Englishmen in the French Revolution/Chapter II

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At the Embassy.

"Why vex and torment yourself about the French? They buzz
and are troublesome while they are swarming, but the master will
soon hive them."—LANDOR, Imaginary Conversations.



Duke of Dorset—Lord R. Fitzgerald—Earl Gower—Huskisson—

The British Embassy at first fully shared in the general enthusiasm. The Duke of Dorset, though a favourite with Marie Antoinette, sent the Duke of Leeds a glowing despatch on the fall of the Bastille:—

"Nothing," he wrote on July 16, 1789, "could exceed the regularity and good order with which all this extraordinary business [the assumption of the government of Paris by a Volunteer National Guard] has been conducted. Of this I have myself been a witness upon several occasions during the last three days as I have passed through the streets, nor had I at any moment reason to be alarmed for my personal safety. . . . Thus, my Lord, the greatest revolution that we know anything of has been effected with, comparatively speaking—if the magnitude of the event is considered—the loss of very few lives. From this moment we may consider France as a free country, the King a very limited monarch, and the nobility as reduced to a level with the rest of the nation."

The Duke little foresaw that the fall of the Bastille would indirectly lead to his speedy recall. On the hasty flight of the Comte d'Artois, Dorset wrote to congratulate him on his escape. This letter, intrusted to Castelnau, the French Minister at Geneva, was intercepted on July 23. The Paris Committee, before whom Castelnau and his documents were taken, sent the latter to the Assembly, but the President sent them back to Bailly, and one of the Committee opened Dorset's letter, which was found to be merely complimentary. The Assembly was inclined to apply for its return; but being assured by Clermont Tonnerre, who had heard it read, that it contained mere trivialities, it allowed the matter to drop. Reports, however, were industriously circulated that Dorset had distributed large sums of money for the purpose of fomenting the disorders in Paris. To clear himself, therefore, he wrote to Montmorin, Minister of Foreign Affairs, protesting that England had no thought of fomenting troubles in France, and reminding him that in the previous month he had revealed a proposal made to him to seize by treachery on Brest. This letter, forwarded at his own request to the Assembly, only made things worse, for the Brest reactionaries indignantly repudiated the plot, and insisted that Dorset should give up the names of the traitors. On July 28 he reported that he had had hints from well-informed persons that it was unsafe for Englishmen to appear in public:—

"The lawless set of people," he added, "whom the late troubles have set to work, make it very unsafe travelling at present, especially by night; and I really think it necessary that some public caution be given to put those upon their guard who may propose to visit this part of the Continent."

He concluded by proposing to take leave of absence, and it is evident that his position had become untenable. He commissioned young Cox Hippisley[1] (afterwards Sir John Cox Hippisley), who was returning to England, to describe to the Duke of Leeds what he had witnessed. Hippisley had seen from a window the murder of the unfortunate Berthier on the 22nd July, and had endeavoured at Versailles to silence the calumnies against the English. Dorset's opinion of the Revolution had in a fortnight so completely changed—he seems to have been a purely ornamental personage, formerly "quite the fashion in the annals of gallantry," and with little diplomatic ability—that he was anxious to resign his post, and in point of fact he did not return. He continued, however, from England to supply Marie Antoinette with English gloves, and in August 1791 he transmitted to her a letter of advice from Burke, rewritten in cipher for the sake of safety, and made too concise for Burke's liking.

Lord Robert Fitzgerald acted as charge d'affaires till May 1790. His letter of instructions expressed an opinion that Englishmen should abstain from visiting France, and not out of curiosity run the risk of molestation. On the 20th June 1790, Earl Gower, afterwards Duke of Sutherland, presented Dorset's letters of recall and his own credentials. Gower's despatches speak of the expediency of embassy servants carrying guns or wearing a particular feather in their hats, so as to avoid the insult experienced by the Spanish ambassadress's attendants. English residents applied to him to obtain exemption from the capitation-tax, and information, to which he attached little weight, was offered him of plots for setting fire to English ports or fleets. A French parliamentary committee solicited data respecting transportation to Botany Bay, and he was asked to give facilities for the detection of forged assignats in London. A large importation of English buttons for the National Guard uniforms was extremely displeasing to the Paris button-makers, who threatened to sack shops which sold English goods. Only four days after the Feast of Pikes, the first Bastille anniversary, a number of suspicious foreigners were arrested. There were no English among them, but Gower deemed it necessary to admonish his countrymen to be very careful in word and deed, especially as an opinion had got abroad that both political parties in England had tampered with the French democrats.

The Revolution had thus already become too stormy for Gower to sing pæans over it; but Huskisson, a witness of the capture of the Bastille, who became his private secretary, was warmly interested in it. Huskisson had been brought up by his great-uncle. Dr. Richard Gem, a Worcestershire man, who went to Paris as physician to the Embassy in 1762. Almost the first time Gem spoke to Horace Walpole, who met him in Paris in 1765, he said to him, "Sir, I am serious, I am of a very serious turn," and this seems to have been his stereotyped expression. A rigid disciplinarian and parsimonious, he allowed no eating between breakfast and the five or six o'clock dinner. An avowed materialist, he was enchanted with the Revolution, and was doubtless the "Ghym, anglais," who in 1792 presented 1000 francs to the Patriotic Fund. This did not save him from being arrested, like other Englishmen, in October 1793, as a hostage for Toulon. He appears in the Prefecture of Police records as "Gesme," and as having, after nine days at the Luxembourg, been transferred to the Scotch College. The entry of his release is missing, but he was probably released under the decree of the 3rd November 1793, which, on account of the scarcity of doctors, exempted foreign practitioners from imprisonment. He seems to have gone to live outside Paris, at Meudon, and there to have been rearrested by the Versailles authorities. He was for several months in the same prison, and even in the same room, as Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott. He cried the whole time, and was terrified to death, as she told Lord Malmesbury in 1796, though in her posthumous book she represents him as going to bed at dusk to save candles, getting up at four to read Helvetius or Locke, and waking her at seven to try and argue her into materialism.[2] Malmesbury found him living in Paris, still harping on his philosophy, anxious but unable to get away. He had Malmesbury's secretaries to witness his will: one of them was the future Earl Granville, whom he had professionally attended, refusing fees; and he died, over eighty, in 1800, leaving the bulk of his property to Huskisson.

Gem had brought over both Huskisson and his brother, the sons of his favourite niece, in 1783, on their father's second marriage. He meant them to be doctors, but the future Chancellor of the Exchequer had no turn for medicine, entered Boyd and Ker's bank, studied political economy, and on August 29, 1790, delivered a sensible address to the Club of 1789 against an unlimited paper currency. His notes of the proceedings of the Jacobin and other clubs, taken for a friend at the Embassy, were so good that Gower made him his secretary, and he left Paris with the rest of the Embassy on the fall of the monarchy. He told Croker in 1826 that he and Cutlar Fergusson[3] used to be waited upon at Beauvilliers' restaurant by a smart young man whom they liked to scold or tease, until, as the landlord told them, desperation made him enlist, the waiter being none other than Murat. The Bastide innkeeper's son, on deserting from the army to escape punishment, was undoubtedly reduced to a waitership at Beauvilliers', but he was not driven away by teasing, for he had friends in the Assembly who procured him admission to the King's Constitutional Guard, formed in the winter, of 1791.

Huskisson is said to have been recommended to Gower by his chaplain. Dr. John Warner, himself recommended by Lord Carlisle and George Selwyn. Warner had long been the friend and correspondent of the latter. The son of a rector of Barnes, Dr. Ferdinand Warner, he was more of a wit than we should consider proper in a clergyman, yet he had been a popular preacher at a chapel in Longacre, his own property, until presented in 1771, at the age of thirty-five, to a living in Bedfordshire, whence he was promoted to the Rectory of Stourton, Wiltshire. John Howard's statue in St. Paul's is attributed to Warner's exertions. "A book, a pipe, and cheerful conversation" were his delight, and if his talk was more entertaining than clerical, he should be credited with a kindly disposition and unimpeachable probity. He was so ardent an admirer of the Revolution, that he was deprived of the chaplaincy about October 1790, on account, it is said, of a sermon at the Embassy chapel. He soon afterwards went to Italy, and in 1800, shortly after his return to London, died. Like Gem, very abstemious and economical, he left a considerable fortune. He had subscribed liberally to the "Diversions of Purley," and bequeathed Horne Tooke a silver goblet.

As for Gower, he was regarded at Coblenz as a sympathiser with the Revolution. Lord Camelford spoke of him there to Burke's son, in August 1791, as outrageously democratical, and as sending dexterous despatches against assisting or countenancing the counter-revolution. This was, however, an evident exaggeration, for Gower in the previous April had congratulated himself on escaping the embraces of the fishwives, who had invaded the drawing-room of Montmorin, Minister of Foreign Affairs. When Gower called, "they were at the moment of taking leave of the Minister with the most cordial embraces, having already performed that ceremony on most of the corps diplomatique who had the misfortune of dining there." It is "uncertain whether All Fools' Day, the date of the despatch, was also the date of the kissing. Anyhow, the Paris mob had so little respect for diplomatic privileges, that when they visited the aristocratic houses to slaughter the Swiss employed as porters, they made no exception in Gower's favour. Fortunately his Swiss had been sent off in disguise. Gower declined the offer of a military guard, but deemed it prudent to put in large letters over his door "Hôtel de l'Ambassadeur d'Angleterre." Gouverneur Morris tells us that he found Gower in a towering passion at the delays in delivering his passports, and that he had burnt his papers. His wife, the Countess of Sutherland, who flirted a little with Morris, was the only lady who visited Marie Antoinette the day before the attack on the Tuileries, all the Queen's timorous favourites prudently keeping away. When the royal family were at the Feuillants monastery before being consigned to the Temple, she sent some of her own dresses for the Queen, and her little boy's clothes for the unfortunate Dauphin, sixteen months his senior, but small for his age. The Queen, forbidden writing materials, commissioned Cléry to return the clothes with a letter of thanks, but the municipal commissaries refused to allow their being sent back. The little Lord Strathnavar, the future Duke of Sutherland, whose garments were thus confiscated, was then, at six years old, so accustomed to see cannon in the streets, that on arriving in London he was amazed, we are told by Walpole, at finding none.

Recalled on the abolition of royalty, Gower instructed the Embassy secretary, William Lindsay, to remain a few days, and his stay was lengthened by the difficulty in obtaining passports from the municipality. Indeed, he had to threaten to start without them, warning Lebrun, of the Foreign Office, that the result might be his being brought back or insulted, and the next morning he received them. Lindsay and other English guests were about to dine with the Duke of Orleans on the 3rd September when they heard the cries of a mob, and going to the window, saw the Princesse de Lamballe's head carried past. According to one version, Orleans looked on and said, "Je sais ce que c'est," then passed into the next room, and sat down to dinner with complete coolness; but the Bland Burges Papers, a better authority, state that he was sitting at the other end of the room, and on his guests drawing back horrified from the window, asked what was the matter. Told that a woman's head had been carried by, he said "Oh, is that all? Let us go to dinner." At table he inquired what had become of Madame de Lamballe and the other female prisoners. A guest significantly drew his hand across his throat. Orleans said, "I understand," and changed the subject. One of the Englishmen, overcome with horror, had, according to Peltier, slipped away unnoticed.

Captain George Monro, probably a son of Sir Harry Monro, Bart., also saw something of the barbarities at the Abbaye, and on December 17, describing how people were stopped in the streets, watches and rings taken, and even earrings pulled off, he wrote: "I myself never move out but with pistols in my pocket, as I find them more necessary here than in Turkey." Monro remained till the condemnation of Louis XVI., and sent despatches chiefly relating to the British Jacobins in Paris, with whom he pretended to fraternise, but his position was unofficial and indeed unsafe. "He was not only suspected, but marked here," says Somers,[4] who for a time took his place, and who deemed it prudent to disguise his political reports in mercantile language. One of Somers's letters announces that Morgan, the son of an Irish M.P., was in Paris, and had offered to assassinate George III. On the 1st February 1793 war was declared. In the following month the Convention prescribed that English residents should find six citizens to vouch for their "civisme," and if not in business nor landowners, should deposit their property in pledge, but until October 1793 they were not seriously molested.

Though he was not at the Embassy, and was ostensibly a mere visitor, Hugh Elliot may here be mentioned. Ex-Ambassador at Copenhagen, he had, with his brother Gilbert (Lord Minto), been at a military college with Mirabeau, and Pitt sent him over in October 1790 to ensure French neutrality in the event of an Anglo-Spanish war. Mirabeau, Barnave, and the other members of the diplomatic committee of the Assembly, gave him satisfactory assurances, and he returned to London at the end of October. Mirabeau had prepared, but not delivered, a long speech in favour of Spain, and threatening England with war if she attacked that country. His sudden change of tone reminds one of Rivarol's epigram, "Mirabeau is capable of anything for money, even of a good action."

  1. To whom the titular Henry IX., Cardinal of York, bequeathed the gauze veil worn by Mary Stuart on her way to execution.
  2. In the Paris Temps, May 23, 1888, M. Anatole France describe Mrs. Elliott as sponging Gem's tear-stained face, and asking why the prospect of death should terrify him, whereas she herself remains cheerful. He replied: "Madam, you are young, rich, healthy, and handsome, and you certainly lose much in losing life, but being incapable of reflection, you do not know what you lose. As for me, I am poor (!), old, and ill, so that to deprive me of life is not depriving me of much; but I am philosopher and a doctor; I am concious of being it, which you are not, and I know exactly what I lose. This accounts, madam, for my being melancholy while you are cheerful." There may be some foundation for this anecdote, but an inquiry as to the source of it elicited no reply.
  3. Fergusson, tried with Lord Thanet in 1799 for aiding in the attempted escape of Arthur O'Connor from Maidstone courthouse (O'Connor had been acquitted, but was about to be arrested on a second charge), was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. He went to India, had a good practice at the Calcutta bar, afterwards became M.P. for Kirkcudbright, and was Judge Advocate from 1834 till his death at Paris in 1838, aged sixty-nine.
  4. Somers had assisted in September 1792 in the concealment and escape of Peltier, the Royalist pamphleteer, who speaks of him as "a brave Englishman, the loyal Somers."