On 21st January 1793 the deposed King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine in what is now the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Louis had not been king since the abolition of the monarchy five months previously, and he had been held under virtual house arrest for two years prior to then. In December 1792 he was put on trial for treason against the people, found guilty on 18th January, and sentenced to death by a vote in the Convention that was far from unanimous, being 380 in favour and 310 against.
On 21st January the procession that escorted Louis to the guillotine took two hours to complete the journey as it wound through the streets of Paris, which were heavily guarded in case of any attempt by royalists to rescue Louis from his fate.
The fat and bumbling ex-king, aged 38, made a speech on the scaffold that declared his innocence but he was eventually drowned out by the drums that rolled as he was placed on a board that slid underneath the blade of the guillotine. His neck was too fat for a single clean cut and he screamed in pain before the blade was rapidly raised again for a second blow.
When Louis’s head was shown to the crowd there was shocked silence at first before the cries of “Vive la République” took over and the general mood turned to one of celebration.
Of course, the work of the guillotine was far from over and it would claim many more victims during the remaining years of the French Revolution. Indeed, this device, which was not invented by Dr Guillotin but only recommended by him as the best way to despatch people quickly and democratically (all classes being treated the same way), would remain the means of execution in France for as long as the death penalty continued. The final victim was a murderer from Tunisia who was executed in 1977.
© John Welford