1. Crisis of the Ancien Régime (ATL)

This section looks at the various threats and crises facing the Ancien Régime by 1788.

There is a mixture of starter activities on this page plus source activities summary activities, analytical activities, individual work and team work which aim to get students to understand the situation in France on the eve of revolution.

Videos and teaching ideas for videos are covered on separate pages.

Guiding questions

What was Europe like in 1789?

What were the key stages of the Revolution?

What were the key features of the Ancien Régime?

Why was there a financial crisis by 1788?

How much of a threat to the Ancien Régime was Enlightenment?

How significant was the Revolt of the Nobles?

What was the economic situation of France in 1789?

what was France like on the eve of the Revolution?

1. What was Europe like in 1789? 

A good starting point for this module is to get an idea of what Europe as a whole was like in the 18th Century. This is an opening research exercise which can lead to some discussion about the nature of governments in Europe at this time and also useful vocabulary for describing political systems.

Task One

ATL: Research skills

Worksheet: What was Europe like in 1789?

2. What were the key stages of the Revolution?

This next worksheet is a timeline of the French Revolution. This is good to give students at the start of the course so they have a clear overview of what is going to happen; the events of the French Revolution are complex and keeping a hold on chronology is key! The right-hand side of the time line is left blank so students can add more details to it as they go through the unit.

Timeline of French Revolution

3. What were the key features of the Ancien Régime?

This unit introduces students to a lot of new vocabulary. it is a good idea therefore to give students this glossary sheet at the start of the course so that they can keep it in their folders and add to it as they go though.

The second sheet lists the key individuals and key groups of the French Revolution so students can keep a record of who is who!

Glossary sheet of French Revolution to be completed by students

Key individuals and groups of the French Revolution: to be filled in by students

The following exercises are designed to get students to investigate the key features of the Ancien Régime. Key to this of course, is an understanding of the situation of each of the Three Estates which is the focus of the first task.

Task One

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

1. Complete the following grid on the privileges and burdens of each of the three estates. Provide precise detail on the exact taxes and obligations etc for each estate.

2. Follow this up by taking a closer look at the taxation system. How was it collected and why is this significant for Louis XVI?

3. Discuss in pairs the following question: Why did the taxation system weaken the Crown? (see hint below for ideas on this) 

  • Burden fell mainly on poor (also indirect taxation) this also meant that the people who had money were not giving it to King
  • Tax-farming - inefficient and State never received enough money form indirect taxes
  • Corruption also meant that Crown did not receive all money it should have done from officials

4. Following on from this discuss in pairs how the following also made it difficult for Louis to collect enough money or to reform the tax situation:

  • The Compte-Rendu written by Necker
  • Wars and the raising of loans to pay for the wars
  • The parlements

Grid on Ancien Régime

It is also essential that students have a good understanding of Versailles and life at court and the power of Louis XVI. There are several good websites that can help, such as this website from PBS (Public Broadcasting Services) in the USA.

Also watching the movie Marie Antoinette will help give students an understanding of the atmosphere of Versailles. (see extra resources section)

Task Two

ATL: Research skills

Your task is to find out more about the personalities of the King and Queen of France at this time, the powers of Louis XVI and the palace where they spent much of their time - Versailles.

You should aim to find out 5 interesting facts about each of the following:

  • Personality and actions of Marie Antoinette
  • Personality and actions of King Louis XVI
  • The building of Versailles
  • Daily Life at Versailles

Keep to information before 1789

Write up these facts (with any interesting pictures) on 2 sides of A4/ US Letter paper.

2. Now research and make notes on the following:

  • The powers that Louis XVI had as a ruler
  • The limitations that Louis XVI had on his power

3.  Discuss the following in pairs:

How far was Louis XVI an 'absolute' monarch?

To what extent did the system of the Ancien Régime strengthen Louis' power?

4. Why was there a financial crisis by 1788?

Key to understanding the revolution is the financial crisis; although the condition of the Third Estate was very desperate, it did not actually start the revolution. The revolution came about due to the King facing bankruptcy and from the the attempts to tax the nobles. Ironically it was the nobles who started the revolutionary ball rolling in 'The Revolt of the Nobles' and their calls for an Estates General.

Task Three

ATL: Self-management skills

1. Complete the attached grid to show the actions of the different Controller-Generals in trying to solve the financial crisis.

2.  In pairs consider the following question, Why was it so hard to solve the financial crisis?

Grid to complete on Louis XVI's Controller Generals 


The following task involves students taking on a character from France in the 18th Century. They will have to think what their character would have been experiencing and thinking at 3 different points: before 1789, at the end of 1789 and during the Terror. They need to give a speech from their character's point of view to the rest of the class at each of these points in the revolution.

Task Four

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

You will be given a character from France in the 18th Century. You need to decide what position your character was in at three different points in the course of the French Revolution and tell the rest of the class your thoughts about what is going on. The attached sheet is to help you keep a record of your thoughts as you go through.

The different characters are:

  • Lawyer (bourgeoisie) from a small town in France
  • Poor peasant from the Vendée region (Very Catholic and conservative)
  • Parisian worker - a sans-culottes – (very dependent on there being enough bread, and bread that is not too expensive)
  • Poor clergyman
  • Wealthy bishop
  • Noble - enlightened, well read in enlightenment thinkers
  • Noble d’épée; large estates, spends most time at Versailles
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Louis XVI
  • Soldier in French army from peasant background; has taken part in American War of Independence
  • English visitor to France; has travelled around the country, been to Versailles etc.

 These are some hints for each character to think about regarding their situation before 1789:


What do you have?

What do you not have?


Tax exemption chose what to pay, privileges, own courts

Political power


Tax exemption, power over people, own courts

A reasonable income, most of tithe income sent upwards, because of plurality

Court Noble

Tax exemptions, access to high office, feudal dues, seigniorial rights

Political power on a regular basis, depends on King’s will

Provincial noble

As above, but no access to high office, unless rich enough to buy it

Political power or access

A lawyer

A good education and career

Exemption from taxes

Political power, any privileges under the law


A business, money

Exemption from taxes, pay large amount of tax but no say in how this money is spent

Urban worker in Paris

Work (if times are good)

Enough to survive on, (mention growing price of bread), any security, have to pay many taxes

Soldier in the army

A job

Any way of advancement, cannot be an officer; you experience all other taxes and burdens of 3rd estate

Peasant farm worker

Work if times are good

Enough to survive on when times are hard because of taxes, tithe and feudal dues. You are subject to many feudal laws.

French Revolution character sheet

5. How much of a threat to the Ancien Regime was the Enlightenment?

The first task is to get students to understand the key ideas of the Enlightenment.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Study this information about the Enlightenment. Identify the key features of enlightenment thought.

The next task is to get students to research the work of the key philosophes and to start thinking how the ideas of each philosoph undermined the beliefs that the Ancien Régime was based on.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

1. Divide the class into groups. Each group should take one of the following philosophs and create a presentation to the rest of the class to show the key ideas of the philosoph.

  • Montesquieu
  • Voltaire
  • Rousseau
  • Diderot

(Two groups may also want to consider the ideas of Hobbes and Locke; although not French, their ideas had a big impact on the Enlightenment thinking of the time).

2.  The Ancien Régime was based on the ideas of Divine Right, the power of the Church, the inequality fo the Three Estates and the concept of Absolute Monarchy

When all of the presentations have been heard, brainstorm in pairs the ways in which Enlightenment ideas undermined these key features of the Ancien Régime.

Complete the attached mind map with your conclusions.

An alternative task two is to set questions on each of the philosophs which students then need to research. They could then also answer question 2 above and complete the mind map. These questions are on a handout attached.

Seventeenth Century Enlightenment

  1. What radical ideas did Hobbes have regarding the power of monarchs?
  1. Why did Locke believe that all people are equal?
  1. According to Locke, why do people enter into a ‘social contract’?
  1. What is the purpose of such a contract?
  1. When can this contract be broken?


  1. What was Descartes’ obsession regarding philosophy?
  1. What was his most famous ‘truth’?
  1. How did his ideas challenge ‘traditional’ thinking?

The Philosophes

  1. Who were the philosophes? Give some examples of the French people who were part of this movement.
  1. What were the three main ideas of the philosophe movement?
  1. What were Voltaire’s views on religion?
  1. What did he believe should be the relationship between the secular side of the state and the religious side of the state?
  1. What was the point of the Encyclopedia?
  1. What did Montesquieu mean by a government that had ‘checks and balances’?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  1. What is the first sentence of Rousseau’s most famous work, ‘The Social Contract’?
  1. What do you think he meant by this?
  1. What kind of contract does Rousseau believe should exist between rulers and the ruled?
  1. What was the importance of these ideas?

Research task on enlightenment thinkers

Mind map on the impact of enlightenment ideas on the Ancien Regime

The first stage of the revolution involved the nobles and indeed it is somewhat ironical that it was at their insistence that the Estates General was called, which of course will lead to the revolutionary events of 1789.

6. How significant was the Revolt of the Nobles?

Starter activity

What is the message of this cartoon from 1787?

Hint: Would they like to be eaten at all?! How is this linked to the paying of tax?

Cartoon from 1787 showing the nobles at the Assembly of Notables shown as birds. Calonne (the Monkey) asks them what sauce they would like to be eaten with.

Task One

ATL: Thinking task

Read through the attached timeline which shows the rising tension following the failure of the Assembly of the Notables which was also known as the Revolt of the Nobles.

1. What was the role of each of the following in creating a situation where the Estates General had to be called?

  • the King
  • the Controller-Generals
  • the parlements
  • the financial crisis

2. What evidence is there in these events that the idea of the philosophes had influenced the thinking of the noblility?

3. The parlements claimed to be defending the rights of the people in calling for an Estates General. How accurate do you think that this claim was?

   Timeline: Events 1787 - 1789


7. What was the economic situation in France in 1789? 

Task One

ATL: Thinking and social skills

Read the following account of the French economy leading up to 1789.

Discuss in pairs the way in which economic and political factors are linked. Do you think that there would have been a revolution if there had been no economic crisis?

In the years preceding the revolutionary events of 1789, France had faced several bad harvests. In 1788, there was a particularly poor harvest following a wet spring and hailstones in many areas in July. This was disastrous for the peasants, but it also had a profound impact on the urban workers as it pushed up the price of bread. By the winter of 1788 - 89, workers were spending 88% of their daily wage on bread. With the high prices of food leading to less demand for manufactured goods, there was also an increase in unemployment in such areas as the textile industry. These desperate circumstances led to peasant disturbances in 1788. it also meant that the urban workers became more politicised and this increased expectations for the Estates General.

8. What was France like on the eve of revolution?

One of the most interesting sources on life in France before the revolution comes from Artthur Young, an Englishman traveling around France. The full account of his journeys can be found here.

There is a good summary of his findings on this BBC video for schools. This is designed for younger students but it is worth showing Episode 2, from 7 minutes into the video, for summarising the key problems regarding taxation and the three estates. It also highlights how far France was behind England with regard to agriculture at this point in time.

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