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Currency of the Siege of Lyon
By Kerry Rodgers, Bank Note Reporter
September 16, 2013

This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter.
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The French Revolution was never a clean cut affair, no matter the impression given by some history books and Wikipedia. Counter-revolutions took place in numerous parts of the country. Many resulted in issues of paper currency. Two scarce items connected with the Siege of Lyon were sold in Archives International April sale. Another is being offered by Spink in its October sale.

The siege took place between Aug. 9 and Oct. 9, 1793. At the time Lyon was the only French city other than Paris to have a population greater than 100,000. It was the country’s leading financial center.

Following the revolutionary upheaval in Paris, the politics of Lyon split around a middle.

Between 1790 and 1793 people’s revolutionary groups vied with the royalist establishment for control of the city. But Lyon was also home to a large, middle-of-the-road group who enjoyed substantial support. They were anti-monarchy and supportive of the revolution, but wanted no part of the extremist developments in Paris. Such a moderate attitude was to see then condemned outright in the eyes of the fanatical, Paris-based Committee of Public Safety.

Standard Catalog of World Paper Money Specialized Issues
Standard Catalog of World Paper Money Specialized Issues

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In mid-1793 a section of the French army was diverted from a campaign in Savoy to bring all Lyonnais to heel and ensure central government authority alone prevailed in the city. They arrived on Aug. 9 and set up camp outside the town, gradually sealing it off from the rest of France.

On Aug. 21 a high-level delegation arrived from Paris led by Georges Couthon, an associate of Robespierre and a member of the Committee of Public Safety. The next day the army began bombardment of the town. This continued throughout the following month. The defense of the city was led by Louis François Perrin, Count of Précy, who had been a colonel in the Garde Constitutionnelle du Roi.

During the siege the municipal authorities produced necessity paper monies for a semblance of normal life to continue in a city under fire. The notes demonstrated their republican sympathies in declaring they were backed by assignats such as the 400 livres (P-A73), the largest denomination currently produced by the new Republique Français.

Four denominations are known: 25 sous (P-S301), 50 sous (P-S302), five livres (P-S303) and 20 livres (P-S304). All were produced in August 1793. All are printed uniface on heavy off-white paper. All have ornamental black borders differing in design complexity and decorated with flowers, fleur-de-lis and/or diamonds. The denomination is shown in the center of upper border of the 50 sous.

All carry the heading SIEGE DE LYON. Both the 25 and 50 sous notes state: Bon pour [VINGT-CINQ or CINQUANTE] Sous [Good for …. sous] along with the exchange clause: A rembourser en Assignats de [25 or 50] liv. a 400 liv. [Redeemable in assignats of 25 or 50 to 400 livres].

The livres notes carry the phrase Subvention Civique [Municipal fund] plus their exchange clause: A échanger par somme de 400 livres contre Assignats [Redeemable in an amount of 400 livres in Assignats].

The five and 20 livres notes were printed on paper that had been manufactured for Caisse Patriotique de Lyon [Patriotic Bank of Lyon]. This paper bore a fleur-de-lis watermark in the lower right corner. When the note was canceled by clipping this corner, the watermark was removed. The Standard Catalog of World Paper Money notes just one unclipped note is known extant and hence should bear this watermark.

In addition each sheet of paper used to print the 20 livres notes carried the watermark Caisse Patriotique de Lyon. When the notes were cut from the sheet each carried either the partial watermark Patriotique, or de Lyon, or Caisse.

The 25 and 50 sous and five livres notes have a single signature with more than one individual signing; the 20 livres notes have two: Choppin and Quittous.

All notes carry an impressed stamp whose device displays at its center a fasces bound about a pole bearing a Phrygian liberty cap. Banners flank either side. Below are conventional heraldic trophies: cannon and cannon balls. All are customary republican symbols.

Readers who feel they have seen a similar seal may want to check out that of the United States Department of the Army or its predecessor, the United States Department of War. Apart from a wreath, the design is also akin to that used by The Republic of Haiti. The one striking difference is the legend on the notes’ stamp: LYON ASSIEGE.

One such seal appears on 25 and 50 sous and five livres issues, but two on the 20 livres. The five and 20 livres notes were hand numbered. The sous notes were not.

Gradually bombardment wore the city down; its strategic forts were laid waste or captured. On Oct. 3, 1793, Couthon called upon the Lyonnais to surrender with a truce observed until Oct. 7.

Discussions were held between city representatives and Couthon’s delegation, despite opposition from Précy. When it looked like the civil authorities were about to surrender October Précy escaped to Switzerland on Oct. 9. The city surrendered shortly afterward.

On Oct. 11 destruction of the city walls commenced. On Oct. 12 a decree proclaimed that the city’s name would be changed to Ville-Affranchie [Liberated City]. All properties belonging to wealthy citizens were to be demolished. A commemorative column was to be erected on the ruins carrying the inscription: Lyon fit la guerre à la liberté: Lyon n’est plus [Lyon made war on liberty: Lyon is no more.] In the event just 50 of 600 houses slated for demolition were destroyed.

However, various government ‘commissions’ administered retributive justice. The first off the block ordered the shooting of 106 rebels who had served under Précy. A second had a further 79 guillotined. These methods proved rather slow and in early December firstly 60 and then a further 208 were killed using canons loaded with grapeshot. All told, 1,684 were executed in one way or another.

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