28 July 1794 – Maximilien Robespierre
The darling of the French Revolution had a spectacular fall from grace today in 1794.
Maximilien François Marie Odenthalius Isidore de Robespierre was an esteemed leader and a great orator, yet it was his over-zealousness that was to be the death of him.
OK, so the French craved change. Sick of the aristos having everything and the working classes nothing, there was an air of discontent, but Robespierre took the backlash to such extraordinary lengths that even his once supporters turned on him.
On the block
He was a key exponent of the gruesome Reign of Terror – a bloody period in French history during which the French king and queen were deposed. Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were beheaded and the massacre of many more kicked off as the left-wing contingent took hold.
Even moderates were given the chop as Robespierre began passing more and more extremist laws. Visionaries such as Danton and Desmoulins lost their heads, while Robespierre used an unhealthy dose of nepotism to install his cohorts in positions of power in a seemingly irresistible rise.
During the Terror, nearly 1,300 people were sent to the guillotine. So what stopped the zealot in his treacherous tracks? His own actions – Robespierre was unable to display more liberal sensibilities as he truly believed in his methods and would not even consider wavering.
Soon, he’d morphed from a respected leader into a tyrant and a despot. And when Robespierre tried to assert the existence of a Supreme Being, well that was a step too far for the French and he lost his support.
A warrant was issue for his arrest alongside his remaining loyal brethren. Sensing the end was nigh as the troops closed in, Robespierre’s brother jumped out of a hotel window, during a coup d’état. His mission failed – he fell alright, but he merely broke his legs so he couldn’t even make a run for it.
Robespierre, on the other hand, decided to top himself with a gun, but just at the crucial moment a policeman knocked the gun to prevent it and the bullet bound for his brain caught his jaw instead and shattered it. They were taken into custody and such was the animosity for Robespierre, that they didn’t even afford him a trial.
Instead they took him to be executed at the Place Louis XV, and in a sinister twist, they made him face his killer blade face up.
While he was being prepared, his executions ripped off the bandages holding his jaw together. So he endured his final excruciating minutes both in mind and body, before the self-same fate he’d been only too happy to dole out to others befell him. Robespierre was just 36 and he was guillotined a year and half after his key victim, Louis XVI.