As Voltaire lay dying, within days of his death he received two letters. One was from Abbé Gaultier urging him to confess and become reconciled to the Church. Following upon this letter two priests, threatening to refuse him Christian burial, attended his bedside, and when one of them asked the question: ‘Monsieur, do you recognise the divinity of Jesus Christ?’ Voltaire reached out and shoved him away saying: ‘Let me die in peace,’ and turned his back on the priests.
Thomas Arthur, Comte de Lally, Baron de Tollendal was a French general of Irish background. He was born in France, the son of Sir Gerald Lally, an Irish Jacobite from Tuam, Co Galway who married a woman of the French nobility from whom Thomas Lally inherited his titles. He entered the French army and served in the war of 1734 against Austria. In 1745 he commanded his own regiment in the famous Irish Brigade at Fontenoy, and was made a brigadier on the field by Louis XV. In the same year he accompanied Charles Edward Stuart, (Bonny Prince Charlie) to Scotland serving as his aide de camp at the battle of Falkirk. After the failure of the Jacobite rising in Scotland Lally escaped to France.
When war broke out with England in 1756 Lally was sent to India in command of an expedition to defend French interests against the British. He was a courageous man and an able general, but his arrogance meant that he was not popular with his officers and was hated by his men. He despised native Indians and readily violated their customs and traditions. Initially he had some minor military successes, but his manner and demeanour were against him. He was defeated by, and finally surrendered to a British force commanded by Sir Eyre Coote, an Irishman born in Kilmallock, Co. Limerick.
He was taken prisoner of war and transported to England. While there he learned that he was accused of treason in France for his military record in India and somehow secured his freedom to return to France to face trial. He was kept in prison for two years before he was brought to trial. Such delays were not uncommon in those days. Voltaire wrote at the time: ‘In France we always like to start by putting a man in prison for three or four years, and then we try him.’ Furthermore during his trial there were many unaccountable delays. Voltaire had met Lally when his friends the Argenson brothers (as Foreign Minister and Minister of War) were about to send Lally off to help Charles Edward Stuart in Scotland, and referred to him as ‘une diable de tête irlandaise,’ a mad Irishman.
Lally was found guilty of abusing his position and of betraying French interests in India, which amounted to treason. He immediately applied for royal pardon. He was informed three days later that pardon was refused and that he would be beheaded that day. He tried to take his own life using a geometric compass, but failed. He was taken to Place de Grève and on a hastily erected block the ‘diable de tête irlandaise,’ was beheaded at the second attempt.
One writer says: ‘Lally’s colourful, rather high-handed character had created many enemies, several of whom had testified against him. But being hateful was not a capital offence.’ Voltaire had made the same point when writing about the period of Louis XV. There the matter rested until, four years later, Lally’s son, Trophime, wrote to Voltaire to tell him that he intended to set in train procedures to have the guilty verdict reversed. He was unable to petition the King, but if he succeeded in clearing his father’s name he would secure the right to use his titles.
Three years later Lally’s son again wrote to Voltaire expressly asking him for help. Some years previously Voltaire had famously and successfully led a campaign to have the name of an executed Toulouse merchant, cleared. Although Voltaire was in poor health he began a pamphlet campaign and petitioned the authorities. The campaign was successful in that it replaced in the public mind the image of Lally as traitor with that of an innocent victim of injustice.
In ‘Candide’ Voltaire’s allegory of life and living, there is the account of the execution of a British naval officer on the charge of not killing enough of the enemy, based on the case of an Admiral Byng who was shot on such a charge. It is likely that the issue of execution for military failure had a particular abhorrence for Voltaire.
The second letter Voltaire received on his deathbed was from Lally’s son to say that the Royal Council had thrown out the sentence handed down by the Paris parlament on his father. Though barely alive he dictated to his secretary a short letter to Trophime Lally. ‘ The dying man revives on hearing this great news: he embraces M. Lally most tenderly; he sees that the King is a defender of justice: he will die happy.’ Voltaire died four days later.