In part 16 of Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh’s series, he tells the story of the Irish priest who climbed the steps with King Louis XVI before his execution in France in 1793
There are some moments in history which etch themselves forever onto the consciousness of the human race. One of these is the execution of King Louis XVI on 21 January, 1793, perhaps the most dramatic moment of the French Revolution.
The whole world knows the story, and we all have an image of the unhappy king, surrounded by a mighty crowd, climbing the scaffold where he was beheaded by the guillotine.
What the world tends to overlook is that King Louis did not climb the scaffold alone, but was accompanied by an Irish priest named Henry Essex Edgeworth. Edgeworth was a native of Longford, and his presence at the King’s execution is not the only extraordinary part of his story.
He served as vicar-general of Paris in the absence of its bishop, became a friend of the great statesman Edmund Burke (who translated a French biography of Edgeworth into English), and even visited the Tsar of Russia. On his deathbed, he was nursed by the daughter of the King he had accompanied to the scaffold.
Edgeworth was born in Edgeworthstown, in 1745. He was a relative of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a politician and inventor from whom the town took its name. He was also a distant cousin of Maria Edgeworth, the writer.
The Edgeworths were Protestants, members of the Church of Ireland. Indeed, Henry’s father, Robert, was the rector of Edgeworthstown, but had a crisis of faith when a Church of Ireland bishop candidly told him that Catholic doctrine was true.
The bishop was willing to keep his views on doctrine private, to maintain his position. Robert Edgeworth had too much integrity for that, and converted to Catholicism. Since Catholics were still discriminated against in Ireland, Robert took his family to France, settling in Toulouse. Henry later trained for the priesthood at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Since the French found it difficult to pronounce his name, they called him “The Abbé de Firmont”, after the family’s estate of Fairymount back in Longford. (“Abbé” means “abbot”, but the French used it for any young priest at this time.)
Edgeworth worked in the slums in Paris, refusing the offer of an Irish bishopric. (He would later refuse the invitation to become President of Maynooth College, as well as a pension from the British Prime Minister – although he had to accept this eventually, out of sheer necessity).
As France was embroiled in the Revolution, he became the confessor of Princess Elisabeth, the King’s sister. Many priests were carried along on the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm, but Henry was firmly opposed to it from the start.
It was Edgeworth’s connection to the Princess that led King Louis, after he was sentenced to death, to choose the Irishman as his own personal confessor.
As Edgeworth made his way to the fortress where the King was imprisoned, he expected he would lose his own life at the hands of the revolutionaries. The King spent his last evening in conversation with Edgeworth, who celebrated Mass for him at six a.m. on the morning of the execution.
A story circulated that the priest’s last words to the King, just before execution, were, “Son of St. Louis, ascend to Heaven.” Edgeworth, however, could not remember saying these words.
Despite his fears, Edgeworth managed to disappear into the crowds immediately after the King had met his fate. He spent the next three years in hiding, still corresponding with and supporting the Princess Elizabeth, until she was executed in 1794. Soon afterwards he escaped to Britain, where he was lionized and became a friend of Edmund Burke.
In 1797, Edgeworth left England for Germany to deliver some important documents to the brother of Louis XVI, who claimed the French crown and would eventually become King Louis XVIII.
He expected to be gone only a few weeks, but would in fact spend the rest of his life in the court-in-exile of the future King as it moved from place to place.
He died of a fever in Jelgava in Latvia, then a part of the Russian Empire. He was sixty-two.
Edgeworth’s account of King Louis XVI’s last hours is a hugely important historical document.
He describes the King as meeting his death with courage and dignity, and speaking these words on the scaffold, “’I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.”
Read Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh’s series on Irish Priests every month in Ireland’s Own