Abbé Edgeworth: King Louis’ Irish Confessor

Among the singularities of the French monarchy was the tradition of having Scottish bodyguards. Scottish history has not been riddled with pacifism, and the Scots along with the fiery Castilians, were used as mercenaries as early as Charlemagne. An “Auld Alliance” between Scotland and France was sealed in 1295, and in the dark war days of 1942, Charles de Gaulle invoked it as “the oldest alliance in the world.”  In 1418, as Charles VI began to go mad, the Dauphin called on Scottish troops to support his cause against Henry V.  They were victorious at the battle of Baugé in 1421, prompting Pope Martin V to comment: “The Scots are well known as an antidote to the English.” St. Joan of Arc entered besieged Orleans in 1429 with a retinue of 130 Scots guards protecting her and playing on bagpipes the same tune, “Hey Tuttie Taiti,” that had been played for Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn a century before. The guards and pipers were also present with Joan at the coronation of the Dauphin as Charles VII at Rheims.  The new king chose one hundred of the Scots as his personal bodyguards to honor their heroism when 6,000 of their number died at the Battle of Verneuil in 1424. The “Garde Ecossaise” later became “Garde de la Manche” since they escorted the king close enough to be touched by his sleeve. By the eighteenth century, some of them were more French than Scottish but they wore the thistle and carried claymore with basket guards of steel, guarding the French kings until Charles X abdicated in the July Revolution of 1830.  They served as a poignant reminder of the Auld Alliance that lasted until 1906, and as late as then, anyone born in Scotland could have dual citizenship with France.

This recalls another Celtic curiosity: the priest who accompanied King Louis XVI to his execution was Irish.  Rarely does anyone ask why the French king had an Irish confessor.  Like the Garde Ecossaise, there is of course an explanation, and an edifying one at that.

Abbé_EdgeworthHenry Essex Edgeworth was born in County Longford at Firmount, the ancestral home of the Edgeworths who had come from Middlesex, England during the reign of Elizabeth in 1582. In their house, Oliver Goldsmith had learned to read and write. Some accounts claim Henry as a great great grandson of the third cousin of Archbishop James Ussher, the seventeenth century Anglican Primate of Ireland who was a first rate classicist but a less distinguished historian, as he used the date of King Nebuchadnezzar’s death to calculate that the world was created on October 23, 4004 BC.  His contemporary, John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, outdid him by dating the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden at 10 AM on Monday, November 10 in the same year.  Just as Edgeworth eventually would do, Ussher consoled his sovereign Charles I in prison during his last night on earth in 1649 and accompanied him to his execution but fainted before the axe was brought down.

Henry’s mother, Martha, was the daughter of Christopher Ussher of Wicklow, an unyielding Protestant who wrote in his Last Will:  “My daughters Catherine Ussher and Martha Edgeworth are turned Roman Catholiques and have quitted me and my family and all natural ties to them and their country. I leave them one shilling each, with my blessing.”  Henry’s father Robert was an Anglican clergyman whose own family was not unfriendly to Catholics. One of them recalled: “The Roman Catholic Bishop M‘Gaurin, held a Confirmation the day before yesterday, and dined here on a God-send haunch of venison.” The Reverend Robert Edgeworth made an intense profession of the Catholic Faith and left the Penal Laws behind for France with his wife, his sister-in-law Catherine, and his youngest son Henry who began studies in Toulouse and eventually was ordained in Paris. He had hoped to become a foreign missionary and lived at the residence of Les Missions Etrangers, working with all ranks of the agitated populace, gaining a great following among the poorest, and counseling expatriate English and Irish, converting some Protestants among them. He chose not to accept the offer of a bishopric back in Ireland, so that he might minister to the poor Savoyards of Paris. At the outbreak of the Revolution, the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Antoine Le Clerc, de Juigné nominated him as confessor to Madame Elizabeth, the sister of Louis XVI and he visited her frequently in prison.  His mother and sister joined him in Paris, his mother eventually dying in captivity while his sister died later.  The Archbishop gave the Abbé Henri Essex Edgeworth de Firmont the title Grand Vicaire, with responsibility for all the Catholics of Paris, and fled for is own life to Germany.  An aunt in Galway asked him to flee and be her chaplain, as she had also become Catholic, but he used as an excuse that his English had become poor after many years abroad. A letter to a priest in London told the truth:

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.

The evening before January 21, 1793, the Abbé fell in tears at the King’s feet. Louis helped him up, made his last confession and then bade farewell to the Queen and their children. The Commune having reluctantly allowed the Abbé to put on vestments, as clerical dress had been forbidden, he said Mass and gave the King his last Communion.  The two stayed together until dawn:

The King, finding himself seated in the carriage, where he could neither speak to me nor be spoken to without witness, kept a profound silence. I presented him with my breviary, the only book I had with me, and he seemed to accept it with pleasure: he appeared anxious that I should point out to him the psalms that were most suited to his situation, and he recited them attentively with me. The gendarmes, without speaking, seemed astonished and confounded at the tranquil piety of their monarch, to whom they doubtless never had before approached so near….

In one of his last gestures, the King placed his hand on Edgeworth’s knee and then told the guard to take care of his priest. Louis appeared shocked when the guards began to bind his hands. Edgeworth told him: “Suffer this outrage, as a last resemblance to that God who is about to be your reward.”  The youngest of the executioners, eighteen years old, held the King’s head high and let some of the blood splatter on the Abbé. He slipped through the crowd: “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…. I was not permitted, on this occasion, to wear any exterior marks of a priest. 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.”

The Abbé first took refuge in the Rue du Bac where the Blessed Mother would appear to Catherine Labouré in 1830. After a stay in Bayeux, he crossed to England in 1796 and went to Scotland to see the King’s brother, the comte d’Artois. Prime Minister Pitt offered him a large pension which he accepted, though he declined the presidency of Maynooth seminary and honors from King Louis XVIII. He joined the exiled household of Louis in Blankenberg and moved with them to Mittau in Russia. Louis delegated him to go to St. Petersburg and present the Order of the Holy Spirit to Czar Paul who, moved by the transparent piety of Edgeworth, knelt and begged his blessing. Back in Mittau he contracted typhus from nursing sick French soldiers stranded during the Napoleonic campaign. Risking contagion, the Princess Marie-Therese, daughter of Louis XVI, attended the deathbed of the “beloved and revered invalid, her more than friend, who had left kindred and country for her family.”

The Abbé Edgeworth never claimed to have said the words ascribed to him as the King climbed the steps to the guillotine, and many suppose they were as apocryphal as Newton’s apple or the three hundred Spartans who stopped the army of Xerxes, but they were dear to Macaulay:  “Montez au ciel, fils de Saint Louis.  Climb up to heaven, son of Saint Louis.”

Louis XVIII did him the rare honor of personally composing his epitaph, and in splendid Latin, too:

Here lies the Very Reverend Henry Essex Edgeworth de Firmont, a priest, of the Holy Church of God: Vicar General of the Diocese of Paris, etc., Who following in the steps of our Redeemer, was an Eye to the Blind, a Staff to the Lame, a Father to the Poor, and a Consoler of the Afflicted. When Louis XVI was delivered over to Death by his impious and rebellious subjects, he gave the resolute Martyr strength for his last struggle and pointed out to him the opening Heavens. Snatched from the hands of regicides by the wonderful protection of God, he voluntarily attached himself to Louis XVIII, when he signified his wish for his services To whom and to whose Royal Family and Faithful Comrades, he proved himself for a space of ten years, an example of Virtue and an Assuager of misfortune. Driven from kingdom to kingdom by the calamity of the times, he went about doing good, ever like to Him who possessed his sole devotion. At length full of good works, he died the 22nd May, the year of our Lord, 1807, aged 62. May he rest in peace.

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

  • jpct50

    Father Rutler brings the most interesting and intriguing aspects of history together in such a way that is always an amazingly rich feast for the reader. Thank you Father.

  • Athanasius

    Truly fascinating article, Fr.
    My own ‘Catholic story’ involves the French, Scots and Irish (I am both an English and Irish citizen, and live in Wales!)
    My Catholicism comes to me from my maternal family. My father was a nominal Anglican as are all on my paternal side. There is a tradition in my mother’s family of the Holy Rosary being taught to the children at the grandmother’s knee. My great-grandmother was French, my grandmother was Scottish, and my mother is Irish – my mother was taught to pray the Rosary in French as a consequence, but, sadly, the tradition died out there as my own grandmother never taught me anything at all about religion, and my mother has never been anything but nominal. Thankfully, I was baptised Catholic as an infant, though, and came to knowledge of the faith as an Undergraduate in my early twenties. I taught myself how to say the Rosary, and, in time, taught my own children. Last year our first grandchild was born, and my wife is now looking forward to re-establishing the tradition in our family of teaching the grandchildren their Rosary.

    • you stole my name but I am not offended as, I believe, Sir, we have met.

  • Roma

    An erudite and engaging essay with considerable literary grace. I commend the reverend author to the Martyr-King Louis XVI in thanksgiving for my spiritual and intellectual refection this day.

  • musicare

    It’s a beautiful account that leaves one breathless! What a saintly priest and comforter of all he encountered! The story continues in an interesting way as we recount how the Fathers of Mercy started out as picking up the pieces after the diabolical French Revolution.

  • Splendid article, Reverende. Would You be so kind as to provide, also, the Latin text Louis XVIII’s epitaph?

    • Fr. George Rutler

      This is the original epitaph. I am saddened to think that our nation does not have a Head of State who is capable of such fine Latinity.

      Hic Jacet Reverendissimus Vit Henricus
      Essex Edgeworth de Firmont Sancti Dei Ecclesiae Sacerdos. Vicarius Generalis
      Ecclesiae Parisiensis qui Redemptoris Nostri Vestigia Tenens Oculus CAECO PES
      CLAUDO PATER PAUPERUM. Maerentium Consolator Fuit. Ludovicum XVI. Ab Impiis
      Rebellibusque Subditis Morti Deditum ad Ultimum Certamen. Roboravit, Strenuoque
      Martri Caelos Opertos Ostendit. E Manibus Regicidarum Mira Dei Protectione
      Ereptus, Ludovico XVIII. Eum ad Se Vocanti Ultro Occurrens, Ei Per Decem Annos,
      Regiae Ejus Familiae, Necnon et Fidelibus Sodalibus, Exemplar Virtutuum,
      Levamen Malorum, Sese Praebuit. Per Multas Et Vari Regiones Temporum Calamitate
      Actus, Illi, Quem Sulum Colebat, Semper Similis Pertransiit Benefactiendo,
      Plenum Tandem Bonis Operibus Obiit Die 22 Maii Mensis ANNO DOMINI 1807. aetatis
      vero suae 62. Requiescat in pace.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The Scots free companies did, indeed, accompany St Joan of Arc to Rheims. En route, they were prominent in taking the town of Jargeau, the bridge at Meung-sur-Loire, the town of Beaugency and in the utter defeat and rout of the English relief force at the battle of Patay.

    St Joan had warned them that the Dauphin had no money to pay them, to which that old freebooter, Sir Anthony Kennedy retorted “Since when did we need paying to fight the English.” Now, that was a miracle

    He never did get paid, but he did get an augmentation of honour to his arms – his own arms quartered with the royal arms of France,

    which his descendant (my neighbour in Ayrshire) still bears.

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  • slainte

    Were the Scottish mercenaries, soldiers, and guards who assisted in France lowlanders, highlanders, or a combination of both?
    What language did they speak?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Until the Reformation, there were troops of both Highland and Lowland Scots, the former speaking Gaelic and the latter Lallands (the Scots dialect of English). Among the Lowlanders, the Border Reivers and Moss Troopers of Dumfries and Galloway were well represented

      After the Reformation, they came mostly from the Catholic West Highlands, especially Moidart, Arisaig, Knoydart, Morar, Glengarry and Lochaber and the islands of Barra and Uist

      • slainte

        I understand that the Reformation reinforced a sense of religious allegiance between Scottish Calvinist Lowlanders (Presbyterians) and their English Calvinist brethren to the south in Yorkshire (Puritans); and from this religious allegiance came a political bonding uniting both groups in a deep seated anti-Catholicism. Is this the basis for retreating from intervention in Catholic France?

        Was the Highland clearances a measure to purge Catholicism by removing its adherents? Was there also a racial element present in Scotland at the time, ie., a general disdain for the Celt highlander vis a vis the English/Germanic lowlander?

        I wonder how this racial/religious divide played into the experience of the Anglo/Irish Edgeworth family in the County Longford, Ireland.

        Thank you for your perspective.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          It is certainly true that, during the Reformation, the Catholic party, led by the Regent, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, was the national party, whilst the Reformers sought support from Protestant England. Mary of Guise was French herself; one of her brothers was Duke of Lorraine and two of them, Charles of Lorraine and Louis of Guise were Cardinals and she married her daughter Mary to the Dauphin, later Francis II of France.

          Nevertheless, Calvinism was a popular movement in the Lowlands, spreading very rapidly, in defiance of government. In the Highlands, people were Catholic, Episcopalian or Presbyterian by clans.

          The motive behind the Clearances was economic, with vast areas being turned into sheep-walk and it affected Covenanters, like the Camerons and Catholics, like the MacDonalds in equal measure.

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