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Sunday, 13 May 2012

Henri-Robert d'Ully de Laval - Letter from Prison

Viscount Henri Robert d'Ully de Laval settled in Portarlington, Co. Laois, following his escape from catholic France at the end of the 17th century.  His great granddaughter, Deborah Charlotte Newcombe, married Thomas Willis, schoolmaster of Portarlington. We directly descend from Thomas and his first wife, Betty Foster.

Henri Robert d'Ully de Laval and his wife, Magdaleine de Schelandre, being Huguenot, experienced persecution and imprisonment following the revocation of The Edict of Nantes in 1685 and spent several years in and out of separate jails. Two of their sons were born in prison.  The following letter, written by the Viscount from his prison cell to his family in 1689, was translated from the French original by Sir Erasmus Borrowes and published in, I believe, 'The Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 111'.   The letter was written towards the end of his final stay in prison, before he left France for Portarlington where the Laval family finally settled in 1695.

'Guise, 2nd April 1689. My dear children, when I spoke to you at the commencement of this letter of my captivity, I told you that it continued still with great inconveniences really insupportable, to the extent that I had lost all hope of ever seeing you again (of which my persecutors wished to convince me) unless I made you return to prison, assuring me that this was the only means to restore myself to liberty. But God was so merciful to me (notwithstanding the torments they inflicted on me) as to enable me to refuse compliance with a condition so cruel, and so prejudicial to your eternal salvation. You were too happy in leaving such a sink of vice, that I should consent to plunge you into it again, by a cowardice unworthy of the name and profession of a Christian, and of a Christian enlightened by the Divine mercy through the holy Gospel.

You know that I was arrested by the police of Soissons on the 17th of August, and conducted into the prisons of Verneuil; and this was for being accused, as formerly was St. Paul, for the hope of Israel, - that is to say, for holding the name of God in the purity and the simplicity that it pleased him to reveal to us in his word, a crime which in France at present is esteemed the most fearful, and visited with punishments the most severe.  This was the reason that I was so strictly guarded in a place most disagreeable and incommodious, in which I was nearly smothered by different types of animals, and where there was not even room to arrange a bed.  I was not there long before I fell ill, and I beheld myself abandoned by the whole world. I heard from my friends, for it was not permitted to them to see me. But persons, who presented themselves for the purpose of annoying me, had all license for doing so, and of such people, there were only too many to be found.  Even your poor mother saw me but rarely and with the greatest difficulty, which obliged her, though very inconvenient from the approach of her accouchement, to make a journey to Soissons in order to try and obtain from our Intendant the favour that she should be allowed to take care of me in my illness and that some kind of liberty should be afforded to me.  Fearing that I would not survive for any length of time in such a miserable place, she offered to remain in prison herself in my place for some time;  but they were inexorable to her prayers, and she returned without having obtained anything.

You can imagine what was her sorrow and grief; however the good God...bestowed on me strength and vigour to vanquish that illness, notwithstanding the hardships I had to bear.  Thus, at the end of twelve days, I found myself a little better, which made your mother resolve to make a secret journey into her country in order to receive some arrears that her father-in-law owed us, the term of payment being past;  and this is what has been partly the cause of all my sufferings, and of our having so long deferred following you.  He wished for nothing so much as that some obstacle should present itself to prevent him from paying this money;  accordingly, he decided that the authority which I had given to your mother to receive that sum, was not sufficient, because it had been drawn up in prison, and that a man, in the situation in which I was, could not legally negociate or authorise it. Thus she found she had made a useless journey;  and to fill up the measure of her misfortunes, she found on her return that, because it was not yet bad enough with me, they had transferred me from the prisons of Verneuil to those of Guise.

On the 27th Sept. (1688) the police of Laon had orders to come and remove me, and to conduct me to Guise. I was not quite recovered from illness;  however, I had to travel, and they tied me with many cords on a horse.  The officer who commanded the escort was an upright man, and had formerly conducted me to the prison of Sedan for the same cause of my religion.  He said that he was touched at my condition, and assured me that they only transferred me that I might be better;  but I well experienced the contrary.  He excused himself from the cruel and inhuman manner in which they treated me, making me understand how express his orders were, and to what an extent he was forced to obey them;  and as for me, he esteemed me only too happy to be suffering for the profession of the truth. All the population of the town came out into the streets to see me; they had, indeed, seen me many times in a similar condition, but not tied and bound with cords as I now was.  I was visited by many melancholy thoughts during the journey;  but never had anything so much afflicted me as, on arriving at Guise, to see a mob excited against me (who could do me no evil, because they were prevented) and heaping on me a thousand atrocious insults...

...they lodged me in the most frightful part of the tower, so far removed from the business of the world that I neither saw nor heard anything but the gaoler, who came a moment each day to see what I was doing.  I was two days and two nights without knowing if I was dead or alive, and consequently without dreaming of taking any nourishment...when I reflected that instead of lodging me better than  at Verneuil - as the officer who conducted me had made me hope - they now treated me with such rigour and inhumanity, it came into my head that they wished to make me a terrible example to the Reformed Christians in the Province...But God had not reserved for me so glorious a part as to seal His truth with my blood;  of which I became aware seven or eight days after, by the arrival at Guise of the Intendant, who I knew was favourable to me.

Your mother, the day after her return to Verneuil, set out to see me again.  God willed that her journey was so a propos that she preceded the Intendant two or three hours only, during which she could see me but for a moment...and only in the presence of a sergeant and four soldiers of the garrison, who attended her like a shadow.  She had a number of particulars to relate to me respecting the journey she had just made in her country, but as it was impossible for her to impart them to me, I could draw nothing from her except sighs and tears, which she poured forth in abundance. Her escort dragged her away against her will, for the poor creature would have taken it as a great favour if they had detained her as a prisoner along with myself.  This visit affected me much more deeply than any former one,  so that I should have wished very much not to have seen her.  Yet when the Intendant arrived, she besought him with so much determination, that he was compelled to yield to her importunity, so much so, that he permitted her not only to see me, but even to remain with me, and that too in a place a little less dreadful than that in which I had been, which they made me leave at once.

This change, so unexpected, and so agreeable to me that I regarded it as an interposition of Heaven was, I believe, rather the effect of necessity than the result of any kind disposition they might have felt towards me.   When I found myself in her society, and out of that detestable place, I seemed to have entered another world.  All my unhappiness was now for my poor wife, who every moment expected her accouchment;  she would willingly have been a captive for my sake, courageously despising all the inconveniences which she would meet with in a place where she would have nothing but solitude.  This was one great cause of sorrow;  although this was not the first time that by divine permission she was placed in a similar position, though more inconvenient.  In fact, you know that two years ago her accouchment took place in the prison of Sedan, she having been dragged from her bed  (which from illness she had not left for six months) to be brought there.  By the goodness of God, she now, at the end of three weeks, notwithstanding all these miseries and calamities, brought into the world another fine boy, by whom the number of your brothers is again augmented.

After I had been in prison seven months, they thought themselves obliged to bring my trial on, and for that purpose, on the last of January (1689);  the police of Soissons brought me to the prison of Laon, to which place the Intendant arranged that the witnesses, along with the President, should go.  With all these forms it was on the 27th of March that I was confronted with the witnesses, who had not much to say against me.  I was kept before the bar for more than two hours to render an account of my faith and of what I was accued of, and particularly your flight, which they positively wished me to remedy by your return, although I had always borne witness that it was not in my power to do so.  They exhibited an Order of Council which commanded the Intendant to treat me with all the rigour of the law.  God gave me grace to reply to all their questions according to the promptings of my conscience, and boldly to confess the truth which we at one time so feebly defended...sentence was pronounced that, as an expiation of my pretended crimes, I was still to remain in prison for six months - a sentence which was considered very favourable...

...I am much indebted to Monsieur and Mademoiselle de Lussi who were most kind to me, and whom I shall remember with gratitude all my life.  (The de Lussi family were cousins of the Lavals.)  At present I have more license for writing than ever. May it please God to preserve us to the end of this persecution, to shield us from the storm and the tempest, and to conduct us by his goodness to the haven of salvation.'

Note: The de Lussi family, referred to above as cousins of the Laval family, were actually the Gosselin family of Matigny and Lussé near Rouen.  Henri-Robert d'Ully de Laval's sister was Louise d'Ully who married David de Gosselin in Rouen in 1677.

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