Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (August 2, 1674 – December 2, 1723), was a member of the royal family of France. At the death of his uncle king Louis XIV of France, he became the Regent during the minority of the new young king Louis XV, from 1715 to 1723, an era known as the Regency.
On 18 February 1692, he married Françoise-Marie de Bourbon (1677-1749), known as Mademoiselle de Blois, his fifteen-year old first cousin and the legitimised youngest daughter of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. This marriage, pre-arranged by the king, was considered a mésalliance by Philippe's parents, who were very respectful of étiquette, to which was added his mother's deep dislike of the king's illegitimate children. In order to make this forced union attractive, Louis XIV gave the Mademoiselle de Blois a dowry of two million livres and to the Duke and Duchess of Orléans the Palais Royal. The young couple, mismatched from the start, never grew to like each other, and soon the young Philippe gave his wife the nickname of Madame Lucifer. In spite of this, they had eight children:
Philippe also had several illegitimate children with various women, three of whom he acknowledged.
Philippe had his first experience of arms at the siege of Mons in 1691. He fought with distinction at the Steenkerque, at the Neerwinden and at the Namur (1692–1695). During the next few years, being without employment, he studied natural science.
He was next given a command in Italy (1706) and in Spain (1707–1708) where he gained some important successes, but he cherished lofty ambitions and was suspected of wishing to take the place of Philip V on the throne of Spain.
Louis XIV was angry at these pretensions, and for a long time held him in disfavour. In his will, however, he appointed him president of the council of regency of the young king Louis XV.
On July 29, 1714, upon the insistance of his wife, the Marquise de Maintenon, Louis XIV elevated his illegitimate children to the rank of Princes of the Blood, which "entitled them to inherit the crown if the legitimate lines became extinct, thus putting Maine and Toulouse right into the line of succession.
Four weeks later, on August 27, Louis XIV handed the First President of the Parlement and the Procureur Général a sealed packet with the words: "Gentlemen, this is my will. Only I know what it contains." Smiling sourly, he added: "The example of the kings, my predecessors, and that of the will of the King, my father, do not let me be unaware of what could happen to this one. But they wanted it, they tormented me, they gave me no peace whatever I might say. Very well then, I have bought my peace. There it is - take it away. Whatever may come of it, at least I shall receive forbearance and not hear it mentioned again."
Mme de Maintenon would have preferred Philip V [King of Spain] to be Regent and the Duc du Maine to be Lieutenant Général and consequently in control. Fearing a revival of the war, Louis named the Duc d’Orléans President of a Regency Council, but one that would be packed with his enemies, reaching its decisions by a majority vote that was bound to go against him. The real power would be in the hands of the Duc du Maine, who was also appointed guardian of the young sovereign.
On August 25, 1715, a few days before his death, Louis XIV added a codicil to his will:
After the ceremony he sent for the Chancellor and wrote a last codicil to his will, in the presence of Mme de Maintenon. He was yielding, out of sheer fatigue, to his wife and confessor, probably with the reservation that his extraordinary action would be set aside after his death, like the will itself. Otherwise he would have been deliberately condemning his kingdom to perpetual strife, for the codicil appointed the duc du Maine commander of the civil and military Household, with Villeroy as his second-in-command. By this arrangement they became the sole masters of the person and residence of the King; of Paris ... and all the internal and external guard; of the entire service ... so much so that the Regent did not have even the shadow of the slightest authority and found himself at their mercy.
The very evening of August 25, Louis XIV had a private audience with the Duke of Orléans, his nephew and son-in-law, re-assuring him:
You will find nothing in my will that should displease you. I commend the Dauphin to you, serve him as loyally as you have served me. Do your utmost to preserve his realm. If he were to die, you would be the master. [...] I have made what I believed to be the wisest and fairest arrangements for the well-being of the realm, but, since one cannot anticipate everything, if there is something to change or to reform, you will do whatever you see fit...
On September 2, the Duke of Orléans went to meet the parlementaires in the Grand-Chambre du Parlement in Paris in order to have Louis XIV's will annulled and his legitimate rights to the regency restored. After a break that followed a much-heated session, the Parlement abrogated the recent codicil to Louis XIV's will and confirmed the Duke of Orléans as Regent of France.
Immediately after the death of Louis XIV, and in accordance with the wishes of the late king, the regent took the young king to the château de Vincennes (approximately 10 km east of Paris), where the air would be better for his health. On December 30, 1715, the regent decided to bring the young Louis XV from Vincennes, much exposed to the bitterness of the winter cold, to the Tuileries Palace in Paris where he lived until his return to Versailles in June 1722.
The regent was governing from his Parisian residence, the Palais-Royal.
To great qualities, both brilliant and solid, the regent added an excessive taste for pleasure. His dissolute manners found many imitators, and the Regency is known as one of the most corrupt periods in French history.
Philippe was a professed atheist who boasted to read the satirical works of François Rabelais inside a Bible binding during mass, and liked to hold orgies even on religious high holidays. He acted in plays of Molière and Racine, composed an opera, and was a gifted painter and engraver. Despite his atheism, Philippe favoured the Jansenists against the papal condemnation accepted by the French bishops, revoking Louis XIV's reception of the bull Unigenitus.
A liberal and imaginative man, he was however, often weak, inconsistent and vacillating. He disapproved of the hypocrisy of Louis XIV's reign and opposed censorship, ordering the reprinting of books banned during the reign of his uncle. Reversing his uncle's policies again, Philippe formed an alliance with England, Austria, and the Netherlands, and fought a successful war against Spain that established the conditions of a European peace.
At first he decreased taxation and dismissed 25,000 soldiers. But the inquisitorial measures which he had begun against the financiers led to disturbances. He countenanced the risky operations of the banker John Law, whose bankruptcy led to a disastrous crisis in the public and private affairs of France.
On June 6, 1717, under the influence of Law and the Duc de Saint-Simon, the Regent persuaded the Regency Council to purchase from Thomas Pitt for £135,000 the world's then largest known diamond, a 141 carat (28.2 g) cushion brilliant, for the crown jewels of France. The diamond was known from then on as Le Régent.
There existed a party of malcontents who wished to transfer the regency from Orléans to his cousin, the young king's uncle, King Philip V of Spain. A conspiracy was formed, under the inspiration of Cardinal Alberoni, the first minister of Spain, which was directed in France by the Prince of Cellamare, the Spanish ambassador, with the complicity of his wife's older brother, the Duc du Maine, and the latter's wife. In 1718, the Cellamare conspiracy was discovered and its participants exiled.
Guillaume Dubois, formerly tutor to the Duke of Orléans, and now his chief minister, caused war to be declared against Spain, with the support of Austria, England and the Netherlands (Quadruple Alliance). After some successes of the French marshal, the Duke of Berwick, in Spain, and of the imperial troops in Sicily, Philip V made peace with the regent (1720).
On June 15, 1722, Louis XV and his entourage left the Tuileries Palace in Paris for the Palace of Versailles where the young king wanted to reside. The decision had been taken by the Duke of Orléans who, after the fall of the Law's System, was feeling the loss of his personal popularity in Paris.
On October 25 of that year, the twelve-year old Louis XV was anointed King of France in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims. It is said that at the end of the ceremony, he threw himself in the arms of his uncle.
On the majority of the king, which was declared on February 15, 1723, the Duke stepped down as Regent. At the death of Cardinal Dubois on August 10 of that year, he offered to the young king to be his Prime minister, and remained in that office till his death a few months later.
The Regent died in Versailles on December 2, 1723. On December 3, his body was taken to Saint-Cloud where funeral ceremonies began the following day. His heart was taken to the Val de Grâce church in Paris and his body to Saint-Denis Basilica, (about 10 km north of Paris), the necropolis of the French kings and their family. The official funeral ceremony did not take place before February 12, 1724.
The heart of the Duke of Orléans is now at the Chapelle Royale de Dreux, the necropolis of all the members of the Orléans family, built in 1816 and finished during the reign of his great-great-grandson, Louis-Philippe, King of the French.