The French Revolution – Explained with a few Questions

France is a Tourist paradise – lots of history and culture blended with scenic beauty. I have been to Paris twice and have been fascinated with the French Revolution. When I saw that this was a chapter in the Class 9 CBSE curriculum – summarised the French Revolution in a  few simple FAQ’s as this can be a ready reckoner and a notes page for all history buffs and students of Class 9.


  1. What was the duration of the French Revolution?

Lasting 10 years from 1789 – 1799 the French Revolution was a period of social and political upheaval in France.


  1. Why is the French Revolution such an important event in History? 

Regarded as one of the most important events in history it influenced human society not just in France but also across Europe and the world.

The 10 Key Changes can be summarised as follows

  • The Empire of France became the French Nation – The French nation was born because of the French Revolution
  • End of Monarchy – Before the French Revolution, the Bourbon family was ruling over France. The rulers of this dynasty believed in the theory of divine right of kingship. They ruled as per their own wishes and whims. The French Revolution destroyed their very existence. It established a constitutional form of government and republic in France.
  • Written Constitution – France got her first written constitution due to the French Revolution. It was also the first written constitution of the European continent. It gave the right of franchise to the citizen of France.
  • Declaration of Human Rights – The main result of the French Revolution was that the French people acquired many human rights. They were given the right of equality, freedom of expression, etc. They were free to organize their associations. They got the right to property. They got the equality before the law. They could object to illegal actions of the government officials.
  • Abolition of Feudalism – The Feudal system ended due to the French Revolution. The difference between the privileged and non-privileged class ended. It was an end of the old despotic system.
  • Decrease in the influence of the Church – The influence of the high priests on the society of France ended. The priests took oath on the new constitution to maintain their loyalty to the French nation. The state became the owner of the wealth of the church. The priest started receiving salary from the state. On the other hand, the French people started adopting rational attitude in place of the blind faith based on religious affiliations.
  • Re-Organization of the Judicial System – The National Convention introduced a common judicial system for whole of France. The penal code was made soft and same types of punishments were introduced for the similar type of crimes committed by any person without any discrimination. The judicial system was made independent of the executive and legislator. The ‘Jury System’ was introduced to try the criminal cases.
  • Public Works – Many public welfare works were undertaken due to French Revolution. New roads and canals were constructed. New dams and bridges were built. The land was reclaimed from marshes for farming. The economic infrastructure was improved to promote the trade. The large landholdings of the lords were sold to farmers at cheaper rates. Agriculture was modernized. Such improvements brought amazing changes in the economic strength of France.
  • Changes in the Conditions of Farmers – The condition of farmers improved due to the French Revolution. The revolution ended the feudal system, which liberated the farmers from the burden of unnecessary taxes. They did not have to pay the taxes to the landlords and tithes (the religious tax) to the church.
  • Cultural effects – France made numerous achievements in the field of art, science, and literature due to French Revolution. Numerous schools, colleges, universities, and academies were opened in the country. Special attention was paid to art, literature, science, mathematics, technology, and physical training in the field of education.
  1. What were the main causes that resulted in the French Revolution?

 There are 3 key reasons, which resulted in the French Revolution

  • The common man comprising 98% of the population was upset with the Monarchy, Nobility & Clergy who controlled all decision-making in the country. The Clergy & the Nobility did not pay any taxes – they formed the 1st & 2nd Estate in the French Society.
  • The defective foreign policies of Louis XV (1715-1774) make France economically very weak. The 7-year war against England and the French support to the American Revolution resulted in bankruptcy.
  • The luxurious and extravagant life of the King and his Queen Mary Antoinette at a time when the country was facing severe food shortage amidst the harsh winter of 1788 enraged the people.
  1. What was the Social Structure in France at the time of the French Revolution?

The Social condition of France during the eighteenth century was very miserable. French Society was divided into three classes

  • The Clergy – 1st Estate
  • Nobles – 2nd Estate
  • The Common People – 3rd Estate

The Clergy was subdivided into two groups i.e. the higher clergy and the lower clergy. The higher clergy occupied the top position in the society. They managed the churches, monasteries and educational institutions of France. They did not pay any tax to the monarch. They exploited the common people in various ways. The higher clergy lived in the midst of scandalous luxury and extravagance. The common people had a strong hatred towards the higher clergy. On the other hand, the lower clergy served the people in true sense of the term and they lived a very miserable life.

The Nobility also did not pay any taxes. The Nobility was also sub divided into two groups – the Court nobles and the Provincial nobles. The court nobles lived in pomp and luxury. They did not pay any heed towards the problems of the common people of their areas. On the other hand, the provincial nobles paid their attention towards the problems of the people. But they did not enjoy the same privileges as the Court nobles enjoyed.

The Third Estate formed a heterogeneous class. The farmers, cobblers, sweepers and other lower classes belonged to this class. The condition of the farmers was very miserable. They paid the taxes like Taille, Tithe and Gable. In spite of this, the clergies and the nobles employed them in their fields.

The Bourgeoisie formed the top most group of the Third Estate. The doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, writers and philosophers belonged to this class. They had the wealth and social status. But the French Monarch, influenced by the clergies and nobles, ranked them as the Third Estate.

  1. How was the National Assembly formed? What is the Tennis Court Oath?

The Estates General was reluctantly summoned by King Louis XVI in May of 1789 with an aim to solve the monarchy’s financial crisis. There were three classes represented by the Estates General – the nobles, clergy and the rest of the population or the so-called Third Estate. Each estate had only one vote. As a result, the nobility and clergy could always overrule the Third Estate. Fearing they would be forced to bear the burden of the financial crisis, the members of the Third Estate decided to form their own National Assembly.

On June 17, emboldened by the joining of some of the nobility and the clergy, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly of France, imploring the remainder of the Estates-General to join the Assembly.

King Louis XVI was outraged at the audacity of the Third Estate. On June 19, only two days after the National Assembly convened itself, Louis ordered the Estates to separate and the building in which the National Assembly met closed.

On June 20th – The next morning, finding their entry barred, the members of the National Assembly met across the street in one of the king’s indoor tennis courts. They then created and pledged the Tennis Court Oath to remain sitting until the National Assembly had written a French Constitution

This was an important moment and the first formal voice of dissent against the King by the 3rd Estate. It received tremendous support from Paris.


  1. What were the events that resulted in the storming of the Bastille? Why is this day still celebrated?

The Bastille was a medieval fortress. By the 17th century, it had been converted into a state prison. Many Parisians came to despise the Bastille as a symbol of despotism and tyranny of the monarchy. The Bastille reminded Parisians of everything that was wrong with their country.

Post the formation of the National Assembly and its huge wave of support in Paris – the king had sent troops to Paris. On 11th July 1789 – the king fired his finance minister Jacques Necker – the 3rd estate saw him as a minister sympathetic with their cause. They feared that this was a coup by the conservative elements in the Kings court. There were also rumours that the newly formed National Assembly would be shut down. For the 3rd estate all this was a trigger to act – and the Bastille was the perfect place to express their resentment.

On July 14th an angry and aggressive mob marched towards the Bastille and laid siege. They demanded the huge ammunition stores held within the prison walls. When the prison governor refused to comply, the mob charged and, after a violent battle, eventually took charge of the Bastille. The governor was seized and killed, his head carried round the streets on a spike. The victorious mob tore the Bastille apart brick by brick. Violence was now accepted. The storming of the Bastille symbolically marked the beginning of the French Revolution.

France has celebrated July 14th as a National holiday since the late 19th century. The holiday commemorates the storming of the Bastille – and the launch of the French revolution.

philippoteaux_Lamartine at HdeV 1848

  1. What is the August Decree?

Peasants and farmers alike, who had been suffering under high prices and unfair feudal contracts, began to wreak havoc in rural France. This sparked a hysteria called the Great Fear. Starting around July 20, 1789, and continuing through the first days of August, the Great Fear spread through sporadic pockets of the French countryside. Peasants attacked country manors and estates, in some cases burning them down in an attempt to escape their feudal obligations. In an effort to quell the destruction, the assembly issued the August Decrees, which nullified many of the feudal obligations that the peasants had to their landlords. For the time being, the countryside calmed down.

  1. What was the declaration of Rights of man and of the Citizen?

 The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is one of the most important papers of the French Revolution. It explains a list of rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and separation of powers. All men have these rights. it did not say anything about the rights or role of women. It also did not talk about slavery. People now think that it was an important step towards international human rights

It was adopted on Aug 26th 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly – and formed a key foundation to the Constitution.


  1. When was the 1st French Constitution adopted?

In September 1791, the National Assembly released its much-anticipated Constitution of 1791, which created a constitutional monarchy, or limited monarchy, for France. This move allowed King Louis XVI to maintain control of the country, even though he and his ministers would have to answer to new legislature, which the new constitution dubbed the Legislative Assembly. The constitution also succeeded in eliminating the nobility as a legal order and struck down monopolies and guilds. It established a poll tax and barred servants from voting, ensuring that control of the country stayed firmly in the hands of the middle class

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted on 27 August 1789 eventually became the preamble of the constitution adopted on 30 September 1791.

  1. State the significance of the Women’s March to Versailles on Oct 5th, 1789?

Faced with severe food crisis over 7000 women marched to the palace of Versailles. They stormed the palace and massacred the guards. They demanded that the king distribute the food hoarded in the palace, sanction the decree of the Rights of man and the citizen. They also wanted the royal family to shift to Paris and see the plight of the common man. This King had no choice – once in Paris they effectively became prisoners of the 3rd Estate until their executions in 1791.

The Women’s march is an epoch event

  • It brought an end to the great monarchy of Versailles
  • It transformed the role of women in the revolution
  • One month after the march to Versailles they would present to the National Assembly a ground breaking demand for gender equality
  1. Did Mary Antoinette ever make the comment “ Let them eat Cake if they have no Bread”

“Let them eat cake” is the traditional translation of the French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“, supposedly spoken by Mary Antoinette upon learning that the peasants had no bread. There is no record to prove that this statement was every made. But it does reflect the state of the French Nation during the French Revolution and how the royals were in a world of their own blissfully unaware of the challenges faced by the common man. Mary Antoinette a princess from Austria married to the ruling monarch became an object of hatred for the pompous manner in which she flaunted her wealth at times of distress. She was eventually sent to the Guillotine like her husband.





Fore more on Marie Antoinette read this blog :

12. Who were the Jacobins & the Girondins ?

Divisions quickly formed within the new Legislative Assembly, which coalesced into two main camps. On one side were the Jacobins, a group of radical liberals who wanted to drive the Revolution forward aggressively. The Jacobins wanted to forgo the constitutional monarchy and declare France a republic. They were against the execution of the King. The moderate Girondins deemed a constitutional monarchy essential.

The radical wing of representatives in the National Convention, named for their secret meeting place in the Jacobin Club, in an abandoned Paris monastery. Led by Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins called for democratic solutions to France’s problems and spoke for the urban poor and French peasantry. The Jacobins took control of the convention, and France itself, from 1793 to 1794. As Robespierre became increasingly concerned with counterrevolutionary threats, he instituted a brutal period of public executions known as the Reign of Terror. In September 1793, twenty-one prominent Girondists were guillotined, beginning the Reign of Terror.


  1. Who was Maximillen de Robespierre?

Maximilien de Robespierre was a brilliant politician and a radical Jacobin leader. He was one of the principal figures in the French Revolution. In the latter months of 1793 he came to dominate the Committee of Public Safety, the principal organ of the Revolutionary government during the Reign of Terror, but in 1794 he was overthrown and guillotined.

At age 30, Robespierre was elected to the Estates General of the French legislature. He became increasingly popular with the people for his attacks on the French monarchy and his advocacy for democratic reforms. He also opposed the death penalty and slavery.

In April 1789, Robespierre was elected president of the powerful Jacobin political faction. A year later, he participated in writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the foundation of the French constitution. He successfully argued for the execution of the king and continued to encourage the crowds to rise up against the aristocracy.


  1. What was the Committee of Public Safety?

A body, chaired by Maximilien Robespierre, to which the National Convention gave dictatorial powers in April 1793 in an attempt to deal with France’s wars abroad and economic problems at home. Although the committee led off its tenure with an impressive war effort and economy-salvaging initiatives, things took a turn for the worse when Robespierre began his violent Reign of Terror in late 1793.

  1. What was the Reign of Terror?

On July 27, 1793, Maximilien Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, formed to oversee the government with virtual dictatorial control.

Faced with pressures both from the outside and from within, the Revolutionary government instituted the Reign of Terror in September. In the next 11 months, 300,000 suspected enemies of the Revolution were arrested and more than 17,000 were executed, most by guillotine. In the orgy of bloodshed, Robespierre was able to eliminate many of his political opponents.

  1. How did Maximillen de Robespierre meet his end?

Seemingly intoxicated with the power over life and death, Robespierre called for more purges and executions. By the summer of 1794, many in the Revolutionary government began to question his motives, as the country was no longer threatened by outside enemies. An awkward coalition of moderates and revolutionaries formed to oppose Robespierre and his followers.

On July 27, 1794, Robespierre and many of his allies were arrested and taken to prison. He was able to escape with the aid of a sympathetic jailer and hid in the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris. When he received word that the National Convention had declared him an outlaw, he tried to commit suicide, but succeeded only in wounding his jaw. Shortly after, troops from the National Convention stormed the building and seized and arrested Robespierre and his followers. The next day, he and 21 of his allies were executed at the guillotine.

  1. What happened to the Catholic Church during the French Revolution?

The dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution is a conventional description of the results of a number of separate policies conducted by various governments of France between the start of the French Revolution in 1789 and 1801.

The goal of the campaign was the destruction of Catholic religious practice and of the religion itself. The National assembly took over the Church property and the Church became a department of the state effectively removing it from papal authority.

 In September 1792, the Legislative 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.

This resulted in the Sep massacre of 1792 where more than 200 priests were massacred by angry mobs.

 18. What is the association of “ the National Razor”, “ St Guillotine” or the commonly known Guillotine with the French Revolution?

The origins of the French guillotine date back to late 1789, when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed that the French government adopt a gentler method of execution.

Although he was personally opposed to capital punishment, Guillotin argued that decapitation by a lightning-quick machine would be more humane and egalitarian than sword and axe beheadings, which were often botched. He later helped oversaw the development of the first prototype, an imposing machine designed by French doctor Antoine Louis and built by a German named Tobias Schmidt. The device claimed its first official victim in April 1792, and quickly became known as the “guillotine”—much to the horror of its supposed inventor.

The famed guillotine became perhaps the foremost symbol of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed in 1793-94, during which as many as 16,000 people were executed.

(The Guillotine was used in Nazi Germany – Adolf Hitler made the guillotine a state method of execution in the 1930s, and ordered that 20 of the machines be placed in cities across Germany. According to Nazi records, the guillotine was eventually used to execute some 16,500 people between 1933 and 1945, many of them resistance fighters and political dissidents. It survived in France till 1977 – when France abolished capital punishment) 

Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution.
Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution.
  1. Why was war declared on Austria during the French Revolution?

By 1792 European Monarchs were eyeing France with suspicion. They had seen the overthrow of Louis XVI and were worried that revolutionary fervour would spread to their countries.

In response to Louis XVI’s capture and forced return to Paris, Prussia and Austria issued the Declaration of Pillnitz on August 27, 1791, warning the French against harming the king and demanding that the monarchy be restored. The declaration also implied that Prussia and Austria would intervene militarily in France if any harm came to the king.

Prussia and Austria’s initial concern was simply for Louis XVI’s well-being, but soon the countries began to worry that the French people’s revolutionary sentiment would infect their own citizens. The Declaration of Pillnitz was issued to force the French Revolutionaries to think twice about their actions and, if nothing else, make them aware that other countries were watching the Revolution closely.

In France the public opinion was for War. There was also a feeling that the powerful family of Marie Antoinette who ruled Austria would seek revenge for the actions against the king and the queen. The revolutionaries wanted War because they thought that would unite the country. They also felt that if they waited foreign powers would attack and defeat the country and it would be back to the same old monarchy.

On April 1792 the Legislative Assembly of France declared war on Austria. Initially the French fared badly the army became successful as the war progressed.

  1. Who was Napoleon and how did he rise during the French Revolution ?

Napoleon became associated with Augustin Robespierre, the brother of revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre. During this time, Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in the army.

In 1795, Napoleon helped suppress a royalist insurrection against the revolutionary government in Paris and was promoted to major general.

In 1796, Napoleon commanded a French army that defeated the larger armies of Austria, one of his country’s primary rivals, in a series of battles in Italy. In 1797, France and Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, resulting in territorial gains for the French.

The following year, the Directory, the five-person group that had governed France since 1795, offered to let Napoleon lead an invasion of England. Napoleon determined that France’s naval forces were not yet ready to go up against the superior British Royal Navy. Instead, he proposed an invasion of Egypt in an effort to wipe out British trade routes with India. Napoleon’s troops scored a victory against Egypt’s military rulers, the Mamluks, at the Battle of the Pyramids in July 1798; soon, however, his forces were stranded after his naval fleet was nearly decimated by the British at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798. In early 1799, Napoleon’s army launched an invasion of Ottoman-ruled Syria, which ended with the failed siege of Acre, located in modern-day Israel. That summer, with the political situation in France marked by uncertainty, the ever-ambitious and cunning Napoleon opted to abandon his army in Egypt and return to France.

In November 1799, in an event known as the coup of 18 Brumaire, Napoleon was part of a group that successfully overthrew the French Directory.

The Directory was replaced with a three-member Consulate, and Napoleon became first consul, making him France’s leading political figure. In June 1800, at the Battle of Marengo, Napoleon’s forces defeated one of France’s perennial enemies, the Austrians, and drove them out of Italy. The victory-helped cement Napoleon’s power as first consul.


  1. What role did Napoleon play in post-revolutionary France?

 Napoleon worked to restore stability to post-revolutionary France. He centralized the government, instituted reforms in such areas as banking and education, supported science and the arts and sought to improve relations between his regime and the Pope (who represented France’s main religion, Catholicism), which had suffered during the revolution.

One of his most significant accomplishments was the Napoleonic Code, which streamlined the French legal system and continues to form the foundation of French civil law to this day.

In 1802, a constitutional amendment made Napoleon first consul for life. Two years later, in 1804, he crowned himself emperor of France in a lavish ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

(Napoleon is a very interesting historic personality – battle of Trafalgar , Waterloo and the failed Russian conquest make for very interesting reading)

  1. How did the French Revolution End?

With a strong leader like Napoleon at the helm – the Revolution ended and France entered a 15-year period of military rule.

During these years, Napoleon re – established a French aristocracy (eliminated in the French Revolution) and began handing out titles of nobility to his loyal friends and family as his empire continued to expand across much of western and central continental Europe. In a way monarchy of a different sort was getting established.


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