Modern history

17

THE PRODIGAL’ SRETURN

The Regent desires that I retire to Rome, that has made up my mind. The enemies of the system take offence at seeing me prepared to return to France, and try to trouble me even outside the kingdom.

It costs me nothing to please them, I have always hated work, a well-meant intention to do good to a nation, and be useful to a prince who gave me his confidence; these ideas made me proud and supported me in a disagreeable business, I have come back to myself.

From a letter to the Duc de Bourbon from Law,

December 1720

AT GUERMANDE, LAW’S INITIAL SENSE OF RELIEF AT leaving Paris was shadowed with sorrow and disquiet. His attachment to the regent was unaltered. A letter sent shortly after he left underlines his affection: “It is difficult to decide between the desire that I have to retire from public life to avoid the jealousies of those who Your Royal Highness has charged with finances, and the desire I will always have to contribute to your glory. . . . I had lost all vanity before deciding to ask Your Royal Highness’s permission to retire but I shall always retain my affection for the state, and my attachment for Your RH. Thus when you believe that my opinions could be useful, I will give them freely.”

Law’s royal friends seemed to respond with equal sadness at his departure. Bourbon sent an emotional letter of farewell. “I cannot sufficiently express my grief on your departure. I hope that you do not doubt it and that you rest assured that I will never abandon you. I will never allow any attack on your freedom or your property. I have the Regent’s word on this and I will never allow him to go back on it.” Law was both flattered and relieved by the outpouring—Bourbon and the regent’s support represented his only defense against those straining to see him arrested. “My enemies act with passion but in working against me they work against the interests of the King and people—but I count on the goodness and the protection of the Regent and your lordship—be united, sir. On your union depends the good of the state and my safety in retirement,” he replied.

In reality there was more to Bourbon’s fretting than met the eye. Both he and the regent were keen to protect Law from his adversaries because Law alone knew exactly how much money had been printed and where it had all gone. If he were arrested and tortured into confession, they would be incriminated. Ensuring Law’s safe exile, and preferably his disappearance from France, was thus as much in their interests as his. As Guermande was within easy reach of the capital, Law, also conscious of the danger, pressed Bourbon for his passport. His departure would be in the national interest, he argued: “Perhaps my distance will soften them [his enemies], and time will make them realize the purity of my intentions.”

On the morning of his first day in exile the inquisitive English diplomat Crawford arrived unannounced. The English, always riveted by Law’s dazzling career, were gripped by his sudden decline in fortune, and the press was full of tales of the fall of “that blazing meteor, which, for two years, had kept so many spectators at a gaze . . . a minister far above all that the past age has known, that the present can conceive, or that the future will believe.” Crawford found Law in reasonable spirits, in the company of Lord Mar, a Jacobite friend who in earlier, happier days had persuaded him to lend money to the Pretender and other impecunious exiled Stuart supporters. Law’s links with the Jacobites were now proving an embarrassment to him, implying subversive designs toward England that might damage his reputation on both sides of the Channel: since the signing of the Triple Alliance in 1716, France had undertaken to recognize the Hanoverian George I as England’s rightful ruler. Law hastily refuted the imputations. “I have learned today that I have been accused of having aided the Pretender and been in liaison with Spain. I helped some poor people who needed bread. Among them were some who in earlier times rendered service to me: the Duke of Ormond saved my life,” he wrote hastily to the regent.

Crawford was as captivated as the rest of the English establishment by Law, and hankered to find out as much as he could about his downfall. On the pretext of discussing an outstanding debt, he invited himself to stay for a few days. Law welcomed his visit—talking was therapeutic and, more important, allowed him to ensure that the British authorities heard his version of events firsthand.

In lengthy conversations over the next two days he mulled over his career in France. He was still full of swagger, unapologetic for his actions, intensely proud that the regent had already told him that “he did not need to distance himself too far, and that he could count on his friendship and on his protection against enemies.” He poured scorn on the cabals and conspiracies that had toppled him and defiantly maintained that, thanks to his actions, France was “the best and most flourishing state in the world, and that this is how they are still.” When Crawford grilled him about future plans Law hinted that he did not see himself staying in France much longer. He said he had asked the regent’s permission to have returned to him the 500,000 livres he had originally brought with him from Holland and to settle in Rome.

Soon after Crawford had gone back to Paris to scrawl a detailed account of all he had learned, the Marquis de Lassay and Bourbon’s secretary, de la Faye, arrived, bringing with them, on the orders of the Duc de Bourbon, the passports Law had requested and a substantial sum of money he had not expected. Law was thankful for the passports but refused the money, saying he already had enough for his journey and the immediate future. Later he recalled that he had with him 800 louis d’or, dispatched by one of his staff at the bank because “I didn’t have the value of ten pistoles in my house.” This, together with a diamond or two, were the only valuables he would take. He expected that, as Bourbon and the regent had pledged, the rest of his money would be sent once his accounts were settled. There seemed no reason to doubt their integrity. It was a misjudgment he would regret for the rest of his life.

Preparations for leaving France were made hurriedly. With enemies clamoring for his arrest he had to travel incognito and it was impossible therefore to use his own liveried coaches. Bourbon placed two carriages at his disposal—one of his own, the other belonging to his mistress, the seductive and vivacious Madame de Prie, a woman said to have had “as many graces in spirit as in her face.”

The party left Guermande on the evening of December 17. Law was accompanied by his son, three valets, and several of the duc’s guards, who wore long gray coats over their livery to avoid being recognized. He had two passports, one in the name of du Jardin, the other in his real name, and several letters from friends, including one from the duc pledging his safe passage. The escape route, planned by Bourbon so that fresh horses were waiting where necessary, passed north of Paris toward St. Quentin and Valenciennes and across the border with Flanders to Mons and Brussels.

When news broke the next day that Law had vanished, Parisian gossips aired many imaginative theories as to his whereabouts. Some said he had secretly met the regent at St. Denis, others that he had entered Paris and spent an evening at the Palais Royal or gone into hiding at Chantilly.

In fact, despite the painstaking precautions, the plan had gone awry. The party had been stopped at the border in Valenciennes by the bullying local official who, unfortunately for Law, happened to be the eldest son of Law’s old adversary the Marquis d’Argenson. The intendant’s initial confusion at the false passports gave way to relish when he realized the true identity of the passengers. To exact revenge for his father’s fall, he “refused absolutely” to allow Law to pass and pretended that the passports could have been fraudulently acquired. Having confiscated Law’s money and the duc’s letter, he held them while word was sent to Paris. “I made Law very frightened, I arrested him and held him for twenty-four hours, only releasing him when I received formal orders from the court,” he reminisced. In fact, Law recounted later that he was released before the courier returned, but only after “much arguing” and on the understanding that d’Argenson would keep his passport, the letters, and the gold. The gold was never returned. When he asked for it, d’Argenson is said to have pointed out that exporting gold was illegal—according to a regulation introduced by Law.

He arrived in Brussels exhausted, shaken, but relieved to have escaped. Still anxious to remain incognito, he registered in the Hôtel du Grand Miroir in the name of Monsieur du Jardin. But with the whole of Europe on the lookout, the identity of the party was impossible to keep secret. “I had hoped to be able to pass through here without being known, and I sent the name of du Jardin to the gate; but to no avail, they already knew I was arriving, and I have just received visits from the principal people here—a fact which makes me determined to make the shortest possible stay here,” he wrote wearily to Bourbon.

Brussels rolled out the red carpet. He spent the first morning in conference with the French ambassador, the Marquis de Prie, husband of Bourbon’s glamorous mistress, and attended a banquet that evening at which the elite of Brussels was present; the next night he went to the theater, and on entering the auditorium was honored with a standing ovation. “This conduct,” the English diplomat Sutton remarked ominously, “attracts attention.”

In Paris, meanwhile, scandalmongers worked overtime to spread rumors of “an astonishing quantity of wagons filled with gold and silver” that had also been sent across the border to Flanders. Numerous theories were suggested as to what the money was for: buying political support; part of the marriage settlement between an archduchess and the Duc de Chartres; a private fund with which the regent would retire when the king reached his majority. On one thing everyone agreed: “It is certain that Law is part of the agreement with the Regent and as his negotiator he wants for nothing.” In England similar accusations appeared in the press. The State of Europe reported, “The general opinion is still that he goes for Rome, where he has remitted part of the booty he has plundered in France, and bought a magnificent palace. He has carried his son with him and left his wife and daughter in France. Letters from Paris told us thereupon that he designed to be divorced in hopes to be made a cardinal. I don’t know whether the red cap is so easily purchased, but there are certain marriages which can be easily dissolved.”

The accusations of misappropriation of French money lingered for years and caused Law great heartache. His letters to Bourbon, Orléans, and Lassay are filled with countless explanations and protestations of innocence: “What could have given rise to this rumour were the dispatches of silver that were made by order and for the service of the state or the India Company. . . . The dispatches were registered in ledgers in Paris and at the frontier. . . . I declare to Your Royal Highness that I have never sent any carriage in secret, nor any remittance apart from those that were publicly made,” he told the Duc de Bourbon. “As far as diamonds are concerned, I had four that together were worth £4,000 and before the ban on exporting diamonds I gave them to my brother to send for sale in England with his, but he gave me one back because it was not of good quality. This was the sole and only diamond, the treasure that I took with me on leaving France.”

The furor he aroused in Brussels made Law uncomfortable, and he decided to move on as quickly as he could. The intention had always been that he would travel south and settle in Italy, in either Venice or Rome. But since his money had been confiscated at the border he spent the next two days raising two hundred pistoles, presumably either through loans or by gaming, before continuing on the journey south, with new passports quickly organized by de Prie. Crossing the Alps in the middle of winter was fraught with peril. Another intrepid traveler, George Berkeley, who made the crossing in the new year of 1714, could have warned him of the terrors: “We were carried in open chairs by men used to scale these rocks and precipices, which in this season are more slippery and dangerous than at other times, and at the best are high, craggy and steep enough to cause the heart of the most valiant man to melt within him. My life often depended on a single step. No one will think that I exaggerate, who considers what it is to pass the Alps on New Year’s Day.”

Added to the hazards of appalling weather and treacherous roads were the perils of infamy and the pain of separation from Katherine. Law continued to use his false passport, but he was frequently recognized, and in several cities disaffected investors in Mississippi shares and those who had held on to French banknotes held him personally responsible for their losses, and pestered him for compensation. According to one biographer, in Cologne the Elector would not allow further horses to be supplied unless Law agreed to exchange his banknotes for coins. Law had none to give and was eventually forced to hand over a personal guarantee that they would be reimbursed.

If anything, the affection Law and Katherine felt for each other had strengthened through the months of worry, and the uncertainty of their predicament and enforced separation was painful to both. From the tenderness he expressed in a letter written en route to Italy, it seems that while Katherine had been greatly distressed by his departure, Law was confident of her ability to endure and make decisions for herself:

I am sensible that you suffer extremely by the resolution I have taken of going to Italy, there was no choice in my situation, Holland is not proper. Your son and I are well, though much fatigued by the bad weather, and bad roads. I desire to have you and Kate with me, yet I can’t well advise you to set out in this season; you will be better able to judge what you are to do, than I can. But I fear you will pass your time disagreeably in France, and I would rather suffer in my affaires; than want your company.

By January 21 Law and his son had arrived in Venice. Law, ready to drop after the rigors of the journey, saw no one for a few days. “I have suffered terribly from the voyage,” he admitted to Lassay, in one of the first letters he wrote after his arrival. While he recuperated, the British resident, Colonel Burges, who was an old friend, reported his arrival to London: “He goes by the name of Gardiner, not caring to be publicly known till he resolves whether he shall continue here or no, which he cannot do till he receives his next letter from France. . . . If he leaves this place he talks of going to Rome but I believe would be much better pleased if he was well settled in England.”

Law felt he could make no firm decisions about the future until money was sent and Katherine and his daughter had joined him. Added to these personal worries were concerns about French financial affairs. For the time being, he was reasonably stoical about the collapse of the paper-money system: “It is better to return to the old system of finance than to leave the system to survive in the midst of a spirit of opposition.” But he remained anxious that the Mississippi Company—his lasting legacy to France—should survive and thrive once more in the wake of the English stock-market collapse. “I hope that the company being free will make progress. The return of South Sea will put it in a state to continue its expansion, and to distribute to its investors. I hope that . . . business will be reestablished, so long as the plague does not progress; this is the greatest fear for the state.”

Over the following weeks, as he waited impatiently for news from France, he settled into city life. The State of Europe reported that Law “partakes of all the pleasures this carnival affords” and recorded the closing entertainments for its readers:

On the 20 instant [of February 1721] the great square of St. Mark was crowded with spectators of a grand bull feast, where many of those creatures were encountered and killed by dexterous cavaliers, as usual; several shows were acted, representing the Labours of Hercules; and a person flew down by a rope from the top of St. Mark’s steeple, to the great contentment of the spectators; the Doge himself was present at these diversions, seated in his gallery; adorned with crimson velvet; and to conclude the sports of the carnival a noble fireworks was played off, and several devices and figures artificially prepared with diverse kinds of burning matter continued blazing very agreeably for a good while.

The entertainments made Law miss Katherine and his daughter even more. He wrote poignantly to Kate, “We often think of you, your brother and I, and wish that you were here with Madame, to enjoy the diversions of the carnival. I hope to see you again soon, until then your main duty must be to please Madame, and to soften the pain that she has in my affairs.” He had rented a palazzo, conveniently close to the Ridotto, from the Austrian ambassador, Count Colloredo, went every night to the opera, and began to enjoy his life of seclusion. “I find myself well, being alone without valet, horse and carriage, to be able to walk everywhere on foot without being noticed in any way, so that I would prefer a private life with moderate means, to all the employments and honours that the King of France could give me.”

Money had still not arrived, and he relied on friends such as Lassay, who lent him £30,000, and on gambling to provide enough money to live on and pay off the endless creditors, most of them losers in Mississippi shares, who came knocking. Law’s financial debacle in France made him deeply unpopular in certain circles: “The chief bankers at Venice have represented to the Senate the great losses they have sustained are chiefly owing to the councils of that gentleman,” the State of Europe reported.

He was mortified at being unable to honor his commitments and struggled to come to terms with the sudden change in his fortunes. “What has happened is very extraordinary, but doesn’t surprise me. Last year I was the richest man there ever was and today I have nothing, not even enough to subsist—and what embarrasses me most, I owe and have nothing with which to pay.” The old gaming skills, based on his knowledge of probability, were quickly honed, but the opportunity for spectacular gain seems to have been lacking. Perhaps, given his impecunious circumstances, he was no longer allowed to play banker. A friend from Paris described him as playing “from morning to night. He is always happy when gambling and each day proposes different games.” After one especially profitable foray he was said to have made 20,000 livres at cards. But on several other occasions he was less fortunate and there are references in his letters to losses that he could ill afford. Favorite moneymaking ploys included staking 10,000 to 1 that a gambler could not throw sixes six times in a row—the odds against such a sequence are 46,656 to 1 (6 to the power of 6). Another game he loved was to offer a thousand pistoles to anyone who could throw six sixes with six dice, if the opponent paid him two pistoles whenever he threw four or five sixes. The odds against this are nearly 5,000 to 1.

Away from the gaming tables, he wrote increasingly urgent letters to the regent and Bourbon, imploring them to honor the agreement to send the 500,000 livres he had brought with him to France. All his other possessions, including shares, which he estimated still to be worth 100 million livres, and his properties, he willingly made over to the company to pay his debts and help those who had lost most during the system’s downfall. “I can only believe that you will agree to what I have the honour of proposing to ensure the security of my children. In the case of Your Highness refusing me this justice, I will be reduced to abandoning all I have to my creditors, who will grant me a modest pension of as much as pleases them.”

When it arrived, the news from Paris was alarming. In the wake of Law’s departure, de la Houssaye had reported to a council meeting convened to discuss the economic situation that 2.7 billion livres in bank accounts, notes, and other forms of debt guaranteed by the Crown were still outstanding. Much of this sum had been issued without authority and there was no hope, in view of the already depleted coin reserves, of repaying it.

Scrambling to distance themselves publicly from Law, the regent and Bourbon each tried to blame the other for sanctioning his escape, and the meeting degenerated into an undignified squabble. Bourbon demanded to know how Orléans, who had been aware of the figures, could have let Law leave the country. The regent replied shiftily, “You know that I wanted to have him sent to the Bastille; it was you who stopped me, and sent him his passports to leave.” The duc agreed that he had sent the passports, but only because the regent had issued them and he did not think it in the regent’s interest to allow a man who had served him so well to be imprisoned. Had he known about the unauthorized issue of notes, though, he would have acted differently. By now thoroughly embarrassed, Orléans could only argue feebly that he had permitted Law’s escape because he felt his presence harmful to public credit.

In view of the dire financial situation, the council agreed that the investigation into the bank, Law’s private affairs, and speculators who had made large gains should be hugely expanded, with a view to reducing the Crown’s outstanding debt. Law’s long-standing adversaries, the Pâris brothers, were recalled from exile to supervise. Crozat, another eminent private banker, from whom Law had snatched the colonization rights to Mississippi, was appointed to look into Law’s private affairs. Eight hundred investigators were set to work in the old offices of the bank, at a cost of 9 million livres. Anyone holding shares, annuities, or banknotes was ordered to deposit them and explain how they had acquired such sums. As before, if they were deemed to have acted illegally they were liable to severe fines and confiscation of much of their property. The scale of the impact of Law’s schemes became clear when a total of more than half a million people—equivalent to two-thirds of the then entire population of London—came forward with claims for losses as a result of his shares and banknotes. Nearly two hundred investors were penalized to the tune of almost 200 million livres—the widow Chaumont received the heaviest fine of 8 million livres, but remained rich because she had cannily put so much money into tangible assets. Other less fortunate, or less shrewd, investors found their gains dramatically reduced. “Those who have lost are already ruined, and now they wish to ruin those who gained,” wrote one journalist, as the pruning was uncomfortably achieved. In England the State of Europe commented that “other ministers are now undoing what has been done by that projector [Law],” and went on to remark, “The French court after so many trials and expedients to no purpose may be convinced that a public bank is one of those plants which cannot grow in all soils, and that people will never entrust with the keeping of their cash a company which may be dissolved by any sudden blast of an arbitrary wind.” In fact, as Law had pointed out, the State had benefited greatly from his system. Rising inflation, falling share prices, and the reduction in the value of paper had bankrupted state creditors but reduced Crown debt by two-thirds.

The Mississippi Company was also targeted by the investigators. The privilege of administering the tax system and mint was withdrawn, and the company retained only its maritime interests. Through a painful process of confiscations and contractions, shares were decreased in number from 135,000 to 56,000. In this depleted state the company survived its founder’s downfall, and in one sense fulfilled his fervent hope, remaining in business until the end of the eighteenth century.

Amid the financial confusion Law, the convenient whipping boy, was accused of massive misappropriation and of leaving vast unsettled debts. According to one report, a week before his departure he had helped himself to 20,000 livres from the bank. A later document sent to the Duc de Bourbon showed that in fact Law’s account was several millions in credit.

Conscious of ill will mounting against him, and unable to defend himself, Law became more and more concerned for Katherine’s safety. In mid-April, when traveling conditions had improved, he instructed her to arrange for the dispatch of their horses, carriages, and furnishings by boat, settle outstanding debts—according to the regent’s mother, she owed 10,000 livres to the butcher alone—and prepare to leave: “I want your company and to live as we used to before I engaged in public business. . . . Though I determine you at present to come to Venice and though I like the place very well, I don’t propose that we shall always stay here.” He was desperately worried at the thought of her making the hazardous journey across Europe without him, and sent detailed instructions of the route she should take and the documents she would need. Certificates of health would have to be stamped in every town they passed because of the travel restrictions caused by the plague; she should avoid crossing through the Tyrol in case she was held for quarantine; and she should travel incognito: “Keep your journey private, there are malicious people . . . and though I received no insult on the road, yet I think you should shun being known, it may be thought that you have money or things of value with you.”

Katherine’s preparations to leave must have been under way when the investigators swooped and she, unwittingly, became a pawn in their lust to hurt Law. Her request for passports was refused. All Law’s assets, including the Hôtel de Langlée, where Katherine was living at the time, and a dozen or so other properties belonging to him, were confiscated. She was reduced to taking lodgings in a modest inn in St. Germain, with only a valet and chambermaid to attend her. Then, on May 8, William Law, suspected of planning an escape, was arrested and incarcerated in the Fort l’Évèque. Perhaps to spare him further worry, Katherine failed to tell Law what had happened, and he was still unaware of the situation—a letter from Paris to Venice could take weeks to arrive—when he wrote disappointedly to her, “I find you have no inclination to come to Italy, I agree that England or Holland would be better. . . . You may go to Holland.”

When news of the situation in Paris eventually filtered through, he was outraged, even though she still had not told him the full truth of her own reduced circumstances. “Mme. Law writes that they find me a debtor of 7 million to the bank, and of five or six million to the company, and that the King has seized my effects, that my brother is in prison, and his effects seized, without being told the reason. You know that I paid no attention to my own interests, that I didn’t know the exact state of my affairs; my time was entirely taken up with public service.” He was paying an unimaginable price for his idealism and failure to attend to his own affairs. Plainly if he were to exact justice, he realized, he had only two choices left: to return to France, or to move to England and put pressure on Bourbon and Orléans through his connections at the English court.

He pursued both avenues: he dispatched new reports for ways to improve French finances to Paris in the hope that they would clear the way for his return, and made overtures to friends in London. According to the English diplomat Crawford, the schemes were warmly received in Paris. “Mr. Law . . .has sent a new project for the re-establishment of finances to the Regent, which was very well liked, they infer from hence that gentleman will soon return into France.” But the regent, though quietly keen to bring him back, was fearful of a public outcry if he did so. Still in the grip of Law’s enemies, he refused to intervene. The stalemate persisted.

In London, Law’s approaches to Lord Ilay and Lord Londonderry were greeted with only marginally less ambivalence. Four years earlier, through Londonderry’s intervention, Law had been granted a pardon by George I and a discharge from the Wilsons. As a pledge of loyalty to France, he had given the royal pardon to the regent—another impetuous gesture of steadfastness that was now a cause of regret—and had left the Wilsons’ discharge in Paris. Now, realizing that the developments of the past year had changed the way in which Britain viewed him, Law hoped uneasily that “His Majesty will have no scruple to order a second expedition of it [the pardon].” But he was worried enough about his reception to flex his political muscle and stress menacingly how damaging a refusal to let him return might be. “It would be very much contrary to the interest of my country to refuse me the retreat I desire there. . . . I have received offers from very powerful Princes, which would tempt one that had either the passion of ambition or revenge. England may retrieve her credit, if no other state pretend to rival her in it; but if I should fail to work with a prince that has means, authority, and resolution, I can change the face of the affairs of Europe.”

Since leaving France, Law had certainly received offers of employment from Denmark and Russia, which so far he had turned down. But his threat was far from idle: if England refused him entry and Orléans continued to deny him funds to settle his debts, he would have no choice but to “look for a protector to avoid a prison sentence, which might endure all my life.” The threat of debtor’s prison was ever present, and presumably the experience of Newgate in his youth heightened his terror of returning. Significantly, a stipulation of his request to return was that his creditors in Britain should allow him a few months’ grace to arrange his affairs before pressing for payment. The total loss to Londonderry from a drastic wager made in Paris, which anticipated that East India stock would fall, was nearly £600,000, and his inability to repay it had forced Middleton, his banker, to close his business at around the same time that Law left Paris.

Londonderry and Ilay contacted Lord Carteret, who conferred with the king, but when by late summer there was still no clear decision and his creditors were clamoring ever more menacingly, Law decided, with typical impulsiveness, to risk it. Later he wrote, “I had no invitation from the King nor from his ministers but the situation of my affairs made me take the course of going there with these uncertainties.”

Leaving Venice at the end of August, and carefully avoiding Holland and parts of Germany where he knew angry creditors might apprehend him, Law took a circuitous route through Bohemia to Hanover, then northward to Copenhagen. He had intended to spend some time in the Danish court—the diplomat Guldenstein was an old friend who, since Law’s departure from France, had repeatedly offered him a role in government. Law had refused on the grounds that his plan was to live quietly: “Having worked in the most beautiful theatre in Europe under the most enlightened Prince, having taken my project to the point where it could make a nation happy, and having little to support me against the cabals of court and the factions of the state I will take no more engagements.”

The English Baltic squadron was anchored at Elsinore and preparing to sail home before winter, so there was no time to see Guldenstein at the Danish court. Admiral John Norris, commander of the fleet, allowed Law to board his vessel Sandwich for the return passage. The ship set sail on October 6, arriving a fortnight later at the naval base of the Nore in the Thames estuary. It was the first time Law had set foot on English soil for twenty-six years.

His friends Ilay and Londonderry were waiting for him and escorted him to London, where, as he had feared, there were mixed feelings about the prodigal’s return. On arrival he wrote to Katherine, “I don’t expect to be well received at court; for which reason I think not to go, having nothing to ask.” Apart from the South Sea catastrophe, for which he was widely blamed, it was also feared “his stay in London could only help people with evil intentions to whip up jealousies”—that France would frown on England for offering Law sanctuary. The controversy was sufficiently fierce to be raised twice in the House of Lords, Earl Coningsby complaining that Law “had done so much mischief in a neighbouring kingdom; and [who] being so immensely rich as he was reported to be, might do a great deal more hurt here, by tampering with many who were grown desperate by being involved in the calamity occasioned by the fatal imitation of his pernicious projects.” Above all, stated Coningsby, Law should be shunned for renouncing “not only his natural affection to his country, and his allegiance to his lawful sovereign by being naturalized in France, and openly countenancing the Pretender’s friends; but which was worst of all, and weighed most with him, that he had also renounced his God by turning into a Roman Catholic.” Carteret stood up for Law. He was here having received the benefit of the king’s clemency, he was no longer a fugitive from British justice, having been granted his pardon in 1717, and it was the right of every subject to return to his native land.

By November the ferment had begun to settle as Law’s influential supporters gained ground and persuaded the establishment that, far from endangering the relationship with France, Law might actually help it. The diplomat Sutton noted, “The retreat of Mr. Law to England does not seem to displease the court. . . . Law will do nothing to trouble the good intelligence and harmony between the two courts.” By the end of the month this argument had prevailed, and Law was permitted to return to the bar of the King’s Bench to plead pardon, attended by the Duke of Argyll, the Earl of Ilay, and several other influential friends. The London Journal of December 2 contained the following report of the momentous event: “On Tuesday November 28 (the last day of term) the famous Mr. Law appeared at the King’s Bench Bar, and pleaded his pardon for the Murder of Beau Wilson on his knees.”

Thus officially pardoned, Law took lodgings in Conduit Street. He still longed to see Katherine and hoped that his move might help: “I can’t think the Regent will detain you when he knows I’m first here. I think His Royal Highness and those who serve him honestly should be pleased that I am here, where I may be useful to him; knowing his intentions to live in friendship with the King.”

Although he had been granted a modest pension by the regent, and London bankers restored limited credit to his accounts, he still battled for settlement of debts incurred on the company’s behalf, for which many held him personally responsible. He was distraught that his brother’s friend, the London banker George Middleton, had been forced into bankruptcy as a result of his losses on Law’s account, and had already tried to speed up the settlement of these debts from Venice: “I would have you get the Marquis de Lassay and my brother to meet with you, to concert what can be done to satisfy M. Middleton, I have wrote to M. le Duc, who will speak to the Regent about what is due by the King, his R.H. had agreed to have a million per month given out of the 15 millions the company was to pay,” he had written to Katherine. But the regent had seemingly forgotten his promises, and despite numerous letters to Bourbon, Dubois (the French first minister), Lassay, and others, nothing was done.

Little by little Law was welcomed back into fashionable London society. People were fascinated by his reputation, longed for the opportunity to meet him—and were invariably charmed by him when they did. Writing to the Earl of Oxford, William Stratford noted,

I was fetched from the Audit House yesterday to three gentlemen who had brought me a letter from Dr. Cheyney. I was once thinking not to have gone home, but when I did, the gentlemen proved to be the famous Mr. Law and his son, and Lord Sommerville, a young Scotch lord. Though I was no stranger to Law’s character, yet I did not grudge a bottle of wine, for the sake of a little conversation with one who has made so much noise in the world.

In the new year of 1722 he was a regular visitor at court. He spoke frequently with the king—presumably in German, since George spoke little English—and mingled with the prince of Wales and other royal offspring. To Katherine he described the royal children as “handsome, genteel, and well fashioned. If my daughter was here I believe [she] would be liked by them.” In between the social rounds he spent his time quietly, enjoying a regular ride with his son on the horses they had acquired; he told Katherine that he felt much revived by the exercise.

But the passing months brought little real improvement. His financial affairs were still unresolved; the company debts remained unsettled. One creditor, a moneylender called Mendez to whom Middleton had been forced to turn to raise money against Law’s debts, had now taken out a writ against him and could have him arrested at any time. Despite repeated applications for a passport, Katherine was still refused permission to leave France. “I own to you these reflections animate me sometimes to that degree, that I’m not master of my passion,” he wrote helplessly, valiantly trying to rekindle her hope that they would soon be reunited with the suggestion that yet another refusal to grant her passport might mean he would soon be recalled to France. “I’m in hopes to hear the regent will allow you to come out of France; if not, I suppose his intention may be to have me go over, for I hear the people of that country are much changed in their way of thinking upon my subject.” At other times, when his sense of desperation was overwhelming, he vented his wretchedness in letters to Orléans or Bourbon. “I am aware of the treatment I have had from France. The imprisonment of my brother and of those who showed some attachment to me, the retention of Mme. Law and my daughter, but above all the indifference that Your Royal Highness has shown on my subject has hurt me more than the state to which I am reduced,” he wrote to the regent, who as usual failed to respond.

Added to concerns about his financial affairs and Katherine, his relationship with his brother William had become severely strained. As soon as Law had left France, William had written long, grumbling letters to him in Venice, to which Law had sternly replied, “I would have you reflect that what you have had has been by my means, and if I have engaged you in measures that you don’t now approve, I have followed these measures for myself and children, reproaches are not proper at present, you should propose expedients.” The divide widened after William’s arrest, when he had recklessly sent his wife Rebecca to Venice to beg for help. Rebecca was pregnant and Law referred to the journey as “la sottise,” foolishness. Nonetheless he provided her with statements detailing his involvement and shared what little money he had—borrowed from Las say—with her. Since Law’s return to Britain the rancor between the brothers had deepened further over outstanding debts and disagreements about property bought by Middleton. At first Law had felt that the hardship of his incarceration excused his brother: “My brother must have gone mad; perhaps prison has turned his head,” he suggested to a friend. Middleton had tried to intervene, telling William of “some conversation I have had lately with your brother. I find him a little disobliged with you, which I believe proceeds in some measure from your writing him in a way or manner not altogether agreeable to him.” Middleton urged William to make up his differences with Law. “Now as he was by far the most valuable friend you possibly could have, and still expressed himself with much concern for you, ’till of very late, I humbly think you would do well to consider sedately, how far it may be proper for you to disoblige him, as well as how much the world will blame you.” But Middleton’s letter seems to have had little if any effect, and Law was infuriated to discover that some of the malicious and unfounded rumors concerning his supposed secret funds outside France had originated from William. “What must my enemies think when they see the conduct of my brother?” he wondered. Even when the situation in France improved slightly and his brother’s release was imminent, a frostiness remained, and compared with letters to other friends, Law’s tone in letters to William was markedly detached. “I have wrote several times to the Regent, and to the Cardinal [Dubois] about your enlargement; and I expect to have heard of your being at liberty. I suppose you will soon, his R.H. having promised to do me and you justice.”

Watching developments closely was Sir Robert Walpole, the first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer, who, having risen to power in the aftermath of the South Sea debacle, was now Britain’s prime minister in all but name. Despite Law’s financial vulnerability, Walpole felt that he might soon be invited back to France. “If the Duke of Orleans is disposed to recall him [Law] as Mr. Law’s friends here are very sanguine in hoping,” he wrote to the diplomat Sir Luke Schaub,

it is not our business to obstruct it. . . . If Mr. Law does not return there can be no doubt but that the power might fall into worse hands; and if any who are neither Englishmen by birth or affection should prevail, we should have a less chance than by admitting one who has sundry ties to wish well to his native country.

The conviction that he would soon be back in power also helped buy time from Law’s creditors. Some moneylenders had enough confidence in his prospects to offer him primes option loans: for a £10 loan he would repay £100, but only if he returned to France. He admitted he would be tempted by the offer “if they wanted to give me enough to settle my commitments.”

The pace of progress was excruciatingly slow. Eventually, in October 1723, almost two years after his arrival in London, Law’s departure for Paris, accompanied by Walpole’s brother, seemed imminent. “I have so ordered my brother’s journey to Paris with him that he thinks Horace goes with his advice,” wrote Walpole. But it was not to be. Preparations were under way and Law was awaiting final instructions from Paris when, on December 2, inauspicious news reached London. Orléans, worn out by debauchery and the pressures of government, had suffered a massive heart attack at the age of forty-nine and collapsed and died in the arms of one of his mistresses, the Duchesse Marie Thérèse de Falaris.

Law’s hopes of return to France died with him. Bourbon took over the reins of power, but his ambitious and scheming mistress, Madame de Prie, who had lent Law her coach when he escaped from France, had grown hostile to him. The recall for which he had hoped never came, and payment of his pension was suspended. The charity of friends and wins at the tables were again his only means of support. Profound humiliation shines through his letter to the Countess of Suffolk: “Can you not prevail on the Duke to help me something more than the half year? Or is there nobody that could have the good nature enough to lend me one thousand pounds? I beg that, if nothing of this can be done, that it may only be betwixt us two, as I take you as my great friend.”

A poignant letter to Bourbon from the following summer of 1724 resounds with turmoil at his circumstances: “There is scarcely an example, perhaps not one instance, of a foreigner like him [Law], who acquired in so high a degree the confidence of the Prince, who made so large a fortune in so upright a manner, and who, on leaving France, reserved nothing for himself and his family, not even what he had brought into the kingdom with him.” As time passed, rancor at this injustice yielded to a sense of remorse at the opportunities he had let slip:

I have sacrificed everything, even my property and my credit, being now bankrupt not only in France but also in all other countries. For them I have sacrificed the interests of my children, whom I tenderly love, and who are deserving of all my affection; these children, once courted by the most considerable families in France, are now destitute of fortune and of assets. I had it in my power to have settled my daughter in marriage in the first houses of Italy, Germany, and England; but I refused all offers of that nature, thinking it inconsistent with my duty.

Desperate for money, worried that he might be thrown into debtor’s prison at any moment, and hopeful that if he were employed by the English authorities they might take up his case with France, Law now turned to Walpole for a diplomatic post. Although as a Catholic he was barred from holding an official diplomatic position, Walpole agreed. Law was delighted: “I will do all I can so that his majesty and his ministers are satisfied with my services,” he wrote a few days before leaving.

Having received his first payment from the government, presumably with much relief, John Law crossed the channel on August 9, 1725, accompanied by his nephew. He had been instructed to head for the spa of Aix-la-Chapelle, and take the waters while awaiting further orders. His role was to be far from orthodox: he was to journey through Europe, pretending to be a traveler but in reality acting as an undercover agent, reporting anything of interest he noticed. France’s “meteor” was poised at the age of fifty-four to embark on a new career as a spy.

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