On January 21st, Capet was escorted under guard from his cell to a waiting carriage. The carriage carried the former king through the twisting streets of Paris as thousands turned out to watch his progress. At 10 AM, he arrived at the Place Louis XV, named after his father. Though at the time of his execution, it had been renamed the “Place de la RÃ©volution.” Over 100,000 of his former subjects were there to witness the execution of the man who had been the king. Capet left the carriage and climbed the steps of the platform towards the waiting guillotine.
From the platform, he tried to address the crowd before a sudden drumroll from the military band quickly drowned him out. According to witnesses, he did manage to get out a final message in a clear voice. “I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge. I Pardon those who have occasioned my death, and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France,” he declared. With those words, he turned to walk towards his executioners. Henri Sanson later described what he heard from his father, Charles, who was at the scene.
The former king he claimed, was informed that his executioners were going to tie his hands. The king balked. This was an affront to his dignity as a monarch. This resulted in a brief moment of confusion as the executioners rushed forward to take control of the king. Then, according to Sanson, one of the executioners calmly approached the king and said, “With a handkerchief, sire.” Being addressed as a king again had a profound effect on Capet. At the same time, his priest stepped forward and reminded him that Jesus himself had offered up his hands to be tied on Good Friday. ‘So be it, then, that too, my God,’ Capet said.
And so the last absolute ruler of France went to the guillotine with his hands tied. Capet’s head was placed beneath the hanging blade. Moments later, the blade dropped, severing it from his body. As the former king’s head rolled across the platform, the executioner lifted it up and showed it to the crowd. Together with his body, it was then taken to a small church in Paris where two priests held a short service over it before finally laying Capet to rest.
His last words proved to be prophetic. The situation at the front had begun to stabilize, but shortly after Capet’s execution, the VendÃ©e region of France rose in revolt against the revolutionary government. Thousands were killed in a violent crackdown on the region while the rest of France descended into The Reign of Terror. Under Maximilien Robespierre, the new “Committee of Public Safety” began arresting and trying thousands of citizens they accused of counter-revolutionary crimes. The guillotine was put to use again, and beheadings became an almost daily event in Paris. 17,000 people would be executed during this period. The guillotine itself would remain in official use in France until 1981, with the last person to share Louis XVI’s fate on the machine he helped design being executed in 1977.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: