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The defence of Rochefort-en-Terre,
painting by Alexandre Bloch, 1885
Result Republican victory
Flag of France.svg France (Republic - Empire) Royal Standard of the King of France.svg Chouan rebels
Royal Standard of the King of France.svg Vendéen rebels
Royal Standard of the King of France.svg Émigrés
Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Jean-Baptiste de Canclaux
Jean-Michel Beysser
Jean Antoine Rossignol
Jean Baptiste Kléber
Lazare Hoche
Jean Humbert
Guillaume Brune
Gabriel d'Hédouville
Pierre Quantin
Claude Ursule Gency
Georges Cadoudal   Skull and Crossbones.svg
Joseph de Puisaye
Jean Chouan  
Marie Paul de Scépeaux
Aimé du Boisguy
Louis de Frotté   Skull and Crossbones.svg
Pierre Guillemot  
Amateur de Boishardy
Comte Louis de Rosmorduc
Louis de Bourmont
Louis d'Andigné
Pierre-Mathurin Mercier  
Jean-Louis Treton
Guillaume Le Métayer
Charles Armand Tuffin, marquis de la Rouërie   Skull and Crossbones.svg
Army of the West:
1795: 68,000 men
1799: 45,000 men
1800: 75,000 men
~55,000 men

The Chouannerie (from the Chouan brothers, two of its leaders) was a royalist uprising or counter-revolution in 12 of the western départements of France, particularly in the provinces of Brittany and Maine, against the First Republic during the French Revolution. It played out in three phases and lasted from the spring of 1794 until 1800. [1]

The uprising was provoked principally by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and the levée en masse (1793) undertaken by the National Convention. A first attempt at staging an uprising was carried out by the Association bretonne to defend the French monarchy and reinstate the specific laws and customs of Brittany that had been repealed in 1789. The first confrontations broke out in 1792 and developed in stages into a peasant revolt, then guerrilla warfare, and eventually to full-scale battles, ending only with their defeat by forces of the Republic in 1800. [1]

Briefer peasant uprisings in other départements such as in Aveyron and Lozère are also identified as "chouanneries". A petite chouannerie broke out in 1815 during the Hundred Days and a final uprising occurred in 1832.


In 1791, the adoption of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy caused the peasants around Vannes to rise in defence of their bishop Sébastien-Michel Amelot against the Republicans of Lorient who wished him to swear the oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution. The following spring, in the area around Quimper, a justice of the peace led several parishes in a rising in the name of King Louis XVI against the local authorities. [2]

During the summer of 1792, incidents occurred in the districts of Carhaix (Finistère), Lannion, Pontrieux (Côtes-d'Armor), Craon, Château-Gontier and Laval (Mayenne), where the peasants opposed a levy of volunteers for the army. At Saint-Ouën-des-Toits, in the department of Mayenne, Jean Cottereau (known as Jean Chouan) led the insurgents. His nickname probably came from his imitation of the call of the tawny owl (the chouette hulotte) for a recognition-signal. [2] A reward was put on his head, but nevertheless he reached England in March 1793. The Republican administration recognised him and his brother as the leaders of the revolt. [3]


An episode of the Chouannerie, painting by Jules Girardet, 19th century. Episode Chouannerie.JPG
An episode of the Chouannerie, painting by Jules Girardet, 19th century.

First phase 1794-1795

In January 1794, the Vendeans of the Vendée militaire , following the setback of the Virée de Galerne, tried to resist the infernal columns of General Louis Marie Turreau. During this time, groups of Chouans north of the Loire took up arms again in the areas crossed by the Vendeans. The Chouannerie was born on the borders of the Mayenne and of the Ille-et-Vilaine, near Fougères, Vitré and Laval. [4] These small groups led by Jean Chouan, Aimé du Boisguy and Jean-Louis Treton (nicknamed Jambe d'Argent, i.e. "Silver Leg"), regrouped Chouans and Vendeans who survived the Virée de Galerne, leaders who were compromised in the peasant uprisings of March 1793 and even deserters. [5] Condemned to live in almost total secrecy, the Chouans knew that being captured by the Republicans would mean certain death. Most of them were motivated by a desire to avenge their relatives who had disappeared in the Virée de Galerne. [5]

In guerilla warfare, Chouans in groups of a few score or a few hundred men ambushed military detachments, couriers and stagecoaches carrying government funds. They attacked Republican towns, executed informers, constitutional priests and republicans, a large number of them administrators.

To oppose the Chouans, Republicans built strongholds or fortified towns which were defended by local territorial guards. They were led by General Jean Antoine Rossignol, chief commander of the Army of the Coasts of Brest. A law enacted on 23 March 1793 mandated that captured insurgents should be executed by firing squad or by guillotine within twenty-four hours. Rossignol also assembled groups of fake Chouan outlaws in order to do as much as possible to discredit the real Chouans.

Murders were carried out throughout the whole war with a varying degree of intensity. For example, in the district of Fougères, in conflict between some 2,000 Chouans and a fluctuating number of Republicans, 219 people were assassinated or executed by Chouans and 300 by Republicans. This did not include deaths during fights, summary executions on the battlefield, or executions following the expeditive revolutionary due process of law. [6]

The Chouannerie spread quickly to Brittany and reached the Côtes-d'Armor, dominated by the Chevalier de Boishardy. On 15 March it reached Morbihan where Joseph de Fay and Béjarry (former officers of the Vendean army) assisted by Pierre Guillemot incited a peasant uprising aimed at Vannes. The insurgents were easily countered by the Republicans at the battle of Mangolérian. However, in the Finistère and the west of the Côtes-d'Armor, the Basse-Cornouaille, the Léon and the Trégor did not take part in the uprising.

Georges Cadoudal and Pierre-Mathurin Mercier, nicknamed la Vendée, rescued from the battle of Savenay, moved to the Morbihan where Boulainvilliers was appointed general-in-chief of the département. However, Boulainvilliers defected to Ille-et-Vilaine with money taken from headquarters. Sébastien de La Haye de Silz succeeded him as general. Boulainvilliers foolishly returned a few months later in the Morbihan; he was captured and shot by Pierre Guillemot's men.

Other départements, however, did not stand as united as the Morbihan. In the north of Anjou, Marie Paul de Scépeaux de Bois-Guignot was named commander for the north of Maine-et-Loire. His authority later extended to Loire-atlantique, Mayenne and Sarthe. However, he commanded in name only: as in other départements, his authority as a Chouan chief only extended to his own canton. Joseph de Puisaye, a former officer compromised in the federalist revolts, realised the necessity of centralised command and attempted to assume the function of general-in-chief of the Chouans. Recognized by some chiefs, Puisaye embarked from Dinard to London on 11 September 1794 to meet future king Charles X of France. Major-General Pierre Dezoteux de Cormatin, his second-in-command, assumed command in his absence. Charles X favoured absolute monarchy and distrusted Puisaye, who advocated parliamentary monarchy. However, following the intervention of British prime minister William Pitt the Younger, Puisaye was appointed general-in-chief of the Royal and Catholic Army of Brittany on 15 October 1794 with the rank of Lieutenant general (thus entrusting him with the king's authority). His power thus extended to all the insurgent areas north of the Loire, including the Maine and Anjou, where Scépeaux appointed him general-in-chief.

Maximilien de Robespierre fell on 28 July 1794. Consequently, the Terror ended and the Convention nationale became more flexible and open to negotiation. The Agence royaliste de Paris asked the Chouans in the name of Louis XVIII of France (then count of Provence) to stop fighting. On 26 December, Brigadier General Jean Humbert and Chouan chief Boishardy met to discuss peace options. Puisaye tried to organise a landing from London, his lieutenant Cormatin assumed full command and negotiated the peace treaty of La Mabilais in April 1795. He was followed by a minority of local leaders. [7] Of the 121 leaders attending, only 21, including de Silz and Boishardy, signed the treaty. [8]

Second phase 1795-1796

Because neither side had negotiated in good faith, there was an increase in tension following the death of Louis XVII on 8 June. The peace was broken on 26 August 1794 as General Lazare Hoche, who succeeded Jean Antoine Rossignol as head of the Army of the Coasts of Brest, ordered the arrest of those who had refused to sign the treaty of La Mabilais. Hoche thought that Cormatin was trying to outsmart him: Cormatin was imprisoned (and would not be freed before 1802). Boishardy, who did not sign, was killed during the night of 17 to 18 June between Bréhand and Moncontour. Likewise, de Silz, who had taken up arms again, was attacked on 28 June at Grand-Champ by the troops of Adjutant-General Josnet. De Silz was killed in action and his men retreated.

On 23 June 1795 a British fleet led by commodore John Borlase Warren landed 3,500 soldiers of the émigré army in Carnac. They joined 15,000 Chouans led by Vincent de Tinténiac, Paul Alexandre du Bois-Berthelot and Jacques Anne Joseph Le Prestre de Vauban, great-grandnephew of marshal Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. However, disagreements between the general of the émigrés Louis Charles d'Hervilly and the expedition leader Puisaye cost the Royalists precious time.

A counter-attack by Hoche forced the Chouans back to the Quiberon peninsula. On 10 July, two columns of Chouan troops wearing English uniforms embarked on British ships from the peninsula and were landed behind Republican lines. However, the men from the first column, led by Lantivy du Rest and Jean Jan, scattered. The second column, led by Vincent de Tinténiac seconded by Georges Cadoudal, prepared to attack but received a message from the Agence royaliste de Paris requiring them to join a second British landing at Côtes-d'Armor. Tinténiac hesitated in the face of opposition from Cadoudal, but obeyed the order. He was killed on the way at Coëtlogon on 18 July. They reached the bay of Saint-Brieuc but no British fleet joined them, so they returned to the Morbihan and appointed Cadoudal as their general.

The battle of Quiberon
Un episode de l'affaire de Quiberon (An Episode of the Quiberon affair), painting by Paul-Emile Boutigny, 19th century. Siege Quiberon.jpg
The battle of Quiberon
Un épisode de l'affaire de Quiberon (An Episode of the Quiberon affair), painting by Paul-Émile Boutigny, 19th century.

During this time, in Quiberon, reinforcements of 2,000 men led by Charles de Virot de Sombreuil joined the émigrés. They attempted to attack on 16 July but were crushed. Hoche launched a final assault on 20 July and routed the émigrés. Louis Charles d'Hervilly was fatally wounded; Puisaye managed to board a British ship. The Republicans took more than 6,000 prisoners. 748 of them were shot by firing squad, including Sombreuil. The day before his execution he wrote a letter to commodore Warren denouncing the flight of chief general Joseph de Puisaye.

This letter had an enormous impact on the Chouans. A council of officers in Morbihan sentenced Puisaye to death in absentia. Puisaye returned to Brittany in autumn 1795, where he was arrested by Pierre-Mathurin Mercier and brought before Cadoudal. Puisaye defended himself vigorously and found he still had the support of the count of Artois. Cadoual and Puisaye were eventually reconciled.

Guerilla fighting resumed after the failure of the English royalist expedition and spread to Normandy where Louis de Frotté, freshly landed in France in 1795, organised the uprising.

La Chapelle de La Madeleine a Malestroit (Morbihan) - 15 nivose an III (The Chapel of La Madelaine in Malestroit), painting by Alexandre Bloch, 1886. Chapelle de La Madeleine a Malestroit.jpg
La Chapelle de La Madeleine à Malestroit (Morbihan) - 15 nivôse an III (The Chapel of La Madelaine in Malestroit), painting by Alexandre Bloch, 1886.

Puisaye had suffered some loss of reputation and blamed the Chouans of the Morbihan and their chiefs who, according to him, were hostile towards nobles and wanted to "establish equality under a white flag". Puisaye left the Morbihan for the Ille-et-Vilaine, where the division chiefs were of the nobility, and joined the Mordelles division led by Jean-Joseph Ruault de La Tribonnière. He did not receive much more support than he had in the Morbihan, but remained commander-in-chief thanks to the support of the count of Artois. Puisaye wanted a Chouannerie led by nobles and founded the company of the chevaliers catholiques . Several émigrés joined France to fight with the Chouans, but numerous disputes broke out between them.

In January 1796, Puisaye joined the Fougères division, the most important one in Ille-et-Vilaine, and appointed as his chief Aimé Picquet du Boisguy, chief general of the Ille-et-Vilaine and of the East of the Côtes-d'Armor. However, in practice, Boisguy only controlled the East of Ille-et-Vilaine; Frotté and Scépeaux acknowledged Puisaye as general-in-chief in name only.

To fight the Chouans, the Republican forces were organised in three armies. The Army of the Coasts of Brest, led by Lazare Hoche, based alternately in Rennes or Vannes, controlled the Finistère, the Morbihan, the Côtes-d'Armor, the Ille-et-Vilaine and the Mayenne. The Army of the West, led by Jean Baptiste Camille de Canclaux, based in Nantes, controlled the Loire-Atlantique, le Maine-et-Loire, the Vendée and the Deux-Sèvres. The Army of the Coasts of Cherbourg, led by Jean-Baptiste Annibal Aubert du Bayet, based in Saint-Malo, controlled the Manche, the Orne, the Calvados, the Sarthe and part of the Ille-et-Vilaine.

In December 1795, the Directoire named Hoche chief general of all the Republican forces based in the West and gave him full authority. The armies of the West, of the Coasts of Brest and of the Coasts of Cherbourg were merged to form the Armée des côtes de l'Océan (Army of the Coasts of the Ocean).

Despite the Quiberon disaster, the Chouans gained some victories in the coming months. However, Hoche changed tactics in the beginning of 1796. He set up mobile columns, promised amnesty to Chouans who surrendered, guaranteed religious freedom and strove to discipline the army. Many Chouans and Vendeans were amenable to these measures and laid down their arms.

Hoche's priority was to pacify the Vendée. Jean-Nicolas Stofflet was captured and shot by firing squad in Angers on 25 February 1796. François de Charette was hunted down, imprisoned, and shot on 29 March 1796. His death marked the end of the War in the Vendée.

Now that the Vendée was pacified, Hoche turned his attention to the Chouans. Faced by large Republican numbers, Chouan chiefs gradually surrendered. Scépeaux was the first to surrender, on 14 May. [9] Georges Cadoudal signed a peace treaty on 19 June, [10] Louis de Frotté refused to sign peace himself; he embarked for England and left his lieutenants to sign on 23 June. Aimé Picquet du Boisguy was the last to surrender, on 26 June. [11] Puisaye returned to England.

Third phase

The uprising lasted until Republican victory in 1800. [1]

Chouan leaders

The principal leaders of the insurrection were Georges Cadoudal, his brother Julian, Jean Cottereau, called Jean Chouan; Pierre Guillemot, known as the king of Bignan; Joseph de Puisaye, Louis-Charles de Sol de Grisolles, Auguste and Sébastien de La Haye de Silz, John-Louis Treton, nicknamed Jambe d'Argent; Tristan-Llhermitte, Michel Jacquet, known as Taillefer; Joseph-Juste Coquereau, Aimé du Boisguy, Boishardy, Pierre-Mathurin Mercier and Bonfils de Saint Loup.

In Brittany, the Chouans were supported by many nobles: Charles Armand Tuffin, marquis de la Rouërie, the Chevalier de Boishardy, Count Louis of Rosmorduc, the Picquet brothers of Boisguy, as well as by commoners (the brothers Cadoudal). In Lower Normandy, Count Louis de Frotte had a dominant role. One of the lieutenants in lower Maine was Guillaume Le Métayer, who was nicknamed Rochambeau.

In the Vendee, the nobility were not able to play their normal military role. There was never any properly organised army; it consisted mostly of small elusive bands. The Chouan leaders were, above all, peasant farmers.

In contrast to the earlier War in the Vendee of 1793, the Chouannerie did not possess any territory, the cities and many towns having remained Republican, but some districts did rise in open revolt. There was also the Petite Vendée in lower Maine, controlled by the Prince of Talmont. The Chouannerie was very difficult to suppress as its fighting forces had not been beaten in the battles of the Vendee war, it had many leaders and its army units were small and dispersed.


Chouan Ambush, painting by Evariste Carpentier, 19th century. Embuscade de Chouans a la bataille de La Gravelle (1793).jpg
Chouan Ambush, painting by Évariste Carpentier, 19th century.

This rebellion is featured in the novel Les Chouans by Honoré de Balzac and The Man in Grey (short story collection) , a collection of short stories about the Chouans by Baroness Orczy, as well as being the central action of the novel The Marquis of Carabas by Rafael Sabatini. It is also depicted in paintings and popular imagery.



Works of fiction

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  1. 1 2 3 Albert Soboul (dir.), Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française, Quadrige/PUF, 1989, p. 217, "Chouans/Chouannerie" entry by Roger Dupu.]
  2. 1 2 Albert Soboul (dir.), Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française, Quadrige/PUF, 1989, p. 218, entrée « Chouans/Chouannerie » par Roger Dupuy.
  3. There are at their head, wrote the procureur syndic of Ernée, on 28 April 1793, "two men whose surname is Cottereau, called Chouan. We have promised a reward to whoever arrests them, but people must take precautions for these two individuals are very brave and very determined. If on your part you could seize them, this would render a true service to the public cause."
  4. Christian Le Boutellier, La Révolution dans le Pays de Fougères, Société archéologique et historique de l'arrondissement de Fougères, 1989, p.313
  5. 1 2 Roger Dupuy, les Chouans, p.36.
  6. D'après Christian Le Bouteiller, Emile Pautrel, Notions d'Histoire et d'archéologie pour la région de Fougères, p.191
  7. Albert Soboul (dir.), Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française, Quadrige/PUF, 1989, p. 219, entrée « Chouans/Chouannerie » par Roger Dupuy.
  8. Voir Quelques dates de l’histoire en France, en Bretagne, en Finistère et à Roscoff et l'introduction de Reynald Secher à la bande-dessinée Chouannerie, 1789-1815, Fleurus, 1989. Cadoudal, évadé de Brest, rejette cette paix.
  9. Gabriel du Pontavice, les Armées catholiques et royale au nord de la Loire. Petite histoire de la Chouannerie, p.41.
  10. Gabriel du Pontavice, les Armées catholiques et royale au nord de la Loire. Petite histoire de la Chouannerie, p.132.
  11. Gabriel du Pontavice, les Armées catholiques et royale au nord de la Loire. Petite histoire des Chouans, p.113.
  12. A journalist, Émile Souvestre researched the survivors and, without taking sides too much, entered two theses which always remain diametrically opposed. He gives us a better understanding of the birth of the Chouannerie movement.
  13. Analyses the evolution of the Chouannerie during seven years of civil war in the western French departments. Its different facets (pré-chouannerie, guérilla chouannerie, military chouannerie...) are treated in detail. Besides the historical aspects, the author describes the "chouans au quotidien", or everyday chouans).
  14. A general history of the revolt, integrating the Chouanneries in Mayenne, Normandy and Brittany and associating them with the War in the Vendee. It brings to life key characters at certain moments in their lives. At the end, there are two indexes (sixteen pages of first names, and nine pages of placenames) together with some illustrations, including an artist's impression of Jean Chouan.
  15. The names and distinctions of around 4,000 Mayenne Chouans, officers, NCOs and men, as well as almoners serving in the Mayenne departement between 1792 and 1832. Biographical notes on the Chouans' military careers, a non-exhaustive list of around 3000 Chouans. It also contributes to rectifying two historical errors - the revolt recruited in the towns as much as in the countryside, and the army quickly organised itself first into companies, then legions, then divisions, in an increasingly highly-structured manner.

Further reading