Modern history


What did the young Louis XV make of this extraordinarily agitated episode which had such a powerful impact on his kingdom? Very little, by all accounts. Though he presided over the Regency Council from Febuary 1720, silence was his most remarked-on contribution. In February 1723, on his thirteenth birthday – following a tradition stretching back to 1374 – he was declared a major, but his first and only thought was to conserve power in the hands of those in place: his uncle, Orléans, now ex-Regent, was maintained as effective ruler, and the duke’s henchman, abbé Dubois, was kept on as Principal Minister. When finally, in 1726, following the deaths of both, Louis formally declared his wish to rule in the manner of Louis XIV – it would only be, as we shall see, deferentially to place at the centre of political affairs his tutor, abbé Hercule de Fleury.

Political listlessness on Louis’s part bespoke a timidity which seems closely linked to the fact that he grew up in circumstances dominated by the deaths of those closest to him. The loss in 1711–12 of his parents and his elder brother (the duke and duchess of Burgundy and the duke of Brittany) left him a sad orphan-heir as bereft of close relatives as he was isolated from other children. It was clear from the start that he would have to live in the constant shadow of his great-grandfather. Scarcely into double figures – and his awkwardness and clumsy flat-footedness notwithstanding – he was obliged to dance at court balls ‘because Louis XIV did so’.48 Though the elderly Louis XIV had developed a fond relationship with his successor, his Sun King’s death struck the child hard too, and left him prone to ‘vapours’ (seemingly bouts of depressive melancholia). Those into whose hands he was placed tried hard to compensate for these losses. But they were a geriatric crew, closer to the grave than to the cradle: the pompous if well-meaning duc de Villeroy, who was placed in charge of his education (which he viewed as a form of dressage),49 and the boy’s confessor, the abbé Claude Fleury, were septuagenarians, while his nurse, the duchesse de Ventadour, and his tutor, Hercule de Fleury, were sexagenarians – as was Dubois. A mere forty-one years old in 1715, the Regent would have seemed a mere stripling in comparison – had not high living and hard work raddled his health, leading to his premature death.

A child yet a king, with all that that implied in both condescension and deference from his elders, Louis was thus brought up under the direct supervision of aged adults forever fearful of his health and wellbeing. ‘Don’t try to make him handsome or clever,’ Madame de Maintenon had told Madame de Ventadour as she entrusted the child to her care. ‘Give him back to us healthy, that is all we ask.’50 Highly protective – Louis wore leading strings until he was seven, a corset for his posture until he was ten – his guardians cocooned him from a wide range of normal childhood experiences. A keen and dutiful student, he shone most in technical and scientific subjects which marked some distance from sensory experience or direct communication with others: maths, geography, anatomy (he had a penchant for dissection), zoology, botany. He had fun with a little printing set – another means of making human contact less immediate. His early taste for hunting, the sport of French kings, owed more to his taste for personal athleticism than for the sociability of the chase: he showed more concern for the welfare of his hounds than his fellow huntsmen. Courtiers remarked his taciturnity which they linked to underlying timidity and fear of gaucheness, as though fear of condescension was a motivating factor. Yet he seemed immature in all he attempted. His early aversion for the opposite sex raised eyebrows, for it presented the possibility of his being drawn into an active gay subculture at court. In later years, he would do some formidable heterosexual catching-up.

His remoteness deterred even those who wished to burnish his popularity. The people of Paris had warmed to him from 1715, for example, and whenever the king got a cold, they sneezed in sympathy. Keen though he was to do right by his subjects, however, Louis lacked the common touch. His decision to shift from the Tuileries back to Versailles in June 1722 was an uncalculated but wounding snub to Parisians. Similarly, it was unfortunate that he held his coronation in October 1723 at a time of widespread misery in northern France caused by drought. The king expected his subjects to rejoice at a time when livestock and poultry were dying in droves, bringing disaster to many households. Symptomatically, the coronation service refused to allow the people who had gathered outside the cathedral to enter the nave – a traditional ceremonial procedure which was regarded as symbolizing popular assent to the new king. The shutting-out of his subjects – his suffering subjects moreover – shocked that arch-ceremonialist, the duc de Saint-Simon, who branded it ‘an enormous mistake as much against the spirit as against the constantly observed usage in all coronations hitherto’.51

Yet if Louis XV was exclusive, he was also excluded – and never more so than in the issue of finding him a wife, in which personal factors were wholly subordinated to state and dynastic issues, managed by Orléans and the abbé Dubois. The latter, the Regent’s erstwhile secret agent, had turned increasingly into a hatchet man, who had played a key role in bringing the Maines’ conspiracy into the open and in humbling the Parlement in 1720. In 1722, he also weaseled out of the reluctant parlementaires support for a Formulary implying acceptance of the Unigenitus constitution, thereby inaugurating a religious and parlementary truce. He was said to be driven by ambition, his anti-Jansenism allegedly a mere ploy to persuade the pope he was worthy of a cardinal’s hat, which he was duly granted in July 1721. Stories were freely retailed about his humble background and allegedly obscene private life: he had procured mistresses for the young Orléans when he was his tutor, had ignoble sexual liaisons himself, was foul-mouthed (having a legendary propensity for telling members of the court aristocracy to fuck off)52 and was famously irreligious – when receiving holy orders so as to assume Fénelon’s old post as archbishop of Cambrai in 1720 it was said he could hardly remember the words of the Paternoster. Orléans smiled beatifically over his ally’s excesses: Dubois was, he ruefully admitted ‘the most rascally, atheistic and worst priest there has ever been’53 – but he had more than proved his worth. As Orléans’s own hectic private life increasingly caught up with him – his drinking was getting heavier, his hangovers longer, his health worse – he looked to Dubois to take up the slack, and it was the abbé who made the running in the business of finding Louis a wife – a Spanish wife.

The war which France, alongside its new English ally, undertook against Spain in 1719 had been quickly concluded. The invasion of north-eastern Spain by a small French expeditionary force brought Philip V to the conference table. Dubois did not want to alienate Louis from his Bourbon cousins, and he had Spain admitted to the Anglo-French-Austrian bloc in the Quadruple Alliance of January 1720. At the same time, Spain officially recognized the superiority of Orléans’s claims to Regency over Philip V. A defensive alliance between Spain and France was signed in March 1721, by which time negotiations began for arranging what became a double marriage pact in March 1722. Philip V’s only daughter, the three-year-old Maria Anna, was betrothed to Louis XV, while Mademoiselle de Montpensier, Orléans’s daughter, was destined for the heir to the Spanish throne, the prince of the Asturias.

The Spanish marriages pact played as much (maybe more?) in the interests of the Orléanist dynasty than of the Bourbon state. The marital arrangements placed an Orléans within a major European ruling house, and sealed an alliance with Philip V, his feared rival for the Regency and – theoretically – the French throne. Moreover, with Philip V having renounced his title to the French throne, the choice of a child bride for Louis, by continuing the absence of a direct heir for the foreseeable future, left Orléans first in the queue for the throne. To have defused both the Franco-Spanish and the Orléanist-Bourbon rivalries at a single stroke – while simultaneously keeping on good terms with England, avoiding warfare, finding his young charge a wife of a suitable pedigree, and brightening the Regent’s own hopes of succession – must have seemed to the arch-pragmatist Orléans a signal achievement to add to his others. Despite the financial vortex which had opened up in the Law System, the duke had presided over the calmest regency in French history, outfaced a potential Fronde, dampened down much of Jansenism’s potential for religious divisiveness and kept a war-damaged society out of foreign engagements (the Spanish campaigns of 1719–20, involving a force of only some 30–40,000, according to one contemporary, did not ‘deserve to be called a war in a kingdom such as this’).54

One of the most striking canvases of Antoine Watteau, whose dreamily and allegorically ludic paintings became highly popular in the Regency, is entitled Gersaint’s Sign, and it shows a painting of Louis XIV being studiously put into storage. The political allegory was only superficially apt. Despite the strong implications about turning a new political leaf in 1715, the Regent had certainly not lived up to some of the expectations placed upon him. He had not turned the clock back to a pre-Louis-Quatorzian golden age as his supporters like Saint-Simon and Boulainvilliers had demanded, nor yet moved into a principled system of counter-absolutism as the abbé de Saint-Pierre had hoped. The air of freedom and openness which came to characterize the reputation of the Regency was something of a chimera. The canons of artistic taste were more relaxed than under Louis XIV, the press a little freer, the sexual mores of the political elite more manifestly heterodox than in the prudish last decades of Louis’s reign. Yet royal authority had been kept pretty well intact, and beneath the surface there were very marked continuities with the earlier reign. The would-be Mentor had failed to transcend Louis XIV’s template of power. The Polysynody experiment had flattered, only to deceive, hopes of root-and-branch change, and the administrative infrastructure of absolutism developed by Louis XIV remained locked in place. The doors of the Bastille opened and closed with much the same frequency as under Louis XIV to engorge social deviants and religious and political dissidents. Despite the pamphlet wars of the mid-1710s over the princes and Jansenism, the printing industry was still under careful surveillance too – indeed, measures were taken in 1723 to tighten censorship further.

The Regency proved, moreover, a regime which took policing of public order very seriously. Demobilized soldiers after 1713 caused a major security problem in many areas, and were drawn into bandit and smuggling gangs. The most striking example of this lawlessness, the notorious bandit and highway robber Cartouche, was executed on the Place de Grève in Paris in November 1721, and much of his gang over the following months. His end marked a watershed in the move to restore internal security. The regular army had already been carefully adapted to an internal policing role, and in 1720, the paramilitary police force, the maréchaussée, was increased in size and given a key role in highway policing. Legislation in 1724 would assign it the further task of rounding up vagrants and tramps in the kingdom’s hôpitaux génétaux. Even before this, moreover, decrees in 1718 and 1720 had targeted city tramps and prostitutes for internment and also for transportation to Louisiana. The Parisian prostitute who was Louisiana- (and possibly death-) bound might ruefully reflect on the Regency’s reputation for sexual ‘freedom’.

That the velvet Regency glove contained an absolutist fist was clearly demonstrated in the government’s reaction to the sudden reappearance of bubonic plague in 1720 at Marseille, after half a century’s absence. The disease killed some 50,000 out of the city’s 90,000 population, showing that it had lost none of its erstwhile virulence – but mortality might have been even higher without the very tough and repressive stance of the government. Operating through the War Ministry and relying heavily on the coordinating talents of the provincial Intendants, the state took extraordinary steps to pen in the disease in the south-east, disdainfully ignoring claims to freedom of action and movement by individuals and communities alike. One-third of the War Minister’s correspondence at the time concerned coordination of the cordon sanitaire, and one-third of the French army spent time enforcing it, patrolling the perimeter of the infected region and crushing the skulls of potential escapees with their rifle-butts – an interesting and rather brutal early example, as Jack McManners has pointed out, of preventive medicine.55 Uncompromisingly tough, but effective in preventing a disastrous diffusion of the killer disease, the government made much of this triumph for centralized administrative coordination of which Louis XIV would have been proud.

Continuities with the absolutist past seemed all the more striking, moreover, as Dubois emerged as a Richelieu-style figure dominating the Royal Council. This son of a Brivois apothecary walked into the Regency Council attired as a cardinal – who could by his rank claim precedence over dukes and peers – and thereby provoked his ducal enemies sniffily to stay away in protest. This gave Dubois a wonderful pretext for an Augean cleansing of the Royal Councils. Yet in the event death – once again in a childhood so marked by funereal shadows – rescued Louis XV from a Richelieu, removing Dubois from high office just as he was settling into the job. His health had been going from bad to worse, and an abscess on his bladder was diagnosed. By the time he agreed to be operated on, it was too late: five apprentice surgeons jumped on him to hold him down while the finest royal surgeons incised him from the genitals to the bladder, only to find gangrene installed throughout his lower organs. Racked in excruciating agony, he died within hours of the illness and the operation. On hearing the news, Orléans immediately sought an audience with the king to offer his services as Principal Minister, so as to forestall the eventuality of palace conspiracies. Orléans could hardly be refused. Still less than fifty years old, as dutifully committed to his responsibilities as ever and punctilious in respecting the person and the sensibilities of his teenage master, Orléans was, however, physically going downhill fast. He was in office only a matter of months before, in December 1723, a stroke carried him off.

Orléans’s death, following so closely on that of Dubois, removed a vital strand of personal continuity in a royal childhood lived in the shadow of deaths of all those close to him. There remained only one link with his early childhood – his tutor since 1715, the abbé Hercule de Fleury, bishop of Fréjus. Solid, loyal, dedicated, alive to the ways of the court, no friend of the Jesuits – yet certainly not a Jansenist either – Fleury exuded dependable, discreet, trimming virtues. More than this, however, he proved to be a friend and surrogate father to the young king, who unburdened himself to him as to no other. The virtues of sympathy and support grew in resonance as death sheared the king’s entourage of his other personal friendships and alliances.

Normally Fleury was a regular fixture at Louis’s elbow, but he had not for once been in his presence when the duc de Bourbon broke the news of Orléans’s death and blurted out a request, as senior Prince of the Blood, to be appointed Principal Minister. Bourbon was widely disliked for having benefited untowardly from the Law System, but most of all for his stunning lack of intelligence: for Barbier, he ‘had a very limited mind, knows nothing and only likes pleasure and hunting’56 (the latter allegedly so as to ingratiate himself with his monarch). In order to restrain his influence – and benefit his own – Fleury got an undertaking from Louis that he would only treat with his Principal Minister in Fleury’s presence.

Bourbon might have been stupid – but he had sense enough to realize that the key political issue of the day had become getting the young king married and procreating. The three-year-old Infanta Maria Anna had entered Paris in March 1722, sitting in an open carriage on the lap of the duchesse de Ventadour and holding a doll very tight indeed. The king, who had not been informed of the plans to marry him off (but who, when finally told by his uncle, had obediently if tearfully whimpered his assent) was formally introduced and presented the princess with a magnificent new doll bedecked with precious stones, alleged to be worth 20,000 livres. With dolls so much in evidence, however, the prospect for babies looked remote. There was soon a good deal of whispering, much of it targeted at Dubois. After pulling through a period of regency in which much concern had hovered around the biological viability of the dynasty, it seemed rather perverse of the Principal Minister – or was it Orléanist calculation? – to choose for the growing king a wife who would not bear children in the foreseeable future. In 1725, the king fell ill, and even though it proved a false alarm – a digestive problem caused by cramming too much chocolate – it concentrated Bourbon’s mind on the absence of a viable heir. The new duke of Orléans, son of the Regent, was a callow and shallow youth and worse still – for the house of Condé, collateral with the Bourbons, was perennially at daggers drawn with the rival Orléans dynasty – had just married and already made his wife pregnant. The Spanish Infanta was still only a child, was reckoned to have twisted hips which might present an eventual child-bearing problem and had become, moreover, the object of growing loathing by the young king. Packing her off back to Spain would place a strain on the Franco–Spanish alliance but in the circumstances, frankly, strain there would have to be. In April 1725, the Infanta was dismissed from Paris without the king even saying goodbye, and a speedy search was undertaken to find a suitable replacement for his bed.

It would not be accurate to say that the cupboard was bare. Yet frantic perusal of the lists of family members of the European dynasties found few candidates with an approximation of the key requirements for the job: to be single, healthy, young(ish), pretty(ish) and preferably Catholic. The choice eventually fell on the Polish princess Marie Leszczinska – ‘what a terrible name for a queen of France!’ exclaimed an appalled Marais.57 She was the daughter of Stanislas Leszczinski, who from 1704 until 1709 had served as elective ruler of Poland, before being overthrown and spinning out the rest of his days living a modest life off pensions provided by sympathetic fellow rulers. When he had opened the letter from the duc de Bourbon asking him for his daughter’s hand in marriage for the young king, he had fainted on the spot in shock, and this was only a dramatic version of the surprise which the choice evoked within France. Marie was healthy-looking rather than beautiful, six years older than the king, and hailed from essentially an aristocratic rather than a royal background. Louis was allowed only a little more say in the matter this time – though he saw only Marie’s portrait before the marriage in August 1725 (with Orléans standing proxy for the monarch in the ceremony). When she arrived at Versailles, however, the auguries looked good. The two partners warmed to each other, with the king giving his new queen, it was said, some ‘seven proofs of love’ on their first night together.58 Babies would soon come aplenty from the union: ten children in the first ten years, including, in 1729, a son and heir. After a decade and a half of a royal demography characterized by death, this represented a welcome infusion of fecundity – and hope.

Bourbon, architect of the royal marriage, did his best to turn the event to his personal advantage. He packed the queen’s chamber with his nominees, including his own mistress, the charmingly accomplished marquise de Prie. The latter’s taste for political intrigue caused nostalgia for Orléans who, it was said, might have had mistresses galore, but had not involved them in affairs of state. Nor had he been as incompetent as Bourbon. The duke failed to woo Spain back into line after the Infanta snub, and France soon seemed to be drifting towards open conflict with the combined forces of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. In home affairs, the introduction of a new direct tax in kind, the ‘fiftieth’ (cinquantième), a 2 per cent tax on property, won almost universal opprobium, coming as it did shortly after the one-off ‘joyous accession’ tax levied to commemorate Louis’s coming of age. The new tax also coincided with a spell of high prices and economic difficulties caused by rain which had spoiled the harvest, triggering bread riots. Bourbon found himself being undermined in the king’s counsels by Fleury. It was a clumsy attempt to put paid to the latter’s influence by involving the new queen in court intrigues which stimulated Louis to lead a palace revolution against his own Principal Minister. On 12 June 1726, the duke and his mistress were exiled from court. Four days later, Louis declared that he was abolishing the post of Principal Minister and that he would rule in the manner established by Louis XIV in 1661. Yet though he stated that he wished ‘to follow the example of my late great-grandfather in everything’,59 he also stipulated that the bishop of Fréjus would be present at all councils and meetings with ministers. Few – himself included – could have suspected that the 76-year-old cleric was about to embark on nearly two decades at the helm of state.

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