What Was The French Revolution?

The French Revolution is actually not all that easy to define. Here we discuss how best to consider this period.

The Industrial Revolution
Appointing reformist ministers

From Richelieu to Louis XIV - France’s rise as a global power

In the early 17th century, France was a country in turmoil. The monarchy was weak, the nobility was strong, and the people were unhappy. This all changed, however, when **Cardinal Richelieu** became France’s chief minister in 1624.

Richelieu was a skilled politician and diplomat, and he quickly set about centralizing power in the hands of the monarchy. He also worked to reduce the power of the nobility, especially the Huguenots Protestants and Ultra-Montains, Catholics who supported the primacy of the pope and the Spanish alliance, and to bring France into a position of prominence on the European stage.


Richelieu’s work was continued by his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, who also served as the chief minister of France. Mazarin was equally skilled as a politician and diplomat, and he pursued Richelieu’s ambitions within France and in foreign affairs. The king during Mazarin’s time in power was the most famous monarch of the 17th century, Louis XIV, who ruled from 1643 until his death in 1715.

The reign of Louis XIV - France’s apex

After Mazarin’s death in 1661, Louis XIV declined choosing another chief minister and led the cabinet ministers himself. **Louis XIV was an absolute monarch, and he believed in the divine right of kings**.


He worked to further consolidate power in the hands of the monarchy, and made France the most powerful country in Europe. Under Louis XIV, who was famously nicknamed ‘the Sun King,’ France experienced a period of great prosperity and cultural achievement.


Louis XIV oversaw significant economic growth during his reign; new industries such as textiles, banking, and shipbuilding were developed which allowed for increased investment in public works projects like Versailles Palace and the Canal du Midi. This newfound wealth created a class of wealthy elites who enjoyed great privilege from their investments or positions at court. However, this prosperity was not shared equally among all classes; many peasants were left struggling to make ends meet due to high taxes imposed by the monarchy.

Louis XIV’s reign closed with his death in 1715, the end of a 72-year reign. He was followed by his great-grandson who ascended to the throne as Louis XV.

The Seven Years' War

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was a major turning point in the history of France and Europe. It pitted France against Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Sweden and other allies in a conflict that lasted for seven years. The war saw France lose much of its colonial possessions to the British Empire as well as significant territory on the European continent. This loss had devastating economic consequences for France; it caused an increase in taxes which further exacerbated existing social tensions between different classes within French society.


The war also marked a shift in power from continental Europe to Britain and her colonies; this new balance of power would have far-reaching implications not just for France but throughout Europe. This coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain – a time of stratospheric growth for the country that truly cemented their position as Europe’s greatest power.

Textbook periodization: 1789-1799

A great deal of historical debate has occurred over what time period can actually be called ‘The French Revolution’ accurately.


The ‘textbook’ periodization would generally mark France’s revolutionary era as 1789-1799. In 1789, Louis XVI sought to solve a political crisis by summoning the **‘Etats Généraux,’** an ancient institution which consisted of representatives from the 3 estates, meaning stakeholders, of the realm.

The clergy (including secular bishops and priests, as well as monastic orders) was the first estate. The nobility was the second, while the third estate included everyone else, from merchants and lawmen to rural laborers. The ‘Etats Généraux’ had not met since 1614 and the King’s decision to summon them proved to be a mistake. From the Etats sprang the first National Assembly of France, putting an end to the traditional (unwritten) constitution of the Kingdom.

In 1799, a 30-year-old general named **Napoléon Bonaparte** took power. Since this led to regime change with the first French Empire, this traditionally marks the end of the Revolutionary era. However, France saw several other revolutions in the early 19th century, and the political unrest lasted for many decades.

Furet’s periodization: 1770-1880

The French Revolution has been studied and interpreted by many historians, with one of the most influential being François Furet. He argued that the revolution was a process of transformation which began in 1770 and lasted until 1880. This periodization is based on his belief that the revolutionary events of 1789-1799 were only part of a much longer process of social change.


Between 1770 and 1880, France had 17 political regimes. Furet’s argument is that the consensus among Catholics and Bonapartists to rally the Third Republic in the 1880s put an end to the revolutionary process.

This led to one of his most prominent books to be titled La Révolution: 1770-1880. His theory has remained provocative today, but, agree or disagree, it demonstrates the complex and multifaceted state of affairs that was created by the French Revolution.

What the Revolution was not

The Revolution did see the fall and beheading of a king, but it’s simplistic to interpret it as an uprising of the oppressed against the elites. Instead the Revolution was **the boiling point in a complex process** that slowly set various social groups’ interests at odds.


By 1789, the French monarchy was enmeshed within a web of conflicts and social tension which the king, Louis XVI, although a well-intentioned man, was ill-equipped to face.

In particular, the country was facing a **financial crisis, rapid demographic growth, a declining economy, and a series of adverse natural events,** such as bad crops and polar winters. Louis XVI did pick Chief Ministers who had ambitions to deeply reform the country, but the monarchy ultimately wasn’t up to the task in addressing these challenges.

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Towards a Constitutional Monarchy;

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1791-1792: Old Enemies and a New Republic;

This tile covers the latter period of constitutional monarchy in France, as it became increasingly clear that Louis XVI’s position was untenable.

1793-94: Terror For the People and Death for the Monarchs;

This period saw France’s descent into outright chaos, with political violence on a scale never seen before.

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Contemporary Heritage;

This tile considers the impact, both immediate and long-term, of the French Revolution both at home and abroad

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