Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Baron de Salgas, forçat pour la foi

I live among brigands, but my Saviour died between two thieves
François Pelet,  Baron de Salgas
Convict at Marseilles
N° écrou : 27996.

One last forçat pour la foi....

Portrait of the Baron de Salgas
Private Collection. See:
The Baron de Salgas

 François Pelet,  Baron de Salgas was one of the few figures of social standing among the Protestants condemned to the galleys during the war in the Cévennes in the early 1700s. Salgas himself claimed that he had been made a scapegoat: the royal commander in the Cévennes, the maréchal de Montrevel suspected the involvement of the nobility in the Camisard uprising and wanted to make an example.  According to Salgas the Chevalier de Rouanes, in charge of the galleys at Sète, had been notified of his impending arrival even before the end of his trial.....

Salgas's story represents well the agonising conflict of public and religious loyalties set in train for so many by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  Although a Protestant by birth, he was one of the richest and most prominent gentilhommes in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. He owned the Château of Salgas near the village of Vébron and extensive domains in Rousses and Montcamp,  the heart of  Camisard territories.  According to the Intendant of Languedoc, the marquis de Basville, he enjoyed the considerable income of seven or eight thousand livres de rentes. Understandably, therefore, he was reluctant to abandon his patrimony for the sake of religion. Furthermore, his family had long been loyal servants of the Crown. He boasted that his ancestors  had served in the armies of France for many generations; he himself had been a Musketeer and two of his three brothers, Antoine and Hector, had died in Louis XIV's wars, Antoine at the seige of Philisbourg in 1689.  

Having formally abjured Protestantism in November 1685, Salgas attempted, at first successfully, to live quietly on his estates while the Camisard War unfolded around him. He  managed to retain the confidence of earlier royal commanders, the maréchals de Noailles and de Broglie, and also that of Montrevel's subordinate Jacques de Julien.  However, Montrevel  and, to a lesser extent, Basville eyed him with suspicion.

There was no denying his Protestant sympathies.  According to official report of 1686 he kept up only the appearance of conformity. The  abbé du Chayla, Archpriest of the Cévennes, remarked privately that he was a dangerous man in matters of religion but, if so, he disguised it  well.  Meanwhile, the persecution tore his immediate family apart.  His remaining brother Jacques had already fled to exile in Berlin in the wake of the Revocation.

The Château de Salgas as it is today; the Château was restored later in the 18th century by the Baron's son Claude, whose  wife was the sister of Cardinal de Bernis.  It remains in the hands of the Bernis family.

In 1701 he suffered a still harsher loss when his wife abandoned him and their children to seek sanctuary in Geneva.  A widower, Salgas had married for the second time on 26th September 1694 to Lucrèce de Brignac de Montarnaud (b.1672), daughter of an old comrade of his father, and member of an old Huguenot family from Uzès.  He was in his late forties, his bride still in her twenties. There is every sign they were a devoted couple. Certainly their unions was a prolific one.  Six children were born by 1701.  (Five are documented, four boys and a girl who died in infancy in 1701.) Faced with a Court order to confine her to a cloister if she did not attend Mass, Lucrèce finally chose religion over her family and took the opportunity, whilst her husband was out hunting, to escape to Geneva on horseback .  The Baron made a show of trying to retrieve her, but was widely thought to have connived in her flight.

The following painful note survives in Salgas's livre de raison, his household account book. for June 1701:  "Lucrèce de Brignac, my wife, has abandoned me and her six children, the oldest of whom is aged only five-and-a-half.  She abandoned me on the 16th June 1701, after six years of marriage, to leave the kingdom for the sake of religion.  May God be the judge of her conduct, and console me by bestowing his blessings on the six children that she has left in my hands".  

Shortly after his wife's departure, the older children were taken from him and entrusted to the Fathers of the Oratory in Pézanas, leaving in his care only his youngest son, an infant of 18 months .

Arrest and condemnation

As it happened, events were soon to be taken out of Salgas's hands by the Protestant rebels who demanded the loyalties of so influential a figure.  On Sunday 11th February 1703 the Camisard leader Castanet and his band of eighty men arrived at the chateau and escorted Salgas under duress to Vébron, where he he was obliged to attend an improvised service.  Unfortunately Salgas did not then leave immediately, but spent a further two hours with Castanet, attempting to placate him, since he still feared he would carry out his threat to burn down his property. On his return he took the precaution of dispatching a memoir to Basville justifying his actions. It might not have mattered, but only a few days later on 21st February Castanet  joined with Rolland in the infamous attack on Fraissinet-de-Fourques which resulted in the massacre of forty Catholic women and children.  Salgas was almost inevitably suspected of collusion.

The Camisard chief Jean Cavalier by Pierre-Antoine Labouchère, 1864
Painting in the Musée du désert
A few months later, on 12th May Salgas met a royal troop under the command of the major de Préfosse.  He invited Préfosse to dinner, only to be dramatically arrested in the middle of the meal . He was taken first to the fortress of St Hippolyte, then on to Alès for trial.

As well as Salgas himself, several of his servants and the stewards of his properties were arrested and questioned.  Salgas was interrogated by his judges over eighteen times, often in the presence of the Intendant  Basville himself.  No evidence for his involvement with the rebels was ever established. The only incriminating account came from an elderly woman who later admitted that she had been bribed to give false testimony.  After condemnation, Salgas stood firm under the obligatory interrogation by torture (both petite and grande question) which was intended to gain an admission of guilt and a list of accomplices. Castanet himself, when he stood in chains before Basville, denied like everyone else that Salgas had any knowledge of Camisard movements. The consensus is that, had Salgas been truly implicated, he would  have been executed. As it was he was condemned for illegal assembly and bearing arms. He was stripped of his titles and properties and condemned for life to the galleys.  His castle in Rousses was razed to the ground - causing much hardship to the tenant farmer who lived there; the Château de Salgas was left with only its walls standing. 

Prisoner of the galleys

Following his condemnation on 27 juin 1703 the Baron was transferred immediately to the galley La Valeur, one of three galleys based in Sète under the command of the Chevalier de Rouanes.  It is sometimes claimed that he was confined to his ship for eleven years, never setting foot upon dry land nor moving from the galley to which he had been first consigned. This is not strictly accurate. According to his own letters he spent thirteen months at sea before being transferred to the convict Hospital in Marseilles; for five months he was obliged to wear two chains, weighing 80 pounds which ulcerated his leg through to the bone.  At 57 years old and in frail health, he was unable to row, and was relieved of this duty;  according to Louvreleuil (a hostile source) he was at first allowed the unusual privilege of wearing stockings and of having a small cushion (strapontin) to sit or lie on.  Jean Bion writing in 1707, confirms that Salgas had been  transferred to the hospital "some years ago".

The unedifying story is told that the bishops of Montpellier and Lodève visited the galley as it lay in the harbour of Sète and requested the captain to show them Salgas in his humiliation.  Although the vessel lay at anchor and could not move, at the given signal the galley-slaves took their places at the oars. The Baron was placed in the easiest position, that of third oarsman or tiercelot. The slaves bent to their oars three times until the comite, who noticed the baron’s difficulty in following the actions of his comrades, finally cried out that it was enough and put an end to the exhibition.  A manuscript confirms that Salgas was dressed in the costume of a tiercelot for the benefit of the bishops who wanted to see him sleep on a bench with his knees under his chin.

After the temporising for so long, as a convict the Baron found his courage and committed himself wholeheartedly to his faith and to the support of his fellow forçats pour la foi. .  He himself commented that was bizarre that he had passed the spring, summer and autumn of his life in worldiness to the great scandal of those close to him, and had reserved for God only the winter of his life.  According to Arnoux, the intendant of the galleys, he might well have secured release: his troubles came from “nothing else than his mad determination to be always the preacher, the protector, and the support of the fraternity even in his chains”.  He was omitted from the list of those released under the amnesty of 1713 and found himself transferred by night to a still more inaccessible cell.  Here he saw no one save the guard that came, three times a day, to bring him food or a candle.  He was not even permitted to write to his family without submitting his letter to the royal commissioner.  One half of his window was walled up, and rest meshed.  You are accused, the commissioner said, “of confirming the Protestants, of preaching to them, and of supplying them with money – a fault which is worthy of you, but is contrary to the views of the court".

On 4th November 1716 Salgas was finally released after nearly fourteen years as a result of an appeal of the Princess of Wales to the Duchess of Orléans, mother of the Regent and rejoined his beloved wife in Geneva.  Sadly he enjoyed freedom for less than a year, for he died on 14th August 1717, aged seventy-two years.  His wife later joined her son Pierre in Bursins where she lived on to 1756.

This account is  mostly from:
Henry M. Baird, The Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (originally published 1895) vol.1 305-11.
See also: 
W. Gregory Monahan, Let God Arise: The War and Rebellion of the Camisards (OUP, 2014) modern summary

There is a biography by Gaston Tournier, but it is not to be found on the internet.
Le Baron de Salgas, gentilhomme cévenol et forçat pour la foi, ed. Gaston Tournier (Musée du Désert, 1941)

A Memoir written by Salgas and some of his letters are available in:
Mémoire de François Pelet, baron de Salgas suivi de lettres addressées à sa femme et à mademoiselle de Saint-Véhan (1703-1716) Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire du protestantisme français 29 (1880) 73-83.

For other documents (livre de raison, marriage records, trial):
Genadoce : Familles Aguilhon-Dupin / Histoire des Cevenne et du Languedoc [website] - entry for the baron de Salgas

From the Memoir of the Baron de Salgas:
On the 11th February 1703, which was a Sunday,  I was in my room reading; at two in the afternoon I heard a drum in my courtyard.  I looked out of the window.  I saw the man called Castanet on horseback with eighty men, all armed with guns, swords and pistols.  I asked them what they wanted.  Castanet replied that not only did I not go to their assemblies,  I prevented my household from going;  that if I did not go, they would burn down my property there and then.  I protested that what they wanted was against the orders of the King and would create a scandal.  He replied that no-one risked anything by serving God.  Thereupon his soldiers took torches, broke down my outer door and pulled the second, which was made of iron, almost off its hinges.  I asked if they had guarantees for me and for the little child that I had with me.  They replied that if I opened up I would have nothing to fear.  I decided to open the door to them...They led me away, with forty men in front and forty behind, and when we reached the door of the church, fifteen armed men went in before me and fifteen after so that I was surrounded the whole time.  After this I was free to go if I wanted, but I chose to stay for two hours of my own freewill in order to save my house from being burned; for they had already burned down five or six chateaux in the area.  And there was my crime; my condemnation revolved around this fact alone; M. de Baville and the other judges concluded that since I had stayed two hours voluntarily I wanted to lend my authority to the assembly and encourage people to go to it.  As soon as I returned home, I dispatched a note to M. de Baville with a detailed account of all that I had been forced to do.  He replied to me very decently that I had been obliged to safeguard my household and that I should be more prepared in future.

On the 13th March following, M. le maréchal de Montrevel summoned all the nobility to Nîmes to receive his orders...When I entered his room the maréchal came up to me and said to me in a laughing way that he did not know me personally but he knew my name having heard talk of me in the province; that those men had perhaps been friends of mine since they took me to their little synagogue and returned me home safely.  I replied that I had been fortunate;that he should not doubt my zeal to serve the King; that I was from a family that had served the King for generations...that I had been in the army myself and had lost two brothers in the late wars....

He told me to stay on my lands, that he would furnish me ten guardsmen to be provided by the parish with arms, powder and balls.  I asked him to dispense me from staying on my property depending on my own peasantry but rather to let me serve beside him...He told me that he wished all gentlemen to remain at home to be called on if he needed them...

On the 10th May as I was preparing to go hunting when I saw a force of seven or eight hundred men coming down the hill. If I had considered myself guilty of anything, I would have had  time to get on my horse and be a quarter of a league from there; instead I went to the bridge to meet them.  I found M. de Préfosse, whom I recognised as the major-general of the marechal de Montrevel's troups... He embraced me and told me he was going to Florac.  I told him that he should not go without taking wine and refreshments.  He excused himself.  I told him that he would be the first officer who had refused my hospitality...He allowed himself to be persuaded and as soon as the table was served,  executed his order in the most courteous manner.  I replied to him that I did not know that the marechal had anything to reproach me for....He said that it was nothing, but it was to set an example....

I was placed in the fort of Saint-Hippolyte where the governor took an allowance from me of 186 louis, of which never saw more than ten.  I arrived on the Saturday and on the following Monday Messieurs de Montrevel and de Baville arrived.  On the Tuesday M. de Baville interviewed me. I complained that I was ashamed to find myself appearing before him like a criminal, but since I had the honnour to be know by him, I would soon be cleared....He asked me if I knew of what I was accused.  I said no.  He told me that it was for the Castanet affair, to which I replied that I had been forced, as he knew very well, and that I had justified myself to him and to the marechal...

Finally I had to give my defence.  I appeared eighteen times before him and faced twenty-eight witnesses, who, taken together, could not produce enough evidence to have a schoolboy flogged.  The great accusation against me was that, for reasons I have already explained,  I spent two hours voluntarily with the rebels.

And that was why I was placed in chains, my property and my household pillaged and my chateau at Rousses, a league away and in the hands of a tenant farmer, razed to the ground....

They accused me of having taken up arms against my king, of having furnished the rebels with arms and provisions, of having given them shelter....if they had waited for me in the woods and cut my purse it would not have been less just than to condemn me to the galleys and confiscate my properties.  On the galley guards have watched me night and day with swords in their hands for thirteen months, for fear that I would expose the injustice of my case.

M de Rouanas, the captain of the galley, told me that he had received a letter from the marechal a month before I was judged telling him I was to be sent to his galley.  How could  know if I would be executed, condemned or pronounced innocent before the verdict was given?  Nothing can be more certain than that they wanted my condemnation to set an example.  Send a gentleman to the galleys, confiscate his goods, that will create a stir and discourage the others; thus was my fate sealed!

This is the total truth, told in conscience byan honest man, a man of honour and substance. I pray to God nonetheless that he might increase my sufferings or cut short my days.

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