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Henry Essex Edgeworth - Witness to Louis XVI's Death

Henry Essex Edgeworth - Witness to Louis XVI's Death Famous Historical Events Famous People Social Studies Trials World History Visual Arts

Henry Essex Edgeworth - an Irish cleric who was living in France - became Louis XVI’s spiritual advisor during his final days. This image depicts Edgeworth.

In a letter to a friend in London - a fellow priest whose name was Mr. Maffey - Edgeworth relates some of the events leading-up to the King’s death. People wanted him to flee for his own safety, but he couldn’t abandon Louis.

These words are from Edgeworth’s letter to Maffey:

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 Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference, Volume 5 - edited by Charles George Herbermann - at page 283.)

Of course, the “last act of cruelty” did take place.

On the 20th of January, 1793, Edgeworth was summoned to the Temple prison, where “Louis Capet” - as the King was now called - was preparing for his death on the following day. Edgeworth stayed with the King until the guillotine severed the monarch's head.

The priest wrote about that, too. Here are some of his words:

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… (Edgeworth, quoted in Authentic Memoirs of the Revolution in France: And of the Sufferings of the Royal Family - Deduced Principally from Accounts by Eye-witnesses, printed in London during 1817, at page 290.)

Accompanying the King to the guillotine’s scaffold, Edgeworth saw Louis’ reaction when a young soldier started to bind the King’s hands. Edgeworth assured him to let it go, using these words:

Suffer this outrage, as a last resemblance to that God who is about to be your reward. (Quoted in The History of the French Revolution, Volume 2, by M. A. Thiers, published in New York during 1883, at page 77.)

Believing that revolutionary forces would also arrest and kill him, Edgeworth was surprised when no one came forward to grab him:

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. (Quoted in Louis Blanc’s “French Revolution,” published during 1863 in The Edinburgh Review, Or Critical Journal, Volume 118, at page 137.)

Later, Edgeworth went to Russia. In 1807, when Napoleon’s army came through that country - during Napoleon’s failed effort to create a vast empire - some of his soldiers became ill. They were taken to the Russian town of Mittau, where Edgeworth was living, and the French-speaking cleric was asked to help with the soldiers’ spiritual requests.

As it happened, the soldiers had typhus. Edgeworth caught the disease from the people he’d tried to help.

When Louis XVI’s only-surviving child - Princess Marie-Therese - heard about Edgeworth’s plight, she traveled to his bedside. She wanted to be with her:

...beloved and revered invalid, her more than friend, who had left kindred and country for her family. (Joseph Guinan, quoting Edgeworth and the Princess, in his article on Edgeworth for The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference, Volume 5 at pages 283-4.)

Click on the image for a better view.


Media Credits

Image of Henry Essex Edgeworth, online courtesy Nobility.org

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