Richard Hoover: Paris on the morning of Aug. 10, 1792
Reinforced by armed members of the Paris Commune, plus National Guard units from all over the kingdom, inflamed mobs marched on the Tuileries, the royal palace. Their aim: to dethrone Louis XVI and establish a republic. They were still incensed by the royal family’s attempted flight, the previous year, to join the counter-revolution abroad, and were whipped into a new patriotic furor by the “Brunswick Manifesto.” Published in late July, it threatened “total destruction” by the Austrian and Prussian invading armies should any harm come to the royal family.
In the nick of time, Louis and his family escaped to the protection of the nearby Legislative Assembly. The king, however, failed to inform his personal bodyguard, the famous Swiss Guard, that he had left the palace. Some Swiss were posted along the periphery of the Tuileries and some were posted to defend the palace interior. They were all cocked and primed, ready to protect the king with their lives.
For hire throughout Europe since the 15th Century, Swiss mercenaries were renowned for their loyalty, reliability and discipline. Traditional Swiss neutrality, went the argument, permitted them to serve any monarch or prince.
As the mob approached the Tuileries, word of the royals’ escape began circulating among the Swiss posted on the outside. Believing their duty fulfilled, some even laid down their arms and attempted to fraternize. But the overpowering throng swept right through the outsiders, determined to gain the palace interior. When they did, the inside Swiss (who evidently had received no word of the royal departure) opened fire. And the massacre began.
Over six hundred Swiss Guards, inside and out, were cut down by the French. In my reading, the descriptive accounts of this butchery surpass in horror even those detailing the treatment of Custer’s troopers, both living and dead, at the Little Big Horn! (See, for example, Simon Schama’s epical work “Citizens.”)
That is the background to our little 6 1/2-inch carved souvenir — an exquisite wooden replica of the famed monument commemorating the massacred Swiss Guard of Louis XVI–the Lion of Lucerne. Ten meters in length, it was designed by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and hewn from the face of a cliff, 1820-21.
Impaled by a spear (long since lost to the carving, but one I’ve clumsily replaced with a matchstick!), the dying lion lies symbolically upon a fallen halberd and a shield bearing the fleur-de-lis of Bourbon France. A shield bearing the Swiss cross remains upright.
An antique? Our carving does have some age to it: a sticker underneath proclaims “bought at Ninth Ave(nue) flea market, New York City, 1979, $1.00.” Why, that’s almost 40 years ago! Add to that the age cracks to the base, plus the remains of an ancient maker’s label from Lucerne, and we could well be looking at a late 19th Century production! This is the second Lucerne lion I have owned, and judge that these carvings were something of a community industry, aimed at a tourist trade starting in the days of the late Grand Tour.
But why Lucerne? One account has it that a fortunate Swiss Guards officer missed the massacre because he had been on leave there and that, after the Napoleonic Wars, he began collecting money for the project. At the same time, Lucerne remained a staunchly Catholic city, fairly untouched by the Reformation that had rocked much of the Old Swiss Confederacy. I speculate that such a monument to the defenders of Catholic Bourbons may not have been feasible, say, in Protestant Zurich, Bern or Basel.
The Latin inscription on the base is almost suggestive: “To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss. August 10, 1792.” To me, the look on the lion’s face goes beyond any loss of life; rather, such deep sorrow reflects the pain of “loyalty and bravery” betrayed. It reflects that the king skipped out without leaving behind a timely order to stand-down, that Louis’ faithful Swiss Guard was abandoned to a terrible death.
Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.