Modern history


The mood of politics in the après-Louis XIV era was transformed by the sensation caused by publication in 1717 of the Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz, key player and manipulator of popular and parlementary opinion during the Fronde (1648–53). Throughout Louis XIV’s reign, that episode had been a historical no-man’s-land, the only licensed visitors to which had been the triumphalist recorders of the king’s crushing of the revolt. Retz’s account supplied a fresh and daring angle of vision on the formative days of Louis-Quatorzian absolutism – and on the past more generally. In the Fronde, royal power had been contested by individuals from every part of the political world – the magistracy, the Princes of the Blood, the peerage, the minor gentry, town-dwellers and peasants. Usually implicitly, but sometimes very explicitly, noisily and contentiously, rival theories of political authority had been voiced, only to be silenced when first Cardinal Mazarin, then Louis XIV, restabilized the polity. Louis XIV’s demise now allowed many of these theories, evoked in Retz’s colourful account of this tempestuous period, to emerge Rip van Winkle-like into the political day. For political critics who, even before Louis XIV’s death, had been developing a historical perspective on state power, Retz’s Fronde seemed like current affairs.

Retz’s memoirs offered sustenance to those individuals who, increasingly disenchanted with the failure of the Polysynody to break the absolutist reflexes of the state, were attempting to reimagine the constitutional role of the parlements and the princes. Orléans’s honeymoon with the Paris Parlement had not lasted long. By agreeing on 2 September 1715 to the full restoration of the magistrates’ rights of remonstrance (and also permitting them to refer to themselves again as ‘sovereign’ courts), the Regent had welcomed back into the heart of the polity a body which had been a principal scourge of absolutism during the Fronde. The semblance of consultation which Orléans had allowed himself on that day, moreover, inflated the self-importance of a body which had almost disappeared from the political map. Magistrates who had exemplified dumb obedience in the latter decades of Louis XIV’s reign now turned dangerously truculent – and remained so for the rest of the century. When they now opined, they did so with a sense of grievance about the way they had been treated by Louis XIV, and with a determination that their muzzling in the aftermath of the Fronde should never be allowed to happen again.

Judging itself the supreme embodiment of law, the Parlement felt it carried a vital constitutional thread. Bodies like this, noted barrister Marais, ‘have long memories. Individuals die, but they never die.’9 As we have seen, Louis XIV’s absolutism had been founded on the theory that only the ruler’s own body had any representational force within the state, and that no other body (corps) could claim to express legitimate political interests. The Parlement’s progress in these opening years of the Regency highlighted its claim to be a corps which partook of the timelessness of the state’s ceremonial body and, thereby, stood for the interests of the nation as a whole. As early as 1718, parlementaires were arguing that, in the absence of the Estates General, they were the sole channel through which the legitimate anxieties of all the orders of the kingdom could be authoritatively voiced.

In seeking to enlarge its prerogatives, moreover, the Parlement utilized one of the key political languages of the regime, namely ceremony. For the processions celebrating the festival of the Assumption, on 15 August 1716, the magistrates laid claim to a place superior to the Regent himself on the grounds that their corporative body represented monarchy. The Regent, always prone to laisser-aller attitudes on questions of precedence, which he disdained, allowed this to go ahead, though his adviser, Saint-Simon, was in no doubt that enormous political claims were riding on the case. Orléans also dismissively supported the magistrates in another case of precedence, namely, the long-running ‘bonnet affair’ – over, in essence, whether the presidents of the Parlement should respectfully doff their caps (bonnets) to any peers of the realm present during their sessions. Beneath this nugatory matter of ceremonial etiquette lurked the question of whether it was the Parlement, the dukes and peers or else the nobility as a whole which had the more legitimate claim to represent the interests of the state. Orléans’s eventual adjudication in favour of the magistrates only fostered the Parlement’s wider constitutional ambitions.

Jansenism proved a choice terrain for the Parlement to flex its political and constitutional muscles.10 In the early, honeymoon days, Orléans found it relatively easy to jolly the magistrates along over Jansenism. Parlementary Gallicans and Jansenists packed the Regency Councils, the anti-Unigenitus cardinal de Noailles presided over the Council for Religous Affairs, and in 1717, the Parlement’s Procureur-Général, d’Aguesseau, a staunch Gallican, was even appointed Chancellor. The Regent released imprisoned Jansenists from state gaols, and bent over backwards to prevent the hardline attitude of Pope Clement XI towards opponents of the Unigenitus bull from becoming church policy within France. A diplomatic offensive was launched to get the Holy See to devise a doctrinal statement on the bull acceptable to both its proponents and their adversaries.

Conciliation, however, was slow to bear fruit. The pope refused either to compromise or to provide doctrinal explanations for his condemnation of Quesnel’s Moral Reflections, a text which many orthodox Catholics persisted in finding fault-free. In these circumstances, the higher clergy grew restive over the Regent’s apparent acceptance of papal rulings having the force of law in France. In March 1717, the bishops of Senez, Montpellier, Boulogne and Mirepoix issued an appeal (appel) calling for the referral of the Unigenitus ‘constitution’ to a general council of the Catholic church. The demand of the appelants or constitutionnaires, as they became known, implied that papal ‘infallibility’ could be controlled by a temporal authority, a claim which infuriated the pope but found numerous supporters in the Parlement and throughout the ecclesiastical establishment. No theologian, Orléans nevertheless began to stiffen his resolve. He forbade discussion on the matter while awaiting the pope’s view, and in December 1717, dismissed the Gallican Chancellor d’Aguesseau, and brought in as Keeper of the Seals the tough Paris Police Lieutenant, the comte d’Argenson, much liked in dévot circles. When the duke d’Antin inquired why he had taken this step, Orléans replied, ‘Because I wish to be master.’11

Firmness was moreover all the more necessary in that the Parlement seemed intent on upping the ante. In particular, the magistrates were looking to extend their competence beyond religion to financial affairs – a move associated with their sniping against the growing influence in the Regent’s counsels of the financial projector, John Law. When in August 1717 Orléans brought before the Parlement a package of radical financial measures concocted by Law, the magistrates issued strongly worded remonstrances, and audaciously demanded the Regent provide a detailed report on the state of government finance.12 Though things just failed to get out of hand on this occasion, a further crisis cropped up the following summer, when the Regent took a decree on recoining to be registered not to the Parlement but to a subaltern court, the Cour des Monnaies. The Parlement erupted angrily at this jurisdictional affront, issuing a regulation (arrêt) forbidding the circulation of Law’s banknotes. Seemingly mindful of the events of the Fronde as described in the works of Retz, the magistrates called for a union of all the Paris sovereign courts on the lines of the so-called ‘Chambre Saint-Louis’ which had initiated the Fronde in 1648, leading on to a ‘Day of Barricades’ in which the Parisian population had openly flouted royal authority. When on 18 August 1718 the magistrates issued a decree (very evidently targeting John Law) forbidding foreigners to be involved in the administration of the state’s finances, how could they not be aware of the fact that their Frondeur forefathers had pronounced an identical measure against the Italian cardinal Giulio Mazarini?

On 26 August 1718, in a remarkable coup de force, Orléans crushed the political audacity and embryonic constitutional pretensions of the Parlement. A lit de justice secretly planned by the abbé Dubois and Saint-Simon – the latter of whom stood throughout the session hyperventilating with joy at the magistrates’ discomfiture – forced through a whole series of measures which the parlementaires had hitherto opposed. Their rights to remonstrate were severely limited, and they were prohibited from meddling in financial affairs or linking up with other sovereign courts. Massive military preparations in the capital had in any case made certain that there would be no Fronde-like ‘Day of Barricades’ – and indeed it is not altogether clear whether the Parlement this time enjoyed much popular support.

This crushing lit de justice of 26 August was combined with an attack on the status of the legitimized children of Louis XIV. Orléans had tried to stay aloof from a long-running dispute between Maine and Toulouse on one side and the dukes and peers on the other. The dukes and peers, already embroiled with the Parlement over the ‘bonnet affair’, launched ferocious attacks on the constitutional legality of Louis XIV’s decree of 1714 which had opened up accession to the throne to the former bastards. In July 1717, a commission established by Orléans to adjudicate the issue had emphatically denied the successoral claims of the two brothers, and the Regent declared himself in a state of ‘happy powerlessness to alienate the crown’s domain’.13 Now, on 26 August 1718, Orléans followed up by reducing Maine and Toulouse to the rank of dukes and peers, and deprived Maine of his post as superintendent of Louis XV’s education, which passed into the hands of the aged duc de Villeroy.

Orléans’s humiliation of Maine was punishment too for the latter’s increasingly open opposition to the Regent, and his apparent efforts to create an anti-Regency political alliance based around the core of an ‘Old Court’ faction. Maine himself was something of a political zero (as Retz would have put it),14 and there was a strong comic-opera air about the duke’s conspiratorial activities – invisible ink, coded messages, midnight assignations, swashbuckling adventurers in minor roles, and so on. Maine’s wife, the Lilliputian Mademoiselle de Charolais – granddaughter of le Grand Condé – was a starry-eyed votary of the cloak-and-dagger, whose bedside reading included chivalric romances and Machiavelli’s notes on conspiracy,15 and she doubtless thrilled to the amazonian adventures of Frondeuses such as the duchesse de Chevreuse and the ‘Grande Mademoiselle’ recounted in Retz. The diminutive duchess soon emerged as the energetic heart of a conspiracy which eventually took in not just the high nobility, but also the provincial gentry, the Parisian populace and – another Frondeur touch – the kingdom of Spain. The family château at Sceaux became the launching-pad for the duchess’s plots. She followed a trend already evident in the ‘bonnet affair’, of using printed propaganda as a means of popularizing and legitimating the princes’ case. Pamphlets took the form of an appeal to the opinion of a ‘public’, figured as ‘the Tribunal of the Nation’, a kind of supreme judge of questions of legitimacy.16 Even though the public in question was as yet tiny – the pamphlets were issued in print-runs of a few hundred, and many copies were given away – this rhetorical strategy marked something of a break from the approach of the Burgundy circle under Louis XIV which had tried to keep its criticisms under wraps. It would become widespread over the course of the century, as would another type of pamphlet attack, which had had an earlier manifestation in the mazarinades of the Fronde, namely, scurrilous character assassination. The Philippiqueswhich the duchesse du Maine part-sponsored, part-penned herself between 1717 and 1719 targeted Orléans (the Philip in question), claiming, inter alia, that he had committed incest with his wild and wilful daughter, the duchesse de Berry, and was planning to poison the young Louis XV.

Orléans was well inured to attacks on his character, for the irregularity of his life made him rich pickings for ad hominem vituperation. Yet contemporaries were misled into seeing him as little more than a selfish hedonist. Certainly he could relax – and how! Yet it was probably less a comment on what actually occurred than on the puritanism of the age and the character of political caricature that his evening sessions with easy-going cronies, flighty aristocratic ladies and dancers at the opera – boozy and gamey though they certainly were – were dubbed ‘orgies’. Partly, Orléans was taking the flak for a far more general loosening in standards of public morality which characterized the après-Louis XIV era: Orléans’s own mother, for example, characterized Paris as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, full of men who cheated on their wives, wives who sought out lovers, spouses who took syphilis in their stride and youths who preferred homosexual liaisons to more conventional couplings.17 Yet if there was a spirit of the ‘orgy’ abroad in Regency Paris, Orléans never, even his sternest critics were obliged to admit, allowed his private predilections to intrude on the business of government. The Regent compartmentalized business and pleasure – and threw himself pell-mell into both. His famous soirées took place only after a day spent glued to his desk – Saint-Simon represents him crouched low, writing with such furious concentration that his quill became entangled in his hair. His relations with the young Louis XV, moreover, were warm and respectful. His concern for the maintenance of the royal prerogatives was impeccably correct, inspiring affectionate regard on both sides.

The Maines incorporated mud-slinging into a broader political philosophy. Like the Parlement, they took advantage of the shift in political culture away from Louis XIV’s mythic present to seek in the historical record crucial clues to current questions of political legitimacy, employing erudite scholars to do the scholarly legwork required to trace the hopefully glorious history of royal bastards. The resultant research was occasionally ridiculous – ‘examples drawn from the family of Nimrod were scarcely conclusive’, Madame de Staal-Delaunay sardonically noted, ‘for that of Louis XV’.18 Yet the pedants claimed to have discovered no fewer than twenty royal bastards who had acceded to the throne of France.19 The circumstances of such successions suggested, it was held, that only the nation – and not simply the Regent, nor even the Parlement – had the right to adjudicate this order of constitutional claims. In ways which echoed with the arguments being deployed by Saint-Simon, Boulainvilliers and others, the Maines’ apologists argued for the legal existence of the nation as separate from and autonomous of the person of the monarch and capable of expressing its wishes through the medium of the Estates General, were a dynasty to die out (a not implausible eventuality in 1717–18, of course).

That the representatives of the ‘Old Court’ interest, normally so identified with the undeviatingly absolutist values of Louis XIV, should be flirting perilously with contractualist theory was partly at least a sign of desperation. As they perceived themselves to be losing the legal battles in 1717–18, the Maines started investigating more forceful means of winning the arguments. Contemptuously abandoning any thought of working in collaboration with the Parlement, then in the thick of its disputes with the Regent over Jansenism and finance, the Maines looked to fortify their arguments through the military aid of the provincial nobility and the Spanish king. In the summer of 1718, agents of the Maines entered into contact with representatives of the turbulent Breton nobility, discontented with the Regent over his handling of the province’s complaints about its tax burden. The two sides concocted an ‘Act of Union for the Defence of the Liberties of Brittany’, calling for the convocation of the national Estates General and threatening the secession of the province from the French state. Some 500–600 Breton nobles attached their signatures to the Act over the next months, and their leaders – like the duchess – began secret talks with the Spanish. King Philip V of Spain might be persuaded, it was thought, to lend force to Breton claims. As Louis XIV’s grandson, he might also, with some vestige of constitutionality, lay claim to the Regency, and convoke an Estates General to uphold the rights of bastards.

The Spanish connection was, for the Regent, like a red rag to a bull, for it risked reopening questions of dynastic succession on which he had tried to effect closure in 1715. The ambiguity of Philip V’s constitutional position had helped determine the Regent’s foreign policy when he came to power. If at first he followed Louis XIV’s latterday policy of alliance with the Spanish, plus support for the Jacobite Catholic pretender to the English throne, this soon changed to a wish to isolate the Spanish Bourbon. This policy would, it was hoped, deter Spain from aggression either against France, which was still chronically war-weary, or against the Austrian Habsburgs, who had relieved Spain of their Italian possessions at Utrecht. The defeat of the Jacobites in their invasion of England in September 1715 and the growing importance in Spanish councils of the anti-French Alberoni played a part in this policy change, which also involved rapprochement with England, and a vague Fénelonian pacifism.

While, with characteristic cunning, Orléans endeavoured to keep his options open with the English Jacobites, he was very serious about wooing an English alliance, and used the abbé Dubois as his agent in artfully concealed secret diplomacy. Son of an apothecary from Brive, Dubois was regarded by most of the political elite as a gross and revolting parvenu (an ill-bred ferret, was Saint-Simon’s uncharitable verdict).20 He had served as the Regent’s private tutor when Orléans was a boy, and had never lost the duke’s friendship and trust, while a diplomatic career developed since the late 1690s made him very much au courant with international affairs. He exploited the fact that the English polity was at that moment as unsteady as France’s: the new Hanoverian monarch, George I, had to contend with the ejected Stuart dynasty, just as Orléans had his Spanish Bourbon rival. An Anglo-French alliance, especially if extended to other major powers, could have the effect of endorsing the Utrecht settlement and providing the foundations for lasting peace. By 1716, Dubois had crafted a defensive treaty with England, and this was extended into the Triple Alliance of The Hague in January 1717, when the United Provinces joined. Alliance with the foremost naval powers in Europe was soon shown to have its uses, for Philip V assembled Spain’s largest fleet since the 1588 Armada and proceeded to invade first Sardinia, then Sicily. England and France were able to counter by concluding with the Austrians and Savoy the Quadruple Alliance of 2 August 1718. Their union bore its first fruit on 11 August, when an English fleet under Byng defeated the Spanish at Cape Passaro off Syracuse. By January 1719, France and Spain were formally at war.

This new direction in France’s foreign policy could not fail to disconcert and disillusion many political groupings within France. The ‘Old Court’, dévot faction in particular was revolted by the idea of France turning its back on a fellow Catholic power with which it now had a strong dynastic connection, in order to pursue links with the major Protestant power against which Louis XIV had spent much of the previous four decades fighting. Orléans had already been on the receiving end of Spanish manoeuvres targeting his person. Alberoni bankrolled a number of adventurers to kidnap, poison or assassinate him, and also funded scurrilous pamphlets attacking the Regency government. In addition, he put out feelers to the Maines, to the Breton nobles and to the Parisparlementaires, through his ambassador in Paris, the prince de Cellamare. Orléans seems to have soon had wind of these conspiratorial links (allegedly through a mistress’s bedtime patter). The military success of Passaro was thus a satisfying token of diplomatic success with which to launch the lit de justice of 26 August 1718 against the Paris Parlement and to demote the late king’s illegitimate issue.

What may have been conceived as a warning shot across the Maines’ bows was interpreted by the would-be rebels as a final provocation. The duchess imprudently threatened to revenge her husband’s humiliation by giving Orléans ‘such a whack (croquignolle) as to make him bite the dust’.21 Mindful no doubt of her grandfather Condé’s yoking together of Spanish power and provincial gentry during the Fronde, she tightened her links with Cellamare, while the Spanish redoubled their efforts with the discontented Breton nobility, who in April 1719 passed under the leadership of the ferocious marquis de Pontcallec. The rebels’ conspiratorial designs had already been blown, however, by the time that Philip V finally agreed to despatch troops to the Breton peninsula, and in the event French army detachments were able to clear up the vestiges of the rebellion fairly easily. Some eighty individuals were imprisoned, and four of these, including Pontcallec, were executed in March 1720.

The Breton rebels had already been isolated, moreover, by the Regent’s move against the Maine conspirators in December 1718. The prince de Cellamare was expelled from France, and the Maines gaoled – only to be allowed back to Sceaux shortly afterwards to endure internal exile. Such indulgence was explicable not simply by Orléans’s easy-going temperament. It was also clear to the Regent by then that the elements of a new Fronde which had threatened in 1717–19 had failed to achieve fusion. The Jansenists were troublesome, but they still only represented a minority. The Parlement’s bluff had been called. The Spanish threat had remained simply a threat. Most striking of all, perhaps, was the failure of all latterday Frondeurs to attract widespread support outside the political elite. The Breton nobles failed to evoke a response from their peasants (though ironically Pontcallec’s execution subsequently made him a popular martyr in the Armorican peninsula). Fellow nobles were not sufficiently disenchanted with the Regency to risk re-enacting Frondeur fantasies. The pamphleteers of Maine and Toulouse addressed a national ‘public’ – but one numbered only in hundreds. Would-be Frondeurs consequently lacked strength and numbers. The Parlement, rhetorically inquired d’Argenson, ‘does it have any troops? As for us, we have 150,000 men. That’s what it all comes down to.’22 The Regency had retained enough of the brute force of Louis-Quatorzian absolutism to outface its critics.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!