Sunday, 26 January 2014

Robespierre's speech to the king.

In 1775 the schoolboy Robespierre was chosen from among five hundred pupils at the Collège Louis-le-Grand to deliver compliments in Latin to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette who stopped briefly as their coach crossed Paris following their coronation in Reims. It rained and the royal couple did not deign to descend from their carriage. This is the stuff of myth: the future regicide slighted by his future victim, nursing his inferiority complexes and unaware of the Revolutionary events to come.

Here is the episode as depicted in the film The French Revolution (1989) directed by Richard T. Heffron: . 

And here is the story as told by Hilary Mantel in A place of  greater safety:

IN JULY 1775, it was arranged that the young King and his lovely Queen would pay a visit to the College Louis-le-Grand.  Such a visit was traditional after coronations; but they would not stay or linger, for they had more entertaining things to do.  It was planned that they should be met, with their retinue, at the main gate, that they should descend from their carriage, and that the school's most industrious and meritorious pupil would read them a loyal address.  When the day came, the weather was not fine.

An hour and a half before the guests could reasonably be expected, the students and staff assembled at the rue Saint-Jacques gate.  A posse of officials turned up on horseback, and pushed them back and rearranged them, none too gently.  The scanty spots of rain became a steady drizzle.  Then came the attendants and bodyguards and persons-in-waiting; by the time they had disposed themselves everyone was cold and wet, and had stopped jockeying for position.  No one remembered the last coronation, so nobody had any idea that it was all going to take so long.  The students huddled in miserable groups, and shifted their feet, and waited.  If anyone stepped out of line for a moment the officials jumped forward and shoved him back, flourishing weapons.

Finally the royal carriage drew up.  People now stood on their toes and craned their necks, and the younger ones complained that it wasn't fair that they couldn't see a thing after waiting all this time.  Father Poignard, the principal, approached and bowed.  He began to say a few words he had prepared, in the direction of the royal conveyance.

The scholarship boy's mouth felt dry.  His hand shook a little.  But because of the Latin, no one would detect his provincial accent. 

 The Queen bobbed out her lovely head and bobbed it in again.  The King waved, and muttered something to a man in livery, who conveyed it by a sneer down a line of officials, who conveyed it by dumb show to the waiting world.  All became clear; they would not descend.  The address must be read to Their Majesties as they sat snug in the coach.

Father Poignard's head was whirling.  He should have had carpets, he should have had canopies, he should have had some kind of temporary pavilion erected, perhaps bedecked with green boughs in the fashionable rustic style, perhaps with the royal arms on display, or the monarchs' entwined monograms made out of flowers.  His expression grew wild, repentant, remote.  Luckily, Father Herivaux remembered to give the nod to the scholarship boy.

The boy began, his voice gathering strength after the first few nervous phrases.  Father Herivaux relaxed. He had written it, coached the boy.  And he was satisfied, it sounded well.

The Queen was seen to shiver. "Ah!" went the world. "She shivered!"  A half-second later, she stifled a yawn.  The King turned, attentive.  And what was this?  The coachman was gathering the reins!  The whole ponderous entourage stirred and creaked forward.  They were going - the welcome not acknowledged, the address not half-read.

The scholarship boy did not seem to notice what was happening.  He just went on orating.  His face was set and pale, he was looking straight ahead.  Surely he must know by now that they are driving down the street?

The air was loud with unvoiced sentiment.  All term we've been  planning this...The crush moved, aimlessly, on the spot.  The rain was coming down harder now.  It seemed rude to break ranks and dash for cover, yet no ruder than what the King and Queen had done, driving off like that, leaving Thing talking in the middle of the street....

Father Poignard said, "It's nothing personal.  It's nothing we did, surely?  Her Majesty was tired...."

"Might as well talk to her in Japanese, I suppose, " said the student at his elbow.

Father Poignard said, "Camille, for once you are right."

The scholarship boy was now concluding his speech.  Without a smile, he bid a fond and loyal goodby to the monarchs who were no longer in sight, and hoped that the school would have the honour, at some future time....

A consoling hand dropped on his shoulder. "Never mind, de Robespierre, it could have happened to anyone."

Then, at last, the scholarship boy smiled.

This is fiction not fact.  There is no evidence at all - certainly not from Robespierre himself - that the event was even remembered, much less impacted upon his Revolutionary career.  

  • Although Robespierre may have been less well off than most, he was not marked out by being a provincial or a "scholarship boy". Peter McPhee points out that, thanks to more efficient management of endowments, by the time Maximilien arrived at Louis-le-grand virtually all the five hundred boys were on scholarships. Although a few sons of nobles attended, the great majority were boys like him, sons of lawyers and other professionals or of merchants and manufacturers. Like Maximilien, the majority were from the northeast of the kingdom [as for example his contemporary Desmoulins from Guize]  (p.15)
  • Robepierre was not a small boy; he would have been 17 at the time.
  • There is no question of Robespierre having written his own speech. This was, as Hilary Mantel says, a set oration composed by his Professor of Rhetoric, the abbé Hérivaux. 
  • Robespierre was not treated rudely by the royal couple.  It is by no means clear where the story of the rain and the new king's unduly rapid departure originated. His former teacher the abbé Proyart, an implacably hostile source, has only this to say: 
    • "In 1775, Louis XVI, after the ceremony of his coronation, made his solemn entry into Paris, accompanied by the Queen and the Royal Family. Their Majesties...stopped before the College of Louis Le Grand, where they were complimented by the University's staff. This college, which subsisted on the benefits of our Kings, also owed a special tribute to Louis XVI and Robespierre was chosen to offer it in the name his classmates, in a speech composed by his teacher. I was present at the time and remember that the King deigned to lower a look of kindness at the young monster...who was one day to take the first stab at him" Life and crimes of Robespierre,( p.46-8)


Peter McPhee, Robespierre: a Revolutionary life Yale University Press 2012, p.15.

See also the discussion, "Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources"  on the Tea at Trianon forum

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