Maximilien Robespierre Biography: The Reign of Terror

Maximilien Robespierre promised to usher a fairer, more representative form of government to the French people. What they got was a reign of terror that saw thousands facing the horror of the guillotine. Among Robespierre’s victims were the king and queen of France. When justice finally came it was a swift as the slice of a blade. In this week’s Biographics, we wade into the terror with Maximilien Robespierre.

The Early Robespierre


Maximilien Robespierre entered the world on May 6th, 1758. He was born in Arras, France though historians have suspected for centuries that his family originated from Ireland. By the time that Max was born, however, they had been French citizens for many generations.

The child was conceived out of wedlock but by the time he was born his parents had married. Like his own father before him, Max’s father was a lawyer, but not a very successful one. This left the family with a constant debt hanging over its head. Things didn’t get any easier for the Robespierre’s when Max’s mother died giving birth to a sibling when he was six years old.

Looking after four children was too much for Robespierre senior, so his offspring were divided among his relatives. His mother’s death had a profound effect upon young Max. No longer was he the carefree child of old. Now he was sullen and serious. He also applied himself diligently to his schooling as if drowning his grief in his studies.

When he was eleven years of age, young Robespierre was awarded a scholarship to the Lycee-Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He would continue studying there for the next twelve years, emerging at age twenty-three with a law degree. As well as law, he also studied literature, rhetoric and the classics.

Life at the prestigious school was very structured. Formerly a Jesuit institution, it was now under the control of the University of Paris. The day began and ended with formal prayers and bible study. The school also had an excellent library, which Robespierre made liberal use of.

The most well-known incident arising from Robespierre’s time at the school occurred when he was seventeen. His excellent oratory skills led to him being selected to give a speech before King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. He perfected his wording and practised his delivery only to be snubbed by the royal couple who never even bothered to get out of their carriage. It was a personal violation that he would never forget.


The interrogation of Louis XVI at the National Convention

By Unknown – Augustin Challamel, Histoire-musée de la république Française, depuis l’assemblée des notables, Paris, Delloye, 1842., Public Domain, Link

During his time at the Lycee, Robespierre was also exposed to enlightenment philosophy, especially the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a powerful advocate for a more democratic form of government coupled with social empowerment. However, Robespierre was not able to read Rousseau in the Lycee’s library. His works were considered to be dangerous and so copies of his famous discourse, published twenty years earlier, had to be smuggled in.

In his later life, Robespierre would label his later years at the Lycee as a nursery for republicanism.

By the time he had reached his early twenties, Robespierre was a vocal advocate for natural rights. He championed the rights of the underprivileged, speaking at every public opportunity. In fact, he was such an enthusiastic champion of basic human rights that he became physically exhausted to the point of collapse.

Robespierre proved to be an unstoppable force of nature. This led to him becoming a familiar and well-known figure in and around his home-town of Arras. In the mid-1780’s he joined the Academy of Arras. His first speech before the Academy was part of a competition and shone a spotlight upon the lack of morality in politics. It didn’t win first prize, but he was rewarded with a large cash prize. This whet his appetite and over the next few years he entered a number of essay and poetry competitions. He also joined an elite literary society known as the Rosatia Club.

Since graduating from the Lycee, Robespierre had established a modest law practice. From the start he began taking on cases that were controversial. In 1789, he took on the state in a case that directly challenged the notion of lettres-des-cachet, or imprisonment without trial. During the course of the trial he actually wrote to the king and personally requested his assistance in getting rid of this abuse.

Maison de Robespierre.jpg

The house where Robespierre lived between 1787–1789, now on Rue Maximilien de Robespierre

By Saber68Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

On the Brink

By the 1780’s France was desperately running out of money. They had spent a lot of money in assisting the Americans in the previous decade. This was compounded by a lavish amount of spending on the part of the monarchy. The appointment of a succession of finance ministers to try to turn around the country’s flagging economy had little effect. By the end of the decade there was a growing call for a meeting of the Estates General, representing the clergy, the nobility and the people. Meanwhile, the King unilaterally enacted a series of laws to fill the royal coffers. This included the raising of taxes and the cutting of spending on essential services.


The following day the French parliament condemned the king’s actions, labelling the raising of taxes as illegal. The king’s response was to exile the parliament. This led to growing public protests in Paris.

In response to this desperate situation, a new finance minister was put in place. This was Etienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne. He proposed a new five-year plan which was designed to restore French credit as well as presenting a full accounting of the French government’s finances to whoever wanted to see it. He called for the return of the Parisian parliament after their normal autumn break.

The parliament reconvened on November 17, 1787 in the rare presence of the king. After an 8-hour debate the parliament failed to authorise Brienne’s five-year plan. However, King Louis XVI went ahead and authorised the loans needed to restore credit anyway. The king left the chamber but the debate continued. It was resolved that the parliament would officially condemn the king’s action.

The following day the leading members of the parliament were exiled by the king. In response to this, provincial parliaments across the country began to refuse to register laws as a protest to the apparently despotic actions of the king.

On May 3, 1788 the Parliament of Paris issued a declaration on the fundamental laws of the realm. It included the right of parliament to register new laws, the role of the Estates General and the freedom of all subjects from arbitrary arrest. Despite this, the leaders of the parliament were taken into custody the following day.

A few days later the king issued a series of judicial reforms which were designed to cement his absolute power. The reforms effectively neutralized the Parliament of Paris. In response to this outrage, provincial parliaments around the country refused to uphold any of the government’s laws. France was now operating without any formal justice system.

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France in Revolt

The country was approaching widespread public revolt. In an attempt to control the damage, Finance minister Brienne, called for a sitting of the Estates General on May 1, 1789.

Meanwhile the French government was completely bankrupt. With no ideas to get the country out of the red, Brienne was forced to resign and former Finance Minister Jacques Necker was put back in office. Necker had the general confidence of the people and managed to recall the parliaments around the country. The Paris parliament announced that the Estates General would meet according to the historic precedent where the representation of the people – the Third Estate – would be numerically less than that of the clergy and the nobility. This was met with widespread public disapproval.

Through long negotiations with the king, Necker was able to announce in December, 1788 that the representation of the third estate would be doubled in the Estates General. Meanwhile hundreds of pamphlets had been appearing around Paris with titles such as ‘What is the 3rd Estate?’ Rather than being comprised of peasants, workers or artisans, the Third Estate was made up of lawyers and office holders, the well to do who had enough time to engage in the slow processes involved.  The pamphleteers strongly criticized the power of the clergy and the nobility and the lack of representation of the masses. Several leaders arose among the Third Estate, including Maximilien Robespierre.

Louis Boilly Robespierre.jpg

Portrait of Robespierre by Boilly, c. 1791 (Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille)

By Louis-Léopold Boilly, Public Domain, Link

By 1788, Robespierre was positioning himself to play a key role in the coming revolution. He participated in a series of debates regarding the make-up of the Third Estate and the ratio of the three components of the Estates General. He published a pamphlet which addressed local issues in Arras with the view of getting himself elected onto the Third Estate. In the pamphlet he strongly stressed two key ideas; the importance of elected representation and concern for the poor.

By now, Robespierre had a clearly defined notion of who the enemy was – the clergy and the nobility. In March, 1789 he was elected as a representative from Arras to the Third Estate. He was chosen to participate in the drafting of a list of grievances. At the same time, he pushed for new initiatives that would give the lower classes access to the political system.

Robespierre’s second pamphlet was a foretaste of things to come. It was called ‘the Enemies of the Country Unmasked.’

The Estates General

The Estates General met on May 5, 1789 at Versailles. Thirty-year-old Robespierre was one of eight representatives from Arras. In the formal opening of proceedings, he and his fellow Third Estate members refused to bow before the king.

That first day, Robespierre began to stand out. He was not an imposing physical figure and his voice was less than inspiring. But he dressed impeccably and had an amazing ability to recall details. He customarily wore a powdered wig and a formal waistcoat. In the first week of the assembly, he formed a breakaway group, known as the Breton Club, which held their own meetings to discuss the abolition of the privileges of the clergy and nobility.


Courtyard of the house of Maurice Duplay, Robespierre’s landlord. Robespierre’s room was on the second floor, above the fountain.

By Illegible – G. Lenotre, Paris révolutionnaire, Paris, Firmin-Didot, 1895., Public Domain, Link


On June 7th, Robespierre gave a passionate speech criticizing the excesses of the clergy. It was one of the major motivators for the establishment of the National Assembly three days later. On that date the Third Estate sent messages to the Clergy and Nobility requesting that they agree to common verification by a head count. Receiving no response, they declared themselves the only legitimate representative body renaming themselves the ‘Commons’. The public received this news with great enthusiasm. Eventually the clergy, under much public pressure, joined the National Assembly.

On the morning of June 20th, the National Assembly turned up to their meeting place at Versailles to find the gates locked and the entrance manned by guards. They quickly retreated to a nearby tennis court on the grounds of Versailles. The members were enraged at the despotism of the king in shutting out the National Assembly. They unanimously asserted what has become known as the ‘Tennis Court Oath’ – they vowed to remain in session until ‘the constitution of the Realm and public regeneration are established and assured.’

On June 17th, the King opened the Royal Session. His first move was to declare the National Assembly invalid. He then put forward a 35-point plan for reform. His final move was to announce that nothing that the Estates general did was valid without his personal consent.

A New National Assembly

Once the king had dismissed the assembly, the nobility and clerics filed out. But the members of the National Assembly, comprising the Third Estate and the Clergy, remained where they were. It was declared that they would only leave at the end of bayonets.

With the entire country in support of the National Assembly, the king backed down. He ordered the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly.

Still the riots did not end. Louis sent troops to surround the city of Paris. The national assembly now got to work and hammered out a list of demands to put to the king. Robespierre was one of those who presented them, with the first one being that he remove the troops. The king ignored the demand. By the beginning of July, there were 20,000 soldiers around the city.

Robespierre responded by making the following public statement . . .

No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as necessary.

And so it proved to be. On July 11th, the king dismissed finance minister Necker, who was still publicly popular. This led to rage among the people. Two days later rumors spread like wildfire that the French army was about to launch an attack on the people. A mob of citizens reacted to the impending threat by seizing 28,000 rifles from a veteran’s hospital. They now needed gunpowder to use them. They found it at an unused prison in the city called the Bastille. The guards tried to hold of the crowds but then fired into them. Hundreds of people fell down dead. The now out of control mob overpowered and killed the guards and then gained access to the gunpowder.

When the King sent soldiers to bring order, they switched loyalties and joined the people. Louis now knew that he could trust no one, not even his protective army.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly remained in session. In a desperate attempt to restore order, the king re-appointed Necker. But the finance minister refused to work with the National Assembly and was unable to stem the flow of rebellion.

On July 19th the king rode through Paris in a carriage along with key members of the National Assembly, including Robespierre. Rather than crying out ‘Long live the king!’, the people called out ‘Long live liberty! Long live the nation!’ Louis tried to placate the crowds telling them that he had ordered the troops to withdraw. The 150,000-armed citizens who flooded the streets took it as too little too late.

Across the country armed mobs were taking to the streets, with many of them seizing control of their city governments. Starving people broke into granaries and the estates of their landlords, helping themselves to food and provisions.

While other members of the National Assembly expressed concern at the growing chaos, Robespierre saw insurrection as the natural expression of the people’s will. It was those who opposed revolution who were the real threat. He became fanatical in his resolve to weed out any and all who showed dissent to the apparent will of the people.

The People Speak

Meanwhile the National Assembly began working on a new constitution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the citizen was voted on August 26th.

The king didn’t respond to the declaration until October, by which time the riot in the streets were ongoing. He expressed concerns at a number of the articles in the declaration. At the same time, he called the elite Flanders Regiment to Versailles to provide extra protection.

On the morning of October 5th, a large group of market women marched on Versailles to demand flour and grain. They were met at the gates by Robespierre, who while showing empathy for their situation, advised caution. He managed to negotiate for a single woman to meet the king. Louis agreed to allow the release of two stores of grains. But, again, it was too little too late.

By evening a massive crowd had gathered at Versailles, many of them armed. They lingered through the night. Then, early on the morning of October 6th, a group of them managed to break into the Queen’s bedroom. Marie managed to escape but two of her guards were killed. The royal couple were forced to leave the palace and seek refuge in an unused palace in Paris, the Tuileries. They were followed by a crowd of 60,000.

The king and queen spent the next few months as virtual prisoners in the palace at Tuileries. Power rested with the National Assembly, among which Robespierre’s influence was ever more prominent. Over the next year, the Assembly worked towards a constitutional monarchy.

In June 1791, the king had had enough. Along with his wife, he disguised himself as a servant and fled in a carriage. He left behind a document which clearly denounced the National Assembly. The carriage only got 160 miles out of Paris when it was stopped and the king and queen taken under guard back to Tuileries.

Causing Division

The night after the king’s attempt to flee the country, Robespierre gave an impassioned speech in which he stated that the deadliest enemies of the French were not the Austrians, who threatened war, but counter revolutionary forces within France itself. The king should also be counted among those enemies of the nation.

His speech broke the assembly in two. On the one side were those who clung to the idea of a constitutional monarchy while those who sided with Robespierre were in favor of republicanism.

Robespierre began to call for the public trial of the king. On July 17th, a group of petitioners who supported the call were confronted by National Guardsmen. In the melee that followed fifty of them were killed.

The French constitution was completed in September, 1791, effectively putting and end to the work of the assembly. Robespierre returned to Arras, where he was welcomed as a hero of the people. Meanwhile the king had declared war on Austria. Robespierre spoke out against the war, stating that it was not in the interests of the people and he feared that it would galvanize them around the king and thus destroy the revolution.

During the spring of 1792, there were vocal calls for the creation of a French Republic. Robespierre, however, had changed his tune and was now in favour of a constitutional monarchy. However, when a large protest outside the Tuileries on the third anniversary of the tennis court oath turned nasty, he found himself in a stand-off with the king’s key enforcer, General Lafayette, who stood ready to put down the marchers forcibly.

Protests at the Tuileries continued, culminating in the king and queen being forced to flee and seek protection from the National Assembly. More than a thousand people were killed that night. In its wake, the monarchy was officially dissolved and the royal family were taken into custody as prisoners of the state.

Ominous Power

Following these events Robespierre was elected to the Insurrection Commune, which was the governing body which now kept order in Paris. He oversaw a period of interrogation of royalists for a raft of suspected crimes against the state. Many of these royalist prisoners were pulled from their prison cells by mobs and massacred. Others were simply handed to vengeful mobs after mock trials. In the first week of September, 1792 around 1,400 people were killed by such mobs.

Robespierre insisted that the Commune also investigate counter-revolutionary activities. Soon it had condemned 28 people to death by beheading.

In the midst of this carnage, elections were held for a new constitutional assembly. Robespierre was elected as a first deputy. Still, there were those within the Assembly who objected to his violent methods of enforcement. Through force of argument he had them side-lined, winning the day with his conviction that the end justified the means, no matter how violent that means became.

The trial of the king began on December 26, 1792. Three weeks later he was found unanimously guilty. Robespierre himself summed up the will of the times . . . “It is with regret that I must pronounce the fatal truth; the king must die so that the country may live!”

France executed its king of January 21st, 1793. Robespierre did not attend the occasion.

The Reign of Terror

On July 20th, 1793, Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, which had been established a few months earlier. The Committee began to take action against federalist revolutionists. Mass executions were ordered in Lyons, which was a hotbed of royalist sympathy.

Revolts were breaking out all over, leading the Convention to declare terror ‘the order of the day’. On September 17th, they passed laws allowing them to put to death anyone who was implicated as a supporter of tyranny.

Caught up in the net of the reign of terror was Marie Antoinette. After a sham trial, she was sent to the guillotine on October 16, 1793.

Robespierre now set his sights on his former National Assembly opposers, the Girondists. They were duly tried and found guilty and sent to the guillotine. Controlling the executions was Robespierre who famously declared . . .

To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity.

Those within the assembly who opposed Robespierre found themselves facing the guillotine themselves. Before long he had absolute power within the Committee. He had become a virtual dictator, literally with the power of life or death within his hands.

Along with his immense power, Robespierre grew increasingly paranoid. There was an attempt on his life in May, 1793. The following month he was elected President of the Convention. He immediately enacted changes to allow him to condemn even more people to death. Trials were reduced to mere condemnations and all accused were denied legal representation. He even created a new category of criminal called ‘enemy of the people’. This blanket term could cover anything from serving sour wine to sending a letter to England, yet the punishment was always the same – death by guillotine.

Justice of the Blade

By this time Robespierre had gone too far. The people were beginning to reject his despotic rule of terror. His political enemies orchestrated a falsified letter which appeared to implicate Robespierre in an attempted coup d’etat. He defended himself against charges of dictatorship in a two-hour speech, in the process warning against a conspiracy that was being hatched against the Republic. But it was to no avail. The next day he was arrested only to be freed shortly thereafter by troops from the Paris Commune. Robespierre and his defenders found themselves holed up at the Hotel de Ville.

Robespierre exécutant le bourreau.jpg

Cartoon showing Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France.

By Unknown – La Guillotine en 1793 by H. Fleischmann (1908), page 269 Google BooksInternet Archive copy, Public Domain, Link

They were declared outlaws by the Convention, which meant that when caught they could be put to death immediately. When the Convention forces closed in on the hotel, Robespierre and those who were with him all tried to commit suicide. Some of them succeeded but Robespierre’s attempt to blow his brains out only managed to shatter his lower jaw.

With blood pouring from his face, Robespierre was laid on a table in the room of the Committee for Public Safety before being transferred to the cell that had housed Marie Antoinette prior to her date with the guillotine.

The end came for Robespierre on July 28th, 1794 when he became the final victim of his reign of terror. Seconds before the blade fell, the executioner ripped off the bandage that was keeping his jaw together, causing him to let out an almighty scream. It was soon silenced by the deadly blade, finally ending the carnage that Robespierre’s warped view of justice had wrought.

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