Hilaire Belloc on Louis XVI (1911)




Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was a French-born British historian and author, active in the first half of the 20th century. Belloc’s The French Revolution was published in 1911. In this extract he discusses the character and personality of Louis XVI:



“As might be expected, the character of King Louis XVI has suffered more distortion at the hands of historians than has any other of the revolutionary figures… So historians tend to confuse the personality and character of Louis XVI with that of his office; they either, by contrast, exaggerate his unkingly defects or by sympathy exaggerate his kingly opposition to reform…

He was very slow of thought and very slow of decision. His physical movements were slow. The movement of his eyes was notably slow. He had a way of falling asleep under the effort of fatigue at the most incongruous moments. The things that amused him were of the largest and most superficial kind. Horse-play, now and then a little touched with eccentricity, and very plain but unexpected jokes. One may express him from one aspect by saying that he was one of those men whom you could never by any chance have hoped to convince of anything. The few things which he accepted, he accepted quite simply…

Louis possessed a number of intimate convictions upon which he was not to be shaken. He was profoundly convinced of the existence and value of a certain corporate tradition in the organism which he ruled: the French nation. He was national. In this he differed from many a pedant, many a courtier, many an ecclesiastic, and many a woman about him, especially his wife.

He was, again, possessed of all the elements of the Catholic faith. It was, indeed, a singular thing for a man of his position at such a time to hold intimately to religion, but Louis held to it. He confessed, he communicated, he attended mass, he performed his ordinary devotions—not by way of tradition or political duty, or State function, to which religious performance was now reduced in the vast majority of his wealthy contemporaries, but as an individual for whom these things had a personal value. Had he… woken in his bed some morning to find himself a country squire, and to discover that all his past kingship had been a dream of the night, he would have continued the practice of his religion as before…

Louis XVI was possessed, then, of religion: it appeared in many of his acts, in his hesitation to appoint not a few of the many atheist bishops of the time, in his real agony of responsibility upon the Civil Constitution of the clergy, and in nothing more than the peculiar sobriety and solid ritual whereby he prepared for a tragic, sudden and ignominious death.

It is next to be observed that though he was a man not yet in middle age, and though he was quite devoid of ardour in any form, he had from the first matured a great basis of courage. It is well to admit that this quality in him was connected with those slow processes of thought and action which hampered him, but it is not to be explained by them. No man yet has become brave through mere stupidity.

It was not only the accidents of the Revolution that proved this quality in him: his physical habits proved it long before. He was a resolute and capable rider of the horse: an aptitude in that exercise is impossible to the coward. Again, in those by-products of courage which are apparent, even where no physical danger threatens, he was conspicuous; he had no hesitation in facing a number of men and he had aptitude in a mechanical trade, a business by no means unconnected with virility…

For the rest, the character of Louis betrayed certain ineptitudes (the word ineptitude is far more accurate in this connection than the word weakness) which ineptitudes were peculiarly fatal for the military office which he held and for the belligerent crisis which he had to meet.”

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