It all began with financial problems. After the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, marked by several wars, the royal finances remained in a worrying position. But things got worse when Louis XIV decided to get involved in the American War of Independence, after the personal involvement of famous names such as the Marquis de Lafayette. To weaken the British forces, France fought in various parts of the world – not only in North America, but also in India and elsewhere. The fleets of ships and the troops required for such ambitious operations ruined the royal treasury, once and for all.

Yet French intervention did force Britain to recognise American Independence in 1783, which was a source of immense prestige for France. In fact, the peace negotiations took place in Versailles, specifically in the former Office of Foreign Affairs and the Navy (today's town library).

This involvement also fuelled the intense growth of new ideas during the Age of Enlightenment. The American political system, which was based on the principle of democracy, inspired some new thinkers, while the Masonic lodges brought over from Britain and the United States (specifically, the Nine Sisters Lodge) played an active role in the evolution of ideas.

With this in mind, and searching for solutions to the Crown's financial problems, King Louis XVI hurriedly convened a meeting of the Estates General. This assembly was traditionally called by the King when taxes were not sufficient to cover ad-hoc financial demands. Delegates representing the different 'Estates' of the Realm would have the opportunity to present complaints or grievances to the King, so Louis XIV and Louis XV had avoided holding such meetings, in order not to encourage the creation of an opposition force. Yet although he was not personally a supporter of this institution, Louis XVI decided to call a meeting. That's when the new thinkers launched a campaign to demand a system of proportional representation: previously, each of the orders (clergy, nobility, and commoners, or the Third Estate) were represented by an equal number of delegates. As drafted by Abbé Sieyès, the Third Estate called for the 'Doubling of the Third', which meant having twice as many Third Estate delegates, on the grounds that they represented 97% of the population. The King granted this request, and when the Estates General meeting was opened in Versailles on 4 May 1789, the Third Estate delegates represented half of the members present.

Emboldened by this success, on 17 June, the Third Estate delegates declared themselves as the National Assembly, and sought to sit in such a formation. Locked out of the Menus-Plaisirs hall where the Estates General were meeting, they looked for another room and, on 20 June, they ended up in the Tennis Court, the sports hall used by the Court, which was available that day. It was there, in the name of all of those present (642 delegates), that Bailly swore the famous oath that they would not disband until France had a Constitution. The significance of the event, which completely overturned the principles upon which the French monarchy was based, was subsequently depicted by the painter, David. He portrayed the crowd of delegates, who were packed into this cramped hall, inspired by the oath; while, through the window high up on the left, you can see a bolt of lightening as it strikes the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles. It symbolised the end of the divine right of Kings. From then on, the King would no longer get his power from God, but from the people. David must have taken this aspect of the event very much to heart, since he also placed a surprising group of people in the foreground of his painting, related to the same topic: Abbé Grégoire, a Catholic monk, and a protestant clergyman can be seen embracing one another. It was a way to glorify the emergence of religion without dogma, far removed from the Catholic Church on which royal power was based.     

After the oath had been sworn, everyone signed a register which is now preserved in the National Archives in Paris.

Shortly after, on 23 June, a royal meeting was held in the Menus-Plaisirs hall during which the King, without referring to the circumstances surrounding the oath, expressed his concerns and urged the delegates to work according to his initial orders. Louis XVI then left, and the Master of Ceremonies invited the delegates to enter their respective meeting rooms, as the rules stipulated. It was then that Abbé Siéyès replied: 'The nation, when assembled, cannot be given orders', while Mirabeau added: 'We are here by the will of the people, and will only be removed by the point of a bayonet'. Their audacity inspired the delegates who were still hesitant to join the cause. A few days later, the King himself, succumbing to the pressure, invited all the delegates to join the Third Estate in forming the National Assembly.

Then the National Constituent Assembly began working in Versailles, against a backdrop of great unrest. During the night of 4 August 1789, there was a vote for the abolition of feudalism, which removed one of the pillars of society under the Ancien Régime. Then on 26 August came the Declaration of the Rights of Man, redrafted to serve as a preamble to the Constitution, which was intended to assert the universal principles in 17 Articles. The Constitution itself, which provided for a constitutional monarchy, was not published until 1791, and was instantly undermined by the flight of the King.

Meanwhile, the Court and the Assembly had left Versailles for Paris.

To find out more, join our lecture tour on the Revolution and the Royal Tennis Court ​

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