Mademoiselle de Sombreuil

20 May 2010

One of the most haunting and bizarre stories to come down to us from the French Revolution is that of Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, the daughter of the former Governor of the Invalides, Charles François de Virot, Marquis de Sombreuil.

Mademoiselle de Sombreuil was born Jeanne Jacques Marie Anne Françoise de Virot at the château de Leychoisier on the 14th February 1768 and was known within her family as Marie-Maurille. Her life was unremarkable and probably no different to that of any other aristocratic girl of the time until the 16th of August 1792 when her beloved father was imprisoned in the Abbaye along with other members of the nobility who had sided with the royal family during the fall of the Tuileries. Marie-Maurille courageously demanded to share her father’s imprisonment and so was at his side on the 2nd September when a makeshift tribunal and mob arrived at the Abbaye as part of the infamous Prison Massacres.

When the Marquis de Sombreuil was called before the tribunal, his brave daughter went with him and implored their captors and the ‘judges’ to be lenient, reminding them of her father’s many years of faithful service and old age. Finally she informed them that if they wished to harm the Marquis, then they would have to kill her also.

It is at this point that accounts of what happened next vary. The legend goes that the jeering guards, who were seated upon a pile of corpses belonging to those that they had already slaughtered, then filled a glass with the blood of their victims and handed it to Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, telling her that her father would be spared if she drank the ghastly beverage.

One of the ruffians, touched by her resolution, called out that they should be allowed to pass if the girl would drink to the health of the nation. The whole court was swimming with blood, and the glass he held out to her was full of something red. Marie would not shudder. She drank, and with the applause of the assassins ringing in her ears, she passed with her father over the threshold of the fatal gates, into such freedom and safety as Paris could then afford. Never again could she see a glass of red wine without a shudder, and it was generally believed that it was actually a glass of blood that she had swallowed, though she always averred that this was an exaggeration, and that it had been only her impression before tasting it that so horrible a draught was offered to her.

Mademoiselle de Sombreuil herself always insisted that the bloodstained glass contained nothing more sinister than red wine and there is no reason to disbelieve her, although the story of an aristocratic young woman being forced to drink human blood in order to save her elderly parent is an enticing one. If you like that sort of thing.

Unfortunately for the heroic Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, her father and younger brother, Stanislas (1768-1794) were again arrested a year later and she would share their imprisonment at Port-Libre and Sainte-Pélagie before the Marquis and Stanislas were guillotined on the 17th June 1794.

Mademoiselle de Sombreuil remained in prison and was treated as a heroine by the other prisoners until she was eventually liberated after the fall of Robespierre in July 1794. Sadly, there was more tragedy in store for the unfortunate young woman when her youngest and most beloved brother, Charles Eugène de Sombreuil (born 11th July 1770), who had been fighting with the Royalist forces in Brittany, was captured after a failed invasion of France at Quiberon and was executed, alongside 750 of his fellow soldiers (450 of whom were aristocrats) by firing squad by order of Lazare Hoche, who had previously promised during negotiations with Sombreuil that the lives of all Royalist troops would be spared.

Poor Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, the sole survivor of a family that had been destroyed by revolution and war was to mourn her father and brothers for the rest of her life. On the 23rd July 1796 she was to marry an emigré, the Comte de Villelum, but there were no children. She died in Avignon on the 15th of May 1823.

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