For those without means, life in 18th century Brittany was challenging. It was a time when only the strongest survived the daily struggle to eke out a living against a backdrop of poor harvests, famine and disease. The third of five children born to day-labourers, Marie-Louise Tromel was born on 6 May 1717 near the town of Le Faouët in central Brittany. Little is known about her early years but the young girl was reported to have accompanied her mother to the local fairs and church pardons to peddle small items of haberdashery.
By the time she was 18, she had garnered a reputation as a thief and it was said that it was not unknown for her to ransom children of her own age. She formed a close attachment with Henri Pezron, a servant from the nearby town of Guémené-sur-Scorff, and became a mother late in 1735. A small band of beggars and gamblers gravitated around the couple and complaints about the behaviour of this group soon became a regular feature of life in this remote part of Brittany.
Two other children followed before 1743 when the couple and some of their associates were arrested in Glomel and taken to the cells in nearby Carhaix where the authorities opened a formal investigation against them. A tailor had been attacked on the road to Priziac by a gang armed with pistols and clubs; the victim had recognized Henri Pezron and Corentin Tromel, Marie’s elder brother, as being part of the gang. Marie, then described by the Seneschal of Guéméné as “a red-haired harlot”, was separately accused of swindling a man with counterfeit money at the Croisty market and although the case against her was not pursued, the men were convicted and jailed.
By this time, Marie seems to have acquired the nicknames Marion du Faouët or Marie Finefont (most cunning in Breton). Her group of brigands, which included her two elder brothers, was then thought to number several dozen men and women, many of whom carried nicknames such as the Fox, the Raven and the Gargoyle. Shrewd and careful, Marie’s group primarily targeted travellers passing along the local roads and farmers and merchants returning from local markets or pilgrims returning home from Pardons. Her company did not attack the mail coaches nor those carrying the local gentry or bourgeois; it is thought this was a victim profile born of pragmatism; she feared to attack those targets important enough to ensure a strong reaction against her.
In 1745, Henri Pezron escaped from prison and re-joined Marie at Le Faouët. The band resumed its activities around Quimper, Ploemeur and Carhaix, and numbers were said to have grown to as many as fifty members. Following a robbery near Ploërdut, Marie and Henri were arrested in the summer of 1746, along with two other gang members. She appeared before the judges of Hennebont who sentenced her to be flogged and branded; her companions to be hanged. However, they successfully petitioned for an appeal and were transferred to Rennes where a second trial began.
Assuming responsibility for the activities of the company, Henri’s testimony exonerated Marie but condemned him; the death sentence was confirmed and he was hanged in the Place des Lices on 28 March 1747. Marie and her two companions escaped the noose but she soon met her justice in the public square in Rennes; stripped naked to the waist and whipped, the letter V (for thief) branded on her shoulder with a hot iron. Despite being officially banished from Brittany, she immediately returned west to Le Faouët and reformed her troop to resume her criminal activities.
In September 1747, a man from Le Faouët was killed by one of the gang and this seems to have fundamentally altered the semblance of tolerance that had existed between the local populace and Marie’s bandits. Denounced in the pulpit, one day in May 1748, a member of the gang entered the chapel of the Ursulines in Le Faouët and insulted the priests and nuns. This sacrilege further provoked the wrath of the authorities who redoubled their efforts to chase-down the gang.
Their efforts were eventually rewarded in the south coast town of Auray where, in June 1748, Marie was arrested just a week after giving birth to her son by Maurice Penhouet, another member of her gang. The records of this arrest give us our only contemporary description of Marie, described as having: “a height of almost five feet, grey eyes, chestnut hair, a scar on the top of the forehead, face marked with freckles, wearing a headdress of white canvas in the fashion of the city”.
The judges of Vannes seem to have been rather lenient or else did not have enough firm evidence for a conviction; Marie was condemned a second time by the court and, once again, banished in perpetuity. However, once again, she returned to Faouët and reorganized her group. Her tactics remained the same as before; attacking merchants and visitors returning from the markets and stealing from churches.
Marie also appears to have implemented a structured racketeering system. She raised levies on the farms of the locality but seemingly not on those immediately surrounding her base of operations. The threat of arson was an effective form of blackmail employed by her group and people paid to avoid trouble and gain her protection. Marie even provided passes of safe-conduct that allowed victims to travel for a year without fear of being robbed again by members of her gang. The testimonies provided at her trial present her as a prudent woman who knew how to use terror and intimidation as well as kindness to obtain what she wanted; moderating the violence of her gang when needed and sometimes even showing leniency.
Some people have suggested that Marie’s uncanny ability to avoid the forces of law and order was due to the influence of a powerful protector, a wealthy lord from an illustrious Breton family; René de Robien who owned an estate in Melionnec, about half way between Gouarec and Le Faouët and a man known to have interacted with Marie and members of her gang. However, his arrest at the end of November 1751, removed any protection that he might once have afforded.
The arrest of de Robien encouraged Marie to maintain a low personal profile but her gang remained as vigorous as ever; her brother, Corentin, being notably active, attacking and robbing those travelling on the roads around Guiscriff, even killing one of his victims in January 1752. Local legends tell that a cave in Huelgoat forest was one of Marie’s many hideaways, while the cave in the wood of Kerbeskont near Rostrenen is said to have served the same purpose for Corentin.
Marie was captured, along with her latest companion, Olivier Guilherm, in Poullaouen on 2 July 1752 and once more she found herself confined to the cells in Carhaix. Olivier escaped from jail just five days later and, fearing a rescue attempt, Marie was quickly transferred to Quimper. Held in the town’s jail while the authorities gathered evidence against her, she received many visitors from Le Faouët, including Olivier, and gave instructions as to the treatment to be meted out to potential witnesses against her.
At the end of August 1752, the parish priests of central Brittany read monitoires at high mass on three consecutive Sundays; these were edicts demanding the faithful come forward and reveal all that they knew of the fugitives, on penalty of eternal damnation. With state and church now railed against her, Marie escaped from jail on 9 September 1752. Legend attests that she made good her escape by sawing through the bars of a window but it is more likely that she bribed the gaoler.
Despite her flight, the court in Quimper continued their investigations and the réaggraves issued in February and March 1753 encouraged over a dozen new witness statements implicating Marie in criminal acts. Réaggraves were the ultimate church sanction and those members of the congregation who now refused to come forward with information could expect excommunication and the economic and social handicaps that came with it. New witnesses were called before the court; almost fifty were heard in the months of August and September alone.
At the time, before being able to pronounce a suspect guilty, the investigating judge had to assemble strictly defined formal proofs. Without these, they could only abandon the trial; even a confession was not enough for a conviction unless it was freely made and supported by evidence. Alternatively, it was necessary to have the corroborated testimony of at least two adult, first-hand witnesses of good standing. With such high burdens of proof, a significant proportion of cases were necessarily dropped and torture justified in order to obtain a confession. However, torture was used only because the judges did not have sufficient proof and thus freedom was the only possible outcome for the suspect who did not confess.
In Brittany, torture was officially used only eleven times between 1750 and 1780 and, as elsewhere in France, was used in support of the procedures known as the preparatory question, to have the crime confessed, and the preliminary question, to have the accomplices denounced immediately prior to execution. Trial by fire was the most popular judicial torture used in Brittany; the suspect was typically strapped onto an iron trolley or sometimes an iron chair and carted, feet first, to a fire over which their feet were repeatedly roasted.
Finally, on 6 October 1753, the judges delivered their verdict, condemning Olivier, Marie, her brother and nephew Corentin and Joseph Tromel, as well as Vincent Mahé to be hanged until dead. Corentin Tromel had been captured on 29 May 1753 but escaped from Quimper jail on 17 June 1753 and so, with no physical bodies to hang, the four were instead publicly executed in effigy later that day.
Once again, Marie found herself on the run and she returned, for a time, to her old haunts near Le Faouët but the execution of two members of her gang at the end of October 1752 encouraged her to go into hiding. Unfortunately, her absence did not restore peace to the countryside and members of her gang continued to harass and rob travellers on the roads around the villages of Saint-Caradec and Kernascléden. The gang were even said to have been responsible for robbing a church near Lesneven, netting a significant haul of money and silver plate.
Marie successfully evaded attention for two long years but finally, on 21 September 1754, in Nantes, she was arrested for vagrancy and, by chance, recognised by a former victim from Gourin. The following May, she was transferred to the court at Quimper to face the twenty charges brought against her, including the sole act of violence directly levied against her; beating a man with a club in 1751. The formalities of the trial confirmed the death sentence but she first faced torture in order to extract information about her accomplices. Despite her feet being roasted, Marie revealed little information that was not already known to the investigators and on 2 August 1755 she was taken to the Place Saint-Corentin, where she was hanged in front of the assembled crowd of spectators.
However, the execution of Marie did not put an end to the activities of her gang; many of whom avoided arrest and continued their abuses in the Breton countryside. Records show that one of her gang, Guillaume Hémery, was arrested and subsequently tried in Châteauneuf-du-Faou, being condemned on 24 July 1763 to “reveal his accomplices and to make amends in front of the church; a burning candle in his hand and a sign on his chest, to then be broken alive, finally to expire on the cross of Saint Andrew, the face turned towards the sky”.
Hémery’s last day was recorded for posterity and makes for grim reading: “Six times, his feet, his legs are exposed to the torturing fire, six times he cries under the stinging bite of the flames as part of the preparatory question and three more times as part of the preliminary question”. The ordeal of fire over, he was led “barefoot, in a shirt, to the Place-aux-Bestiaux and tied to a cross of Saint Andrew with his arms, legs apart, chest against the cross … the executioner raising his iron bar, begins to strike the arms, the thighs, the kidneys …”. His face turned towards the sky, he lay upon the wheel, dying in agony early the following morning.
Thanks to his revelations, several confederates were eventually tracked-down and arrested during the following year, including Pierre and Corentin Bellec, Corentin Tromel and two of his sons, Joseph and Guillaume Tromel. Imprisoned in the dilapidated cells at Châteauneuf-du-Faou, several men escaped in November 1765 but Joseph Tromel was recaptured and returned to jail. Eventually tried in Rennes, Pierre Bellec, Corentin and Joseph Tromel were condemned to be broken on the wheel and executed in the city’s Place des Lices on 31 October 1766. Being only 14 years old, Guillaume Tromel was sentenced to watch the torture of his father and brother and to be flogged on market day.
The character of Marie has undergone a remarkable transformation in the two and a half centuries since her death. Her memory clearly lingered in the public consciousness, as evidenced by her appearances in the oral traditions of central Brittany noted in the middle of the 19th century. Writing of his travels in Brittany in 1839, the French novelist Fortuné du Boisgobey noted that locals in Finistère spoke of: “a band of extremely formidable brigands active about 50 years ago in the central part of Finistère; led by a woman, a sort of Bohemian queen called Marion du Faouët, named after the small town where she was born”. He added: “a thousand probably exaggerated stories have been embroidered on the horrors committed by this gang, on the kind of absolute and supernatural power exercised by Marion”.
In the popular tradition, Marie was endowed with great intelligence and great beauty; two characteristics which explained her power to manipulate men to do her bidding. One old tale tells that Marie terrorised Brittany at the head of an army of four thousand men, made up of vagrants, vagabonds, malcontents and military deserters, all armed and ready to shed blood. However, other stories said that Marie’s gang also included young men of honest families who aspired to the favours of a debauched Marie: vagrants or youths from good families, her seductions crossed all social barriers.
In old traditions, Marie is painted as a powerful figure who knew, equally, how to deal with lawless vagabonds and the officers of the law, exerting an almost supernatural fascination over all. How else to explain her ability to terrorise the countryside with impunity for so long but through witchcraft? One legend tells that Marie possessed an enchanted auger with which she pierced a tree that poured out a marvellous potion that put the constabulary’s archers to sleep. Similarly, her escape from Quimper jail was attributed to her wonderful hair which sawed through the thickest iron bars.
The legends also attributed great riches to Marie, her ghost was said to haunt a field outside Le Faouët where she rolled a barrel that clanged with the tune of thousands of gold coins striking against each other in sad testimony to her innumerable victims. Another tale, recorded by the Breton author Anatole le Braz towards the end of the 19th century, noted a popular tradition around the Black Mountains that spoke of: “The famous female bandit, Marion du Faouët, who wreaked havoc there in the 18th century; her name is still only spoken with terror. In the cry of the silversmiths, the mountain dwellers believe they recognise her whistle, so sharp that it pierced the soul of the traveller, so violent that it made the leaves fall from the trees. Her shadow continues to prowl in these areas, on stormy nights; the silent gallop of a dark horse whose hooves, striking the ground, leave a trace of blood.”
The passage from bandit to witch to phantom saw the memory of Marie invoked as a bogeyman with which parents would threaten their children. The author of the first study of Marie, Julien Trévédy, recounted a scene he witnessed around 1850 in Corlay: “A grandmother was dragging her grandson to school: the boy resisted and the old woman, as a last argument, threatened to go and fetch Marion. This word was magic and the child obeyed. I asked who was this Marion and the grandmother replied: “It is Marion du Faouët. I would be very sorry if she came. She was a highway robber who killed a lot of people and took the children away. They say she was hanged in Quimper and she deserved it. It was at least a hundred years ago”. Even as late as the 1930s, the Breton author Paul-Yves Sébillot noted that the children of the Black Mountains were frightened into behaving with threats that Finefont would take them if they did not.
Over half a dozen old ballads, some rather fragmentary, featuring Marie have survived to this day. The oldest of which, collected in the middle of the 19th century, evokes the ravages of her bandits and even attributes to her the looting of a castle near Guingamp. Despite, or perhaps because of, the once widespread prejudice against red-haired people in Brittany, much is made of Marie’s hair; a magnificent fleece of fiery, proud red. Some of the songs also mention quite specific details that are not recorded elsewhere: Marie controlled her troop by means of a whistle; she gave a knife to each of her associates as a symbol of allegiance to her; and she was always accompanied by two dogs, one black and the other white.
In 1884, Julien Trévédy, a former president of the court of Quimper, published the first historical study of Marie, claiming to recover the historical Marie from the legends still then circulating around Le Faouët, Guéméné-sur-Scorff and Gourin. However, when he republished his account five years later, small edits had been made that significantly altered the tale. The violence and debauchery noted in the trial records and in popular tradition were downplayed. Marie was now said to have robbed the rich not to enrich herself but to aid the poor; she had effectively become a Breton Robin Hood. Thus, a new character was formed; a heroine quite distant from that which tradition had long preserved.
The sympathetic portrayal of Marie was cemented by a song written by the Breton author and poet Pierre-Jakez Hélias in 1954. Here, Marie is poetically portrayed as the most beautiful girl ever seen and one who made more than one man lose his honour. Her robberies are diminished as only a means for her to enjoy life’s simple pleasures such as changing her headdress every day. A misunderstood country girl, she climbs the scaffold to meet her end, full of repentance. In this romanticised vision, the figure of Marie has become completely separated from historical reality and the ground is set for the numerous works of historical romantic fiction that followed in the latter part of the 20th century.
These more recent works developed the popular myth of Marie that we have today and unsurprisingly reflect modern attitudes: she loves deeply; fights for equality and social justice; champions the marginalised; she is a strong, independent woman and feminist icon. It is worth noting that this was also a time when the image of Brittany and notions of Breton identity were being rethought and renewed. Marie, now cast as a Breton free-spirit, fighting the oppression of the French crown, was given a political dimension; a new heroine to embody a new image of Brittany.
Thus, the ambiguous relationship between historical reality and legend continues to evolve. It may adjust itself again and future generations might well question why public roads and civic buildings were once named in honour of a career criminal who menaced those innocents too weak to fight back.