In the autumn of 1775, Henry Thrale, owner of one of the biggest porter breweries in London, took his family on a trip across the English Channel to Paris. With them went Dr Samuel Johnson, the dictionary-writer and author, and one of the great literary figures of 18th-century England, who had been good friends with Thrale and his wife Hester for 10 years. In Paris the Thrales and Johnson toured the sights, visited palaces, churches and gardens, and educated themselves with a trip to a manufacturer of mirrors. Henry Thrale also called in on Paris’s biggest brewer, a man called Antoine-Joseph Santerre, taking Johnson with him.
Johnson’s notes of the visit say that Santerre’s Hortensia brewery, in the Rue de Reuilly, part of the Faubourg St Antoine, although the largest of 17 brewing establishments in the city, brewed just 4,000 barrels a year. This was barely a 20th of the annual output at the time of Thrale’s own Anchor brewery in Southwark. Johnson also recorded that Santerre made his own malt, and used about as much malt per barrel as Thrale did; and he sold his beer for the same price as Thrale, though he paid no malt tax, and only half as much beer tax.
Johnson – an oak-hard Tory, who had recently produced a pamphlet attacking the American colonists for their rebelliousness against the British crown – would have been horrified to learn that he was shaking hands with a man who, 14 years later, would aid the mobs of the Faubourg St Antoine in their successful assault of July 14 on the Bastille, and who, four and a half years after that, would escort the King of France, Louis XVI, from his prison to the guillotine.
Johnson was five years dead when the French Revolution broke out, but Hester Thrale remembered Santerre, and suggested after the Parisian brewer became notorious that he had become a revolutionary because of an incident that happened around the time the Thrales were in Paris. A fine horse belonging to Santerre got in the way of a royal procession and an officer in the army drew out his pistol and shot the animal dead, an act that, according to Hester, filled Santerre with anger.
Antoine-Joseph Santerre was the third of six children born to Augustin Santerre, a brewer from the small town of Saint Michel in Thiérache, just seven miles from the modern Belgian border in Northern France. Augustin had moved to Paris in 1747, buying in December that year the Magdeleine brewery in the Rue d’Orléans, in the Faubourg St Marcel, from a widow called Marguerite Poussy. Four months later he married his cousin Marie-Marguerite, whose family were also brewers, from Cambrai, another town in north-east France. Augustin’s business later moved to Rue Censier, on the Left Bank, where Antoine was born in 1752, and where he served his apprenticeship as a brewer. Antoine’s parents both died in 1770, but in 1772, aged only 20, he was able to buy the Hortensia brewery in the Faubourg St Antoine from a Monsieur Acloque for 65,000 francs.
Santerre was fascinated by la bière Anglais: his brother François, who also ran breweries in and around Paris, visited London and studied brewing techniques there, bringing some back to France, where Antoine adopted them. According to his biographer, Antoine Carro, writing in 1847, Antoine Santerre was the first brewer in France to use a thermometer to measure accurately the temperature of his mashtun liquor, rather than the “uncertain gropings” of before, when brewers would judge the temperature by how long they could hold their hand in the water. He was the first to dry his malt English-style, with coke rather than wood, coke being so little known in Frances, Carro said, that it did not even have a name in French: Santerre called it “l’escarbille“, “cinders”, the name under which coke was apparently “long known” subsequently by French brewers. Santerre was also the first French brewer to install a steam engine in his brewery, which replaced four horses, Carro said. In addition he and his brother analysed English ale and porter so successfully that they were able to “perfectly imitate them”, and become, for a long time, the only brewers in France to make the two English styles, in a brewery run by François in Sevres, some six miles from the heart of Paris.
Santerre, five feet four inches tall, with brown eyes – “the left significantly smaller than the right”, according to Carro – and chestnut hair, “always well powdered and arranged with care”, was hugely popular with the poor people of the Faubourg St Antoine, one of Paris’s more industrialised districts. In part, it was said, this was because of his bluff personality and what was described as “a sonorous, easy eloquence”, and in part because he gave out large sums of money in the district, as well as handing out provisions: during one famine he distributed bread to the poor worth three hundred thousand francs, and in the winter of 1792, it was said, he bought up all the rice he could find and “flocks of sheep” and turned the brewery coppers into stewpots, with his workmen preparing enormous stews for the poor. He was famous as a horseman, and reckoned, according to later accounts, to be the second-best rider in the kingdom, after Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orleans. All the horses in the brewery stables were “magnifique”, according to Carro, including one giant called “Sans pareil”, and Santerre had a reputation for being able to take animals rejected elsewhere for being too rebellious and taming them for work between the shafts.
In May 1789, as Louis XVI struggled to control a financial crisis caused by the costs of supporting the American Revolution and the failure to properly tax the French nobility, the king had convened a meeting of France’s ancient parliament, the Estates-general. It quickly became clear that the “Third Estate”, the representatives of the people, wanted a great deal of power to be surrendered by the king before they would agree to any solution to the problem of funding the state. In the middle of July the tensions between the king, completely unwilling to see his privileges and power eroded, and the Third Estate, who had formed themselves into a National Assembly, exploded into violence. The Parisian mob, fearful that troops would be used against the National Assembly, stormed the royal fortress of the Bastille, on the edge of the Faubourg St Antoine, to get hold of the gunpowder that was stored there. Santerre led the attackers (although his later detractors disputed this), was supposedly wounded in the assault, and cemented himself in the hearts of the local people as a hero of the revolution. When, very soon after, an armed people’s militia, was formed, the National Guard, Santerre was given command of the Faubourg St Antoine battalion.
Over the next three years Santerre’s brewery became a meeting place for the most revolutionary group in French politics, the Jacobins, who were led by men such as Robespierre and Danton. As France struggled to turn itself from absolutism into something closer to a constitutional monarchy, Santerre was involved in a couple of unsuccessful insurrections evidently bent on eliminating royal power completely. Then, on August 10 1792, he led an armed mob many thousands strong from the Faubourg St Antoine into the Tuileries, the royal palace. (Strangely, one of Louis’s staunchest defenders on the day of the Tuileries invasion was another brewer-National Guard commander, called Acloque – the son of the man from whom Santerre bought the Hortensia brewery, whose own brewhouse was in the Faubourg St Marceau.) The invasion of the Tuileries culminated in the flight of Louis XVI into the arms of the National Assembly; the massacre of the Swiss Guards; Santerre’s elevation to commander in chief of the whole of the Paris National Guard with the rank of general; and, six weeks later Louis XVI’s overthrow and arrest.
As commander of the National Guard, Santerre was in charge of the ex-king during his imprisonment and trial, and it was Santerre who came to take Louis to the guillotine on January 21 1793, allegedly telling him: “Monsieur, it’s time to go.” What happened when the ex-king mounted the steps to the guillotine in the Place de la Revolution has been argued over for two centuries: Louis turned to the huge crowd, declared his innocence and forgave his enemies. Before he could say any more, the military drummers around the scaffold started up, drowning out any further words, and Louis was forced to lay his head upon the block, the blade of the guillotine descending upon his neck. Most records say it was Santerre the brewer who ordered the drummers to begin playing, with at least one account claiming that Santerre had shouted out as the king tried to speak that that he had not brought Louis “there to declaim, but to die.” For that he was declared by the English politician Edmund Burke to be a “nefarious villain”, while others called him “inhuman”, “a monster of cruelty”, “infamous” and “execrable”.
There are at least three other candidates for the man who told the drummers to start up and block the sound of Louis’s last speech, however. Santerre’s family later claimed that the brewer actually silenced the drums, to enable Louis to speak to the people, and that General Jean Francois Berruyer, the army commander in Paris, who was in sole command at the execution, ordered the drums to begin beating again. Berruyer allegedly said later that as Louis began speaking, “Santerre did not interfere, and if I had not ordered an immediate drum roll to smother the voice of the tyrant, I do not know what would have happened!” Some have claimed it was Santerre’s aide-de-camp, a comic actor called Dugazon, who gave the order. Another tradition says that the man who exclaimed: “Strike the drums!” was Berruyer’s chief of staff, Louis Charles Antoine de Beaufranchet, Comte d’Oyat – whose mother was Marie-Louise O’Murphy, former 15-year-old mistress to Louis XV, and whose father, it was alleged, was Louis XV himself, which would mean the Comte was Louis XVI’s illegitimate great-uncle.
All the same, years later, in 1802, Santerre told an English visitor to Paris called (somewhat ironically) Mr King, who had arranged an interview ostensibly to see a “brewing machine” the Frenchman had invented, that he had indeed ordered the drums to roll: “He said it was expected there would be a cry of mercy, and he had received peremptory orders to fire on those who called for mercy; he saw several well-known aristocrats surrounding the scaffold and preparing to cry out; an immense body of Marseillois watched them, and meant to answer it with a contrary exclamation. If this contest had ensued, thousands would have perished in; it he perceived what was passing and, from the most humane motives, and not to drown the King’s voice and distress him in his last few moments, he ordered the drums to beat; and, though the duty of seeing the King’s sentence executed devolved on him, it was impossible he could rejoice at an event that, however necessary, was distressing and lamentable; he deplored it as much as any man in France.”
All the while Santerre was in charge of the National Guard in Paris, his brewery business was still running: in April 1793 he obtained a tax rebate of 40,603 francs in beer duty on the grounds that that the beer made by his brewery in the years 1789 to 1791 had been supplied free to National Guards and the “patriotic populace”. Shortly before, Santerre had brought ridicule upon himself by having placards put up around Paris urging people to get rid of their pets, saying that the city’s cats and dogs ate enough food to feed 1,500 men. One joker urged him to get rid of all the sparrows from Paris as well.
Meanwhile the Vendée, in the far west of France, had exploded into revolt, and Santerre was appointed a Brigadier-General and placed in charge of an army of 14,000 men sent from Paris to put the counter-revolutionaries down. Unfortunately he was a terrible general: he was beaten in battle at Saumur on June 9 1793 and Coron on September 18 1793 (his enemies claimed Santerre ran away the first time the Vendeans opened fire on the Parisian guards) and two thirds of the revolutionary troops were killed. Santerre was recalled to Paris in disgrace, faced with accusations from his cavalry commander, Joachim Murat (later one of Napoleon’s most loyal supporters, who became the future Emperor’s brother-in-law and, from 1808 to 1815, King of Naples) of drunkenness, ignorance and cowardice, and claims that he was a secret Orleanist – supporter of the Duc d’Orleans, cousin of Louis XVI, now calling himself Phillipe Egalité, but who was suspected of wanting the throne of France for himself. Santerre was sent to prison, where he remained until the fall of Robespierre in July 1794.
His enemies had joked at the time of his military failures that the brewer-general had “n’eut de Mars que la bière“, a pun on “bière de Mars“, French for “March beer”. No longer a general, Santerre tried to return to brewing. His wife, however, had fled Paris leaving the brewery shuttered up, and the business never recovered. In January 1796 it was sold to a Monsieur Cousin. Santerre managed to obtain a post buying horses abroad for the Directory, the post-Terror government of France, and went into property speculation, at first successfully. His influence with the people was still great enough that when Napoleon Bonaparte enacted his coup of 18 Brumaire in 1797, which put Bonaparte over France as “First Consul”, he sent a message to Santerre saying that if the Fauberg St Antoine was not kept quiet “I will have him shot before another hour passes over his head.”
All the same, in 1800 Napoleon restored Santerre’s rank of Brigadier-General to him, albeit only on half-pay pension. Santerre carried on buying and selling property. However, in 1805 he made a stretch too far, buying a chateau in western Normandy for 1.8 million francs. The expenses of the purchase bankrupted him. He was forced to live with his eldest son in an apartment in Paris, hiding from his creditors.
By 1807 Santerre was losing his grip: he was convinced the people of the Vendée were after him with an iron cage in which they wished to roast him alive. Yet he was still able to write a book, L’Art du Brasseur, the art of brewing, dedicated to his sons Augustin, Alexandre and Théodore, and covering every aspect of the brewing process, from malting onwards, including the vital role of supervision of the workforce. “You have to be the inspector of everyone, and without pause, if you want to succeed completely,” Santerre told his sons. The following year he suffered a stroke, and he died in February 1809, aged 55. Not one friend came to his funeral.
After his death, and particularly after the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne of France, Santerre continued to be regarded as the most villainous brewer that ever lived, for his alleged actions at the execution of Louis XVI. He is also, because of his roles in the death of Louis XVI and the uprising in the Vendee, the real-life brewer who appears in the most works of fiction: Victor Hugo, Antony Trollope, Baroness Orczy (creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel), Alexander Dumas and ten or a dozen more authors have included Santerre as a character in novels set at the time of the French Revolution.