The Chouans, Jean Chouan, the Catholic and Royal Army and the fall of Napoléon

On Christmas Eve 1800, a group of Chouans, royalist insurgents, detonated a bomb along Napoléon Bonaparte’s path. This assassination attempt provides the backdrop of my new novel, For the King. Readers have asked me for more information about them. Why the name Chouans? What drove them to political violence? Were they a major political force?

Jean-Cottereau-known-as-Jean-Chouan

Jean Cottereau, known as Jean Chouan

First the name comes from one of the early leaders of the insurgency, Jean Cottereau, nicknamed Jean Chouan (left). Chouan was a colorful character, already in trouble with the law years before the French Revolution for, among other misdeeds, killing a tax collector. Then the Revolution brought many changes.

The Constitution Civile du Clergé required priests and nuns to pledge allegiance to the new Constitution of the kingdom, a step many considered a violation of their religious vows. Then King Louis XVI was guillotined on the 21st of January 1793. The war against the Austrians and their Prussian allies was off to a disastrous start. Soon the French armies were outnumbered, requiring the legislative body that ruled the country to decree a draft. That was the real trigger for the insurgency.

Peasants from the western provinces, already outraged by the persecution of their priests and the execution of their King downright refused to go die in faraway lands for a Republic they loathed. Fight they would, but against it, and from home.

The insurrection turned into a full-blown civil war. Soon the Republic had to fight not only the foreign war, but the Chouannerie in the West. The Chouans called themselves the Catholic and Royal Army. Atrocities were committed aplenty by both sides, but civilian populations bore the brunt of the hostilities. Entire villages were razed, churches burned to the ground, tens of thousands became refugees in their own country. The war raged on for years, with much British gold financing the Chouans, until Bonaparte put an end to the Revolution by the bloodless coup of the 18th Brumaire in 1799.

Bonaparte presented himself as the bearer of national reconciliation after the bloodshed of the Revolution. He offered the Chouans a full amnesty if they would lay down their arms, and he proclaimed the West pacified. Prominent leaders of the Catholic and Royal Army rallied to the new regime, but its most charismatic leader, George Cadoudal, scornfully declined Bonaparte’s offers.

Some Chouans went on fighting, engaging Bonaparte’s troops in skirmishes, attacking stagecoaches to steal the hated Republic’s gold, and also rob travelers. In 1800, at the time of FOR THE KING, the West was “pacified” in name only. Towards the fall of 1800, hundreds of Chouans converged on Paris, with the design of assassinating Bonaparte (read more at Devourer of Books)

Chouans-in-ambush

Chouans in ambush

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15 Comments to “The Chouans, Jean Chouan, the Catholic and Royal Army and the fall of Napoléon”

  1. Ah, Penny, almost all representations of the Chouans were painted after the fact. How odd that your world history classes didn’t acknowledge the domestic resistance to Napoleon. Those people were no less determined than his foreign enemies.

  2. Penny says:

    I hate to be a me too but I agree with Susan, I would like to know where the paintings came from. And of course when I was in college they talked of Napoleonic wars but not France or the resistance to him so this is a welcome expansion of that knowledge.

  3. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Yes, I do not believe they are intrinsically evil! But perhaps in combination with the Enlightenment, a Divine monarchy seemed unjustified. I will turn off this spell-check; it transformed believe to beige! I am glad you deciphered that Samuel was not undressing, but was interesting. Tell Samuel I sent you. It was one of those delightful meetings when you have a lot in common and feel that someone really gets you. He comes to New York often on business. Anyway, it is interesting to read accounts of Chouans, and then have a descendant step off the page, confirming sentiments which have not changed.

  4. Richard says:

    Rembarre!

    As my Grandson would say, “AY Lak eet”!

  5. I got your meaning, Genevieve! Those automatic spell correctors are something else. Thanks for the address. As to whether the Freemasons are to be blamed, or credited for everything that happened since the beginning of time, a la Lost Symbol, no, I don’t believe so. But it is a very complex topic.

  6. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Sorry C, that was ‘interesting,’ not ‘undressing.’ Oh my God! This is the problem with iPhone–you type one letter wrong, it spell-checks, and results in an entirely inappropriate word.and if you do not review, you will miss it. I suppose there are protections against the f word; at least I hope so.

  7. Genevieve Montgomery says:

    Curiosities du Monde
    12 Passage Verdeau
    75009
    curiositiesdumonde.com

    You will enjoy speaking with him, for sure. He is undressing. And adamant in his convictions that the Freemasons brought down the monarchy; or led to the inevitable collapse, and the philosophesWhat do you think?

  8. Mike, I didn’t know you had Breton ancestry! This post cannot begin to do justice to its (unique, as you say) heritage, but I hope it familiarizes my readers with this part of its history.
    Susan, yes, even without the benefit of modern photography, television, etc. it was not a good idea to publicize one’s likeness when in open rebellion against the revolutionary government. Certainly a great portrait of a fearless man.
    Elizabeth, I hope this throws some light on an extremely vast and complex movement.
    Genevieve, well, a Chouan wouldn’t celebrate Bastille Day. I love the “passages” of the 9eme arrondissement and would like his address of his shop.
    Richard, as usual, thanks for the link! I must admit I was thinking of you when I posted this portrait. See the badge…

  9. Richard says:

    I like the portrait as well. I have linked.
    Richard

  10. Genevieve says:

    Catherine, I met a descendant of Chouans in NYC a week and a half ago at a food market! Needless to say, he had not celebrated Bastille Day! He is currently vacationing in Normandy, Britany, but you might like to meet him;
    his name is Samuel Vezinat, and he has a shop in one of the passages in the 9th I believe. I can find the card later and let you know it’s name, it starts with a V.Vergennes, or Vergeau or something.

  11. Thank you Catherine. I now understand a little bit more about the Chouan’s. Fascinating.

  12. Thank you, Catherine. I can understand why Chouan and his followers would have chosen not to sit for a portrait. Even without the modern full-broadcast media, there was probably something to be said for not having one’s face too well known when leading a rebellion like this. Whether this posthumous portrait is a good likeness or not, it does seem to capture the spirit!

  13. As one of Breton descent, I thank you for this post, Catherine! Many people are unfamiliar with Brittany and of the unique Franco-Celtic heritage of its people.

  14. Thanks, Susan! The portrait of Jean Chouan is indeed striking, isn’t it? Unfortunately, Chouan never had the opportunity to sit for his likeness during his eventful lifetime. This was painted by one Labarre after his death, from various eyewitness accounts.
    Same thing with the Chouan Ambush scene. It was also painted by Evariste Carpentier, a Belgian painter, in the second half of the 19th century. The Chouan imagery was not a contemporary phenomenon…

  15. Fascinating, Catherine, and a part of history that’s largely unknown. What are the two paintings that illustrate the blog? The portrait in particular has a real intensity to it….

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