IV. THE REGENT

His German mother had warned him to check his amiability. “It is better to be kind than harsh,” she told him, “but justice consists in punishing as well as rewarding; and it is certain that he who does not make Frenchmen fear him will soon fear them, for they despise those who do not intimidate them.”31 Philippe, molded by Montaigne, admired English liberty, and spoke optimistically about having subjects who would not obey him blindly, but would be intelligent enough to let him explain to them the reasons for his laws. He symbolized the spirit of his regime by abandoning Versailles and coming to live in the Palais-Royal, in the heart and fever of Paris. He disliked the ceremonies and publicity of court life, and put them behind him. For further ease and privacy he arranged that the young King should live not at Versailles but in the château of suburban Vincennes. Far from poisoning the boy, as gossip alleged, Philippe showed him every kindness and all due subordination, so that Louis XV preserved throughout his life a grateful remembrance of the care which the Regent had lavished upon him.32

Two days after Louis XIV had been buried, Philippe ordered the release from the Bastille of all prisoners except those known to have been guilty of serious crimes against society. Hundreds of these men had been imprisoned by secret letters (lettres de cachet) of the late King; most of them were Jansenists accused only of religious nonconformity; others had been incarcerated so long that no one, not even themselves, knew the cause. One man, arrested thirty-five years before, had never been brought to trial or told the reason of his confinement; released in his old age, he found himself bewildered by freedom; he did not know a soul in Paris, and had not a sou; he begged, and was allowed, to remain in the Bastille to the end of his life.

The dead King’s confessor, Michel Le Tellier, who had hounded the Jansenists, was banished from Paris. The Regent advised the opposing factions in the Church to quiet their disputes. He winked an eye at clandestine Protestants, and appointed several of them to administrative posts. He wished to renew the liberal Edict of Nantes, but the Jesuits and the Jansenists united in denouncing such toleration, and his minister Dubois, angling for a cardinal’s hat, dissuaded him.33 “The justice refused to the Protestants by the two factions in the Church was won for them only by philosophy.”34 The Regent was a Voltairean before Voltaire. He had no perceptible religious belief; under the pious Louis XIV he had read Rabelais in church;35 now he allowed Voltaire, Fontenelle, and Montesquieu to publish books that only a few years before would have been banned from France as imperiling Christian belief.

Politically, and even when he sent Voltaire to the Bastille, Philippe was a liberal and enlightened ruler. He explained his ordinances to the people in terms so moderate and sincere that Michelet saw in them a herald of the Constituent Assembly of 1789.36 Offices were filled with able men regardless of their enmity to the Regent himself; one who had threatened him with assassination was made chief of the Council of Finance.37 Philippe, by nature epicurean, remained a stoic till 5 P.M.; till then, says Saint-Simon, “he devoted himself exclusively to public business, reception of ministers, councils, etc., never dining during the day, but taking chocolate between two and three o’clock, when everybody was allowed to enter his room… His familiarity and his readiness of access extremely pleased people, but were much abused.”38 “Of all the race of Henry IV”—that is, of all the Bourbons—said Voltaire, “Philippe d’Orléans resembled that monarch the most in his courage, goodness of heart, openness, gaiety, affability, and freedom of access, and with an understanding better cultivated.”39 He disconcerted ambassadors and councilors by the range of his knowledge, the penetration of his mind, the wisdom of his judgment.40 But he shared the weakness of philosophers—the ability and willingness to see so many sides to a subject that time was absorbed in discussion, and decisive action was deferred.

Liberal though he was, he would not tolerate any abridgment of the traditional royal authority. When Parlement, availing itself of the privilege of remonstrance which he had promised it, refused to register some of his decrees (i.e., to enter them among the recognized laws of the land), he summoned it (August 25, 1718) to a famous lit de justice—a session at which the King, seated on a “bed” of judgment, exercised his sovereignty to compel the registration of a royal edict. The 153 magistrates, solemn in their scarlet robes, walked on foot to the Tuileries. The young King, following Philippe’s instructions, ordered them—and they proceeded—to register the Regent’s decrees. Since the Duc and Duchesse du Maine had continued to oppose him in council and by intrigues, he took the occasion to deprive the royal bastards of their status as princes of the blood. The legitimate dukes were restored to their former precedence and rights, to the delight of the Duc de Saint-Simon, to whom this was the greatest achievement of the Regency, and the noblest moment of his Mémoires.

The Duchesse du Maine did not accept defeat. She financed some of the wits who pricked the Regent with lampoons. He tolerated these barbs with the patience of St. Sebastian, excepting, as we shall see, the Philippiques and the Jai-vus (“I-have-seens”) attributed to Voltaire. In December, 1718, the Duchess entered into a conspiracy with Cellamare, the Spanish ambassador, with Alberoni, the Spanish premier, and with Cardinal Melchior de Polignac to overthrow the Regent and make Philip V of Spain king of France, with the Duc du Maine as his chief minister. The conspiracy was discovered, the ambassador was dismissed, the Duke and Duchess were sent to separate prisons, from which they were released in 1721. The Duke claimed ignorance of the plot. The Duchess resumed her court and intrigues at Sceaux.

Amid these harassments, and within the limits of tradition and his character, Philippe undertook some moderate reforms. More roads were built during his brief tenure than in Louis XIV’s half century. He saved millions of francs by abandoning Marly and Versailles, and keeping a numerically modest court. Many of Law’s innovations survived in a more economical and merciful collection of taxes, and the dismissal of taxgatherers accused of corruption or waste. Philippe contemplated a graduated income tax: he tried it in Normandy, in Paris, and at La Rochelle; it lapsed with his premature death. He did his best to keep France out of war; he demobilized thousands of troops, and settled them on uncultivated land; he housed the remaining soldiers in barracks instead of quartering them upon the people. With generous vision he opened the University of Paris and the Bibliothèque Royale to all qualified students without charge; the state paid their tuition.41 He supported with public funds the Académie Royale des Sciences, the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the Académie Royale de l’ Architecture; he financed the publication of learned works; he established in the Louvre an Académie des Arts Mécaniques to promote invention and the industrial arts.42 He gave pensions to artists, scholars, and savants, provided rooms for them in the royal palaces, and loved to talk with these men about their diverse pursuits. His measures and reforms fell short of full fruition partly because of the incubus of debt and the collapse of Law’s financial revolution, and partly through the Regent’s own physical and moral defects.

It is one of the pitiful tragedies in the history of France that this man with so many virtues of mind and heart was sullied and weakened with the debauchery of his class and time. Son of a sexual invert, tutored by an ecclesiastical rake, he grew up almost devoid of restraint in sexual indulgence. “He would have had virtues,” said Duclos, “if one could have them without principles.”43 Forced to marry an illegitimate daughter of Louis XIV, and finding no love or comfort in his wife, he took to frequent drunkenness, and to such a concatenation of mistresses as no ruler has equaled outside of Islamic seraglios. He chose his male friends among roisterers whom he called roués, who spent fortunes in venery and furnished their homes with costly art and sexual stimulants.44 In the Palais-Royal, or in his villa at St.-Cloud, Philippe joined his friends—mostly young nobles, but also some cultivated Englishmen like Lords Stair and Stanhope—in petits soupers where cultured women like Mme. du Deffand mingled with actresses, divas, and mistresses in providing feminine stimulation to male wit. Says Saint-Simon, with possibly some sanctimonious coloration:

At these parties the character of everyone was passed in review, ministers and favorites like the rest, with a liberty which was unbridled license. The gallantries past and present of the court and the town, all the old stories, disputes, jokes, absurdities, were raked up; nobody was spared; M. le Duc d’Orléans had his say like the rest. But very rarely did these discourses make the slightest impression upon him. The company drank as much as they could, inflamed themselves, said the filthiest things without stint, uttered impieties with emulation; and when they had made a good deal of noise and were very drunk, they went to bed to recommence the same game the next day.45

Philippe’s restless, uprooted spirit expressed itself in the brief tenure of his concubines. They rarely reigned beyond a month, but the superseded ones bided their time till it came their turn again. His valets, even his friends, brought him ever new candidates. Women of high rank, like the Comtesse de Parabère, adventuresses like Mme. de Tencin, singers and dancers from the opera, models of perfect beauty like Mme. de Sabran (whose “noble bearing” and “figure finest in the world” agitated even the virtuous Saint-Simon), gave themselves to the Regent for a spell of royalty, or for pensions, subsidies, jewelry; and he lavished gifts upon them from his own income or the ailing treasury. Careless though he was, he never allowed these women to elicit state secrets from him, or to discuss state affairs; when Mme. de Sabran tried to, he made her look at herself in a mirror, and asked her, “Can one talk business to such a pretty face? I shouldn’t like it at all.”46 Her sway ended soon afterward.

This same paragon of promiscuity loved his mother, visited her twice daily, and meekly bore her sorrowful reprimands. He did not love his wife, but he gave her attentions and courtesy, and found time to have five children by her. He loved his children, grieved when his youngest daughter took to a nunnery, and let no day pass without visiting, in the Luxembourg Palace, his oldest daughter, whose life was almost as sad a scandal as his own.

Her marriage with Charles, Duc de Berry, soon became an oscillation of war and truce. Having caught him in alien arms, she agreed to smile upon his infidelities if he would condone her own; a contemporary chronicle adds that “they undertook to protect each other.”47 Granddaughter of “Monsieur le Sodomite,” and scion of a Bavarian family with insanity in its blood, she found stability of mind or morals beyond her power; and her consciousness of her faults heated a haughty temper that alarmed all who entered her life. She took full advantage of her derivation, rode through Paris like a queen, and kept at the Luxembourg a luxurious ménage, sometimes with eight hundred servants.48 When her husband died (1714) she entertained a succession of lovers. She shocked everyone by her drunkenness and debauchery, indecent language, and scornful pride; and her fits of piety alternated with skeptical sallies against religion.

She seems never to have loved anyone so much as her father, nor he anyone so much as her. She shared his intelligence, sensitivity, and wit along with his morals, and her beauty in youth rivaled that of his choicest mistresses. The gossip of Paris, having no heart and knowing no law, accused them of incest; for good measure it added that he had committed incest with all three of his daughters.49 Probably some of these rumors were set afloat by the circle of Mme. du Maine.50 Saint-Simon, closest to the situation, rejected them as base cruelties; Philippe himself never bothered to deny them. His complete freedom from jealousy of his daughter’s lovers,51 and her lack of jealousy of his mistresses52 hardly accord with the possessive character of love.53

Only one man could detach her from her father—Captain Rion of her palace guard, who so entranced her with his masculinity that she became his slave. In 1719 she shut herself in at the Luxembourg with a few attendants, and gave birth to the captain’s daughter. Soon afterward she secretly married him. She begged her father to let her announce this marriage; he refused; her love for him turned into a mad resentment. She fell sick, neglected herself, developed an alarming fever, and died, aged twenty-four, of a purgative administered by her doctor (July 21, 1719). An autopsy revealed some malformations in her brain. No bishop would consent to officiate at her funeral, and Philippe was humbly grateful when the monks of St.-Denis allowed her remains to be deposited in the royal vaults of their abbey church. Her mother rejoiced at her daughter’s death; her father buried himself in the emptiness of power.

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