Following the euphoria of the storming of the Bastille and the establishment of the National Assembly in the Summer of 1789 the French Revolution stalled in the Autumn as the Assembly and King Louis XVI became deadlocked on a number of key issues. Plans were afoot to move the Assembly to the city of Tours, well away from the revolutionary hub of Paris, where it was hoped that a conservative environment would stifle reform. Rumours abounded that the king would renege on the August Decrees which had abolished most of the traditional privileges of the nobility. Much of the country, and especially Paris, remained intensely politicised though. There had been numerous calls for rallies outside the palace at Versailles, where the King resided and the National Assembly sat, in order to stall these plots and expel the most conservative deputies. Severe bread shortages and soaring prices had led to periodic outbreaks of violence in the marketplaces of the city. It was widely held that the rising price of bread was part of an aristocratic conspiracy, centred on the royal court in Versailles, to starve the poor. Something had to give.
The Flanders Regiment of the Royal Army arrived at Versailles on 1 October to replace the guards who had mutinied and abandoned the royal family shortly before the storming of the Bastille. They were welcomed with a lavish banquet where, allegedly, the army officers and the royals trampled a red, white and blue cockade, a symbol of the revolution and national unity, presented to Louis XVI by the National Assembly. Feasting while Paris was on the verge of starvation was foolish enough but to denigrate the revolution in such a manner was sheer idiocy. When the story reached Paris there was outrage, maximised by the writings of Jean-Paul Marat in his Ami du Peuple newspaper. The radicals had been given a shot in the arm and began to intensify their campaigning.
On the morning of 5 October a group of women had gathered in a marketplace in the impoverished Faubourg Saint-Antoine district of eastern Paris complaining of the high price of bread. With their anger growing as they exchanged stories of the privations they had been forced into the decision was taken to storm a nearby church. The bells were tolled and more women flocked to them. A cry went up from somewhere in the crowd ‘to Versailles!’ The Hotel de Ville was stormed and its food supplies and, more significantly, its armoury, including several cannons, were ransacked. The National Guard were summoned but their commander, the Marquis de Lafayette was dismayed to find that his men largely supported the march and some even threatened to kill him if he ordered them to suppress the movement. It was all that Lafayette could do to dispatch a rider to Versailles in order to warn the King of what was coming before being forced by his soldiers to join the march. Numbering some 20000 the marchers set off for Versailles.
In six hours the marchers reached Versailles having gathered significant support along the way. They occupied the National Assembly and demanded an audience with the King. They were offered support and encouragement by an as yet obscure left wing deputy named Maximilien Robespierre which gained him support personally and helped turn the anger of the crowd away from the assembly and towards the king. Eventually a meeting with the king was facilitated. A small contingent chosen by the crowd were promised that food from the royal stores would be distributed amongst the poor. Louis also promised to respect the August decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. While a small number of people were satisfied by this and left the majority stayed overnight.
Early the next morning a small group of protesters found an unguarded gate into the palace and decided to explore. When they were discovered by guards all hell broke loose. Doors were bolted, barricades constructed and shots were fired at the intruders, killing one of them. At this the crowd became enraged and stormed the palace. At least three guards were killed and their heads displayed on pikes. Several others were badly beaten. The troops eventually cleared the palace but the crowd remained encamped outside. Lafayette acted quickly and convinced the king to address the crowd. He promised to return to Paris and a cry of ‘Long live the King’ went up from the assembled masses. This was, after all, an uprising for a constitutional monarchy not a republic; for all the radicalism of the tactics used it was still the politics of 1789 that prevailed and not those of 1793.
The next day the marchers accompanied the royal family and 100 Assembly deputies to Paris where the King was to be installed in his new residence at the Tuileries Palace. Within a fortnight the National Assembly would also be relocated to Paris. High politics in France would henceforth be carried out under the watchful eye of the citizens of revolutionary Paris. A precedent had been set that mass popular movements could overrule decisions of representatives to the Assembly. The politicisation of bread had posed the question of the involvement of women, typically the administrators of household budgets, in the revolution. The stage had been set for the revolutionary journees of the following years which would deliver the First French Republic. The most conservative elements in French politics had been effectively sidelined and their plans to stifle reforms lay in tatters. Some, like Mounier, the President of the Assembly, even went into exile. Who says that marches and demonstrations never change anything?