[1792] - September Massacres of royalists and other prisoners in Paris

The Blood of the Murdered Crying for Vengeance, hand-coloured etching by James Gillray, published 16 February 1793

The September Massacres refer to the mass killing of prisoners that took place in Paris between 3 and 7 September 1792. Sometimes known as the ‘First Terror’, it was an expression of the violent atmosphere as Paris was gripped by fears of counter-revolutionary plots.

The violence was sparked by the news that the Duke of Brunswick had invaded France, taken Verdun and was advancing on the capital with the support of Prussian forces. A sense of panic ensued in the capital as the National Convention sought to raise an army to defend the Revolution. The Paris Commune and its sans-culottes began attacking those suspected of harbouring anti-revolutionary sympathies. The violence began with the murder and mutilation of a group of priests who were being transported to the prison of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Over the next four days the violence continued as mobs broke into other Parisian prisons and committed further atrocities. In addition, summary trials of aristocrats, political prisoners and Swiss guards took place throughout the city.

When William Wordsworth returned to Paris on 29 October 1792 he reflected on the events of the September Massacres. In Book X of The Prelude (1805) he writes:

This was the time in which, enflamed with hope,
To Paris I returned.  Again I ranged,
More eagerly than I had done before,
Through the wide city, and in progress passed
The prison where the unhappy monarch lay,
Associate with his children and his wife
In bondage, and the palace, lately stormed
With roar of cannon and a numerous host.
I crossed—a black and empty area then—
The square of the Carousel, few weeks back
Heaped up with dead and dying, upon these
And other sights looking as doth a man
Upon a volume whose contents he knows
Are memorable but from him locked up,
Being written in a tongue be cannot read,
So that he questions the mute leaves with pain,
And half upbraids their silence.  But that night
When on my bed I lay, I was most moved
And felt most deeply in what world I was;
My room was high and lonely, near the roof
Of a large mansion or hotel, a spot
That would have pleased me in more quiet times
Nor was it wholly without pleasure then.
With unextinguished taper I kept watch,
Reading at intervals.  The fear gone by
Pressed on me almost like a fear to come.
I thought of those September massacres,
Divided from me by a little month,
And felt and touched them, a substantial dread
(The rest was conjured up from tragic fictions,
And mournful calendars of true history,
Remembrances and dim admonishments):
‘The horse is taught his manage, and the wind
Of heaven wheels round and treads in his own steps;
Year follows year, the tide returns again,
Day follows day, all things have second birth;
The earthquake is not satisfied at once’—
And in such way I wrought upon myself,
Until I seemed to hear a voice that cried
To the whole city, ‘Sleep no more!’ To this
Add comments of a calmer mind—from which
I could not gather full security—
But at the best it seemed a place of fear,
Unfit for the repose of night,
Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.
(Gill, The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth (1984), pp. 533–4,ll. 38–82)

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