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By Stewart Emmens on

A Royal Execution

My colleague Katie recently posted about the upcoming royal wedding. But of course, public events involving royalty have not always been so benign.

On January 21st 1793, ‘citizen’ Louis Capet – formerly Louis XVI of France – was taken by carriage to the Place de la Concorde (re-named Place de la Révolution at the time). Here, in front of a crowd of many thousands, the ex-king was beheaded. 

Medal depicting Louis XVI
Medal depicting King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, German, 1793 (Science Museum)

Although death at the hands of your people is about as low as it gets for a monarch, at least his departure was relatively swift. For just 9 months earlier the guillotine had been introduced to France. Previously, a king would probably have had his head removed with either a sword or axe – a messy business, even in experienced hands.

The development of this more reliable piece of execution technology had been instigated by Joseph Ignace Guillotin and fellow doctor, Antoine Louis. Not that it was the first automated method of decapitation. The Halifax Gibbet being one machine that preceded the guillotine by several centuries.

Guillotine blade
Guillotine blade, France, 1794 (Science Museum)

Ironically, given the guillotine’s role in the Reign of Terror that began in earnest later in 1793, Guillotin had seen it as a humane alternative to less reliable methods. As a fast-acting execution machine that wouldn’t fail and a step along the way to the end of the death penalty – a sentence that Guillotin actually opposed. As it was, the guillotine remained France’s official method of execution until capital punishment was abolished in 1981

Commemorative medal
Reverse of medal shown above, commemorating the executions of Louis XVI and his queen, German, 1793 (Science Museum)

Nine months after Louis, his wife Marie Antoinette, by then referred to simply as the ‘Widow Capet’ arrived at the Place de la Révolution in an open cart. In front of another large crowd, she too fell victim to ‘le rasoir national’ – France’s very efficient ‘national razor’.

One comment on “A Royal Execution

  1. I had never heard of the Halifax Gibbet. I wonder if Guillotine was aware of it or just had a similar idea.

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