Mysteries of the French Revolution
Dr Munro Price unravels one of the last mysteries of the French Revolution
in his new book 'The Fall of the French Monarchy, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette
and the Baron de Breteuil'.
Munro, of Languages
and European Studies, spent months hunting down clues on the royal couple,
his travels taking him across Europe. And his months of searching were
not in vain.
He was looking for
the answers to questions which have always remained a mystery, such as
what really was Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette's attitude to
the French Revolution? Were they prepared to end it by a moderate compromise
or was their real aim to turn the clock back to 1789?
Munro said: "As an
historian of Louis XVI and his reign, I had always been fascinated by
the great mystery of his last years. The royal couple burnt most of their
secret correspondence and what little is left - mostly letters from the
Queen - is concerned with day-to-day survival. As a result, the true aims
of Louis and Marie Antoinette, with all their importance for the history
of the Revolution, remain impenetrable."
the deadly intrigue was one crucial but neglected figure - the King and
Queen's secret advisor, the Baron de Breteuil. A conservative, he was
brought to power by Louis to bring the increasingly volatile political
situation under control in 1789. Forced to flee France after the storming
of the Bastille, he then became the King and Queen's secret Prime Minister
in exile, charged with their undercover plans for counter-revolution.
Left: Louis XVI
in 1785 by Joseph Boze.
Through his research,
Munro discovered that there were Breteuil descendants and that an archive
existed in the family chateau outside Paris. The current head of the family
was happy to help. Although Breteuil's household became the headquarters
of the network he set up to rescue Louis and Marie Antoinette, the trail
became cold. Although the archives covered Breteuil's colourful pre-revolutionary
career, after 1789 there was a gap.
Yet Breteuil had an
important agent and confidant - Marc-Marie, Marquis de Bombelles, his
diplomatic protege and virtually his adopted son, for whom he had reserved
the most important missions during the Revolution, first to the Austrian
emperor Leopold II in Vienna and then to Catherine the Great in St Petersburg.
a stroke of luck, while Munro was chasing clues in Stockholm and Vienna
the first volumes began to appear of a diary Bombelles had kept from 1780
to 1822, which appeared to form part of a much bigger archive.
The Baron de Breteuil
by the sculptor Augustin Pajou, commissioned in 1788 by the Academy of
Munro said: "If Breteuil
had been the King and Queen's secret confidant, Bombelles had performed
the same function for Breteuil. If the key to Louis and Marie Antoinette's
real intentions could still be found anywhere, it would have to be in
this Bombelles archive. Finding this became my priority."
After months of searching,
Munro finally traced Bombelles' last descendent, a Dutch diplomat in Paris
whose mother had been a Bombelles. He revealed both the papers' location
and their adventurous history. Originally moving from France to Croatia,
they were sent for safekeeping to a cousin, Count Clam-Martinic, at his
castle in Austria, when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, where it had
remained ever since. Munro contacted the present Count Clam and set off
for Burg Clam, a formidable 11th century fortress perched on a rock near
The archives were
in a locked room up several flights of stairs along a corridor lined with
antlers and stuffed animal heads. There were found 97 volumes of the famous
diary, all in Bombelles' own hands, a large buff ledger containing all
the despatches he had sent back to Breteuil from his missions during the
Revolutions, and several cartons.
Amongst them was a
crucial document that had always been thought lost, a memorandum Louis
XVI had requested from Breteuil to guide his policy in the event of a
successful escape from Paris, to be sent to Luxembourg to await his arrival
on the French border. The escape's failure meant it had never been delivered.
But if anything could reveal the thinking of the King and his most trusted
advisor, this was it.
At its core was a
plan to dissolve the elected revolutionary National Assembly the moment
the King regained his freedom. The current view that the King intended
to compromise with the Revolution when he left Paris now looks untenable.
The significance of
this find has already been recognised by historians and reviewers. Antonia
Fraser in the Sunday Times has called it "important and engrossing", while
Robert Gildea in the Times Literary Supplement has said that the discovery
"rekindles one's faith in the craft of the historian."
As Munro puts it:
"An historical enigma has been solved. Louis and Marie Antoinette had
never wanted to compromise with the Revolution. Their secret aim had been
to crush it completely."
- 'The Fall of the
French Monarchy, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Baron de Breteuil'
is available from Macmillan (2002), priced £20, ISBN no: 0333901932.
It can also be ordered from the University's Waterstone's bookshop.