The first spilt blood of the Revolution

Author : Gauthier Aubert / July 2023
Amongst the hundreds of nobles present in Rennes for the Estates of Brittany at the beginning of 1789, there figured François-René of Chateaubriand (1768-1848). At the end of his life, in his Memoires d’outre tombe (Posthumous Memoires), he recalled these events and offered a version which, despite certainly containing some inaccuracies, manages to grasp the profound meaning of what took place in Rennes. Six month before the storming of the Bastille, a noble man was killed in Rennes for simply being a noble man and behind the tragedy, a whole world was falling apart.

“The Estates were held in the convent of the Jacobins on the Palace square. We entered, according to the arrangements we had just made, into the conference room; we had only just settled when the crowd besieged us. The 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th January 1789 were miserable days. The Earl of Thiard had very little troops and was an indecisive leader without any dynamism; he did not make any effort or take action at all. The School of Law of Rennes, at the head of which was Moreau, sent for young people from Nantes; four hundred of them arrived, and the commander, despite his prayers, could not prevent them from invading the city. Public gatherings all over the place, in the Montmorin field and in cafés, resulted in bloody confrontations.

Weary of being trapped in our room, we resolved to go outside with our swords in hand; it was quite spectacular. At the signal of our President, we unsheathed our swords simultaneously, to the cry of “Vive la Bretagne” (Long Live Brittany!) and considering we were a garrison without resources, we executed a fierce exit to go and fight our besiegers. The crowd greeted us with cries, threw stones at us, shoved us with iron rods and fired at us with pistols. We were an opening in a sea of people that was closing in on us. Many gentlemen got injured, dragged, ripped and covered in bruises and contusions. They succeeded in removing us, but with great difficulty, and subsequently each one returned to their dwelling.  

Duels between gentlemen followed, the law students against their friends from Nantes. One of these duels took place publically on the Royal square; old Keralieu, a naval officer, kept his honour, he was attacked and fought with incredible vigour, to the applaud of his young adversaries.

Another gathering formed, the Earl of Montboucher caught sight of a student named Ulliac in the crowd, to whom he said: “Sir, we have a problem.” They arranged themselves into a circle around them; Montboucher hit Ulliac’s sword out of his hand and then handed it back to him: they embraced and then the crowd dispersed.

At least the Breton nobility did not succumb without honour. It refused to deputise the Estates-General, because it was not summoned according to the fundamental laws of the constitution of the province; it went to join in great numbers the army of the Princes and was decimated in the army of Condé and of Charette in the Wars of Vendée. Did it change anything in the majority of the national Assembly by joining this assembly? It is very unlikely: in big social transformations, individual resistances, although honourable for the characters are powerless against the facts. However, it is difficult to say what could have been achieved by a man of genius such as Mirabeau, but holding an opposite opinion to his own, if he’d found himself amongst the ranks of the Breton nobles.

The young Boishue and Saint-Riveul, my comrade from school, had perished before these encounters, whilst on their way to the chamber of the nobility; the former was defended in vain by his father who served him as a right hand man.

Reader, I stop you: look at the trickle of the first drops of blood that the Revolution was to cause. God wished for them to trickle from the veins of a childhood companion. Let us imagine my fall instead of Saint-Riveul’s; would we have said, and merely changed the name, what is said of the victim that marks the beginning of the great immolation: “A gentleman, named Chateaubriand, was killed on his way to the room of Estates.” These two remarks would have replaced my long story. Would Saint-Riveul have played my role on this earth? Was he destined for sound or for silence?

Go on now reader; cross the stream of blood that eternally separates the old world which you are leaving and the new world where, upon entering it, you will die.”


Author : Gauthier Aubert, « The first spilt blood of the Revolution », Bécédia [en ligne], ISSN 2968-2576, mis en ligne le 31/07/2023.


Contributed by : Bretagne Culture Diversité