The Reign of Terror: France's darkest chapter during the Revolution

Luxembourg Palace
© History Skills

The Terror was a time of great upheaval and violence in France during the French Revolution.


It was a time when the revolutionary government feared for its own survival and decided to use killing and fear to remove any potential threats to its power. 


As a result, this period was marked by terror and bloodshed, as the new regime sought to consolidate its power.


An estimated 16,000 people were executed during the Reign of Terror. Most of these executions were carried out by means of the guillotine, which became known as “the national razor.” 


The Terror also saw the rise of Maximilien Robespierre, a radical Jacobin leader who controlled the Committee of Public Safety, the main governing body of the Revolution.


However, eventually even Robespierre fell victim to the violence, and was himself executed by means of the guillotine.


The Terror came to an end shortly after, but its legacy has long haunted France.


By July 1793, the French Revolution was in crisis. The economy was in shambles, and the country was beset by internal and external enemies.


In the face of this crisis, the new regime turned to terror as a way to consolidate its power and silence its opponents. 


The Committee of Public Safety, which was the ruling body of the new regime, began to implement a series of measures designed to crush opposition and instill fear in the population.


On the 1st of August, 1793, the Convention decreed that anyone who opposed the government could be arrested and executed without a trial.


This decree led to the arrest and execution of thousands of people, many of whom were innocent of any crime.


The Convention and the sansculottes (common people who passionately supported the new government) agreed that terror was necessary to save the Revolution. 


A man called Maximilien Robespierre rose in importance during this time. He was a member of the Committee of Public Safety, and he was a fervent believer in the need for terror to keep the people in line.


Robespierre believed that virtue could only be achieved through terror, and he helped to implement some of the most ruthless measures of the Reign of Terror.


Maximilien Robespierre famously said that “terror is nothing more than justice, prompt, severe and inflexible.”

The Terror Begins

The Reign of Terror began in September 1793 and lasted for eleven months. During this time, the Revolutionary Government instituted a series of harsh measures designed to crush any internal opposition.


Thousands of people were arrested, and many were executed without trial.


On the 17th of September, a Law of Suspects was passed, which allowed for the arrest of anyone who was suspected of being an enemy of the state.


This law led to the arrest and execution of thousands of other people: again, many of whom were innocent. 


The most common form of execution during the Reign of Terror was beheading. This was done in public, often on the Place de la Revolution in Paris.


The victims were marched to the guillotine in groups, and then placed under the blade one by one.


The executions were conducted swiftly and efficiently, and often attracted large crowds of spectators. 


An estimated 16,000 people were killed by guillotine over the next nine months of the Terror.


The most famous victim was Marie Antoinette, who was executed on the 16th of October 1793.

In Lyons, which surrendered to the Revolutionary Government at the end of 1793, the Committee of Public Safety decide to use terror to force the people into submission.


They set up a special court, which sentenced almost 1500 people to death in a matter of weeks.


The executions were carried out in public, and the bodies of the victims were displayed on the city walls as a warning to others.


When they ran out of enough guillotines, they used cannons to kill their victims.


At the Siege of Toulon in 1793, where a young Napoleon Bonaparte was an artillery captain, the French Republican Army used mass executions to terrorize the population into submission. 

The Vendée

The Reign of Terror was particularly brutal in the Vendée, a region in western France.


The Vendée was a stronghold of royalist sentiment, which had risen up in rebellion against the Revolutionary Government. In response, the government sent troops to quell the uprising.


However, these troops were often ruthless and indiscriminate in their actions, leading to widespread civilian casualties.


At Savenay, the Republican troops massacred surrendered soldiers and civilians alike. In Cholet, they killed over 2000 people, including women and children.


The terror in the Vendée continued until 1796, when the uprising was finally put down.


At Nantes, the Revolutionary Government instituted a system of mass drownings, known as noyades.


The victims were tied up and thrown into the River Loire, where they drowned. It is estimated that over 3000 people were killed in this manner. 


One of the most controversial aspects of the Reign of Terror was the dechristianization campaign.


This was a series of measures designed to eradicate Christianity from France. Churches were closed, religious symbols were destroyed, and priests were forced to flee the country.


This campaign was deeply unpopular with many people, and ultimately failed in its goal.


The government made dechristianization compulsory in the city. All churches were closed, and religious symbols were removed from public view.


It also took steps to silence the clergy, who were seen as enemies of the state.


Robespierre spoke out against dechristianization, and argued that it was counter-productive. He believed that religion could be used to control the people, and that dechristianization would only serve to alienate them.


However, his views were not shared by the majority of the Committee of Public Safety, and the campaign continued. 

Law of 14 Frimaire

In December 1793, the Revolutionary Government passed the Law of 14 Frimaire. This law placed severe restrictions on the press, and allowed the government to censor any publication that was deemed “contrary to the principles of liberty”.


The law also made it a crime to criticize the government or its officials.


In-fighting broke out in Paris following this law, as different factions fought for control of the press, but the law gave power to the Committee of Public Safety, who crushed all opposing groups.


In particular, the sansculotte Jacques Hébert and his followers were arrested and executed.


The Law of 14 Frimaire was a major blow to freedom of expression in France and led to the silencing of many voices that were critical of the government.

Republic of Virtue

Robespierre had sought to save Marie Antoinette from the mob, but she was guillotined anyway.


The chaos of this period led him to propose what he called a 'republic of virtue', which was a society in which people would be virtuous and altruistic.


He believed that this was necessary for the success of the Revolution, and that it would lead to a better future for all. 


The Republic of Virtue centred power around Robespierre himself, who became known as the 'Incorruptible'. However, he introduced draconian laws.


The courts during this time handed out death penalties for almost all crimes. This period of the Terror became quite brutal, as those who were seen as 'counter-revolutionaries' or 'enemies of the state' were arrested and executed.


Many people were killed without due process, and the country descended into lawlessness.


As a result, the Republic of Virtue was short-lived. An estimated 1500 people were executed in Paris during June and July 1794, which marked the last stage of the Terror.

The Thermidorian Reaction

The Reign of Terror came to an end in July 1794, after a period known as the Thermidorian Reaction.


This was a series of uprisings against the Revolutionary Government, which began in the provinces and quickly spread to Paris. 


In July 1794, Maximilien Robespierre was arrested and executed. Robespierre had become increasingly unpopular with the people, and many members of the Convention had turned against him.


On the night of his arrest, he was brought before the Convention and given a chance to speak in his own defense.


However, he was unable to persuade them of his innocence and was sent to the guillotine the following day.


The new government passed a series of laws known as the 'White Terror', which were designed to punish the supporters of the Revolution.


Thousands of people were arrested, and many more fled the country. The Thermidorian Reaction was a violent end to the Reign of Terror, but it also marked the beginning of a new chapter in French history.

Napoleonic soldiers firing muskets

Further reading