A Skeleton in the (Bastille Day) Cupboard or the Fanciful Liberation of the ‘Comte de Lorges’

Libertéegalitéfraternité — the famous clarion calls of the French Revolution will soon be reverberating proudly around the hexagon as France prepares to celebrate La Fête Nationale, its 225th Bastille Day  — but what about the vérité of the historic record? 

A Bastille Day fireworks display in Paris (Credit Marcia Taylor Flickr)

A Bastille Day fireworks display in Paris (Credit Marcia Taylor Flickr)

Here retired British diplomat and writer Keith Evetts recounts a tale of the Storming of the Bastille which throws a somewhat different light on one crucial aspect of the famous events of 14 July 1789.  (This piece was first published  in the mid-June issue of Thames Ditton Today and is crossposted here under a creative commons 3.0 licence and by kind permission of the author).

A Skeleton in the Cupboard

As 14 July comes round again I’m reminded of national day receptions, a burden of diplomatic life. At least with the French, decent champagne was de rigeur. I must have attended a dozen Bastille Days, the most memorable in London at the French Ambassador’s residence in Kensington Palace Gardens, shortly after we moved to Thames Ditton in Surrey.

Had I known that some twenty years thence research into local history would lead me to a story that somewhat tarnishes the gloire, a story of spin and propaganda, in which the main character was actually related to one of our local figures, I would have found it hard to keep a stiff upper lip.

Storming of the Bastille (Credit  National Library of France Wikipedia)

The storming of the Bastille a painting by Houël (Credit National Library of France Wikipedia)

The storming of the hated fortress prison on 14 July 1789 came to be the defining moment of the French Revolution. With a crowd of a thousand or so, the bourgeois militia, in search of gunpowder and ammunition stored there, overcame a garrison of about 114, mostly invalides. Uttering joyous cries, they freed the prisoners. The most striking was an old man with a long white beard, who was borne aloft on the shoulders of the exultant crowd as they paraded through the streets of Paris to the Hotel de Ville. He thereby became a powerful symbol of revolution, of liberté, extolled in popular song and street pamphlets which named him as the Comte de Lorges.

The fanciful liberation of the 'Comte de Lorges' (Credit: Wikipedia)

The fanciful liberation of the ‘Comte de Lorges’ (Credit: Wikipedia)


Examples of these survive in the Bibliothèque National de France. The story of the Comte de Lorges is calculated to excite the citizenry’s sympathy. He was reported to have been consigned to a remote dungeon in the Bastille at the instigation of the Marquise de Pompadour for denouncing the scandalous doings of Louis XV’s mistress, to have suffered greatly during 32 years of imprisonment, and to have made several brave but hopeless escape attempts. Revolutionary author Jean-Louis Carra, claiming acquaintance and personal interviews with de Lorges both at the Hotel de Ville on the day of his liberation, and later, published pamphlets and even books with quotes from the venerable and venerated fellow: “The years flew by while my fate remained unchanged…..I want the fourteenth of July to be celebrated forever, and let my remaining fortune be drawn upon yearly to help liberate five innocents from captivity….”

Carra was made Head of the Bibliothèque National in 1792, but with revolutionary factions jostling for power, he was guillotined just over a year later during the Terror. While his execution had nothing to do with what follows, if you think that the head of a national library should have meticulous regard for the truth of record, you may judge his fate deserved. For the “Comte de Lorges” was not as portrayed, and Carra’s interviews with him were pure invention. The Bastille pamphlets were canards indeed. Cries of liberté and egalité may have abounded during the Revolution, and fraternité was overflowing if not for the headless aristocracy, but vérité was somewhat lacking.

The precious symbolism of Bastille Day being a matter of such national sensitivity, it was an hundred years before French historians, drawing on those papers of the Bastille and other institutions preserved at the Arsenal, ventured to set the record straight. Writing in the centenary year of 1889 in the journal L’Intermediaire, the French equivalent of the Victorian “Notes and Queries”, vol XXII, no.502 pp 216-223, M. Alfred Begis gave chapter and verse. There had been just seven prisoners in the Bastille – four fraudsters, one publisher imprisoned for peripheral involvement with a plot, very well treated and allowed to publish from and receive profits in the Bastille, and two deranged fellows, both styled Comte, one of whom, the Comte de Solages, had committed foul atrocities against citizens on his estate. The other, identified as the old man with the white beard who had been hoisted on the shoulders of the liberators and paraded triumphantly through the streets, was Irishman James Francis (Jacques François) Xavier Whyte, Comte de Malleville. There was no “Comte de Lorges” – in the absence of any liberated prisoner of appropriate profile, and given the unsuitable personal history and inconvenient nationality of the deranged Whyte, “de Lorges” had been a convenient synthesis for propaganda.

Whyte was born in Dublin in 1930 and had been an officer in the French Army’s Irish regiment. He was incarcerated at Vincennes in 1781 by and at the expense of his family for reasons of insanity, and transferred to the Bastille on 29 February 1784. Later researchers ascertained that Whyte and fellow-prisoner the Comte de Solages, also insane, had been accused of perverted sexual practices (The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom – Lüsebrink & Reichardt, 1997).

It was not long before the liberators of the Bastille discovered that the old man with the white beard was round the bend, and they shut him up again immediately in the notorious Charenton asylum!

Now, the above has been picked over by many historians including Simon Schama, highlighting the great symbolism of the occasion and the spin and propaganda that fuelled it; and by Irish writers making the most of Whyte’s origins. But what has that to do with local history in Thames Ditton? Well, I have established to my entire satisfaction that Whyte, the witless hero of the hour, was the brother-in-law of Capt. Robert Alexander Lambert RN who with his wife Catherine settled at Weston Green in this parish towards the end of the 18th century. With their distinguished warrior sons they were a dominant force locally for nearly 100 years.

Huguenot Sir John Lambert, the first baronet (of London, 1710), a founder and director of the South Sea Company, was exiled to Paris after the South Sea Bubble. The family stayed there. Robert Lambert, the second son of the second Sir John and Anne daughter of Tempest Holmes, was born in Paris but as a young man joined the Royal Navy and made his home in England (his maternal grandfather Tempest Holmes was the senior Clerk in the Navy’s Victualling office).

Whyte married Robert’s sister Anne Lambert on 27 October 1767, in Paris. They had two daughters, one of whom was named Sophia. Presumably Whyte’s behaviour to his family especially his daughters was the reason they had him locked up. The family obtained an interdiction against Whyte, preventing him from managing his assets. And I have lately come across the text of a French official document of 27 September 1789 – just ten weeks after the storming of the Bastille – which granted a dispensation from the constraints of consanguinity to Sophia Whyte and her cousin, Henry Lambert, so that they could marry. Henry was the son of the third Sir John Lambert, Robert’s brother. The dispensation was made in the presence of Henry Lambert, 29, and 21 year old “Sophia de Whyte……fille de M. Jacques François De Whyte Comte de Whyte, seigneur de Malleville et de De Anne Lambert son épouse”. It recites the earlier determinations made against Whyte, which alienated his right to decision in this matter.

The Peerage dates the marriage of Henry and Sophia as 1788 which may well be a mistake – predating the dispensation to marry. At some point after September 1789 they moved to London, while revolution notwithstanding, Sir John Lambert (Capt. Robert Lambert’s elder brother, the third baronet in the line) remained in Paris as did Anne Whyte neé Lambert. Sir John was himself arrested twice during the Terror in 1793, and thereafter liberated. Unfortunately the pocket diaries of Robert’s wife Catherine Lambert for the period 1784-1794 are missing, but I can pick up the story again there in 1795, two years into the war of the First Coalition with revolutionary France. The diary entry for Monday 9 Nov 1795 reads: “Capt L & Anne went to London & dined at Harrys with Sir John Lambert & Mrs Whyte, who arrived in London on Saturday.” This Anne was the eldest daughter and firstborn of Catherine and “Capt. L” – her affectionate name for Robert. Harry was Henry Lambert, husband of Sophia Whyte neé Lambert.

At that time Robert and Catherine were renting a country house in Long Ditton while they owned a town house in London outright and another on long lease there. In 1798 they bought Weston House in Weston Green, where Whyte’s daughter Sophia and Henry Lambert were frequent visitors, including to our village summer fair. On the death of his father Sir John (3rd bt) on 21 May 1799, Henry inherited the title, but was himself to die early in 1803. Robert Lambert’s sons Robert Stuart Lambert (who became a vice-Admiral and commanded the squadron protecting St Helena when Napoleon died there) and John Lambert (who became General Sir John Lambert GCB and commanded the Tenth Brigade at Waterloo), on both of whom I have written extensively, were, together with Sophia, Henry’s executors.

Lady Sophia Lambert, the daughter of James Francis Xavier Whyte, remarried in 1805 to Lt.-Col. Henry Francis Greville. They remained close contacts of the Lambert family in Weston Green, and when Robert Stuart Lambert, then himself a captain in the Navy, was given the command of HMS Duncan in 1812, I think it highly likely that Sophia and her second husband occupied Weston House as a summer residence for a couple of years before it was let to Mr. Turner by 1815. For in the poor rate records of St. Nicholas Church of 7 May 1813 there is an entry for Weston Green in the name of Colonel Greville “late Capt. Lambert”, £175.

Anne Whyte neé Lambert died in October 1826. The obit in the Morning Post read: “On the 28th inst at her house in Upper Seymour-street, at the advanced age of 85, Anne Whyte, relict of James Whyte, Esq and sister to the late Sir John Lambert”. Sophia their daughter died in March 1839.

Catherine Lambert made no reference in her pocket diaries to her sister-in-law’s husband James Francis Xavier Whyte, styled Comte de Malleville, the old man with the long white beard who had been chaired triumphantly through Paris by the liberators of the Bastille. After that one day of freedom, he remained incarcerated until he died. Whyte’s history of insanity and alleged sexual abuse, which led to his committal by the family, meant that for the Lamberts, as for the revolutionary propagandists who exploited his venerable image on that fateful day, he remained a skeleton in the cupboard.

Nonetheless on 14 July I’ll raise a glass to the story, with a wink at my old French colleagues.

Story: Keith Evetts

The Author – Retired after a peripatetic career in Britain’s Diplomatic Service, Keith spends time in leafy Surrey (in the UK) researching and writing not-for-profit articles about local history for the common educational purpose, being constantly surprised how often local history connects with ‘Big History’.

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