The tennis court oath, Versailles, 1789

Background

This illustration depicts the Tennis Court Oath (Le Serment du Jeu de Paume) of Versailles, 20 June 1789.

The National Assembly, also known as the Third Estate, was an ancient but little used gathering of nobles, clergy and common people. They were excluded from their regular meeting place by King Louis XVI and met instead at a nearby indoor tennis court. Here they pledged themselves to create a written constitution for France.

Mirabeau, the leader of the Assembly, turned to the King's messenger and cried

Go tell your master that we are here by the will of the people, and that we shall be removed only at the point of a bayonet.

Revolutionary governments were set up, first in Paris and then in the provinces. On 4 August a decree was passed to abolish the whole feudal system.

The constitution was completed in 1791. France was given a limited monarchy and a representative one house legislature (a law-making body able to debate and vote upon laws). The constitution included a declaration of the rights of man:

  • All citizens are born free with equal rights
  • All have a right to participate in electing representatives to make laws
  • All are entitled to free speech (provided the privilege is not abused)
  • Taxation will be related to wealth

The monarchy was short lived. There were deep divisions between those who wanted to keep a limited monarchy and those who wanted to be rid of the King. Louis failed to abide by the constitution and the mob invaded his palace in August 1792. He was convicted of conspiring with foreign countries to invade France, and beheaded on the guillotine.

Taken from: Five plates representing scenes of the French Revolution
Date: 1804
Copyright: By permission of the British Library Board
Shelfmark: 1850.c.28