Paris. This is the City of Love, home to some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen, yet also a place with a history that is steeped in blood and popular revolt.
Paris is a place that inspires passion, both romantic and political. Any walking tour of the City of Light must include a portion on the revolutionary history that is to be found on every street corner: from Place du Bastille, where the notorious prison once stood, to the Tuileries Palace, stormed by a mob in 1792 and the Place de la Concorde, where hundreds, including King Louis XVI himself, were guillotined.
Join us for a walking tour of Revolutionary Paris, where the history of the French Revolution is told through buildings, squares and even the streets themselves.
A Walking Tour through Paris during the French Revolution
When considering a starting point for a walking tour in Paris centred around the French Revolution, there can really only be one place to start: the Place de la Bastille. This square on the edge of the Marais district was, obviously, home to the Bastille, the notorious prison that was stormed on July 14th, 1789, kick-starting the greatest political upheaval that the modern world has seen.
The effects of the Revolution are so wide-reaching that it is impossible to capture them all - Chinese politician Zhou Enlai famously said that that it was “too soon to say” what the effects of the French Revolution were, and he was speaking 250 years after the event.
Whatever the effects, there is no doubt that they began here, at the Bastille. Well...perhaps. The Storming of the Bastille, the symbolic start of the French Revolution, was exactly that: a symbol. The machinations of politics that had brought the King into conflict with his people - again, far too complicated to go into here, but, as many revolutions, broadly to do with taxing people’s money and wasting it - had been afoot for some time, but it was at the Bastille that the major actor of the Revolution, the mob, came into play.
Despite the symbol of the Bastille, the great prison of the regime, falling to the power of the people, there were in fact just seven people imprisoned there at the time - and one of them was under the impression that he was Julius Caesar. The prison’s most famous resident, the infamous Marquis de Sade, had been moved ten days before the storming, much to his annoyance as his magnum opus, 120 Days of Sodom, was hidden on a long roll of parchment inside the walls. Amazingly, it survived.
The act of taking over the symbol of royal tyranny was highly significant and represented the transfer of power from the court in Versailles to the people. Just who the people were, however, was still up for debate. For that, we need to have a little walking tour of our own, tracing the French Revolution along the river to the Hotel de Ville.
French Revolution Tour
The Hotel de Ville, Paris’ town hall, has been at the centre of city politics since 1357, but the period directly after the French Revolution was the one which saw it take a truly global stage.
Once the King was deposed, the politicians stepped in and fought for control, with Maximilien Robespierre and the group that he led, the so-called Committee of Public Safety, taking de facto power in 1793. It was from the Hotel de Ville that Robespierre and his allies began the Reign of Terror, two years of political violence that saw perceived enemies of the French Revolution walking their way through Paris for a visit with Madame la Guillotine.
Robespierre is one of the most debated characters in history. For some, he is seen as the vanguard of the French Revolution, a man who embodied the ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite that had sparked the whole thing in the first place. He was known as “the incorruptible” because of his dedication to the revolutionary cause and to democratising France, abolishing slavery and improving the condition of the poor. On the other hand, the methods by which Robespierre and the Committee went about defending the Revolution were brutal: he ordered the execution of thousands of political opponents, orchestrated the downfall of even his closest allies and forever associated the goals of the Revolution with bloody violence. In the annals of Revolutionary Paris, he is to this day the most controversial figure.
As he directed affairs from the Hotel de Ville, so it was there that Robespierre would meet his downfall. On the night of 10 Thermidor, Year 2 - did we mention that he implemented an entirely new calendar?! - or July 28th, 1794, police entered the Hotel de Ville with a warrant to arrest Robespierre, his brother Augustin and other officials. What followed was one of the most unusual scenes in French history.
Robespierre tried to shoot himself, but failed and only succeeded in breaking his own jaw. Doctors left him the whole night in the hope that he would die naturally, but instead he simply writhed in pain. Augustin attempted to evade capture by jumping out a window, only to land head first on a staircase and break both of his legs. Francois Hanriot, another Revolutionary, also jumped from a window, landing in a pile of excrement, where he was found in the morning, unconscious. Another ally, Georges Couthon, was discovered at the foot of the stairs having fallen from his wheelchair.
All were taken away to face the guillotine, the fate to which they themselves had sent so many other people. As Robespierre lay to face his death, the execution attempted to take off the cloth that was holding his face together, only for the condemed man to release a bloodcurdling scream that was only halted by the falling of the guillotine.
Revolutionary Paris walking tour
The location of this gruesome event was the Place de la Concorde. No tour of Paris during the French Revolution is complete with a visit to the epicentre of the Reign of Terror, now transformed into one of the great public squares in Europe. The Place de la Concorde is huge and links the swanky shops of the Champs-Elysees with the Jardin des Tuileries and, further on, the Louvre.
It held a similarly central role in the French Revolution. Back then, it was known as the Place de la Revolution, Paris’ main execution grounds. Previously it had been Place Louis XV in tribute to the king’s father and home to a huge statue of the monarch. As the Revolution took hold in 1789, the King was forced to move from his out-of-town palace at Versailles and into the city, as it was felt that he would have to be more accountable to his people if he lived closer to them. It didn’t work.
King Louis XVI tried to escape Paris in 1791, but was caught after a citizen recognised him from a bank note. He returned to the Tuilieries Palace, but events had long since overtaken him. The National Assembly, as the first French Parliament was called, began to take increasing power from the monarchy and on August 10th 1792, a mob formed in front of the Palace demanding the arrest of the King. Louis was forced to surrender and three days later was arrested. He was tried over the course of the next few months and found guilty of treason and crimes against the state. On January 21st, 1793, he was lead through the streets to the Place de la Revolution, where he was guillotined. Let’s hope that you’re walking tour through Paris goes a little better than Louis XVI’s.
He would be far from the last to meet their deaths on this Parisian square. The guillotine would also claim the lives of his wife, Marie Antoinette, his younger sister Princess Elisabeth, the aforementioned Robespierre and countless others. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1814, the name of the square reverted to Place Louis XV, before being changed again to Place Louis XVI. Eventually, in an attempt to bring the two sides of the French Revolution back together, it was renamed Place de la Concorde.
There are countless other sites in Paris that show the revolutionary history of the city. There is the Champ de Mars, now close to the Eiffel Tower and where the first Bastille Day was held in 1790 and which hosted the Festival of the Supreme Being in 1794, a celebration of the new religion promoted by Robespierre in an attempt to replace the power of the Catholic Church. There is the Pantheon, which became a temple to the ideals of Revolutionary Paris as a resting place for great revolutionaries such as Jean-Paul Marat and the Comte de Mirabeau, as well as great theorists of the Revolution such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And there is the church of St Roch, where bullet holes can be seen from the “whiff of grapeshot” that decimated a crowd in 1795, bringing down the curtain on the first phase of the Revolution. The order to fire was given, of course, by a young, up and coming general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Download The Secret Tales of a Historic Metropolis by Eloise Duprez to hear more!