Modern history


Blue Horizons, Red Ink


Like all his generation, Louis XVI was brought up to worry about happiness. His grandfather, Louis XV, had redesigned Versailles around its pursuit and had a natural aptitude for its indulgence. But for his young successor, happiness was hard work, and being king of France put it virtually out of reach. Gradually enveloped by anxiety, he would later recall just two occasions when the business of being king actually made him happy. The first was his coronation in June 1775; the second, his visit to Cherbourg in June 1786. On the first occasion he wrapped himself in the mantle of arcane royal mystery; on the second he revealed himself as modern man: scientist, sailor and engineer. To onlookers on both occasions, the paradoxes of the royal personality were cause for comment, perhaps even for concern. But it was part of Louis’ innocence that he never perceived a problem. If his authority owed everything to the past, his overdeveloped sense of duty pointed him firmly towards the future. The Revolution would represent this Janus-like quality as duplicitous rather than undecided. But it was only its equation of past-future with treason-patriotism that put the King in the dilemma that would end his reign and his life. He began, in 1774, with the highest expectations, echoed throughout France, that the future would be blessed with a renewal of the Golden Age.

The symbol of those hopes was the sun. At the coronation in Reims, when Louis was twenty, the sun’s rays, rays most obviously recalling the apogee of the monarchy under Louis XIV, decorated every column and triumphal arch erected for the ceremony. And the theme of renewal was echoed on the pedestal of a statue representing Justice by an inscription proclaiming the dawn of les beaux jours. However, the coronation was not unmixed rapture. For tension between past and future played on concerns about the present, especially since, while the ceremonies were being planned, France was in the throes of the most serious grain riots seen for years. In the circumstances, the Controller-General, Turgot, urged Louis to exemplary modesty: a simplification of the rites and their celebration in Paris rather than Reims. Privately, he expressed the view that “of all the useless expenses the most useless and the most ridiculous was the sacre.” But if there had to be a coronation, he argued, better that it should be in the presence of the Parisians, whose monarchist sentiments could well use some cultivation. Foreigners would be impressed and the crowds diverted. And the bill would come in well under the seven million livres estimated for Reims.

But Louis was adamant. Perhaps influenced by the zeal of the court confessor, the Abbé de Beauvais, and by the Archbishop of Paris, who himself was eager to have the ceremonies not at Notre Dame but at Reims, the King insisted on traditional forms, even the oath “to extirpate heretics,” which seemed gratuitously offensive to the tolerant sensibilities of the 1770s. It was symptomatic of Louis’ split personality that having duly taken that oath he would go on to support the emancipation of the Protestants and lend his personal authority to its enactment in 1787.

It would be mistaken to suppose that it was reactionary piety or dynastic self-indulgence that led Louis to embrace the full medieval panoply of his coronation with such ardor. It was much more likely that, at least intuitively, he shared the rather advanced view of a young Lorraine lawyer and pamphleteer, Martin de Morizot, who supported the sacre as a form of “national election”: a signification of the marriage alliance between the Prince and his people. In this view the spectacle was meant to approximate more closely the marriage of Venice and the sea administered by the Doge every year and symbolizing the public good, rather than a rite or ornate reaction. And there were certain ritual gestures – the liberation of prisoners through royal clemency; the peculiar ceremony of touching the scrofulous to commemorate the thaumaturgical healing power of the royal hands – that could bear witness to these good intentions. Nevertheless, as on many occasions in the future, Louis allowed others less attuned to public opinion than himself to intervene, with unfortunate results for his reputation. In this case, the clergy responsible for orchestrating the orders of the ceremony significantly altered exactly the item that could best be construed as symbolizing the relationship between prince and people. Before the Bourbons, there had been a moment when, following the first oath, the people had been invited to indicate their assent by the acclamation Oui. Since the time of Henri IV that had been replaced by a more perfunctory “tacit consent,” but in Louis XVI’s coronation the formal appeal to the people was omitted altogether. This tactless gesture did not go unnoticed, least of all by the underground press, who claimed that it had caused great “indignation” amongst true patriots.

So the great occasion that was meant as a placebo for the flour and grain riots ended up by pleasing very few indeed. Local artisans were upset because Parisian carpenters and decorators had been imported to do the work on the triumphal arches and the long arcaded gallery that led to the cathedral porch. There was much grumbling about the apartment that had to be erected for the Queen’s special use and which featured English water closets. Peasant families of the region were particularly angry that their menfolk were conscripted to rebuild the city gate at Soissons, so that the coronation coach might pass through, at a time when their labor was urgently needed in the fields. Tradesmen were unhappy as few foreigners came to spend freely and to be impressed. Indeed, beds in the inns around Reims were embarrassingly available since even the gentry of northern and eastern France, who were expected to show in numbers, had been deterred by the extortionate tariff demanded by local innkeepers.

For reformers like Turgot the event was a costly and badly managed entertainment that pandered to ludicrous anachronisms like the sacred ampoule of oil, allegedly supplied to King Clovis by a divinely dispatched dove. For traditionalists like the Duc de Croÿ the entire affair was somewhat vulgar. The applause that rained down on the King and Queen, he commented, was the result of the new and undesirable habit of greeting them at public theatrical performances. The whole event had been turned into opera. But as opera it was not without a certain power to move those spectators who were there. The young Talleyrand, watching his father preen himself in his great black-plumed hat, observed how vanity and passion could come together to generate irrational ardor. When the populace were admitted in a great throng to the cathedral and the Te Deums sounded, he saw tears of joy trickle down the cheeks of the boy-king while the young Queen, overcome, made for the exit.

If Louis had begun his reign with a great fanfare of archaic celebration, he was to continue it in the opposite vein of sober conscientiousness. Nothing gave him more pleasure than mechanics and as much as possible he chose to live in a world of numbers rather than words, lists rather than utterances. Everything he valued was compulsively enumerated: the 128 horses he had ridden; the 852 trips he had taken between 1756 and 1769. (This was less of a nomadic existence than the list suggests, for the majority of these “voyages” consisted of royal commuting within a narrowly circumscribed area in the Ile de France, where most of the châteaux and hunting lodges were located. But Louis faithfully transcribed each dull journey from Versailles to Marly [six times], Versailles to Fontainebleau [six] and on and on.) Even the pastime into which he flung himself with the greatest enthusiasm – hunting – was reduced in writing to lists of the daily bag. So that in July 1789 – the month his monarchy collapsed – we know more about his daily kill than we do of his thoughts on the political events in Paris.

Yet, as François Bluche has pointed out, there was nothing trivial in Louis XVI’s addiction to the hunt. It was the one theater in which he indisputably excelled and in which he fitted the role of equestrian king: chevalier et imperator, the warrior in the forest. On horseback he was courageous and even graceful: a quality by which the eighteenth century set great store, and which contemporaries found dramatically lacking in his other public appearances. But there was another world in which this physically awkward man came into his own. That was his private study filled with mathematical instruments, hand-colored maps and nautical charts, telescopes, sextants and the locks which the King himself designed and made. The struggle to make the perfect lock was a symbol of sublime aptness for the monarch who repeatedly failed to make things turn as he wished. But in his appartements privés he moved silently in his plain frock coat amidst polished lenses, armillary spheres, burnished brass and orreries with all the freedom and power of a magus.

It was in the nautical world that all these talents could come together. Like his father and grandfather Louis had played with toy galleons and barques on the pool known as “la petite Venise” at Versailles. His personal tutor, Nicolas-Marie Ozanne, had taught naval drawing to the cadets at Brest and imparted to his eager student both knowledge and zeal for the sea. So Louis became a passionate and compendiously knowledgeable expert on everything naval: from ship designs to nautical artillery, marine maladies and their cures, rigging and the movement of the tides, ballast and cargo calculations, military maneuvers and the language of flag signals. He even insisted on and helped design new uniforms that would abolish the old distinction between gentlemen and commoner officers. The antipodean voyage of La Pérouse was personally planned by the King together with the explorer, and he plotted its progress on special charts until the painful realization that it had come to grief somewhere in the Australian Pacific. He needed no one to point out to him that the way to recover the colonial power lost by his grandfather in the Seven Years’ War was to embark on a radical program of naval construction. So he took care to confide the direction of the Marine to only the most gifted and able men: at first Turgot himself; then the brilliant Sartine, who more than any other transformed the navy into the equal of the British fleet; and after his fall, de Castries, scarcely less visionary (but perhaps less fiscally responsible) than his predecessor. For the King as for his ministers the future of imperial France was the navy: the azure horizon of a great Atlantic and perhaps even oriental Empire.

It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that after the coronation, the event of his reign which Louis recalled with most satisfaction was his visit to the new military port of Cherbourg on the Normandy peninsula of the Cotentin. Pointing directly toward the south coast of England, a new harbor and fortifications at Cherbourg would be of major significance for French patriotic amour-propre as well as practical strategy. In 1759 the port had been subjected to a British naval raid and occupation led by Captain William Bligh which, together with a secret treaty clause prohibiting French naval works at Dunkirk (and even providing for on-site British inspection), rankled as a bitter humiliation. Committed to a policy of challenging the British in America, Vergennes had evicted the British presence from Dunkirk, an occasion which was described as producing “great national joy.” But the vulnerability of the Channel ports still played a part in the ambitious French invasion plans, thwarted in 1779 (as so often before and after) by persistent bad weather. A new and powerfully protected port would provide exactly the shelter needed by beleaguered French fleets without the need to abandon expeditions entirely. Not for nothing, then, was the news of Cherbourg’s transformation received with considerable anxiety and irritation in Westminster. With favorable winds it was just three to four hours from Portsmouth.

When Louis began his reign in 1774 Cherbourg was not much more than a bedraggled fishing village of some six thousand souls who lived in wind-beaten monotony around the debris of masonry destroyed by the Royal Navy. By the time of the Revolution its population had nearly doubled, but more important, it had become home to a formidable concentration of capital, labor and applied engineering. The new Cherbourg was, at least for the King and his chief engineer, M. de Cessart, the symbol of a France reborn in the light of applied science and maritime vigor. The project to create a harbor was monumental in conception and execution. At a time when paintings and engravings of the colossi of antiquity were fashionable, it must have seemed a project that was at once antique in grandeur and futuristic in imagination. The more modest of the two engineers, de Bretonnière proposed building a great sea wall or containing dike behind which the harbor could be created. But it was the more spectacular and improbable scheme of de Cessart that appealed to the newly appointed commandant of Cherbourg, a career officer named Charles-François Dumouriez, fresh from the conquest of Corsica. It also struck the roving imaginations of the King and his navy minister de Castries.

De Cessart’s plan was for immense, hollow chests of oak, each formed in the shape of a truncated cone and stabilized by a ballast of rock, to constitute a kind of barrier chain across the roadsteads. The space thus enclosed would then form the harbor. Each cone was a hundred and forty-two feet in diameter at its base and rose sixty feet from the waterline to its flat top. It required 20,000 cubic feet of wood for construction and, when filled, weighed 48,000 tons. Manipulating these monsters was tricky. They had to be towed from the shore to their anchorage, filled with only as much ballast as was needed to prevent them from capsizing. Once in place, they were then filled with the remaining rock through thirty openings in the sides of the cone. When sufficiently heavy to submerge properly, they would be cemented shut so that the top could constitute a kind of platform. De Cessart’s original plan called for no less than ninety-one of these extraordinary objects. It was a scheme sufficiently lunatic to appeal to a culture besotted with the wilder claims of science. After Franklin’s electricity – the patriotic lightning bolt – anything was possible. Men already ascended into the skies over Versailles in gas-filled balloons; others sat in copper tubs to experience the therapeutic power of animal magnetism. In this climate of scientific delirium, de Cessart’s underwater mountain ranges must have seemed almost modest.

The first cone was successfully submerged in June 1784 in the presence of Naval Minister de Castries. Encouraged by the progress of the project, the King sent his youngest brother, Artois, to watch the submersion of the eighth cone in May 1786, and it was his excited report that decided the King to make a unique expedition to Cherbourg to inspect the works at first hand. This was an extraordinary departure. Since the early reign of Louis XIV the Bourbons had abandoned any kind of “progresses” around France and had made the monarchy sedentary within the huge court-barracks of Versailles. France, or the part of it that “mattered,” came to the King, not vice versa. So, as Napoleon drily noted later, when Louis announced his intention of going to Normandy “it was a great event.”

On the twenty-first of June, then, with what counted as a modest retinue of fifty-six, the King and Queen set off from Versailles for the west Normandy coast. Louis had had a scarlet coat embroidered with gold fleurs-de-lis specially made for the occasion but evidently he was concerned about presenting himself to the people in a familiar rather than regal manner: the bon père du peuple that Louis XII had been dubbed. At the Château d’Harcourt, where he stayed overnight with the governor of Normandy, he pardoned six deserters from the navy who had been condemned to death by the tribunal at Caen. And at Caen itself the streets were packed with cheering crowds as the mayor presented the keys of the city beneath flower-bedecked triumphal arches. On thetwenty-third Louis arrived at Cherbourg. Impatient to see the harbor works, the King said mass at three a.m. and was taken out in a barge, rowed by twenty oarsmen in scarlet and white, to the location of the ninth cone. At the same time, the cone was towed to its assigned place and two hours later it was successfully stabilized. Once it was in place the hatches were opened, and rocks were fed in until the King could command its submersion. This took exactly twenty-eight minutes (recorded, of course, in Louis’ journal). At the moment of sinking, an abruptly tightened cable leading from one of the casks stabilizing the cone threw three men into the water, drowning one of them instantly. Amidst the cheering and naval salutes that greeted the submersion, their cries went unheard. But Louis, who was watching the event with a telescope from the platform of the next cone, saw it only too clearly. Dismayed by the accident he subsequently offered a pension to the widow.

It took more than an accidental death to dampen the enthusiasm of the occasion. Amidst continuing applause, the court party sat down to a cold collation that had been prepared for them beneath a tent pitched on the top of one of the cones. Never had magnificence and absurdity been so closely allied.

The rest of the visit was taken up with reviewing the fleet, watching the maneuvers that only in his reign had become a standard naval practice, and dining aboard the significantly named Patriote. When he spoke with officers and men, Louis addressed them with easy familiarity, very much in the manner of twentieth-century British royalty, dutifully expert in technological detail. But this was clearly as much pleasure as duty for the King, and the normally scurrilously critical Mémoires Secrètes reported that on this trip

the King is perfectly instructed in everything concerning the navy and seems familiar with both construction and equipment as well as the manoeuvres of the ships. Even the terminology of this barbarous tongue is clearly nothing new to him and he speaks it like a sailor.

Indeed the King’s notoriously coarse sense of humor, which horrified the court and the Parisian monde (he particularly enjoyed turning on the Versailles fountains to douse unsuspecting strollers), was perfectly suited to the Cherbourg salts. When his entourage threw up on the deck of the Patriote as harbor waves tossed the boat about, he guffawed with unsympathetic laughter. During another rough crossing of the Seine estuary from Honfleur to Le Havre on the return journey, the captain of the ferry boat swore out loud when he mistimed a maneuver, checked himself and apologized profusely to the King. “Nothing to apologize for,” replied Louis. “It’s your trade language and I should have said at least as much myself.”

The visit was, for all concerned except perhaps the seasick courtiers, a brilliant success. Popular prints and engravings and the usual torrent of ecstatic verse proclaimed the triumph. But the crowds who had the rare opportunity of seeing the King seemed genuinely affectionate and Louis responded with natural affability, a quality that would altogether desert him in the critical days of 1789. To the shouts of “Vive le roi” in the streets of Cherbourg he replied, without any prompting, “Vive mon peuple.” In 1786 it sounded, as indeed it was, benign and spontaneous. In 1789 it would sound, as indeed it was, forced and defensive.

There is, moreover, an important footnote to the history of the beaux jours on the Cotentin. For if they showed the monarchy in the best possible light – familiar, endearing, energetic, patriotic: a monarch for citizens rather than subjects – this splendid impression came at a price. For the great harbor project of Cherbourg was, in reality, an expensive fantasy, even perhaps a ruinous fiasco. The expense of the cones mounted alarmingly as it became apparent that neither time nor money could be spent indefinitely on their construction and immersion. From ninety the total number projected dropped to sixty-four. The distance between them correspondingly widened and as a result chains often came awry; the cones collapsed into each other and the sea smashed the oak chests. The surviving chests were attacked by voraciously hungry teredinid seaworms which honeycombed the cones so badly that some resembled huge wooden colanders with rocks pouring through the gaping holes. Moreover, as it became evident that the cones could only be successfully stationed during two or three months of the year, it was soon calculated that it would take eighteen years before the work was completed.

Not without regret, then, in 1788 the effort to place more cones was abandoned and a year later the project was suspended, and replaced by the original plans to build the more modest sea dike. Between 1784, when the first cone had been sunk, and December 1789, when the project was called off, it had consumed no less than twenty-eight million livres, a phenomenal sum. It was, in every respect, the “high-profile strategic defense initiative” of its day and it was a costly and ludicrous failure. When in 1800, with an eye to the still inhospitable Channel, the engineers of the First Consul came to look over Cherbourg harbor they found just one cone still lurching about in the waves. It was the ninth, the royal cone. By seven years it had survived the nautical King who had lifted a glass of red wine by its side to drink to its long life.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!