Analysis: the life and times of Henry Edgeworth, the Longford-born priest who accompanied King Louis XVI to the scaffold in 1793, but didn't meet the same end

"I fell upon my knees and thus remained until the vile wretch, who acted the principal part in this horrid tragedy, came with shouts of joy, showing the bleeding head to the mob, and sprinkling me with the blood that streamed from it."

This is the surviving eye witness testimony of Henry Essex Edgeworth who was on the scaffold in the Place de la Concorde with Louis XVI, as the French king faced the guillotine. On that day, January 21st 1793, the king was 38 years old and Henry, was ten years his senior.  A relative of the celebrated novelist Maria Edgeworth, he was born in Edgeworthstown Co. Longford in 1745. As a young man, he was educated by the Jesuits and trained for the priesthood in Toulouse in southern France. There, he met a fellow seminarian, the Cork-born Francis Moylan. After his ordination, Edgeworth became the Vicar-General of the Diocese of Paris and the confessor to the King's sister, Elizabeth in 1791.

We know all of this because Edgeworth’s correspondence to Moylan survives and was published as a collection by a Franciscan priest, Fr Thomas R. England. The letters are an intimate portrait on the mounting tension and crisis in revolutionary France. The Catholic Church was an integral part of the French state and was criticised and denounced in the political writings and public speeches of revolutionary leaders.

Edgeworth protested that he was too old at the age of nearly 50 to return to Ireland

Edgeworth describes pivotal moments in the Catholic clergy's fatalistic relationship with the National Assembly. This involved the compulsory selling of Church property, the abolition of monastic vows and finally saw the introduction of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, requiring an oath of loyalty to the newly instated Civil Constitution and the Revolutionary Government.

The collection also reveals the anguished story of how an Irish priest was requested by the Executive Council to attend the last moments of the king. The letter, dated London September 1st 1796, explains how Edgeworth stayed with the king overnight in Temple prison, administered the last rites to him and said mass. The priest rode with the king as he was paraded through the Parisian streets. He witnessed the King's hair being cut and the final blow of the blade as it sliced through the back of the King’s skull, cutting through his jaw and severing his head. Splattered with the king’s blood, Edgeworth stared down at the mob and, fearing he was next, slipped off the scaffold and escaped into the crowd.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday Miscellany, John Hedigan on Henry Edgeworth's heroic role in French history

As Edgeworth moved tentatively, through the colossal crowd, two fellow Irishmen were watching the proceedings. The most enduring account of the guillotine on that fateful day concerns a set of Cork-born brothers, Henry and John Sheares. Synonymous with the United Irishmen movement in Cork, the Sheares brothers' drew inspiration from the ideals of the French Revolution and the social change it promised.

Though they were later convicted of treason and executed for their part in 1798 Rebellion, it is a widely held belief that the Sheares brothers were present at the execution of the Louis XVI and that they convinced a member of the crowd closest the scaffold to dip a handkerchief in the blood of the king. Onboard a ship back to England, the brothers produced their souvenir to thrill travelling companions. Revulsed at the sight, fellow passenger, a teenaged Daniel O'Connell, is said to have turned away from both the sight of the blood-stained hankie and the use of violence as an agent of change. 

Edgeworth stayed on the run for a number of years, careful not to leave France in case he was discovered. His friend Moylan tried to convince the priest, referred to only as the Abbé De Firmont, to return home to Ireland, but Edgeworth protested that he was too old at the age of nearly 50. He had spent the majority of his life in France and was now unfamiliar with Irish customs and had very poor English.

From RTÉ Jr's Time Travels, hear the story of Irishman Henry Essex Edgeworth who accompanied Louis XVI to the guillotine

Curiously, it would be in Cork that Edgeworth’s story would again intersect with the life of the Sheares brothers. His lifelong confidante, Moylan, fervently opposed the United Irishmen and denounced them as false prophets. While Moylan was a radical social reformer in his own right, the accounts of the hardships, trauma and devastation witnessed by Edgeworth no doubt shaped and coloured his feelings towards the radicalisation of Irish society and proliferation of French political thought.

The social unrest in Ireland meant that Edgeworth never made it home; which he always regretted. He did, though, make it to London where he met the prime minister William Pitt and King George III in 1797. The monarch was so enthralled by the priest’s story of revolution, upheaval and service to the French king that he granted Edgeworth an annual petition. There was at this time some insistence from the Irish bishops that Edgeworth would be appointed president of the newly established National Seminary in Maynooth, a post he declined. He remained instead with the French court in exile at in Mittau, Latvia, until his death in 1807 of suspected "gaol fever" contracted from tending to prisoners of war.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ