The tragedy of Philippe d'Auvergne
Few Jerseymen have had stranger adventures than Philippe D’Auvergne, exploring the Arctic, fighting the revolted colonists in America and the French King's ships in the Channel, sent on a fool's errand to found a British colony and abandoned on a desert island, and in the wars which followed the French Revolution not only charged with the defence of the Channel Islands, but given the additional task of controlling the British spy system in Brittany and La Vendee, and helping to keep Royalist revolts blazing there.
A good article on him appeared in our Bulletin in 1947, but the story seems worth retelling, laying fuller stress on his work in Jersey, and on the fatal act that ruined him, his acceptance of the throne of Bouillon.
St Ouen family
A remote ancestor from Auvergne in South France must at some time have settled in Jersey; but for four centuries, when our hero was born, the family had been living at St Ouen, farming folk, providing their parish with many churchwardens and Constables. One of these Constables moved to St Helier, and bought a house at the bottom of King Street, then almost the last house in the town. There in 1754 his grandson Philippe was born.
The boy had a good education at St Mannelier's Grammar School, and, when the Seven Years War ended and sea travel became safe, at schools in England and France. And he had one piece of luck. A Captain Howe came to command the squadron defending the Channel Islands, and he and Philippe's father became friends. Howe later became the famous Lord Howe, Vice-Admiral of England; and he kept a kindly eye on his friend's son, when Philippe joined the Navy.
For his first ship Howe got him a post on the King's yacht, where he did his training under more civilized conditions than on a big battleship. He passed on as midshipman to the frigate ‘’Flora’’, which called at Cronstadt, where the officers were presented to the Empress Catherine. She with her notorious eagerness to keep handsome young men round her, tried to persuade Philippe to accept a place in her Court; but wisely he declined.
At Copenhagen, their next port of call, a French frigate anchored near them, on which savants from the Academic des Sciences were doing research on the effect of atmospheric pressure on chronometers. This was important, for the longitude of a ship at sea was calculated by the position of the sun at noon, and chronometers, that gained or lost time, could put ships out of their course.
D’auvergne spoke French like a native, for Jersey was still French-speaking; and these scientists inspired him with an interest in science that he never lost. When the ‘’Flora’’ was paid off, he went to London to take lessons in advanced mathematics.
With the world at peace, the Admiralty decided to use some of its ships to probe unsettled problems. Was there a shorter way to the East than by sailing round the Cape? Attempts to find a North-west Passage, north of Canada, had proved disappointing.
But was there a North-east Passage, north of Europe and Asia? Again, why did compasses sometimes show strange deviations? Could there be two magnetic poles operating independently?
And a stack of new inventions were waiting for a searching test. Two bomb-vessels were chosen for this task, and there was keen competition among young officers to join them. Howe secured a berth on the Racehorse for Philippe, who was now 19.
On 4 July 1773 they left Spitzbergen, the whalers’ ultima Thule, and sailed into the unknown. Though it was midsummer, they had to grope their way through perpetual fog, keeping close to the edge of the ice, exploring every gap, and charting every island.
Twice they were icebound. The second time the ice piled up higher than the mainyard, and they abandoned ship, and were dragging their longboats over gthe ice hoping to find open water, whensuddenly the ice split, and they were able to haul the ships out.
They found no North East Passage, nor any evidence of a second magnetic pole; but they got 25 miles nearer the pole than anyone had done before, and brought back much information about birds, beasts, and plants hitherto unrecorded, and their leader closed his book on the voyage with 200 pages on how the new instruments had behaved.
Day by day d’Auvergne had kept the meteorological records, taken the astronomical observations, drawn the charts, and made sketches of the scenery, which his Captain included in his book. When paid off, he returned to his Mathematical School.
But he did not stay long. The American colonies revolted, and the Navy recalled him to help to blockade Boston. He landed troops in boats before the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. He raided towns that refused to supply food.
Then the fleet arrived with Howe in command, who moved the whole force south to capture New York.
In the two months fighting d’Auvergne had the dangerous task of transporting troops under heavy fire from island to island. When New York fell, he was given his first independent command, an East-Indiaman refitted for river work, and sent to Rhode Island, the haunt of the American privateers.
But France suddenly entered the war on the Colonists’ side, and he was trapped up a river by the French fleet, and burnt his shipt to prevent its capture. He took his crew to strengthen the garrison of Newport, which was esieged by the colonists. Later he was court-martialled for burning his ship, but was honourably acquitted.
He then became first-lieutenant of the 'saucy' Arethusa, famous in legend and song; but in a fight with a French frigate she struck a rock off Ushant and sank, and he and his fellow officers were interned in a Breton town. Now began the most fantastic chapter in his life.
Before Napoleon's conquests Europe was dotted with a number of small, independent Principalities. One was Bouillon, in what is now the Belgian Ardennes. It was entirely self-contained, with its own ancient laws, its own coinage, its own weights and measures.
For two centuries the French family of La Tour d'Auvergne had been its Dukes. The reigning Duke in 1779, a man of immense wealth, never visited his Duchy, but lived in Normandy in the Chateau de Navarre, which he had rebuilt as a Renaissance palace. A whole village and its church had been swept away to create a park full Greek temples, Chinese kiosks, palm-houses, and artificial waterfalls.
He was a Peer of France, Grand Chamberlain (the fourth in precedence of the Court officials), and Marshal of all the Camps and Armies of the King; but years of loose living had sapped his strength, and physically and mentally he had become an old man.
His only son was a slobbering half-wit, legless, humpbacked, childless; and to prevent a detested cousin from inheriting his vast estates the Duke was planning to adopt a son. Then he heard that one of the ‘’Arethusa’’ prisoners was named d’Auvergne.
Out of curiosity he secured his release on parole, and invited him to Navarre. After being brought up in a middle-class home, and roughing it for eight years at sea, Philippe must at first have felt bewildered by the splendours of the Duke's castle with its hundred indoor servants, its liveried ushers to open doors with obsequious bows, its trumpeters sounding to meals, its procession of powdered flunkeys bringing in the dishes; but his natural courtesy held its own amid this overwhelming pomposity, and his good looks, his fluent French, and his personal charm, won the old Duke's heart.
He decided, if a link could be found between the Jersey d’Auvergnes and his own family, to adopt Philippe as his heir. He set his old tutor to investigate the early family history. Meanwhile with his influence at Court he arranged for Philippe to be exchanged with a French prisoner in England. By June 1780 he was back in the Navy ready for further service.
Fight with French
He was given command of the Lark, and in 1781 sailed with Commodore Johnstone's fleet to seize the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch; but the ships were surprised by the French off Cape Verde Islands, and Johnstone by waiting to repair two ships damaged in the fight, let the French reach the Cape first, and land a force, which made a surprise attack impossible.
D’Auvergne was given the unwelcome task of taking the news to England that the expedition had failed; but he escaped it by exchanging ships with another captain who was anxious to get home. Meanwhile his Commodore realized that a court martial awaited him. He had been ordered to capture the Cape, and the Dutch flag was still flying.
A wild idea occurred to him. If he could found a colony elsewhere, all might be forgiven. On their way out, an easterly gale had driven them out of their course, and they had sighted a lonely, volcanic island called Trinidad (not to be confused with the one in the West Indies) 700 miles off the coast of Brazil. It had seemed unoccupied; so Johnstone sent Philippe to annex it.
He loaded Philippe's ship with cows, sheep, geese, fowls, and seeds of every kind. But, when he reached the island and had landed his cargo, a hurricane drove his ship ashore and smashed it to pieces. He and his crew found themselves on an uninhabited isle, which produced no eatable fruit or vegetation; and there, when they had killed and eaten all the food they had brought with them, they had to live on land-crabs.
And they were entirely forgotten. Neither the Navy nor Johnstone made any attempt to relieve them. Trinidad lay far from the regular trade-routes; and it was 15 months before a passing ship saw their signals of distress and took them to India.
When at last d’Auvergne reached London, he found the Duke of Bouillon waiting for him. England and France were now at peace, and the Duke had brought a pedigree (which the editor of Burke's Peerage called "an heraldic figment") tracing the descent of the Jersey d’Auvergnes from the early Counts of Auvergne, whom the Duke claimed as his ancestors.
So he welcomed Philippe as a cousin, and announced his intention of adopting him as his son. As the privations in Trinidad had affected his health, the Navy gave him a long sick-leave, and he spent much of the next three years in Navarre Castle.
Now his accomplishments, remarkable in one whose time had been spent in active naval service, began to receive recognition. A German University made him an LLD, the Royal Society elected him a Fellow as "a gentleman distinguished in many branches of Science, particularly mathematics", and the Society of Antiquaries made him a Fellow.
In 1786 the Duke's duties as Grand Chamberlain took him to Fontainebleau, where the French Court, unconscious of the gathering storm that would soon sweep them to the guillotine, were junketing in the Forest. D’Auvergne went too.
He was presented to the King and Queen and the King's brother promised that he, like his adoptive father, would be made a Peer of France, a promise unlikely to be kept, for this was a quite exceptional honour conferred only by the King.
But the Duke was also Count of Evreux, and this title was hereditary. Could a British officer, however, become one of the French noblesse? The Duke offered to have him naturalized, but d’Auvergne refused to renounce his British citizenship.
Nevertheless the Duke's lawyers went on with preparations for his adoption. They drew up two documents. In one the Duke recognized Philippe's father as a cousin, and granted him the right to use the family coat of arms; and this was registered in the English Heralds' College. In the other, Philippe's father relinquished all paternal authority over him. No one can have two fathers. So, before a new one can adopt, the real one must renounce his rights.
That year Philippe was recalled by the Navy to command the Narcissus, and patrol the Channel to catch smugglers. He was also given many makes of compasses to test which was the least affected by the motion in rough weather. But after three years his health again failed, and he went back to Navarre.
The French Revolution had begun; but Pitt at first kept England out of the war, and tourists were flocking to France. One lady visited Navarre in 1791, and her diary shows that the Duke had abandoned little of his patrician grandeur: "He insisted on our staying the night. He lives in princely style, 23 people at dinner, 24 footmen, 10 men cooks. We were driven on Sunday in two carriages, drawn by six of the most beautiful horses I ever saw, about the Forest of Evreux, which belongs to him, and contains 80,000 acres."
The Bouillon Assembly now grew anxious about the future of their State. It petitioned the Duke “to settle the uncertainty that might arise as to the succession, by declaring to which branch of his House he meant to transfer the sovereignty."
He replied: "We declare His Highness Monseigneur Philippe d'Auvergne, descended like Ourself from the Royal House of Auvergne, to be the person chosen by our heart and mind to be Prince Successor to our Sovereignty."
Jacques Leopold, the afflicted son, signed a paper: "We approve the arrangements made by Our honoured father for the Sovereignty"; and Philippe himself wrote: "Rest assured that no interest will ever be nearer my heart than to merit the confidence of the people of Bouillon and to justify the Prince's choice."
At Bouillon these letters were greeted by the Assembly with cheers, and ordered to be read in every church in the Duchy, and a Te Deum to be sung. At Navarre the Duke gathered his tenants together, and, when the letters had been read, he girded Philippe with the jewelled sword of the famous Marshal Turenne, the hero of the family, and amid a salvo of trumpets declared Philippe Prince and Successor to his titles and possessions, and all the officials knelt and kissed his hand.
One final step seemed to make his future secure. George III announced: "Of our special favour we grant to Philippe d'Auvergne our Royal Licence to accept and enjoy the succession to the Sovereignty of Bouillon."
But the French Revolution soon outgrew its comparatively moderate opening. The Jacobins took the bit between their teeth. The mob stormed the Tuileries, and threw the King into prison. And England declared war.
D’Auvergne escaped in time, and was given command of a flotilla of eight gunboats to protect the Channel Islands. For the next 20 years he was cut off from his inheritance. The Duke died in 1792, and his son survived for a few years in his wheeled chair. But at his death D’Auvergne assumed the full title of Duke. He had a seal engraved SIG PHIL D G DUX BUILLON. (seal of Philippe, Duke of Bouillon); and by this title he was always mentioned in the English Navy List.
The local Jacobins, however, abolished the office of Duke. Then the Austrians sacked the town. Then the French annexed the Duchy and confiscated the Ducal estates. But d’Auvergne still signed his letters, "Bouillon, Prince".
His new duties were fourfold: "To command a division of armed vessels to cover these islands; to open communications with the continent so as to obtain early information of movements of the enemy; to maintain communication with the Royalist insurgents in the West; and to distribute the succour to the French emigrants in these islands."
None of these tasks was easy. In Jersey he was hampered by the jealousy of his cousin, Philippe Falle, the Lieut-Governor, who resented the presence of a naval officer, who received orders direct from Whitehall.
When D’Auvergne asked permission to store in Mont Orgueil the arms which were sent him to pass on to the French Royalists, Falle refused, which so annoyed the War Office that they ordered him to hand over the whole Castle to d’Auvergne. Till then Philippe had lived on one of his ships in Grouville Bay; but now he furnished two rooms in one of the Castle's towers.
He also received another tower. Thirty years earlier his uncle, General James d’Auvergne, had bought La Hougue Bie. The prehistoric tomb had not yet been discovered; but he laid out the grounds with trees and hydrangeas, and built on the roof of the medieval chapel a gazebo, from which he could overlook almost the whole island. Now he gave this to Philippe; and it became known later as the Prince's Tower.
Jersey felt proud that a fellow-islander had become a Prince. Even his liaison with "Mary Hepburn, spinster of St Helier", by whom he had three children, seems to have escaped criticism. In those days, when the King's brothers openly flaunted their mistresses, Princes were apparently considered exempt from the seventh commandment.
His two daughters were received in the most exclusive houses, and later each married an Admiral. His son entered the Navy. Why Philippe never married is a mystery. A wife to be Duchess and a legitimate son would have been assets in Bouillon. Rumour said he had made an unfortunate marriage in India after his escape from Trinidad; so a second marriage would be bigamy. But the Indian Marriage Registers of the period have no record of this.
Defence of islands
The defence of the islands became urgent. The French Committee of Safety ordered their capture, and moved an army to St Malo for the purpose. D’Auvergne's little fleet, which he strengthened by hiring, and arming, quick-sailing luggers locally, kept ceaseless watch on the port. If the enemy showed signs of embarking, a look-out boat would speed to within signalling distance of Mont Orgueil; the Castle would pass on the warning to ten semaphores, which D’Auvergne had erected in different parts of the island, and at each a cannon could call the militia to arms.
There were frequent scraps with the enemy. D’Auvergne's letter-book records how the Seaflower destroyed a French transport, how the Danae captured a patrol-boat, how a French gunboat was brought in by the Aristocrat and a St Malo corsair by the Royalist. There were losses as well as gains. The Jason ran ashore near St Malo; so the Weasel and the Clyde sailed in and burnt her. This kind of work was going on week after week.
D’Auvergne's second task was to keep the Cabinet supplied with "early information of hostile movements of the enemy". This involved the creation of an intricate spy-service, secret Royalists living in France, women as well as men, tetchy aristocrats, dogmatic priests, smugglers, and scoundrels, no easy team to handle. Their reports were picked up by his boats from prearranged caches in the rocks, and hurried to England in a swift cutter.
The value the Government attached to these can be seen from the money it paid for them. In 1795 d’Auvergne received £6,866 for espionage; in 1796 £15,747. In three crises this work became specially important; during Heche's preparations for invading Ireland in 1796, and the mobilization of an army to invade England in 1797, and the steps taken again in 1798 for a new expedition to Ireland. In all these D’Auvergne was able to send "minute particulars of the fitness and equipment of the ships, the exact state of their stores, even the character and ability of the officers".
His third task was to supply the Chouans in Brittany with arms. These were guerrilla fighters, gunmen behind hedges; but they gave the Republicans a great deal of trouble. Just as in the Second World War, England provided the French Resistance with munitions, so now Pitt poured into Jersey muskets, sabres, barrels of powder, gun-flints, medical stores, to be passed on to the Chouans.
D’Auvergne had no aeroplanes to drop them. They had to be landed on the coast at night, and they were bulky and noisy things to handle, and then smuggled through the coastguards and patrols. Yet he was doing this regularly. One minor difficulty was the crowd of French ex-officers, who arrived from London, wanting to be landed in Brittany to join the Chouans. He complained that “the number he had to entertain, sometimes for weeks, caused his wine merchant's bill to exceed two-thirds of his whole allowance".
His fourth task, the relief of the French emigres, was not the least vexatious. About a thousand Royalists had fled to Jersey with their wives and children, many with nothing but the clothes they wore, and England made itself responsible for their support.
In eight years d’Auvergne received £122,000 for this purpose. It was a thankless task. Those who were helped wanted more. Those who were not, suspected him of embezzling the money. But his balance sheet, now in the Record Office with all the receipts pinned on, shows that his book-keeping was scrupulously correct.
In 1802 the Treaty of Amiens seemed to have ended the war, and English excursionists flocked to Paris to see the city that had been so much in the news. Among them went d’Auvergne to claim his inheritance. But his espionage was not forgotten. When other British visitors were welcomed, he was arrested and expelled under the Aliens Act as a person ‘’peu desire’’.
In May 1803 war broke out again, and lasted another 12 years; and he resumed his old activities. As Navarre Castle became once more a hope that had to be postponed, he bought a house in Jersey about a mile from the Town, which he called Bagatelle. A contemporary calls it "a truly elegant and splendid residence".
He had deer browsing in his grounds, and at first he opened them to the public, but in 1808 he announced “with pain, that, owing to the damage done, he was forced to make certain rules". One was that visitors must not cut up his gravel paths by wearing pattens.
His library contained about 4,000 volumes, and the auctioneer's catalogue, when they were sold after his death, throws light on his tastes.
On French History, evidently his favourite subject, he had 260 vulumes, on Voyages and Travel 125, on shipbuilding 54. He had 72 botanical books and subscribed to ‘’The Botanical Magazine’’. The gaps are also significant. In an age when every educated man was assumed to be familiar with the classics, his only Latin book was his school Virgil; and thoug this was a time of fierce theological controvedrsy, the only religious book on his shelves was “presented by the author”.
Napoleon now ordered his Minister of Marine to have 11,000 men ready for the conquest of Jersey. So d’Auvergne’s little fleet had to keep sleepless watch and was in constant conflict with French privateers.
He enlarged his spy network. He secured a group of informants in Paris. At Abbeville, aristocratic ladies collected information for him. All this was of great value, specially when Napoleon was collecting his army at Boulogne for the invasion of England.
D’Auvergne’s spies seemed everywhere. In Manche, the Department nearest Jersey, the police register marked 108 names “devoted to the Prince of Bouillon”, and 132 more “suspected of contact with him”. This got on Napoleon’s nerves. In articles in the ‘’Moniteur’’ he thundered: “France can no longer tolerate this nest of brigands. Europe must be purged of these vermin. Jersey is England’s disgrace.”
In 1808 a staggering blow shattered d’Auvergne’s chain of post-offices. His most trusted courier, Pringent, was arrested. He had made 184 journeys between France and Jersey, travelling as far afield as Paris and La Vendée; so every detail of this work was familiar to him.
When captured he tried to save his life by revealing all he knew, the secret landing-places, the distributors of the letters, the peasants who had given him shelter. He wrote incessantly, filling reams of paper, and every sheet meant death for those who had trusted him; and at their trial he appeared as the chief witness against them.
But he did not save his life. By Napoleon’s order he was shot.
All this time d’Auvergne’s Naval promotion went on steadily. In 1810 he became Vice-Admiral of the Blue, in 1813 Vice-Admiral of the White, and in 1814 Vice-Admiral of the Red.
But his work in France grew more and more difficult. In earlier years everything there had been unstable; the wildest revolt had a sporting chance of success. But now there was a strong, central Government, accepted by the whole nation.
The Chouan movement had been smashed beyond hope of resurrection; and d’Auvergne had in his opponent on the other side of the chess-board the coolest, craftiest brain in Europe. Every move that d’Auvergne made Napoleon promptly countered.
But at last by invading Russia Napoleon over-reached himself. Half Europe combined against him. In 1814 the Allies crossed the Rhine; Napoleon was banished to Elba; and a Burbon again sat on the French throne. D’Auvergne hastened to Paris, and was graciously received by Louis XVIII.
Bouillon had already proclaimed its independence and acclaimed him Duke, a step probably due more to a wish to escape French taxes, than to enthusiasm for Philippe personally, whom it had not yet seen.
The French garrison withdrew, and d’Auvergne took it for granted that his position was secure. He sent his brother to Bouillon to represent him, and issued a stream of proclamations as Duke. In one he appointed a Provisional Government of five "to take charge of affairs till I come". In another he made a bid for popularity by abolishing some unpopular taxes.
In January all officials of the Duchy took an oath of allegiance to him, and the Te Deum was again sung in its 40 churches. But the ultimate decision lay with the Congress of Vienna. Napoleon had so messed up the map of Europe, altering frontiers with a stroke of his pen and creating kingdoms for his relations, that this congress was given the task of redrawing the map; and d’Auvergne was forbidden to enter his Duchy till the work was completed.
Suddenly Napoleon returned from Elba, and King Louis fled. Then came a three-month pause, while each side was recalling its men to the colours. Philippe came to Brussels to keep in close touch with his Ministers. He felt so sure of his position that he had coins struck at Brussels with his head on one side and the Arms of the Duchy on the other. (One of his silver five-francs pieces is in our Museum).
On 1 June he summoned to the colours all men of military age, and provided them with uniforms, white with scarlet collars, and signed the officers' commissions, "Philippe by the grace of God Sovereign Prince and Duke Regnant of Bouillon".
On 18 June Napoleon's coup ended at Waterloo, and the Congress got back to work. To save Central Europe from French propaganda, it decided to form a ‘’cordon sanitaire’’ of buffer states along France's eastern frontier. Of these the northernmost was a new 'Kingdom of the Netherlands', containing the present Kingdoms of Belgium and Holland.
It seemed absurd to leave an independent principality in the heart of the new kingdom. So it was decided, "The King of the Netherlands shall possess in perpetuity for himself and his successors in full and entire sovereignty the Duchy of Bouillon."
A Dutch Commissioner arrived to take over the government; but D’Auvergne crossed the frontier, gathered his old officials round him, and for two months maintained a rival Government in the north of the Duchy.
"The members of the former provisional government," wrote a Dutch officer, "are moving heaven and earth to persuade the inhabitants that the Duke is still in power." But d’Auvergne and his tiny army could not fight all Europe. His troublous seventeen-month reign had to end.
Bouillon was lost. There remained, however, the late Duke's private fortune and his vast French estates, which Philippe as his adopted son expected to inherit. These would have made him one of the richest men in Europe. But the lawyers found flaws in his claim. The Duke had adopted him a year before adoption had been legalized in France; so in the eyes of the Law he was not an adopted son. Moreover there was a complicated marriage settlement, by which the old Duke's grandfather had tried to regulate the succession; and the Duke's father had married four times and had many descendants. Philippe's lawyer, Sir John Sewell, fought the long case strenuously and well; but he lost.
The result for Philippe was calamitous. His bid for the glittering bubble had been terribly expensive. The salaries of his officials, the uniforms for his army, the minting of his coins, the long lawsuit, had forced him to borrow money both in Jersey and England on the security of the Navarre estates, which he had felt sure of inheriting.
Now he was hopelessly bankrupt. His creditors sold up his house and property. He did not return to Jersey. On 18 September 1816 he died in a small Westminster hotel.
A not unnatural suspicion arose later that he had committed suicide. But this is almost certainly untrue. The funeral register of St Margaret's Westminster records his burial in the churchyard, and adds the initials GD, which stand for ‘Great Dues’ meaning that the pulpit was draped in violet and other extras provided to make the funeral impressive.
In those days this would have been impossible. The law still required suicides to be buried at night by the highway with a stake through the body, and forbade religious rites; and a church like St Margaret's could not have defied this law. Worn out by worry, death mercifully had ended d’Auvergne's troubles.