“And daily, hourly, the hideous instrument of torture claimed its many victims—old men, young women, tiny children, even until the day when it would finally demand the head of a King and of a beautiful young Queen.”
Revolution swept the country five years ago. Since the well-known Storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789, many changes have taken place across France, mostly in Paris. For five years, the French aristocracy and nobility have been in a state of panic. They have witnessed the rise of increasingly radical republican ideas take root in local politics, resulting in widespread violence. As the country moves further away from its monarchical past with each passing month, King Louis XVI is executed on 21st January 1793 on grounds of high treason against the State—one among many casualties of the new regime.
How did it all come to this?
Like many revolutions, it started with a desire for more freedom and for an enlargement of political rights. The French population had increased to 26 million inhabitants when the revolution broke out, making it the most populated country in Europe at the time. This came with challenges, especially as far as food was concerned, and crop failures (such as the one that occurred in 1788) were bound to accentuate the already existing tensions between the people and the elite. This French population was also increasingly more educated. The common people started to press for more freedom from an outdated feudal system while the bourgeoisie demanded an increase in political power and representation. Overall, there was a consensus among many French subjects that the current system of government was obsolete and needed reform. Additionally, the 18th century was marked by the birth of Enlightenment ideas and many of the philosophers who shaped the movement (Rousseau and Voltaire to cite a couple) were French and widely read in France. The philosophers criticised absolute monarchy and the influence of the Church and they believed in the importance of human rights.
By May 1789, France had reached a state of financial crisis that was serious enough for the King to gather a sort of assembly that was called the Estates General. The goal of this assembly was to bring together the nobility (300 representatives), the Church (300 representatives) and the commoners (600 representatives) so that they could discuss the grievances of people of all classes across the country and advise the King. However, when it came to voting in the 1789 Estates General, it was decided that each of the three estates would count for one vote—an unfair system for the commoners as their voice went from representing half of the assembly to only a third. The conflict escalated in June, as the commoners broke from the Estates General to form a National Assembly whose goal was to write a new French constitution. While Louis XVI initially agreed to this, he nonetheless drafted troops to dissolve this new National Constituent Assembly. Now July 1789, less than a week before the Storming of the Bastille, revolution was about to break out.
Revolution swept the country five years ago. Did it manage to achieve the ideals for which the revolutionaries fought? The King is dead and a Republic has been proclaimed. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, directly inspired by the ideas of Enlightenment, has been introduced. Yet, the violence and bloodshed continues as revolutionaries strive to purge the country of its old system. Enemies of the Republic and aristocrats are executed daily on the Place de la Grève. Since July 1789, to escape the guillotine or just the ambient violence, many French people have decided to emigrate.
So what did emigration mean during the French revolution?
Emigration linked to the French revolution was very far from being the largest mass migration in history. In total, according to Raphael Franck and Stelios Michalopoulos, more than 100,000 French people decided to leave their country behind in the wake of the revolution (so, a very small portion of the 26 million French). Quite logically, emigration concerned mainly the wealthy, especially the nobility and the clergy. Some left with the goal of plotting a return of the monarchy from abroad, others simply to escape the violence. Their destinations varied as while some crossed the Atlantic, many remained in Europe. Ernest Daudet’s account of the phenomenon highlights that many nobles fled to relatives’ homes in nearby territories, especially in Turin, where Louis XVI’s brother was scheming ways to counter the revolution. Many French people also decided to head for the British Isles.
6 February 1793, London.
“Sir, I send you with this a list of the French Emigrants of known and respectable Characters, now in England, and in Jersey, which you said it would be desirable to obtain, in a Conversation I had the Honour of having with you on the subject some time since in the House of Commons. I cannot be sure it is compleat, notwithstanding great Pains have been taken to render it so . . . John Thomas Stanley, Esq., M.P.”
2019, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
“This” is a volume of 126 leaves, with a vellum binding. Names are recorded alphabetically along with, every now and then, mentions of family members and occupations. Overall, the register documents the arrival of 1,063 French people in England and Jersey, of which many were domestic servants and members of the military. Comprehensive lists of emigrants was commissioned several times during the revolution years by French authorities to identify people whose remaining belongings could be confiscated. Were they to come back to France, people on these lists would have been stripped of their civil rights. It is unclear however whether this particular register was used for this purpose as the ultimate recipient, both of the volume and of Staney’s letter, is now unknown.
John Thomas Stanley’s letter, along with the register that contains the list of French emigrants to England and Jersey, are now known as MS. French c. 19. It was acquired by the Libraries in 1937 and the 226 years of its life have not been the kindest to the register. Former mould, eradicated through fumigation, has left marks over the pages of the volume. This has not however eaten away the names of those people who, two centenaries ago, crossed the channel in the hopes of a better life far from the massacre of what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. The register does not record what happened to the emigrants after their arrival, but you can still today discover who they were by visiting the Libraries and calling up MS. French c. 19. The Bodleian’s Summary Catalogue of Western Manuscripts also contains documents that shed light on what was happening in the meantime in France, with MS. French c. 27 containing official documents of the French revolutionary government (1793-1795).
 Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960 (1913), p. 9
 Franck, Raphael, and Stelios Michalopoulos. “Emigration during the French revolution: Consequences in the Short and Longue Durée.” IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc (2018): IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc, 2018. Web.
 Daudet, Ernest. Histoire de l’émigration pendant la Révolution Française. Tome I : De la Prise de la Bastille au dix-huit fructidor, Paris: Librairie Poussielgue, 1904.
 Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS. French c. 19, fol. 4
Read more about this:
Reboul, Juliette. French Emigration to Great Britain in Response to the French Revolution, Cham, Switzerland : Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.