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The Women's March on Versailles, also known as The October March, The October Days, or simply The March on Versailles, was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution.
On 5 October 1789, more than 700 women, frustrated by the lack of bread and the prices at which it was being sold, mobilized in Les Halles to protest. Joined by labourers and revolutionaries, they ransacked the Hôtel de Ville, procuring weapons and cannons, and subsequently marched on the Palace of Versailles. There, the protesters successfully pressed their demands upon Louis XVI and succeeded in bringing him back to Paris, shifting the country's political nerve center.
Food shortages and taxes
- "Kings and nobles pay no tax, while we shoulder the burden for them! We must band together, citizens!"
- ―Théroigne rallying the crowds, 1789.[src]
One of the driving forces behind the French Revolution was the shortage of food, particularly bread, among the common people. During the late 18th century, France's population numbered 26 million, 22 million of which were farmers that could barely support their families. The French's refusal to adopt the potato as a staple of their diet, unlike England and other European countries, further compounded their already precarious situation.
As such, they were especially susceptible to the bad harvests that they faced in the decade leading up to the French Revolution. Many desperate farmers flocked to the cities in search of work and food, causing conditions to deteriorate.
Adding to the frustrations of the working class were the taxes levied by the King. Both the clergy and the nobility were exempt from taxation, leaving the beggars, bakers, cloth merchants and estate owners to shoulder France's debts. The failures of ambitious overseas military campaigns caused the country to sink even deeper into financial ruin, with taxes rising as a result. Both the King and the Queen nonetheless continued to spend frivolously, drawing ire and resentment from the lower classes.
March through Paris
- "Let's tell the royals that our families must eat too!"
- ―Théroigne gathering the market women, 1789.[src]
Following the Storming of the Bastille and the Great Fear, revolutionary fervor spread among the populace. The clergy and the aristocracy had lost their priviliges, and feudalism had been abolished, but true change for the working class was slow to come. Ordinary citizens were still struggling to keep themselves fed, with the price of grain having skyrocketed due to droughts in the summer of 1788. In 1789, one loaf of bread cost more than half a day's pay for the common workers.
Eventually, the populace's frustration reached a breaking point; on 5 October, women across the marketplaces of Paris, Les Halles in particular, gathered to protest and decided to take their grievances straight to the King. The crowds, which were already growing drastically, converged at the Hôtel de Ville and ransacked it, taking 1700 muskets and 4 cannons. They were not only joined by workers from the Saint-Marcel and Saint-Antoine districts, but also by large numbers of the Marquis de Lafayette's National Guards, who were sympathetic to the women's cause.
As the march continued towards Versailles, the Templars infiltrated it, hoping to incite the protesters to violence against the royal family. The Assassins also sent a team, amongst them the recently recruited Arno Dorian, to keep the march as peaceful as possible. Additionally, Arno and his compatriots were to protect Théroigne de Méricourt, one of the event's most passionate orators.
Escorting Théroigne and an ally of hers to the city gates, the Assassins then dealt with obstructive guard captains and sabotaged their cannons, allowing the march to continue unhindered. Several hours later, the protesters arrived at the Palace of Versailles and managed to secure an audience with the King.
Confrontation at Versailles
A group of six women explained their demands to the King, who agreed to open his food stores to assuage them. Upon receiving this news, some of the protesters returned to Paris, but the majority stayed in Versailles, unimpressed by the King's token gesture and convinced that the Queen would yet make him change his mind.
After an anxious night, the crowd's indignation was renewed and they attempted to break into the Palace. At around six o'clock, they discovered an unguarded gate and broke through all at once, intent on locating the Queen's chambers. Any royal guardsmen that strayed into their path were severely beaten, some even decapitated, with their heads placed on pikes.
Eventually, the chaos subsided, giving the Royal Troops and the National Guard a chance to parlay. Lafayette managed to persuade the King and the Queen to address the crowd; both, albeit with a slight delay in the latter's case, were received warmly, to their surprise. The King subsequently agreed, with some reluctance, to accept the new constitution and return to Paris.
The same day, the royal family was escorted back to Paris and installed in the Tuileries Palace, effectively being imprisoned there due to their reduced political power, with the National Assembly following soon after. In the capital, the King was no longer removed from the country's political upheaval, of which the revolutionaries would take advantage by pressing further reforms. Lafayette, though initially popular, found that his actions and support for a constitutional monarchy were eventually rejected by the populace, forcing him to flee France.