Eyewitness accounts of the October Days (1789)

october 1789
A drawing of the women of Paris, laying siege to Versailles in October 1789
On October 5th 1789 a large group of working-class Parisians, their numbers dominated by women, marched 12 miles from the city to the royal estate at Versailles. Inflamed by food shortages and conspiracy theories, most wanted the king to improve the supply and affordability of bread in Paris. Some also hoped to force Louis XVI and the National Assembly out of Versailles and back to Paris, ending their isolation from the turmoil in the capital. The mob remained at Versailles for two tense days. During this time there were deputations to the king and the National Assembly, acts of violence and murder against royal guards and a forced entry of the royal apartments. Eager to avoid a deadly clash between his soldiers and the protestors, the king relented and agreed to accompany the marchers back to Paris. The following eyewitness accounts, gathered by the National Assembly’s own investigators, capture some of the tension of the October Days:

Jean-Jacques de Tergat, 50, infantry captain:

“[Tergat was] on duty at the National Assembly at Versailles on October 5th. He was warned by what he had heard the evening before: that women and men of Paris, in very great number, were coming to carry off the king, the royal family and the National Assembly. He was informed at 11 o’clock in the morning that men and women had been seen in the plain of Sevres armed with pikes, guns and other arms, dragging cannon. He saw them arrive about half-past four in the Avenue de Paris and enter the National Assembly.

The first group was nearly all women. They had at their head an individual whom they called Maillard and in whom they appeared to have great confidence. The matter being reported to the president [of the National Assembly], he ordered that a dozen of them should be allowed to enter. In accordance with this order about a score of these women entered… Maillard, who was the spokesman, said they had come to ask for bread and that they were certain money had been distributed to the millers to stop them from grinding, though they could furnish no proof of this fact. The Assembly continued its session and passed a decree upon food supply, then carried it at once to the king, who sanctioned it…

Having gone outside, [Tergat] found a considerable number of women who asked to enter… In the midst of these people he heard uttered a great mass of remarks and horrors against the queen, which made clear the designs they had of subjecting her to the most atrocious treatment. These things he… heard very clearly and they were repeated several times…

After the last session of the Assembly had ended, as far as possible, food and drink were supplied to everybody. About eight hundred, nine hundred or a thousand [protestors] passed the night in the hall. As they were spattered with mud and wet, some took off their skirts, others their trousers and stockings, to dry them. During the night there passed among these people indecent scenes which he considers useless to recount.”

Jean-Baptise-Pierre Prieur, 46, king’s servant:

“At about four o’clock [he saw] a multitude of women approach the grating of the chateau. It was closed. These women named a delegation of four or five from among them… They asked to speak to the king. His Majesty came and spoke to them with great kindness. He said to them, with tears in his eyes: ‘You ought to know my heart. I am going to have all the bread in Versailles collected and given to you’. These women retired satisfied.

A quarter of an hour later these same women, followed by a great number of others, presented themselves in a tumult… They pretended that their comrades were not contented with the word of the king; they wanted a paper signed by him. They gave an assurance that they wanted only bread, that they were not followed by an armed band… It appeared that they were not women from the markets but courtesans from the Palais Royal and the Rue Saint-Honore… Some of them were very pretty…

The guard of the seals hastily drew up an order which the king signed, ordering grain to be brought from Lagni and other neighbouring places. This order was given to the women, who retired contented.”

Felix Alandre Gallemand, 20, National Assembly secretary:

“About six o’clock [on the morning of October 6th] he saw a very large troop of people of both sexes, armed with pikes, cudgels and other arms, enter the court of the ministers by the iron gate… and advance as far as the iron gate of the royal court, which they [the guards] refused to open for them. This group divided into two bands: one went to the court of the chapel, the other to the court of the princes.

This second group reached the royal court… During this time, a royal guard, who was on the balcony, was fired at by a member of the Parisian National Guard. The royal guard was not struck by the shot but returned fire with a pistol shot, which blew out the brains of the National Guard. Then the people with pikes rushed forward in a crowd, furiously mounted the staircase and threw themselves upon the royal guards, who were overpowered.

This same troop went immediately to the apartment of the queen, led by a poorly dressed man. The royal guard on duty at the door of this apartment was killed while defending the entrance, but he had time to cry through the keyhole: ‘Save the queen!’ One of his comrades came to take his place, to defend the entrance to the apartment. He got a blow on the head from the butt of a musket, given him by a soldier… The man, believing the royal guard to be dead, took his two watches and money, left him and entered the apartment of the queen, with other pikemen in large numbers.”