Restoration policeman & spymaster Guy Delavau

Guy Delavau

Guy Delavau

Guy Delavau, the police chief who interrogates Pierre Viriot in Napoleon in America, presided over an elaborate and inefficient network to spy on suspected enemies of Bourbon rule during the Second Restoration.

A pious ultra-royalist

Guy-Louis-Jean-Baptiste Delavau was born into the French nobility on July 1, 1787 at Doué-la-Fontaine in the Maine-et-Loire department of western France. (1) He was the son of Alexandre Guy Pierre de Lavau, a counsellor to King Louis XVI, and Charlotte Lejeune de la Talvasserie, who was born in Saint-Domingue. It’s not clear what happened to the family during the French Revolution and Napoleonic period. One can assume they remained staunch royalists and thus did not flourish.

Guy Delavau studied law in Paris, becoming a lawyer in 1810. In 1815, after Napoleon’s final defeat and the return of King Louis XVIII to the throne, Delavau became a judge and counsellor for the royal court. He was noted for his partiality towards the ultra-royalists when he presided over several political cases, including the trial of socialist theorist Henri de Saint-Simon for moral collusion in the 1820 assassination of the king’s nephew, the Duke of Berry (father of Henri, the Duke of Bordeaux).

Following Berry’s assassination, the ultra-royalists gained the upper hand in the French Chamber of Deputies. In December 1821, Delavau was appointed as the Prefect of Police of Paris. Liberals criticized Delavau’s close ties to reactionary clerics. Delavau and his aide, Franchet d’Espèrey, were said to be subject to the orders of the “Congregation,” a secret Jesuit society under the patronage of the king’s arch-conservative brother, the Count of Artois. Victor Hugo writes in Les Misérables:

The Faubourg Saint-Germain [royalist neighbourhood] and the pavilion de Marsan [residence of Artois] wished to have M. Delavau for prefect of police, on account of his piety. (2)

Courtyard of the police prefecture in Paris

Courtyard of the police prefecture in Paris

Delavau embarked on a program to tighten up police operations and improve surveillance of suspected enemies of the crown. As prefect, he controlled permission over who could reside in Paris, as well as domestic passports registering journeys to or from that city. He also had authority over public lodgings and conveyances. Delavau was keen to find proof that conspiracies against Bourbon rule were tied together through a central committee of the leaders of the liberal opposition. A London paper noted in April 1822:

The new Prefect of Police at Paris, M. Delavau, a young Judge, 34 years of age, and who, from religious scruples, has never been at a theatre but once in his life, has made considerable changes in the Police of Paris, and dismissed several of the Chefs de Bureaux; it is said one of them threatens to print a list of the spies de bonne compagnie. The names of some would not a little astonish the world. There are some well-known literary, ladies, decorated Generals – and, it is said, several English on the list. (3)

Delavau ordered the prisons enlarged and improved, and introduced a system of “order and cleanliness.” (4) He also attempted to crack down on prostitution.

The police would think that it had done much for morality and public order if it had succeeded in confining prostitution to licensed houses, upon which its action could be constant and uniform, and which could not escape from its surveillance. …

[A] girl could not remove from one house to another without presenting a certificate of good life and morals from the lady whom she was leaving. (5)

These efforts were largely in vain, according to an 1828 report.

The scandal which it was wished to repress occurs everywhere in the most open manner, and the public streets are continually obstructed by a host of prostitutes who gather together there, not only at the decline of day, but at all hours of the day, and who, encouraged by impunity, do not even take care to veil, by tranquil and decent behaviour, the calling which they follow. (6)

Another unsympathetic biographer noted:

It was under M. De Lavau that we saw the audacity of criminals taken to such a degree that, in the winter of 1826, one couldn’t roam the streets of Paris once the sun went down without risking being murdered or robbed. His management was no better in regard to the safety and cleanliness of the capital, in which almost all the streets long remained flooded and cluttered with filth. (7)

Le Livre Noir

Delavau is best known for his surveillance apparatus, the extent of which came to light with the sensational publication in 1829 of Le Livre Noir: The Black Book of Messieurs Delavau and Franchet or Alphabetic Tabulation of the Political Police under the Deplorable Ministry. Consisting of records stolen by a disgruntled employee, the four-volume book is a collection of surveillance reports from Delavau’s police informants, and his instructions to them. Those spied upon range from the exalted, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, to the lowly (see my post on demi-soldes for examples), many of them innocent of wrongdoing. Delavau’s agents violated privacy, and jumped to conclusions based on appearance rather than fact.

The Westminster Review was scathing in its assessment.

The villainy is…equalled by the folly, and one knows not whether to grieve or rejoice that so many men should have damned themselves for nothing. In spite of all the lies, the hypocrisy, the base breaches of all honourable ties, in spite of the most flagrant provocation to crime, and the employment of the most infamous means of corruption and seduction, the whole ends in smoke; we cannot detect that all this elaborate machinery ever effected one solitary benefit to the persons who set it in motion. … The numerous instances here brought together of the fruitlessness of the most deeply-laid plans of surveillance, as well as the blunders of the most adroit of the agents, who are often led into weeks of careful vigilance or active inquiry by the most insignificant circumstances, may perhaps undeceive them as to its presumed advantages. The fact is, that the amusement with which the perusal of these volumes tempers our indignation, is the ridiculous spectacle of seeing a scoundrel on a wrong scent, to witness his absurd suspicions of an accidental and unmeaning circumstance; his laborious efforts at solving a riddle which has no meaning. (8)

By this time Delavau was no longer Prefect of Police, having been dismissed (along with Franchet) in January 1828, with the return to power of more moderate royalists. He remained an honorary Counsellor of State until August 1830, when Louis-Philippe ascended the throne.

Guy Delavau spent the rest of his life “in absolute retirement.” (9) He had married, in September 1817, Anne Louise Caroline de Salaberry (born in 1797), from another noble family. They had at least three children: Félicité (1819-1907), Adrien (1824-1892), and Charlotte (1826-1856). In 1852, Anne inherited from her uncle the château of Meslay, near Vendôme, and the family settled there. She died on April 11, 1868. Guy Delavau died on March 9, 1874, at the age of 86.

You might also enjoy:

The tragedy of Colonel Pierre Viriot

Barthlélemy Bacheville: Napoleonic soldier, outlaw & perfumer

Demi-soldes, the half-pay Napoleonic war veterans

Assassination Attempts Against Napoleon

  1. Some sources give Delavau’s birth date as January 31 or July 31, 1787.
  2. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Vol. 1: Fantine, translated from the French by Isabel F. Hapgood (New York, 1887), p. 114.
  3. The General Weekly Register of News, Literature, Law, Politics and Commerce, No. II, April 14, 1822, p. 42.
  4. A. and W. Galignani, Galignani’s New Paris Guide (Paris, 1830), p. 407.
  5. Yves Guyot, Prostitution under the Regulation System: French and English, translated by Edgar Beckit Truman (London, 1884), pp. 35, 135.
  6. Ibid., p. 35.
  7. Rabbe, Vielh de Boisjolin, Sainte-Preuve, Biographie Universelle et Portative des Contemporains, Vol. V (Paris, 1836), p. 398.
  8. The Westminster Review, Vol. X, April 1829, p. 508.
  9. G. Vapereau, Dictionnaire Universel des Contemporains (Paris, 1880), p. 538.

4 commments on “Restoration policeman & spymaster Guy Delavau”

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    Well, what a horrible and narrow-minded period of history! No wonder that there was a Napoleonic revival. For good reason.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      You’re right, Irene. The ultra-royalist policing under Delavau did no favours for the Bourbon regime’s reputation.

  • Margaret Chrisawn says:

    Excellent article, but then I adore anything that discredits the Bourbons, before 1789 and after 1815.

    Whatever his faults, and they were legion, at least Fouche knew how to be a policeman and achieve results.

    One of the things I noticed was the fact that Delavau failed to improve Paris, which was marred by filthy streets and public spaces. I recall the former Madame Royale and current Duchesse d’Angouleme remarked on the fact that the Tuileries was in impeccable shape when she and other family members returned, and quite a departure from the dirt she was used to seeing there before Napoleon took over. One could assume that in addition to competent policing. the Napoleonic regime was good at general cleanliness.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Margaret. Yes, Napoleon and those who served under him seemed to be better at keeping things shipshape.

Join the discussion

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The new Prefect of Police at Paris, M. Delavau, a young Judge, 34 years of age, and who, from religious scruples, has never been at a theatre but once in his life, has made considerable changes in the Police of Paris.

The General Weekly Register