L’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth, Louis XVI’s heroic Anglo-Irish confessor

“I am the priest whom he intends to prepare him for death.”

Featured image: Louis XVI avec son confesseur Edgeworth, un instant avant sa mort. Wiki Commons

One the most heartbreaking sections of Louis XVI’s will and testament is this:

I pray God to forgive me all my sins. I have sought to know them scrupulously, to detest them and to humble myself in his presence, not being able to avail myself of the ministry of a Catholic Priest. […]

I pray God to receive this firm resolution which I have, that if he grants me life, to avail myself as soon as I can of the ministry of a Catholic Priest, to accuse myself of all my sins, and to receive the Sacrament of Penance.

Louis XVI’s prayer was answered.

Fr Henry Essex Edgeworth was born in Ireland, although was of English descent. All subsequent quotes and details of his life here are taken from Guinan’s article from the Catholic Encyclopaedia, so we will not clutter this short piece with footnotes.[1]

Image from Wiki Commons.

His father was a Protestant rector in Ireland, but became a Catholic at great personal cost. The penal laws of Ireland against Catholics made life unbearable, and so he moved to Toulouse in France with his family. His son – the subject of these notes, Henry – began his preparation for becoming a priest.

Henry, once ordained, was later offered a bishopric in Ireland, but declined. He became the confessor of the Madame Elisabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, and became a close and loyal friend of the Royal family. As Guinan writes of l’Abbé Edgeworth:

“In their fallen fortunes he stood by them at the risk of his life, followed the survivors after the Revolution into exile, and died in their service.”

The Archbishop of Paris fled in 1792, and made Abbé Edgeworth the vicar general of the diocese. His friends bade him flee too, but he expressed his thoughts in a letter to a fellow priest in London:

“Almighty God has baffled my measures, and ties me to this land of horrors by chains I have not the liberty to shake off. The case is this: The wretched master [the king] charges me not to quit this country, as I am the priest whom he intends to prepare him for death. And should the iniquity of the nation commit this last act of cruelty, I must also prepare myself for death, as I am convinced the popular rage will not allow me to survive an hour after the tragic scene; but I am resigned. Could my life save him I would willingly lay it down, and I should not die in vain.”

We see in Louis XVI’s Testament that, at least in December 1792, he was without a priest and uncertain as to whether he would be deprived of the sacraments before his death. But on the day of his sentencing:

“[L’Abbé Edgeworth] was summoned by the Executive Council to proceed to the Temple prison at the desire of “Louis Capet”, who was condemned to die on the following day.”

He stayed with the King overnight and said Mass in his apartment in the morning. He sat beside Louis XVI on his way to the scaffold, and consoled him as the blade fell. He is reported, although did not recall himself, as having said:

“Son of St. Louis, ascend to heaven.”[2]

Even after the regicide, this brave priest did not flee to England where he would have been safe. He felt bound by his duties to the diocese of Paris, and he had promised Madame Elisabeth that he would not abandon her. His own mother and sister were also still living in Paris.

As such, he continued to minister to Paris, eluding capture by being dressed in civilian clothes and using multiple different names. At last, in August 1796, with his mother dead and Madame Elisabeth executed, he went to Portsmouth, England.

In England he was treated as a hero. He considered visiting Ireland, but then became involved with the heir to the French throne, Louis XVIII. He became his chaplain, and went with him to Russia, where he was again treated as a hero, and where he spent the rest of his life.

But even in Russia the heroic Anglo-Irish priest had not finished his ministrations to the French people. Following Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1807, some French soliders were sent as prisoners to where l’Abbé Edgeworth was. There was a contagious fever amongst them, and he ensured that their spiritual needs were met. He too fell victim to this fever.

Despite the risks to her own life, Marie-Thérèse repaid in part the loyalty shown to her father Louis XVI. She stayed with l’Abbé Edgeworth in his sickness, and called him “[her] beloved and revered invalid, her more than friend, who had left kindred and country for her family.” He died there, and was buried in Russia with an epitaph written by Louis XVIII.

Marie-Thérèse, Duchess of Angoulême and daughter of Louis XVI, with l’Abbé Edgeworth on his deathbed. (Wiki Commons)

What does all this show us? We must pray for a good death. Louis XVI’s prayers were answered with this noble Anglo-Irish priest, l’Abbé Henry Essex Edgeworth. The priest’s devotion and heroism, too, was rewarded by being cared for by the daughter of his old royal master.

May all these noble persons – tragic to the world but blessed to us – rest in peace. Or, may they pray for us, if they are already beholding the true King of Kings in Heaven.


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[1] Joseph Guinan, “Henry Essex Edgeworth” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, New York 1909. Accessed via the iPieta app.

[2] “In his graphic and authoritative account of the last moments of Louis XVI (the original of which in French is preserved in the British Museum) the abbé is silent about this fine apostrophe, which everyone has heard of; but, when asked if he made use of the memorable expression, he replied that, having no recollection of anything that happened to himself at that awful moment, he neither affirmed nor denied having used the words.” Ibid.

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