How does it feel to be king from the age of five? The boy who was destined to rule France for fifty-nine years was hardly noticed in his early childhood; he was weak, and was expected to die soon. Then suddenly, in 1712, both his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy, were carried off by smallpox, and the boy was heir to the throne. Three years later he was king.
Every precaution was taken to unfit him for rule. His governess, Mme. de Ventadour, worried tremulously about the boy’s health, and shielded him from any hardening weather. A Jesuit confessor infused into him an awesome reverence for the Church. Fleury, as tutor, was complaisant and indulgent, and seems to have thought that it would be a blessing for France to have a do-nothing king. The lad’s governor, Maréchal de Villeroi, administered an opposite poison: leading him to a window of the Tuileries to receive the plaudits of a multitude gathered to acclaim him, “Look, mon maître” he said, “all that crowd, all those people, are yours; all belong to you; you are their master.”89 Omnipotence married incompetence.
Spoiled by adoration, selfish in power, lazy and willful, Louis developed into a bored and taciturn youth, forgivably shunning the surveillance of his guardians—and later the ceremonies and servility of the court—to seek an outlet in wood carving, needlework, milking cows, playing with dogs.90 The elements of cruelty that lurk in all of us were allowed in him to come through his timidity to the surface; it is related that in his boyhood he took pleasure in hurting, even killing, animals.91 In mature years he sublimated this into hunting, but it may have entered into his callous use and quick discarding of the young women trained in the Parc aux Cerfs for a stay in his bed. And yet a certain shy sensitivity and considerateness marked his treatment of his friends.
He had a good mind, which might have excelled if supported by character. He astonished all by his retentive memory and ready wit. He naturally preferred games to study, but he absorbed some real instruction in Latin, mathematics, history, botany, and military arts. He grew up to be tall, slender but broad-shouldered, with fine complexion and curly golden hair; Maréchal de Richelieu called him “the handsomest lad in his dominions.”92 The museum at Versailles preserves Vanloo’s portrait of him at thirteen, with sword and armor hardly befitting the boyish face. René Louis d’Argenson compared him to Eros. Women fell in love with him at first sight. When he took sick (1722), all France prayed for him; when he recovered, France wept with joy. This people which had suffered so much from its kings rejoiced in the hope that soon the youth would marry and beget a son to continue his noble house.
Indeed, he had already been affianced (1721), aged eleven, to María Ana Victoria, aged two, daughter of Philip V of Spain; she had been delivered to Paris, and was now waiting for nubility. But Mme. de Prie thought she could ensure her continuing influence by having this tentative union annulled, and marrying Louis to Marie Leszczyńska, daughter of the deposed King of Poland. She had her way. The Infanta was sent back to Spain (1725)—an insult never forgiven by the Spanish court. Stanislas was in refuge at Wissembourg in Alsace when he received the French King’s request for his daughter’s hand. Entering the room where she and her mother were at work, he said, “Let us fall on our knees and thank God.” “My dear father,” exclaimed Marie joyfully, “are you recalled to the throne of Poland?” “God has done us a more astounding grace,” Stanislas replied; “you are made Queen of France.”93 Marie had never dreamed of elevation to the greatest throne in Europe; she had seen pictures of Louis XV as of someone unattainably exalted, handsome, and powerful. The French treasury sent her dresses, petticoats, shoes, gloves, jewelry; it promised her 250,000 livres upon her reaching Versailles, and a life annuity of twenty thousand gold crowns. She took it all in a daze, and thanked God for her good fortune. She was married to the King by proxy at Strasbourg (August 15, 1725); she went merrily through days of tribulation on storm-drenched roads to Paris; she was married to the King in person at Fontainebleau on September 5. He was fifteen, she was twenty-two. She was not beautiful, she was only good.
Louis, who had as yet shown no interest in women, awoke at the touch of his modest bride. He embraced her with an ardor that surprised his entourage; and for some time their life was an idyl of love and happiness. She won the respect and loyalty of the people, but she was never popular. She was kind, affectionate, tender, and not lacking in playful wit; nevertheless Versailles missed in her the alert mind and vivacious speech that had become obligatory in ladies of the court. She was shocked by the morals of the aristocracy, but she made no other criticism than to give an example of a faithful wife, eager to please her husband and to give him an heir. In twelve years she bore ten children, and in her off years she suffered miscarriages. The royal appetite became a problem for the Queen; she begged the King to be continent at least on the festivals of the major saints. Then, through her labors and duties, she developed a scrofulous fistula, and the King’s ardor sought other channels. Her gratitude to Mme. de Prie and the Duc de Bourbon was a misfortune; she listened too patiently when, in the royal presence, the Duke denounced Fleury; when Fleury came to power he sent her daughters to a distant convent on grounds of economy, and his continuing influence weighted the scales against her. As the King grew colder she retired to an inner circle of her friends, played cards, wove tapestry, tried painting, and found solace in practices of piety and charity. “She lived a convent life amid the fevers and frivolities of the court.”94
The King had to be amused, and Mme. de Prie had chosen for him an unamusing wife. But not until seven years after his marriage did he take a mistress; then he took four in succession, yet with a certain fidelity, for they were all sisters. None was very comely, but all were lively and amusing, and all but one were experts in coquetry. Louise de Nesle, Comtesse de Mailly, had the honor of being apparently the first to seduce the King (1732). Like Louise de La Vallière, she sincerely loved her royal master; she sought neither riches nor power, but only to make him happy. When her sister Félicité, fresh from a convent, competed for the King’s bed, Louise shared Louis with her (1739) in a heterodox ménage à quatre—for he still visited the Queen. The complication troubled the conscience of the King; for a time he avoided the Eucharist, having heard terrible stories of men who had dropped dead on taking the Host into a sinful mouth.95 This second siren, according to one of her sisters, “had the figure of a grenadier, the neck of a crane, and the smell of a monkey”;96 she managed nevertheless to become pregnant. To preserve the proprieties Louis found a husband for her, making her the Marquise de Vintimille. In 1740 Mme. de Mailly withdrew to a convent; she left it a year later to tend her victorious rival, who was dying in childbirth (1741). The King wept, Mme. de Mailly wept with him; he found comfort in her arms; she became mistress again.
A third sister, Adélaïde de Nesle, fat and ugly, was clever and witty; she amused the King with her mimicry and repartee; he enjoyed her, found a husband for her, and passed on. A fourth sister, Mme. de Flavacourt, resisted him and befriended the Queen. But a fifth sister, ablest of them all, Marie Anne de Nesle de La Tournelle, persuaded Mme. de Mailly to present her to the King. She not only conquered him (1742), but insisted on being sole mistress; the amiable Mailly was sent away penniless, falling in a day from royalty to piety; so one Nesle drove out another. Some time later she had to disturb a number of worshipers to reach her chair in Notre-Dame. One of these muttered, “A lot of fuss over a whore.” “Sir,” she said, “since you know me so well, grant me the favor of praying God for me.”97 God must have found it easy to forgive her.
The new Nesle was the most beautiful of the sorority. Nattier’s portrait of her—fair of face, swelling bosom, graceful figure, swirling silk revealing pretty feet—explains the King’s precipitance. To all this she added a wit as sparkling as her eyes. Unlike La Mailly, she craved riches and power. She reckoned her curves were worth the duchy of Châteauroux, which brought 85,000 francs a year; she received it and its title of duchess (1743), and for a year she entered into history.
A strong faction at court favored her, for it hoped to use her influence in winning the King to an active martial policy, in which the primacy of government would return from the bourgeois bureaucracy to the military nobility. Louis at times labored dutifully in council with his ministers; he more often delegated his authority and tasks to them, seldom met with them, rarely contradicted them, occasionally signed conflicting decrees proposed by rival aides with conflicting policies. He fled from the irksome etiquette of the court to his dogs, his horses, and the hunt; when he did not hunt the court said, “Today the King does nothing.” Though he did not lack courage, he had no taste for war; he preferred a bed to a trench.
In bed and boudoir his voluptuous Duchess, reviving Agnès Sorel, urged him to play an active part in war against England and Austria. She pictured Louis XIV leading his army to glory at Mons and Namur, and asked why Louis XV, as handsome and brave as his great-grandfather, should not likewise shine in armor at the head of his troops. She had her way, and died in victory. For a moment the roi fainèant awoke from his lethargy. Perhaps it was at her prompting that when the end had come at last to the pacific Fleury, Louis announced that he would rule as well as reign. On April 26, 1744, France resumed active war against Austria; on May 22 alliance was renewed with Frederick of Prussia, who sent his thanks to Mme. de Châteauroux. Louis proceeded in royal fanfare to the front, followed a day later by his mistress and other ladies of the court, all attended by their wonted luxuries. The main French army, led by the King but directed in tactics by Adrien Maurice de Noailles and Maurice de Saxe, won easy victories at Courtrai, Menin, Ypres, and Furnes. Louis XIV and the grand siècle seemed reborn.
Amid the festivities word came that a French force, badly supported by its Bavarian allies, had allowed an Austro-Hungarian army to occupy parts of Alsace and Lorraine; Stanislas, never rid of misfortune, had to flee from Lunéville. Louis left Flanders and hurried to Metz, hoping to inspire the defeated army by his presence. But there, as the result of unwonted excitement, varied labors, indigestion, and midsummer heat, he fell seriously sick, and worsened so rapidly that by August 11 he was thought to be in danger of death. His mistress had followed him, and now superintended his care; the bishop of Soissons refused to allow him the last sacrament until the Duchess had been dismissed; Louis yielded and banished her to 150 miles from the court (August 14, 1744). The populace hooted her as she left the city.
Meanwhile Marie Leszczyńska had traveled in haste across France to be at the bedside of her husband; en route her cortege met the carriages of Châteauroux and her party. The King embraced the Queen, and said, “I have caused you much sorrow, which you do not deserve; I beg you to forgive me for it.” She answered, “Do you not know that you never need pardon from me? God alone has been offended.” When the King began to mend she wrote to Mme. de Maurepas that she was “the happiest of mortals.” All France went wild with joy at the King’s recovery and repentance; in Paris the citizens embraced one another in the streets; some embraced the horse of the courier who had brought the good news. A poet called the King “Louis le Bien-Aimé,” Louis the Well Beloved; the nation echoed the phrase. Louis, hearing of it, wondered, “What have I done to make them love me so much?”98 He had served as a father image for his people.
Frederick saved Alsace for France by invading Bohemia; the Austro-Hungarian army left Alsace to rescue Prague. Louis, still weak, joined his army advancing into Germany, and saw it take Freiburg-im-Breisgau. In November he returned to Versailles. He recalled Mme. de Châteauroux to favor, and exiled the bishop of Soissons; but on December 8, after many days of fever and delirium, the mistress died. She was buried at night to spare her corpse the insults of the crowd. Resentful of the clergy, the King avoided the sacraments at Christmas, and waited for another love.
For a time the nation forgot the sins of Le Bien-Aimé in the triumphs of its army, and a German Protestant general was the hero of France. Maurice de Saxe was the son of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. His mother was the Countess Maria Aurora von Königsmarck, distinguished among that monarch’s mistresses for such beauty and wit that Voltaire called her “the most famous woman of two centuries.”99 At eighteen Maurice married Johanna Victoria, Countess von Loeben, whose morals were as wicked as his father’s; he dissipated her fortune, denounced her adulteries, and divorced her (1721). After displaying his courage in many campaigns, he went to Paris to study mathematics; and in 1720 he obtained a commission in the French army. After surviving all the efforts of his ex-wife to have him poisoned, he found a devoted mistress in Adrienne Lecouvreur, then (1721) dominating the Comédie-Française. He left France in 1725 to carve out a kingdom for himself in Kurland (now part of Latvia). The great tragedienne, though suffering deeply the loss of her lover, gave him, toward the expenses of his enterprise, all her silver and jewels, forty thousand livres in all. With this and seven thousand thalers raised by his mother, he went to Kurland, and was elected to the ducal throne (1726). But both Catherine I of Russia and his own father supported the Polish Diet in opposing his accession, and a Polish army drove the otherwise invincible soldier out of Kurland. Returning to Paris (1728), he found that the great actress had waited for him faithfully, hoping now to be his sole love. But he had inherited the morals and instability of his father; he accepted her as merely prima inter pares among his mistresses.
Despicable in morals, using one woman after another without returning their devotion, he became on the battlefield an incomparable genius of strategy, bold in conception, alert to every danger and opportunity. Frederick the Great, his only rival in that age, said of him that he “could give lessons to any general in Europe.”100 In the spring of 1745, having been appointed commander in chief of the French army, he was ordered to the front. He was near death in Paris at the time, exhausted with excesses and suffering agonies from dropsy. Voltaire asked him how, in such a condition, he could think of taking the field. Maurice replied, “Il ne s’agit pas de vivre, mais de partir” (The important point is not to live but to set out).101 On May 11, with 52,000 men, he fought the English and the Dutch, 46,000 strong, at Fontenoy. Louis XV and the Dauphin watched the famous battle from a nearby hill. Maurice, too dropsical to ride a horse, directed the action from a wicker chair. Voltaire tells us, in what may have developed as a patriotic legend,102 that when the hostile masses of infantry came face to face within musket range, Lord Charles Hay, captain of the English Guards, called out, “Gentlemen of the French Guards, give fire,” and that the Comte d’Antroche replied for the French, “Gentlemen, we never fire first; do you begin.”103 Courtesy or stratagem, it was costly; nine officers and 434 foot men were killed, thirty officers and 430 soldiers were wounded, by that first volley;104 the French infantry faltered, turned, and fled. Maurice sent word to the King to withdraw; Louis refused, even when the retreating soldiers reached him; and perhaps his resolution shamed them. Then Maurice mounted a horse, reordered his forces, and let loose upon the enemy the “Maison du Roi,” the household troops of the King. Seeing their King in danger of capture or death, and inspired by the reckless ubiquity of Maréchal de Saxe under fire, the French renewed the battle; nobles and commoners on both sides became heroes in the anesthesia of fury and glory; finally the English fell back in disorder, and Maurice sent word to the King that the bitter engagement had been won. The English and Dutch had lost 7,500 men, the French 7,200. Louis bent his head in shame as the survivors cheered him. “See, my son,” he told the Dauphin, “what a victory costs. Learn to be chary of the blood of your subjects.”105 While the King and his entourage returned to Versailles, Maurice went on to take Ghent, Bruges, Audenaarde, Ostend, Brussels; for a time all Flanders was French.
Frederick canceled the results of Fontenoy by signing a separate peace with Austria (December, 1745); France was left to fight alone on half a dozen fronts from Flanders to Italy. By the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) she relinquished Flanders, and had to be content with obtaining the duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla for Louis’ new son-in-law, the Infante Don Felipe of Spain. Maurice of Saxony lived on till 1750, loaded with riches, honors, and disease, and finding time, between mistresses, to write some philosophical Rêveries:
What a spectacle is presented today by the nations! We see some men living in leisure, pleasure, and wealth at the expense of the multitude, which can subsist only by providing ever new pleasures for these few. This assemblage of oppressors and oppressed constitutes what we call a society.106
Another of the exalted few dared dream of a kindlier regime. René Louis de Voyer, Marquis d’Argenson, who for three years (1744–47) served Louis XV as minister of foreign affairs, composed in 1739, but dared not publish, Considérations sur le gouvernement de la France (1765). Those who till the land, he wrote, are the most valuable part of the population, and should be freed from all feudal dues and obligations; indeed, the state should lend money to small farmers to help them finance their future crops.107 Trade is vital to a nation’s prosperity and should be freed from all internal tolls, even, wherever possible, from all import or export dues. Nobles are the least precious element in the state; they are incompetent as administrators, and in the economy they are the drones of the hive; they should abdicate. “If anyone should say that these principles favor democracy and look to the destruction of the nobility, he would not be mistaken.” Legislation should aim at the greatest possible equality. The communes should be governed by locally elected officials, but the central and absolute power should reside in a king, for only an absolute monarchy can protect the people from oppression by the strong.108 D’Argenson anticipated the philosophes in hoping for reform through an enlightened king, and told the nobility what it recognized only on August 4, 1789, when it surrendered its feudal privileges. He was a stage on the way of France to Rousseau and Revolution.
In 1747 Louis yielded to the urging of Noailles, Maurepas, and Pompadour, and dismissed d’Argenson. The Marquis lost his faith in kings. In 1753 he predicted 1789:
The evil resulting from our absolute monarchical government is persuading all France and all Europe that it is the worst of governments.… This opinion advances, rises, grows stronger, and may lead to national revolution.… Everything is preparing the way for civil war.… The minds of men are turning to discontent and disobedience, and everything seems moving toward a great revolution, in both religion and government.109
Or, as the King’s new mistress was to put it, “Après moi le déluge.”