Married Priests in France, 1789-1815

By Xavier Marechaux

In a previous post on this blog, Kate Marsden described the fate of hundreds of nuns who married during the French Revolution, shedding light on a topic often considered taboo.[1] However, married nuns were not the only population neglected by the historians of the French Revolution. Thousands of priests also married between 1791 and 1815, but are rarely mentioned in the historiography.

Kate Marsden argued that most of those nuns welcomed the closure of their convents, and she posits that the suppression of the religious vows in November 1789 was the logical conclusion of Enlightenment arguments against clerical celibacy and religious orders.  Was the feeling the same for the 6,000 married priests? We can count three waves of marriages during this period:

  1. the beginning of 1791 to September 1793, when priests were free to choose to marry, and 8% did so;
  2. October 1793 to the end of 1794, when revolutionaries tried to eradicate the Constitutional Church and its clergy by forcing them to marry. [2] This period is called the “Dechristianization of year II” and nearly 70% of priests married at this time.
  3. the beginning of 1795 to June 1815, when 22% of priests married. [3] As at the beginning of the Revolution, these marriages were by choice.

Some priests married to put into practice Enlightenment principles and become “citizen priests,” but most who married before the Fall of 1793 did so as a rejection of their vocation. The engraving above is a perfect example of these early “marriages of rupture.” [4] It shows a former priest, still wearing his clergyman collar, who has traded his cassock for a uniform of the national guard, and is embracing an attractive woman. On the ground lies a breviary, his cassock, and his abbot hat. The poem posted below the couple recounts how priests, forced to join the clergy by their families, began new civic careers with marriage, in this case “défense de la patrie.” One former priest, Guy de Valory, followed this propaganda script to the letter. Before the Revolution canonical offices were hereditary, passing to members of the next generation who had need of a stipend. Valory, who was of low noble birth, had at first attempted a military career, but was  forced to renounce it in 1777 so that he could occupy a canonical office that had been part of  his family’s heritage for several generations. [5] After the Revolution eliminated the office, Valory abandoned his religious life, married in 1792, and joined the national guard of the Meurthe with the rank of major. He followed Bonaparte during the Italian campaign in 1796 and became brigadier general in 1803. There were many priests that followed the same path as Valory, using marriage as a means of escaping the clergy and taking advantage of an increasing number of civilian professions now open to them.

While priests did indeed follow Valory’s path to marriage both at the beginning and end of the Revolution, most marriages took place during the Terror between October 1793 and November 1794. Such marriages seemed to be directly linked to the Dechristianization spearheaded by radical members of the legislature who fanned out into the countryside as “representative on mission” to enact anti-clerical policies. [6] In September 15, 1793, Fouché, representative on mission to the department of Nièvres, forced all local priests to “get married, adopt a child, or take care of a poor, old person” if they wished to continue to receive their salary. A few months later, representatives on mission throughout France went even further, exiling priests from their parishes or imprisoning those who did not renounce their vocation and marry. These measures aimed to undercut the relationship between the priests and their parochial community, especially in parishes where the priest had deep, long-lasting ties to their flock. Such relationships ran counter to the idea that in a republic, the strongest relationship for each citizen is to his patrie, not his religion,

And Dechristianization was effective. There is a clear correlation between the actions by the representatives on mission and the marriage of priests in the departments for which they were responsible. In Nièvres, where 76% of the priests married during Dechristianization, 36% of them did so in October 1793, just after the famous decree of Fouché. In Côte-du-Nord and Manche, Representative Le Carpentier imprisoned all the priests in the two departments, and by a decree dated from June 13, 1794, offered them freedom only if they agreed to marry. All the priests in Côte du Nord were married by August 1794 and 30% of married priests in Manche said their vows in July. A similar measure produced a wave of weddings in the Department of Meuse: 76% of the marriages by priests occurred during the period of Dechristianization, more than half of these from September to November 1794.  Again, this wave of marriages in late 1794 is directly related to the actions of the representatives on mission. All priests in the Meuse had been forced to move to the administrative centers of the department by representative on mission, François-René-Auguste Mallarmé, in April 1794. However, his successor, Charles Delacroix, promised freedom of movement for married priests in September 1794, a policy which clearly encouraged many of them to pursue conjugal relationships.

Drawing of nuns and clergymen getting married.
“The Third Estate Marrying Priests with Nuns”

Why were most priests forced to marry while most nuns married by choice? The roles of priests and nuns, defined by gender and church institutions, seems to have determined the intensity of anti-clerical attacks. Once the convents were abolished, nuns had no ecclesiastical status and, freed perhaps also from Old Regime strictures of arranged marriage, could more easily wed and fulfill roles of mother and wife. However, the priests remained, as part of the Constitutional Church and as leaders of their parishes, well into the Revolution. Their marriages during Dechristianization seem mainly to be induced by fear and harassment. For this reason, many scholars of religious history dismiss the marriage of priests and Dechristianization of year II as the result of political circumstances rather than a true measure of the secularization of society and revocation of religious vows. [7]

I would argue that there are nevertheless signs that the marriages of priests indicate a tendency towards secularization. During the Napoleonic period, more than half the married priests never reconciled with the Church despite encouragement by Pope Pius VII and his representative in France, the Cardinal Caprara.  After the Terror, more than 90% stayed married, relinquishing their vocation after their wedding, and only 2.7% of those who contacted the Cardinal Caprara claimed their marriages were counterfeit. [8]

Why was there such a reluctance to reject a conjugal union that had been forced upon them? At least some remained in their marriages because it was hard for them to resume their clerical duties. By marrying, they may have lost whatever reputation they had in their parish. Additionally, the Constitutional Church reorganized in 1795 by Abbé Grégoire was particularly severe towards priests who had discredited the Church by their marriage or their apostasy. Some other priests may have used the Terror as a pretext to get married, a move they would not have had the courage to make in normal times. And once married, more former priests found it easier to remain so and find other profane pursuits. Not surprisingly, 68% of married priests—including those who eventually rejoined the Church—obtained teaching and administrative positions. There was no significant difference in employment between married priests who renounced the church permanently and those who chose to return to the fold after 1801. Both groups took advantage of the growing secular career opportunities available in post-revolutionary society.

The fact that so many priests remained married means we cannot so easily dismiss their existence. Rather than simply radical extremism, an unusual case of revolutionary excess, or a short aberration in French social history, the lingering impact of the marriage of priests is a combination of a broader cultural change and opportunities provided by the growing administrative structure of the emerging nation-state.  The Dechristianization of year II seems to have pushed a large segment of the clergy who were already far less devout to desert their vocation (and allowed those who never reconciled to leave the Church permanently). They were encouraged by the fact they were able to find new positions in the military or civil service—and sometime very prominent ones—in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France. Thus, the Dechristianization of year II revealed a priesthood long eroded by 18th-century secularization, whose sense of self-preservation and pragmatism outweighed their true conviction to remain celibate and free from marriage.

Xavier Marechaux is an associate professor of History and Education at SUNY College at Old Westbury. His research focuses on the secularization of the French Society from the 18th century to present day. He is currently working on a monograph on the refractory clergy. 

Title image : “Hé mais oui da, j’ai quitté ma soutane/malgré tout mes parens/Je veut que Dieu me damne/Si jamais je la reprends/Hé mais oui da/Se fera Prêtre/Ce lui qui voudras,”[I throw off my cassock/despite my parents’ wishes/I want God to damn me/If ever I take it back/Hey, Yes/Become priest/if you want to], 1790.  


[1] See Kate Marsden’s post

[2] The constitutional Church born in 1790 from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was the only cult legally authorized.  The refractory priests, those who refused this new organization, were in hiding or exiled. Therefor they were not the victims of the Dechristianization of year II.

[3] Short biographies of 4200 married priests are available in Marechaux, Xavier, Les prêtres mariés de la Révolution à l’Empire, Répertoire biographique, PhD Thesis, Université de Paris I, 1995. 

[4] Collection De Vinck, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

[5] A canon is a priest belonging to the staff of a cathedral or collegiate church.

[6] Department is a new territorial division of France established in 1790. The representatives on mission were members of the Convention assembly (1792-1795) sent in the departments to ensure their compliance with the policy of the Convention

[7] About this controversy, see Van Kley, Dale K., “Christianity as Casualty and Chrysalis of Modernity: The Problem of Dechristianization in the French Revolution,” American Historical Review, 108- 4, (2003): 1081-1104.

[8] The letters written by the married priests to the cardinal Caprara are now preserved in series AF/IV 1895-1920 at the Archives Nationales in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine.

Reading list:

Cage, E. Claire, Unnatural Frenchmen: The Politics of Priestly Celibacy and Marriage, 1720-1815. University of Virginia Press, 2015.

Marechaux, Xavier, Noces révolutionnaires: le mariage des prêtres en France (1789-1815), Editions Vendémaire, 2017.

Vovelle, Michel, The Revolution against the Church: from Reason to the Supreme Being, Ohio State University Press, 1991.

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