Setting the scene
It is August, 1789. The French Revolution, which started idealistically enough with the formation of a National Assembly on 17 June to balance royal power, has become rather less polite as the Bastille is stormed on 14 July.
This political drama follows months of hardship for the people of France as appalling weather has affected crops for a third year and there has been a sharp rise in the price of wheat. Famine threatens but the new government is optimistically trying to work with the old entitled aristocracy to create a fairer France where no-one should starve.
However that old aristocracy is not taking well to change. Centuries of unquestioned authority are quite hard to shake off.
In the ancient city of Caen is vicomte Henri de Belzunce age 24, a man who has received all the benefits of a privileged upbringing. As a child he was a page at the palace of Versailles where he learnt to drink, gamble and to despise the lower classes.
Henri has been serving in the King’s Bourbon Infantry Regiment for three years and has reached the rank of Major. He is also arrogant, unpleasant, with a reputation of violent behaviour towards his men and on occasion the local population.
The Bourbon regiment had recently taken over from the popular Regiment d’Artois in Caen, and it has already been noted that the young vicomte follows orders rigidly and ‘to excess’. He soon alienates the local population with heavy handed methods of maintaining order in a town known only for its serenity.
Food shortages and unrest
As food shortages worsen the authorities decide to regulate distribution of what little wheat can be harvested. The Bourbon Infantry, led by Henri, is employed to monitor the harvest and transport it safely to the chateau at Caen, which is used as a warehouse.
Henri chooses to escort the grain convoys through the poor, hungry district of Vaucelles. He places his horses’ reigns between his teeth so that each hand can hold a pistol, which he uses to gestures mockingly at the ravenous crowds. Caen hates him.
In the shadowy streets and dark houses of Caen the population grumbles first to itself then loudly to anyone who will listen that the rationing policy is unfair. As ever nobility and bourgeoisie seem well fed while the ordinary man goes hungry. The despised, plump cheeked Henri is seen as the epitome everything wrong with a corrupt system as he struts around the city.
News of freedoms gained by the new government in Paris reach Caen and there are small celebrations in the streets as the people dream of a fairer, better future. But Henri was having none of it and arrogantly ordered his men to disrupt their festivities.
It is still a time of peace, however Henri starts to stockpile ammunition. On 11 August a rumour spreads through the streets and lamplit corners of Caen; Henri intends to reclaim the chateau, taken bravely by patriotic citizens just weeks before, for the King.
Then an angry exchange results in a death near the soldiers’ barracks. The atmosphere in Caen is as dry and as dangerous as tinder.
A solution and a poor promise
The newly installed ‘Provisional Committee’ demand the major be removed from his post or they could not answer for the furious people of Caen.
After much negotiation on the evening of 12 August 1789, Henri agrees (with the promise of a safe conduct out of Caen) to appear before the Committee and to answer their accusations. He is, of course, unconcerned.
Henri swaggered out of the chateau shouting back at the gathered protesters with all the arrogance of his class. Unlike Henri, the National Guard holding back the crowd saw just how nasty it was turning. The Guard were horribly outnumbered and Henri’s taunts were bringing the Caennaise to boiling point.
But Henri knew the revolution would fail and people like him, those born with a right to rule, would overcome. Or so he believed as he dodged slaps and waving cudgels.
At Place Saint Pierre by the Hotel de Ville the crowd shouted ‘Long live the Nation!’ as the town committee set out charges against him. Foolish Henri’s responses failed to impress.
The shouts of the crowd grew deafening. Did Henri finally realise he was doomed? The National Guard certainly knew a riot was about to begin and that they were horribly outnumbered. A soldier decided to remove the cause of all the unrest, and shot Henri in the head.
The horror did not end there.
The usually charming Caennaise, patience stretched by heat and hunger, grabbed at Henri’s hated body and cut it wide open. His entrails were pulled out to be mangled by the horde.
Then someone cut off his head. One witness recalled seeing ‘this young and beautiful head, with powdered hair, who in spite of death, retained an air of nobility and fidelity’… shortly before it was used for a bit of kick-about by a 19 year old pastry chef.
Now full dismembered, pieces of Henri were thrown onto a fire. The smell of burning flesh filled the air and a hungry woman grabbed for his bleu cooked heart. As she started to eat the frenzied crowd broke into applause, then reached to share in the horrific barbecue.
Finally, the head of vicomte Henri de Belzunce wss skewered on a spade and left, looking sightless across Place Saint Pierre towards the old chateau.
Extract of the minutes From the General & National Committee of the city of Caen, Relative to the Death of M. de Belzunce. Session of Tuesday, September 1, 1789.
The Oxford handbook of the French Revolution
In 1821 while France had a King back on the throne, some histories were revisited and rather refreshed… In the ‘History of the Assembly’ 1821 of Henri’s murder it says:
In the city of Caen the massacres of Paris were repeated with a barbarous emulation. A major who bore a name dear to the friends of humanity, that of the illustrious and courageous bishop of Marseilles M. de Belzunce, excited the fury of the people for having wished to preserve discipline in his regiment. He was scarcely twenty-five years old, his mind was kind, his heart loyal and his figure were graceful and noble. The affection he felt for the soldiers was so powerful that he was able to preserve them from a then so contagious intemperance. Unwittingly grabbed by revolutionaries while his soldiers were already out of the city gates, he defended himself for a quarter of an hour with his sword against brigands before falling under their blows. I shake to record the atrocious fact that his remains were devoured by his executioners.