Modern history

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Fleury’s France (1726–43)


Everything had come late to 76-year-old André-Hercule de Fleury. His age on becoming effective First Minister contrasted markedly with that of his precedessors, Princes of the Blood, Orléans and Bourbon, who had been less than forty when they achieved political prominence. The son of a minor Languedocian tax official, Fleury had won the patronage of court grandees through precociously brilliant studies in Paris in the middle years of Louis XIV’s reign. But his promise almost fizzled heedlessly away: some kind of misunderstanding with the king, who mistook abbé Fleury’s affable worldliness for libertinage, led to his exile from the royal court in the 1690s. His recall produced only meagre recompense for a 46-year-old: a bishopric – but in far-away and poorly endowed Fréjus. A ringing declaration from his Mediterranean diocese in support of the Unigenitus bull, however, won him the belated approval of Louis XIV, who, just before his death in 1715, recalled the by now venerable sexuagenarian to be the tutor to the dauphin, and to begin a process of integration into the political life of the court which we have described in the previous chapter.

There were some who ascribed the rise of Fleury and his continued tenure of office down to his death in his ninetieth year in 1743 to a covert, but ruthlessly single-minded ambition. No one who saw him at close quarters could doubt that there was a tough, dogged and spasmodically obstinate streak under the benign, affable and voluble face which he presented at court. Yet Fleury’s belated and improbable propulsion to the top of a greasy pole owed as much to circumstances as to his own personal goals. What was to prove the most striking feature of his tenure of high office was precisely, moreover, a refusal to commit to a single objective, a determination to remain flexible and mobile. Despite his name, there was nothing Herculean about Andre-Hercule de Fleury. He possessed the sprightliness of a hale and hearty geriatric, but shunned shows of strength and feats of éclat. His proclivity was for placable accommodation and negotiation, not for confrontation or conflict. Balance was all.

Fleury’s pliable approach to policy was often – especially latterly, and sometimes with justification – taken for inaction and lack of energy and imagination. Yet such characteristics in a principal minister were not entirely inappropriate for a society and polity still feeling the aftershocks of the reign of Louis XIV. The dynastic succession was still an open issue: the birth of a dauphin in 1729 came as a relief, but it still only meant that a succession crisis opposing the house of Orléans to the Spanish branch of the Bourbons was two rather than one heartbeat away – and the hecatomb of 1711–12 was a reminder of the fragility of royal lives. The young king was still unengaged by political affairs. Furthermore, Bourbon’s decision to send back the Spanish Infanta in 1725 had alienated the Spanish and threatened to drive them into the arms of France’s traditional enemy, Austria. Nor was there much scope for military adventures: the army and navy had been run down under the Regency, and new taxes to fund prolonged conflict would have placed a heavy strain on an economy still groggy after the Law System. Like many of the generals and diplomats of the 1720s and 1730s, moreover, Fleury could recall too well the miseries of the Spanish Succession War of 1701–13 to wish to embark lightly on European conflict: unusually for an eighteenth-century ecclesiastic, he had personally witnessed the harsh face of war when his Fréjus diocese had been invaded by the enemy in 1707. In addition, the abbé had inherited that most delicate of issues, namely, Jansenism, and intemperate action here risked both a religious schism and a major political crisis involving the Parlement, which was vaunting itself as the movement’s defender. There was more than enough here to justify a gentler and more subtle approach of the kind which Fleury could offer.

Tenure of power in the Bourbon monarchy depended to a large extent on the favour of the monarch, and the ability of the holder of power to resist attempts to dislodge that favour. The new cardinal had indeed got where he was by 1726 largely through the goodwill of the monarch, and he was never to lose it. If he never received the title of Principal Minister, no one was in any doubt that this was his effective position. All ministers consulted with the monarch in the presence of Fleury, who was the king’s main adviser and de facto executive agent on most policy matters. Once his cardinal’s hat had been squeezed out of the pope in November 1726, he took pride of place on the Royal Council too. Some contemporaries imagined sinister reasons for the baffling closeness of the relationship between king and cardinal: the latter, it was whispered, had schooled his young charge in subservience to his own wishes. Stories circulated of how courtiers making unscheduled entries to the young king’s chamber found schoolbooks open at the same page for weeks at a time, or else stumbled across Louis putting curling-papers into his tutor’s (sparse) hair. The claim that by indulging Louis’s love of pleasure, Fleury aimed to render him incapable of becoming independent seems wide of the mark, however, for he was an impeccably dutiful tutor and Louis a studious pupil. But there was indubitably an element of emotional dependency in the king’s attitude towards Fleury. The apparent indestructibility of his tutor must have seemed attractive to a still-youthful monarch who had been let down by the deaths of his relatives and intimates. In the late 1730s, Louis’s heir, the ten-year-old dauphin, would speak truer than he knew when he said that Fleury had ‘a good window into the heart of the King [his father]’.1The duc de Bourbon’s maxim, ‘be sensible and don’t quarrel with the bishop [of Fréjus, i.e., Fleury]’2 – which Bourbon had ignored himself, and paid the full price – remained excellent advice for anyone with political ambitions in Fleury’s France.

Fleury repaid Louis’s unswerving trust by indulging the monarch’s taste for a kind of morose hedonism. Awkward and uncomfortable in formal company, the king only felt truly at home among small groups of intimates with whom he could engage in gloomy gallows humour. These groups did not include his wife. Queen Marie Leszczinska’s unfortunate involvement in the duc de Bourbon’s attempt to get rid of Fleury in 1726 damaged the king’s trust in her. Despite the appearance of sundry infants through to the late 1730s, sexual relations between the royal couple were becoming glacial: when asked in 1737 whether his new daughter should be referred to as ‘Madame Septième’ (‘Madame the Seventh’), Louis gloomily rejoined ‘Madame Dernière’ (‘Madame the Last’).3Sexual relations between the spouses were discontinued at about the same time. Eschewing marital domesticity, Louis threw himself into a bachelor’s life of outdoor pursuits. He maintained three packs of hounds (Louis XIV had made do with one) and was an unflagging hunter. In the period of Fleury’s ministry he accounted for some 3,000 stags; and when he went shooting, his daily bag was 200 to 300 pieces of game.4

While Fleury compliantly worked within the gaps left by Louis XV’s hunting schedule, he also showed indulgence towards the young king’s extra-marital sexual activities. It was only in 1736 that the royal court became aware of a fact known to Fleury and the queen since 1733, namely that Louis was conducting a sexual liaison with the comtesse de Mailly, the eldest of the five daughters of the marquis de Nesle. From the cardinal’s point of view, if Louis was to have a mistress, it was preferable that she should be someone like the plain but perky Mailly, who was dévoted to Louis, solicitous for his welfare, and willing to keep clear of involvement in policy issues. This appears to have been less true, however, of Mailly’s sister, Mademoiselle de Nesle, whom the king secretly took as his supplementary mistress in 1738, before she married the marquis de Vintimille the following year. The marquise de Vintimille was more interfering than her sister, but she died in 1741 after giving birth to a baby whom her husband renounced and who was widely believed to be the king’s. This drove the king temporarily back into the consoling arms of Mailly – ‘highly loveable’, it was later recalled, when she had ‘a glass in her hand’.5 But it was not long before Louis’s roving eye had included in its compass Mailly’s two younger sisters, the prematurely widowed marquise de La Tournelle (soon to be made duchesse de Châteauroux) and Mademoiselle de Lauraguais. In satires which Louis is known to have seen, Parisian wags disingenuously wondered whether this studied devotion to a single family was the king’s ingenious attempt to avoid promiscuity.6

Indulgence in the king’s taste for mistresses and the hunt was one means by which Fleury maintained his position in the insecure, faction-riven world of court politics. He was also canny enough to make both of his obvious disadvantages in politics – his geriatric condition and his outsider status – work in his favour. Paradoxically, the cardinal had old age on his side. No one in 1726 believed he would be more than a stop-gap; and by the time it became apparent that he was a permanent fixture, informed courtiers realized that, such was his hold over the king, it was probably best to await the cardinal’s death before acting. They therefore made their arrangements and alliances in terms of the next rather than the present ministry. Fleury’s position outside and above the major factional groupings allowed him to play one off against another. Only once he had secured the neutrality of a cabal centred on the ambitious young duc d’Orléans had Fleury participated in the overthrow of Bourbon in 1726, for example, and he paid for Orléanist aid by offering ministries to Orléans’s clients, including Lepeletier des Forts as Controller-General (a strictly political choice, as he was alleged not to be able to manage the simplest arithmetic).7 Yet straight away Fleury put out reassuring feelers towards the Bourbon-Condé faction, and made it clear that the Orléanists would not be allowed on to the Royal Council. In order to demonstrate he was not an Orléanist clone, Fleury also cultivated good relations with the legitimated princes, particularly with Toulouse. He did the same with the duc de Noailles, head of the powerful and extensive court-based faction (or ‘tribe’,8 as the duc de Luynes put it).

Noailles, veteran of the Polysynody, was bought off with military commands and the office of marshal of France – a good example, this, of how patronage buttressed Fleury’s ability to balance faction against faction. If noble faction-leaders were to be excluded from supreme power, they required ample compensation in terms of favours, privileges and postings for themselves, their houses and their clients. Fleury could be pretty parsimonious in regard to expenditure on the royal house: he cut back on expensive celebrations over the birth of the dauphin in 1729, for example, and even packed off four of the king’s daughters to a convent education in Fontevrault rather than have to foot the bill for their separate households at court. His own demands were few: as a cleric he had no extensive household to advance, and he lived frugally and made extensive charitable bequests. The meagre size of his succession would strike contemporaries as unbelievably small. Yet to the aristocracy he was highly generous, realizing – like the Regent before him – how effective patronage could be in buying off opposition. The extent of royal patronage in Fleury’s hands was, moreover, colossal. All major offices at court and in government, at the centre as well as in the provinces, were under his control, as were military and naval appointments. Since 1720, Fleury had also sat on the Council of Conscience, which adjudicated ecclesiastical appointments, and from the late 1720s he had sole charge of the so-called feuille des bénéfices which dispensed all major nominations for the bishops’ bench and the major benefices. As royal gatekeeper, he also controlled physical access to the king as well as lodgings in the royal palaces – both significant factors in a polity where propinquity to the ruler was a source of power and profit. As Postmaster-General too, he was well-placed to keep an eye on the private correspondence of ambitious courtiers.

If there was one place, however, where Fleury developed a faction of his own, it was at the heart of government, among the secretaries of state. The cardinal worked hard to keep the ministries a Fleuryite fief, as free as possible from the troubling influence of courtiers, and to have a set of ministers who owed more to him than to anyone else. The Orléanist tinge to his ministry in the early days was soon wiped out: Lepeletier des Forts was dismissed in 1730, for example. Fleury’s predilection was for experienced, long-serving and competent managers, often from middling Robe backgrounds. Lepeletier’s successor as Controller-General, Philibert Orry, was very much par for the course in this respect: son of a high financial official to Philip V of Spain, Orry had served in the army, and purchased a post in the Paris Parlement before being picked for royal service as Intendant in Soissons, Perpignan and Lille. Tough and with a remarked-on lack of airs and graces, Orry stayed in post from 1730 to 1745. Another former Intendant in frontier provinces, d’Angervilliers, was appointed to the War Ministry in 1728 – he died in post in 1740. The ministry contained two young Phélypeaux: 28-year-old Maurepas remained as Navy Minister, to which was added responsibility for the Household and for Paris, while 21-year-old Saint-Florentin had particular responsibility for Protestant issues. Maurepas worked closely with the Lieutenant-General of Police of Paris, Hérault, who was effectively of ministerial rank and served as Fleury’s right arm when things got tough. Another by now trusted technocrat, d’Aguesseau, returned as Chancellor, initiating down to his death in 1751 landmark judicial reforms. He worked alongside the most brilliant, but also the least politically docile and most troublingly ambitious of the group, the former parlementaire Chauvelin. Appointed Keeper of the Seals in 1727, the latter also doubled as Foreign Minister.

Mingling administrative talent, energy, experience and, overall, political docility, this was a formidable, and relatively youthful grouping for an old man to head, especially one who knew how to conserve his energy yet stay abreast of things. When he got tired, Fleury went off to nearby Issy to recuperate – to ‘vegetate’ was his own term9 – in the country house of the Saint-Sulpician community, confident that he could leave these subordinates to get on with things in his absence. He went even further along this route in 1732, when he let it be known that he regarded Chauvelin as his assistant (adjoint) – a step which many (including, regrettably for his own prospects, Chauvelin himself) regarded as a prelude to his nomination as Fleury’s successor. The latitude which he allowed ministers was a crucial part of Fleury’s balancing act. It meant that he could at times distance himself from the policies which they implemented. He would like to change his financial policies, he would admit in private to some disgruntled suitor, but that Monsieur Orry (as he shrugged and turned his eyes heavenwards) – too brutal, he couldn’t do a thing with him. Fleury was thus able to secure credit where due and yet to divert unpopularity on to his underlings.

Fleury’s singular ability to keep himself aloft on the political tightrope even during the most perilous circumstances was also evident in foreign affairs. The decision of his predecessor, Bourbon, to send back the Spanish Infanta destined as Louis’s bride risked driving an irate Spain – in the unstable hands of Philip V and his queen, Elizabeth Farnese – into the arms of an Austria which felt it had lost much international prestige in the Utrecht settlement of 1713. Invigorated by military successes against the Turks in 1716–18, the Austrians looked set for international mischief, and the Austro-Spanish alliance of 1725 panicked Europe by seeming to signal a committed move towards a war to destroy Utrecht. England was becoming progressively more estranged from France anyway, and the latter’s position in Europe seemed all the more isolated when Prussia and Russia joined the Austro-Spanish pact in 1726. In the Paris Peace Preliminaries of 1727, however, Fleury successfully checked the drift to European war, and then, in the subsequent Congress of Soissons in 1728–9, unpicked the Austro-Spanish alliance. A clause in the ensuing Treaty of Seville in 1729 between the maritime powers of France, England and Spain allowed the Spanish to maintain fortresses in Italy, thus ensuring Austria’s hostility. Fleury’s demeanour in handling these negotiations – realizing his own limitations on action, renouncing sectional claims for the role of honest broker, sidestepping intractable questions of principle and preferring the cautious and circumstantial approach which kept open links to all sides – prefigured the posture he would always try to adopt in European affairs. Indeed, France under Fleury was to gain notoriety in this sphere: problems in the 1730s in Geneva, between Spain and Portugal, and then in Corsica were all referred to the arbitrational skills of French diplomacy. Political rivals sneered at Fleury’s ‘bourgeois policy’ of evading military aggression for a pacifist strategy of seeking to live in peace with France’s neighbours, but even they acknowledged that this gave a chance for France to concentrate on economic recovery – an approach which, as we shall see, bore much fruit.10

Though initially enjoying some measure of success, Fleury’s efforts to keep the peace in Europe ran into trouble. He endeavoured to contain Austria by seeking allies within the Holy Roman Empire (notably Bavaria and Saxony) and in Italy (the kingdom of Sardinia). He also rejected the efforts of Emperor Charles VI to secure international recognition for the so-called Pragmatic Sanction – the agreement that his daughter and sole heir Maria Theresa (who as a female was ineligible to serve as Holy Roman Emperor on his death) would at least succeed to all the Habsburg inheritance. Yet England, the United Provinces and Spain all for their part accepted the Sanction in 1731, leaving the French embarrassingly isolated. Austria seemed all the more of a problem in that Francis, duc de Lorraine since 1729, was an Austrian pawn destined for marriage to Habsburg heir Maria Theresa. If the independent duchy of Lorraine, which had been occupied by French troops between 1670 and 1697, were to fall into the hands of a major potential enemy, it would pose a massive military threat to France from the east. The possibility that the duke, after marrying into the Habsburg dynasty, might be a candidate for election as Holy Roman Emperor had set French alarm bells ringing, and started a drift towards armed conflict, which Fleury’s Austrophobe Foreign Minister, Chauvelin, did everything to encourage.

The casus belli in fact came from elsewhere. Augustus II of Saxony, regnant king of Poland, died in February 1733, leaving the strong possibility of the election as his successor of the father of the queen of France, Stanislas Leszczinski, who had ruled the state from 1704 to 1709. Support for his claims sprang from the sense that dynastic amour-propre oblige. A French squadron smuggled Stanislas into Poland, and managed to get him elected by the Polish Diet. At the same time, however, Russia and Austria secured the counter-election of the dead monarch’s son, Augustus III of Saxony. War was inevitable. Fleury’s earlier German diplomacy proved sterile: Saxony was in cahoots with Austria, while Bavaria stubbornly refused to join the French cause. Fleury managed, however, to secure English and Dutch neutrality, then formed an alliance with Spain and Sardinia. Under the first so-called ‘Family Compact’ of 1733 with Philip V, France allowed Spain to launch an attack on Naples, drive out the Austrians and put Philip’s son, Don Carlos, on the throne of the Two Sicilies. Sardinia meanwhile helped France inflict damage on the Imperial forces in Lombardy. Developments in northern Europe were less rosy. Austrian forces supporting Augustus of Saxony marched on Warsaw, forcing Stanislas, protected by a French expeditionary force under the comte de Plelo, to fall back on Dantzig. Skirmishing outside the city resulted in Plelo’s death and a French defeat, and in June 1734 Stanislas fled for his life. Though French armies made solid headway on the Rhine and in northern Italy, forcing an increasingly isolated Charles VI to sue for peace, the Polish fiasco precluded French rejoicing.

In the circumstances, France did remarkably well out of the War of Polish Succession, and what it achieved was a vindication for the shrewd and balanced diplomacy of Fleury over and against the militaristic approach urged by Chauvelin. The image of the humiliated Stanislas was a useful totem to brandish in peace talks, which Fleury did his best to prolong. Under terms of a deal, eventually struck in 1737 and ratified in 1739, Augustus of Saxony was confirmed as Polish ruler. The other key elements of the arrangements related to the balance of power in western rather than eastern Europe: Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa married Francis, duc de Lorraine; but the latter was accorded reversionary rights to the duchy of Tuscany as part of a bout of dynastic swapping and counterswapping involving Sardinia and Austria. And Lorraine was handed over, as a consolation prize, to Stanislas Leszczinski, and would pass to France on his death (which eventually occurred in 1766).

The Lorraine arrangement, locked in place by France’s agreeing to Charles’s precious Pragmatic Sanction, was quite a coup. It was made clear that Stanislas would govern the duchy of Lorraine through an Intendant chosen in concert with France: the candidate selected was Chaumont de La Galaizière, Intendant of Soissons, and brother-in-law of Controller-General Orry. The Frenchification of a German-speaking province which had formed part of the Holy Roman Empire for eight centuries and which was France’s largest territorial acquisition since Franche-Comté in 1674 proceeded apace. The stroke was all the more remarkable, moreover, for being achieved with very little military, financial or manpower expenditure, and for being magicked up out of a mediocre international position. Fleury’s policy of keeping bridges open to all sides had been triumphantly vindicated: once Austria had been squared, there were surprisingly few grudges for other powers to bear. To some degree too, the province was a dividend payable on Fleury’s record of honest brokerage in international affairs. As the marquis d’Argenson had once noted, Fleury’s ‘pacifist and moderate mask … is worth two armies on our side’.11 Just as Stanislas would have been less generously treated had he been less pathetic, so France would have been given less had it shown itself more aggressive in international diplomacy over the previous decade.

Lorraine represented a signal victory both for Fleury’s sense of realism and his imagination. He had been realistic enough to accept that it would be extremely unlikely for France to gain the province by force of arms; yet sufficiently imaginative to conjure the acquisition from the most unpromising of international circumstances. The arch-tightrope-walker had carried off a significant prize. And he had done so while simultaneously experiencing the most severe political crisis of his ministry, over the Jansenist issue.

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