Paris, 1793. King Louis XVI of France did not say a word as the carriage set off towards his place of execution. Nor did the Abbé de Firmont, the Irish padre, who sat opposite him. Instead they sat in “a profound silence” while outside they listened to the growing clamour.
Every street, alleyway and rooftop was crammed with babbling, chanting, hissing soldiers and citizens, many armed with pikes and bayonets, others with lances, scythes and muskets. Added to the racket was the beat of 60 drummers, who marched ahead of the king’s carriage, fulfilling the wishes of the revolutionary government to drown out any voices that might be raised in support of the condemned monarch. The king began to mumble some psalms aloud as the nightmare journey wore on.
At length the carriage reached the Place de Louis XV (today known as the Place de la Concorde), the fabulous public square that the king’s grandfather had commissioned less than four decades earlier. When the crowds parted to reveal a large elevated scaffold surrounded by cannons, the king turned to his clergyman and whispered, “We are arrived, if I mistake not”.
Watching the king untie his neckcloth and advance towards the scaffold, the Abbé de Firmont was understandably overwhelmed with emotion. As well as everything else, he was assuredly wondering if he was likely to be hauled into the guillotine the moment his majesty was no more.
It was all a far cry from the rectory in Co Longford where the Abbé was born in 1745. Christened Henry Essex Edgeworth, he descended from an Englishman who had settled in Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, ultimately taking ownership of a large chunk of Longford. The family estate was centred around Mostrim where Henry’s inventive cousin Richard Lovell Edgeworth did so much to improve the area that the Town Tenants’ Association insisted the town be renamed Edgeworthstown in his honour in 1935.
Richard was also an inventor of no mean skill, creating the prototype of the caterpillar track system used by present-day bulldozers, tanks and tractors. He also produced an early form of telegraph, a velocipede cycle, a “perambulator” to measure land, a turnip cutter and various sailing carriages. Richard’s daughter Maria Edgeworth would become one of the most successful novelists in the world in the early 1800s.
Henry Edgeworth’s branch of the family were also unconventional. Robert Edgeworth, his father, had taken up residence in the rectory at Mostrim when appointed to look after the local Protestant community. However, following a meeting with a French bishop, the Reverend Edgeworth became unexpectedly enamoured of the Roman Catholic cause and converted. Given that it was not all that long since the government in Dublin had been considering a Bill that advocated the castration of all Popish priests in Ireland, Robert was clearly aware that his conversion would not go down well with the Protestant establishment.
And so it was that Henry’s family relocated to France when he was just four years old. They settled amongst a community of Irish exiles in Toulouse where Henry was educated at the Jesuit College. He later studied in Paris at the Séminaire des Trente-Trois and, after further studies at both the Collège de Navarre and the Sorbonne, he was ordained a priest. At this juncture, he dropped the name “Edgeworth” in favour of “de Firmont”, a nod to a beloved hill called Fairymount near his childhood home in Longford.
The Abbé de Firmont resided in Les Missions Etrangères (Foreign Missions) at 483 Rue du Bac, Paris, from where he initially made his mark amongst the “lower orders” and the “poor Savoyards”, an immigrant community from the impoverished Alpine territory of Savoy. Plaugued by poor health since childhood, he was eventually compelled to accept his doctor’s advice to restrict his ministering to the more upmarket homes of Irish and English exiles in Paris.
Nonetheless, the diligence of this humble, modest man caught the attention of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. In May 1789, the Right Rev Dr Francis Moylan, Bishop of Cork, invited him to return home and take up an unspecified Irish bishopric. Declining the offer, Henry explained, “Thirty-eight years absence have broke the very ties of blood with some of my relations and weakened them with all. The \[English\] language itself sounds odd in my ears for want of use.”
The ink was barely dry on Henry’s reply when almost a thousand disgruntled Parisians famously stormed the Bastille on July 14th, 1789, setting in motion the epochal events of the French Revolution.
While the Republicans were gearing up to lopping off aristocratic heads, Henry held tight in Paris. In 1791, he was appointed Confessor to Princess Élisabeth, the king’s youngest sister. A staunch and deeply religious conservative, Élisabeth was effectively under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace in Paris at this time, along with Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and other royals.
“Though a foreigner, and very little worthy to be distinguished by the princess, I soon became her friend,” wrote Henry. The Longford-born priest rapidly formed a bond with the incarcerated members of the House of Bourbon, who evidently valued his serene but spirited countenance.
On January 17th, 1793, the National Convention – the French government of the time – condemned Louis XVI to die. The king immediately requested Henry be by his side when the end came, as Henry explained in a letter to a friend in London:
“Almighty God has baffled my measures, and ties me to this land of horrors by chains I have not the liberty to shake off. The case is this: the wretched master [the king] charges me not to quit this country, as I am the priest whom he intends to prepare him for death. And should the iniquity of the nation commit this last act of cruelty, I must also prepare myself for death, as I am convinced the popular rage will not allow me to survive an hour after the tragic scene; but I am resigned. Could my life save him I would willingly lay it down, and I should not die in vain.”
Three days later, Henry was summoned to the Temple prison to attend to the king on the eve of his execution. He stayed with him throughout the night and they said Mass together at the break of dawn with the sounds of Paris echoing around them – “the beating of the générale, the rattle of arms, the tramp of horses, the movement of cannon”.
At 9am, they embarked on the hour-long carriage journey to the place of execution. As he very slowly approached the scaffold, Louis lent on Henry’s arm for support. Addressing the enormous crowd, he declared his innocence, and urged forgiveness for those who had sentenced him to die, but the noise was such that few could have heard him. The Abbé de Firmont had an unenviably close view as the guillotine came down and sliced through the back of the king’s skull into his jaw. A witness heard Henry roar out, “Son of St Louis, ascend to heaven”. And then he melted into the crowd.
Being privy to the last words of a despised monarch was a perilous position to find oneself in, not least in revolutionary France. As Henry later recalled, “All eyes were fixed on me, as you may suppose; but as soon as I reached the first line, to my surprise, no resistance was made.” His escape was made easier by the fact that priest’s robes had been prohibited by law so he was dressed as an ordinary citizen. “I was absolutely lost in the crowd, and no more noticed than if I had been a simple spectator of a scene which forever will dishonour France.”
Despite the imminent dangers, he refused to leave Paris, reasoning that there were others who depended on him, not least his mother and sister. He had also vowed never to desert Princess Élisabeth, who was still being held prisoner in the Temple Tower. However, Élisabeth was guillotined during the Reign of Terror and, shortly after his mother’s death in August 1796, Henry reluctantly took a ship to England.
He spent three months in London, during which he was widely feted for his courage and close proximity to such monumental events.
In 1797, prime minister Pitt offered him a pension, which he proudly refused. He was also invited to take up the presidency of the Royal College of St Patrick in Maynooth, Co Kildare. The college had been officially established by an Act of the Parliament of Ireland in 1795 as a seminary “for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion”. Its first president was Dr Thomas Hussey, formerly chaplain to the Spanish Ambassador in London. Henry was actively considering a return to Ireland to take up the Maynooth presidency when he received a letter from the Count of Provence, Louis XVI’s younger brother.
Calling himself Louis XVIII, the count was now head of the French royalists. He had established his exiled court at Blankenburg in the Duchy of Brunswick (now part of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt), to which he now invited Henry to become his chaplain. Henry immediately sailed back to Europe and reunited with the royal family.
In his absence, the Maynooth presidency passed to Fr Peter Flood, a fellow Longford native. Prior to the Revolution, Fr Flood had been Superior of the Irish Collège des Lombards in Paris, an imposing four-storey building in the 5th arrondissement that has served as the Centre Culturel Irlandais since 2002. Fr Flood narrowly avoided being murdered during the September massacres of 1792, after which all six of the Irish colleges in France were closed by the revolutionary government. Indeed, the ecclesiastical college in Maynooth was established in direct response to such closures.
Such dramatic events had caused Fr Flood to age prematurely and he looked considerably older than his 50 years when he initially returned to Ireland to be parish priest of Henry’s home town of Edgeworthstown. He would hold the Maynooth presidency from 1798 until his death in 1803.
Meanwhile, Henry found himself on the move once more in 1797 when Louis XVIII was obliged to relocate his court to the Russian town of Mittau (now Jelgava in Latvia). Three years later, Henry was sent to St Petersburg where he so impressed Tsar Paul that the emperor “bowed himself to the humblest posture at the Abbé’s feet” and then awarded him an annual pension of 500 ducats.
However, the Tsar himself was unable to resist the rapidly accelerating power of Napoleon Bonaparte. Shortly before his assassination in 1801, Tsar Paul acceded to pressure from Napoleon and withdrew his support from Louis XVIII. The impoverished Bourbon king was compelled to move south to a palace near Warsaw, where his court remained for the next four years before returning north to Mittau.
Despite the blessing of the new Tsar, Alexander I, the French royals were in desperate financial straits, having sold off most of their jewellery and furniture. The king himself was riddled with gout, his queen clad in rags. Henry, who remained by their side throughout, was so destitute that he reluctantly accepted Pitt’s earlier offer of a pension.
In February 1807, Napoleon’s army invaded Russia and the gaol in Mittau began to fill up with French prisoners of war. That spring, the 62-year-old Abbé de Firmont was summoned to the gaol to attend to some French soldiers who had taken ill. It transpired they had typhus, which the Irishman contracted. When word of his illness reached Princess Marie-Thérèse, Louis XVI’s only surviving child, she raced to his bedside to be with a man she described as her “beloved and revered invalid, her more than friend, who had left kindred and country for her family ... Nothing can prevent me from nursing the Abbé Edgeworth myself.”
Henry died on May 22nd, 1807 and was buried at the sepulchral chapel in Jelgava. Sometime later, his brother Ussher Edgeworth received a missive in Longford that contained a copy of the epitaph written in Latin by Louis XVIII, hailing Henry as “an Eye to the Blind, a Staff to the Lame, a Father to the Poor, and a Consoler of the Afflicted … an example of Virtue and an Assuager of misfortune.”
The king, who moved to Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, England, later that same year, would go on to reign as King of France from Napoleon’s fall in 1814 until his death in 1824.
Extracted from The Irish Diaspora: Tales of Emigration, Exile and Imperialism by Turtle Bunbury (Thames & Hudson)