FOR ALTAR AND THRONE
Once every week or so I hope to give a new airing to articles that appeared in The Brandsma Review during its early days. The first one is a review of a book by Michael Davies on the Catholic rising in the Vendée during the French Revolution.
NOWADAYS, nearly everybody believes that the Revolution of 1789, while it may have been marred by excesses, was a thoroughly Good Thing. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are valued as highly as the Theological Virtues—even, it would seem, by most of the French hierarchy.
The only modern politician, as far as I know, to suggest that all the bloodshed and tyranny was unnecessary was Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who was denounced as a party-pooper for expressing anti-revolutionary sentiments during the bicentenary celebrations. Abbot Gérard Calvet of Le Barroux went much further than the Iron Lady. In the course of a sermon in Chartres cathedral I heard him describe the Revolution as “satanic”.
So it was. A strong case can be made for the view that most of the butcherings of the 20th century, including those perpetrated by Communism and National Socialism, have their origin in the French Revolution. The blinkered ideology of St Just and Robespierre, carried to its logical conclusion, terminates in Pol Pottery. Indeed, the Cambodian dictator absorbed most of his Leftist fundamentalism while studying in Paris: unhappily for his country, he was given the opportunity to put his ideas into practice, demonstrating once again how man-made schemes to create a heaven on earth tend to end up producing a mass of human misery instead.
Michael Davies, whose name will be familiar to most of our readers, has written an enthralling account of an attempt to overthrow the Revolution. For Altar and Throne: The Rising in the Vendée is a story regrettably unfamiliar to most Irish Catholics.
How did the Revolution happen? Was it just a matter of a downtrodden people overthrowing a despotic king and a selfish aristocracy? Not at all. It had little to do with the Common Man. Michael Davies shows how the ground had been well prepared by the likes of Rousseau and Voltaire; nd how the French chattering classes had been thoroughly imbued with revolutionary sentiments, years before the first outbreak of violence.
The French government was not in fact too bad, and many political and social reforms had recently been introduced. France was the most prosperous nation in Europe, and the French peasants were better off than most of their European counterparts. The French Church, too, was in a comparatively healthy state. Mr Davies maintains that the French clergy were, as a whole, devout and dedicated to their parishioners. He quotes the great historian, Alexis de Tocqueville:
I am not sure whether, despite the faults of certain of its members, there was ever a clergy more remarkable than the French, at the moment of being engulfed by the Revolution, more enlightened, more national, less limited in the performance of private virtue, or better imbued with public morality and religious faith.
The immediate cause of the Revolution was French participation in the American War of Independence. King Louis XVI had bankrupted his Exchequer, quite unnecessarily, by sending the equivalent of $240,000,000 to the colonists; and many French officers returned home full of revolutionary zeal, reinforcing the hold that such ideas already had among the intellectuals. When the King called the Estates-General together in order to raise taxes, they defied his authority and set up a national assembly.
The bloodletting began soon afterwards, with the King and Queen as the most prominent among hundreds of thousands of victims. Mr Davies notes in an acid aside that the American Thomas Jefferson, who had helped the French revolutionaries draft their “Declaration of the Rights of Man”, justified the slaughter with an agricultural metaphor: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson believed that people must be “forced to be free”, although he did not apply this principle to the slaves on his own estate.
Priests and landlords
Why did the main resistance to the revolutionaries occur in the Vendée?
For one thing, it was certainly the most ardently Catholic region of France. The people were devoted to their priests; they expected, and got, a very high standard of piety and moral rectitude. Five out of every six of the Vendéen clergy refused to take an oath of loyalty to the republican regime, even though the result was destitution. The republicans infuriated the peasantry by replacing their“ non-juror” priests with “jurors” from outside the Vendée:
The faithful would not assist at the Mass of a juring priest, as they considered their church to have been profaned by his very presence. When the Abbé Peyre from Paris was installed as the parish priest of May-sur-Evre, he was followed into church by women who scrubbed every trace of his footprints, which they believed had polluted their church, from the stone floor.
The Vendée was also unique in another respect: it seems that the peasantry actually quite liked their landlords! Complaints of injustice and absenteeism were virtually unknown, and the nobility had not exercised their feudal privileges since the 17th century. It was the general practice for the parish priest to announce from the pulpit the dates of local hunts organised by the lords, and to invite the peasants to take part. (Thoroughly un-PC, of course.) A contemporary wrote:
The nobility had grown up with their tenants under the same oak trees, shared the same country pastimes, and had been suckled at the same breast. These noblemen who hunted and drank with their peasants and tenants had already sown the seeds of egalitarian principles.
It would certainly seem that these Vendéen Catholics, of all social classes, had far more fun than the dreary, bloodthirsty Jacobins in Paris.
The immediate cause of the uprising was the government decision to conscript 300,000 men into the revolutionary army. As one peasant put it: “They have killed our king; chased away our priests; sold the goods of our Church; eaten everything we have; and now they want to take our bodies. No, they shall not have them!”
Some writers have maintained that it was the clergy and the gentry who stirred up the peasantry to revolt. Mr Davies demonstrates convincingly that this was far from the case. The priests were by and large a restraining influence, and there was more than one instance of the peasantry shaming the aristocrats into leading them. The nobleman who became the most celebrated of the Vendéen generals, François-Athanase Charette de la Contrie, is reported to have hidden under a bed when the peasants arrived to put him at their head. He eventually agreed to lead them, and took a solemn oath never to return home unless victorious or dead.
The last crusade
Another aristocrat, Henri Marquis de la Rochejacquelein, told a group of peasants it would be sheer folly to rise up against the trained soldiers of the republic. One young farmer shouted: “Monsieur Henri, if your father had been here, he would not have been afraid to fight!” The young nobleman turned white with anger, but by the following morning he had completely changed his mind. He told 3,000 men assembled in the courtyard of his château: “If I advance, follow me; if I retreat, kill me; if I am killed, avenge me.”
The rising in the Vendée has rightly been described as the last crusade, and the rebels displayed an astonishing willingness to give their lives for their religion. In the 17th century the region had experienced a thoroughgoing spiritual revival, stirred by the preaching of St Louis Grignion de Montfort, the effects of which were still very much alive. The peasants’ deep faith was exemplified in one of the most attractive of their leaders, Jacques Cathelineau, known as the Saint of Anjou. Unlike most of the royalist commanders, he was no aristocrat but a wandering pedlar with a wife and five young children.
When the revolt started, Cathelineau armed himself with a rosary, a pistol, and a sabre, pinned a Sacred Heart badge on his tunic, and addressed a handful of young men in the village square. After praying in the local church, they marched through the neighbouring villages, their numbers swelling to 500. Then, falling on their knees,they intoned the Vexilla Regis: “The banners of the king go forth; the mystery of the Cross shines, by which our Life bore death and by death gave us life.” Armed mostly with cudgels and scythes, they captured first the little town of Jallais: then, their ranks having grown to 2,000, they went on to take the larger town of Chemillé, which was defended by 300 well-armed republican regulars with three cannon. After only four months of brilliant military successes, Cathelineau was mortally wounded in an attack on the city of Nantes. He had done more than any other individual to build up the resistance.
The Catholic army eventually had about 80,000 poorly-armed peasants in the field, but they soon became a formidable force by capturing firearms, artillery pieces and ammunition from the republican regulars. In a string of victories they seized town after town, defeating the best soldiers of the best army in Europe. For one brief space of time there would have been nothing to prevent their marching on Paris. However, like other untrained troops, they tended to squander their victories by disbanding and returning to their homes.
Le grand choc
Mr Davies describes some of the battles and their aftermath. The peasants—known as the Whites, in contrast to the Republican Blues—had a great advantage in their knowledge of the countryside. Their marksmen hid behind hedges and in ditches, picking off their targets: then at the right moment they would suddenly burst out of cover and fling themselves on the Blues in a tactic known as le grand choc.
Perhaps their greatest achievement was the defeat of the Invincible Mayençais at Torfou. These were elite troops who had distinguished themselves against the Prussians in Mayence (Mainz). After a desperate conflict, the Vendéens fled when the Mayençais advanced with fixed bayonets, singing the Marseillaise. The peasants hadn’t gone far when their wives, who were praying at a roadside Calvary, shamed them into facing the enemy once more. The result was a grand choc to end all grands chocs. The Mayençais, who had retreated before no army in Europe, abandoned the town, leaving behind a huge quantity of booty.
The massacre of Savenay
Of course, the run of victories came to an end. In the final battle at Savenay the Vendéens,outnumbered four to one, were overwhelmed after a series of desperate charges. The Blues then took a terrible revenge. General François-Joseph Westermann, known as the Butcher of the Vendée, wrote to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris:
The Vendée no longer exists. It died beneath our sabres with its women and its children. I have buried it in the swamps and woods of Savenay. I crushed the children beneath the hooves of my horses and massacred the women. I do not have one prisoner to reproach myself with; I have exterminated them all. The roads are littered with corpses… It was necessary to feed them with the bread of liberty, and pity is not a revolutionary sentiment.
No indeed. The following year Westermann met his own death at the guillotine. Unfortunately he was not the only crazed ideologue let loose on the Catholics of the Vendée. At Nantes, the unspeakable Jean-Baptiste Carrier solved the problem of prison overcrowding by tying the royalists together in pairs, putting them aboard barges, then drilling holes in the vessels and letting the occupants drown. More than 5,000 Catholics—priests, old men, young men, women and children—were executed by this method.
Carrier believed that trials were a waste of time, as the very fact of being arrested amounted to proof of guilt. He particularly enjoyed watching the executions of priests, and declared: “Never have I had so much amusement as in seeing the last grimaces of priests as they die.” He too perished on the guillotine.
I will spare the reader any further account of these atrocities, but the horrifying examples given by Mr Davies more than prove his contention that the terror unleashed on the Catholics of the Vendée was unparelleled until the advent of Stalin and Hitler. In the search for cost-effective ways of liquidating the royalists, the republicans even investigated the possibility of developing a poison gas. It is estimated that more than a quarter of a million Vendéens were killed. In 1984, one hundred of the victims, known as the martyrs of Avrillé, were beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Piety and ferocity
But surely, readers may quite fairly ask, were the Catholics, for their part, as blameless and lily-white as the Bourbon banner they carried?
The answer, I think, is a complex one. Once on the pilgrimage road to Chartres I was overtaken by a group of pleasant-looking young scouts, singing a most bloodthirsty Vendéen song called La Chasse aux Loups—the Wolf Hunt—dating from those terrible times. The song, which has a refrain like the howling of wolves, illustrates the mixture of piety and ferocity animating the royalist insurgents. (The wolves, of course, are the republican enemy):
Mais pourquoi donc as-tu cousu
Sur ton coeur le Coeur de Jésus
Mis ton chapelet par dessus?
—C’est qu’avant de traquer les loups
Il fait bon se mettre à genoux!
Tihou hou hou hou hou!
(But why have you sewn the Sacred Heart on your chest, with your rosary above it?
—Because before hunting wolves, it’s best to get down on your knees!)
Eh quoi! vas-tu chasser ainsi
Avec le couteau que voici
Sans emporter ton vieux fusil?
Ne sais-tu donc plus que chez nous
C’est au couteau qu’on sert les loups
Tihou hou hou hou hou!
(What! Are you going hunting just with this knife, without bringing your old gun?
—Don’t you know that it’s a knife we use for dealing with wolves!)
Mr Davies admits that there were massacres perpetrated by the Vendéens—but not as a matter of policy, and usually in hot blood. For instance, when the royalist General Stofflet and his men caught up with a republican column who had just murdered 2,000 sick and wounded in a hospital, they wiped them out to the last man.
However, there is no doubt that the Christian faith of the Vendéens acted as a restraining influence. A classic example is an incident involving the White General Joseph-Louis Maurice Gigost d’Elbée, a retired regular army officer and obscure country gentleman who, like Charette and Rochejacquelein, had been been more or less coerced by the peasants into leading them.
His men had just captured hundreds of Blues responsible for slaughtering the inhabitants of the village of Barré, and had locked them into a church, determined to shoot the lot. D’Elbée stood on the steps of the Church, interposing himself between his men and the prisoners. He told them that if Catholics behaved like republicans, they might as well be republicans. Maddened with rage and grief, the Vendéens insisted there must be no mercy, as none had been shown to the people of Barré.
As a last resort, d’Elbée asked his men at least to say one Our Father before carrying out their resolution.
The peasants took off their hats and knelt down. When they reached the words: ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, d’Elbée shouted: ‘Stop! Do you dare to mention God? You are asking Him to forgive you in the same way that you pardon others.’
The 500 Blue prisoners were spared.
Freedom of worship
The aristocrats who headed the revolt could see, unlike the peasantry, that there was little real chance of overturning the Revolution. One of the conditions for a just war, according to the Catholic Church, must be a reasonable prospect of final success. At first sight, one would be inclined to admit that the Vendéen uprising would have failed this test.
And yet…it depends what you mean by final success. True, the Vendée was devastated and the peasant armies were crushed; but a highly effective guerrilla campaign continued for a couple of years after that.The republican authorities were eventually forced to give up trying to abolish the Christian religion in France. The revolutionary government reluctantly realised that without some measure of religious toleration, there was no way they could permanently pacify the Vendée. Mr Davies points out that whether they were aware of it or not, Catholics in Paris owed the restoration of the right to public worship in 1795 to the martyrs of the Vendée.
Then, in 1799 came the coup d’état of Napoleon, which to all intents and purposes overthrew the Republic. When Napoleon, who described the royalist rebels as “giants”, granted complete religious liberty throughout France, the concession was accurately described as the “victory of the Vendée”. Easter 1802 was celebrated in Paris with a solemn Mass in Notre Dame, to mark the resurrection of the Catholic Church in France.
That was not the only positive result of resistance to the Revolution. Nearly 10,000 priests and 31 bishops had been forced into exile in England, where their conduct so impressed their Protestant hosts that many anti-Catholic prejudices were removed. As the Prime Minister William Pitt expressed it:
Few will ever forget the piety, the irreproachable conduct, the long and dolorous patience of those men, cast suddenly into the midst of a foreign people, different in its religion, its language, its manners and its customs. They won the respect and goodwill of all by a life of unvarying godliness and decency.
This contact, says Mr Davies, helped in a large measure to obtain for English Catholics equality of rights, and also pioneered the renaissance of English Catholicism in the 19th century.
In addition, it may well be that the Vendéens played a crucial role in ensuring the defeat of the Napoleonic army at Waterloo in 1815. There was a pro-Bourbon uprising during Napoleon’s “100 days” of power following his escape from Elba, and the Emperor was forced to despatch 20,000 troops to the Vendée. The Duke of Wellington described Waterloo as “a damned close-run thing”: it is more than likely that 20,000 extra French soldiers would have tipped the scales.
It view of all this it can be confidently asserted that the the sacrifices made by the Vendée were not in vain.
I have just one criticism of this remarkable book. It would have been greatly enhanced by a map of the region.
* * * *
Reading through the above, I am aware of the confusion likely to be caused, in an Irish context, by the word “republicans”. Some French people are equally puzzled by the fact that in Ireland, while Catholics tend to be republicans, those who support the Crown are often Presbyterians—disciples of the anti-monarchist Calvin. One of the many ironies of the rebellion of 1798 was that when General Humbert landed in Co. Mayo, the local people thought he had come to restore the Catholic faith.
If Irish nationalism had not mutated into a form of republicanism, a few problems might have been avoided, or at least alleviated. Arthur Griffith’s idea of an Austro-Hungarian-style dual monarchy for two sovereign states of Britain and Ireland was always a non-starter; but to have somebody descended from one of the high kings as hereditary Irish head of state would have certain advantages over the present presidential system. That may seem fanciful, but a man or woman with no personal political or religious agenda beyond fulfilling the letter and spirit of their Constitutional duties (properly interpreted) would surely make a nice change. Just think what a boost someone like King Baudouin of Belgium would have given to the morale of pro-lifers in Ireland..
For Altar and Throne: The Rising in the Vendée was published by The Remnant Press, Morrison Avenue, St Paul, Minnesota 55117 USA, Price $14.95. As far as I know it is still in print.