The French Revolution

An outline of the three stages of the revolution, pinpointing the key moments. By Yasmin Nguyen

Stage of the Revolution

First Stage

1789 - 1795

Characterised by increasing development of opposition towards the ruling classes, from moderate opposition, to extreme opposition.

Second Stage

1796 - 1799

Marked a return to caution and conservatism, ending with Napoleon's rise to power as First Consul in 1799.

Third Stage

1800 - 1804

Rule of Napoleon. He took up the role of 'First Consul' in 1799, becoming emperor in 1804.

Ruling Power

The Estates General


Was convened by Louis XVI, which marked the beginning of a period of instability in France. This was an old, medieval legislative body which had not been summoned since 1614. It was obvious that bringing together the three different Estates to solve the country's grievances from different sectors of society would result in disputes and disagreements.

The National Assembly

June 1789 - July 1791

As a result of the King's inability to come to a decision regarding taxation privileges, the Third Estate decided to form its own body called 'The National Assembly' or the 'Constituent Assembly'. The National Assembly only lasted two years, until pressure caused them to call elections for an official 'National Convention'.

National Constituent Assembly

July 1791 - September 1791

Was formed from the National Assembly

Legislative Assembly

October 1791 - September 1792

This assembly focused on political debate and revolutionary law-making between the periods of the National Constituent Assembly and of the National Convention. This allowed radicals, such as the Jacobins and the Girondins to gain influence.

The National Convention

September 1792 - October 1795

Was heavily influenced by the Jacobins and their leader, Robespierre, who was elected as the first deputy for Paris to the National Convention. This convention abolished the monarchy, declared France a republic, and put the King on trial for treason.

The Directory

August 1795 - November 1799

Robespierre's death marked the end of the bloody, violent stage of the revolution. The Convention drew up a new constitution and established the Directory. It was composed of a lower house (The Council of Five Hundred: proposed laws) and an upper house (The Council of Ancients: accepted/rejected proposed laws) in order to prevent any one group/person from gaining too much power.

The Consulate

November 9 1799 - May 1804

Was formed after a coup staged by Napoleon to overthrow the Directory, who refused to accept his proposed changes to the 1795 Constitution. He established the Consulate, with himself as the chief of the three Consuls who controlled France.


Estates-General Meeting of 1789

May, 1789

King Louis XVI called a meeting to discuss the country's financial issues. However, at the meeting, there were many disagreements. The three different Estates disagreed on taxation privileges, as the First and Second Estates refused to relinquish these privileges. The King did not make any firm decisions on this matter, and the situation came to a deadlock.

The Tennis Court Oath

20 June 1789

The King saw the 'National Assembly' as a threat to his royal authority, and so locked down their meeting point. In response, the 576 members reconvened at a tennis court, and swore an oath to never disperse until a new constitution was created. This was a significant moment in the French Revolution, as it marked the first act of defiance against the King. It demonstrated how the unification of people coming together against the King posed a serious threat to the monarchy, and it showed the power that the people had when together.

The Storming of the Bastille

14 July 1789

People feared that King Louis XVI would use his army to crush the National Assembly and its unofficial gatherings. Thus, people decided to go to the Bastille, in the centre of Paris, to show their support for the National Assembly. However, violence broke out as people tried to steal the weapons and guns stored in the Bastille fortress to use against the King's soldiers. As a result, all those who defended the building were killed. In the modern day, this event is commemorated on Bastille Day, which is a national celebration.

The Great Fear

17 July 1789

Rural peasants attacked manor houses and land owners after hearing of the rumour that aristocrats were planning a 'famine plot' to starve out the peasantry. This lead to the eventual abolition of feudalism in the August Decrees, as people feared a peasant revolt.

The August Decrees

11 August 1789

This was a series of laws issues by the National Assembly that brought the end of feudalism, and law courts that were biased as they were run by the nobility. The Church was also no longer allowed to collect tithes from the people.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

26 August 1789

This was issued by the National Assembly, and was based on the American Declaration of Independence. This was the first step towards a French Constitution. In summary, this declaration gave equal rights to all men; banned imprisonment without trial; implemented proportional taxation; and gave sovereignty to the people, which ensured that all decisions made coincided with the will of the people.

Robespierre as President of the Jacobins

April 1790

Robespierre was elected the President of the popular, radical, and powerful Jacobin political club.

The Civil Constitution 1790

July 1790

The Church was seen as a symbol of the 'ancien regime' and so was a target for reformers. As a result, the Civil Constitution of 1790 was introduced by the National Assembly. The Pope no longer had authority over the Church in France, and could no longer appoint archbishops or bishops - this responsibility would be turned to democracy, where they would be voted in by state officials. This constitution also brought about the abolition of certain Church offices, and ensured that the role of the clergy was exclusively religious, and not political.

The Flight to Varennes

20 June 1791

The Pope's condemnation of the Civil Constitution stirred up more violence in France; the King and Queen were afraid: other royals offered little advice on what to do, so they felt that they may be able to gather support from royalists from abroad. Thus, they decided to flee for the royalist town of Montmedy, Luxembourg; however, they were caught and arrested 50km from the border at Varennes, and were taken back to Paris where they remained until their execution in 1793. After this event, the Girondins continued to negotiate with Louis XVI; this made them very unpopular, causing them to lose their influence. The Jacobins now held almost all the power.

Committee of Public Safety

April 1793

Was the de facto executive government in France, established by the Jacobins once they had control of the National Convention (which they did, when Robespierre was elected first deputy). They had extensive powers to supervise military and legal affairs, and was controlled by extreme Jacobins and Robespierre.

The Reign of Terror

September 1793 - July 1794

The Jacobins used this to consolidate their power due to the threat of foreign invasion and increasing disorder in the country. They killed over 40'000 people, including Girondins (the other radical group), the King, and the Queen. Although many killed were noblemen, a lot were common criminals with no interest in politics and revolutions.

The Law of Suspects

17 September 1793

Was a law passed that allowed anyone to be arrested on the basis of accusation rather than evidence. Anyone who was not an active supporter of Robespierre's regime could be charged, where the only possible outcomes were death or being cleared of the charge.

Thermidorian Reaction

27 July 1794

This was a coup against the Robespierre and the Jacobin's 'Reign of Terror', which was triggered by a vote within the National Convention itself to execute the leaders. This demonstrates how the government itself was divided and unstable - they did not unanimously agree on the actions that were carried out. This point marked the end of the violent, most radical phase of the French Revolution.

The arrest and execution of Robespierre

27 July 1794 - 28 July 1794

Many saw the 'Reign of Terror' and the 'Law of Suspects' as being too extreme. Robespierre's autocratic style of rule, coupled with his intensifying 'Reign of Terror' made him increasingly unpopular. Robespierre was arrested and 80 000 prisoners were released from jail. Robespierre was executed in July, along with 90 of his colleagues.

13 Vendémiaire/'Whiff of Grapeshot'

October 1795

This was a battle between revolutionary troops and royalist forces in Paris that helped to advance General Napoleon's career and popularity. His famous 'whiff of grapeshot' (cannon fire) defeated the rebels and saved the Directory from counter revolution. This earned him the approval of the Directory, who gave him the role of command of Army.

Napoleon: Commander of the French Army


The Babeuf Plot


The Jacobins plotted to overthrow the Directory, as they wanted to fight for their own agenda. This plot was well organised: they had a newspaper to spread their ideas, and stockpiled weapons in preparation for a fight. However, they were discovered and the leaders were arrested; Babeuf was executed. This incident highlights how even though the most radical phase of the revolution ended, people were still unhappy and discontent.

Coup of 18 Bromaire

9 November 1799

in this coup, Napoleon lead a revolt against the Directory. From here, he became first consul of the new Consulate. Many historians see this moment as the end of the French Revolution.

Napoleon: First Consul

December 1799

Effectively the dictator, as he held the highest position on the Consulate.