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seminar: Dr Simon Macdonald (Paris8) and Prof. Colin Jones (QMUL) Robespierre and the Duke of York: Entangled Exchanges and a War of Words at the Height of the Terror

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Location: H3.03 Humanities building, University of Warwick

All are welcome. refreshments will be served.


painting of Robespierre at his desk

Maximilien Robespierre was deposed in July 1794 (Thermidor Year II) when the charge that he was a tyrant burst spectacularly into open political discussion in France. This paper examines key aspects of how that charge had developed, and been discussed in veiled terms, over the preceding months. First, it analyses a war of words which unfolded between Robespierre and the duke of York, the commander of the British forces on the northern front. This involved allegations that Robespierre had used an assassination attempt against him in late May as a pretext for scapegoating the British – including the orchestration of a notorious government decree which banned the taking of British and Hanoverian prisoners of war. Second, the paper explores how these developments fitted within a larger view of Robespierre as aiming for supreme power. In particular, they meshed closely with a reading of French politics which likened Robespierre to the ancient Athenian leader Pisistratus, a figure who had subverted the city’s constitution — including posing as a victim of violent attacks — in order to establish his tyranny. Pisistratus’s story, we argue, offered a powerful script for interpreting Robespierre’s actions, and a cue for resistance.

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