There was a new king, Louis XV, great-grandson of Louis XIV, but he was only five years old. He had lost his grandfather, his father, his mother, his brothers, his sisters, his great-grandfather last of all. Who would be regent for him?

Two dauphins had preceded Le Roi Soleil to death: his son Louis, who had died in 1711, and his grandson, the Duke of Burgundy, who had died in 1712. Another grandson had been accepted as Philip V of Spain, on condition of renouncing all rights to the throne of France. Two of the old King’s illegitimate sons survived him; he had legitimized them, and had decreed that in default of princes of the royal blood, they should inherit his crown. The elder of them, Louis Auguste, Duc du Maine, now forty-five, was an amiable weakling whose consciousness of his club foot intensified his shyness and timidity; he might well have been content with the luxury and ease of his 900,000-livre estate at Sceaux (just outside of Paris), had not his ambitious wife prodded him to compete for the regency. The Duchesse du Maine never forgot that she was the granddaughter of the Great Condé; she maintained an almost royal court at Sceaux, where she patronized artists and poets (including Voltaire), and gathered about her a gay and faithful entourage as a prelude and springboard to sovereignty. She had some charms. She was immaculate in body and garb, so short and slim that she could have been taken for a girl; she had wit and cleverness, a good classical education, a ready tongue, an inexhaustible and exhausting vivacity. She was sure that under her thumb her husband would make a delightful regent. She had prevailed sufficiently with the forces about the dying King to have drawn from him (August 12, 1715) a will that left to the Duc du Maine control of the young Louis’ person, education, and household troops, and a place on the Council of Regency. However, a codicil (August 25) to that will named, as president of the Council, Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans.

Philippe was the son of the old King’s androgynous brother Philippe I (“Monsieur”) by a second wife, the robust and realistic Charlotte Elisabeth, Princess Palatine. The youth’s education had been entrusted to an abbé whom both Saint-Simon’s Memoirs and Duclos’ Secret Memoirs of the Regency describe as a cloaca maxima of vices. The son of a provincial apothecary, Guillaume Dubois studied hard, earned his living by tutoring, married, then left his wife, with her consent, to enter the Collège Saint-Michel at Paris, where he paid his tuition by zealously performing menial tasks. Graduating, he accepted a position as aide to Saint-Laurent, officer of the household to “Monsieur.” He took the tonsure and minor orders, apparently forgetting his wife. When Saint-Laurent died Dubois was made tutor to the future Regent. According to the rarely impartial Duclos, “the Abbé felt that he would soon be despised by his pupil if he did not corrupt him; he left nothing undone to accomplish this end, and unfortunately was but too successful.”10Saint-Simon, who hated unpedigreed talent, enjoyed himself describing Dubois:

A little, pitiful, wizened, herring-gutted man in a flaxen wig, with a weazel’s face brightened by some intellect. In familiar terms, he was a regular scamp. All the vices unceasingly fought within him for supremacy, so that a continual uproar filled his mind. Avarice, debauchery, ambition were his gods; perfidy, flattery, footlicking his means of action; complete impiety was his religion; and he held the opinion, as a great principle, that probity and honesty are chimeras with which people deck themselves, but which have no existence…. He had wit, learning, knowledge of the world, and much desire to please and insinuate himself, but all was spoiled by an odor of falsehood which escaped in spite of him through every pore of his body…. Wicked,… treacherous, and ungrateful, expert in the blackest villainies, terribly brazen when detected. He desired everything, envied everything, and wished to seize everything.11

Saint-Simon was close to Philippe’s family, and must not be rashly contradicted; we must add, however, that this abbé was a good scholar, an able aide, a wise and successful diplomat, and that Philippe, knowing the man well, remained faithful to him to the end.

The pupil, perhaps already botched by his paternal ancestry, took readily to his tutor’s instructions, and bettered them in mind and vice. He delighted his teacher by his tenacious memory, his intellectual acumen, his penetrating wit, his understanding and appreciation of literature and art. Dubois secured Fontenelle to ground the youth in science, and Homberg to initiate him into chemistry; later Philippe, like Charles II of England and Voltaire at Cirey, was to have his own laboratory, and seek in chemical experiments some respite from adultery. He painted tolerably, played the lyre, engraved illustrations for books, and collected art with the most discriminating taste. In none of these fields did he dig deeply; his interests were too varied, and his amusements had an option on his time. He was quite devoid of religious belief; even in public he “affected a scandalous impiety.”12 In this and in his sexual license he gave a symbol and impetus to his country and century.

Like most of us he was a confusion of characters. He lied with ease and sly delight at need or whim; he spent millions of francs, drawn from an impoverished people, on his personal pleasures and pursuits; however, he was generous and kindly, affable and tolerant, “naturally good, humane, and compassionate” (said Saint-Simon13), and more faithful to his friends than to his mistresses. He drank himself drunk as a nightly ritual before going to bed.14 When his mother reproved him he answered her, “From six o’clock in the morning till night I am subjected to prolonged and fatiguing labor; if I did not amuse myself after that, I could not bear it; I should die of melancholy.”15

Perhaps his sexual redundancies had some excuse in the abortion of his first love. He developed a passionate attachment to Mlle. de Séry, a highborn maid of honor to his mother. He wrote poetry for her, sang to her, visited her twice a day, and wished to marry her. Louis XIV frowned, and powerfully recommended his bastard daughter, the Duchesse de Blois. Philippe obeyed (1692), but continued his attentions to Mlle. de Séry so zealously that she bore him a son. The angry monarch banished her from Paris. Philippe sent her many livres, but tried, with brief success, to be faithful to his wife. She gave him a daughter, the future Duchesse de Berry, who became his dearest love and bitterest tragedy.

The death of his father (1701) gave Philippe the ducal title and family wealth, with no other obligation but to enjoy his life in peace and risk it in war. He had already fought bravely against the first Grand Alliance (1692–97), receiving some major wounds; now he won further distinction by his reckless gallantry in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13). Surviving, he rewarded himself with a feast of tarts. Through all his sins, and except in his impieties, he maintained a charm of manners and a refinement and courtesy of speech reminiscent of the Sun King’s idyllic youth.

Only when all direct heirs to the throne had been removed by death or treaty did it occur to Philippe that he might claim the regency. Gossip accused him of having poisoned the princes of the blood to clear his way to sovereignty, but posterity has agreed with Louis XIV in rejecting this calumny. Several groups began’ to think of him as a lesser evil than the Duc and Duchesse du Maine. French Protestants who had under duress accepted conversion to Catholicism prayed for his accession to the regency as a man notably inclined to toleration; so did the Jansenists, suffering under royal persecution and papal bulls; so did the esprits forts, or freethinkers, who were delighted with the idea of a freethinker ruling France; so did the Parisian populace, tired of the late King’s tardy austerities; so did George I of England, who offered him financial aid, which Philippe refused. Above all, the “nobility of the sword”—the titled families that had been reduced from their ancient power by Richelieu and Louis XIV to become dependent parasites of the court—hoped through Philippe to avenge itself against the royal insult of subjection to bastards in rule and to tradesmen in administration. Saint-Simon, himself among the highest-ranking nobles, urged Philippe to abandon his idleness and debauchery, and fight for his right to the regency.

Philippe cared more for pleasure than for power, and might have preferred to be left alone. But now, prodded by his friends, he spurred himself to a flurry of action. He or they, under the Duc du Maine’s nose, bought the support of the royal household troops. They won political and military notables with promises of office, and coddled the Parlement with hopes of former privileges renewed. On September 2, 1715—the very day after Louis XIV’s death—Philippe summoned the Paris Parlement, the leaders of the nobility, and the chief officials of the state to the Palais de Justice. The Duc du Maine came hoping to receive the regency, but the audacity, mendacity, and eloquence of the Duc d’Orléans outplayed him. “I shall never,” Philippe promised, “have any other purpose but to relieve the people, to re-establish good order in the finances, to maintain peace at home and abroad, and to restore unity and tranquillity to the Church. Therein I shall be aided by the wise representations of this august assembly, and I hereby ask for them in anticipation”;16 i.e., he offered to restore to the Parlement that “right of remonstrance” (against royal edicts) which the late King had denied and ignored. This adroit move carried the day; the Parlement almost unanimously declared Philippe regent, and gave him full control of the Council. The Duc du Maine protested that these arrangements contravened the dead King’s will, and that under such conditions he could no longer be answerable for the boy King’s person, and must ask to be relieved of that duty. Philippe and the Parlement took him at his word, and Maine, furious but helpless, retired to Sceaux and the tirades of his wife. Philippe d’Orléans, aged forty-two, became for eight years regent of France.

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