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Taming the revolution?: Legitimists and the centenary of 1789

Simpson, Martin


Martin Simpson
Senior Lecturer in History and Heritage


The celebration of the centenary of 1789 by republicans in 1889 has received considerable scholarly attention, yet the far more surprising attempt by the right to appropriate the Revolution has been neglected. In this article I explore the terms in which the Legitimist Right attacked the republican orthodoxy, arguing that 1889 witnessed a significant shift in Legitimist discourse. Legitimists (supporters of the Bourbon monarchy, still a significant ideological current in 1889, despite the extinction of the French Bourbon line with the death of their Pretender in 1883) were obsessed with the Revolution, which they identified as ‘satanic’, characterised by bloodshed and irreligion. This view was endorsed by the intransigent ‘ultramontane’ Catholic faith they shared. Yet despite this common reading of the revolution, in 1889 the myth of the ‘mouvement national’, was emphasised. Legitimists argued that 1789 marked the revolutionary usurpation of a monarchical reform movement: the republicans had distorted history, obscuring the legitimate monarchical 1789. This vision of the ‘mouvement national’ was celebrated in a counter-commemoratory movement: a series of provincial assemblies in imitation of the assemblies of spring 1789 countered the official celebrations of the Republic. I examine this reading of the revolution, asking whether it allowed Legitimists to ‘tame the Revolution’, coming to terms with parts of the revolutionary heritage by attributing them to the monarchical reform movement. Yet despite the rhetoric of reclaiming 1789, clerico-Legitimists did not reconcile themselves to the revolution, but retreated into a counter-revolutionary fantasy of a corporatist France. The traditionalist Catholic monarchist Right thus remained alienated from modern France, determined to undo the work of the Revolution: in important respects their counter-revolutionary organicist discourse heralds the project of Vichy.


Simpson, M. (2005). Taming the revolution?: Legitimists and the centenary of 1789. English Historical Review, 120(486), 340-364.

Journal Article Type Article
Online Publication Date Apr 1, 2005
Publication Date Apr 1, 2005
Deposit Date Jun 19, 2013
Journal English Historical Review
Print ISSN 0013-8266
Electronic ISSN 1477-4534
Publisher Oxford University Press (OUP)
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 120
Issue 486
Pages 340-364
Public URL
Publisher URL