The Marquis de Bonchamps (1760 – 1793)

383px-Bonchamps

Throughout its history, France has produced some of the finest warriors for the Christian faith and the Catholic Church. I think of Charles Martel, who defeated the Muslim invaders at Tours in 732. I think of St. Louis, or Louis IX, the only French monarch made a saint for his role in the “Crusades”, his promotion of the Church, and his intense personal piety.  I think of Saint Jeanne D’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, who was inspired and instructed by God to resist the brutal English occupation of France during the Hundred Years War; a war that the Church repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to bring to an end for all of the devastation it wrought.

During her darkest hour, Catholic France produced one last great hero: Charles Melchior Artus, the Marquis de Bonchamps.

The Catholic insurrection in the Vendee against the Republican government, which was a response to the ruthless repression of the Church and Catholics who refused to fully submit to the revolutionary regime, was a movement initiated almost entirely from below. It was not a manipulation of either clergy or noblemen, but rather the product of the devotion of the people to the Church herself. It had little, if anything at all, to do with defending or restoring the monarchy.

The peasants, however, needed leaders with military experience, and for that, they had to turn to the nobility. The Marquis de Bonchamps emerged as one of the finest leaders of the Vendean forces and was responsible for many of their successes on the battlefield. But with a whole country gone mad arrayed against them, the insurrectionists were not able to wage war for more than three years. The War in the Vendee culminated in mass murder bordering on genocide. It is estimated that anywhere from over 1/8th to 1/2 of the population of Vendee – that is, between 120,000 – 450,000 people – was murdered by the Republican forces.

It is striking, then, that in a war so savage and bloody, one of its leaders could conduct himself in a manner worthy of any Christian saint. According to one historian, writing of Bonchamps and his men:

The knowledge that their homes were burning could not fail to rouse the passions of the peasants, and when it became known that Bonchamps’ chateau had shared the common destruction, his troops begged to be permitted to attack the incendiaries. He was firm in his refusal. “I thank you of the proofs of your affection that you give me every day”, was their general’s reply, “but not a drop of the blood of my King’s soldiers must be shed in defense of my property.” “We shall always have enough”, he added in answer to the representations of a friend, as to the ruin he was incurring, “if I have the happiness to see my King once more upon the throne. Otherwise we shall need nothing.”

The Marquis’ finest hour came as he lie mortally wounded after the Battle of Cholet. The Catholic and royalist rebels had captured 5,000 Republican troops during the course of the campaign, and upon hearing of their beloved leader’s immanent death, were determined to slay them all in revenge. Bonchamps’ last order to his men was to spare the lives of the prisoners and release them. So adamant was the dying Marquis that he proposed that if his troops would not listen, that he be brought out and placed before the prisoners, “that your first blows shall be struck at me.”

Bonchamps’ men, upon hearing the order, cried for grace and mercy and released the prisoners to honor their general.

Having received his final sacraments, he said to the priest, who was also an old friend:

I dare to count upon God’s mercy. I have acted neither from pride, nor for the sake of retaining a reputation rendered null and void by eternity. I have not fought for Earthly glory. I desired to overthrow the sanguinary tyranny of crime and impiety. If I have not been able to raise up again the altar and the throne, I have at least defended them. I have served God, my king, and my country, and I have known how to forgive…

Can the world still produce such men, such leaders? There is no doubt in my mind that faithful Catholics will once again be compelled to find out.

20 Responses to The Marquis de Bonchamps (1760 – 1793)

  • God bless him and grant him eternal rest.

    Surely God and France have had few more faithful servants.

  • Thank you for posting this. I was reminded of the Sixteen Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne, guillotined in July 1794 during the Reign of Terror, pursuant to Robespierre’s Directoire, for their “attachment to childish beliefs and silly religious practices.” It was reported that something in the sight of the nuns being executed seemed to have affected even the hardened Parisian crowd, accustomed to cheering loudly after each fall of the guillotine blade. Within ten days, by July 27, 1794, Robespierre and his government were finished. All sixteen nuns were beatified in 1906 by Pope Pius X.

  • You think of them, Joe. Does anybody in modern-day France still think of them? ;-(

  • “The Catholic and royalist rebels had captured 5,000 Republican troops during the course of the campaign, and upon hearing of their beloved leader’s immanent death, were determined to slay them all in revenge.”

    While it may be philisophically legitimate to wage limited defensive wars, don’t you see the practical reality of what you are describing: near-genocide, murder, hatred – the hell of war. The virtuous pagan may very well war with magnanimity, but the Christian inflamed by the enemy-love of Christ approaches war differently. He sees that war throws his ‘little ones’ into a hatred-rousing nightmare. He knows that his men will not kill with stoic hearts, but enraged hearts. As Patton says, “When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do”. When you have the memory of your murdered family in your mind, can you kill without hating? Can you wage war without murdering?

    We take, perhaps, too little thought for the spiritual health of the common soldier – the one mostly ignorant of the faith, the one most suspectible to the immense temptations that occasion every war and every battle.

    While in theory, war can be waged nobly, in practice, Jesus tells us how to act: “Everyone who takes the sword will die by the sword” and “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you”. This practical advice, while not abrogating the philisophical truth of the just-war theory, recognizes the fallen state of the human heart, and defends what is most important: our eternal salvation.

    While I applaud the Marquis for demanding mercy at the end of his life, I would applaud him more for demanding mercy throughout.

  • “You think of them, Joe. Does anybody in modern-day France still think of them?”

    Yes. Bernanos wrote Le Dialogue des Carmelites. It was put to music by Francis Poulenc. It is perennially popular.

  • Nate,
    I cannot fault your concerns with regard to temptation to rage. I think you, and most civilians I have ever met, think far too little of “the common soldier.” Given the quality of the decisions I have seen military personnel take under extreme duress, when I compare many of those (the vast majority of those) decision to the decisons and pronuncements I see many of our bishops make, when faced with a situation requiring moral judgments, made in the split second available for their consideration, I would sooner follow the next Lance Corporal off the landing craft than your pick of the college of Cardinals. I think my chances of getting to heaven would be much better that way.

  • Nate,

    I want to respond to you charitably, which is a challenge, because I completely disagree with the way you have approached this historical matter. Not only do I disagree, but I find this approach to be dismissive, even contemptuous of values and of men I hold in the highest regard.

    First, I completely disagree with the rigid application of generalized abstractions and axioms to every particular historical episode. I don’t think there is anything Christian or Catholic about it, given that we typically judge the morality of an act by the intention, the circumstances, and the consequences.

    I think you should understand something more about the Vendee and the French Revolution and the overwhelming hatred and violence directed against Christ’s church before you judge the Marquis or his men.

    You speak of “practical reality” as if it is something that can be chosen or avoided. This is false. It is a false premise that leads to further false premises and a false conclusion.

    There was absolutely nothing “pagan” about the Catholic and royalist army of the Vendee. If that’s really what you mean to assert, then I see it as slanderous. In the isolated incident that you ripped out of context, yes, the men, the common soldiers, were motivated by a sinful impluse for revenge.

    But these men also gave up everything they had – their homes, their families, their crops, their very lives – not to protect “the state”, the nation, the King, but rather the Church. In the words of one Vendean peasant, “we just want our good priests.”

    Imagine that! To go through what they went through, just to have access to priests and the sacraments and a Catholic way of life. A way of life that was so threatening to the REAL pagans, to the REAL savages in the Jacobin Republic that they exterminated between 100,000 and 450,000 Catholic men, women and children to make sure they could never have it.

    They did nothing less than their duty. Let me say it again. They did nothing less than their duty in the face of a regime so evil, so corrupt, and so full of hatred for Christ and the Church that they were determined to wipe it off the face of the Earth.

    You see this glass as half-empty – they men and their leader weren’t saints, so lets chastise them.

    I see this glass as a little more than half-full – in the face of bloody aggression and persecution unknown since NERO, these Catholics managed to conduct themselves with a measure of grace and mercy that few, if any modern armies have ever been able to practice.

    So, with all due respect, you have no standing to judge people engaged in a war for their existence against an enemy determined to completely wipe them out. This wasn’t operation Desert Storm. This wasn’t the US military rolling into Panama. It wasn’t the Falkland Islands. It was the friggin Vendee, a genocidal campaign aimed at faithful Catholics who would not sell their souls to the Robespierre’s Cult of the Supreme Being or Jacques Herbert’s Cult of Reason.

    If that isn’t a just war, then there is no just war.

  • I appreciate your effort to be charitable, Joe, and I am often wrong about many things. About this, however, I think I’m right in saying that, though in theory the war is just, in practice there are (even in the most just war) hellish temptations to hate those you are killing – thereby becoming a murderer.

    As I said, I applaud the Marqui’s last act of mercy, and I should say that I applaud those soldiers for following his command. But I am also right, I think, in writing that I would applaud them more if they chose merciful resistance to evil rather than violence resistance to evil. God forbid that I condemn soldiers – far from it. Had I been in their situation, I would have done the same, I think.

  • It is all well and good to talk of merciful resistance, except what you really mean is you want them to lay down and die without making any fuss. You want nice clean executions.

    Further, if the men chose that route for themselves, then they also chose it for their families. If they did nothing then they condemned their children, wives, and old folk to the same death.

    That is a practical reality.

    It is also a practical reality that a great many would likely not go to the guillotine with love in their hearts and singing the praise of God like the ideal martyr. They would also have been deprived of the last sacraments and of any sacraments at all for that matter.

    Another practical reality is that not only war stirs up the passions. Does not politics also do this? In that case what does your argument suggest about Christian engagement in political battle?

  • Good points, smf, though I disagree with your conclusions. A martyr does not simply lay down and die without making any fuss, though it might seem that way to the world. Certainly Jesus died ‘like a lamb led to the slaughter’, ‘opening not his mouth’. Martyr means, of course, ‘witness’ – but a witness of deed rather than word.

    In fact, Jesus escaped death many times before being crucified, and actually set a watch in the Garden (a watch that fell asleep). Moreover, he had to be betrayed by someone in his inner circle. While Jesus was prepared to die, and even prepared to provoke his death, he did not exactly show up at Pilate’s door to be killed. Thomas More gives a good example of the martyr’s long journey, one that doesn’t aim at death, but only arrives at death after all other good options are closed.

    So when it comes to genocide, my suggestion is simple: move. Yes, even Jesus ran, the brave man that he was. It seems braver to fight, but sometimes it takes more guts, and more mercy, to simply ‘slip away’.

    So, I see the practical reality that families can seek to save themselves without resorting to war. They might not succeed (talk to the Jews), but war doesn’t work very well either, and has the disadvantage of destroying not only bodies, but souls.

    About politics – the temptations that accompany the murder of your best friends and families are worse, I think, than those that accompany the passions of politics. Moreover, soldiers are given the tools and training to carry out vengeance, and must somehow achieve an inner split between body and heart (one I believe impossible). If a politician was required to hurl insults and slander in a debate, and was only trained to do so, I’d advise him to avoid that debate due to temptation.

  • “So when it comes to genocide, my suggestion is simple: move.”

    You move. I’ll fight.

  • As the example of the Jews in the Thirties and Forties of the last century indicates Nate, telling would-be victims of genocide to simply move is tantamount to simply telling most of them to die. The logic of your position of not resisting evil by force is that in this world evil forces will be able to do what they will with those who are not evil, at least until they are stopped by those who do not share your pacifist beliefs.

  • The Gospel is more important than our families, more important than our lives. We all have to pick what we love more.

  • The Gospels are not a suicide pact Nate.

  • It’s convenient to say that on a message board on the Internet.

    You choose the Gospel over your family when your family forces you to choose between it and the Gospel.

    Not when psychotic blood-thirsty Christ-killers are threatening to murder them and thousands of other Catholic families.

  • There is a place within the Church for those who forswear violence in their anticipation of the Kingdom — just as there is a place for those who forswear marriage (and thus sexual relations) in anticipation of the Kingdom. Most of our saints are among those who chose non-violence, just as most of our saints are among those who chose celibacy. There’s a heroic other-worldliness to that choice in certain circumstances.

    However, it seems to me that to deny the moral necessity which at times demands the use of force to protect the innocent is to deny our nature as physical as well as spiritual being. Not all are called to absolute non violence, just as not all are called to celibacy. Indeed, the nature of our species and our world is such that most are _not_ called to celibacy, and in times of danger most are not called to non-violence.

    That is why, after all, the catechism says:
    Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.

    Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.

    And similarly addresses the validity of personal result to violence in self defense and in the defense of the helpless and innocent.

  • “Most of our saints are among those who chose non-violence”

    Thank heaven for Jeanne D’Arc and King Louis IX.

  • Nate,
    I cvan’t believe I have to point this out, again, to another Christian, but Jesus’ suffering and death were absolutely necessary events, not just in, but so that there would be salvation history.
    Not so with every other person faced with the moral dilemmas posed by anti-Christian persecution.
    I also challenge anyone to make the case that it took less an exercise of will on His part to allow his hands and feet to be nailed to the Cross than it would have taken for Him to annihilate the Sanhedrin, the Roman Garrison, and Jerusalem itself. Christ’s death was both actively sought and necessary for you and I. The will He exerted was the will of His Father, but He exerted it nonetheless. And the only way for Him to save anyone (in accordance with His Father’s will- outside of which He was incapable by nature of acting) was to die on that Cross. Can you say the same for yourself or those who fought against the terror of Robespierre?

  • I think it was Hillaire Belloc who once wrote “…and Catholicism is never more alive than when it is in arms.”
    Now I realize that this does not rise to the level of teaching, but it is an interesting observation from a Catholic historian who spent a moment or two contemplating the Church’s history.

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