Last week, I left Ferdinand, Baron de Géramb, once again on board ship, this one sailing from the English port of Dover, bound for Denmark. He had so annoyed the British authorities that they had used the Aliens Act of 1793 to summarily deport him from the country.
This week, I will bring his strange and curious tale to a close, with his capture by Napoleon, which prompted him to take vows and end his life as a monk. But, since he was the Baron de Géramb, he did nothing by halves, so he did eventually become a prominent, and ultimately well-respected churchman.
There is little information available in published sources regarding the Baron’s arrival in Denmark. The ship on which he sailed probably put him ashore on the small Danish archipelago of Heligoland, with only the clothes he stood up in and a few coins in his pocket. It was mid-April of 1812, and though early in the war Denmark had tried to remain neutral, they had ultimately been forced to ally themselves with Napoleon. In the spring of 1812, the French Emperor was fully in control of both Denmark and Norway. It was probably from Heligoland that the Baron wrote a long letter which he sent to the Morning Post. While he had been living in London, de Géramb had occasionally sent letters to that newspaper, in which he had made various claims or editorialized on the state of affairs in Britain or on the Continent. In one he had announced his plans to recruit the 24,000 Croatians to fight Napoleon, in another he had publicly declared his betrothal to Princess Sophia. In his final letter to the Morning Post, among other things, he protested against "the crimes of the English people" against him and condemned John Bull’s serious want of taste in "discarding him." He declared, however, that though this poor treatment was of no consequence to him, it had forced him to depart England without paying his outstanding debts and he therefore believed it incumbent upon the British government to satisfy his various creditors. He concluded this letter: "To-day I am stripped of everything and afoot, carrying with me but my sword, my uniform and the bitter recollection of the infamous treatment which I have received. … I shall be received [in Europe] with the generosity which was always the character of a great people. At the sight of me people on all sides will shout: ‘Behold how England rewards foreigners who are so blind as to devote themselves to her service!’, and this cry of indignation will resound throughout the whole continent." Knowing any letter from the Baron would increase circulation, the Morning Post published the letter and at least some of his creditors did attempt to collect de Géramb’s outstanding balances from the British government. It is not known if any of them were successful in their claims.
It did not take de Géramb long to realize that, publicly, at least, Denmark was pro-Bonaparte and those who were not seen to support him were shunned, or worse. Not wishing to spend time in a place which, to him, was hostile territory, the Baron managed to make his way to the nearby city of Hamburg, in Germany, which at the time was not under Bonaparte’s control and was considered to be a free and neutral city. It was here that that fateful night at the Carlton House Fête would eventually lead to his imprisonment in a French dungeon. The Baron once again took up his pen and, in a long poem, he recounted what he had considered to be the glories of that evening, in particular, having met and conversed with the Comte de Lille (Louise XVIII) and the Duchesse d’Angoulême, the eldest daughter of Louis XVI. Not only did he write glowingly of his admiration for these two exiled French royals, he also wrote of his ardent desire to see the House of Bourbon once again restored to the throne of France. It is likely that Baron de Géramb believed that his whole-hearted support of the Bourbon dynasty would earn him the respect, and ideally, some offer of employment from the anti-Bonaparte forces on the Continent. He therefore published his poem and it was widely circulated. Too widely, as it happened, since this poem was soon brought to the personal attention of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. The Emperor was not at all pleased.
Bonaparte ordered the Baron’s immediate arrest and, though Hamburg was technically neutral, he was taken by the local authorities and handed over to French agents. Nearly penniless, mal-nourished and in ill-health, the Baron was imprisoned in a dank cell in the Winder-Baum prison in Hamburg on 7 May 1812. Within a few weeks, without a trial of any kind, he was transferred, as a prisoner of state, to the ancient French fortress and prison at Château de Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris. It was in the moat of this very Château that another prisoner of state, the hapless Duc d’Enghien, had been executed by firing squad, in 1804, on trumped-up charges, by order of the then First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. Baron de Géramb lived in almost daily fear that he would also be executed by order of Bonaparte. As a Chamberlain of the Austrian Empire, he believed the Austrians could not fail to provide him with assistance. He wrote to the Austrian Empress, but Maria Theresa, at whose feet he had laid his coat that long-ago day of the Fête-Dieu procession, had died in 1807, and to her successor, Maria Ludovika, he was a stranger. He would receive no aid from that quarter.
Next, he somehow managed to have a portrait painted of himself, the background being the vestibule of the Palace of the Tuileries, Napoleon’s Imperial Palace in Paris, where, on bended knee, the Baron could be seen requesting justice from the French Emperor. He had the portrait sent to Napoleon’s second wife, as Napoleon himself was now fully involved with his invasion of Russia. The young French Empress, Marie Louise, was a daughter of Maria Theresa, the pretty Austrian Empress the Baron had served in Vienna, and he may have known her as a child. Along with the portrait, he included a signed petition for clemency, reportedly in eleven languages. But this plea, too, received no response.
One of the Baron’s fellow prisoners was Etienne-Marie de Boulogne, the then Bishop of Troyes. Baron de Géramb had been raised in the Catholic faith, though he is not known to have been a faithful practitioner of that religion before his imprisonment. Whether due to fear of imminent death by execution or because interaction with the bishop had rekindled his faith, the Baron made a vow that, should he survive to be released from prison, he would renounce the world, the flesh and the devil and become a monk. Some records report that the Baron made this vow because he had come to the conclusion that only God could truly appreciate his superior mental abilities, which, by then, he had concluded the various earthly kings with whom he was acquainted did not know how to properly employ. There are reports that Baron de Géramb spent much of the remainder of his time in prison writing his memoirs, though they were not known to have been published and even the manuscript itself has never come to light. However, it is possible at least some of this material was incorporated into a later memoir, A Journey from La Trappe to Rome, which was published in several languages. The English version was published in London in 1841.
On 11 April 1814, the Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed in Paris, by the terms of which Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated his throne and went into exile on the Island of Elba. But the removal of Napoleon from power in France did not result in the immediate release of his many prisoners. According to the Baron, he, and his fellow prisoners of the Château de Vincennes, did not regain their liberty until the Château was invaded by a roving band of Russian Cossacks intent on pillaging the great old palace. Bishop de Boulogne soon thereafter returned to his diocese, but for some reason, the Baron did not accompany him.
Perhaps he was embarrassed to do so, for he had only the clothes on his back and not a penny to his name. He was in his mid-forties, developing a paunch and his luxuriously flowing black locks were beginning to thin. He had no home, no idea where to go or what to do. However, as a political prisoner, he had received four francs a day, from which the cost of his food and other necessities was deducted. At the time of his release, this subsidy was terminated, but he had not received payment for his last month of incarceration. The Baron petitioned the provisional French Government for that last month’s payment he believed he was owed. The government granted his request and he was given the sum of 120 francs, sometime in the spring of 1814. The Baron de Géramb then disappeared from the pages of recorded history for nearly two years.
Then, in 1816, the name Géramb appeared in a report from the Prefect of the Department of Mayenne to the Comte Decazes, then the French Minister of Police. According to the prefect’s report, a "certain Géramb, formerly a French prisoner of State," had presented himself at the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, where the Abbot, Father Bernard, had accepted the eager neophyte, who then adopted the name of Friar Marie Joseph, donned the frock and became a servant to the monks. Initially, Father Bernard had to moderate this new acolyte’s zeal and austerity. Brother Marie Joseph had painted a skeleton on the wall of his cell, below which he had written "Cette nuit peut-entre" (Perhaps tonight) and lower down, "Se taire, souffrir et mourir" (Be silent, suffer and die). It should be noted that though the monks of the Trappist order refrain from speaking unless absolutely necessary, they do not take a vow of silence. A Monsieur de Cheverus, who met Friar Marie Joseph at about this time, said of him, "I’ve seen a barrel of gunpowder under a cowl." However, Brother Marie Joseph clearly did take the teachings of Father Bernard to heart and moderated his behavior, becoming a calm and studious friar. He took his first vows on 13 April 1817. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to the dignified position of Frere Hotelier for Port du Salut, whose responsibility it was to receive all strangers who called at the monastery.
To this day, no one knows what became of the Baron de Géramb in the two years between when he collected his 120 francs from the French Provisional Government and when he turned up on the doorstep of the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, near Laval, in northwest France. Did he regret his vow to renounce the world and become a monk, seeking other employment instead? It is unlikely that he made contact with his erstwhile patron, Maria Carolina, Queen of Sicily. She had been exiled from her kingdom of Sicily by her own son and died of a stroke in Vienna, on 8 September 1814. Did he hope to find a military post when Napoleon escaped from Elba? There is no record that he achieved such a position. With Bonaparte completely vanquished at Waterloo, and Europe finally at peace, did the Baron see that there would be few opportunities for him as an aging General? Did he attempt to contact his mother, who had returned to Lyon after the death of his father in Austria? We know she died there in 1815, but we do not know if he was with her. We do know that both of his sisters had married in Austria, and each had entered an Austrian convent upon the deaths of their respective husbands. Did he visit his sisters? No one knows. If he traveled to Austria, did he seek out his own children, whom he had sent there after the death of their mother in Sicily, nearly a decade before? Whatever had happened to him during those two years, he clearly decided to keep the vow he had made while in prison and enter a monastery. Once he did so, he dedicated himself to that life with the same fervent energy which he had once focused on crushing the hated Napoleon Bonaparte.
Friar Marie Joseph worked very hard for the monastery of Port du Salut, but in time it became known in the area that he was the erstwhile and infamous Baron de Géramb. Perhaps he left the monastery to protect his fellow monks from his notorious reputation, or perhaps he was transferred, either at his request or due to the needs of the order. Regardless of the reason, within a couple of years, he left the monastery of Port du Salut and travelled to the region of Alsace which is situated on the border with Germany. There, he entered the monastery of Notre Dame du Mont des Olives, which was near Mulhausen. He would serve there for over a decade as his waistline continued to widen, he needed spectacles to read and his still flowing locks grew increasingly thin on top. But to his long moustaches he had added a full, thick wavy beard. He was still considered a very distinguished-looking man with an upright bearing and proud carriage. [Click here for a portrait of Friar Marie Joseph at this time.] Those who knew him when he lived and worked at the Mont des Olives monastery reported that he was very popular with his brother monks for his unfailing good humor, his consistent kindness and his simple but fervent piety. He was a well educated man who spoke several languages and he spent many hours in study, writing several books on church doctrine and the religious life. In time, he rose to become the Abbot of the monastery of Notre Dame du Mont des Olives.
But Abbot Marie Joseph was not to be allowed to continue with his quiet, cloistered, scholarly life for much longer. In July of 1830, a Second Revolution was to rend France, reaching all the way to the border region of Alsace. The new government abolished the Trappist order in France and all monks, unless they could prove they were French by birth, were ordered to leave France immediately. This order was rigorously and even cruelly enforced by armed troops. At the complex of Notre Dame du Mont des Olives there was also a cloister of Trappist nuns. One young nun, though confined to a sickbed in great agony, was forced to leave the cloister. She was carried out on a stretcher supported by four of her sister nuns, but, with a sharp, brief cry of pain, she died in the courtyard of the monastery. Abbot Marie Joseph witnessed this travesty of decency and humanity and apparently was so horrified at the barbarity of the French that he would not deign to count himself as one of them. He retired to the main Trappist Abbey of St. Bernard, near Lucerne, Switzerland.
But retirement did not suit a man who had been active all his life. Within the year, Abbot Marie Joseph requested, and was granted, permission from the head of his order to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. It was his intention "to pray, to adore, and to do penance" in the land of the Bible. Father Marie Joseph left Europe for Jerusalem in 1831, where he spent the next three years travelling through Palestine and other Biblical lands. He climbed Mount Sinai and then continued on through the ancient region of Thebaid, which had covered much of North Africa. He returned to Europe, by way of Marseilles, aboard the English brig Rapid, in 1833. During his pilgrimage, he wrote a series of letters recording his experiences and observations.
Father Marie Joseph was very pleased to learn that during his pilgrimage, the new king, Louis Philippe, had reversed his previous policy and had allowed the re-establishment of the Trappist order in France. The monastery of Notre Dame du Mont des Olives was re-opened and Père Marie Joseph was once again Abbot there. He settled back into his scholarly life and in 1836, he published a book about his travels in the Holy Land, based on the many letters he had written during his journey. It was translated into several language, including English and A Pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and the Holy Land was published in London in 1840. Reviews of the book were quite good and it was pronounced an " … agreeable work …" and his style of writing was decribed as " …easy and without affectation." One reviewer said of it:
His details are given in a novel and pleasant way; there is less of the traveler, anxious to show his knowledge, and more the results of actual observation than generally grace the pages of modern voyagers. We do not pronounce the "Pilgrimage" the best book on the Holy Land extant, but it is more devoted in its purpose than any other work on the same object. The whole extent of Palestine was explored by the pilgrim; every place famous in sacred history, or remarkable in the unwritten traditions of the land, is accurately described, and associated with its particular event, which is also given in full. The baron’s details are sufficiently anecdotal to please the general reader.
There are no surviving records to tell us if any of those who had known the Baron during his sojourn in London almost three decades before ever read his new book, and if they did, what they thought of it. But it sold well and it is known all the proceeds went to the Trappists, as had the proceeds of all the other books he had written since joining the order.
Some time after the publication of his book on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in 1837, Abbot Marie Joseph was summoned to Rome. As ever, still distinguished in appearance, with a quiet serene piety, he soon gained the esteem of the very conservative Pope, Gregory XVI. Though Marie Joseph had never taken the final vows which would have made him a priest, the Pope confirmed his title as Abbot with the insignia of the appropriate ring and pectoral cross, a privilege which had never been granted to any churchman who was not an ordained priest. Soon after that, Abbot Marie Joseph was made Procurator-General of the order of La Trappe. Despite these honors, Abbot Marie Joseph was occasionally to be seen quietly walking the streets of Rome, alone, in his monk’s cowl, distributing alms to the poor. Did he sometimes look up at the bronze ball above the cupola of St. Peter’s and remember the day his younger self had climbed those lofty heights and chalked his name there, just below the cross?
Once he was elevated to the position of Procurator-General, Abbot Marie Joseph de Géramb spent more and more of his time in Rome, eventually having to relinquish his position as Abbot of the monastery of Notre Dame du Mont des Olives. He settled in Rome, serving his order there until his death on 15 March 1848, at the age of seventy-eight (or thereabouts, depending on the true year of his birth). Though he was by then a well-known and highly respected churchman, there is no record of the place of his burial. Was that by his own choice? Thus did Ferdinand-François, Baron de Géramb, a former General of the Austrian army, now Abbot Marie Joseph de Géramb, slip from the pages of history. He ended his life a very different man than he had begun it. It is certain that he was a very different man at his death than the man who was expelled from England two hundred years ago, this month.