The French Revolution

The previous post explained some of the proposed causes of the French Revolution, both long and short term. This post will deal with the immediate lead up to the Revolution and the Revolution itself.

France was now bankrupt, due to its expensive wars and the monarch’s ludicrous spending habits. The already overburdened bourgeoisie could not pay more tax and nor could the peasantry, so Louis XVI attempted to impose taxes on the nobility that they had previously been exempt from. The nobility refused to pay the tax. In an attempt to resolve the deadlock that he was faced with, the King called the Estates General in May 1789, which was a body consisting of representatives of the clergy, nobility and the rest of the population. Elections were held to elect the representatives for the Third Estate, in which all tax paying men over twenty-five had the franchise. The Third Estate called for genuine representation of the people; they wanted equal votes to the Second and Third Estate combined and equal taxation across all the Estates.

However, the Estates General failed- there was an irreconcilable difference in the opinions of the Estates; the nobility did not believe that commoners should have power whereas commoners believed the true power was with them. There were also disagreements in how voting should be done, whether it should be by Estate, or by members. These differences became too difficult to get anything done, and instead, the Third Estate formed an alternative group, the National Assembly. This ran from June to July of 1789 and declared that it was not of the Estates but of the people, refusing to recognise the authority of the King and looked to the support of emerging capitalists.
One of the most important actions of the National Assembly was to create the Tennis Court Oath, in which its members swore: “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.  The clergy voted to join with the Assembly as well as some of the nobility. The situation quickly spiralled downwards and tension skyrocketed when Louis brought in troops, French and foreign mercenaries, which caused outrage. The National Assembly reconvened as the National Constituent Assembly and demanded the withdrawal of troops. By now Paris was at fever pitch.

Just before the Estates General Assembled, the French government had lifted censorship to allow debates over the voting in the Third Estate, and Paris’s public sphere had exploded into a fevered political discussion, and the age of enlightened thought had brought radical new ideas that were spread rapidly over Paris by pamphlets and newspapers. The calling of the King’s troops seemed to be the last straw that ignited the city in revolt. On 14th July the Bastille, a weapons store and symbol of royal power was stormed, and the King backed down amidst the violence. Order around France quickly broke down and attacks on chateaus of the nobility were common.

In August, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, revoked the privileges of the nobility, and swept away Church tithes. They also established the Rights of Man and His Citizen, which stipulated that amongst other things; all men are born free and equal in rights, the need for public tax and equal contribution, and that sovereignty lies in the nation. In 1791 the Constitution is established, but the following year the constitutional monarchy fail and are executed.

There is no doubt that the French Revolution is one of the pivotal points in history and this brief outline of events is unable to capture and explain every detail of the Revolution.The next post in will explain some of the longer term results of the Revolution and its significance in history, which is undeniably far-reaching yet much debated.

The French Revolution: the Beginning

The French Revolution is a much debated moment in history, in terms of its intent, its causes, and its effects. Being on the brink of early modern and modern history, there is discussion as to whether this can be identified as the ‘trigger’ of the modern period. There is widespread agreement that it was an iconic moment in the developing ‘Age of Revolution’, but we must be careful not to add anachronistic labels to the Revolution, and remember what the actual achievements of it were.

The French Revolution is easier to understand when it is put into its correct context. Pre-Revolutionary France was made up of around 80% rural dwellings reliant on or directly involved with agriculture. Society was organised into three tiers, known as “Estates of the Realm”. The First Estate was comprised of clergy, the Second of nobility and the Third Estate included ‘everyone else’ in society, including the newly emerging bourgeoisie class.

Power in France resided almost exclusively with the King, as an absolute ruler who executed his power through the ‘Letter de Cachet’, which were sealed arbitrary orders with no right of appeal. Absolute power included powers over taxation, which was put heavily and disproportionately upon the bourgeoisie and peasantry. The wealthy nobility were exempt from Crown taxes despite attempts by some French monarchs to change this. This led to the nobility becoming more and more unpopular with the growing bourgeois class and general dissatisfaction. France was also cripplingly in debt.  The financial situation was only exacerbated by Louis XV, who held an extravagant and extremely expensive court at Versailles and his successor Louis XVI was reluctant or simply unable to make any changes. Massive loans were taken out to support unnecessary wars, including the Seven Years War that France lost and their part in the American Revolution that gained them nothing. Compared to England’s loans, these were taken out at a much higher interest rate.

The growing bourgeois class also came with an increasingly uncensorable public sphere. In the eighteenth-century, there was a boom in newspapers, journals, and coffee houses and whilst these would have been heavily censored, it would have been impossible to censor what people were thinking privately, and people’s unspoken opinions on important matters. Urbanisation meant that Paris had one of the largest concentrations of intellectual, enlightened thought which created a thriving debate forum. The public opinion increasingly began to demand the right to decide policy, superseding the royal court and questioning the authority of the Church and the legitimacy of monarchical power.

There were also a few short term factors that helped aggravate the situation. The Agrarian Crisis in 1788-89 coincided with the deregulation of the grain market, leading to a massive increase in grain prices and massive inflation. But the underlying tensions and increase in public debate led to a dramatic standoff between government, monarch and people, and create a Revolution not uncommonly seen as the beginning of the modern world.


Tudor rebellions; The Kett rebellion

In 1549 England was at war with both Scotland and France under the leadership of the Duke of Somerset, or Edward Seymour. The wars were financially crippling to England, which was made worse by poor harvests, inflation, and rising rents. Enclosures were also an important issue; where areas of land had fences put around them for sheep to be raised. This often led to peasants being forced off the land they were renting, and in many cases, areas that were meant to be common were taken by the gentry and enclosed. Somerset was further ruining the economy through his relentless debasement of the coinage, and insistence on continuing to fight the wars.


Edward Seymour

Eventually, disgruntled locals in East Anglia took matters into their own hands. Forming an angry, and somewhat inebriated mob, the marched to one of the local gentry’s house and began to tear down his enclosures. The house belonged to Robert Kett, a middle class land owner.
Instead of breaking up the angry mob, Kett joined it, tearing up his own enclosures before directing the rebels to one of his old enemies, Flowerdew. The locals were angry at Flowerdew for buying the local abbey that the locals thought they owned collectively and stripping it of its lead.
Eventually, the mob, that was beginning to number some 16,000 moved to Mousehold Heath, just outside Norwich, where they held a siege for a number of weeks. Local landowners who had broken rules about enclosing common land and such were tried at Kett’s “Tree of Reformation”. Rebels were kept organised and well behaved, and repeated attempts to disperse the rebels failed miserably.

Somerset began to get worried about the growing threat and strength of the rebels. His armies were insufficient and preoccupied with foreign wars, and failed to cope with the rebels despite sending the army multiple times under multiple different leaders. Eventually Somerset was forced to accept the significance of the rebellion and think more seriously about suppressing the revolt. Swallowing his pride, he sent the Duke of Northumberland with an army to subdue the revolt. Northumberland was not a supporter of Somerset and would eventually overthrow his rule.
After intense fighting in the streets of Norwich, rebels were forced to retreat back to Mousehold Heath, and then further as Northumberland’s army made gains, and around 3000 rebels had been killed.
Eventually, the rebels were forced to surrender. Kett was hung from Norwich castle and around 50 rebels were executed.

The rebels had hoped to achieve promises from Somerset to stop enclosure, improve the ruling of Norfolk and get back land owed to them. However, with the crushing of the rebellion and the execution of the leaders, the rebels were in no place to try and negotiate. Though the rebels had gained little, they had caused Somerset a whole heap of trouble and would be one of the pivotal factors in his downfall.

Tudor Rebellions; The Pilgrimage of Grace

During Henry VIII’s reign, he forced his country through a whirlwind of religious reform, and faced intense factional rivalry from subjects  in his own court. All his moves, whether political, religious or personal, were scrutinized by his court and by his people, and though they tended to acquiesce, Henry sometimes went too far and the public could not hold their tongues for any longer.


During the Henrician Reformation, a number of measures were taken to eradicate Papal influence in England. One of these measures was the Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries. This followed the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries, and shut down all remaining Monasteries. In the eyes of the people of Yorkshire, this was wholly unacceptable, and they made Henry painfully aware of this. This was part of a larger string of measures Henry took to take the title of “Head of Church and State”. This is often referred to as the “Royal Supremacy”, and caused England to lean heavily toward Protestantism; this was not popular at home or on the continent.

The predecessor to the Pilgrimage  was the Lincolnshire rising in October 1536. This is considered to be less religiously motivated, instead  seemingly triggered by bad harvests in 1535 and 36, together with political concerns and a fiery sermon by a local priest. This brought up lingering feelings of resentment towards government interference in local affairs.
After a short flurry of activity, the rebels drew up a list of grievances, citing high taxes and the hatred of the Statute of Uses. The rising was quickly dissolved after the Duke of Suffolk arrived with a royal army.

enlighs bibl

The English Bible, showing Henry VIII at the head, and God floating among the clouds, much smaller. This was another step in the religious reform.

Later the same month, Yorkshire saw a similar rising, but bigger and, on the surface at least, more of a threat to Henry VIII.
Under the leadership of Robert Aske, a middle class lawyer, 30 000 men marched on York. This was an organised band of men, some of whom had fought in the Scottish War. The rebels swore an oath that contradicted the Royal Supremacy and drew up manifestos calling for the removal of “evil councilors” from Henry’s government, the restoration of the Old Faith (Catholicism) and protection of the monasteries.


An illustration of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Norfolk was sent to put down the rising, it became clear that his 8 000 strong army was not fit to take on the 30 000 rebels that Aske was leading. Norfolk retreated and told Henry about the strength of the rebels. After lengthy discussion, Norfolk convinced Henry that negotiation was the only way to placate the rebels. Henry offered the rebels a full and free pardon if they dispersed immediately, and agreed to hear their demands in a court. True to his word, negotiations were held, but no deals were going to be made. The rebels had put their trust in Henry, but he had not followed through.

Henry had survived the largest numerical uprising of the Tudor period. However, we cannot credit him nor Norfolk for any quick thinking; the rebels had no intent to harm Henry or his regime, and in fact professed their loyalty to him profusely throughout the whole fiasco. Henry had been given the first taste of what his people thought of his religious reform. Subsequent monarchs would have to face the same treatment.

The Prague Spring

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world  had come to all out nuclear warfare. Over a period of 12 days, the US and the USSR inched further and further to utter destruction of both nations, through the opposing sides involvement with Cuba, its leadership and its political system. After this, both sides entered into a slightly improved relationship, though both with great trepidation. These improved relations were known as “detente”. However, this was to be tested in the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring.

Since 1948, Czechoslovakia had been the model satellite state; the standard of living was higher than other states, and her government obeyed Moscow to the letter. However, during the 1960s, opposition to Soviet control developed. This was partly due to the brutal murder of Jan Massaryk in 1948. But more pressingly, Czechoslovakia was lead by a man called Antonin Novotny since 1957, a hard line communist and anti reformist, he was unpopular with his people, and refused to adopt Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinisation (lessening the level of control over satellite states, and encouraging co-operation with the US).
The Czech economy was beginning to fail in the 1960s, which caused the standard of living to fall. The economic problems were started by the USSR’s refusing to allow Czechs to produce consumer goods, and instead forced them to produce raw materials for the benefit of the Soviet economy (and the detriment of their own). Novotny’s “New Economic Model” in 1965 failed, and simply lead to greater demands for democracy. In October 1967, a number of reformers challenged Novotny’s leadership at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In December 1967, one of the reformers, Dubcek invited Brezhnev (the leader of the USSR at the time) to Prague. Surprised at the extent of opposition to Novotny and withdrew his support for the leader. On 5th January 1968, Dubcek replaced Novotny as First Secretary of the Communist Party. In March, Novotny resigned as President and was replaced by Svoboda, one of Dubcek’s fellow reformers.
The Prague Spring refers to a series of reforms introduced by Dubcek in the spring of 1968. These reforms were “communism with a human face”- Dubcek still held communist values, but wanted to improve support for it by removing its worst features. The reforms included;

  • Greater political freedoms; freedom of speech & the press. This led to fuller radio and TV reports, with corruption being exposed, and communists politician being grilled on TV.
  • A 10 year programme for political change; bringing about democratic elections, a multiparty state and a new form of democratic socialism
  • A reduction in the power of the secret police; they could no longer imprison without trial
  • Removal of travel restrictions and open contact with the West; including trade with West Germany
  • The creation of work councils; this looked to improve working conditions in factories and rights for workers.

Alexander Dubcek

These reforms led to increased demands for more radical reforms from opponents of communism. In June 1968, the social democrats began to form a rival party and a leading journalist encouraged Czechs to take the initiative and force even more reforms.
The USSR was suspicious of these changes, and Brezhnev feared they would leave the Warsaw Pact in favour of NATO. Czechoslovakia was one of the most important countries in the pact, and if they left it would have split the Eastern Bloc in two, leaving NATO to border the USSR. Brezhnev was under pressure from Ulbricht (East Germany leader), and Gomulka (Poland) to stop the reform.


Despite Dubcek’s calls for passivism, there was still violence.

In June 1968, Soviet troops were taking part in a military exercise in Czechoslovakia, but remained there even after the exercise was finished.  Tensions begin to show, and in the July of of 1968 Warsaw Pact members meet up to discuss Dubcek’s membership. He agrees to stay in the Warsaw Pact if his reforms can go ahead. A short time later, the Bratislava declaration was issued to show Czechoslovakia’s loyalty to communism and declare Czechoslovakia a one party state. This was not enough for the USSR, so the Soviet Politburo told Dubcek he would bring down the Pact and, together with other Warsaw Pact members, his troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Despite Dubcek’s efforts to encourage a passive response, 100 died and he was made to sign the Moscow Protocol; an agreement that bound him to make no reforms whatsoever.

Dubcek was forced out of power and fled to Turkey, and more hard line communists took over. Student protests continued in Czechoslovakia, and the leadership role was taken by Husac.

Ultimately, the Prague Spring was proof of an attempt at “socialism with a human face”, that failed catastrophically and dissuaded other Pact members from attempting to leave (though Albania managed to sneak away in 1968). It also shook Moscow; they had come close to losing a major state in their Eastern Bloc. Though it may seem appropriate for a sharp Western response, detente was going well and the West feared upsetting this. In the end, Czechoslovakia was firmly  back under Soviet control, at Moscow’s beck and call.

The Cuban Missile Crisis (Pt.2)

The Bay of Pigs incident had pushed Castro towards the Soviet Union, and by the end of 1961, the Cuban leader announced his conversion to communism, a worrying development for the capitalist United States. Furthermore, Soviet combat unites and military advisers had been placed in Cuba, with Khrushchev seeking the opportunity to extend his sphere of influence right on the US doorstep, and redress the balance of power. For arguments sake, I should mention that the Soviet defense for their military presence was the defense of Cuba from further US invasion, hence highlighting the US as the aggressor should there be any UN reprimand.


Khrushchev didn’t slow his involvement with Cuba, and in September 1962, began installing ballistic missiles on The island.on the 14th October American Spy planes took photos of Cuba, showing The construction of Soviet intermediate range missiles, to be operational by November that year.  The missiles were in range of almost all US cities, &  posed a major security threat and Kennedy had to act.

Upon learning of the missiles, he set up a committee of 12 advisers to discuss these options;

  • Bomb Cuba & the Soviet Union with nuclear bombs
  • Invade Cuba
  • Use an airstrike to destroy the missile bombs
  • Blockade Cuba
  • Do nothing

All of these posed risks and threats to the US, and as the crisis mounted, Kennedy decided to impose a naval blockade on Cuba that would stretch 3300 kilometers. A fleet of Polaris submarines were readied for action, and 156 Intercontinental Ballistic  Missiles were readied.Air force bombers were on patrol& hundreds of thousands of troops were placed on combat alert.Kennedy made a television address warning Khrushchev that The soviet convoy approaching Cuba would be stopped & searched, and should any military equipment destined for Cuba be found the ships would have to return to USSR. A period known as the 13 days began.


Kennedy made the fore mentioned television address on the 22nd October and by the 24th, 18 soviet ships headed for Cuba turned and left to avoid a confrontation with the US  blockade. Kennedy demanded the removal of the missiles and warned that failure to comply would lead to a US-led invasion of Cuba. Two days later, on the 26th October, Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev, offering to remove the missiles if Kennedy removed the blockade and promised not to invade Cuba. The following day, Khrushchev amended his letter, and instead demanded the removal of US missiles from Turkey. Following this, American U2 spy planes were shot down over Cuba by soviet missiles, escalating the situation. On 28th October, Kennedy, ignoring the terms of the second letter, accepted the terms of the first, and added if there was no soviet response by 29th, US forces would invade Cuba. Khrushchev agreed to this, and the US removed their missiles from Turkey. This was done covertly, and the US appeared triumphant in the Crisis.

After the stress of waiting for letters to arrive during the crisis, a “hotline” was set up in June 1963, which was a direct link between the American President and the Russian Premier in Moscow. The Limited Test Ban Treaty was set up in July, with both sides agreeing to ban the testing of nuclear weapons in space, in the sea or above ground. These were the first steps in a period of détente; relaxed tensions in the relationship between the USA and USSR. These would be tested in the Prague Spring.

The Bay of Pigs (Cuban Missile Crisis pt.1)

Cuba in the 1950s was a close ally of the USA. Their friendship was important because of Cuba’s proximity to the US coast; it was only 90 miles away, and well within America’s sphere of influence. Up until 1959, Cuba was lead by a pro-American government headed up by Batista, with most of the industry on the island being owned by American corporations. However, in 1959, Fidel Castro lead a revolution to overthrow the government, and gain independence from the US. Castro’s new government took over all American property in Cuba. In retaliation, the US stopped buying Cuba’s main export; sugar. Although the take over of American industry in Cuba angered America, the embargo on sugar sales hit Cuba hard, promoting Castro to turn to Khrushchev to help. Castro wasn’t a communist, though he was an enthusiastic left wing.
Khrushchev saw an opportunity to get a communist outpost right in the American sphere of influence, so he agreed to provide economic aid to Cuba to help them industrialize. Cuba and the USSR were now firm allies, and the USA began to sweat.

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

The US broke off all diplomatic relations with Cuba in the January of 1961 because of the Soviet involvement in Cuba. Relations worsened, and shortly before Eisenhower lost his presidency he sanctioned a scheme saying thatt Cuban exiles living in the US would be trained by the CIA, with the intention of invading Cuba. Kennedy continued this scheme when he came to power. The exiles consisted of men who had fled Cuba in 1959, after Batista was toppled by Castro.
The plan was for the rebels, who called themselves La Brigada 2506, to land in Cuba, and lead a national uprising against Castro. They underwent their training in Florida, where they were overheard talking about details of the plan, giving Castro and his army a head start.

On 15th April, US planes bombed some of the Cuban airforce, destroying some aircraft. However, the second wave of bombings, scheduled for the second day, were called off. That was a mistake. The Cuban airforce regrouped and were ready to fight the next day. On 17th April, La Brigada 2506 landed at the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), and were met by 20,000 men of Castro’s army. The CIA had not predicted this; they didn’t realize Castro’s popularity. He had provided Cubans with better schooling, and the nationalisation of industry benefitted Cubans who had previously been exploited by American businesses, so when La Brigada tried to gain support from the Cuban locals, they weren’t very responsive. Two days later, the fighting was finished, ending with 100 deaths from La Brigada, and over 1000 imprisoned. It wasn’t until December 1962 that the prisoners were released, after $53 million worth of food and medicines were given to Cuba by organisations and the people in the USA.

La Brigada 2506

La Brigada 2506

The Bay of Pigs had been a disaster. The USA now looked to be an imperialistic and brutal nation. So the US began more covert operations to remove Castro from power. However, as well as being a disaster for the US, it was a major success for the USSR. The Bay of Pigs had pushed Cuba further toward the Soviet Union, and the developing world saw Cuba and Castro as an acceptable example of a far left wing politcal system. Kennedy was humiliated, and the USSR’s position in the Cold War had been strengthened.