By Ruairi Nolan, Library Assistant, formerly of MU Library
While conducting research in the Russell Library I came across a book which caught my interest. It was the Memoires de M.L’Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont dernier Confesseur de Louis XVI by C. Sneyd Edgeworth, translated into English by Edmund Burke, and published in 1815 in Paris. Henry Essex Edgeworth, (1745-1807) was known also as Abbé Edgeworth in France, where he had lived most of his life from an early age.
Edgeworth was the final confessor to King Louis XVI, the French monarch who fell victim to the guillotine during the French Revolution. The King sent for Edgeworth personally – Edgeworth had developed a friendship with Princess Elizabeth, the King’s sister in the late 1780s-90s and came highly recommended.
The book is one of many in the collections that is directly linked to the history of the foundation of the College. The effects of the French Revolution influenced the establishment of St. Patrick’s College. A number of French professors came to teach in the aftermath of the Revolution. L’Abbe Edgeworth was offered the presidency of the College in 1795 which he turned down.
In Edgeworth’s account, we are told the narrative of events which brought the Abbé to King Louis on the night of 20-21 January 1793 and we are introduced to the gut-wrenching first moment of when the two are alone. Edgeworth, thus far composed and in control of his emotions loses strength and begins to weep, prompting the King to follow suit:
‘Forgive me, sir…for a long time, I have lived among my enemies, and habit has in some degree familiarised me to them; but when I behold a faithful subject…a different language reaches my heart, and in spite of my utmost efforts, I am melted’.
From this we receive a detailed retelling of the evening spent with the monarch right through to the morning, he speaks of Louis’ final hour with his family where ‘Not only tears were shed, and sobs were heard, but piercing cries’. In the morning, the two were constantly bothered by paranoid officials and officers worried that the monarch would take his own life to avoid the shame of execution to which the king responded: ‘These people see daggers and poison everywhere; they fear that I shall destroy myself…they little know me! To kill myself would indeed be weakness’.
At 8 o’clock on the morning of 21 January 1793, the King was brought to the Place de la Révolution. The streets of Paris were so crowded with silent spectators that it took two hours to reach the site of execution. Once they arrived, the gendarmes attempted to bind the King’s hands and chop off his hair to which he exclaimed: ‘do what you have been ordered, but you shall never bind me’. (Fig 2)
Edgeworth claims that the King looked to him in that moment as if seeking guidance, at which time he reassured him that this final humiliation served only to bring him closer to Christ in that he is suffering the same humilities as the son of God. Edgeworth is noted to have proclaimed ‘Fils de St Louis, Montez au ciel! / Son of St Louis, ascend to heaven!’ – though when asked himself about it, he could not recall having said anything.
A footnote to the memoirs highlight that the King was astonished that the Abbé chose to accompany him to the scaffold – he had assumed he would give flight once the night had passed. When the execution took place Edgeworth did become acutely aware of his position and feared he was next for the guillotine and he ‘thought it time to quit the scaffold…I saw myself invested by 20 or 30,000 men at arms…all eyes upon me’. Edgeworth had managed to blend in with the crowd, he simply looked like another spectator once he made it deeper into the crowd. (Fig 3)
France remained a dangerous place for him, he became known as King Louis’ final confessor and he noted in his memoir that a confidant expressed a dire warning: ‘Fly, my dear sir, from this land of tigers that are now let loose in it…it is not Paris alone, but France itself you must leave. For you I do not see a safe place in it’. (Fig 4)
Edgeworth remained in France for the next three years, evading arrest and hiding away. He eventually left to rejoin the then-exiled royal family, spending much time in Germany and Russia. He had refused a pension from the British Government. He died in Mittau, Russia (now in Latvia) while ministering for French prisoners of war on 22 May 1807. He was cared for in his dying days by the daughter of Louis XVI, further highlighting the close relationship he had with the family.
Liam Swords, The Green Cockade (Dublin, 1989).
Letters from the Abbé Edgeworth to his friends, written between the years 1777 and 1807; with memoirs of his life (London, 1818).
Charles Sneyd Edgeworth, Mémoires de m. l’abbé Edgeworth de Firmont : dernier confesseur de Louis XVI (Paris, 1815).