Interested in the French Revolution? Read our 101 but want more? Then try this, a narrative history of the French Revolution designed to give you a firm grounding in the subject: it's all the 'what's' and 'when's'. It's also a perfect platform for readers who want to go on and study the much debated 'whys'. The French Revolution is the threshold between an early, proto modern Europe and the modern age, ushering in a change so huge and all encompassing that the continent was remade by the forces (and often the armies) unleashed. It was truly a pleasure to write this narrative, as the complex characters (how did Robespierre go from wanting the death penalty banned to the architect of rule by terror and mass execution), and the tragic events (including a declaration designed to save a monarchy which actually crippled it) unfold into a fascinating whole.
History of the French Revolution
- Pre-Revolutionary France
France's history of piecemeal territorial expansion produced a jigsaw of different laws, rights and boundaries which some felt were ripe for reform. Society was also divided - by tradition - into three 'estates': the clergy, the nobility and everyone else.
- The Crisis of the 1780s and the Causes of the French Revolution
While historians still debate the precise long term causes of the revolution, all are in agreement that a financial crisis in the 1780s provided the short term trigger for revolution.
- The Estates General and the Revolution of 1789
The French Revolution began when the 'third estate' deputies of the Estates General declared themselves a National Assembly and verbally seized sovereignty from the King while the citizens of Paris rebelled against royal control and stormed the Bastille in search of arms.
- Recreating France 1789 - 91
Having seized control of France, the deputies of the National Assembly began reforming the nation, scrapping rights and privileges and drawing up a new constitution.
- The Republican Revolution 1792
In 1792 a second revolution took place, as Jacobins and sansculottes forced the Assembly to replace itself with a National Convention which abolished the monarchy, declared France a republic and in 1793 executed the king.
- Purges and Revolt 1793
In 1793 tensions in the revolution finally exploded, especially in rural areas where conscription and laws against priests caused open and armed rebellion against the domination of the revolution by Parisians.
- The Terror 1793 - 94
Faced with crises on all fronts, the Committee of Public Safety embarked on a bloody policy of terror, executing their enemies - real and imagined - with no real trials in an attempt to save the revolution. Over 16,000 were executed and over 10,000 died in prison.
- Thermidor 1794 - 95
In 1794 Robespierre and the other 'terrorists' were overthrown, leading to a backlash against his supporters and the laws they had en-acted. A new constitution was drawn up.
- The Directory, the Consulate and the End of Revolution 1795 - 1802
From 1795 to 1802 coups and military power played an increasing role in the rule of France, until an ambitious and highly successful young General called Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and had himself elected Consul for Life in 1802. He would later declare himself Emperor, and a debate about whether he ended the French Revolution would outlast him (and continue to this day). He certainly mastered the forces the revolution unleashed and tied together opposed forces. But France would search for stability for several decades yet.
Related Reading on the French Revolution
- History of the Guillotine
The Guillotine is the classic physical symbol of the French Revolution, a machine designed for its cold blooded equality. This article takes a look at the history of both the guillotine and the similar machines which came before.