Modern history

E) THE WILTING CARDINAL

An important shift in the personnel and balance of power within Fleury’s government took place in 1737, as the cardinal was emerging triumphantly from the War of Polish Succession with Lorraine as his trophy, and with Jansenist turbulence under control: Chauvelin, Keeper of the Seals and Foreign Minister, was peremptorily dismissed and exiled to the provinces.

The exact causes of the brutal exclusion from power of a man whom Fleury had dubbed his ‘alter ego’,48 and who was widely tipped to succeed both him as effective Principal Minister and d’Aguesseau as Chancellor, were not divulged. The shift after 1737 towards a more pro-Austrian policy was unpopular with the Foreign Minister, a noted Austrophobe. It may have been as simple as that, though with a character as secretive as Fleury, one can never be sure. Personal rivalry may well have been a factor. Though contemporaries sometimes assumed Chauvelin, veritable workhorse of the ministry, was the senior partner in the relationship, this was a Fleuryite ruse. During the War of Polish Succession, for example, Fleury allowed Chauvelin to compose alliances in Germany and Italy, while he himself nurtured English friendship and worked behind his Foreign Minister’s back for peace negotiations. Chauvelin probably felt that, with Fleury’s death surely not far off, he should act pre-emptively to secure his own succession. He seems to have been developing links out to the Parlement and to the court, and possibly to Spain too. Even more serious than this, he may also have made independent approaches towards the king. Exclusive political intimacy with Louis was the ark of the cardinal’s covenant and he would not tolerate any meddling from a rival.

Whatever the exact reasons for Chauvelin’s dismissal, the fall from grace had opened up the question of Fleury’s successor at the same time that it drew attention to the fact that even the apparently indestructible cardinal must be approaching the end of his days. A serious illness in 1738 had courtiers rubbing their hands in glee, but the wilting octogenarian bounced amazingly back. Thereafter, however, the signs of decrepitude became more and more apparent – he needed more rest, he consumed patent medicines by the drove, he absented himself from court more frequently, and he seemed increasingly shrunken and shrivelled, diminishing in stature from five feet eight to some five feet one, resembling now an exhumed monkey, now a desiccated mummy.49

The choice of replacements for Chauvelin underlined Fleury’s customary priorities. The cardinal chose to reassert his primacy by ensuring that the ministers were not only his own men but were totally impervious to any influence at court save his own. There was to be no new Keeper of the Seals, for Fleury allowed the erudite but politically null d’Aguesseau to resume the plenitude of the Chancellor’s powers. As Foreign Minister he chose Amelot, whose training was in finance and administration, who avowedly knew next to nothing about foreign affairs and who stuttered to boot – an extraordinary deficiency in a diplomat. Strong on administrative competence, the ministers as a group were united in their indebtedness to Fleury and in a collective mistrust of any putative successor from the court.

One of the keys to Fleury’s long-lived success had been a more hermetic segregation of court from administration than even Louis XIV had achieved. It was a symptom of the decline of the cardinal’s system that uncertainty over his successor reduced his ability to manage developments which did not respect this division, and he proved unable to prevent the habitués of the royal bedchamber re-emerging into the circle of ministerial power. His conduct of foreign policy at this time stimulated the formation of factions. Developing friendship with France’s age-old enemy, Austria, including acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction, seemed to offer the best means of consolidating the new province of Lorraine in the wake of the War of Polish Succession. But it excited much discontent in sabre-rattling court circles which regarded Austrophilia as the most un-French of diplomatic perversions. A new generation of bellicose nobles, too young to have had experience of warfare under Louis XIV and feeling starved of chances for advancement under Fleury, began to make their voices heard, notably in the entourage of Louis’s mistress, the duchesse de Châteauroux. A serious grain shortage following bad harvests in 1738 and 1739 causing popular discontent outside Paris offered fresh opportunities for criticizing Fleury’s ministry. The bishop of Chartres indignantly informed the king that his diocesans were dying like flies and eating grass like sheep, and indeed both the king and Fleury got a fright when their coaches were stopped in the Paris countryside by peasants crying out ‘Famine! Bread!’ rather than ‘Vive le Roi!’50

The court atmosphere was all the more febrile in that no obvious successor to the ageing cardinal was presenting himself, while Fleury himself remained as inscrutable as ever. The deaths of the ducs d’Antin, du Maine and Bourbon and the comte de Toulouse between 1736 and 1740 and the progressive religious eccentricity of the duc d’Orléans temporarily eclipsed the faction wars of the princes, but other courtiers took their place. Chauvelin in political exile, for example, retained friends at court who believed in and worked for his return. He was held to have links, for example, with a political combination which involved the king’s mistress, the duchesse de Châteauroux, and the duc de Richelieu – a reprobate who had almost defined the term roué under the Regency but who had since developed a powerful military and diplomatic career. Another candidate for the reversion was Tencin, archbishop of Embrun, then Lyon, and from 1739 cardinal, who worked closely with Fleury on religious and foreign policy. The Parisian salon that his sister, Mme Tencin, ran in Paris acted as a recruiting office for a growing, dévot-orientated faction. Fleury brought Cardinal Tencin and another dévot, the comte d’Argenson, into the state Council in 1742, but seemingly only to strengthen his own position tactically rather than to give the nod for the succession to either man.51 The coming star on whom all eyes were increasingly trained, namely, the marquis de Belle-Isle, was grandson of Louis XIV’s disgraced Finance Minister Fouquet. He had finessed himself an enormous fortune and maintained ambitions to match. As well as enjoying links in the royal court, he was said to stipend some 200 individuals in the city of Paris to spread favourable news stories about himself.

Major developments on the European stage in 1740 – notably the succession in Prussia of the war-like young Frederick II and then, in the autumn of the same year, the unexpected death of Emperor Charles VI – further stimulated faction-fighting, and weakened Fleury’s hold on power. A war party urging France to tear up its support for the Pragmatic Sanction and to profit from the circumstances began to crystallize around Belle-Isle. Fleury tried to be non-committal, and approved Louis XV’s preference for staying on the sidelines ‘with his hands in his pockets’.52 The king agreed to allow Maria Theresa to inherit the Habsburg lands but also sought to oust the Habsburg dynasty from any link to the elective post of Holy Roman Emperor, for it did not relish the idea of ex-Lorrainer Francis, Maria Theresa’s husband, acceding to this powerful position. Almost immediately the ground shifted under the cardinal’s feet, however, for in December Frederick II invaded the Austrian province of Silesia, claiming it for Prussia, then going on to crush Austrian troops at Molwitz in April 1741. The extreme discomfiture of Maria Theresa only exacerbated demands within France to move in for the kill and to amass tangible trophies of war over the prostrate body of Habsburg power.

Fleury moved slowly at first in a manoeuvre which would end with him throwing a lifetime of diplomatic caution to the winds. He appointed Belle-Isle ambassador in Germany with instructions to seek the election to the imperial crown of Charles-Albert, elector of France’s traditional ally, Bavaria. Within months, Belle-Isle had negotiated a treaty with Frederick II, whereby Prussia could retain Silesia in return for Frederick’s vote for Charles-Albert as Emperor. Fleury had thereby allowed an underling to drag him into a war – formally declared in May 1741 – a war, moreover, which soon mushroomed dangerously in scale: the exigencies of the Family Compact required that France support Spain in its struggle against the English, while Sweden attacked Russia. Belle-Isle led one French army into Bohemia, one of the heartlands of Austrian power, and by January 1742 managed to get Charles-Albert elected in Frankfurt as Emperor. The Habsburg corpse, however, stubbornly refused to lie down and die. Maria Theresa rallied the Magyar nobility to her cause, and, as newly crowned queen of Hungary, made a spirited come-back, occupying Bavaria, winning support from England, and disengaging Prussia from the war, albeit at the cost of acceding to the loss of Silesia. Thrown on to the defensive, Belle-Isle and the French army under his control were besieged by Austrian forces in Prague. In December 1742, they were instructed to evacuate and to return towards France, as Maria Theresa celebrated her triumph over the Bavarian pretender.

With the architect of the war policy ignominiously humiliated out in the field, Cardinal Fleury lay dying. Visibly failing from the late summer of 1742, he was nailed to his bed out at Issy for most of December 1742 and January 1743. It would have tried the resource of this great tightrope-walker to keep his balance in this grievous situation which was so unlike the usual circumstances in which he liked to work. The peace-lover was at war, and committed to operations which were being fought at a distance from French soil, making logistics problematic. The diplomatic initiative had passed out of French into other (notably Austrian and Prussian) hands. His popularity had suffered too: in the late 1730s, the Parisian diarist Barbier had commented favourably on Fleury’s ‘great, judicious and gentle’ administration – but such views disappeared in the context of the German fiasco.53 The secrecy of public affairs which Fleury so prized, moreover, was also becoming a thing of the past. From the summer of 1742, Paris police spies were reporting a city pulsating with stories, rumours, panics, jokes and critiques. Barbier noted the existence of an Austrian lobby among the Parisian public, and mocked the government’s attempts to harass denizens of cafes and parks into silence by sending to the Bastille writers and pamphleteers who overstepped the line. How, he wondered, can you stop Paris writing ditties (chansonner)?54 And doing so, he might have added, both pertinently and saucily. One pamphlet, for example, cheered ‘Fleury is dead! Long live the King!’55 – a nice ironical homage to the doctrine of the king’s two bodies.

For nearly two decades indeed, Fleury had indeed acted much like the king’s ceremonial body. The spare but spry frame of the cardinal had allowed Louis XV to neglect his political and administrative role in favour of a life of private pleasures and occasional state ceremony. Even the very way that Fleury operated – making a show of being above faction (while working strenuously to balance factional groupings), ensuring that his underlings shouldered the blame for unpopular policies while he took the credit for any successes, intuitively preferring the authoritarian option, prizing secrecy and discretion in government – shadowed the usual role of a king. Acting as surrogate monarch had inclined him to a conservative approach to politics, and he allowed no winds of change to trouble the Louis-Quatorzian system still at the heart of government.

Maybe towards the end old age was showing: the reflexes of a Tridentine bishop were not well attuned to the emergence of a public sphere of debate. Louis seemed, moreover, increasingly to resent the quasi-infantilizing tutelage of a figure who seemed from another age – contemporaries recorded royal sulking fits, petty asides and tantrums in order to have his own way on minor matters (Fleury called them ‘His Majesty’s little huffs’ (enfantillages)).56 But the king bided his time, and his general appreciation for Fleury’s shielding was apparent to all at court. He was deeply moved by the death of his old tutor, and gave him impressive funeral honours. The cardinal had indeed achieved much – managing the Parlement and the Jansenist issue with some skill, improving France’s position within Europe and, as we shall see in the following chapter, giving the economy a chance to grow. Yet with the body of the cardinal in its grave, the time was ripe for the body of the other king, the crowned one, to emerge from the shadow of Fleury and to rule in his own name – as he claimed to have been doing since 1726.

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