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War in the Vendee

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War in the Vendee

The French Revolution hailed a bright start to a new age. However, not everyone agreed. In particular, the Vendee region of France despised the actions of the new Republic, viewing them as heretics who wanted to destroy Christianity. Up to 450,000 people were killed during the War in the Vendee. This event is very significant in the history of the French Revolution and gives a fascinating insight into the causes of the reign of terror that swept France from 1793-1795.

War in the Vendee Timeline

DateEvent
1790 - JulyThe 'Civil Constitution of the Clergy' was passed and introduced strict controls over the Catholic Church. The Vendeans strongly objected to this.
1793 - February'Levee en Masse' (Mass Conscription) was introduced across France. This further angered the Vendeans
1793 - 4 MarchRioting began in Cholet and then started to spread.
1793 - 13 MarchThe Vendee was considered to be in open revolt against the Republic.
1793 - MayThe uprising, now with a collection of leaders, formed into an army and takes the towns of Thouars, Parthenay, and Fontenay. Their army is named 'The Catholic and Royal Army'.
1793 - 9 JuneThe Vendean army took the area of Saumur. This was significant as Saumur was outside of the Vendee region, showing that the rising had become a national concern, not just a local one.
1793 - 18 JuneThe Royal Army takes Angers, but failed to take the important city of Nantes. Two months of fighting follows; in this time, the Republic's army is able to become unified and organised.
1793 - OctoberThe Vendean army suffered a heavy defeat at Cholet, and flee across the river Loire, leaving only a very small force to continue resisting in the Vendee.
1793 - 12 DecemberA battle takes place at Le Mans. The Vendeans were heavily defeated, losing an estimated 15,000 men.
1793 - 23 DecemberThe main Vendean army was crushed by the Republican forces at Savenay.
1794 - July 1795Although general warfare ended, several violent reprisals were taken against the Vendeans by the Republic.
1795 - JulyWith the rise of the Thermidorian faction and the recall of Turreau, a gentler approach to the Vendee uprising was adopted. However, smaller uprisings still occurred in the region.

Vendée Background

The Vendee was a region in the West of France. At the time of the Revolution, it was a traditionally Catholic and conservative region and was heavily royalist, meaning they supported the monarchy and wanted it restored. When the new Republic arrested the king and began to make changes to the church, the Vendeans were utterly outraged. They were desperate to fight against the changes of the revolution which they saw as blasphemous and treasonous.

vendee uprising french revolution studysmarterMap of France, with the Vendee highlighted in red. Wikimedia Commons.

Rural Context

The location and population makeup are crucial in understanding why the Vendeans revolted against the government. The Vendee was a rural region, with much of its population being made up of peasants and farmers. This also meant that it was distanced from Paris, and was strongly traditional and conservative. They held the monarchy and the Catholic Church in their highest respect. Since these were the two main institutions the National Assembly wanted to fundamentally alter, it is understandable why the Vendeans revolted.

Yet why did the Vendee alone revolt, even amongst rural areas? We can answer that question by looking at the Cahiers de doléances.

Cahiers de doléances

This was a list of grievances that was drawn up by each town and village and submitted to the Estates General. Included in these grievances were complaints of grain shortages, high taxes for peasants, tax exemptions for the clergy and nobility. The process of writing up cahiers radicalised many towns in France.

Though many rural areas and towns in France became radicalised, the Vendeans notably did not. The region did not contribute greatly to the cahiers at all. This meant that the Vendee was quite isolated from the beginning phase of the Revolution.

Causes of the Vendée Uprising

They began their own revolt after three key trigger events; the execution of Louis XVI, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Levee en Masse, because these were events that threatened the core values of most Vendeans.

Religion

Religion was a major trigger for the Vendée uprising. The sans-culottes, Revolutionary armies and the Paris Commune were opposed to the Catholic Church; they disliked the control that the Church had over the people, the amount of land they owned and their many exemptions from taxation. The National Constituent Assembly introduced religious reforms because they saw these issues in the church and wanted to correct them by applying the principles of the Revolution.

It is essential to understand that the National Constituent Assembly had no desire to interfere with the ritual or doctrine of the church, and they were certainly not anti-religious.

The biggest of these reforms was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This was a piece of legislation, passed on 12 July 1790, that made the Church subordinate to the French Government. The key points of this legislation were:

  • Any clergy chosen by the Pope but not accepted by the National Assembly would not be considered legitimate.

  • Clergy were to be elected and should have an absolute majority of votes to win the seat.

  • Priests were to be paid by the state.

  • Many titles and offices of the church were abolished, leaving only those deemed necessary.

  • Absenteeism was cracked down on - no bishop was allowed to be away from his diocese for more than 15 days per year.

The Oath of the Loyalty

The most contentious point of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was that all clergy were told they had to swear an oath of loyalty to the French state. This was seen as outrageous as it seemed as if the French government was asking priests to override their loyalty to the Pope, and therefore by extension, God. Many refused to take the oath.

After much deliberation, the Pope finally condemned the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in April 1791. After this, many priests who had formerly sworn the oath of loyalty retracted it.

Impact in the Vendée

In a Catholic, conservative region like the Vendée, the reforms passed by the Assembly were outrageous. So, if the religious reforms were so intolerable to those in the Vendée, why did it take three more years for a revolt to start?

When the Constitution was passed, the monarchy still existed and there was more hope that the king's authority would be restored, and the reforms would be overturned. However, by 1793 it was clear that this was not going to happen. Equally, the Vendeans looked to the nobles for leadership in their discontent - naturally, the grievances of the Vendeans got caught up in counter-revolutionary plans.

Execution of Louis XVI

Considering that the Vendee was a heavily Royalist region of France, their upset at the execution of Louis XVI was hardly surprising. To the Vendeans, to have a king brought down to the level of a civilian and then tried by a court of common people was utterly wrong. To have him executed was unthinkable. They also considered it heretical. After all, it was believed that a monarch was anointed by God. To dethrone and kill the King was an act of defiance against God himself.

louis xvi execution french revolution studysmarterExecution of Louis XVI. Wikimedia Commons.

Mass Conscription

The French Revolutionaries had been at war with Austria, who opposed the Revolution's message and their execution of Louis XVI. The government and military were exhausted and depleted from the conflict, and so turned to other ways to help defend the country. One of these was a policy of mass conscription called 'Levee en Masse'. Essentially, the French government said that all men between the ages of 18 and 45 had to serve in the army.

The Vendeans did not like this at all. They rejected the idea of being forced to fight for a regime that went completely against all of their beliefs, that had killed their King and was trying to destroy the Church. This was one of the biggest causes of the uprising.

The Uprising in the Vendée begins

The War in the Vendée began with small revolts in March 1793 and grew quickly to a guerilla warfare rebellion spread across several provinces. By 13 March 1793, the Vendee was in open revolt against the Republic. The attacks were directed against:

  • Constitutional priests - those who had sworn the oath of loyalty under the Civil Constitution of the clergy. The Vendeans considered them to have betrayed the Catholic Church.

  • The National Guard - the military police, created in 1789 and loyal to the Revolution. They were attacked firstly because they represented the authority of the Republic, but also because they were assigned to protect the Constitutional priests.

  • Republican supporters - those who were known to support the Revolution and its principles were targeted, attacked and killed.

The revolt in the Vendée came as a surprise. While it was no secret that the Vendée held more anti-revolutionary sentiment than other provinces, previous rebellions and risings had easily been put down.

The Republic knew they had to react quickly. The beginning of the Vendée uprising coincided with other bouts of unrest across the country and so there was a real risk of these uprisings destabilising the Republic. The National Assembly was also having to deal with the pressures of the war with Austria - therefore time, money and resources were stretched very thin.

Rebel Army

The rebel army, known as the 'Catholic and Royal Army of the Vendée', consisted primarily of peasants who generally lacked any fighting experience, yet managed to outmanoeuvre well-experienced soldiers. Only a small proportion of peasants had hunting rifles; the rest were equipped with pitchforks, shovels, and hoes.

jacques cathelineau french revolution studysmarterJacques Cathelineau, by Anne-Louis Girodet, 1816. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the main leaders of the Vendée uprising was Jacques Cathelineau. Cathelineau had been a simple salesman until the uprising began, and he became the leader of the Vendean army. When the army stormed the city of Nantes in July 1793, he was shot down by a sniper and died soon after. He was an integral part of the uprising, and after his death the rebels split into factions, and were defeated soon after.

Did you know? Cathelineau was known as the 'Saint of Anjou' amongst his followers due to his great piety and devotion to the Catholic faith. After the French Kings were restored in 1815, his family was ennobled to recognise his role in the uprising.

The elimination and suppression of the Vendée were ordered by the Committee of Public Safety on the 1st of August 1793. During the battle of Cholet on 17th October 1793, the Vendean army was crushed by the newly reinforced Republican forces.

Vendée Massacre

When the Battle of Savenay took place in December 1793, the farms, crops, and villages were burnt to the ground by the Republican army, a tactic called scorched earth policy. The residents of the Vendée were massacred regardless of their age or sex.

In February 1794, General Turreau ordered the final defeat of the Vendée region as a way of dealing with the remainder of brigands. He commanded his soldiers to spare nobody: women and children would be shot if they were suspected of being connected to brigands. Houses, farms, villages were set on fire. Babies were not spared; they were killed in front of their mothers. Younger girls were drowned.

From January to March 1794, approximately 50,000 Vendean civilians were massacred.

To put this into perspective: the violence and number of deaths in the Vendée Uprising was so severe that debates are still ongoing whether it should be labelled as a genocide.

Treaty

In February 1795, a small remainder of the brigands’ leaders signed a treaty with the Revolutionary government, which permitted Vendeans to join the Revolutionary army.

Significance of the Vendée uprising

The Vendée Uprising was a significant event during the French Revolution, demonstrating the opposition towards the Revolutionaries.

France's relationship with the Church

The Vendée uprising is a great example of France's controversial relationship with religion post-Revolution. In 1905, France enacted a separation of the Church and State in a policy known as 'La Laïcité'. In addition to separating the church and state, it also forbids any personal expression of religion (like wearing a crucifix) and means that state schools cannot have any kind of religious celebration.

Whilst the idea is more accepted nowadays, there are still some who believe it is not a good policy. You have seen the controversy it has caused in recent years over the issue of the wearing of a hijab by Muslim women.

In the areas where the Vendée uprising took place, around 8,700 people were arrested and executed - this amounted to nearly half of all executions that took place during the Reign of Terror. The sheer intensity of the violence shocked even those who wholeheartedly supported the Republic, and the fact that it was condoned by large parts of the National Convention helped turn plenty of people against the Montagnards and Maximilien Robespierre, leading to the Thermidorian Reaction in July 1794 and the end of the Terror.

War in the Vendée - Key takeaways

  • The War in the Vendée began in March 1793 and ended a year and a half later, in July 1794.
  • It began as small riots in the town of Cholet, but quickly spread to other towns and provinces. Eventually, it evolved into a full-scale resistance fought by guerilla warfare, with major battles being fought at Nantes and Cholet.
  • Causes of the Vendee include religious attacks, the execution of Louis XVI, and attempts to conscript the Vendeans to the army.
  • The Vendeans were defeated by the Republican Army. Soldiers burned crops, destroyed homes, assaulted women and killed some 50,000 people, many of whom had not been involved in the uprising at all.
  • This violence against the Vendeans were shocking and prompted a backlash against the Revolutionaries. This would eventually lead to the Thermidorian Reaction, the fall of Robespierre and the end of the Terror.

Final War in the Vendee Quiz

Question

What were the two causes of the War in the Vendee?

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Answer

1. The Civil Constituent of the Clergy that subordinated the Church to the Revolutionary government and prohibited the Church to swear allegiance to any foreign authority caused major outrage among the Vendee population. The people did not agree with the Catholic Church losing its influence. 


2. In March 1793, the National Convention imposed a levy (army conscription) of 300,000 men upon the whole of France. The population of Vendee was outraged once again. Many did not wish to fight for the government that sent their priests to prison and sold all the Church’s land. 

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Question

When did the War in the Vendee start?

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Answer

10th of March 1793

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Question

What was the name of the Vendean army? 


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Answer

Catholic and Royal Army of Vendee

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Question

Why were the Vendean peasant fighters referred to as royalist Vendees?


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Answer

They were supporters of the ancien regime (monarchy) and desired to restore the influence of the Catholic Church. 

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Question

How did the Revolutionaries refer to the peasant fighters? 


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Answer

Brigands

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Question

What was the last battle during which the Vendean forces were defeated? 


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Answer

The Battle of Savenay. 

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Question

What was the ideological difference between the two schools of French historiography in the 19th century: the Bleus and the Blancs?

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Answer

The Blues supported the Republicans, while the Blancs supported the monarchy and the Church.

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