A little before noon on October 5, a mob of several thousand market women, armed with pikes and sickles, set out from Paris' Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) on a 12-mile trek to Versailles to protest a lack of jobs and the high cost of bread. By evening, thousands more, some carrying guns, had joined them in front of the palace. After dithering over what to do, Louis finally decided to seek refuge in the distant Rambouillet château. But when his coachmen rolled out the royal carriages, the crowd cut the horses' harnesses, stranding him and his family.
Around five o'clock on the morning of the sixth, rebels surged toward the queen's bedroom, killing two guards. A terrified Marie Antoinette leapt out of bed and raced to the king's apartments. Louis, meanwhile, had dashed to her bedroom to rescue her, but finding her gone, doubled back with their son to join her and their daughter in the dining hall of his quarters. By this time, the Marquis de Lafayette, commander of the National Guard, had arrived with Guard troops and temporarily restored order.
But the throng, swollen to some 10,000 people, began clamoring to take Louis to Paris. When someone cried out for the queen to show herself on the balcony, she stepped forward, curtsying with such aplomb that the mob grew silent, then burst into cries of "Long live the queen!" But Marie Antoinette sensed that the reprieve would be short-lived. Retreating inside, she broke down. "They are going to force us to go to Paris, the King and me, preceded by the heads of our bodyguards on pikes," she said. Her words proved prophetic. Within hours, the triumphant procession—indeed with the guards' heads on pikes—was escorting the captive royal family to the old Tuileries palace in the capital.
Although the king and queen were not locked in, and in theory could have left the palace had they chosen to do so, they withdrew into self-imposed seclusion. The king seemed unable to act. "Taking the place of her husband (whom everyone thrust contemptuously aside as an incurable weakling)," writes Zweig, Marie Antoinette "held council with the ministers and ambassadors, watching over their undertakings and revising their dispatches."
"She was decisive where he was indecisive," biographer Antonia Fraser says in a new PBS documentary Marie Antoinette. "She was courageous when he was vacillating." She dashed off letters in cipher and invisible ink to other European sovereigns, pleading with them to invade France and shore up the king's crumbling authority, but to no avail. Meeting secretly with Mirabeau in July 1790, she won the influential legislator over to the cause of preserving the monarchy. By December, however, she was devising a contingency plan to flee Paris for Montmédy, near the Austrian-controlled Netherlands. There the royal couple planned to mount a counterrevolution with troops under the command of Royalist general Francois-Claude Bouillé. When Mirabeau died in April 1791 without securing the Assembly's promise to retain Louis as king in a constitutional monarchy, Louis and Marie Antoinette put their plan into action. But instead of following Bouillé's advice to make the trip in two light carriages, the queen insisted on keeping the family together in a lumbering coach called a berlin, encumbered with a silver dinner service, a clothes-press, and a small wine chest. (Fersen had made the arrangements, even mortgaging his estate to pay for the carriage.) Late in the evening of June 20, 1791, the royal family, disguised as servants, slipped out of the capital. Fersen accompanied them as far as Bondy, 16 miles east of the Tuileries. While the horses were being changed, he pleaded with Louis to let him continue with the family rather than reuniting at Montmédy two days later as planned. Louis refused, perhaps, suggests biographer Evelyne Lever, because he thought it humiliating to be under the protection of his wife's lover. Also, Fraser says in the PBS film, Louis didn't want people to think a foreigner had helped them get away.
In Varennes, 130 miles east of Paris, a band of armed villagers accosted the king, who had been recognized inside the conspicuous berlin, and forced the royal entourage into a municipal official's house. When a small contingent of Royalist troops arrived to free them, Louis vacillated, then, fearing a confrontation with the steadily growing mob brandishing arms outside the house, declined the troops' help, choosing instead to wait for Bouillé. Had Fersen, a trained officer, been allowed to stay with the group, he might well have taken more decisive action and helped lead the family to safety. Instead, emissaries dispatched by the Assembly arrived with orders to return the family to Paris. Crowds of angry Parisians lined the streets as the king and queen were taken back to the Tuileries palace, where they were held captive by National Guardsmen. Louis was caricatured as a castrated pig, while the queen was portrayed as a wanton traitor.
The Assembly allowed Louis to remain as a figurehead on the throne to legitimize a proposed new constitution, but he had little actual political power. Meanwhile, at the same time Marie Antoinette was secretly lobbying moderate republicans in the Assembly for a constitutional monarchy, she was also writing to European rulers that the "monstreuse" constitution was "a tissue of unworkable absurdities" and the Assembly "a heap of blackguards, madmen and beasts." Although Louis privately detested the constitution, on September 14, 1791, he took an oath to uphold it, agreeing to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly.
In Stockholm, Fersen had persuaded the Swedish king to back a new escape attempt. In February 1792, the daring count—by now branded an outlaw for his role in the flight to Varennes—snuck into the heavily guarded palace and spent some 30 hours with the queen. Toward the end of his visit, Louis showed up and rejected Fersen's scheme for escape through Normandy. Around midnight of Fersen's second day, Marie Antoinette bade him farewell—for the last time.
In April, under pressure from the Assembly, Louis declared war on Austria, which was preparing to invade France to restore Alsace (occupied by the French) and obtain full liberty for the royal family. Rightly suspecting that the king and queen were plotting with the enemy, an armed mob stormed the Tuileries on August 10, killing more than a thousand guards and noblemen. Louis and his family fled on foot through a courtyard to the nearby Assembly building, where they begged the representatives for protection.
The Assembly, however, voted to have the king, queen, their son and daughter, and the king's sister Elisabeth locked up in the Temple tower, a forbidding medieval fortress in the center of Paris. On September 20, the new revolutionary National Convention, the successor to the Assembly, met for the first time. The following day they abolished the 1,000-year-old monarchy and established the Republic.