Thursday 4 October 2018

The Marquis de Favras - courageous grammarian?

"I see you have made 3 spelling mistakes".  Last words of the Marquis de Favras after reading his death sentence before being hanged (1790).

This bon mot momentarily gained meme status in September 2017 when it was Tweeted by the Dutch defence spokesman and political analyst Klaas Meijer. The Twitter count currently stands at: 15,797 Retweets 40,889 Likes.  Despite the flurry of interest, no-one seemed quite sure whether we were supposed to be commending the marquis's sangfroid, or his equally laudible regard for correct orthography.

Even the basic question remains unanswered:  Did he actually say it?

The execution of the Marquis de Favras

The query should be easy to resolve. Thomas de Mahy, marquis de Favras, was the very first Counter-Revolutionary to be condemned to death: he was hanged (rather than guillotined) in February 1790. His highly public trial and execution excited a huge amount of interest at the time, and the details are well documented.

The execution of Favras, patriotic engraving by Jacques-Philippe Caresme (1790)

By all accounts, Favras was a relatively insignicant player in the political game.  From 1772 to 1775 he had been first lieutenant in the Swiss Guards of the comte de Provence, and in 1789 he became embroiled in the latter's Counter-Revolutionary plans.  Using the comte de la Châtre as an intermediary, Provence commissioned Favras to negotiate a loan of 2,000,000 francs from the bankers Schaumel and Sartorus.  A pamphlet which circulated throughout Paris on 23rd December 1789 revealed supposed details of an ambitious plot to rescue the Royal Family and have Provence declared Regent with absolute power.  A force of 30,000 soldiers was to encircle Paris; and Lafayette, Necker and Bailly were to be assassinated.  Favras and his German wife, the princess of Anhalt-Bernberg-Schaumburg,  were immediately arrested and incarcerated in the Abbaye prison.  Provence publically disavowed him. The marquis was later transfered to the Grand Châtelet. His trial lasted two months.  Details of the plot remain very obscure, but the researches of Barry M. Shapiro show that Favras was a scapegoat, the victim of judicial system designed to protect the interests of Lafayette and his relations with the Court.  His fate contrasted markedly with that of the Baron de Bezenval, commander of the royal troops on 14th July, who was allowed to go free at this time.  Even  the radical Révolutions de Paris admitted that the evidence against him was inconclusive.   A botched attempt to rescue him from prison on 26th January 1790 only made matters worse.  Eventually the marquis confessed to the abduction plan, though not to the preparations for armed resistance  -  Louis XVIII's later remarks suggest that this probably represented the truth of the matter (see article by Ballard, below).

On 18th February, despite a notable defence plea, Favras was sentenced to be hanged.  Thirty-two out of thirty-eight magistrates voted for the death penalty. The historian of the affair, Edmond Cléray, confirms that Favras, once he lost hope of reprieve, faced his final ordeal with courage: "il se haussait à la taille des heros, des martyrs" (p.104).

On the morning of the 19th the magistrate Quatremère came to read him the judgment. Favras was obliged to surrender the ribbon of his order of Saint-Louis and, having been offered the services of a confessor, spent three hours in conference with curé of his local parish of saint-Paul.

Favras's condemnation, with the ribbon of his Order of St. Louis still attached.  The title of Marquis, which had been respected throughout the trial, is for the first time crossed out. (reproduced in Cléray, p.48 facing)
At three o'clock in the afternoon he emerged from the Châtelet, wearing the white shirt of a parricide, and with  a placard round his neck which read Conspirateur contre l'Etat. In his hand was a flaming torch "of yellow wax, weighing two livres" as prescribed by the judgment.  Amidst cries of "Favras, Favras, a mort!" he was taken to the parvis of Notre-Dame where he was obliged to make his amende honorable. He himself read out the judgment against him in a steady voice.  From thence he was conveyed to the Hotel de Ville.  

The original transcript of Favras's Testament 
(Cléray, p.64 facing)
Here, somewhat unexpectedly, the proceeding stalled. Favras was given permission to dictate his final confession -  which he did slowly, firmly and with elaborate care. The fifteen page document, an elegant tour-de-force, took over four hours to compose.  Afterwards it was rushed to the printers by Favras's brothers.  Some commentators maintained that the marquis's concern for style was just an excuse to stall for time, and they were possibly right. No sooner had the clerk written the concluding phrase, Lecture faitte led. condamné, than Favras had the declaration crossed out. He summoned Quatremère  and offered to name his co-conspirators in return for a stay of execution. However, when he found this was not to be, he accepted the inevitable bravely.  He was taken to the place de Grève,allowed a short valedictory speech and at eight o'clock in the evening, in the February darkness, finally surrendered himself to the hangman.  

Engraving sold on ebay.

The legend of his aristocratic concern for correct language, even in the face of death, was born almost immediately.  According to Mme Campan, who had sent a spy to the Hotel de Ville, "Favras corrected his last will after writing it over, and went to the scaffold with heroic courage and coolness" (Memoirs, p.84).

And Victor Hugo...?

Favras's regard for compositional niceties in a stressful situation certainly has its roots in truth, but, what about those three spelling mistakes? 

 "Vous avez fait, Monsieur, trois fautes d'orthographe" - sadly, Favras seems never to have uttered those actual words.  According to the 1860 compilation by Édouard Fournier, the phrase, though attributed to Favras, was really a quotation from Victor Hugo. 
[Édouard Fournier, "L'esprit dans l'histoire: recherches et curiosités sur les mots historiques", 1860, p.241]

 ln Hugo's play Marion Delorme, written in 1828 and published in 1831, one of the characters, Saverney, delivers the line at the foot of the scaffold, as he correct the spelling mistakes in his own death-warrant. (Act V, scene 7).  The scene is supposed to echo the story of Favras which Hugo would have known well.  He lived only a few doors away from the marquis's former residence in the place des Vosges and almost certainly based his 1833 play MarieTudor on the historical drama Favras, episode de 1789, staged at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in 1831.  A manuscript note to Marion Delorme in Hugo's hand confirms:  Monsieur de Favras, at the site of his execution, made a declaration of his innocence and personally corrected the spelling mistakes of the clerk  ["Le Mrs de Favras au lieu de supplier, faite un déclaration d'innocence et corrige lui même [sic] la faute d'orthographe du greffier". See Marion Delorme, critical edition by John J. Janc,  University Press of America 2013, p.300 nt]

One can see here how  the play-text subtley alters the scenario;   there are not just "spelling mistakes", but, to emphasise the pedantry, specifically three;  the document is not Favras's prolix Testament, with its long protestations of innocence, but the character's death-warrant.

It is not so far away from Favras, and his brave end, but as always "the devil is in the detail"


"Favras,Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de (1744-90)" in Richard Ballard, A New dictionary of the French Revolution (2011)

Joseph Droz, Histoire du regne de Louis X VI (Paris, 1858), 3:72-75.

 Edmond Cléray, L'affaire Favras, 1789-1790 (d'après des documents inédits), Paris, 1932

Barry M. Shapiro, "Revolutionary Justice in 1789-1790: The Comité des Recherches, the Châtelet, and the Fayettist Coalition",  French Historical Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Spring, 1992), pp. 656-669.  [Article on JStor.]


Here is a well-informed account in English of Favras's execution:

The 18th of February was to be the last day of the trial ; early in the morning an immense crowd collected round the Châtelet;  the Place du Châtelet itself, and all the streets which turned out of it, were lined with people ; horrible vociferations resounded on all sides,  “Death to Favras !'';  “To the gibbet with the aristocrat!"   “The traitor or his judges!"  These gloomy cries formed a kind of accompaniment all day to the pleading of the advocates.  M. de Lafayette has been unjustly reproached with having publicly declared that he could not answer for the National Guard, or be sure of maintaining the tranquillity of Paris if M. de Favras was acquitted. On the contrary, he openly desired the lieutenant- civil, and the king's attorney, to pass judgment without fear, and, whatever the sentence might be, he would undertake that it should be fulfilled; and he, accordingly, took active military measures to secure the safety of the tribunal and the accused.  

Révolutions de Paris, no.32, p. 32, events of 19th February 1790.
"M de Favras arrived at the main door of Notre Dame, took with great courage the flaming torch in one hand and in the other his condemnation which he read outloud himself in an assured voice"

It was in the midst of all these warlike preparations, and the angry murmurs of the populace, that M. de Favras listened to the latter part of his defence.  M. de Cormeré, his brother, spoke with much courage and talent, and M. Thilorier pleaded at some length, with the boldness and vehemence of a man who was thoroughly convinced, and without any regard to his republicanism.  The accused occasionally broke silence, and declared again and again, with his hand upon his heart, that it would be very blameworthy to involve anybody else in the suspicions with which he had been so unfortunate as to inspire justice ; he declared upon his honour, that he had never been employed by anybody upon any mission whatsoever.   Night was now approaching, and a few smoky lamps were lighted, the discussion was still going forward, and the judges were exhausted with fatigue, and looked pale and disordered.   At this melancholy hour a profound silence reigned among the audience, who could scarcely be discerned in the growing obscurity.  Madame de Cormeré and Madame de Chitenay, his sisters-in-law, sat opposite the bench upon which the accused was placed, and could with difficulty restrain their sobs.  Such was the state of things in the judgment-hall when midnight struck.  M. de Favras was then removed by the guards, and his sentence was read aloud; he was condemned to do penance before Notre Dame, with bare feet, uncovered head, and in no other garment than his shirt, with a cord round his neck, and a burning torch in his hand; from thence he was to be conveyed in a dung cart to the Place de Grève, where “he shall be hung till he be dead." 

The execution of a criminal at this period generally took place within the twenty-four hours after his sentence was passed.   M. de Favras had been conveyed to the chamber of torture.   When M. Quatremère, the reporter, came to read his sentence to him, he found him with his head resting upon his hand, and seated at a small table, upon which was placed a single candle.  He rose respectfully at the entrance of the magistrate, and listened to his sentence with great calmness. Two or three times he interrupted M. Quatremère. 

" All those statements are false ; I never could dream for an instant of attempting the life of those in authority.  For whom do they take me, pray?" 
M. Quatremère said to him, with much naïveté, after he had read his condemnation: “Monsieur, your life has become a necessary sacrifice, for the security of public peace." 
The Marquis de Favras threw upon him a look full of scorn, and said, 
“Monsieur, since it is essential that the blood of an honest man should be shed, in order to preserve the tranquillity of this country, I am glad that you have fixed upon me for the victim, for I will show you Parisians that a gentleman knows how to die” 
M. Quatremère became a little embarrassed, and scarcely knew what to say. He added, by way of adieu,  “I have no other consolation to offer you than that which religion affords you, and I entreat you to avail yourself of it." 
" Monsieur,” replied the Marquis de Favras, ''my great consolation is to feel that I am innocent. I am the victim of two very bad men ; and it is you, Messieurs, who are worthy of my pity. I wish to have M. le curé de Saint Paul for my confessor” 
He passed the whole of the following morning with this priest. 

About eleven o'clock the registrar, Drié, came into his prison, and, according to the directions he had received from the tribunal, required him to give up the cross of Saint Louis, with which he was decorated. 

" A soldier, Monsieur," answered the Marquis, " cannot be disgraced by a registrar." Then, turning to a sergeant-major, who was called Jacques Brujant, “ Here, comrade,” said he, with much emotion, “here is my cross ; it was loyally won and loyally worn, believe me." 
After this interruption he conversed for two hours longer with his confessor. As soon as the priest had quitted him he sent for the registrar, and asked him if they would permit him to have his hands unbound, and who would perform this office for him? The registrar assured him that this favour would not be granted him ; and he proved to be right.  He gave M. Drié a sum of twenty louis. “ This is all that I have,”  said he ; "be sure to give this money to my poor wife when I am dead. She will have great need of it." 

The procession was to set out precisely at three o'clock.  A great body of troops were employed on this occasion to keep the crowd in order.  Directly the clock had struck three the drums began to beat, the door of the Châtelet suddenly opened, and M. de Favras came forth, dressed in white, and closely guarded. . [Cléray specifies that Favras wore the white dress of the parricide over his clothes;  although he was supposed to be barefoot, he was in fact allowed white stockings and slippers.] His countenance was perfectly calm and serene ; the cries and coarse jests of the populace did not seem to move him at all.    When the procession reached the Pont de Notre Dame, the prisoner found himself brought in closer contact with the crowd ; and noisy shouts and exclamations resounded more loudly on his ears; he looked coldly, however, on the multitude, and maintained his self-possession, without making any attempt to speak. On several spots large fires were lighted, round which everybody crowded. There, too, were wandering traiteurs who sold beignets and brandy to the chilly spectators.   

A general silence prevailed when the dung cart had passed through the square formed by the soldiers. M. de Favras got out of it.  He clasped the burning torch firmly in one hand, while in the other he held the parchment containing his sentence of death.  He then walked up to the principal door of the church, and cried out in a clear voice,  “Listen, people!  I am going to read you the sentence which has been passed on me.  I swear to you that I am innocent, as I expect shortly to appear before God; but I am obliged to submit to man's justice."   Then kneeling down, he read aloud the doom which had been assigned him.  When he had finished he got into the dung cart again, and desired to be conveyed to the Hotel de Ville; which place they reached at four o'clock.  M. Quatremère asked if he had anything to say to relieve his conscience ?  “ Yes, Messieurs," replied he;  “Write down the last sentiments and confession of an innocent man, who is on the point of meeting death." It was observed that M. de Favras had become pale; but, nevertheless, he dictated his last confession clearly, word for word, with an unfaltering voice. This confession was pub-lished the following day, and was read with such avidity, that the printer declared in a note that it was utterly impossible for him to satisfy everybody who desired to purchase it. It is too long, however, to give to the reader. It took M. de Favras four hours to dictate, for he was very particular in the expressions which he employed, and frequently changed one for another when he imagined the first did not quite convey his idea. Some persons have said that he sought to gain time by this delay, because he hoped, even at the last moment, that somebody would come to his succour. It was thought that the Comte de Provence might have saved him, and that Favras expected he would  but this is most improbable, if Monsieur had in any way been his accomplice. 

Révolutions de Paris, no.33, p. 39, events of 19th February 1790.
"M.Le Marquis de Favras, at the Hotel de Ville, drew up his will, with all the tranquility of a man who is not condemned to be hanged"

The night was now far advanced, and the people who waited to see the end began to grow impatient, more especially as a fine steady rain fell chillingly upon them.  They commenced shouting and using the most violent threats; in short, they became so furiously excited, that an officer felt it was his duty to go into the hall and mention that he thought it would be highly imprudent to make the people wait any longer, as their violence was beyond all bounds.   M. de Favras had corrected the copy of his confession; he was writing a letter, probably a last adieu to his wife and children.  The remarks of the officer did not make the least impression on him; he continued writing very calmly, folded up his letter, and then rising, said, “Messieurs, I am ready." At these words a shiver seemed to pass through the audience, and a general silence reigned among the spectators, even among those outside.  But no sooner did M. de Favras make his appearance on the flight of steps, surrounded by torchbearers and armed men, than shouts of applause resounded on all sides. 

Execution of Mr le marquis de Favras. From the Journal de Paris, 20th February 1790.
Before his execution Mr de favras took 20 louis and some loose change which he handed to the curé of St. Paul to be given to his wife.  He was executed on the place de Grève on the 19th February 1790 at eight o'clock in the evening.  After his death his family reclaimed his body which was buried in the graveyard of  Saint-Jean-en-Grève.  
The same precautions had been taken in the Place de Grève as at Notre Dame : the gallows was surrounded by a large body of troops;  lamps had been placed on the pavement, on the rails, and even fastened to the gibbet, so that the wet pavement shone like a mirror.  M. de Favras followed the executioner with rapid steps to the gallows.  When he reached it, he went up three steps of the ladder, then stopped, made a gesture with his hand. '' Wait a moment,'' cried he, " and beg those around me to hold their tongues for a few seconds.”  Silence being established, “Brave citizens," exclaimed he, “I am going to appear before God, and at such an awful moment, no one will ever accuse me of falsehood ; I swear to you then, in the face of heaven, that I am not guilty — that you will shed the blood of an innocent man " at the conclusion of these words he mounted the last step of the ladder, and said in a clear, loud voice, '' Before God I am innocent ;" after which, he turned to the executioner, and told him to do his office. The executioner slipped the noose over his head, and pushed him off the ladder.  For an instant he was swung above the heads of the crowd, and a violent convulsion shook his whole frame, and then the long white shadow cast by his body from the ruddy reflection of the lamps re-mained perfectly motionless, and a deathlike silence ensued. 
Satirical engraving from Desmoulin's Revolutions de France et de Brabant. Favras is shown being ferried across the Styx with his placard round his neck.   Waiting to meet him on the far bank is the poisoner Desrues, plus  a deputation of enemies of the Revolution  - Foulon, Berthier, de Launay, Flaisselle - carrying their heads on pikes .

Madame de Favras did not know of her husband's execution till the next day ; and only learnt the sentence which had been passed on him, and the particulars of his execution from a crier who passed beneath her window. The shock was so great that she fell down in a fainting fit.  She was soon after set at liberty; she had been arrested without cause, and was returned to her family without explanation. For several days, nothing was talked of but M. de Favras' trial ; but the general disorder increased, and ensuing scenes of horror swept away all memory of his untimely end. 

Alexis de Valon, "Le Marquis de Favras" ,Revue des Deux Mondes, Vol.10(6), 15 June 1851, p.1091-1135; translated into English in Bentley's Miscellany, Volume 30.

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