The French Revolution and Napoleon:
a simple guide (by Mr. Boden)


1. Why was the King of France unpopular?
5. Why was Louis XVI executed?
2. What was unfair about French society? 6. What was 'the Terror'?
3. How did the French Revolution start? 7. How did Napoleon rule France?
4. What reforms did the National Assembly make? 8. How was Napoleon eventually defeated?



Why was the King of France so unpopular?

King Louis XVI (=the sixteenth) of France was unpopular for several reasons:

1.  He had absolute power and believed in divine right.  Many people thought he should share power with the people, like the English King had to do with Parliament.

2. He used harsh methods to keep law and order.  For example, by writing the name of a person on a sealed letter (‘lettre de cachet’) he could have someone imprisoned or exiled for life without a trial.  Louis XVI did this to 14,000 people during his reign.   Many were sent to the royal prison in Paris, the hated Bastille.

3. His wife was very unpopular.  Marie Antoinette was rumoured to have many lovers and to have wasted huge sums of money.

4. The King was in debt.  Despite this, the royal family lived in luxury in the enormous Palace of Versailles outside Paris.  This seemed wrong to many people.

What was unfair about French society?

The people of France were divided into 3 estates: 


The First Estate – The clergy – They made up 0.5% of the population.  Many people in the third estate felt the Church was too wealthy and owned too much land.  They also thought it was unfair that the clergy had their own special law courts and did not have to pay any tax.

The Second Estate – The nobility – They made up 1.5% of the population.  Many people in the third estate thought it was unfair that the nobility had so much power and also special privileges, like not having to pay any tax.

The Third Estate – everybody else – 98% of the population.  They included wealthy Middle class people (or ‘bourgeoisie’) like lawyers, doctors, businessmen, bankers, merchants etc.  These people thought it was unfair that they were intelligent and rich but did not have any special privileges or power.  There were also urban workers who lived in towns and cities and worked in factories or workshops.  They were unhappy about their low pay and the high cost of food.  There were also peasants who worked and lived in the countryside.  They hated the way they had to pay so much tax that they had almost nothing left for themselves.

How did the French Revolution start?

By 1789 the people of France were suffering from the effects of three years of terrible weather which had ruined the harvests and caused a shortage of bread.  This made bread prices go up high.  As people went hungry, they stopped spending money on other things (like clothes, shoes, candles and wine) in order to save money to afford bread.  This lead to unemployment as the workers who made these things lost their jobs because business went down.

King Louis XVI was also in trouble because of the huge debts that France had.  He decided that to get out of debt he would have to change the tax system.  He wanted to make nobles and clergy pay tax, too, based on how much land they owned. 

To do this Louis was forced to call the Estates General which met in May 1789.  This was an assembly which consisted of representatives of the three estates.  He hoped the assembly would agree to his new tax system.  However, the representatives who went to the king’s palace at Versailles to sit in the Estates General had complaints of their own which they wanted to discuss with the king.  They brought with them long lists of things which they wanted the king to change.  However, Louis disappointed them by not listening to their demands. 

The third estate was also worried that the voting system meant that they would always be out-voted by the first estate (clergy) and second estate (nobility) by 2 votes to 1.  The third estate spent six weeks arguing with the king that there should be just one ‘National Assembly’ to discuss matters and not three separate ones.  The king refused to agree and eventually, in June 1789, locked the third estate out of the palace.  They angrily went instead to the nearest empty building – an indoor tennis court – and swore the ‘tennis court oath’ by which they refused to leave unless the king gave in to their demands.  Louis decided to give in and ordered the nobles and clergy to join them in one ‘National Assembly’. 

The third estate had won a massive victory and they used the new powers that they had in the National Assembly to introduce many important laws in France over the next two years.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the people had celebrated with fireworks when they heard about the new National Assembly in June 1789.  However, in July, when Louis ordered 20,000 troops into Paris, the people became afraid that the king was preparing to shut down the National Assembly.  On 14th July 1789 an angry mob of Parisians stormed the Bastille looking for weapons.  They freed its seven prisoners and stole guns and ammunition.  Most importantly, they destroyed the symbol of the king’s power in Paris.

What reforms did the National Assembly make?

The reforms fell into four main categories:

1. TAX – all the old unfair taxes were abolished and replaced with a new tax on land.

2. RIGHTS – The Declaration of the Rights of Man (August 1789) said that all men were free and should have equal rights to speak and write freely and a fair trial.  Slavery was abolished in France (but not in France’s empire abroad).

3. GOVERNMENT – The new constitution said that there would elections for the National Assembly every two years and that all male tax-payers over 25 would be allowed to vote.  The King’s power was reduced so that he could not stand in the way of the National Assembly’s decisions (he would only have the power to delay the passing of any new law for three years).

4. THE CHURCH – All the Church’s land was taken and sold to help pay off some of France’s debts.  Priests now had to be elected by local people and were given a state salary.  The Pope opposed this and many priests refused to take an oath of loyalty to the French nation.

Why was Louis XVI executed?

  1. Louis was known to have sent money to the émigrés (those nobles who had fled France for safety abroad).  This made people think he was really opposed to the revolution.
  2. Marie Antoinette’s brother was the Emperor of Austria and many people thought Austria might attack France to restore the royal couple to absolute power.
  3. Louis had written to the Emperors of Austria and Russia, as well as the kings of Prussia, Spain and Sweden asking them to form an alliance to put down the French revolution.
  4. In June 1791 Louis and his family tried to escape from Paris in disguise and tried to reach Austria.  However, they were recognised and captured at Varennes and brought back to Paris.  Now no one trusted them.
  5. The Emperor of Austria, Leopold, promised to help Louis and Marie Antoinette regain their power.  Expecting an Austrian attack, the National Assembly declared war on Austria first in April 1792.  The war went badly for France and many people blamed Louis – they thought he was passing military secrets to Austria.


By September 1792 the French people no longer wanted Louis for their king.  They stormed his palace and took him prisoner.  France was made a republic.    The king was put on trial.  He was accused of plotting against the revolution, opposing the constitution and trying to flee the country.  He was found guilty and finally sent to the guillotine in January 1793.

What was "the Terror"?

By 1793 other countries, including Britain and Russia, had joined Austria in the war against France.  The new republic was in serious danger.

This made the National Convention (as the National Assembly was now known) very worried.  They were particularly afraid of counter-revolutionaries - people who were opposed to the revolution and might help France’s enemies.  Not only nobles and clergy, but also many peasants were now against the revolution because they thought the Convention had gone too far by deciding to abolish ‘Christianity’.

In order to deal with this threat, the Convention set up the Committee of Public Safety which had the power to do whatever was necessary to save France.  Around 250,000 people were arrested and imprisoned.  Over 12,000 were guillotined, including Marie Antoinette.  Thousands more were shot, drowned or put to death in other ways.  This was called ‘the Terror’.

How did Napoleon rule France?

The Terror ended in 1794 and the government became more moderate.  It was now known as the Directory.  However, by 1799 it was in trouble.  It was in debt.  The country was short of food.  The wars were going badly and many people were unhappy with the government. 

In August 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte, one of France’s most successful military commanders, secretly left his troops

who were fighting in Egypt and sailed for France.  He had been invited by several politicians who thought that Napoleon would be a popular and strong leader.   In November 1799, he seized power in a ‘coup d’état’ and made himself First Consul of France.

In 1802 Napoleon made an agreement with the Pope and Catholicism was accepted as the main religion of the French people.  Priests could now come out of hiding and churches were re-opened. 

Napoleon also reformed the school system in France by setting up new secondary schools (called lycées) and a new examination (called the Baccalaureat). The system still exists today.

Napoleon also introduced a new system of laws called the ‘Code Napoleon’ – French law is still based on it.

Napoleon also created a new award, the Legion of Honour, for people who had served France well.  It is still one of the highest honours you can receive in France today.

Some of the things Napoleon did went against what the revolution had been about.  For example, in 1804 Napoleon announced that he was now Emperor of France and, in a ceremony attended by the Pope, crowned himself. 

Later he created a new nobility, too and awarded people titles like Prince, Duke, Counts, Barons and Knights.  However, unlike before the revolution, the nobles were not allowed special privileges.

How was Napoleon eventually defeated?

Napoleon was an incredibly successful military leader and he had made France the most important and powerful country in Europe.  In fact, by 1810, he had conquered most of Europe – except Britain and Russia.


Napoleon planned to invade Britain but was forced to abandon this idea after Britain won the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  This important sea battle showed that the British navy had control of the seas.  It was a great victory, although Admiral Lord Nelson was killed during it.

Britain also fought against France on land.  The British army under the Duke of Wellington eventually drove the French army out of Spain.

However, probably the biggest reason for Napoleon’s eventual defeat was his disastrous decision to invade Russia in 1812.  The Russians knew that Napoleon was a genius at winning battles, so instead of standing to fight, they retreated and destroyed their own crops and farms as they went.  As the French army pushed deeper into Russia, thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers starved, died of disease or deserted.

When Napoleon finally reached Moscow, he found that the Russians had burned down the city rather than see it fall to their enemy.  As there was no shelter and winter was approaching, Napoleon’s army had to retreat.  On the long march home through the bitter Russian winter, thousands more of Napoleon’s army died.  Eventually, only 20,000 made it back to France alive. 

After this huge defeat, a huge force of Austrians, Prussians and Swedes defeated Napoleon again in 1813 at Leipzig.  In 1814 Napoleon surrendered and was sent to live on the island of Elba, off the west coast of Italy for the rest of his life. 

It seemed as though Napoleon had been defeated.  However, in the spring of 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and landed in the south of France.  He was gathered another army together and marched on Paris.

Britain and Prussia joined forces to beat Napoleon again at the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815). 

After this Napoleon was sent to the tiny island of St. Helena far out in the Atlantic Ocean.  Napoleon would never escape from there – he stayed there until he died in 1821.