Modern history

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Unsuspected Golden Years (1743–56)


Royal nicknames were not always flattering nor apt. Louis XV was never going to be ‘Louis the Great’ – his predecessor had sewn up that claim, providing a template of royal authority which the new monarch would always envy. The sobriquet ‘Louis the Well-Beloved’ (le Bien-Aimé) which Louis XV acquired in 1744, shortly after his passage to sole rule without the guidance of Cardinal Fleury, was certainly more seductive than, say, Charles the Bald or Louis the Fat. Even so, it was ill-starred: his predecessor Bien-Aimé, the fourteenth-century monarch Charles VI, had also been known as Charles ‘the Insane’ and had witnessed his kingdom torn apart in some of the most tragic episodes of the Hundred Years War with England. Louis XV’s sobriquet proved unable to inspire popular affection. Even though French society was beginning to expand and boom after the hollow years at the turn of the century, certain of his subjects were almost at once after 1744 ironizing about the title of ‘Well-Beloved’, and comparing Louis with Herod. In many circles, Louis XV would be ‘the Ill-Beloved’ (le Mal-Aimé) down to his death in 1774.

Louis had been chafing at the bit in Fleury’s last years, and he was encouraged in his determination to take command by the dusty letter which Noailles now laid before him which Louis XIV had entrusted to the duke (now also marshal) on his deathbed with orders that it be given to Louis XV when he assumed sole power. ‘Do not allow yourself to be governed; be the master,’ Louis XIV had written. ‘Never have a favourite or a prime minister … Listen to and consult your council, but you take the decisions.’1 Louis needed little prompting to revere ‘my greatgrandfather … whom I want to imitate as much as I can’.2 As if to signal his intentions, he reacted swiftly to an attempt by the exiled Chauvelin to wheedle himself back into office, confirming the ex-minister’s banishment. He then moved to break up the sprawling patronage empire which Fleury had enjoyed: the post of royal chaplain went to the old cardinal’s nephew, the abbé Fleury, while the politically null bishop of Mirepoix took over feuille des bénéfices. No one was allowed to occupy Fleury’s position as junction-box for patronage and access to the king. Louis, moreover, kept his cards close to his chest and exalted almost as a passion the secrecy in policy-formation which the inscrutable Fleury had exemplified. The king kept clandestine a good deal of advisory consultation with Noailles in the early years, and also a long-running correspondence he began with his cousin from the Condé house, the prince de Conti, on foreign policy matters (the so-called Secret du Roi).

There was no more fitting example of Louis’s wish to emulate his predecessor while also showing that he was his own man than his decision to go to the front to lead his armies. The War of Austrian Succession had not been going well. The anti-Bourbon alliance of Austria, England and Sardinia meant that France and her allies had to prosecute the war on several fronts. Conflict was hottest in Germany, and it was thither, appropriately, that the ruler directed his steps in May 1744, taking with him the wise counsel and strategic guidance of Noailles and the comte (soon marshal) de Saxe. By assuming the mantle of warrior, Louis gave the lie to those who joked that he only fought against stags and boars. When it went well, as Louis XIV could attest, war could be incredibly popular in early modern Europe, attracting to the ruler’s person a set of immensely powerful images of the monarch as valorous defender of his subjects. Louis XV would, moreover, prove himself a worthy soldier in this Bourbon tradition, displaying considerable sangfroid on the field of battle and helping in (or at least not obstructing) the victories of his generals. His concern for the welfare of his troops and the civilian population – he visited hospitals, tested bread quality, consoled the sick and dying – also won widespread approbation.

The effect was ruined, however, by Louis’s decision – echoing Louis XIV’s earlier campaigning jaunts – to be accompanied by his mistress, the duchesse de Châteauroux, along with her sister, the duchesse de Lauraguais (who was Louis’s occasional sex-partner rather than a fully fledged royal mistress). Matters came to an unexpected pass in Metz, which the royal party had entered in some grandeur in early August. The king became very sick; by 11 August, royal physicians were warning that his life was in danger. Chastened by Premier Royal Almoner, Fitz-James, the bishop of Soissons, Louis stopped blowing kisses to his mistresses and, reflecting darkly on the state of his soul, called for absolution. For someone with such an active extra-marital sex-life, Louis was a good, even superstitiously good, Catholic: he attended mass almost daily, though he did not confess or take communion and since 1738 had abandoned the ritual of touching for the King’s Evil on the grounds that thaumaturgic power would not function through an unabsolved vessel. The bishop of Soissons now began a kind of spiritual extortion on the ailing monarch, playing on the king’s sense of guilt to effect a renunciation of his marital irregularity. He refused to minister to Louis until he had not only banished the mistresses from his bedside but also had them driven, as ‘concubines within the gate’, out of Metz. Urged on by courtiers who were suddenly aware of the possibilities of dévot resurgence, he compelled the king openly to make honourable amends for his past life. An explosion of popular enthusiasm welcomed this change of heart: the mistresses’ coach, its blinds down, came close to attack as it left the city.

As news reached Paris, Queen Marie Leszczinska could scarcely believe her luck and set out for her husband’s side, despatching the young Dauphin towards the front too. Furthermore, the king’s sexual repentance and subsequent, quasi-miraculous recovery caused an explosion of popular joy. When he returned from the front via Paris, where he spent a week in November, everything conspired to show, chroniclers recorded, the ‘love and attachment of the people’ for the king: newspapers and pamphlets were full of glowing accounts, corporate bodies (down to humble carters, water-carriers and coal-porters) jostled to organize celebratory Te Deums, and the sobriquet le Bien-Aimé was coined as a symbol of the general enthusiasm.3

Louis had raised popular hopes, however, only to dash them. His renunciation of his mistresses had seemed to mark a commitment to his people’s welfare. The reinstallation of Châteauroux by late November was thus not only a shock but also a kind of snub, which was made all the more forceful for being associated with vengeful punishment meted out on the dévot clique which had conducted the Metz masquerade. His ire further raised by the sudden death of Châteauroux in December 1744, Louis dismissed the bishop of Soissons from his entourage, exiling him to his diocese, while other Household officials who had supported the prelate were banished from court. The queen too was rapidly sidelined.

By rejecting the version of kingship on offer at Metz in this way, Louis forfeited a good deal of popular acclaim. He had always had a problem with popular expressions of enthusiasm. Crowds made him feel uncomfortable. Courtiers had witnessed the recuperating monarch being chased around Laon in 1744 by a crowd crying ‘Vive le Roi!’, like a character from a Molière farce trying to dodge an enema.4 ‘He does not like great ceremonies,’ Barbier recorded on noting the king’s embarrassed demeanour during a visit to Paris in 1751 marking the birth of a boy-child to the dauphin.5 This discomfort extended to court life too. Louis maintained Louis XIV’s Versailles traditions of the public lever and coucher and the meals in public, and could cut an imposing ceremonial figure: one of his physicians passed out in fright when he met him for the first time, and a Turkish ambassador being presented to him in 1742 disgraced himself and had to borrow an unsoiled pair of breeches.6 Yet Louis circumvented court ceremony by absenting himself more and more from the Sun King’s palace. Between 1736 and 1738, for example, he had averaged nearly 250 nights a year at Versailles, but by 1750 and 1751 he was down to one night or so a week, preferring smaller chateaux and country-houses in the environs. In Versailles too he built smaller apartments, which he lavishly decorated and in which, when present, he could lead a less ceremonial and more private life, cutting himself off from the habitual palace throng of courtiers, petitioners and Parisian day-trippers and tourists.

A consequence of his carving-out from the ceremonial royal life, established by his predecessor, a more private, intimate sphere to which he felt more temperamentally attuned was that Louis’s reputation for secrecy and remoteness, both physical and psychological, was amplified. Cutting himself off from the public in this way risked making him personally invisible: significantly, following the Flanders campaigns of 1744–5, he virtually never again ventured outside the palace circuit within the Île-de-France. He knew his kingdom more from his beloved maps and history books and from administrative correspondence than from personal experience. His visits to Paris (which he had not allowed his son to visit until he was a teenager) became less frequent too: he never over-nighted there, for example, after 1744.

His insouciance, his penchant for secrecy and his fear of having his innermost feelings and intentions penetrated by others were further complicated by a commitment to an active sex life from which the Metz episode failed to deter him. There was nothing unusual, it is true, in a king of France having mistresses. In his own court it was generally thought that all grandees had one, with the exception of the dévot duc d’Orléans, widely scorned for his uxorious fidelity. The post-Metz debate was less about the fact of royal mistresses than who they were, the power they wielded and the way in which they seemed to symbolize failings in the royal will. It was a debate which found its immediate focus in the beautiful person of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Madame d’Étiolles – soon to be known as Madame de Pompadour. Born, bred and married in high financial milieux, Madame d’Étiolles seems to have set her cap at becoming the lover of the king as he was casting off moroseness caused by the death of the duchesse de Châteauroux. Their affair is said to have started at a masked ball in February 1745 (Louis was dressed as a yew tree, ‘Pompadour’ as a shepherdess). By the time Louis set off on campaign again several months later, she was installed as official mistress and lodged in Versailles. In the autumn a separation from her husband was arranged and a handy marquisate – Pompadour – located to give her requisite status.

The young marquise was witty, cultured and accomplished – and also had a calculating head on her shoulders. Unlike her predecessors in the mistress role, she showed unfailing respect for the queen. She encouraged Louis to do so too, and also to develop warm, paternal feelings for his children – an ingenious way of reducing his propensity for sexual and marital guilt. The king’s dizzy infatuation with his new mistress was not long in passing – they seem not to have had sex after 1750 but, again unlike her predecessors, she was able to use the period of grace to make herself indispensable to the king. She became mistress of royal pleasures, keeping Louis’s gloom at bay by an unceasing round of evening entertainments, gambling parties, musical soirées and plays in which she and other guests acted the parts. As Louis’s sexual interest in her began to wane, moreover, she winked at (and may well have colluded in) the supply of a series of ‘little mistresses’, usually daughters of obscure noble families, to allow Louis’s sexual energies an outlet. She worked hard to ensure that the king’s relations with these women was strictly sexual – any attempt to develop something more substantial was crushed. A score or so of royal bastards resulted and all, like their mothers, were dealt with discreetly and generously, without any thought for the process of legitimation which had caused so much political trouble with Louis XIV’s bastard issue.

In a way, too, Madame de Pompadour became Fleury’s successor as gatekeeper and private adviser to Louis XV. Indeed, she prided herself on being ‘a Fleury and a half’,7 and was widely accounted to play a major part in government business. Though she lacked the cardinal’s portfolio of posts and appointments, she could – and did – become a major influence on royal patronage. Where Fleury’s system had been founded on the need to keep separate the spheres of government and the royal court, however, Pompadour disregarded such divisions. She was influential enough, for example, to secure the dismissal in 1749 of the long-serving and reliable Secretary of State Maurepas, whom she felt had insulted her, and her influence was also detectable in the replacement of Feydeau de Marville by her protégé Berryer as Paris Police Lieutenant in 1747. Though other post-Fleury changes were less directly her doing – Amelot had been sacked by the king in 1744, for example, and Orry retired of his own free will in 1745 – the dismantling of Fleury’s old team allowed her considerable room for manoeuvre. She used it to advance the interest and careers of kin, friends and clients. It was widely believed that she was the daughter of either Le Normant de Tournehem or Paris de Montmartel, wealthy financiers both, who managed to do well out of her rise to influence. The latter put up the money for the king to pay for the marquisate of Pompadour for her in 1745 and was to be rewarded – to mention only the most outstanding gifts – by Pompadour arranging for him to become a marquis and marry the daughter of a duke. In 1746, Le Normant was given the influential post of Director of Royal Buildings, Arts and Manufactures (the Bâtiments du Roi), which on his death in 1751 passed to Pompadour’s younger brother, the marquis de Marigny.

These appointments typified several traits about Pompadour’s influence. She clearly wanted her own men; but these were not thereby necessarily bad appointments – the tenure of Le Normant and then, down to 1774, Marigny at the Bâtiments du Roi was marked by a productive flurry of architectural and artistic activity. Characteristically, Pompadour’s eye for talent was particularly sharp as regards cultural matters: the future cardinal de Bernis, for example, was a humble cleric from an obscure Languedocian noble family making his way as a writer when Pompadour gave him his break. Similarly, it was her influence which helped get Voltaire elected to the Académie française in 1746, and she showed a general goodwill towards the philosophe movement developing within Parisian salons.8 Her artistic patronage was most evident in architecture and decoration. Fleury’s famed frugality was now a thing of the past, and Pompadour was the moving spirit in the elegant refurbishment of most of the royal residences, and in the development of a number of minor residences such as Crécy, Bellevue and the Trianon, in all of which she indulged the king’s penchant for intimacy and privacy.

Someone as influential on royal patronage and as culturally ambitious as Pompadour was bound to be attacked by the envious and disgruntled. On the death of the king’s ex-mistress, Madame de Mailly in 1751, the Parisian chronicler Barbier noted: ‘People praise her for having loved the king and having asked for nothing nor thought about her own fortune,’ adding sombrely ‘which is quite a contrast with the one who is nowadays in place’.9 Many courtiers put her self-promotion down to her insufferably ‘bourgeois’ origins: the Nesle clan had been irreproachably aristocratic and though Pompadour’s family was probably wealthier, its non-noble status and its orientation around the much-hated world of high finance made it the object of aristocratic disdain. She was thus a soft target, who was accordingly much aimed at. An important anti-Pompadour grouping, with a powerful dévot tinge, developed around the queen, the dauphin and the other royal children, grounded in resentment against this impostor who seemed to be keeping the king from living righteously as a good husband and father, and as a good Catholic. Nor were court cliques above encouraging attacks on Pompadour by pamphleteers and polemicists. There was soon quite an anti-Pompadour literature – thePoissonades – drawing on a tradition of anti-court writings which dated back to the Regency at least (and in some respects back to Suetonius), and dealing in equal measure in gossip, scurrility and self-righteousness.

The role of Madame de Pompadour in distancing Louis XV from his kingly duties as mapped out at Metz became an issue, moreover, just as the government was running into criticism following the end of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748. As we shall see, France gained far less in the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle than had been anticipated.10 Bad harvests and then post-war demobilization caused widespread social disturbances and economic troubles in 1747–9, and made a poor backdrop against which the government sought to recoup the costs of war. Popular discontent crystallized damagingly on the person of the king in the episode of the so-called ‘vanishing children’ of Paris in 1749–50. Rumours that young children were being kidnapped by Parisian police officials provoked widespread panic in Paris and other cities. Parisian glazier Jacques-Louis Ménétra later remembered being met from his primary school by his father, along with ‘seven strong cooper lads each carrying a crowbar over his shoulder’.11 Rioting in Paris against would-be abductors left up to twenty dead, and there was a good deal of looting. Much popular indignation was aimed at the new police Lieutenant, Berryer (known to be a Pompadour appointee), who had ordered his men to be ruthless in their arrest of vagrants and demobilized soldiers. It also, however, targeted the person of the king. Barbier noted the belief that the kidnapping was the work of agents of ‘a leprous prince whose cure required a bath in human blood, and there being no blood purer than that of children, these were seized so as to be bled from all their limbs’.12 In accounts which circulated widely at court and which reached the ears of the king himself, that leprous prince was metamorphosed into the morally and spiritually unclean and sexually debauched Louis XV.

‘The wicked people … are calling me a Herod,’ whined le Bien-Aimé, now transformed into the instigator of the massacre of the innocents and archetype of regal wickedness.13 In the event, the Herod reference would only be a passing one. But the matrix of belief and suspicion out of which that accusation had developed would prove more long-lasting. The vanishing children rumour was significant not because of its veracity or non-veracity but because it was so widely believed. It was as though people were choosing to trust even rumours more than government news accounts. This failure of government to explain itself and to engender credibility stimulated criticism of Louis in particular and monarchy in general. The monarch had turned his back on the royal vocation sketched out for him at Metz, and opted to live in a state of mortal sin, in which his mistress and nebulous financial interests allegedly influenced the exercise of royal patronage. Louis unwittingly allowed the royal court to be sketched out as a closed space shut off from the wider public, a place of sin and perdition, luxury and self-indulgence, where manly virtues were ensnared by female wiles, and where royal duty was subverted by financial interest groupings. Notions of civic virtue were at that moment changing,14 in ways which would make of Louis’s alleged vices an incubus on the back of the monarchy. This was all the more damaging, moreover, in that the state was perceiving the need to undertake extensive reform, so as to maintain its rank in an increasingly competitive international arena.

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