During 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, the Vendée region of western France was the site of one of the eighteenth century’s most bitter and violent civil wars. The Vendée was not the only region that by 1793 was registering its discontent with the government in Paris, but no other revolt would be as bloody or as bitter as the civil war in the Vendée.
The Vendée and its civil war tend not to get much attention in English-language discussions of the French Revolution. This is a shame for any number of important historiographical reasons, but it’s a shame from a reader’s perspective as well: some of the most interesting characters of the Revolution emerged during the Vendéan civil war. Some of the most famous – or infamous, depending on one’s perspective – were the military leaders. Of all the colorful and dramatic characters to emerge in the Vendée, though, the Bishop of Agra might have been the most original of all, a man who was able to recreate himself and take advantage of the revolutionary moment like few others. He had arrived among the rebels in the Summer of 1793, telling the leaders of the army that the pope had sent him to help the revolt. He provided spiritual guidance to the army, leading prayers, blessing the soldiers and their weapons, and leading processions. According to one witness, whenever he entered a town the bells rang out and the peasants were “drunk with joy.” As the Catholic (and pro-Vendéan) historian Pierre de La Gorce wrote, the Bishop of Agra led mass so well that “one could almost pardon him for blessing without the right.”
Processions, masses, prayers – these were common occurrences in the Vendéan army, as the civil war was in many ways a religious war. The region had first turned against the Revolution after the National Assembly had passed a law in 1790 restructuring the Catholic Church in France. That law, and the overreaction to it, had led to the creation of two Catholic Churches in France: a constitutional church supportive of the Revolution, and a “refractory” church that often led the opposition to the Revolution throughout France and that was at the forefront of the Vendéan civil war. Given this religious background, it’s hardly surprising that the rebel armies made religious practice part of their routine. In towns and cities that the rebels took over, they would flock to the churches to pray. They gave religious nicknames to their weapons. Local refractory priests supported the rebel army, travelling with it and at times joining the fighting. All of the bishops from the region, however, had fled France. Having a bishop show up to provide spiritual leadership provided a real boost to the rebel army. That he wasn’t a real bishop was not at first important.
There is a diocese of Agra today, but it’s in India. There’s no place named Agra in France or any other region likely to have a French-speaking bishop. In the eighteenth century, there was no diocese of Agra and therefore no Bishop of Agra, and if there had been a Bishop of Agra, it would have been someone else. As for the man who arrived in the Vendée, his name was Gabriel Guyot de Folleville, and had he not declared himself a bishop he would certainly never have become one. He was not a complete impostor, perhaps: he had been a priest for some time in nearby Brittany, so he was familiar with the rites and capable of leading mass. Many who had met him earlier in the Revolution had found him quite charming. But no, the pope had not sent him to help the rebels. His anti-revolution bona fides weren’t even that strong, as he had first sided with the Constitutional Church, though he had later renounced the oath that had put him on the constitutional side of the schism.
Still, his presence among the rebels made him quite the rock star for a several months. He at one point sat on the rebel army’s leadership council. Some of the priests seem to have had their doubts about him, and it is possible that at some point the military leaders had found out the truth but chose not to disillusion their troops.
Or not to further disillusion them, anyway. Disillusionment enough would come from the fighting itself. In the fall of 1793, the fighting turned against the previously dominant Vendéan army. The key turning point here was the October battle at Cholet, a city south of the Loire river. Though the rebels had superior numbers, the government troops soon got the upper hand. By this point, many inhabitants of the region were so scared of the revolutionary army that even non-combatants were staying close to the army. So it was this mass of humanity, over 100,000 people, that began fleeing north from Cholet. As if reenacting Moses crossing the Red Sea, they crossed the Loire and began traveling through Brittany and Normandy, away from their home base. It was not inherently hostile territory, but neither was it territory that could have supported so many people even in warmer months. Within two months the fighting was done.
Whether one dates the end of the civil war from the defeat at Cholet in October or the final defeats at Le Mans and Savenay in December, the rebel army never recovered. But crossing the Loire would change things dramatically for the Bishop of Agra. The army had taken a route that brought him close to his old parish, and that was that – the people there recognized him and saw him for the ordinary parish priest he had been.
Guyot de Folleville was guillotined in 1794. Such a death was hardly unique, even if among the Vendéans far more died in fighting and from the resulting depravations than died at the guillotine. Still, if his death was not unique, his life certainly was. The Revolution provided an opportunity for supporters and opponents alike to reinvent their lives. Other people at the time reinvented themselves with more success and other people at the time had larger impacts. Few though, if any, reinvented themselves with more imagination than the Bishop of Agra.
By Noah Shusterman
Intellectual Heritage Program