Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edgeworth De Firmont, Henry Essex

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1161918Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 16 — Edgeworth De Firmont, Henry Essex1888John Goldworth Alger

EDGEWORTH DE FIRMONT, HENRY ESSEX (1745–1807), confessor to Louis XVI, was a son of the Rev. Robert Edgeworth, rector of Edgeworthstown, co. Longford, and a descendant of Francis Edgeworth, who with his brother Edward came over from England about 1582. His mother was a granddaughter of Archbishop Ussher. When Henry was three or four years of age, his father changed his religion owing to a conversation with a protestant prelate who had visited Toulouse, and been much impressed by the catholic rites, but was precluded by age and position from examination of catholic tenets. Robert Edgeworth, leaving one son, Ussher, behind with his kinsmen, resigned the living and settled with his wife and his three other children at Toulouse. On the father's death and the return of the elder brother Robert to Ireland (1769), Henry, who had been educated by the jesuits at Toulouse, was sent to Paris and trained for the priesthood. On being ordained he took the name of De Firmont, from the paternal estate of Firmount, near Edgeworthstown, but in his letters to Irish friends he always signs himself ‘H. Edgeworth.’ He entered the seminary of foreign missions with the intention of being a missionary, but was induced to remain in Paris, devoting himself to the poor and to study and prayer. Bishop Moylan, his old fellow-student at Toulouse, repeatedly pressed him to accept an Irish see, but Edgeworth firmly declined, on the ground of a long cessation of correspondence with his family (Robert had died), imperfect knowledge of English, and the spiritual necessities of the English and Irish in Paris. In July 1789 he likewise declined an invitation to be chaplain to his aunt, Miss Ussher of Eastwell, Galway, who, like her brother James (the author of ‘Clio on Taste’), had embraced catholicism. He had, however, the worst forebodings as to the revolution, and intended, when matters grew serious, to escort his mother and sister as far as London. When the king's aunts left in February 1791 for Rome, they took with them Madier, confessor to Princess Elisabeth, and on her applying to the seminary for a successor Edgeworth was recommended. Elisabeth soon made a friend of him, and he visited her two or three times a week, being the only priest who ventured to go to the Tuileries in ecclesiastical dress. The guards sometimes murmured, but never insulted him. Six weeks before the storming of the Tuileries, Elisabeth, first in writing (which Edgeworth was obliged eventually to destroy) and then verbally, gave him a touching message to be delivered after her death to her favourite brother Charles. The king and queen did not make Edgeworth's acquaintance, perhaps from fear of exposing him to peril. The greater part of the day before the attack on the Tuileries was passed by him in the princess's study. After undergoing two domiciliary visits, in which compromising letters narrowly escaped notice, Edgeworth left the seminary in disguise for Choisy, but on the fugitive Archbishop Juigné appointing him vicar-general he joined his mother and sister in Paris. When the king's trial was impending, Elisabeth recommended Edgeworth to her brother as a pious priest, whose obscurity might save him from subsequent molestation. Sounded by Malesherbes, Edgeworth readily agreed to be the king's last confessor, and accordingly, when sentence had been pronounced, Garat, minister of justice, sent for him and took him in his carriage to the Temple. Not expecting to return alive, Edgeworth had made his will and told his mother that attendance on a dying man might detain him all night. His sister, however, guessed what his mission was. After being rigidly searched lest he had brought the king poison, he was admitted to Louis's presence. The king read him his will, inquired for certain ecclesiastics, and then passed into the adjoining room for his interview with his family, whose piercing sobs Edgeworth could hear through the glass door. With some difficulty Edgeworth obtained permission to celebrate mass, went back at ten to inform the king, received his confession, remained with him till late into the night, took a few hours' rest in an anteroom, and was sent for at five o'clock, when he found an altar prepared and administered the sacrament. Anxious to spare the queen, he induced the king to renounce his promised interview. He sat beside Louis in the hackney coach which conveyed him to the scaffold, and as, with two gendarmes on the opposite seat, private conversation was impossible, he offered the king his breviary, and at his request indicated the most suitable psalms, which Louis and his confessor recited alternately. Until reaching the scaffold Edgeworth had a lingering hope of a rescue, having had an intimation the previous night that this would be attempted. The king on alighting commended Edgeworth to the protection of the gendarmes, and on objecting to being pinioned looked appealingly to him for counsel. Edgeworth replied, ‘Sire, I see in this last insult only one more resemblance between your majesty and the God who is about to be your recompense.’ Louis submitted to the humiliation, and leaned on Edgeworth's arm as he mounted the steps of the scaffold. Edgeworth had no remembrance of the legendary exclamation, ‘Fils de Saint Louis, montez au Ciel,’ and was in such a state of mental tension that he could not tell what he might have uttered. Lacretelle half confesses having invented the phrase for a report of the scene in a Paris newspaper. In any case the legend sprang up almost immediately. When the axe fell Edgeworth knelt, and remained in that posture till the youngest of the executioners, a youth of eighteen, walked round the scaffold with the head and bespattered him with blood. Edgeworth saw where the throng was thinnest and took that direction, way was made for him, and being, like all the priests at this period, in lay dress, he was soon lost in the crowd. He went to Malesherbes, who advised him to quit France, but he had promised not to abandon Princess Elisabeth, with whom he still exchanged occasional letters concealed in balls of silk. After a last interview with his mother he left Paris, changed his place of concealment several times, had some narrow escapes, and in 1796 reached England. Meanwhile his mother had died in captivity, and his sister for thirteen months was dragged from prison to prison. He went to Edinburgh to convey Elisabeth's message to her brother, which was committed to writing and published twenty years afterwards in the ‘Biographie Universelle’ from a copy taken by the Duke of Sérent, tutor to the future Charles X's sons. He refused a pension offered by Pitt, and was about to repair to Ireland when he was asked to carry some papers to Louis XVIII at Blankenberg, Brunswick. Louis induced him to remain as his chaplain, took him to Mittau, and in 1800 sent him to St. Petersburg with the order of the Holy Spirit for the czar, who settled a pension of two hundred ducats on him. In 1806 the 4,000l. produced by the sale of Firmount, and placed out at interest, was lost by the insolvency of the borrower. Edgeworth, anxious not to be a burden on the impoverished Louis XVIII, was advised to explain to Pitt what had happened since the refusal of his original offer, and immediately received a pension. In attending French prisoners at Mittau, Edgeworth contracted a fever, was nursed by Louis XVI's daughter, and expired on 22 May 1807.

[Edgeworth's Memoirs of the Abbé Edgeworth, 1815; Letters from the Abbé Edgeworth, 1818 (both inaccurate on some points); Beauchesne, Vie de Madame Elisabeth; Lacretelle, Précis Historique.]

J. G. A.