Friday, December 5, 2014

Philippe d'Auvergne, British Spymaster of the French Revolutionary Wars

by Mark Patton

There are some stories that a novelist cannot make up, because they would appear improbable, but some such stories also happen to be true, as in the case of the life-story of Philippe d'Auvergne. A novelist inventing such a story, however, might be tempted to give it a happy ending, and that, sadly, is where the real history lets us down.

He was born on the island of Jersey, to an ancient and well-connected family. His father, Charles, had been ADC to the 3rd Duke of Marlborough, and his mother was the daughter of the island's Bailiff, Philippe Le Geyt. He grew up bilingual in English and French, and, at the age of fifteen, he joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman. He served aboard HMS Racehorse on an Arctic expedition in 1773, and later took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, ferrying troops and marines to various points around the Boston coast. In 1779 his ship, HMS Arethusa, was sunk in an engagement off the Ushant Islands of Brittany. He survived, but was taken prisoner.

Philippe d'Auvergne.
image is in the Public Domain)

It was in the prison of Carhaix that he had an encounter which would change the course of his life. Godefroy de la Tour d'Auvergne, Duc de Bouillon, learned of his captivity, agreed to pay bail for him, and moved him to the comfort of his chateau in Normandy. If Philippe and Godefroy were related at all, it was as very distant cousins (Philippe's family had been established on Jersey since the 14th Century), but Godefroy was in need of an heir, since his only legitimate son, Jacques Leopold, was both physically and mentally disabled. Although the duke did not formally adopt Philippe until 1789, it is reasonably clear that this was what he had in mind. He pulled strings to allow Philippe to return home as part of a prisoner exchange.

The Chateau de Navarre,
near Evreux, in Normandy,
where Philippe spent time with his adoptive family
(image is in the Public Domain).

Philippe resumed his naval career, and was given the command of HMS Lark, sailing with Commodore Johnson's force in 1781 in an attempt to take the Cape Colony from the Dutch. The expedition was a failure, and Commodore Johnson conceived the extraordinary idea of establishing a colony on the tiny remote island of Trinidade, in the South Atlantic. Philippe was put in charge of this project, which I have described in an earlier blog-post. It was a disaster which could so easily have turned into a tragedy. The crops they had planted failed, the animals died of starvation or disease, and the 27 men and one woman on the island with Philippe would have starved themselves, but for a chance rescue by HMS Bristol.

In 1791, the Duc de Bouillon confirmed Philippe as the heir to his duchy (a tiny territory, now in Belgium) but, in 1793, the old duke having died, Bouillon was forcibly annexed to France. Britain and France were, by this time, at war, and Philippe, now a commodore, was given command of a small squadron of ships protecting the Channel Islands. It was a prescient move because, in 1794, the French Committee for Public Safety ordered the capture of the islands and moved an army to Saint-Malo in readiness.

Mont Orgueil Castle, Jersey
by Henry King Taylor
(image is in the Public Domain).

Based at Mont Orgueil castle, Philippe now had 1000 naval personnel under his command, on convoy duty, protecting the islands' Newfoundland fishing fleets and merchant fleets. He was also given responsibility for more than 1500 French royalists who had taken refuge on the islands, and, from them, he recruited spies and informers to send back into France and build an insurgency movement in Brittany and Normandy. They were even waging economic warfare, landing vast quantities of counterfeit banknotes (18 paper-mills back in England were churning out more than a million assignats per day). Remote reefs served as drop and pick-up points for Philippe's agents.  Ten semaphore stations around Jersey allowed him to control these activities, and the lynch pin in the network was the tower of the Gothic pavilion that Philippe had built for his own pleasure at La Hougue Bie.

The "Prince's Tower" at La Hougue Bie.
Philippe used the title "Prince de Bouillon"
from 1787.

An Assignat of 1794. Philippe's fakes, packed into crates in the cellar of Mont Orgueil Castle, are almost certainly indistinguishable from the real ones. Photo: Milan Wolfl (licensed under CCA).

One of Philippe's most successful agents was a Jersey girl named Marie Le Sueur who, despite a six month spell in a French prison in 1793, bravely continued with her work. In 1799 she received a payment of 566 livres (roughly the sum that a skilled labourer would earn in a year).

The Royalist insurgency in France effectively ended with Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power in 1802, although Philippe continued to collect intelligence throughout the Napoleonic wars. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, however, his naval career was over.

As the Congress of Vienna met to redraw the boundaries of Europe, Philippe threw his all into the attempt to claim his duchy. He minted coins, travelled to Europe, and raised a small army under the colours of Bouillon, but it was to no avail. The British government supported him, but the appointed arbitrators backed a rival claimant, Prince Charles de Rohan.

Coin of Philippe d'Auvergne as Duc de Bouillon.
Photo: NicoScPo (licensed under CCA).

Philippe returned to London, where he died the following year, bankrupt. There is a sad post-script to this story. Philippe's tomb lies somewhere in the Church of Saint Margaret, beside Westminster Abbey, but all traces of his monument were destroyed during a Second World War air-raid. He is remembered, however, as a character in my novel, Omphalos.


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA. Further information can be found on his website and Blog.

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