Origin of the French National Guard

Painting of Philippe Lenoir in 1814 His French National Guard Uniform by Horace Vernet, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Painting of Philippe Lenoir in 1814 in His National Guard Uniform by Horace Vernet, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The French National Guard (called la Garde nationale by the French) was a militia that existed from 1789 until 1872 and was separate from the French Army. It favored the middle class and served both as a military and policing force. According to one newspaper, a French politician and diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, better known simply as Talleyrand, often told a story about how the National Guard originated.

According to Talleyrand, he and Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a French Roman Catholic abbé, clergyman, and political writer, were walking through the gardens of Tuilieres prior to the French Revolution breaking out. Opposite the gate at the place de Louis XV (later the place de la Révolution and later renamed place de la Concorde), a little beggar girl, leading an old woman on crutches, approached Sieyès and solicited alms from him. He presented her with a sou, which in her zeal to seize, she dropped.

Talleyrand (top) and Sieyès (bottom), Public Domain
Talleyrand (top) and Sieyès (bottom), Public Domain

The coin rolled under a hoof of the charger mounted by a garde du corps (bodyguard for the King) who was on duty at the gate. The girl reached to retrieve the coin, but each time she stooped, “almost at the risk of her life, the soldier apparently glad to divert the ennui of sentry by an event of this kind, spurred the animal to one side.” To avoid being stepped on she was compelled to withdraw. The danger, however, did not stop her from attempting to retrieve the coin, and each time the animal stood still, she tried again without success.

The mounted guard du corps was described as “remarkably handsome … quite an exquisite, an incroyable, with [a] coal-black mustache and royale and snow-white powdered hair.” But despite his pleasant appearance the whole scene was anything but pleasant. There was “the terror of the child, the overboiling wrath of the old cripple, and the insolent and cruel mirth of the garde du corps, [and it created] … a most exciting spectacle, and, combined with the angry passions of the crowd, who were not slow to take the part of the child, formed a picture not easily forgotten.”

Sieyès noticed the anger of the crowd building and decided to end the affair and gave the child a double sou and “bade her begone.” But before leaving the old crippled woman, despite being “well satisfied” by the extreme generosity of Sieyès, loaded the “air with curses upon the head of the young garde du corps. She was a filthy hag, blear-eyed, and lame; and it was fearful to hear her, as she tossed her rage aloft upon the wind, uttering such awful maledictions in a screaming discordant voice, that the blood ran cold to listen.”

Guarde du Corps During Louis XVI's Time, Courtesy Wikipedia
Garde du Corps During Louis XVI’s Time, Courtesy Wikipedia

Despite the old woman’s maledictions, it was reported:

“[The handsome guard sat in] calm defiance on his saddle, in the prettiest attitude imaginable. Stiff starched on duty, without moving a muscle, with his hat on one side, and his hand bent, and resting on his thigh, he looked straight at the woman, for fear of being suspected of wishing to shun her gaze; but he betrayed no heed of her words, save by a slight smile, which curled his lip.”

As the old crippled woman’s words did produce the desired effect, she raised her crutch to the guard’s face and shrieked: “Proud as you are, jack-a-napes, I shall live to see your soul in —, and your body devoured by the dogs!” With this she hobbled away, as did the young girl and the crowd.

Sieyès reflected on these events the rest of the day. Later that evening, when Talleyrand and Sieyès parted company, Sieyès said to him, “I have been thinking over the occurrence we witnessed together this morning. Something must done for the people. When they have an army of their own they will not run the risk of being insulted by hired mercenaries.”

According to Talleyrand:

“This was the very first idea which had ever entered the human brain respecting  the formation of a national guard. Once started, the idea found favour with all the disaffected. Sieyès himself planned and invented the project, and, by dint of perseverance, got it accepted some long time afterwards. Little did the proud Garde Nationale, when they marched to the frontier — when they dictated laws to the country — when they barricaded Paris — dream that they owed their existence and creation to a halfpenny which a starving beggar wench found hard to pick out of the gutter!”

Soon after the incident with the beggar girl, the revolution broke out and Talleyrand was traversing near the same spot where the incident had occurred. He noticed a crowd gathered around a pit and stopped to investigate. He was surprised to see the corpse of the garde du corps previously mentioned, “lying all mangled and bloody at the bottom [of the pit].” People were attempting to bring his corpse to the surface, and when it was retrieved, it was “discovered that a great part of the throat and breast had been gnawed way by starving dogs during the night! — The poor lad had been doubtless murdered by some unknown hand during the bustle and confusion of the day previous, and thrown into a … convenient place … thus the prophecy was fulfilled.”

References:

  • “Origin of the French National Guard,” in The Cork Examiner, 26 August 1884

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