Today, it’s a boring town in the empty reaches of eastern France. Cheerless grey houses crowd the main road on the way in to town. The local specialty — served with Gallic pride — is pig’s trotters. But despite its mundane appearance, Sainte Menehould is not just an ordinary farm town. It is the place where a thousand years’ line of Catholic French kings came abruptly to an end.
It was in 1791 and the king was Louis XVI. The man who had aided the Americans in their fight for independence from the British just ten years before had finally been convinced to flee France. As the Terror grew more vicious and the French revolutionaries bolder, he was forced to acknowledge that his family’s lives were at stake.
So, in disguise, with his wife the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette and their small son, Louis fled under cover of darkness. Their destination was Flanders, an Austrian possession, where Marie’s older brother would protect them.
On their way through St Menehould, the royal party passed this building, then 60 years old.
They stopped, apparently, a few paces beyond it at a shop that stood where this plaque commemorates the event today.
Some said it was a clerk in the shop who recognized Louis, allegedly based on the similarity between his face and the image of him on the coinage. Others point to the near-certainty of spies and bribes.
Whatever the case, Louis and Marie did manage to leave Sainte-Menehould, but to no avail. They were pursued, and along the road to Varennes arrested by one Citizen Drouet, the local postmaster. Drouet was celebrated as a hero; the King & Queen were returned to Paris.
Sainte-Menehould turned out to be their first step towards the guillotine — where Louis and Marie were publically executed in Paris less than two years later. Their young son died in captivity, after years of abuse by his revolutionary captors.
A thousand years is a long time, and the shock waves that the regicide of Louis and Marie set off reverberated through Europe for decades after.
Though some may be amazed, there is a young generation growing up in France today which yearns for the return of a Catholic French king.