Abbé Edgeworth/Firmont

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2005), News, Volume 13

When Louis XVI knew that he was to be executed he chose the son of an Irish country clergyman to give him spiritual comfort on the scaffold. The priest he chose, Henry Essex Edgeworth (1745–1807), came from a remarkable and gifted family. His forebears had acquired land in County Longford during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and had subsequently been confirmed supporters of the Protestant and loyalist interest in Ireland.
Three generations of Edgeworths had been rectors of Edgeworthstown. Henry might have followed the family tradition if his bishop had not remarked to his father that he believed that ‘the papists are on the right side of it and we are wrong’. His father agreed and, despite family tradition, became a Roman Catholic. It was a cataclysmic decision. Europe was divided by bitter religious and political animosities, especially in Ireland. Unlike his bishop, Edgeworth’s father gave up his benefice and left Ireland.
He settled in Toulouse, where an Irish community, driven from home by the Penal Laws, had established itself and prospered. He enrolled his sons, Robert and Henry, in the Irish College. After his death the family moved to Paris. Henry entered the Séminaire des Trente Trois and studied for the priesthood at the Sorbonne. After ordination he worked among the poor of Paris and changed his name. No Frenchman could pronounce Edgeworth, so he changed it to Fairymount, the name of a hill near Edgeworthstown. The French could not pronounce that either. The nearest they could manage was ‘Firmont’, so he became known as ‘Abbé Firmont’.
In 1791 he was appointed confessor to Madame Elizabeth of France, a sister of Louis XVI. They developed a high regard for each other. She gave him instructions about the disposal of her property after her death, and after the Revolution he remained in France only as long as he could be useful to her.
On 20 January 1793 the National Convention voted to execute the king. The justice minister, Citizen Garat, immediately summoned the abbé to the Tuileries and informed him that the king had requested that he should attend him during his last hours. Disregarding his own safety, the abbé agreed. He and Garat drove to the Temple, where the king was imprisoned. In the presence of courtiers, Garat read the decree fixing the execution for the following day. The king listened calmly and, when he had finished, requested everybody except the abbé to withdraw. After a few emotional moments he discussed his will, and then said that he would not change places with his cousin, the duke d’Orléans, who had voted for his execution. His wife Marie Antoinette, Madame Elizabeth and his children were allowed to visit him briefly. He promised to see them again, but after their departure the abbé persuaded him that this would be too stressful. Clery, the royal valet, brought the king some supper, which he reluctantly ate. He spent the rest of the evening deep in conversation with Abbé Firmont.
At 5 o’clock the next morning the abbé said Mass, assisted by the king. They were then brought to the Place de la Révolution. Their coach was preceded by drummers ready to drown any potential protest and accompanied by soldiers ordered to kill the king if there was a rescue attempt. The abbé remained silent throughout the journey; the king read his breviary. On the scaffold he protested his innocence with great dignity, said that he forgave his enemies, and prayed for France. Further remarks were drowned by a roll of drums. The executioner then pushed him under the guillotine and the blade descended. Perhaps it was Firmont who shouted the famous words ‘Fils de Saint Louis montez au ciel’, although he later had no recollection of it. The king’s hat, with the tricolour badge signifying loyalty to the new regime, was auctioned off, and someone stole his jacket. His body and head were buried at the Madeleine cemetery later that day.
Firmont was in great danger after the execution but the soldiers had no orders regarding him. He slipped through their ranks and, dressed as a layman (clerical garb was forbidden), was soon lost in the crowd. He hurried to the house of the king’s defence lawyer, Lamoignon de Maleherbes, who advised him to leave Paris immediately, advice he did not take because he was acting for the archbishop of Paris, who had fled, and the king had given him duties to perform after his death. What they were is unknown but, according to a letter the abbé wrote to his brother, they could only be discharged if he remained in France. He also had a duty to Madame Elizabeth, with whom he maintained a clandestine correspondence for the rest of her life. He went into hiding until she was executed, three and a half years later. He then felt free to leave France.
He arrived at Portsmouth on 25 September 1796 and went straight to London. He rested there for six days before going to Edinburgh to the count d’Artois, the dead king’s brother, who was living in Holyrood Palace to avoid his London creditors. When Firmont had delivered a message, as promised, from Madame Elizabeth and had given the count a description of the king’s last hours, he returned to London. There he was lionised, particularly by the French émigré community, and Prime Minister Pitt offered him a pension, which he declined.
He was about to take up the presidency of the new seminary at Maynooth when his duty to the French monarchy made him alter his plans. The count de Provence, Louis XVIII, was maintaining a court at Blankenberg in Brunswick, in a rented three-roomed house. His invitation to Firmont, which the latter regarded as a command, and the arrival in London of a courier with counter-revolutionary dispatches for the count persuaded him to set off for Blankenberg.
He borrowed money for the journey and left in February 1797. When he arrived, Louis asked him to act as his almoner. This was no sinecure. The court was deeply in debt and Louis had neither income nor army nor throne, but the abbé felt that he could not refuse the appointment. He thus became involved in the convoluted negotiations between Napoleon, the British government, the pope and some senior French clergy to restore Louis to the French throne. They failed. Napoleon’s only offer was to pay Louis a large sum if he would renounce his claim. When he refused, Napoleon put pressure on the king of Prussia to ‘dismiss from his states certain guests whose presence sooner or later might lead to trouble’. When Tsar Paul I of Russia heard of this, he offered Louis an income and the use of his castle at Mittau, a beautiful but gloomy mansion modelled on Versailles near Riga on the Baltic coast. In appreciation Louis awarded him the Order of the Holy Ghost and sent the abbé to St Petersberg to invest him with it. The tsar was so impressed by Firmont’s reputation that he prostrated himself before him, asked for his prayers, presented him with a picture set in diamonds, and granted him a pension of 500 ducats a year for life.
Increasing pressure from Napoleon forced the tsar to stop helping Louis financially and to order him out of Russia. Though he was homeless and had no income, he still refused to compromise with Napoleon. In January 1801 a member of the Polish royal family took pity on him and offered him the use of her palace on the banks of the Vistula, near Warsaw. After a miserable journey in bitterly cold weather, he and his court, about 60 in all, including Firmont, arrived there in March. Despite the subsidy of £6,000 a year that the British government now paid Louis, everyone at court was so poor that those with jewellery were forced to sell it. The abbé was equally poor. The Protestant friend who had held the Edgeworths’ property in trust to circumvent the restrictions of the Penal Laws lost it in 1806, and with it the abbé’s income. To compensate he took up Pitt’s earlier offer of a pension: for the rest of his life he lived off the British taxpayer.
In 1804 Napoleon lost patience with Louis and declared that ‘there will be neither peace nor rest in the land until the last of the Bourbons is exterminated’. To illustrate his intent he arranged for the duke d’Enghien, an innocent and high-minded young man, the last of the Condés, to be lured to France and murdered. Firmont had to break this news to his sister.
Louis and his ramshackle court remained in Poland for four years. It was a dispiriting time. Money was short and support for the royal cause was dwindling. The Terror was over; Napoleon had restored order throughout France and gained the allegiance of the nobles by granting an amnesty to any who returned to France. He reached an understanding with the church, which ensured him its support. But Louis still refused to compromise.
In February 1805 the court left Warsaw and returned to Mittau. Life there was wretched. Everyone was extremely short of money, their furniture had been either stolen or sold, and the weather was terrible. Louis was depressed, bored and racked with gout, while the queen wandered about the palace dressed in rags. Abroad, Napoleon was supreme. His prestige was immense and his armies dominated Europe. For this they paid a price. So many wounded French soldiers appeared at Mittau that the king’s daughter, the duchess d’Angoulême, opened a hospital for them in the palace. On one of his pastoral visits to it Firmont contracted a fever from which he died on 22 May 1807 at the age of 62. He is buried in the cemetery at Mittau.
Why the French royals chose an Irishman to perform important and intimate duties for them has never been explained. Perhaps it was because the National Assembly required all men, including clergy, to swear allegiance to the new French civil constitution. Louis XVI, who had not yet been deposed, gave this measure his assent before discovering, to his horror, that the pope disapproved of it. The clergy who refused to take the oath fled France to escape execution. Those who took it, defying the pope, put the validity of their clerical status in jeopardy. As an Irishman, Abbé Firmont was not required to take the oath, so his orders were acceptable to the pious king. Perhaps this was what first commended him to the royal family, but his loyalty, intelligence and energy undoubtedly confirmed him in their esteem.

Douglas E. Mellon is a retired medical consultant.

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