Stories from History: Getting Lost in your Backyard

Instructions Unclear, was Beheaded

Marie Antoinette is a famous figure from history, renowned for her views on cake. A less remembered part of history is the ill-fated Flight to Varennes. Due to rising tensions within France, King Louise XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, attempted to escape the problems by leaving the city and attempting to launch a counter-revolution. The royal family only made it as far as Varennes before they were arrested.

The flight itself starts sounding like the plan that would be pursued by an organized child. Each member of the royal family disguises themselves as servants and set out from one of the entrances to the royal household that was limited to members of this class. They were no longer in the palace at Versaille, instead regulated to another within Paris. The apartments that the household was living in were not the grandeur that they were used to, and she complained in letters to her friends about the inconveniences. They were under construction and even getting to the courtyard was a complicated affair that involved descending a staircase, going down a hallway, and going down another staircase. Sections of wood paneling revealed hidden passages and secret doors with forgotten purposes.

The plan was exceedingly elaborate on paper as the King had shown intense interest in even the smallest detail of the plan despite foisting most of the running of the household upon her prior to their planned escape, wherein he withdrew to into his geography room. In actuality, the plan was very straightforward. The journey was organized as far as Châlons. 

Even with their disguises, they took steps to avoid being identified. They would leave in four separate groups, meeting up at the carriage that they would be making much of the journey in. The Queen left the palace last, setting out with a single trusted bodyguard.

This is where the plot begins to fall apart. The Queen and bodyguard had to go from her apartments to the corner of a nearby road. It was less than five hundred yards in total distance that had to be traveled. Within their path was royal courtyards, always lousy with lawyers, ambassadors, and servants all keeping busy despite the hour.

Queen and bodyguard were able to leave the palace unchallenged, but their luck quickly turned. Some historians have doubted that this could have ever actually happened, but this entire enterprise took place in an era before an effective mapping of the streets of Paris and without street signs to ward off confusion.

All they needed to do was turn left upon leaving the palace. It should have been impossible to go wrong. The appearance of a coach, carrying an enemy of the royal family and causing them to scurry into cover, that changes everything. Despite the confusion this encounter caused, they were still a mere few hundred yards from their destination. Reports from the incident itself are inconsistent, and it is unknown how it happened, but the Queen became lost on her way to the carriage.

One account of the story suggests that nearly encountering the cab with their enemy set such a fright into the Queen that she ran off into the night, while another, more banal, story, has her walk past the road that they were supposed to turn left upon.

With such a figure as Marie Antoinette, as ensconced in myth even within her own day, it is unclear whether the bodyguard was frightened of correcting her, or whether it was both of them that were in the wrong. They might have equipped themselves with a map that they were unable to read.

It was 1791 and Paris was functionally misunderstood by all. No map had been constructed at any meaningful proportions of the city. A common piece of advice to newcomers to the city was to climb a monument if they ever became lost, a much different attitude than we would see today. The most accurate map of the era would be created seven years later by Cointeraux, and it omitted every minor street or the map would be naught "but a veritable chaos".

Neither the Queen nor guard took this piece of advice to climb a monument, likely still striving to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Eventually, the two of them were able to find their way back to the river, emerging further upstream from the Pont Royal. Knowing they were lost, the Queen marched up to a guard standing near the river and asked him for directions. Though the best path was to cut through the palace, the guard could not give that piece of advice to two civilians to asked for directions. It was because of this that the Queen was treated to a sudden tour of the slums that abutted the palace in spite of any rhyme or reason.

It is unknown specifically how long they wandered the slums, but it was certainly more than an hour. The King was so concerned by the time it took the Queen to arrive that he threw his arms around her upon her arrival and exclaimed how he had missed her.

We can't say for certain if leaving earlier would have changed things. The King and Queen were identified during their escape and arrested. They were then returned to Paris, and the mob mentality turned even further against them when the newspapers reported their attempted escape, abandoning the city that they were supposed to rule.

The rest is better known, resulting in the unfortunate visit to the guillotine. If they had made it out of the city sooner, could they have been spared this fate? Was it at all possible for them to start an actual counter-revolution, or to better recruit the other monarchies of Europe to their aid? Perhaps this is a lesson about the importance of knowing how to navigate, even in your backyard.