Although everyone knows about the French Revolution of 1789, in which the French middle class declared a republic, not so many are aware that France’s bourgeoisie flexed its muscles on a date much earlier than that, namely 22nd February 1358.
This was the day on which Etienne Marcel forced the Dauphin of France to listen to the voice of the people and keep his promises.
France had been in chaos ever since the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, when the English had had a decisive victory and captured the French King Jean II. He was held prisoner in England and a huge ransom was demanded for his release.
Jean’s son and heir was Charles (later to reign as Charles V), who was the first heir apparent to be given the title “Dauphin” by virtue of holding the province of Dauphiné as his personal property. He was 18 years old at the time of his father’s capture and was therefore placed in the invidious position of having to rule France as regent and bleed the country dry in order to raise the money to pay the ransom.
Needless to say, this did not go down well with the merchants of Paris, who saw the infrastructure of the city falling into disrepair at the same time as they were being taxed to the hilt. Etienne Marcel, their leader, took it upon himself to organise the city so that the walls were rebuilt and trade restored to a level that ensured that people did not starve.
Marcel also appreciated that reforms were necessary in the way the country was governed, and he demanded that the Dauphin grant these, which he did in the “Great Ordinance” of 1357.
However, Charles went back on his word when he debased the coinage early in 1358. This action infuriated Marcel, who led a band of armed men into the royal palace on 22nd February to confront the Dauphin. Two of the latter’s supporters were killed on the spot, their blood spattering the Dauphin’s robes. Marcel took off his own cap and placed it on the Dauphin’s head, as a symbol of his personal support if the Dauphin did what he had promised to do in the Great Ordinance.
Thus was born the idea of the “cap of liberty”; and the notion that the monarch was subject to the general will of the people was installed in the French psyche – although later monarchs would have a very different view on this matter. This small revolution at least set a precedent, and emboldened later reformers into believing that they could succeed.
Unfortunately for Etienne Marcel, his action did not bring lasting benefits, as he was murdered only five months later by members of the bourgeoisie who thought that he had gone too far in opposing the Dauphin and feared that he was in league with the hated English.
© John Welford