September Massacres  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The September Massacres were a wave of mob violence which overtook Paris in late summer 1792, during the French Revolution. By the time it had subsided, half the prison population of Paris had been executed: some 1200 trapped prisoners, including many women and young boys. Sporadic violence, in particular against the Roman Catholic Church, would continue throughout France for nearly a decade to come. The most famous victims of the massacres were Princess of Lamballe, intimate friend of Marie-Antoinette, and Jean Marie du Lau, the Archbishop of Arles.

The massacres were an important episode in the dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution. They were satirized in "Petit Souper a la Parisienne," a print by James Gillray.

Restif de la Bretonne saw the bodies piled high in front of the Châtelet and witnessed atrocities that he recorded in Les Nuits de Paris (1793).


In September of 1792, the National Assembly legalized divorce, contrary to Catholic doctrine. At the same time, the State took control of the birth, death, and marriage registers away from the Church. An ever increasing view that the Church was a counter-revolutionary force exacerbated the social and economic grievances and violence erupted in towns and cities across France. In Paris, over a forty-eight hour period beginning on September 2, 1792, as the Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Constituent Assembly) dissolved into chaos, three Church bishops and more than two hundred priests were massacred by angry mobs; this constituted part of what would become known as the September Massacres. Priests were among those drowned in the Noyades for treason under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Carrier; priests and nuns were among the mass executions at Lyon, for separatism, on the orders of Joseph Fouché and Collot d'Herbois. Hundreds more priests were imprisoned and made to suffer in abominable conditions in the port of Rochefort.


On September 2 1792, news reached Paris that the Duke of Brunswick's Prussian army had invaded France, that the fortress of Verdun had quickly fallen, that perhaps its own aristocratic officers had capitulated too easily, and that the Prussians were advancing quickly toward the capital. On July 25 Brunswick had circulated his bombastic "Brunswick Manifesto" from Coblenz: his avowed aim was

"to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him."

Additionally, the Manifesto threatened the French public with instant punishment should they resist the Imperial and Prussian armies, or the reinstatement of the monarchy. Such information fueled this first wave of mob hysteria of the Revolution. By the end of August rumours circulated that many in Paris - such as non-juring priests - who secretly opposed the Revolution would support the First Coalition of foreign powers allied against it. Furthermore, Paris lacked extensive food stocks.

The political situation in Paris on the eve of the September Massacres was dire. No individual or organised body could truly claim exclusive sovereignty. The monarchy and short-lived Constitution of 1791 had been overthrown with the bloody journée of 10 August 1792, in which the Tuileries was stormed by the mob and the royal family fled for their lives. The Legislative Assembly had been left impotent after a large number of deputies had fled, and its successor, the National Convention, had not yet met. To further complicate this matter, the insurrectionary Paris commune established 9 August 1792 incorporated some of the most radical revolutionary elements, including the sans-culottes, and briefly contended for the role of de facto government of France. Lacking a sovereign power, the Parisians' fear, hatred, and prejudice proved to be the seeds of the September Massacres.

When news of the collapse of defenses at Verdun reached the Convention, they ordered the tocsin rung and alarm guns fired, which doubtless added to the sense of panic. An army of 60,000 was to be enlisted at the Champ de Mars, the British ambassador reported;

"A party at the instigation of some one or other declared they would not quit Paris, as long as the prisons were filled with Traitors (for they called those so, that were confined in the different Prisons and Churches), who might in the absence of such a number of Citizens rise and not only effect the release of His Majesty, but make an entire counterrevolution."

The first attack occurred when twenty-four non-juring priests being transported to the prison of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés which had become a national prison of the revolutionary government. They were attacked by a mob that quickly killed them all as they were trying to escape into the prison, then mutilated the bodies, "with circumstances of barbarity too shocking to describe" according to the British diplomatic dispatch. Of 284 prisoners, 135 were killed, 27 were transferred, 86 were set free, and 36 had uncertain fates. On September 3 and September 4, crowds broke into other Paris prisons, where they murdered the prisoners, who some feared were counter-revolutionaries who would aid the invading Prussians.

Most notably, the crowds are said to have raped, killed and grotesquely mutilated the Princesse de Lamballe, friend of Marie Antoinette and sister-in-law to the Duc d'Orleans. It was said that her head was paraded atop a pike under the captive Queen's windows at the Temple. Religious figures also figured prominently among the victims: the massacres occurred during a time of great and rising resentment against the Roman Catholic Church, which eventually led to the temporary dechristianisation of France. Over a forty-eight hour period beginning on September 2, 1792, as the French Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Constituent Assembly) dissolved into chaos, angry mobs massacred three bishops, including Jean Marie du Lau, the Archbishop of Arles, and more than two hundred priests.

See also

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