The French Revolution was one of the bloodiest events in modern history. Between 1789 and 1799, French men and women went through dramatic changes in their social and political systems: they overthrew a monarchical system built on aristocratic and Church privilege and attempted to replace it with a more democratic vision of society. That process was not painless. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in France paid for these political and social transformations with their lives.
Though most people associate French revolutionary violence with the guillotine - a new-fangled contraption that efficiently killed an individual by lopping off his or her head in a single slice - brutal French Revolution stories prove bloodshed happened throughout the revolution and across the country in different ways. People attacked one another on the streets, in prisons, and even in churches - crazy French Revolution moments were written in blood. Men and women in the royal family, aristocracy, and the Church were murdered for their association with the Old Order. The lucky ones lost their heads. As the revolution progressed, various factions actually turned on each other, demonstrating there was no single vision of what a post-Revolutionary world would be.
Was the entire French Revolution a bloody mess? Well, no. The French Revolution brought about important political and social changes that are still relevant today. But the fact remains that the revolution played out against a backdrop of violent upheaval.
Horrific French Revolution tales still have the power to shock and disturb even centuries after the events. Indeed, these bloody moments stand alongside brutal 21st-century rebellions, horrible things done by the Catholic Church, and terrible torture methods as moments in history when the dark side of human nature was laid bare for all to see. This most violent revolution was not just about egalité, fraternité, and liberté - it was actually more like egalité, liberté, and brutality.
French revolutionaries attacked all vestiges of the Old Order - especially aristocrats who had been closely associated with the royal family. The Princesse de Lamballe - a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette - was one such person who became a victim to the anti-monarchical rage of the revolution.
Marie-Louise of Savoy was born in Turin on September 8, 1749. In 1766, at the age of 17, she married a member of the extended French royal family. His death left her with considerable wealth and entry into the highest circles of French society. She quickly befriended future queen Marie Antoinette, who was a teen bride from Austria at the time. Marie Antoinette's seeming foreignness made her an outsider in her own court, so she held close to her few friends. The Princesse de Lamballe was one of a handful of intimates who spent considerable time with the queen. Critics of the monarchy used the friendship between the two women as a weapon. They claimed their friendship was illicit in nature and proof of the queen's Austrian depravity.
When revolution broke out in 1789, Princesse de Lamballe was unwavering in her support for the queen. She hosted members of the National Convention in her salon. In 1791, she went to Great Britain to petition powerful friends to aid the royal family's escape from France. By summer 1792, Princesse de Lamballe was imprisoned. She was brought before a revolutionary tribunal on September 3, 1792. When demanded to swear a loyalty oath to the revolution, she flatly refused, and the assembly washed their hands of her by throwing her into the street, where a mob had assembled.
There are many accounts of the Princesse's death; historians don't agree on a single version. Some stories claim she was beaten to death. Others claim she was gang raped and beheaded, her limbs ripped from her body by a frenzied mob. Still others insist her breasts were cut away from her chest. What is certain is she was violently killed, her corpse humiliated. The frenzied revolutionaries then attached her head to a pike and carried it to the queen's prison cell, where they tried to force the queen to kiss the severed head of her dear friend.
Not everyone embraced the revolution's growing radicalism in the early 1790s. Indeed, an entire region in northwestern France revolted and refused to submit to the revolution's ideals and new policies of de-Christianization, mass conscription, and the upending of the social order. That region, the Vendée faced serious reprisal.
Peopled mainly by poor, religious peasants, the Vendée was the principle site of a massive uprising against the revolution. Civilians even launched their own army and clashed with revolutionary forces over the course of several bloody battles throughout 1793. By the end of 1793, the warfare had more or less stopped, but retribution against the Vendéans was just getting started.
In early 1794, the government began a brutal policy to punish the region. General Louis Marie Turreau deployed his so-called "infernal columns" - lines of troops - to march through the Vendée and slaughter all royalist men, women, and children in their path. They also burned villages and scorched the earth. In total, around 170,000 people in the Vendée were killed.
Though the details of the War in the Vendée and its aftermath remain hotly debated, the fact remains that the revolution did not just represent "the people"; it also turned on them when they resisted.
When people think of the French Revolution - a period of about 10 years - they often think of the Reign of Terror, a stage of the revolution that lasted just shy of one year, from 1793-1794. Incredibly, that brief period saw the deaths of around 27,000 men, women, and children: about 17,000 were executed and 10,000 died in prison. Though violence in the revolution neither began nor ended with the Reign of Terror, it's clear this period was an exceptionally chilling moment in the revolution.
Maximilien Robespierre was a Jacobin (a radical who believed that violence was necessary to establish order) and passionately believed in the Terror. Though the guillotine had been in use since 1790s - it was adopted by moderate, Enlightenment-minded revolutionary reformers, who thought it would give condemned criminals a kind, swift death - Robespierre and the Jacobins used it with gusto. For its part, the public loved it, and guillotining enemies of the revolution became a public spectacle.
The Reign of Terror claimed a score of victims. Among them: feminist revolutionary Olympe de Gouges; King Louis XVI; Queen Marie Antoinette, who by all accounts met her fate with dignity; and, ultimately, Robespierre himself in 1794.
Most people associate the French Revolution with Madame Guillotine in Paris, but other parts of the country were prolific in their political mass murders. Over the course of around four months - November 1793 to February 1794 - the city of Nantes had a own reign of terror in which thousands of men, women, and children were murdered by drowning. Jean-Baptiste Cartier, representative of the National Convention, was sent to Nantes to identify counter-revolutionaries and took up his task with passion, setting up a tribunal.
Cartier's method was straightforward: prisoners suspected of anti-revolutionary activity were bound and brought into the Loire River on a ship with a special trap-door. They were then dropped into the river, meeting a slow, watery end. Given the mass drownings were carried out in winter, the freezing waters would have been especially lethal. Some reports indicate Cartier ordered "republican marriages" as well, wherein a male and female prisoner were stripped naked and tied together before being dumped into the river.
Though anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary activity was at risk, Cartier especially targeted members of the clergy, since priests and nuns comprised the premiere level of society in the Old Order. On one night in November 1793, 90 priests were killed.
Estimates vary regarding the total number of victims who perished in the drownings at Nantes. Most historians agree that at least 1,800 people died, though it could have been upwards of 4,600.