Modern history


Once upon a time, royal commands in a lit de justice had been regarded as non-negotiable. ‘When the king is present, the magistrates [of the Parlement] have no power,’ noted Loyseau, early theorist of Bourbon power, ‘just as the sun extinguishes the stars.’33This was no longer the case – at least in the sublunary world. On 3 May 1763, Louis XV ceremoniously insisted on the registration of a package of financial edicts drawn up by Controller-General Bertin, originally decreed on 24 April, which aimed to redress the state’s finances in the aftermath of the Seven Years War. The measures decreed that the third vingtième established in 1760 and the doubling of the capitation, confirmed in 1761, should end in January 1764, but that the second wartime vingtième should be maintained for a further six years – well into time of peace. The urban don gratuit established in 1758 would also be continued for the same period. The package included a new stamp tax – the centième denier (‘hundredth penny’) – plus added indirect taxes. Plans were also announced for a cadastral survey which would allow a more equitable imposition of direct taxes. The latter measure – a perennial tax-payers’ bogey – transformed a solid means of facing up to the state’s financial problems into a surefire method of alienating parlementary and popular support.

The 3 May lit de justice was ‘badly received by the entire public’.34 That royal ceremonial was losing its entrancing power to command obedience was reflected in a current debate on this form of expression of the royal will. In 1756, arch-Jansenist publicist Le Paige produced, under cover of anonymity, a pièce d’occasion, the Lettres sur les lits de justice, which argued, on the basis of impressive antiquarian research, that the ceremony was in fact heir to ancient Frankish assemblies at which the Merovingian rulers had sought the advice and counsel of their subjects; only the passage of time and the workings of an indefinable ‘despotism’, he argued, had turned it into a purely ritualistic royal pronouncement. When the Parlement duly remonstrated about the lit de justice of 3 May, they complained not only about the content of the royal edict but also about the form of the ceremonial: authentic Frankish experience would have required that the views of the parlementaires were genuinely sought, and that the magistrates could intone their views out loud rather than being summoned to give a consensually deferential nod.

Following the principles of the union des classes, this kind of ceremonial contestation was also taking place within provincial parlements. Outside Paris, the lit de justice took the form of the king’s personal representative (aristocratic provincial governor or lieutenant-general) reading the monarch’s communication, which was supposed to be registered forthwith. By the early 1760s, this automatic response was eroding: parlementary stars were refusing to be eclipsed by rays of royal sunshine. From 1758, the Parlement at Besançon had been in conflict with government over the appointment of the Intendant of Franche-Comté, Bourgeois des Boynes, as its First President, and in 1760 there was a mass resignation of magistrates. Conciliation resolved the matter here, but further disputes blew up elsewhere in the provinces over the 1763 financial package. In Rouen and Toulouse, the efforts of the king’s lieutenant-general to enforce the registration of the legislation by a lit de justice were rudely contested by the Norman and Languedocianparlementaires. In Rouen, the dispute led to the collective resignation of the magistrates, and in Toulouse to the enforced house arrest of the entire membership, while in Dauphiné related protests led to the exile of the Grenoble Parlement.

The development of new strategies of opposition thus coincided with the increasingly evident failure of royal ceremonial to work its sacral magic within the polity. The meaning of absolutist political practices was being subverted, as the state divested itself of some of the mystical vestments with which it had hitherto clothed itself (witness, for example, Louis’s desisting from the Royal Touch). Indeed, the person of the monarch might seem less sacral than pathetic. Parisians, for example, had been both tickled and irritated by another recent royal ceremony, on 23 February 1763, at which – with the ink on the ignominious Treaty of Paris scarcely dry – a new equestrian statue of the monarch was put in place at the centre of the Place Louis XV (later, Place de la Révolution, then Place de la Concorde). In the worst catastrophes of war, Louis had not left Pompadour’s side nor sundry mistresses’ beds to go to the front, and his most bellicose act, as Barbier noted, had been hunting and killing roughly a thousand stags in the duration of the war.35 This martial and equestrian representation was too much to stomach for many Parisians, who proffered ribald jokes about Louis being held up by four grues (cranes, but also whores) before being lowered gently down in place. The reports in the official stateGazette were, in contrast, widely acknowledged to be little more than fiction: they described ‘celebrations’ and ‘great acclamations of joy on the part of a numberless multitude’, whereas in fact the whole event had been washed out by a rainstorm.36

An additional blow to the sacral basis of absolutism was the developing campaign against the Jesuit Order. Spearhead of international Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits had also proved highly adept at acclimatizing to the specific character of the states in which they served. In France they proved an invaluable bulwark of the dévot connection at the heart of the state, and won the respect and support of much of the higher clergy, which had once been their severest critics. Their place near the heart of the polity made them a prime target for a renewed Jansenist campaign of denigration in which the philosophe movement also played a part.

Leading Jansenists had been working behind the scenes in Rome to persuade Pope Benedict XIV to withdraw support for the Unigenitus bull. The pope’s sudden death and his replacement in July 1758 by Clement XIII, who refused outright to attack Unigenitus, led Jansenists to switch their strategy to more careful plotting against the Jesuit order within France. Partly to cover their own tracks in the Damiens affair, Jansenist parletnentaires had been claiming that the king’s would-be assassin – like Ravaillac in 1610 – had been put up to the job by the Jesuits, and this feeble, unsubstantiated charge was given greater credence by the attempted assassination of King Joseph I of Portugal in September 1758 – an event which the king’s principal minister, Pombal, exploited by making an outright attack on the Jesuits. In 1760, the indefatigable Le Paige produced a Histoire générate de la naissance et des progrès de la compagnie de Jesus (‘General History of the Birth and Progress of the Company of Jesus’), which received further amplification in the Jansenist house-organ, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. The Jesuits, it was charged, championed a laxist theology which encouraged rather than deterred sin; they had amassed enormous wealth; they were personally vicious; they perverted young boys, imbuing them with the precepts of regicide; and they had been founded by a foreigner and were essentially anti-French. Le Paige’s trump card, however, was the assertion that the constitutions of the order were ‘despotic’ – very much a buzz-word in Jansenist and Gallican circles: their Superior in Rome ruled over French subjects with no concern for their rights as subjects of the French crown as if he were a tyrant in Turkey, Persia or Mongolia.37

Most unwisely, the Jesuits themselves brought the issue to a head. One of their number, La Valette, had built up a considerable fortune in Martinique. Two of his creditors, Marseille-based merchants Lioncy and Gouffre, had gone bust when a cargo from La Valette in Martinique had been seized by English vessels in 1755. La Valette was consequently sued and when the court stipulated that recompense should be made out of the coffers of the Jesuit order as a whole, the Jesuits appealed the case to the Paris Parlement, the trial beginning on 31 March 1762. The Jesuits were on a hiding to nothing, and in May, the court found for the Marseille merchants and ordered 1.5 million livres to be paid to them by the Jesuit order. In August, using the appel comme d’abusprocedure, the Parlement held the French attorney-general of the Jesuits personally responsible for the order’s ‘despotism’ and its ‘anarchical, murderous and parricidal doctrines’. The order in France was prohibited from recruiting and imposing vows; its congregations, associations and provincial framework were dissolved; and its colleges were ordered to be closed.

A half-hearted plan – which had Louis XV’s support – to get the Jesuits to reform themselves as a national congregation failed, partly through the intransigence of the new pope. By now the assault on the Jesuits had developed a national dimension – virtually all the provincial parlements swung behind the Paris institution, in a celebration of the union des classes. The movement was gaining international profile too: the order had been expelled from Portugal in 1759, and would be so from Spain and Spanish colonies in 1767. In November 1764, Louis XV formally suppressed the Company, though allowing its 3,500 French members to reside as private citizens within France. In 1773, Pope Clement XIII would abolish the order as a whole.

Louis begrudged the decision: he had supported the abolition of the Jesuits, he told Choiseul, ‘for the sake of the peace of my kingdom’, but all the same ‘against my will’.38 It was the view of the dévot dauphin from the late 1750s that Choiseul (whose sardonic impiety he detested) was deeply implicated in a machiavellian anti-Jesuit conspiracy. Even if he never actually plotted the downfall of the Jesuits, Choiseul, in these desperate times, was certainly prepared to sacrifice the Order on the altar of political stability and parlementary alliance. ‘One cannot pay armies with remonstrances,’ Voltaire once noted acidulously,39 and indeed there was a pressing need to keep the Paris Parlement sweet given the financial requirements of the state in the midst of the Seven Years War.Aggiornamento with the increasingly truculent magistrates was a major plank of Choiseul’s recovery strategy for the state. The duke’s purview over the Ministries of War, Navy and Foreign affairs put him in the best possible situation to realize the damaging effect that internal domestic crisis would have on the tottering war effort.

Choiseul’s attitude towards the abolition of the Jesuits helped to consolidate a developing atmosphere of détente between government and parlements, in which much of the philosophe movement also participated. Cooperation with the magistrates now seemed the order of the day: by 1760, for example, Controller-General Bertin was clearing financial policy with a select handful of parlementaires. Choiseul prudently sought to buttress his position against the the undying hatred of the dévot faction at court in a number of ways, including the promotion of close relatives and clients within the establishment. His cousin, the comte de Choiseul, was put in charge of Foreign Affairs in 1761, with the award of the title of duc de Praslin. A rump of fellow Lorrainer aristocrats including Beauvau and du Châtelet supported him at court, while he also kept a direct line open to his friend, the Farmer General and court banker the marquis de La Borde. In addition, he appointed one of his brothers to a bishopric, promoted another (who had been a serving Austrian officer) within the army and married off his sister to a duke. This wedge of support helped secure his position, for, despite his wide-ranging influence, Choiseul was never granted the title of Principal Minister, and his relationship with Louis was ambiguous.

Alliance with the parlements would always be unsteady, and Choiseul proved particularly adept at manipulating any moments of friction in the relationship in ways which redounded to his own political interests. He was helped by the support of Madame de Pompadour, who liked his attitude towards the parlements, which recalled that of her favourite Bernis. When – as we noted above – Bertin’s tough financial policies, guided through by lit de justice in the Paris Parlement in May 1763, triggered off a welter of protests from parlements across the land, Choiseul used the ensuing political crisis to weaken the position of his rivals in government. The crusty old Chancellor, Lamoignon, longstanding prop to the dévot cause, was disgraced and sent into exile. He refused to surrender his post on the grounds that the chancellorship was traditionally held until death, so Choiseul countered by appointing the former First President of the Paris Parlement, René-Charles de Maupeou, to the newly coined post of Vice-Chancellor, at the same time making Maupeou’s son, Rene-Nicolas-Charles de Maupeou, the Parlement’s new First President.

The organic links developing between the ministry and the Parlement were further strengthened by changes in financial policy. In November 1763, Bertin’s fiscal reform programme was largely withdrawn, and the following month he was replaced as Controller-General by a Paris parlementaire, Laverdy, who had made a name for himself in the campaign against the Jesuits. This appointment was made quite deliberately, Choiseul informed the prince de Conti, ‘to put the Parlement beyond excuses’,40 and it was followed by conciliatory moves to bring back into line the recalcitrant parlements at Toulouse, Besançon and Rouen, who returned to their functions amid wild popular rejoicing. ‘This is the start of a new order of things!’, enthused the Dijon Parlement at the beginning of the year of 1764 in the light of this new wave of government-parlementaire cooperation.41

Choiseul had no major rival at the heart of government now, and his position was further eased by the dissolution of current factional groupings following a string of adventitious deaths. Belle-Isle, the most powerful figure on the Royal Council, died in 1761. Even more crucially, the premature deaths of, first, the dauphin in 1765 and then, in early 1767, the dauphine, followed a year later by that of Queen Marie Leszczinska, knocked the stuffing out of the dévot faction. More worrying for Choiseul was the death of Madame de Pompadour in 1764 – she was only forty-three, and court factions were soon lining up the candidates as her successor. The king’s favour in the end fell on Jeanne Bécu, illegitimate daughter of a monk, whose beauty and wit had won her quite a reputation in Parisian roué circles. She was duly reinvented as an aristocrat grand enough to be presented at court in early 1769 and provided with a spouse who conveniently decamped. Choiseul regarded the new mistress with displeasure: he had lined up his own sister, the duchesse de Gramont, for the honour, and was aware that du Barry was closely linked to his court rivals. Initially, however, Madame du Barry was keener on jewels and fashion than on political meddling.

Choiseul looked down contemptuously on Madame du Barry; but then he looked down contemptuously on just about everyone (including, his memoirs later suggested, Louis XV). Royal mistresses were going down in the world just as royal ministers were on their way up. Pompadour’s origins had been excoriated as bourgeois, but du Barry’s were positively plebeian in comparison, while Choiseul’s rise to power in the 1760s formed part of a pronounced upward shift in the social composition of government personnel. There was nothing new about high nobles dominating the state: indeed what was more worthy of remark were the very few cases (Dubois, Fleury and, later, Necker) of commoners who achieved high office. The whole political establishment was still overwhelmingly noble. With very few exceptions, moreover, it was becoming harder to enter the ambience of the monarch: from the late 1750s, court etiquette began to insist that nobles wishing to be presented at court should be able to display a noble genealogy going back to before 1400. What was also new after the 1750s, moreover, was a tendency for the highest and most prestigious nobility to permeate even the more technical services of state. Fleury had taken his cue from Louis XIV in trying to keep courtier (Sword) and bureaucratic (Robe) hierarchies as separate from each other as could be managed. The abbé de Bernis, scion of an ancient minor noble family from the Vivarais, set something of a precedent, therefore, when he accepted the habitually Robe post of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1757. In the event, he was merely the first of what was to become a flood of appointments from among the ancient noblesse de race. When the duc de Belle-Isle (grandson of a Robe Surintendant des finances, Nicolas Fouquet, though he tended to overlook the fact) had been appointed War Minister in 1758, concern was expressed that somehow the post implied a derogation of ducal status (‘as though governing a great kingdom was unimaginably below some kind of dignity’, scoffed Bernis).42 In fact, the Belle-Isle, Bernis and Choiseul appointments marked the breaking of a social dyke at the heart of government. Under Pompadour, the influence of court faction had become increasingly apparent among the secretaries of state. Now, with Choiseul, the aristocracy were definitively taking on these functions, and the ministries down to 1789 would be dominated by high aristocrats – and, ergo, by high aristocratic faction. ‘These posts’, confided the duchesse de Praslin, ‘have passed into our hands … these petits bourgeois [she meant, breathtakingly enough, highly distinguished Robe families] will meddle no more.’43 Although the Cinderella post of Controller-General, still run by legally trained Robins, remained outside the aristocratic charmed circle, a cascade de méprishad installed itself at the heart of government.

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