Hostage for a King
By: Jean Pierre Driessen
This is the story of Pierre-Prosper Guéllon-Marc, living during a time of tremendous upheaval and danger, who took the path of humanity, honor and justice. Compelled by personal conviction he made a decision, to make a stand and take action which could prove to be very dangerous for him and his family.
Born 5 September 1752 in the city of Troyes in the Champagne region of France to a bourgeois family. He led a comfortable and rather unremarkable life. In fact, little beyond these basics is known of his early life. All changed with the eruption of the French Revolution in 1789.
The storming of the Bastille and the removal of King Louis XVI and his family from Versailles to Paris spread the Revolution throughout France. As with most revolutions, before and after, factionalism caused political, social and economic unrest. France was divided. The very nature of France, its social and political structure, was to be decided. The revolutionary factions were struggling between a constitutional monarch or a republic; while the counter-revolutionaries and monarchists wanted a complete restoration of the pre-1789 status quo. At fi rst the moderate revolutionary factions, which favoured a constitutional monarchy,
appeared to have the upper hand. The role of the king and the monarchy remained however a fl ash point.
Pro-monarchists activities, within France in regions such as the Vendée, and externally by the émigrés and monarchies of Europe, undermined the revolutionary moderates. The beginning of the end for their political agenda came between 20 – 25 June 1791, when Louis XVI and his family were intercepted at Varennes while trying to fl ee Paris for France’s northeast frontier where monarchist troops were waiting to escort them to safety in Austrian territory. Louis XVI and his family were returned to Paris and placed under close guard in the Tuileries Palace.
After this momentous event, the radical revolutionary factions began to gain the upper hand, as the position of the moderates became weaker with each passing day. As the pressure from the monarchies of Europe began to mount and the threat of war increased, the situation for Louis XVI became more and more precarious. The emboldened radicals began to openly accuse Louis XVI of treason against the French people and called for his trial. It is at this time that our rather unremarkable protagonist, Guélon-Marc, makes his entrance onto the stage of world history. In August 1791, he put his name to the list of Frenchmen offering themselves as sureties – hostages – for the release of Louis XVI. Guélon-Marc, like the other signatories on the list, wanted the revolutionary government to allow Louis XVI to leave France with his family.
This action was dangerous and courageous, as it made Guélon-Marc vulnerable to denounciation and attack by the revolutionaries. Throughout 1791 and 1792, as the political and social situation in France continued to deteriorate, public fear and histeria began to spin out of control.
below: obverse of the medal struck to honor Pierre-Prosper Guélon-Marc, shows his truncated bust facing left, in civilian dress. On his left lapel can be seen the Royalist Order of the Lys.
bronzed copper, chocolate brown patina, 41mm, struck by Masson.
This situation was exploited by the revolutionary radicals, who blamed Louis XVI for the desperate situation. They accused him of treason for plotting with France’s enemies and waging war on her citizens. The year 1792 proved to be bad for Louis XVI: in August he and his family were imprisoned in the infamous Temple prison; on 21 September of that year the monarchy was abolished and fi nally in December 1792 he found himself on trial for his life.
Now Guélon-Marc goes far beyond his initial act and takes an extraordinary and courageous step, which may well cost him his life. On 16 December 1792 he writes a letter to the president of the Convention, the French government dominated by revolutionary radicals, asking for the release of Louis XVI and his family; in return he offers his own head for that of the king. Aware of the danger, Guélon-Marc states clearly that he alone takes this action; his wife, children, parents and friends being ignorant of his actions.
To remove any doubts about conflict of interest, he explains that he does not know nor has he dealt with the king personally, he has never been to the royal court, and he has not had any dealings with the king’s ministers nor ever received any royal favour or payment.
His letter is an eloquent appeal to French humanity, honor and dignity. It warns of the dangers which will be unleashed if the king, whom he describes as one of the better kings, is murdered. His words: “do not familiarize a sensitive nation with ingratitude and blood”, are prophetic. These words forewarn of the wars, blood letting and great suffering which was to mark the next quarter century of French and European history. He states that all can be averted if the Convention acts honorably by allowing Louis XVI and his family to go into exile. In fact, Guélon-Marc states if this were to happen, the king would ‘remember his native land fondly for this great deed’.
above: reverse of the medal with the legend: “P.P. GUÉLON MARC DE TROYES OTAGE DE LOUIS XVI SURNOMMÉ LE DEÇIUS FRANÇAIS” – ‘P.P. Guélon Marc from Troyes hostage for Louis XVI nicknamed the French Decius’.
Guélon-Marc continues by offering if the Convention decrees death, to take the king’s place and die in his
stead. He was not taken up on his offer and his pleas fell on deaf ears. Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793; Queen Marie-Antoinette was executed 16 October 1793 and Louis XVI’s son died in the Temple prison on 8 June 1795, due to neglect and abuse. Guélon-Marc continued his campaign for French honor. In September 1795 he succeeded in obtaining the release of Louis XVI’s daughter.
Despite the fact that many men and women had become ‘sons and daughters of Madame la Guillotine’ for far less, Guélon-Marc survived the Revolution and in particular the Terror, be it much poorer fi nancially. He remained loyal to the old regime and during the reign of Napoleon I, refused all positions offered him. In 1814, when Czar Alexander I visited Troyes, he lobbied for the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, something which at that time was not a certainty. Alexander I was so impressed that he honored him with the nickname the French Decius. In 1814, Guélon-Marc was awarded the Order of Saint-Louis for his dedication to the Bourbon cause. This almost proved to be his undoing, for when Napoleon’s troops re-entered Troyes in 1815, he was tried and condemned to death by a war tribunal. Upon hearing of this, Napoleon I spared his life.
After the Second Bourbon Restoration in 1815, Guélon-Marc was feted in Paris by the royalists. Ultimately he was rewarded for his loyalty and devotion with a magisterial position as a commissionaire of police in Troyes. He died 24 December 1822. Since then his name has largely been forgotten and become a mere footnote of history. During his lifetime however, his sense of French honor and the great personal risk he took in defending it commanded a great deal of respect.
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Magazine Vol-56 Issue-02