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Louis XV of France

Louis XV (15 February 1710 – 10 May 1774) ruled as King of France and of Navarre from 1 September 1715 until his death in 1774. Coming to the throne at the age of five, Louis reigned until 15 February 1723, the date of his thirteenth birthday, with the aid of the Régent, Philippe, duc d'Orléans, his great-uncle, thereafter taking formal personal control of government.

Unexpectedly surviving the death of most of the royal family, he enjoyed a favourable reputation at the beginning of his reign and earned the epithet "le Bien-Aimé" ("the Beloved"). However, in time, his lack of morals, general inability to effectively reform France and the Monarchy, and the perceived failings of his foreign policy lost him the affection of his people, and he ended his life amongst the most unpopular kings of France.

While historians have traditionally treated Louis XV harshly, more recent research has suggested that he was in fact very intelligent and dedicated to the task of ruling the largest state in Europe, bar Russia. His nagging indecision, fueled by his awareness of the complexity of problems ahead, as well as his profound timidity, hidden behind the mask of an imperious king, may account for the poor results achieved during his reign. In many ways, Louis XV prefigures the "bourgeois rulers" of the romantic 19th century. While dutifully playing the role of the mighty king carved out by his predecessor and great-grandfather, Louis XIV, Louis XV in fact cherished nothing more than his private life far away from the pomp and ceremony of Court. Having lost his mother while still little more than an infant, he longed for a reassuring and motherly presence, which he tried to find in the intimate company of women, something for which he was much criticized both during and after his life.

Early life

Birth

Louis XV was born at the Château de Versailles on 15 February 1710 during the reign of his great-grandfather Louis XIV. Born the second surviving son of Louis, duc de Bourgogne and his wife, Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy, he received the customary title of younger sons, the "duc d'Anjou". Moreover, as a grandson of the Dauphin, he was also a "Petit-Fils de France".

Louis, le Grand Dauphin, the only surviving legitimate son of Louis XIV, had, with his wife, Marie-Anne-Victoire de Bavière, three sons, the duc de Bourgogne (Louis XV's father), Philippe, Duke of Anjou (who became King of Spain) and Charles, Duke of Berry.

Louis' mother, Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy was the eldest daughter of Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy and Anne-Marie d'Orléans. Through her mother, therefore, Marie-Adélaïde was the granddaughter of Philippe I, duc d'Orléans, the younger brother of Louis XIV, and was the second cousin of her husband, Louis, duc de Bourgogne. Betrothed to him by the Treaty of Turin in 1695, she had married him on 7 December 1697, becoming a rarity at Court for the profundity of their mutual love and providing a spectacle of marital bliss so uncommon not only amongst the aristocracy of the day, but even royalty as well. Marie-Adélaïde was a very lively young woman who reminded Louis XIV of his earlier days and of whom he was consequently very fond. Her youth and vivacity had revitalized and rejuvenated the Court of the aging King, and she had become the centre of attraction in Versailles, notwithstanding the fact her husband would someday, it was assumed, become king.

Early years and tragic loss

This rejuvenation, coupled with the largest royal family in Europe with six male heirs in three generations (one son, three grandsons, and two great-grandsons from his oldest grandson), had seemed to ensure the prospects of the House of Bourbon and the line of succession. Nothing had looked brighter than when, in 1704, at the birth of the first son of the Duc de Bourgogne, Louis XIV exclaimed that he was the first King of France to have, while still healthy himself and capable of ruling on his own, a great-grandson born to him.

However, events dramatically altered the course of the future and the shape of the royal family. In 1700, Philippe, duc d'Anjou, Louis' uncle, became King of Spain as Philip V, inheriting the crown through the claims of his grandmother, Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche, wife of Louis XIV and a Spanish princess. Upon his accession, Louis XIV had perfunctorily confirmed in the Parlement Philip V's rights to the French throne, which as a matter of France's ancien régime constitutional laws of succession could not be altered or removed. As a result of European fears of a Franco-Spanish union, which arose in part from this confirmation, or even of a mere prospect of an overly pro-French Spain, the War of the Spanish Succession had erupted. The war had not been proceeding smoothly for France and the chances of peace on terms allowing Philip V to remain on the Spanish throne seemed slim. These chances would appear even worse as a result of the events of 1711/12.

In April 1711, the Grand Dauphin suddenly died, making the Duc de Bourgogne the new Dauphin. This, in itself, while unfortunate, was not great cause for concern since, between Louis XIV and Philip V, there was still two sons of the Duc de Bourgogne, the older Louis, duc de Bretagne and the younger, the future Louis XV. This situation drastically changed less than a year later when Marie-Adélaïde contracted smallpox (or measles) and died on 12 February 1712 to the dismay of the elderly King. Her husband, who had reputedly remained by her side all through her sickness, was heartbroken by the death of his wife and died before the end of the week of the same disease. Within a week of the his death, it was also clear that the two children of the couple had also been infected. The elder son, the Duc de Bretagne, now the latest in a series of Dauphins, repeatedly was treated by bloodletting in an effort to save him, and died on 8 March 1712. His younger brother, the duc d'Anjou, was saved by their governess, Madame de Ventadour, who vigorously forbade any bloodletting of the child and personally tended to him during his illness. As the last in a series of sorrowful losses, the duc de Berry, youngest son of le Grand Dauphin and, after the death of his elder brother, the likely regent of the latest Dauphin, died, in 1714 after a hunting accident, without issue.

Thus Louis XIV had lost four male descendants in just three years, and the fate of the dynasty, and indeed of peace in Europe, now lay in the survival of a frail four-year-old child barely out of infancy. The death of this child would leave France and Europe with two possible choices: Philip V or Philippe II, duc d'Orléans, the nephew of Louis XIV and the first cousin of the late Grand Dauphin. Philip V had, as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht, renounced all rights to the French succession. However, it was clear to him and many in France, and indeed to Louis XIV earlier on, that, according to the French Law of Succession, any legitimate descendant of Hugh Capet could not be deprieved of his rights to the throne. And in the present case, based on these laws, Philip V's undoubtedly were the superior claims. While this was understood by European politicians as well, raison d'état meant that most of Europe would probably seek to prevent, once again, a possible Franco-Spanish personal union, unleashing yet another major European war, in addition to a French civil conflict.

As a young child and with his life carefully watched, Louis XV was made very aware of the heavy responsibility lying on his shoulders. Moreover, there was none with whom he could share this duty since he was now an orphan, with no surviving siblings, no legitimate uncles or aunts (except Philip V who was in Madrid and whom he never met), and no legitimate first cousins (again, excepting those in Madrid). This family context shaped much of the later personality of the King.

Louis XIV

La Régence

On 1 September 1715, Louis XIV died of gangrene after having reigned for 72 years. In August 1714, he made a will which granted a prominent role in the anticipated regency to his sons by his mistress, Madame de Montespan: Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, duc du Maine and Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon, comte de Toulouse, who had been legitimated at the insistence of Louis's second wife, Françoise d'Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, who had raised the boys. Louis XIV's other bastard sons were not legitimised.

Louis XIV's will

The will sought to enhance the positions of Toulouse, and especially the elder son, Maine, at the expense of the man who was expected, by traditional right, to become regent and rule France until Louis XV reached adulthood, Philippe d'Orléans, son of Louis XIV's younger brother. The will stipulated that until the new king reached the age of majority, the nation was to be run by a Regency Council of 14 members. Philippe d'Orléans was named president of the council, but all decisions were to be taken by majority vote; and the composition of the council, which included Maine, Toulouse and various members of Louis XIV's administration, was such that Orléans would usually be outvoted.

The content of the will had become known before the old king died, and factions had already begun to line up behind Maine, Toulouse and Maintenon on one hand, and Orléans on the other. Orléans enjoyed the support of many amongst the old sword nobility (noblesse d'épée), descending from medieval knights, as opposed to the noblesse de robe, the new aristocracy of recently ennobled lawyers and civil servants. Louis XIV had usually excluded the noblesse d'épée from government in favour of commoners from the bourgeoisie who often entered the noblesse de robe and whom he could control better. Thus the noblesse d'épée yearned for a change of policy more favourable to them, and were greatly displeased with the legitimisation of the "royal bastards" Maine and Toulouse, which they regarded as an affront to the traditional rules of inheritance.

The Parlement of Paris, another political entity which Louis XIV had shut out of power, also hoped for an Orléans regency and a change of course in the government, with increased powers given to the Parlement. Religion too entered the picture. Madame de Maintenon was a supporter of the Jesuits, the Pope, and the Pope's controversial Bull Unigenitus, a 1713 papal bull directed against the Jansenists, a Catholic group popular in France who were deemed to have too many Protestant tendencies. Orléans was naturally supported by the Jansenists and the Gallicans (French Catholics who wanted their church to be more independent from Rome), since they thought he would dislodge the Jesuit-Papist group from power after his own accession to power.

Philippe d'Orléans

It appears that in the final weeks before his death, King Louis XIV arrived at somewhat of a reconciliation with his nephew Philippe d'Orléans. Bidding adieu to the closest courtiers and ministers on 26 August, the king had told them:

Always obey the orders my nephew Philippe d'Orléans will give you; he will govern the kingdom"².

In the following days, Philippe d'Orléans met with and made promises to various aristocrats, clergymen, and members of the Parlement of Paris to secure their support. He promised the aristocrats places on the new government councils he intended to form, which would eventually become known as the polysynody; he assured Jansenists and Gallicans he would be lenient regarding Unigenitus; and he promised the Parlement he would restore its right of remonstrance (the right to criticize and delay royal edicts), which had been taken away from the Parlement by Louis XIV in 1673.

On 2 September, the day after Louis XIV died, there was a special session of the Parlement of Paris. It was attended not only by the magistrates who were usually there, but also by the peers and princes of the blood. The king's will was read, and the future of the government decided. Philippe d'Orléans addressed the assembly. He stated his claim to be made regent, asking that he be given full power. He referred to a recent conversation in which the king had indicated to him that he would govern. He reminded those present of the arrangements he had negotiated with them over the preceding days.

The Parlement responded affirmatively. He was granted the crucial right to choose his own Regency Council. Thus the king's written will was to a large extent nullified, and Philippe d'Orléans became, in fact, regent. He was 41 years old. The Parlement, on the other hand, recovered its right of remonstrance. This court coup was recorded in detail by Saint-Simon, the famous writer of memoirs. Orléans took the symbolic decision to relocate the government to Paris, and the court in Versailles disbanded.

The regent conducted affairs of state from his Parisian palace, the Palais Royal. The young Louis XV was moved to the modern lodgings attached to the medieval fortress of Vincennes, located 7 km/4.5 miles east of Paris in the Forest of Vincennes, where the air was deemed more wholesome and healthy than in Paris. Later during the regency he was moved to the Tuileries Palace, in the center of Paris, near the Palais Royal.

Youth

In keeping with the tradition that all French royal princes, when they reached their seventh birthdays, should be put under the care of men, a tearful Louis was separated from his governess, Madame de Ventadour, in February 1717, and put in the care of the Duc de Villeroi, who had been designated as his governor in Louis XIV's will of August 1714.³ The duc de Villeroi served under the formal authority of the Duc de Maine, made superintendent of the king's education. He was aided by André-Hercule de Fleury (later to become Cardinal Fleury), tutor to the young king.

The duc de Villeroi, an old and vain courtier, loved to show the good manners and talents of his pupil. The young king, during endless public ceremonies, had to learn to hide his feelings and his natural shyness. He acquired the cold attitude and air of majesty that he would display during his entire life in public, as well as a taste for private apartments and intimate circles – in short an almost private bourgeois lifestyle.

Fleury, his tutor, gave him an excellent education, with renowned professors such as the geographer Guillaume Delisle. Louis XV was an extremely curious and open-minded personality. He was an avid reader, and of eclectic tastes. A man of the Enlightenment, fond of science and new technologies, he pushed for the creation of a department of physics (1769) and mechanics (1773) at the Collège de France. The Cardinal Fleury, an ambitious man, and, like the king, secretive, but above all affable, was deeply admired by Louis XV, and had a great influence on the rest of the king's life.

During the Régence, the regent, Philippe d'Orléans, in search of support, and in keeping with his promises, favoured the nobility (aristocrats) who had been deprived of power during the reign of Louis XIV. He established the so-called polysynody (15 September 1715), a short-lived structure of councils that gave the aristocracy a visible appearance of participating in the government. He concluded an alliance with Great Britain and the Netherlands in 1717 (Triple Alliance) in an effort to prevent Philip V of Spain from claiming the crown of France should the young Louis XV die.

Confronted with a total lack of expertise amongst the aristocracy in government affairs, the regent reverted to the monarchical organization of government that existed under Louis XIV and by 1718 reinstated secretaries of state. Cardinal Dubois, close confidant of the regent, was made prime minister in 1722. In an attempt to replenish the French treasury the regency tried a number of original financial experiments, notable amongst which was the famous inflationary scheme of John Law. The bursting of the speculative bubble fueled by Law's system brought about the ruin of many aristocrats.

Betrothal

In 1721, Louis XV was betrothed to his first cousin, Maria Ana Victoria de Borbón, daughter of Philip V of Spain and his second wife Elizabeth Farnese. The eleven-year-old king found no interest in the arrival in Paris of his future wife, the three-year-old Spanish infanta, who only bored him. In June 1722 the young king and the court returned to Versailles, where they would stay until the end of the reign. In October of the same year, Louis XV was officially crowned in Reims Cathedral. On 15 February 1723, as he turned thirteen, the king was declared of majority by the Parlement of Paris, thus ending the Régence. The king left the duc d'Orléans in charge of state affairs. The duc d'Orléans was made first minister on the death of Cardinal Dubois in August 1723, and he himself died in December of the same year. Following the advice of Fleury, Louis XV appointed his cousin the duc de Bourbon, to replace the late duc d'Orléans.

The Ministry of the duc de Bourbon

The king took no part in the decisions of the government under the Duc de Bourbon. The government was secretly under the influence of a group of speculators and wheeler-dealers such as É. Berthelot de Pléneuf and banker J. Pâris-Duverney.

Personal reign

The duc de Bourbon was worried by the health of the young king, not so much out of concern for the king or the future of the dynasty, but out of a desire to prevent the family of the late regent, the House of Orléans, from ascending the throne should the king die. The duc de Bourbon saw the House of Orléans as his enemy. The king was quite frail, and several alerts led to concern for his life. The Spanish infanta was too young to procreate and give an heir. Thus, the duc de Bourbon, who was also hostile to Spain, sent the infanta back to Spain and set about choosing a European princess old enough to produce an heir.

Marriage

Eventually, the choice fell on the twenty-one year old Maria Leszczyńska, daughter of Stanisław Leszczyński, the toppled King of Poland. An impoverished and plain-looking princess who had followed her father's misfortunes, she was nonetheless said to be virtuous, and quite charming. She was also from a royal family which had never intermarried with the French royal family, and it was hoped that she would bring new blood to it.

The relatively low status of her father would also ensure that the marriage would not cause diplomatic embarrassment to France by having to choose one royal court over another. The marriage was celebrated in September 1725. The young king immediately fell in love with his new wife, who was seven years older than he. Nonetheless, many considered the marriage of the most powerful king in Europe with such a low-ranking princess to be improper and lacking in grandeur.

Louis's marriage to Marie Leszczyńska produced many children, but the king was persistently (and notoriously) unfaithful. Some of his mistresses, such as Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, are as well-known as the king himself, and his affairs with three Mailly-Nesle sisters are documented by the formal agreements into which he entered. In his later years, Louis developed a penchant for young girls, keeping several at a time in a personal seraglio known as the Parc aux Cerfs ("Deer Park"), one of whose inhabitants, Marie-Louise O'Murphy, was immortalised by Boucher. Scandalous rumours spread across France, in which it was alleged that the king bathed in the blood of virgins and had ninety illegitimate children.

Children

Name Birth Death Notes
Louise-Elisabeth 14 August 1727 6 December 1759 Duchess of Parma, had issue
Henriette-Anne 14 August 1727 10 February 1752 died unmarried, no issue.
Marie-Louise of France 28 July 1728 19 February 1733 died in childhood
Louis, Dauphin of France 4 September 1729 20 December 1765
Philippe of France 30 August 1730 17 April 1733 died in childhood
Adélaïde 23 March 1732 27 February 1800 died unmarried, no issue
Victoire-Louise 11 May 1733 7 June 1799 died unmarried, no issue
Sophie-Philippine 17 July 1734 3 March 1782 died unmarried, no issue
Stillborn Child 28 March 1735 28 March 1735
Thérèse-Félicité 16 May 1736 28 September 1744 died in childhood
Louise-Marie 5 July 1737 23 December 1787 was a nun, died unmarried, no issue

He also had several illegitimate children and served as stepfather to Madame de Pompadour's only child:

The ministry of the duc de Bourbon was marked by the persecution of Protestants (1726), several monetary manipulations, the creation of new taxes such as the fiftieth (cinquantième) in 1725, and the high price of grain, all of which created troubles and economic depression.

In 1726, the king, who was now sixteen and had since his marriage shown a new health and authority, dismissed the duc de Bourbon, who was extremely unpopular and was preparing a war against Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. As his replacement he chose his old tutor, Cardinal Fleury, to serve as first minister.

Ministry of Cardinal Fleury

From 1726 until his death in 1743, Cardinal Fleury ruled France with the king's assent. It was the most peaceful and prosperous part of the reign of Louis XV, despite some Parlement and Jansenist unrest. After the financial and human losses suffered at the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the rule of Fleury, generating peace and order, is seen by historians as a period of "recovery" (French historians talk of a gouvernement "réparateur"). It is hard to determine exactly what part the king took in the decisions of the Fleury government, but it remains certain that the king steadily supported Fleury against the intrigues of the court and the conspiracies of the courtiers.

With the help of controllers-general of finances Michel Robert Le Peletier des Forts (1726-1730) and above all Philibert Orry (1730-1745), Fleury stabilized the French currency (1726) and eventually managed to balance the budget in 1738. Economic expansion was also a central goal of the government: communications were improved, with the completion of the Saint-Quentin canal (linking the Oise and Somme rivers) in 1738, later extended to the Escaut River and the Low Countries, and above all with the systematic building of a national road network. By the middle of the 18th century, France had the most modern and extensive road network in the world.

The body of ponts et chaussées engineers, instituted by the central state, built modern straight highways, many of which are still in use today, stretching from Paris to the most distant borders of France, in the typical star pattern that remains the backbone of the National Highway network of France. Maritime trade was also stimulated by the Bureau and the Council of Commerce, and the French foreign maritime trade increased from 80 to 308 million livres between 1716 and 1748. However, rigid Colbertist laws (prefiguring dirigisme) hindered industrial development.

The power of the absolute monarchy was demonstrated with the quelling of the Jansenist and Gallican oppositions. The troubles caused by the convulsionaries of the Saint-Médard graveyard in Paris (a group of Jansenists claiming that miracles took place in this graveyard) were put to an end in 1732. As for the Gallican opposition, after the "exile" of 139 parlementaires in the provinces the Parlement of Paris had to register the Unigenitus papal bull and was forbidden to hear religious cases in the future.

Abroad, Fleury sought peace, attempting to maintain the alliance with England and pursuing reconciliation with Spain. In September 1729, at the end of her third pregnancy, the queen finally gave birth to a male child, Louis, who immediately became heir to the throne. The birth of a long awaited heir, which ensured the survival of the dynasty for the first time since 1712, was welcomed with tremendous joy and celebrations in all spheres of French society, and indeed in most European courts. The royal couple was at the time very united and in love with each other, and the young king was extremely popular. The birth of a male heir also dispelled the risks of a succession crisis and the likely war with Spain that would have resulted.

In 1733, on the advice of his secretary of state for foreign affairs Germain Louis Chauvelin (1727-1737), the king temporarily abandoned Fleury's peace policy to intervene in the War of the Polish Succession. In addition to attempting to restore his father-in-law Stanisław Leszczyński to the Polish throne, the king also hoped to wrest the long-coveted duchy of Lorraine from its duke, Francis III. The duke's expected marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI's daughter, Maria Theresa, would bring Austrian power dangerously close to the French border. The half-hearted French intervention in the east was insufficient to enable Stanisław to recover his throne.

Treaty of Vienna

In the west, however, French troops rapidly overran Lorraine, and peace was restored as early as 1735. By the Treaty of Vienna (November 1738), Stanisław was compensated for the loss of his Polish throne with the duchy of Lorraine, which would eventually pass to King Louis as his son-in-law, while Duke Francis III of Lorraine was made heir to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany as compensation for the loss of Lorraine. The war cost France very little, compared to the financial and human drains of Louis XIV's wars, and was a clear success for French diplomacy. The acquisition of Lorraine (effective in 1766 at Stanislaus' death) was to be the last territorial expansion of France on the continent before the French Revolution.

Shortly after this favourable result, France's mediation in the war between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire led to the Treaty of Belgrade (September 1739) which favoured the Ottoman Empire, an ally of France against the Habsburgs since the early 16th century. As a result, in 1740 the Ottoman Empire renewed the French capitulations, which marked the supremacy of French trade in the Middle East. With these successes, Louis XV's prestige reached its highest point.

In 1740, the death of Emperor Charles VI and his succession by his daughter Maria Theresa started the European War of the Austrian Succession. The elderly Cardinal Fleury had too little energy left to oppose this war, which was strongly supported by the anti-Austrian party at court. Renewing the cycle of conflicts so typical of Louis XIV's reign, the king entered the war in 1741 on the side of Prussia. The war would last seven years. Fleury did not live to see the end of the war. After Fleury's death in January 1743, the king followed his predecessor's example, ruling from then on without a first minister.

First signs of unpopularity

At the death of his old tutor Fleury in 1743, the king was 33 years old. He had experienced a few years of happiness with his devoted Polish queen. A child was born almost every year. However, the queen eventually got tired of continual pregnancies, while the king got tired of the queen's unconditional love. Moreover, most of the queen's pregnancies produced girls, which the king eventually resented.

Out of ten children born of the queen, there were only two sons, only one of whom survived, Louis. This did not help dispel the concerns about the future of the dynasty brought about by the repeated deaths of the early 1710s. In 1734, for the first time, the queen complained to her father about the king's infidelities. The king found love with Madame de Mailly, then with her younger sister Madame de Vintimille, then at her death with yet another sister Marie-Anne de Mailly, while the queen took refuge in religion and charities.

In June 1744, the king left Versailles for the front in order to take personal command of his armies fighting in the War of the Austrian Succession. This otherwise popular move was marred by the king's indiscreet decision to bring along Madame de Chateauroux. In August, the king fell gravely ill in Metz. Death appeared imminent, and public prayers were held all across France to ask God to save the king from a certain death.

Pressed by the dévot party, Msgr. de Fitz-James, First Chaplain (premier aumônier) of the king, refused to give the king the absolution unless the king renounced his mistress. The king's confession was then publicly announced, embarrassing him and tarnishing the prestige of the monarchy. Madame de Châteauroux was forced to leave to the boos of the public. Although Louis' recovery earned him the 'well-beloved' epithet from a public relieved by his survival, the events at Metz (August 1744) appear to have left profound scars on his psyche as well as on French political life. Nevertheless, the king soon returned to his adulterous ways.

War with Austria

In 1743, France entered the War of the Austrian Succession. Late in Louis’s reign Corsica and Lorraine were won, but this came only a few years after the devastating loss of nearly all of France's colonial empire to France's arch-enemy Great Britain, in the Seven Years' War. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 proved one of the most humiliating episodes of the French monarchy. France ceded India, Canada, and all lands east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain, while Spain received France's lands west of the Mississippi. France's empire in the New World was thus almost completely lost; the kingdom retained control only of some territories in the West Indies, French Guiana, and the tiny islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Canada. France's policies in the Americas and India had ended in a dismal failure. Its prestige sank dramatically.

Madame de Pompadour

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, later the marquise de Pompadour, who met Louis XV in February 1745 at a lavish masked ball given in honour of the Dauphin's marriage, was the most famous mistress of the reign, and the most honourable one. She was the daughter of a chief agent of the powerful Pâris family of financiers who became embroiled in the intrigue that ousted the duc de Bourbon as head of the Regency council in favour of Cardinal Fleury. A beautiful woman, educated, cultured, intelligent, and sincerely attached to the king, she nonetheless possessed one major shortcoming in the eyes of the masses: she was a commoner, from the bourgeoisie, and even worse, a commoner who meddled in royal politics.

The public had generally accepted the mistresses of Louis XIV, who, apart from Madame de Maintenon, were all chosen in the highest spheres of the aristocracy and had very little influence on the government. But that the king would thus compromise himself with a commoner was felt to be a profound disgrace. Soon there were hundreds of libels called poissonnades (a word meaning something like "fish stew", a pun based on the marquise de Pompadour's family name, Poisson, which means "fish" in French), violently attacking the Marquise, as in this example: "Daughter of leech, and leech herself, Poisson ["Fish"], with an extreme arrogance, flaunts in this château, without fear or dread, the substance of the people and the shame of the King."

Despite the critics, the marquise de Pompadour had an undeniable influence on the flourishing of French arts during the reign of Louis XV, a reign that is often considered the peak of French architecture and interior design (see: Louis XV style). A patron of the arts, the Marquise amassed a considerable amount of furniture and objets d'art in her various estates. She was responsible for the tremendous development of the porcelain manufactory of Sèvres, which became one of the most famous porcelain manufacturers in Europe, and her commands ensured the living of artists and families of craftsmen for many years. She was also a prominent patron of architecture, being responsible for the building of the Place Louis XV (now called Place de la Concorde) and the École Militaire in Paris, both built by her protégé Ange-Jacques Gabriel.

The École Militaire, for the creation of which she successfully lobbied the king, showed her commitment to the training of officers from poor families of the aristocracy. The Marquise was a liberal at heart and she steadily defended the Encyclopédie against the attacks of the Church. She was a supporter of the Philosophy of the Enlightenment, and tried to win the king to its new ideas, albeit not quite as successfully as she hoped. She was criticised for the lavish display of luxury in her various estates, although her rich family of financiers in many instances gave money to the government and saved the monarchy from bankruptcy. All her estates, which she had bequeathed to the state, reverted to the crown at her death.

The marquise de Pompadour was officially settled on the third floor (second storey) of the Palace of Versailles, in small but comfortable apartments that can still be visited today. There, she organized fine suppers for the king, with chosen guests, far from the pomp and etiquette of the court. The atmosphere in these private quarters was so relaxed that the king was said to serve coffee during the suppers. She often entertained the king, trying to relieve him from the state of boredom in which the court often plunged him. The king, who liked a more bourgeois lifestyle than his forefather Louis XIV, found in the private apartments of the Marquise de Pompadour, located above his own office and bedchamber, the intimacy and reassuring feminine presence of which he had been deprived during his childhood.

The marquise de Pompadour, who was reportedly in frail health, was no more than a friend after 1750. Although the sexual relationship stopped, the Marquise remained the close confidante and friend of the king until her death, quite a feat in the history of royal mistresses. She, more than anyone else, was adept at understanding the complex and demanding personality of the king. After 1750, the king was mired in a series of short-lived love affairs and sexual relationships, hiding his temporary conquests in a small mansion at the Parc-aux-Cerfs ("Stags' Park"), whose most famous occupant was Marie-Louise O'Murphy. Legend later enormously exaggerated the events occurring at the Parc-aux-Cerfs, contributing to the dark reputation still associated with Louis XV's name today. In fact, the king's womanizing behavior was not very different from that of many of his illustrious ancestors, such as kings Francis I or Henry IV, to say nothing of other European monarchs such as Henry VIII of England.

First attempt at reform

All these love affairs did not take the king away from the duties of his office, but he lacked the administrative energy of his grandfather, Louis XIV. He preferred to make decisions based solely on the advice of Cardinal Fleury, and frequently relied on the cardinal to carry out those decisions. During the seventeen long years of Fleury's government, the king learned the generalities of government policy without the specifics of implementation.

Starting in 1743 with the death of Fleury, the king ruled alone without a first minister. He had read many times the instructions of Louis XIV: "Listen to people, seek advice from your Council, but decide alone." Although he was without a doubt more intelligent and cultured than his great-grandfather, Louis XV lacked self-confidence. His political correspondence reveals his deep knowledge of public affairs as well as the soundness of his judgment. However, the king was often afraid of making firm decisions, fearing that he might be wrong and other people might be right. It was only when pushed to the limit, often when it was too late, that he suddenly resolved to bold action, with a brutality that stunned people.

Always supportive and friendly towards his ministers in appearance, his displeasure was felt suddenly and without warning. This led to a reputation for deviousness. It was very difficult for ministers to decipher the king, or to know if their behavior was in agreement with his desires. Usually, they were given great independence of action in their own ministries with the king never really directing them. Very often, they never received any warning or sign of disagreement from the king before a sudden fall from grace. Moreover, the king often kept them in the dark concerning his true line of reasoning, frequently communicating without their knowledge with foreign courts through a network of diplomats and spies called the Secret du Roi ("the secret of the king").

Most government work was conducted in committees of ministers which met without the king. The king reviewed policy only in the Conseil d'en haut, the High Council, which was composed of the king, the dauphin, the chancellor, the contrôleur général des finances, and the secretary of state in charge of foreign affairs. Created by Louis XIV, the council was in charge of state policy regarding religion, diplomacy, and war. There, he let various political factions oppose each other and vie for influence and power: the dévot party, led by the Comte d'Argenson, secretary of state for war, opposed the parti philosophique, which supported the Enlightenment philosophy and was led by Machault d'Arnouville, controller-general of finances.

The parti philosophique was supported by the marquise de Pompadour, who acted as a sort of minister without portfolio from the time she became royal mistress in 1745 until her death in 1764. The Marquise was in favour of reforms. Supported by her clan of financiers (Pâris-Duverney, Montmartel, etc.), she obtained from the king the appointment of ministers (Bernis, secretary of state for foreign affairs, in 1757), as well as their dismissal (Orry, controller-general of finances, in 1745; Maurepas, secretary of state for the Navy, in 1749). On her advice, the king supported the policy of fiscal justice designed by Machault d'Arnouville. In order to finance the budget deficit, which amounted to 100 million livres in 1745, Machault d'Arnouville created a tax on the twentieth of all revenues which affected also the privileged classes (Edict of Marly, 1749).

This breach in the privileged status of the aristocracy and the clergy, normally exempt from taxes, was a first in French history, although it had already been advocated by visionary minds such as Vauban under Louis XIV. However, the new tax was received with violent protest from the privileged classes sitting in the provincial estates (états provinciaux) of the few provinces which still kept the right to decide over taxation (most provinces had long lost their provincial estates (états provinciaux) and the right to decide over taxation that came with it). The new tax was also violently opposed by the clergy and by the parlements. Pressed and eventually won over by his entourage at court, the king gave in and exempted the clergy from the twentieth in 1751. Eventually, the twentieth became a mere increase in the already existing taille, the most important direct tax of the monarchy from which privileged classes were exempted. It was the first defeat in the "taxation war" waged against the privileged classes.

As a result of these attempts at reform, the Parlement of Paris, using the quarrel between the clergy and the Jansenists as a pretext, addressed remonstrances to the king (April 1753). In these remonstrances, the Parlement, which was made up of privileged aristocrats and ennobled commoners, proclaimed itself the "natural defender of the fundamental laws of the kingdom" against the arbitrariness of the monarchy.

War and foreign policy, 1740-1763

After the death of Fleury, France initially experienced success abroad despite the King's loss of his trusted advisor. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), which pitted the French and Prussians against the Austrians, British, and Dutch, culminated in a series of major French victories: the Battle of Fontenoy (1745), the Battle of Rocourt (1746), and the Battle of Lauffeld (1747). The Battle of Fontenoy, won by the Maréchal de Saxe, is still remembered as one of the most decisive French victories against the British. By 1748, France occupied the entire Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium), then the wealthiest area of Europe, and appeared on its way to fulfilling its traditional dream of extending its north-eastern border to the Rhine. The embarrassment at Metz (1744) now largely forgotten, the king was at the peak of his popularity.

Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

However, at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, Louis shocked his people and the rest of Europe by agreeing to restore all his conquests to Austria. Louis XV, who at heart was not a bellicose king, unlike his great-grandfather Louis XIV, felt content to rule a nearly hexagon-shaped kingdom, which he called his pré carré (i.e. "square field"), a term still used in French politics today. He thought it better to cultivate the pré carré rather than trying to expand it. The king declared he had made peace "as a king and not as a merchant". The attitude of the king was hailed in Europe, and he became overnight the "arbiter of Europe".

At home, however, his popularity sharply declined. The people had forgiven Louis XV for his high taxes, his mistresses, and his lavish expenditures, as long as he was successful in wars. But the news that the king had restored the Southern Netherlands to Austria was met with disbelief and bitterness. Parisians coined the phrase: "As stupid as the peace" ("Bête comme la paix"). Historians usually consider that the year 1748 saw the first true manifestation of public opinion in France, a nationalist public opinion that the king did not understand. The year proved a turning point in the king's popularity: after 1748, pamphlets against the king's mistresses became increasingly widely published and read, and his popularity steadily declined.

By 1755, a new European conflict was brewing, the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle being but a sort of truce. Already, French and British were fighting each other in North America without a declaration of war (see French and Indian War). In 1755, the British seized 300 French merchant ships, in violation of international law. A few months later, on 16 January 1756, Great Britain and Prussia signed a treaty of "neutrality". In Paris and Versailles, the parti philosophique could not hide their disappointment at this betrayal by King Frederick II of Prussia, who was until then seen as an enlightened sovereign friend of the Philosophers.

Frederick II had even welcomed Voltaire in Potsdam when the famous writer had run into trouble with the dévot party in France. But the truth was that Frederick II was motivated first and foremost by personal interests and the desire to expand the territory of Prussia by any means available. He had already abandoned his French ally during the War of Austrian Succession, signing a separate peace treaty with Austria in December 1745. The Marquise de Pompadour particularly disliked Frederick II, who had always showed contempt for her, and even named one of his poodles "Pompadour". At the same time, French officials realized that the Habsburg empire of Austria was no more the danger it had been in the heyday of the Habsburgs, back in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they controlled Spain and most of Europe and presented a formidable challenge to France. The new dangerous power looming now on the horizon was Prussia. In a "reversal of alliances", the king signed the Treaty of Versailles with Austria on 1 April 1756, overruling his ministers and putting an end to more than 200 years of conflict with the Habsburgs.

Louis apparently expected that joining with Austria would prevent another war on the continent by confronting Prussia with a counter-coalition. He was mistaken. Austria was bent on regaining Silesia, which Prussia had grabbed in 1740 and had not returned. At the end of August 1756, having learned that Austria was negotiating to enlist Russia against him, Frederick II invaded Saxony without a declaration of war. He soon defeated the unprepared Saxon and Austrian armies and occupied the whole of Saxony. The Saxon ruler's younger daughter was the Dauphin's wife and his elder daughter was married to Charles VII of Naples, a Bourbon cousin. Frederick's treatment of the Polish-Saxon royal family was particularly brutal; Queen Maria Josepha, the dauphine's mother, died from maltreatment. These actions by Frederick II profoundly shocked Europe, and particularly France. The wife of the Dauphin had a miscarriage as a result of the news coming from Saxony. Louis XV was left with no choice but to enter the war.

Meanwhile, Britain had already declared war on France on 18 May 1756. The ensuing Seven Years' War (1756-1763) was to have profound consequences for France and Britain.

Assassination attempt

At home, discontent grew, fuelled by the perceived political incompetence of the king and the spending spree of the court. As previously highlighted, modern historians have shown that the king was in fact not incompetent, albeit not resolute enough. The spending at court was also not particularly high under Louis XV, at any rate not any higher than under previous French kings, and certainly much lower than in some other European courts, such as in Russia, where Peter the Great and Empress Elizabeth spent enormous amounts of money to build palaces in and around Saint Petersburg. Court spending also helped to carry French arts to their zenith under Louis XV, and supported thousands of families of artists and craftsmen. French arts were admired and copied all over Europe. Even today, 250 years later, "Louis XV" style is still a favourite among the rich and famous around the world. Yet at the time the French public, influenced as it was by a violent campaign of libels against the king and the Marquise de Pompadour starting in the mid-1740s, could only see royal incompetence and spending sprees.

This was what may have inspired the assassination attempt on the king by Robert Damiens. On 5 January 1757 would-be assassin Damiens entered the Palace of Versailles, as did thousands of people every day to petition the king. At 6pm, as night had fallen on a cold Versailles covered in snow, the king, who was visiting his daughter, left her apartments to return to the Trianon where he was staying. As he was walking in the Marble Courtyard between two lines of guards lighting the way with torches, headed toward his carriage which was waiting at the edge of the Marble Courtyard, Damiens suddenly emerged from the dark, passed through the guards, and stabbed the king in the side with a penknife.

The 8.1 cm (3.2 inch) blade entered the king's body between the fourth and fifth ribs. The king, who was bleeding, remained calm and called for a confessor as he thought he would die. Thoughts of poison came to his mind. At the sight of the queen, who had come in a hurry, he asked for forgiveness for his misbehaviour. However, the king survived. He was probably saved by the thick layers of clothes he wore on that cold day, which cushioned the blade, protecting the internal organs. Allegedly, the blade penetrated only 1 cm (0.4 inch) into the king's body, leading Voltaire to mock what he called a "pinprick".

Damiens, who was mentally unstable, had been a servant of members of the Parlement of Paris where he had heard much criticism of the king. This, combined with the violent pamphlets and general discontent with the king, convinced him that he had to commit regicide in order to save France. Other sources say that he did not want to kill the king, but merely to give him a warning and thus force him to change his behaviour. In any case, it was the first attempt at regicide in France since the murder of King Henry IV by Ravaillac in 1610.

The king, bent on forgiving Damiens, could not avoid a trial for regicide. Tried by the Parlement of Paris, Damiens was executed on the Place de Grève on 28 March 1757, following the horrible procedure applied to regicides: after numerous tortures, Damiens was carried to the Place de Grève in the cold afternoon of that day. There, he was first tortured with red-hot pincers; his hand, holding the knife used in the attempted murder, was burnt using sulphur; molten wax, lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. Horses were then harnessed to his arms and legs for his dismemberment. Damiens's joints would not break; after some hours, representatives of the Parlement ordered the executioner and his aides to cut Damiens's joints. Damiens was then dismembered, to the applause of the crowd. His trunk, apparently still living, was then burnt at the stake. There was an immense crowd to watch this gruesome spectacle, which nobody had witnessed in 147 years. Balconies in buildings above the Place de Grève were rented to women of the aristocracy for the exorbitant price of 100 livres per balcony (approx. $700 in 2005 US dollars). This tale of Damiens' brutal execution, recounted in the opening pages of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish has been disputed by numerous historians.

This gruesome execution was harshly criticized by the “philosophes”, who saw it as a remnant of a more brutal age. In truth, the king himself had not much to do with the method of execution, and the people rejoiced at the king's having escaped Damiens's knife unharmed. It was the members of the Parlement of Paris who selected such a horrific execution, as they thought it would please the king, willing as they were to reconcile themselves with the king after their opposition to the tax on the twentieth and their support of the Jansenists against the king's will.

But above all, the people were outraged that the king did not dismiss Madame de Pompadour, despite the clear signal sent by Damiens. Posters appeared on the walls of Paris with the following ironic pun: "Ruling from the Mint Court: A louis not properly struck shall be struck a second time." The Austrian ambassador wrote to Vienna: "The public discontent is general. All the conversations are about death and poison. There appeared in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles some dreadful posters threatening the life of the king."

Later life

The king, who had displayed calm and royal dignity on the day of the assassination attempt, sank into profound depression in the following weeks. He became convinced that he was on the wrong track. All attempts at reforms were abandoned. At the marquise de Pompadour's instigation, the king dismissed his two most hated ministers, the comte d'Argenson, secretary of state for war, and Machault d'Arnouville, keeper of the seals (justice minister) and before that controller-general of finances; and he called Choiseul to the government. Reforms would resume only with Maupeou in 1771.

Death

Louis XV died of smallpox at the Palace of Versailles. He was the first Bourbon whose heart was not, as tradition demanded, cut out and placed in a special coffer. Instead, alcohol was poured into his coffin and his remains were soaked in quicklime. In a surreptitious late-night ceremony attended by only one courtier, the body was taken to the cemetery at Saint Denis Basilica.

Louis' death saw the French monarchy at its nadir, in political, financial and moral terms. It might have recovered - it had recovered in the past from similar low points - but it would require an individual of unique abilities to pull back from the precipice. Since Louis XV's son, the dauphin Louis had died nine years earlier, instead came his grandson, the conventional and unimaginative Louis XVI, destined to inherit a Revolution along with the throne. Two of Louis XV's other grandchildren occupied the French throne after the Napoleonic wars - Louis XVIII and Charles X.

Conclusion

Louis XIV had left France with serious financial difficulties. Ultimately, Louis XV failed to overcome these fiscal problems, mainly because he was incapable of putting together conflicting parties and interests in his entourage. At Versailles, the king and the nobility surrounding him showed signs of boredom, signalling a monarchy in steady decline. Worse, Louis seemed to be aware of the forces of anti-monarchism threatening his family's rule and yet failed to do anything to stop them. Popular legend holds that Louis predicted, "After me, the deluge" ("Après moi, le déluge"). In fact this quotation is more precisely attributed to Madame de Pompadour, although it is not certain that even she ever said it.

At first he was known popularly as Le Bien-aimé (the well-beloved) after a near-death illness in Metz in 1744 when many of his subjects prayed for his recovery. However, his weak and ineffective rule was a contributing factor to the general decline that culminated in the French Revolution. In addition, the king was a notorious womanizer, although this was expected in a king; the monarch's virility was supposed to be another way in which his power was manifested. However, popular faith in the monarchy was shaken by the scandals of Louis’s private life and in the shadows of the scandalous court at Versailles, and by the end of his life he had become the well-hated.

Ancestors

See also

Notes

  1. Duke of Saint-Simon, Mémoires, Book 12, Chapter 15.
  2. Marquis Philippe de Dangeau, Journal; 1856-60, Paris; XVI, 136; in Olivier Bernier, Louis the Beloved, The Life of Louis XV: 1984, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. p.3.
  3. The scene is described in Olivier Bernier, Louis the Beloved, The Life of Louis XV: 1984, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. p.17.

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