Henry Essex Edgeworth
Confessor of Louis XVI, and vicar-general of the Diocese of Paris b. 1745; d. May 22, 1807
Edgeworth, HENRY ESSEX, better known as l’ABBÉ EDGEWORTH DE FIRMONT, confessor of Louis XVI, and vicar-general of the Diocese of Paris at the height of the French Revolution, b. at Edgeworthstown, County Longford, Ireland, in 1745; d. May 22, 1807, at Mittau, Russia. His father, the Rev. Robert Edgeworth, Protestant rector of Edgeworthstown, or Mostrim, was a first cousin to Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the father of Maria Edgeworth, the novelist; and his mother was a granddaughter of the Protestant Archbishop Ussher. The Rev. Robert Edgeworth owned an estate at Firmount, or Fairymount, a few miles distant from Edgeworthstown, where the elder branch of the Edgeworth family resided. The Edgeworths were of English descent, and went to Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth. The title, “Edgeworth de Firmont”, by which the abbé was universally known in France, was derived from Firmount, the ancestral patrimony of his family. The vicarage house at Edgeworthstown where he passed his childhood is believed to be the same in which Oliver Goldsmith went to school to the Rev. Patrick Hughes. The Rev. Robert Edgeworth through conscientious motives resigned his living, embraced the Catholic religion, and, finding life at home intolerable under the penal laws, with his family (all of whom became Catholics) removed to Toulouse in France, where Henry Essex, then four years of age, received his early training for the ecclesiastical state. Subsequently he went to the seminary of Trente-Trois, Paris, at the suggestion of Bishop Moylan of Cork (at one time a curé in Paris). After a course of theology at the Sorbonne, Henry Essex Edgeworth was ordained priest and the capital of France became the theatre of his apostolic labors. The Irish bishops offered him a mitre in Ireland, an honor which he declined with his usual humility. On the removal of her confessor, Madame Elisabeth, sister of the ill-fated Louis XVI, requested the superior of Les Missions Etrangères, where the abbé resided, to recommend her another and he unhesitatingly selected the Abbé Edgeworth. The Archbishop of Paris approved of the choice, and introduced him at court. Thus he became known to the royal family as a devoted friend. In their fallen fortunes he stood by them at the risk of his life, followed the survivors after the Revolution into exile, and died in their service.
When the Archbishop of Paris was obliged to fly in 1792 in order to save his life, he vested the Abbé Edgeworth with all his powers, making him his grand vicaire, and committed the great diocese to his care. In answer to the urgent entreaties of his friends to seek safety in Ireland or England, at this time, the abbé replied: “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” (Letter to Mr. Maffey, priest in London).
At last, on the 20th of January, 1793, he was summoned by the Executive Council to proceed to the Temple prison at the desire of “Louis Capet”, who was condemned to die on the following day. The abbé, having remained in the Temple all night, said Mass in the king’s apartment on the morning of the execution, sat beside him in the carriage on the way to the scaffold, and, when the axe of the guillotine was about to fall, consoled his beloved master with the noble words: “Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven.” In his graphic and authoritative account of the last moments of Louis XVI (the original of which in French is preserved in the British Museum) the abbé is silent about this fine apostrophe, which everyone has heard of; but, when asked if he made use of the memorable expression, he replied that, having no recollection of anything that happened to himself at that awful moment, he neither affirmed nor denied having used the words. He was allowed to leave the scene of the execution unmolested, and so escaped; but soon after his head was demanded in several clubs, so that he was obliged to quit Paris and take refuge at Bayeux, whence at that time he might easily have escaped to England. Three chief considerations, however, bound him to the land of horrors. He had a great diocese committed to his care; he had promised Madame Elisabeth, then in prison, never to desert her, and he could not abandon his mother and sister, still living in Paris. Dressed as an ordinary citizen, and passing under the name now of Essex, now of Edgeworth, and again of Henry, he eluded capture and the guillotine, until finally in August, 1796, after the death of his mother, and the execution of Madame Elisabeth, he escaped to Portsmouth, and proceeded to London.
Mr. Pitt offered to settle a pension for life on him, but he respectfully declined it. During the three months he spent in London he was lionized by fashionable society. His brother, Ussher, who resided at Firmount, and his relatives at Edgeworthstown, proud of his fame and renown, were most anxious to see him in Ireland; and, in fact, he was on the point of revisiting the land of his birth when he was entrusted with confidential despatches for Louis XVIII, then at Blankenburg. This changed all his plans. At the earnest entreaty of the exiled king he resolved to remain with him as his chaplain, going afterwards with the royal family to Mittau in Russia, where he spent the remainder of his days, revered and honored by all with whom he came in contact. The Emperor Paul settled a pension of 500 roubles per annum on him. When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1807 it happened that some French soldiers were taken prisoners, and sent to Mittau. A contagious fever broke out among them, and in attending to their spiritual wants Abbé Edgeworth, never of a robust constitution, fell a victim to the plague. The daughter of Louis XVI, despite the manifest danger of contagion, attended night and day at the sick bed of her “beloved and revered invalid, her more than friend, who had left kindred and country for her family”, to use her own words. He was interred at Mittau. Louis XVIII wrote his epitaph, a copy of which, together with a letter of condolence, was sent by Louis’ orders to Mr. Ussher Edgeworth, the abbé’s brother, residing in Ireland.