Dr Gabriel (Gábor) Rónay: When Hungary Reached Out to Save Persecuted French Royalists

A little known Hungarian cleric gave succour to 18th century French refugee families in a hitherto unknown eastern ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ action.

The real-life story of a rescued French family gives substance to Baroness Emmushka Orczy’s fictional adventure yarn set during the reign of French Revolutionary Terror. But this elusive Hungarian rescuer of French aristocrats was not a derring-do Englishman, but a benevolent Hungarian bishop acting on his own.

Dr Rónay chanced on the exploits of Mgr József Fengler, a Bishop of Győr, when his French sister-in-law asked for help to find out what had happened to her ancestors, the Count and Countess de Chabot and their two small children in 1793. What is known for certain is that they managed to escape from their burning ancestral home as the Revolutionary Guard was slaughtering the royalist population of the Vendee. According to family rumour, the de Chabots sought refuge in distant Hungary but the family chronicles for the years 1793-1803 are blank.

But why Hungary? The de Chabots had no known Hungarian connections. Besides, England was the choice of most aristocrats fleeing the Terror. The facts of the “Hungarian Connection” are stranger than fiction.

Dr Gabriel Rónay is an author, historian and journalist, who worked for 25 years on The Times. He has published over two dozen works on historical topics, both medieval and contemporary. His books have been published in Britain, USA, Scandinavia and Japan. He left Hungary after the crushing of the 1956 Revolution, in which he was deeply involved.

19 February 2014, 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre