The guillotine is among the most well-known symbols of the excesses and brutality of the French Revolution. Invented in the late 18th century, this instrument of execution was designed to reduce suffering and increase efficiency in state-sanctioned executions. However, it quickly became a favoured tool of those seeking to wield political power and suppress dissent. Thousands of people were executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror, including many who were convicted on trumped-up or flimsy charges. The fear and horror inspired by the guillotine soon spread beyond France, serving as a grim reminder of the dangers of unchecked political power and arbitrary violence. Today, the guillotine remains a haunting symbol of a dark period in history, a warning to future generations about the dangers of mass hysteria and unchecked authority.
Despite its controversial history and the moral objections of many, the guillotine remained in use in some countries for centuries. It was banned in France in 1981, but the last execution by this method occurred in 1977 against Hamida Djanoubi, a Tunisian national who had killed her employer’s wife and six children. Over time, the use of the guillotine became increasingly rare as governments began to realize that executions by this method did not serve as an effective deterrent to crime and that the suffering experienced by those executed could be just as great as other methods of capital punishment. Today, the guillotine is seen mostly in historical reenactments or museums, a grisly reminder of a bygone era. Nevertheless, its infamy lives on, making it among the most reviled symbols of state-sanctioned violence and oppression in human history.
The guillotine was one of the most notorious instruments of execution during the French Revolution. Many people, including women, were executed by this method. Here are some examples of women who faced the guillotine:
1. Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, met a tragic end in the midst of the French Revolution. After years of lavish spending and indulgence, her lack of concern for the plight of the common people made her a lightning rod for criticism and led to her eventual downfall. In 1792, the monarchy was abolished and Marie Antoinette and her family were arrested and imprisoned. Following a lengthy trial, she was convicted of treason, accused of conspiring with foreign powers against France. Her execution by guillotine on October 16, 1793, marked the end of an era and signalled a turning point in the French Revolution. Today, Marie Antoinette remains a controversial and enigmatic figure in history, remembered both for her excesses and her tragic demise.
2. Charlotte Corday d’Armont
Jean-Paul Marat was a complex and controversial figure in the French Revolution. A leader in the radical Jacobin faction, he advocated for the execution of King Louis XVI and his family, as well as the killing of all monarchists. This stance put him at odds with the Girondins, a more moderate revolutionary group that sought to preserve some aspects of the old social order. In 1793, a young woman named Charlotte Corday, believing that Marat’s extremist views would lead to civil war and chaos, made the fateful decision to assassinate him. Corday had prepared for her act carefully, writing a lengthy manifesto explaining her motivations. On July 13, she gained access to Marat’s private chambers under false pretenses and proceeded to stab him to death while he was taking his daily bath. The aftermath of Marat’s murder was chaotic and violent. The Jacobins used it as a pretext to justify their reign of terror, which led to the execution of thousands of dissidents and counterrevolutionaries. Corday herself was swiftly tried and found guilty, before being executed by guillotine on July 17, 1793. Despite her efforts to save France from further violence and turmoil, her action had unintended consequences that only served to perpetuate the cycle of violence and repression. The legacy of Marat’s death is a complicated one. Some have seen him as a martyr for the revolutionary cause, while others view him as a dangerous demagogue whose radical views were responsible for much of the bloodshed of the period. Regardless of one’s opinion on Marat, however, there is no denying the impact that his death had on the course of French history. It would be immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s iconic painting “The Death of Marat,” which remains a powerful symbol of the revolution and its many contradictions.
3. Madame Roland
Madame Roland played a significant role in the tumultuous and violent political climate of the French Revolution. A highly intelligent and articulate woman, she became a key figure in the Girondin faction, using her influence to advocate for democratic values and constitutional reforms. However, her outspoken opposition to the radical Jacobin regime led to her arrest and imprisonment in 1793. Despite her imprisonment, Roland continued to write and correspond with fellow revolutionaries, even as she awaited trial and sentencing. Ultimately, she was found guilty of treason by the Revolutionary Tribunal and was executed by guillotine on November 8th, 1793. Her legacy remains an important part of the French Revolution, with many hailing her as a champion of democracy and political freedom.
4. Lavoisier’s Wife, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze
Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze played a pivotal role in the scientific revolution of the 18th century, working closely with her husband Antoine Lavoisier to expand understanding of chemistry and electricity. A highly educated woman in her own right, she was an accomplished artist and conducted many of the experiments that led to her husband’s groundbreaking discoveries. However, after Lavoisier was accused of colluding with aristocrats during the French Revolution, Paulze too was swept up in the ensuing chaos. She was ultimately charged with aiding and abetting her husband’s chemical research, a crime that carried a death sentence at the time. Despite efforts by colleagues to save her life and her significant contributions to science through editorial work, she was tried and, on May 10, 1794, executed by guillotine. Paulze’s legacy as a pioneer in science and victim of the revolutionary fervour that engulfed France in the late 18th century serves as a reminder of both the power and peril of intellectual innovation.
5. Anne-Josèphe Théroigne de Méricourt
Anne-Josèphe Théroigne de Méricourt was a passionate and committed advocate for women’s rights, playing an influential role in the early stages of the French Revolution. Born in Belgium in 1762, she later moved to France and changed her name to Théroigne de Méricourt to pursue a career as an actress. However, it was her political activities that made a lasting impact, particularly her fight for women’s suffrage and greater gender equality. Despite her contributions, Méricourt’s life was marked by hardship, including multiple imprisonments and periods of mental illness. Tragically, in 1817, after being declared insane, she was committed to an asylum where she died. Although her story is one of both tragedy and triumph, Méricourt remains a powerful symbol of the struggle for gender equality and social justice during the turbulent times of the French Revolution.
6. Thérésa Tallie aka Thérésa Cabarrus
Thérésa Cabarrus, later known as Thérésa Tallien, was one of the most fascinating and influential figures in France during the Revolution. Her glamorous style and social status made her an iconic figure in Parisian high society, but she was also deeply involved in political activism and humanitarian work. She was instrumental in using her connections to free political prisoners during the Reign of Terror and to champion liberal values. Despite her efforts, she fell out of favor with the ruling Jacobin regime and was imprisoned, facing the threat of execution. However, she managed to use her wit and cunning to survive the Revolution and remained a respected and admired figure in French society until her death in 1835. Today, Thérésa Tallien is remembered as a bold and influential woman whose determination and spirit helped shape the course of French history.
7. Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges was an influential figure in the fight for women’s rights during the French Revolution. A talented writer and playwright, de Gouges was inspired to pen her most famous work, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, as a response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, her outspoken feminist views were met with resistance by revolutionaries who saw her as a threat to their cause. De Gouges was eventually arrested and charged with treason. Despite defending herself passionately at trial, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. On November 3, 1793, Olympe de Gouges’ life was cut short by the guillotine. Nonetheless, her legacy would live on as a symbol of women’s struggle for equal rights in France and beyond.
8. Marie Madeleine Fourcade
Marie Madeleine Fourcade was a courageous and dedicated warrior for the French Resistance during World War II. She worked tirelessly as a courier and espionage agent for the Alliance network, playing a crucial role in gathering intelligence and supporting the resistance effort against the occupying German forces. Despite the constant danger and risk of capture, Fourcade remained steadfast in her mission, until she was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp. Her time in captivity was marked by suffering and hardship, but she emerged from the war a survivor, with an even stronger resolve to continue her work for the Alliance network. After the liberation of France, Fourcade took on the leadership of the organization, providing guidance and inspiration as it worked towards rebuilding the country. Her legacy remains a testament to the power of courage and conviction in the face of unimaginable challenges, inspiring generations of people around the world to never give up in the pursuit of freedom and justice.
9. Madame Dubarry
Madame Dubarry was a controversial figure in French history, known for her scandalous affairs with King Louis XV. Her beauty and charm captivated the king, and she quickly rose to a position of immense power and influence in the French court. However, after Louis’ death and the chaos of the French Revolution, Madame Dubarry’s fortunes took a drastic turn. She was arrested and imprisoned on charges of treason and immoral conduct, stemming from her alleged involvement in counter-revolutionary activities. Despite efforts to protect her from the revolutionary fervor, she was eventually tried and convicted, receiving a death sentence by guillotine. Her execution on December 8, 1793, served as both a symbol of the revolutionary fury that had consumed France and a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and privilege. Today Madame Dubarry is remembered as a complex figure – both for her glamour and allure as well as the tragic end that awaited her.
10. Lucile Duplessis
Lucile Desmoulins was a woman whose life was deeply impacted by the French Revolution. Wife of Camille Desmoulins, a revolutionary journalist and friend of Maximilien Robespierre, she found herself embroiled in the chaos that was consuming France in the late 18th century. After her husband’s arrest and execution, Lucile was also targeted by revolutionaries who accused her of working against the government. She was put on trial and found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government. Despite her passionate pleas for mercy and declarations of innocence, she was executed by guillotine on April 13, 1794. To those who knew her, Lucile was a victim of the harsh uncertainties of a radical political era, forced to pay with her own life for the sins of her husband and his revolutionary comrades.
11. Cécile Renault
Cécile Renault’s tragic story is a reminder of the horrors that can be inflicted on innocent people during wartime. Accused of collaborating with the Germans during World War II, Cécile was subjected to a sham trial that disregarded the overwhelming evidence of her innocence. Despite her youth and lack of involvement in any treasonous activities, she was found guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine. This shocking injustice laid bare the brutality and arbitrariness of the occupying Nazi regime in France and remains a dark stain on the nation’s history. Today, Cécile Renault is remembered as a symbol of the many innocent victims of war and serves as a reminder of the importance of fairness and due process, even in times of conflict.
12. Sophia Magdalena Scholl
“Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go,” Sophie Scholl, a 21-year-old German anti-Nazi activist, faced her death with sorrow, but also with a sense of purpose. Condemned to execution by guillotine, Scholl had been a member of The White Rose – an underground organization comprised mostly of university students. Their mission was to awaken complacent German intellectuals to the atrocities being committed by their government. Distributing leaflets and graffitiing public spaces were some of the ways they hoped to accomplish this. It was seven months earlier, in June of 1942, when Scholl first came face to face with the gruesome realities of Nazi crimes. Sitting in a lecture hall at the University of Munich, she discovered a slip of paper beneath her desk describing these horrors in vivid detail. She picked it up and began to read, “Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible crimes — crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure — reach light of day? Moved by what she read, Scholl realized that she could not stand idly by while such atrocities were committed.
These women are just a few examples of the many who faced the guillotine during the French Revolution. It is important to remember that the guillotine was used to execute thousands of individuals during this period.