This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

June 2004


25 June 1804:   Kadoudal, Breton patriot, beheaded in Paris.

Among Napoleon’s many enemies, one of the most persistent and implacable was the Breton rebel Georges Kadoudal.

Born the son of a farmer on the 1st of January 1771 near Auray in Brittany, Georges Kadoudal got himself an education and became a notary clerk. When the French Revolution broke out he was considered something of a liberal, but as time went on it became clear that the increasingly radical revolutionary government in Paris was determined to destroy the last remnants of Breton national autonomy as well as suppress the Catholic church. With the trial and execution of the French king in 1793, Kadoudal, like many other onetime liberals, found himself driven towards the royalist, counter-revolutionary camp.

On 11 March 1793 the imposition of a military draft by the Parisian authorities provoked an uprising in Brittany as well as nearby parts of western France. Kadoudal was one of the rebels taking up arms. While the heaviest action took place south of the river Loire, north of the Loire in Brittany guerilla bands roamed the country. Like the Resistance fighters in 1944, these Breton guerillas made effective use of the “bocage” country of small fields and pastures enclosed by thick hedgerows, making life hell for the revolutionary troops sent out to suppress the revolt.

Salt smugglers, who for years before the revolution had grown adept at evading the hated royal salt tax, provided leadership and an intimate knowledge of the countryside. One of them, an officer in Charles Armand’s Breton Association [see January 2004], took the non de guerre of Jean Chouan, and gave the Breton revolt its distinctive name of chouannerie. The name may have been derived from “chouette,” or owl, (Breton kaouenn) recalling the owl hoots smugglers used to signal one another on moonless nights.

The rebels south of the Loire - there known as the Vendee revolt - eventually overreached themselves and were decisively defeated in December 1793. Kadoudal managed to slip away from this catastrophe with a band of 300 fellow Bretons. He was eventually captured and imprisoned at Brest, but got away to continue the struggle as best he could.

The next disaster for the counter-revolutionaries was the ill-conceived Anglo-Royalist landing on the Quiberon peninsula south of Carnac in June 1795, quickly defeated by General Lazare Hoche. (Ironically, the following year General Hoche would command an abortive French landing in support of Irish rebels in Bantry Bay.) Kadoudal managed to escape this debacle too, but he surrendered to Hoche in 1796 and was amnestied.

In 1798, though, he resumed the campaign, this time with a royal commission from the Bourbon pretender Louis XVIII that gave him command of all the rebels in Brittany. For a while the rebels enjoyed a tantalizing taste of success - they captured Le Mans on 14 October 1799 and even briefly occupied the city of Nantes, but by December the rebellion had collapsed, and again Kadoudal was forced to surrender on 14 February 1800. Napoleon Bonaparte recognized native talent when he saw it, and offered Kadoudal not only a full pardon, but a commission as a general. Kadoudal didn’t take up the offer, and instead was implicated when on 24 December 1800 a massive carriage bomb narrowly missed killing Napoleon in Paris’ rue Saint-Nicaise.

Kadoudal escaped to England, but covertly returned to France early in 1804, this time as part of an ambitious plot to subvert two French generals, kidnap Napoleon, and install a Bourbon as the new King of France. French intelligence broke up the conspiracy and arrested most of its figures except for Kadoudal, who for a while looked as if he would escape yet another debacle. While police operatives combed Paris in search of Kadoudal, the French government passed a special law making concealment of him a capital crime, and his description was even printed on what was perhaps the world’s first “wanted” poster (which may be viewed today in the Police Museum in Paris.)

This time Kadoudal would not get away. He was finally arrested in March 1804, and after a trial was condemned with eleven others to the guillotine.

Unwittingly, though, Kadoudal had changed the course of history. Desperate to determine who the unnamed Bourbon claimant to the throne was to be, Napoleon settled upon the duc d’Enghien, then living across the German border in Baden. The subsequent kidnapping and execution of d’Enghien (who most likely had nothing to do with Kadoudal’s plot) shocked Europe, and prompted the famous remark that the act was “worse than a crime, it was a blunder.” Ironically, the killing of d’Enghien only cleared the field for the putative Louis XVIII in England to proclaim himself rightful king of France, and for once Napoleon had a definite royal opponent. Napoleon, though, would go one step better than the title of king to consolidate his power: on 2 December 1804 he crowned himself emperor of France.

A defiant Kadoudal went to the guillotine on 25 June 1804, demanding by virtue of his rank that he be first to mount the scaffold. After his body was given to a medical school, his skeleton was mounted and toured France as an anatomical exhibit, his skull in particular being used to illustrate the emerging theory of phrenology. With the fall of Napoleon in 1815 Kadoudal’s remains at last returned home, and were eventually placed in a mausoleum on the hill of Kerléano outside his native town of Auray.

Legend, however, was not done with Kadoudal. It was said that he took to the grave his knowledge of caches of arms and gold hidden by the Breton rebels, and fortune hunters to this day still seek clues to the location of “Kadoudal’s treasure.”

For more information on Brittany, see the Brittany Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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