Why on earth did French revolutionaries persecute and murder enclosed nuns?

A detail from a stain glass window at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Norfolk

I mentioned earlier this week a second French holy place that might interest readers: Compiègne. The town is only 40 minutes by fast and frequent train from Paris, and what drew me there was the famous chateau, a place beloved of Louis XV, who hunted in the nearby forest, as well as Marie Antoinette; and also a favourite place of resort for members of the Fourth Dynasty to rule France. Napoleon was fond of Compiègne and spent time there, and so did the Empress Marie Louise, some of whose furniture is still in situ. Compiègne was also the scene of the house and shooting parties of Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, where the great and good of the Second Empire gathered. The chateau is beautiful and more restrained than Versailles and the park, laid out in the English style, extremely attractive; it was a pity that the museum of the Second Empire was shut, as were the apartments of the Prince Imperial and those of the King of Rome – all because of lack of staff, I was told.

By chance I had time to spend in the pleasant town itself, and was pleased to discover a very fine parish church, St Jacques. The church contains several interesting features: a memorial to Joan of Arc, who was arrested in Compiègne; and altar rails that once surrounded the royal bed in the chateau – the gift of Louis XVIII: having once guarded the bed of Louis XVI, they are relics of a martyr. And at the back of the church there was a side chapel dedicated to the Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne. You can read a full account of their martyrdom here.

The 16 Blessed martyrs were victims of the French Revolution, and the first such victims to be beatified. That the revolutionary government of France took such trouble over them is quite incredible. Remember, these were enclosed nuns, so they could have been safely ignored, as they were pretty much unseen. But no, the revolutionaries simply could not leave them alone. First they harassed them, and declared that their vows were not binding (though why secularists should have an opinion, yet alone legislate, on the validity of religious vows is beyond me). Then, when the nuns refused to disperse voluntarily, they confiscated their priory and turned them out on to the street. The nuns went into lodgings, and adopted lay dress, as the law dictated, but continued to live a life of prayer, and continued to worship in the parish church. Finally, they were arrested, imprisoned, taken to Paris, condemned by the revolutionary tribunal, and guillotined. They wore religious dress for their execution. They were among the last victims of the Terror: within a few weeks Robespierre himself had been overthrown and guillotined.

But why on earth did the Revolution consider them worth persecuting? Their martyrdom exposes the supposed secularism of the French Revolution as a mere mask for rabid anti-clericalism. Anti-clericalism has a long track record of hatred for nuns, particularly enclosed nuns. Many were the convents attacked and destroyed in Spain at the start of the Civil War. There too Carmelites were martyred. I wonder why this should be.

The Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne are very well known in France, and are even the subject of an opera by Poulenc, the last scene of which admirably conveys the glory of martyrdom. These Blessed Sisters went to their deaths praying for peace in the Church and peace in the state. Let us hope we will continue have both, and much less of the ugly anti-clericalism that killed them.