Vendée Catholics during the French Revolution

Vendée Catholics during the French Revolution

James Bogle

The Vendée is a region of France lying in the west of that country, bordering the great Loire river in the north and the coast of France on the west. It is a region whose name will be forever linked with loyalty to the Catholic Church. During the French Revolution it remained entirely loyal to the Church and to the Catholic monarchy of France, as did Brittany, the region to the north of the Loire river. The Vendeans could be distinguished throughout the civil war by the Rosaries they always wore around their necks, the Scapulars on their breasts and the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sewn onto their lapels or their broad hats. They went to war as they did to the fields - in bare feet or in clogs.

They also wore the famous "Cockard Blanche" - the White Cockade - in their caps. This symbol of "legitimate Christian monarchy" had also been worn by that generation of Scotsmen, Englishmen and Irishmen who had fought for the Catholic Stuart monarchy in Britain and Ireland.

James Bogle, who provides this account of the Vendean struggle for religious freedom in the period between 1790-1801, is a barrister of the Middle Temple, London, and a former officer of Hussars in the British Army.

Myths surround the story of the French Revolution. Truth has been obscured by the conventional wisdom of fashionable Marxism. The uprising in the Vendée in defence of the Catholic faith is dismissed as a "counter-revolutionary" plot hatched by the nobility and the clergy afraid of losing their power and status.

The simple truth is that the Vendean rising was begun by neither cleric nor noble. It was begun by the peasants. In the Vendée, the priests were poor and devoted and the nobility, scarcely richer than the clergy, were equally attached to the people who therefore had no desire to reform the manners of the one nor to curtail the privileges of the other.

The Vendean rising occurred when France's revolutionary government began to restrict Catholic worship. On 24 August 1790 the decisive blow came with the unfortunate King Louis XVI forced to give royal assent to the civil constitution of the clergy, by which the Church of France was turned from being Catholic into a mere national establishment, defying the authority of the Pope. The spark of insurrection was instantly lit, although more than two years passed before it burst into flames.

The regime also brought in what are now familiar revolutionary policies: a stream of arbitrary laws on nationalisation, wage and price-fixing, arbitrary powers to municipal councils, taxes, levies and ultimately requisition and expropriation. The Catholic clergy remained as a force to challenge these injustices. The regime therefore enforced their replacement by schismatic clergy who had taken the civil oath.

All this was massively rejected by the Vendée and elsewhere. Churches served by the "intruder-priests" - curés truttons as they were called - were deserted. The people went to hear Mass in the woods with their old pastors who had refused the oath and gone into hiding to avoid arrest. The government attempted to force the people to hear the Mass of the "truttons", but the people refused. BarilIon, a labourer in Lower Poitou, armed only with a fork, resisted the gendarmes of the new National Guard. "Yield," cried the officer. "First yield me my God," was the reply. He was duly bayoneted 22 times by the gendarmes.

The first insurrection arose in Brittany in February 1791 and then spread to the Vendée. It was greeted with brutal savagery. On August 10th the Tuileries Palace was stormed and the King taken prisoner. On August 16th a law was passed ordering the general deportation of Catholic priests who had not sworn the oath. At Bressuire 7,000 peasants rebelled. They were defeated and the prisoners massacred in cold blood.

In September 1792 the Republic was proclaimed and on 21 January 1793, the King and Queen were guillotined. The news was greeted with profound shock. The Republic thought it had silenced the peasants, but in fact they were preparing for all-out-war. Early in March 1793 the whole West rose, the peasants leading.

At Pin-èn-Mauges, near St Florent, lived Jacques Cathelineau, a 35-year-old wheelwright and most devout Catholic. A party of insurgents came to him and implored him to help save those threatened by the republicans. "They must be saved," he said, looking up to heaven in prayer. "What will become of us," cried his wife surrounded by his five children. "Have confidence," he said, "God will be with us." An army of 3,000 was raised and secured the first victories of the Vendée.

Leadership

The people, having risen up, realised that they had no natural leaders. They were skilled shots, horsemen and some could use cannon but they were not versed in the arts of military strategy. They needed the nobles to provide leadership. One of them, the Marquis de Borichamps, 33 years old, had seen active service in America and India. A gifted military strategist, he held no illusions about the chances of success. Nonetheless, he acceded to the pressure of his peasants. His parting words to his wife were, "Courage, my dear, it is not on earth that we must seek our reward."

Another gentleman was prevailed upon to join the insurgents with Bonchamps. Maurice d'Elbée, 40-years-old and a former Lieutenant in the Legers Horse, he, too, was reluctant saying to his tenants, "My children, you know I have never deceived you and I shall not now. I am ready to die for God and the King but I cannot command men who are not worthy to be martyrs." He sent them back to their wives telling them to reflect upon the likely ruin to their families and only return if they had the courage to die. The next morning an even greater crowd thronged the avenue to his chateau at Beaupreau. Thus did Elbée agree to become their chief.

One name is ineradicably linked with the rising. François-Athanase Charette de la Contrie was 30-years-old and had been a lieutenant in the navy when the revolution broke out but resigned his command rather than take the oath of the constitution. Charette turned from luxury and ease to endure privation, famine and fatigue. He had a natural instinctive tactical ability which enabled his army to survive longest of all the Vendean troops. But he was also highly independent and frequently refused to take part in battles which did not suit him, with dire results for the other armies.

The Vendean peasants also chose generals from among the people, They quickly chose Jacques Cathelineau for his natural ability to lead and he became known as "the saint of Anjou" for his piety. They also chose Jean-Nicolas Stofflet, a 40-year-old gamekeeper. He shared the courage of Cathelineau, though he was not as pious. He was indefatigable and had a commanding presence in battle especially when it fared badly.

Henri, Marquis de la Rochejacquelein, was the youngest Vendean leader at 20 years of age. He had previously held a commission as a Second-Lieutenant in the Royal Polish regiment of cavalry. Once persuaded by the peasants to join the fight he addressed them, saying, I will show myself worthy. If I advance follow me; if I flinch, cut me down; if I fall, avenge me." Although reserved, gentle and modest, he was without fear in battle and his conduct was marked by a reckless contempt of danger. Of all the chiefs he was the most popular among the peasants, who called him "Monsignor Henri." He was a leader after their own hearts, always in the front rank.

De La Rochejacquelein defeated the republicans, now called the "Blues", at Aubiers and Bressuire, and three fresh chiefs joined the insurrection - de Marigny, de Donissan and Louis, Marquis de Lescure. Lescure and Donissan were cousins of Monsignor Henri. Lescure rivalled his cousin in bravery but possessed a wiser judgment. At 26 he was mature and of firm principle and faith.

The other leaders of the Vendeans included the clergy of whom the Abbé Bernier was the most able. Seldom have judgment and resolution been united to such enthusiasm. If his influence with the generals was great, it was still greater with the peasants. He was instrumental in the supreme councils of the Vendeans and became the chief adviser of Stoffiet.

After the victorious battles of Fontenay and Chemille in April and May 1793, the Vendeans were organised into a united force: the Grand Catholic and Royal Army. It numbered many thousands with cavalry and artillery. Among its ranks were even a few women who disguised themselves as men, such as Renée Bordereau, called "the Angevin," who fought in Bonchamps' cavalry to avenge her father's death.

The post of Commander-in-Chief fell upon Cathelineau. It was an inspired choice. He was eminently suited and the republican taunt that the Vendean uprising was an aristocratic plot was thereby given the lie. In fact, it was the republican army that was dominated by ex-aristocrats.

The Vendeans secured an extraordinary number of astonishing victories against impossible odds. After taking the city of Angers, the Grand Army council decided to attack Nantes. The city was well defended, however. It was in this battle that Cathelineau was mortally wounded. The Vendeans were easily demoralised by the fall of their chiefs and the army dissolved with the peasants returning to their homes. The "Blues" advanced rapidly into the Vendée. but fortunately the Grand Army was soon revived. Fortune caused d'Elbée to be appointed Commander-in-chief although Bonchamps was, in fact, the better soldier and probably should have been chosen.

In September 115,000 soldiers of the republican "Army of Mayence" attacked. Incredibly, the Vendeans turned them back but, due to a number of tactical errors, the "Blues" finally prevailed and the Grand Army was forced back to the Loire. D'Elbé, Bonchamps and Lescure were wounded. The republicans - in what was to be their hallmark - then indulged in a wholesale massacre of prisoners, not excluding women, children and the elderly.

Tide turns

At St Florent the Vendeans set to cross the Loire but came upon 5,000 prisoners held in a Church and determined to shoot them all. The weakened voices of Bonchamps and Lescure were heard to forbid this "horror" and to order mercy. This was to become characteristic of the Vendeans. "It is my last order," said Bonchamps, "tell me it will be obeyed." It was - to the letter. He then died, fortified by the last rites of the Church. A statue remains above his tomb at St Florent to this day marked with the words Grace aux prisonniers. Bonchamps l'ordonne - "Mercy to the prisoners. Bonchamps orders it."

The tide, however, had turned against the Vendeans, although each time the republican Convention declared that the Vendée was finally silenced, the Grand Army would win another victory against terrible odds. They sought to cross the Loire and establish a bridgehead. The "Blues" attacked constantly but were repulsed, whereupon they fell upon women and the unarmed and massacred them, not hesitating to rape and dishonour. Soon after the crossing, Lescure died of his wounds and d'Elbée was captured by the "Blues" and shot.

By now in command of the Grand Army, Henri de la Rochejacquelein won a victory at Chollet on 28 January 1794. Finding two grenadiers in the act of surrender, he approached offering them quarter, but one of them shot him through the head. The death of this great hero, so young and so popular, signalled the true end of the Grand Army.

In Nantes a reign of terror commenced under the brutal, sadistic Carrier. He devised the Noyades in which boat-loads of priests were taken out into the Loire and sunk. Calling the Loire a "truly revolutionary river" he invented the "republican marriage" - two Vendeans tied naked together, a man and a woman, displayed and mocked in a public place and then thrown into the river to drown.

Then a new republican general arrived in the West, Louis-Marie Turreau, formerly Count de Carrambouville, infamous for commanding the "infernal columns" which marched through the Vendée burning, pillaging, raping, bayoneting and attempting to kill every living thing. This was undertaken by order of the Committee of Public Salvation (Safety) in Paris: "Exterminate every brigand to the last - that is your duty." The Vendée was renamed Vengé meaning "avenged." The columns marched all over the Vendée for seven months from January until July 1794, wreaking havoc. The naked bodies of women and children were left fallen or hanging from trees and posts. No prisoners were taken.

But even all this did not cow the Vendeans who rallied to their remaining chiefs. Charette had not participated in the battles north of the Loire and his army remained intact. The "Blues" once again found themselves on the defensive. The four remaining great chiefs then made an accord in April 1794: Charette, Stoffiet, de Sapinaud and de Marigny.

In July, Robespierre, symbol of the "terror," was guillotined in his turn by the "national razor," as it was mockingly called. The Convention began to sue for peace with the Vendeans. Liberty of worship was restored and Charette entered Nantes in triumph in February 1795. The republicans, however, treated the peace as an opportunity to re-arm and soon began to resile from their promises. The war recommenced.

In Brittany, the Royalists had begun to achieve great success against the Republic. They were called "Chouans" after Jean Chouan, the Breton guerrilla who had scored victory after victory. Other peasant leaders arose in Brittany such as Louis Treton, nicknamed Jambe d'Argent - "Silver leg." He fought not for pay, nor even for the Crown, but only to restore the Catholic religion. He was worthy to be ranked with Cathelineau.

Charette requested the presence of the King or his brother to galvanise the energies of the Vendeans and Chousans. On 15 October 1795, 15,000 troops awaited the arrival of the Count d'Artois, the King's brother. He never arrived. "Monsignor, you have brought me my death warrant! Today I have 15,000 men; tomorrow I shall have barely 1,500!" cried Charette to the Marquis de Grignon, the King's messenger. Hope faded and parishes began to lay down their arms.

The last of Charette's forces were tracked down, with the republican General Hoche winning success by offering freedom of worship. Stofflet continued the fight on the orders of the Count d'Artois but without illusions. He was betrayed and captured on 25 February 1796 and shot at Angers, shouting "Long live the Catholic religion! Long live the King!" Only Charette remained and his forces eluded the "Blues" for a time until he was eventually wounded and captured and, on 29 March 1796, taken to Nantes to be shot. With him went all hope for the Vendean uprising.

Concordat

Yet, still the war was not over. Both Chouans and Vendeans, despite the desperate state of the countryside, continued the battle so long as full freedom was denied to the Church. A general mobilisation was set for 15 October 1799 and, once again, republican villages fell. Even Nantes was taken on 20 October. But the victories were short-lived.

By now, however, the Directory had fallen and a new leader appeared: Napoleon Bonaparte. He immediately began to treat with the Vendean religious leader, Abbé Bernier. By December full liberty was restored to the Church. However, the Vendée was only calmed after 15 July 1801, with the signing of the Concordat between the Pope and Bonaparte.

Bonaparte exempted the Vendeans from conscription, gave them full indemnity and facilitated reconstruction. The government recognised Catholicism as the religion of "the great majority of the French" but required an oath of fidelity which was no better than that of 1790. Thirteen bishops refused and the 'Little Church' was founded. Nevertheless, the Vendeans had won back freedom for the Church. But the cost in human life and suffering had been incalculable.

In this great epic of heroism, endurance and sacrifice it has been said that the Vendean struggle was a costly failure. It was certainly costly; but not a failure. The peasants fought to restore the King, the Catholic religion, and to avoid service in the revolutionary militia. In the last two they were successful and visibly so. True, they did not immediately restore the King, but the monarchy returned in due course. That it did not remain long was no fault of the Vendeans.

The great success of Catholic missionaries in the following century grew in part out of the memory of the witness given by the brave Vendean peasants. It remains a story to confound today's atheists and to nourish the spirits of Christians everywhere.

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