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Digital Subscriptions > BBC History Revealed > July 2019 > The French Revolution

The French Revolution

Emma Slattery Williams cuts a path through one of the bloodiest periods of French history


When we think of the French Revolution, we often think of the rise of Napoleon and flag-waving at the barricades as popularised in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

By its end, the monarchy had fallen, the old political and social system – known as the ‘Ancien Régime’ – had ended, and an overzealous use of the guillotine had spread fear across the country.

The Revolution began in 1789. Tough most of the working classes were poor and hungry, the aristocracy remained rich and well-fed in their palaces. These were the hallmarks of a feudal system that meant little had changed since the Middle Ages. The King wielded absolute power, having stripped political roles from the nobility, and the majority of French citizens had little hope of change.

The country had been bankrupted by war and the bourgeoisie (the upper and middle-classes) had limited political power. Educated citizens, influenced by the writers of the Enlightenment, became jaded with the absolutist regime that had been in place for centuries.

They decided it was time for change. Different factions rose up within the various revolutionary governments, all with their own approaches and definitions of revolution.

The mob’s storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 signalled that a revolution had begun. Tough mainly a symbolic attack – there were only a handful of prisoners in the Parisian fortress-prison – it was seen as an assault on royal authority. The King and his family were soon imprisoned, with a deadly fate awaiting them and many others across France.

This time of nationwide change brought into the public eye some colourful characters – many of whom lost their heads. We bring you the stories of some of the pivotal people who defined the Revolution.


23 AUGUST 1754 – 21 JANUARY 1793

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