BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Fall Of Robespierre: 24 Hours In Revolutionary Paris
by Colin Jones (OUP £25, 592pp)
Sitting in a Paris prison cell in 1794, midway through the French Revolution, the beautiful young aristocrat Theresa Cabarrus wrote a despairing — and bitter — letter to her lover, telling him she would soon be sent to the guillotine.
The previous night she had dreamed that Robespierre — the country’s most feared leader, who had engineered her arrest as an ‘enemy of the Republic’ — was gone and that the country’s prisons were open.
‘But thanks to your obvious cowardice, there soon will be no one left in France capable of making my dream come true,’ she wrote. Yet by the following day, after one of the most dramatic 24 hours in the history of the French Revolution, the all-powerful Robespierre had been deposed in a rebellion led by Theresa’s lover.
Maximilien Robespierre an obscure provincial lawyer, had enjoyed a dizzying rise since the early days of the Revolution in 1789. Widespread riots, sparked by high food prices, unemployment and crippling social inequality, had led to a series of radical new laws including state control of the Catholic Church and the abolition of feudalism.
The Fall Of Robespierre: 24 Hours In Revolutionary Paris explores how the architect of French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre — the country’s most feared leader — ended with his neck on the guillotine
The First French Republic was established in 1792, and the following year the king, Louis XVI, and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were executed.
Within a few years of his arrival in Paris, Robespierre had become the leading member of a small legislative committee which exerted almost total control over the French government.
Though not a natural orator, he had the ability to thrill and inspire his listeners while also striking terror into those who opposed him. His stony expression and silent stare could ‘stop grown men in their tracks and induce devastating despair’, according to historian Colin Jones.
Robespierre enjoyed celebrity status in Paris and had a particularly strong following among women, although it was rumoured that he was still a virgin.
He lodged with a carpenter and his family, enjoying a cosy domesticity completely at odds with his chilly and remote personality, often going for walks with his landlord’s daughters and enjoying picnics in the park with them.
Although he felt great affinity with the sans-culottes, the working class revolutionaries in their shabby clothes, he was a dandy who wore silk stockings and powdered his hair. Like many a tyrant, Robespierre was prickly and thin-skinned about criticism.
In the Revolution’s early days he had been an ardent advocate of freedom of the Press, but as soon as he got into power his views changed.
Maximilien Robespierre (pictured), an obscure provincial lawyer, had enjoyed a dizzying rise since the early days of the Revolution in 1789 and although he felt great affinity with the working class revolutionaries, he was a dandy who wore silk stockings and powdered his hair
‘Freedom of the Press is only for times of tranquillity,’ he declared. ‘We must proscribe writers, as the most dangerous enemies of the people.’
In an echo of 21st century politics, he frequently fulminated against ‘false news’ most of which, he was convinced, was being stirred up by the English.
Previously opposed to the death penalty, he soon became its greatest enthusiast and personally signed more than 500 arrest warrants. He had driven through a law which allowed juries to pass sentences based on ‘moral conviction’ rather than evidence, and defendants no longer had the right to a lawyer.
This ushered in the blood-soaked era of The Terror, where perceived enemies of the Revolution — mainly aristocrats, priests and those accused of hoarding — faced harsh summary justice.
Although large numbers still turned out to watch executions, by July 1794 unease over the number of deaths was intensifying, especially as it was no longer just aristocrats who were being guillotined. Now people from humble backgrounds, such as grocers and chambermaids, were being loaded into the tumbrils.
In 1794, midway through the French Revolution, the beautiful young aristocrat Theresa Cabarrus (pictured) wrote a despairing — and bitter — letter to her lover, Jean-Lambert Tallien, from a Paris prison cell, telling him she would soon be sent to the guillotine
The execution of 16 nuns earlier in the month had caused particular disquiet. Crowds watched in awe as ‘they prayed together at the foot of the scaffold and marched up courageously to the guillotine, one at a time, chanting the Veni Creator through to the final swish of the blade’.
The executioners noticed that women were particularly brave, often smiling as they went to their death.
‘On the road to the guillotine, the smile had become a silent weapon of symbolic resistance,’ Jones says.
On July 26, 1794, Robespierre made a long, emotional speech to the assembly of deputies, known as the Convention, criticising the government and demanding that traitors be rooted out. When challenged, he refused to name names, which was to prove a fatal mistake; it meant almost all of the deputies felt threatened.
His enemies seized their chance to strike the following day. Chief among them was Jean-Lambert Tallien, an ambitious young deputy who was opposed to Robespierre for political reasons and also loathed him because Robespierre had been responsible for the arrest of his lover, the soon-to-be-executed Theresa Cabarrus.
The following day, after one of the most dramatic 24 hours in the history of the French Revolution, the all-powerful Robespierre had been deposed in a rebellion led by Theresa’s lover. Pictured: The arrest of Maximilien Robespierre
With a dagger concealed under his coat, Tallien stormed into the assembly and accused members of the government of working against France, ‘to aggravate its troubles, to hurl it into the abyss’. Although he didn’t name Robespierre, it was clear to everyone who he meant. A few deputies, primed by Tallien, cheered loudly; soon others joined in.
In a thrilling chapter, Jones shows how the balance of power ebbed and flowed in the chamber. Robespierre repeatedly tried to speak, but was shouted down, his enemies taking revenge for the times he had denied others the right to speak.
The most powerful man in the country was seeing his support draining away before his very eyes.
He, his younger brother, Augustin, and three other supporters were arrested. In the following chaotic hours, they were moved around Paris, and at one point even managed to escape from their prison. While this was going on Robespierre, who was more of a back-room plotter than a man of action, dithered over whether to try to mount an insurrection.
In the early hours of the following morning, he was shot in the jaw. Some accounts maintain he was trying to commit suicide, others that he was shot by a policeman.
Still alive, though in agony from his wound, Robespierre was taken to the Place de la Revolution where a ‘huge, enthusiastic crowd’ watched his execution. As he was thrust forward towards the guillotine he emitted a ‘blood-curdling animalistic shriek’.
And the next year the Revolutionary Tribunal, which had sentenced so many people to death, was abolished and freedom of the Press was restored, leading to the publication of many heart-rending accounts of what people had suffered in prison.
Two centuries later, however, people are still arguing over Robespierre’s legacy.
The Fall Of Robespierre: 24 Hours In Revolutionary Paris by Colin Jones (OUP £25, 592pp)
Colin Jones, a professor of history at Queen Mary University of London, handles a huge amount of material with skill and verve.
He creates an extraordinarily vivid minute-by-minute portrait of Paris and its people on that pivotal day, though the wealth of detail can seem overwhelming for anyone who isn’t totally immersed in the history of the French Revolution.
Strangely enough, Professor Jones never reveals what happened to the aristocratic Theresa Cabarrus, whose prison letter was one of the sparks for Robespierre’s overthrow.
A spot of research reveals that, in the nick of time, Tallien succeeded in getting her released — along with another renowned beauty, Josephine de Beauharnais, who was to become Napoleon’s Empress Josephine — and they married.
The marriage didn’t last long, but while it did she was well known as a moderating influence on her husband, always ready to plead the cause of those who, like her, had been imprisoned and feared the blade of the guillotine.