L'Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont

The Missions Etrangères, rue du Bac
From Mostrim, Co. Longford (now Edgeworthstown) to Toulouse, then to Paris and finally to Mittau near Saint Petersburg, with brief stays in Warsaw, the Duchy of Brunswick and London in between: the peregrinations of Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth (Mostrim, Co. Longford, 1745 - Mittau, (now Jelgava, Latvia), 1807) in themselves suggest an eventful life. But Abbé Edgeworth’s main claim to fame comes from his presence beside King Louis XVI on the day the latter was guillotined on the Place de la Concorde (then called Place de la Révolution, 8th arrondissement) on January 21, 1793.

Edgeworth had been brought up in Toulouse from the age of four, after his father had left Ireland and converted from Protestantism. When his father died, the family moved to Paris. The first 44 years of the Abbé’s existence actually appear to have been relatively tranquil. Thus, for 20 years, he lived at the Missions Etrangères at the corner of rue de Babylon and rue de Bac (7th arrondissement, see photo), engaging in pastoral work, while his mother and sister lived close by in the Franciscan College in the rue de Bac. But his life changed dramatically with the French Revolution in 1789. 

           Edgeworth's chasuble
Suspected (rightly) of being an out-an-out royalist, his apartment was searched by the Revolutionary authorities on several occasions. Fears for his own safety can only have been exacerbated by the massacre of hundreds of priests in the nearby Church of the Carmelites in September 1792, after which he escaped to a village outside the city. By this time, he had become confessor to Madame Elisabeth, who then recommended him to her brother, the deposed king Louis XVI. Thus it was that Edgeworth, while still on the run, was called to the king’s cell in the Temple prison (3rd arrondissement, address no longer exists) on the eve of the latter’s execution in January 1793 and stayed with him throughout the night. (By this time, the Archbishop of Paris, who had been obliged to flee, had handed responsibility for the diocese of Paris to Edgeworth). On the morning of January 21, 1793, after celebrating Mass, Edgeworth and the king were driven through the streets of Paris as far as Place de la Concorde, with the journey taking two hours because of the crowds.

Edgeworth was not the only Irishman on the Place de la Concorde that day. Charles Kearney, who had been superior of the Irish College (and who Edgeworth had named as interpreter to a French nobleman in England the previous year), was also on the scene as a “simple spectator”.  John and Henry Sheares, who were both to be executed for their part in Robert Emmet's rebellion in 1803, were  also probably present. According to J. G. Alger, it was John Sheares who, "crossing over to England in the same packet with young Daniel O'Connell, the future Liberator, then a staunch tory, exultantly exhibited a hankerchief dipped in Louis XVI's blood".

Edgeworth accompanied the king up the steep steps leading to the guillotine, and as the blade fled, he was sprinkled with the king’s blood. As the writer François René de Châteaubriand put it, “a foreigner sustained the Monarch at his last hourit seemed as if there were not a single Frenchman left who was loyal to his sovereign.” Miraculously, Edgeworth himself escaped through the crowd, helped by the fact that the clergy were obliged by Revolutionaries to wear lay dress. In a letter to his brother, Ussher, he later wrote:

“All eyes were fixed on me, as you may suppose; but as soon as I reached the first line, to my greatest surprise, no resistance was made. The second line opened in the same manner and when I got to the fourth or fifth, my coat, being a common surtout (for 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 Malesherbes residence

Edgeworth initially made it to a milliner’s shop across the river in the rue de Bac, and then sought refuge in the town house of Lamoignon de Malesherbes, in the rue de Pavée (see photo, 4th arrondissement) in the Marais district. Malesherbes had defended Louis XVI at his trial and was himself to be arrested before the end of 1793 and executed on April 22, 1794.

Edgeworth remained on the run for three and a half more years, never staying in the same house for more than two nights in a row while in Paris, before he finally made it to England. The Abbé then caught up with the exiled Louis XVIII in Blankenberg (Duchy of Brunswick) and then followed him to Mittau and (briefly) Warsaw. Edgeworth died at Mittau from typhus contracted from wounded French soldiers he treated after the Battle of Eylau in 1807 (the same battle in which another Irishman, colonel Bernard MacSheehy, lost his life. The palace where Edgeworth and the French royal family lived out their exil is now called Jelgava palace in Latvia. The palace was razed to the ground during the Second World War, although its facade was later rebuilt.
But the Abbé Edgeworth is not the only Irishman to have had close contact with French royalty. Louis XIV had a certain Owen O’Shiel as a physician, for example, while the favourite mistress of his great grandson, Louis XV was one Louison O’Murphy.



Select Bibliography
An Irishman’s Revolution: the Abbé Edgeworth and Louis XVI (1989)
Vivienne Abbott
Mémoires de M. l’Abbe Edgeworth de Firmont recueillis par C. Sneyd Edgeworth (1817)
Henri Essex Edgeworth de Firmont
“Henry Essex Edgeworth”, Catholic Encyclopedia article, available at www.newadvent.org
"The British Colony in Paris, 1792-1793", J.G. Alger, in The English Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 52 (Oct. 1898)