In the context of 18th century France, an émigré (French for ’emigrant’) is someone who fled the revolution, voluntarily or under duress. The number of émigrés from revolutionary France is believed to have exceeded 100,000. Contrary to popular opinion, not all émigrés were nobles, in fact fewer than one in five possessed noble titles. More than half of all émigrés were members of the Third Estate, usually affluent bourgeoisie or those fleeing on religious grounds. These émigrés congregated in places beyond the reach of the revolution, such as France’s outer provinces, other European kingdoms or across the channel in England. Most émigrés sought safety from the violence of the revolution – but some dreamed of amassing an army to sweep into France, crush the revolution, liberate the king and restore the old order. Little came of these efforts and most counter-revolutionary émigrés were absorbed into foreign armies. Within France, the new regime attacked émigrés as enemies of the revolution, stripping them of their titles, property and rights.
The first wave of emigrants left France as early as mid 1789. One of the earliest to leave was Charles Philippe, Count of Artois, a younger brother of the king. An arch-conservative considered “more royalist than the king”, the Count of Artois was appalled by the events of the Estates General and the violence in Paris. On July 17th, three days after the attack on the Bastille, Artois and a small group of courtiers left France for the Italian states. Some claimed he fled on advice from the king, who wanted to secure an alternative monarch, however the evidence for this is thin. By September the Count of Artois and his émigré cohort were based in Turin, where they established a committee to organise and promote counter-revolution. He spent the next two years trying to convince foreign governments to raise an army and intervene in France. Artois also planned to hire mercenaries to snatch the king and relocate him to a safer province, where Louis could re-form national government. Neither of these plans came to fruition.
The flow of émigrés tended to accelerate after radical violence or some portentous development, such as the October Days in 1789 or the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. By the summer of 1791 there were sizeable émigré communities in London, Vienna, Hamburg, Aix-la-Chapelle and Coblenz. London was by far the largest, holding around 40,000 refugees from the revolution. Most of the London émigré community sought sanctuary and a return to high society; they attempted to recreate the salons and balls they attended back home. There were at least three French language newspapers in London that catered for émigrés, their pages filled with ridicule of the revolution and its leaders. Many émigrés had a genuine sense of optimism about their situation. According to the radical Jacobin Choudieu, “emigration became a sort of fashion… Our women of fashion themselves encouraged this new sort of crusade and sent letters to those who were putting off going”. This optimism dwindled when the London émigré set, removed from their landed estates, businesses and income, began to run out of money.
The émigrés on the continent were more interested bringing an end to the revolution so they could return home. Young nobles and former military officers were at the forefront of counter-revolutionary émigré armies. One of the first significant forces was La Legion Noire (‘The Black Legion’), formed in late 1790 by André Riqueti, Viscount Mirabeau, younger brother of the National Assembly leader. Mirabeau was a bad-tempered drunk who, unlike his brother, was utterly opposed to the revolution. He managed to muster almost 1,000 men before selling the Black Legion to another émigré nobleman. The German city of Coblenz became a gathering point for counter-revolutionary military activity, led by two of Louis XVI’s brothers, the Counts of Artois and Provence. They wielded large sums of money, provided by other émigrés and the royal courts of Austria, Prussia and Spain – yet it was not enough for the task at hand. They found recruiting large numbers of infantry soldiers difficult, not least because most émigrés expected to be officers. Once formed, émigré armies adopted an organisational structure that reflected the old society. Chateaubriand noted that one émigré army “was composed of nobles, grouped according to province. At the very end of its days the nobility was going back to its roots and to the roots of the monarchy, like an old man regressing to his childhood”.
Robert R. Palmer, historian
Despite their determination, most of the émigré armies were failures. They were costly to organise and supply, experienced problems with internal organisation and military discipline and were not well led. The émigré armies reached their peak in mid 1792, when their numbers approached 25,000. In July 1792 émigré commanders persuaded the Duke of Brunswick to issue his famous manifesto, threatening the people of Paris with devastation if any harm came to the royal family. The émigré armies were supremely confident of their ability, however their first forays into battle proved disastrous. In late August 1792 a 16,000-strong émigré force laid siege to the French town of Thionville but failed to capture it, despite outnumbering the defenders four to one. At Longwy and Verdun the émigrés achieved virtually nothing. At Valmy they arrived after the battle had concluded. Experienced Prussian and Austrian generals lost confidence in émigré battalions and found the émigré leaders cocky and unbearable to work with.
To add to these military failures, émigré leaders failed to demonstrate an understanding of events in France. The revolution, for all its faults, was unlikely to be crushed with by external force. As events in 1792 showed, external threats strengthened revolutionary nationalism and provoked radical violence. The émigrés also believed that once their armies swept into France, the peasantry would welcome them with open arms and volunteer for military service. This was far from true. While many peasants in north-eastern France opposed the revolution, they had no desire to welcome back their former noble masters. The capacity of the émigrés to threaten or undermine the new regime was negligible. This was not lost on the revolutionaries, who ridiculed the émigrés in both word and caricature (see picture). In Paris, the revolutionary government took action against the émigrés who threatened it. On November 9th 1791 the Legislative Assembly ordered all émigrés to return to France “on pain of death” (though this law was vetoed by Louis XVI three days later). On February 9th 1792 the Assembly passed another decree, declaring the property of émigrés to be bien nationaux (‘national goods’). The sequestration of émigré property was carried out through the summer of 1792. On October 25th the newly formed National Convention went further, banning all émigrés from France and promising them the guillotine should they ever return.
1. The émigrés were those who fled the revolution, either for security, safety or to organise counter-revolution. There were more than 100,000 émigrés between 1789 and 1794.
2. Only a small proportion of émigrés were nobles, in fact most belonged to the Third Estate. They went into exile in France’s outer provinces, other European kingdoms or across the channel in London.
3. London had the largest émigré population, housing around 40,000 refugees from revolutionary France. The émigrés there attempted to recreate the society and culture of the Ancien Régime.
4. Other émigrés, particularly those in Coblenz, attempted to organise counter-revolutionary armies. These armies were beset with problems, however, and their early military ventures ranged from ineffective to disastrous.
5. The new regime implemented harsh penalties against the émigrés, ordering the seizure and sale of their properties, banning them from re-entering France and promising the death penalty if they returned.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The émigrés“, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/emigres/.