Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Most people can’t get enough of learning about French history. The French Revolution was a period of social and political upheaval that divided the majority of France in the 1790s. French aristocrats rose in power, and the citizens rioted against the new plans and actions by these French officials. Aristocrats worked hard, but many were greatly defeated.
You might not know much about the aristocrat Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, but he is an individual with the most peculiar and interesting biography during the French Revolution. While, at first, he was considered a hero, he was ultimately arrested and received a death sentence. But what he said after he received his sentence might make you have a whole new appreciation for this Frenchman.
The French Revolution
It doesn’t seem possible, but the U.S. played a significant role in starting the French Revolution. Towards the end of the 18th century, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolutionary War left the country nearly bankrupt. It didn’t help that King Louis XVI continued his extravagant spending.
For two decades, France experienced poor harvests, drought, cattle disease, and drastic bread prices. Citizens became desperate and resented the French royal family. Of course, they didn’t want to pay heavy taxes, so many of the local citizens turned to riots, looting, and striking. France needed help, but this was only the beginning of a long and tiresome fight to gain control.
The French Revolution took shape when the controller general of finances, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, proposed reforms to eliminate the budget deficit by increasing the taxation of privileged social classes. His assembly of noblemen refused to take responsibility for this proposal, leading to a revolt of the “aristocratic bodies.”
By 1789, France was in a state of panic. On July 14, 1789, a Parisian crowd seized the Bastille, a fortress and state prison used by the kings of France. King Louis XVI had to yield to this action, and this officially started the French Revolution. Today, France celebrates July 14 as Bastille Day, otherwise known as the national day of France.
Introducing Marquis de Favras
The French Revolution was a long and complex revolution, lasting an entire decade until its resolution on November 9, 1799. Towards the end of the revolution, France needed skilled individuals to help save King Louis XVI and end the revolts.
One of these people would be Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras. Maybe you have never heard of him before, but his story is crucial to France’s own unique history. Born in Favras near Blois, the future nobleman belonged to an impoverished family whose nobility dated back to the 12th century.
Favras had a strong work ethic from the very beginning. At just 17 years old, he was a captain of dragoons, a class of mounted infantry expertly trained for combat with swords on horseback. He assisted in the final battles of the Seven Years’ War.
Favras gained a reputation as a fierce warrior but sadly, this reputation wouldn’t last.
In 1772, Favras became a first lieutenant in the Swiss Guards of King Louis XVI’s younger brother, the Comte de Provence. Favras worked hard in this position, but he couldn’t meet the expenses of this high rank. He retired in 1775.
Favras was born as a noble, but he struck gold when, in 1776, he married Victoria Hedwig Karoline, Princess of Anhalt-Bernburg-Schaumburg. Her mother, after being deserted by her husband, Karl Louis, found refuge with her daughter in the house of Charles de Rohan, prince de Soubise.
This marriage helped Favras gain more of an understanding of France’s political power and the royal family.
After their marriage, Favras traveled to Vienna, Italy, to attempt the restoration of his wife’s rights. While on this trip, he visited Warsaw, Poland. In 1787, he was officially authorized to raise a “patriotic legion” to help the Dutch Republic’s victory against the Stadtholder William V and his Prussian allies. But this was only the beginning of Favras’ achievements.
By the time Favras returned to Paris in 1789, he was disappointed with the violence of the French Revolution. Citizens were blaming the royal family, so Favras decided it was his responsibility to organize a counter-revolution. He met with the Comte de Provence to devise an elaborate plot to save King Louis XVI, his wife, Marie Antoinette, and their children. Favras knew he had to do something.
No matter what happened, Favras remained loyal to the French royal House of Bourbon. He wasn’t going to allow anything to hurt the royal family. He felt it was his responsibility to protect them.
In order to accomplish this, the Comte de Provence would be declared the new ruler during the revolution while King Louis XVI and his family escaped.
The plan revealed that Favras and the Comte de Provence would collaborate and lead a force of 30,000 soldiers to end the revolution by killing the very popular Finance Minister (Jacques Necker), the mayor of Paris (Jean Sylvain Bailly), and the commander of the city’s new National Guard (the Marquis de LaFayette).
The plan fails
Afterward, the city and its citizens would be starved by cutting off all of their valuable food supplies until they submitted to the royal family at once. Unless the people of France showed any signs of defeat, Favras and the Comte de Provence would put an end to their food supply. Of course, this only led to serious trouble for Favras.
Rumors spread around Paris about Favras’ plan with the Comte de Provence to organize a plot against the citizens. To the people of Paris, this idea was a direct stab in the back. If Favras could do this, what else could he do to the citizens? Favras and his wife were immediately arrested and imprisoned in the Abbaye Prison.
Before his trial, Favras probably thought the Comte de Provence would come to his rescue. They collaborated together, so he would certainly support him. But you never really know who you can trust.
Fearing the consequences of the arrest and trial, the Comte de Provence turned his back on Favras and publicly rejected him in a public speech before the government of Paris, also known as the Commune of Paris. Instead, the Comte de Provence praised the citizens of Paris. It wasn’t very long after the formal address before the people began to hate Favras. They couldn’t wait for his trial.
Favras’ trial certainly wasn’t simple. Lasting two months, there were many accounts of insufficient evidence. Sylvain Marechal, an anarchist editor of the Paris republican newspaper Révolutions de Paris, publicly stated that the evidence against Favras was insufficient.
This didn’t stop people from hating Favras. During his trial, he had to be guarded so he wouldn’t be killed by French citizens. While people shouted their hatred to him, the Marquis de LaFayette announced, “To the lamp post with him! If Marquis de Favras is not condemned, I will not answer for the National Guard.”
Famous last words and legacy
Ultimately, Favras was charged with organizing troops that were instructed to attack Paris, even though no evidence was found of these troops ever officially forming. On February 18, 1790, Favras was sentenced to be hanged.
But Favras wasn’t ready to be hanged without a fight. He offered to give more information to the authorities about his original plan with the Comte de Provence. However, authorities refused to listen to more of his story. His sentence was carried out the next day, on February 19, 1790, in the Place de Greve.
Favras commented, “I pity you exceedingly if the simple testimony of two men is enough to make you condemn an innocent person.”
Upon reading his death warrant, Favras famously remarked, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.” Maybe Favras wasn’t taking the death warrant seriously, but local citizens celebrated his sentence.
In fact, after Favras’ inevitable death, the National Guard put his head on a spike because he was seen as a martyr to the Royalist cause. Citizens of Paris didn’t honor Favras. They wanted nothing to do with him, even though he originally was hoping to protect the royal family.
Favras’ legacy has been complicated. Following his death, his wife was forced to leave Paris and she was later pensioned by King Louis XVI. The couple’s son, Charles de Favras, tried to recover his father’s reputation and legacy by serving in the Habsburg and Imperial Russian armies.
His efforts worked because, under the Bourbon Restoration following the first fall of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814, he received an allowance from King Louis XVIII. Over time, the citizens of Paris seem to have forgotten Favras’ trial and his plan. His legacy lived on, and we’ll always remember him for his humorous final words.
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
King Louis XVI is the most famous king of France. Learn why his citizens turned on him and had him executed.
Marie Antoinette was the last queen of France, and she’s criticized for helping start the French Revolution. Learn about her poor fate and her final days before her execution.