Modern history


The political and ideological struggles of the 1750s and 1760s had changed politics from being the preserve of the royal court or, more simply, what took place inside the king’s head. To know what the king thought – even about la patrie – was no longer sufficient to love it and obey it. Contestation and debate were in the air, and it seemed difficult for parlements as well as government to stay in control.

The détente which Choiseul was able to effect with the Paris Parlement had doused down the subversive dimension of public debate in the years immediately following the end of the Seven Years War. The end of the decade, however, was to witness the detonation of one of the most severe political crises of the century – the so-called ‘revolution’ of Maupeou. This involved the overthrow of Choiseul, and it resulted in the outright abolition of the parlements of the realm and their replacement by a judicial machinery more directly responsive to royal authority. It was the most dynamic and forceful attempt to reorder the state so as to pre-empt that ‘deluge’ which Louis XV’s Madame de Pompadour had forecast for France. The crisis highlighted many of the changes to the nature of politics wrought over the 1750s. Significantly, for example, it originated not at the heart of the royal court nor even in the Paris Parlement, but out in the country’s periphery, in the province of Brittany.

Brittany was one of France’s most heavily contrasted regions. English agronomist Arthur Young – a perceptive, if one-eyed observer – characterized it as the home of ‘privilege and poverty’.72 Its population grew slowly over the century, its agrarian economy not even much energized by the construction of a corvée-driven road network. The province’s identity was fixed on traditionalist and historical attachment to particularist privilege. Brittany was a pays d’état and while the province’s elite of ancient Sword nobles controlled the Parlement at Rennes, its provincial estates were dominated by its extensive poor nobility, grandsons of the hobereaux who had signed the ‘Act for the Defence of the Liberties of Brittany’ during the Cellamare conspiracy of 1719. If the parlementaryunion des classes helped guide this self-proclaimedly backward province towards the networks of the public sphere, so too did the presence of three of the most dynamic ports engaged in colonial trade, veritable hives of commercial enterprise and bustling prosperity – Lorient, Saint-Malo and slave-trading Nantes. The mercantile elites of those cities were eager to take provincial issues out to a wider public sphere less dominated by their noble betters.

The agreement of 21 November 1763 which had watered down Bertin’s tax programme may have marked the basis of a new beginning in relations between the Paris Parlement and Choiseul’s ministry,73 but it caused a good deal of resentment in Brittany. Changes in indirect taxation were said to infringe Brittany’s provincial liberties. Although the Rennes Parlement was eventually browbeaten by government into accepting the measures, the provincial Estates, meeting in October 1764, rejected them outright. The crown’s representative in Brittany, Provincial Commander d’Aiguillon, played a leading role in strong-arming resistance, and next spring, the bulk of the Parlement’s magistrates resigned en bloc in protest against the way they were being treated.

From Versailles, this conjunction of opposition between parlement and estates looked like conspiracy. Secretary of State Saint-Florentin’s suspicions fell on the Parlement’s high-profile Procurator-General, the marquis de Caradeuc, sieur de La Chalotais, a friend of Quesnay and the Physiocrats, renowned anti-Jesuit and anti-clerical pamphleteer, and a man known to have political ambitions. It is possible that Saint-Florentin believed that La Chalotais, besides being the author of insulting anonymous pamphlets directed against the king, was also engaging in political blackmail through private letters in his possession from the king to Mademoiselle de Romans, one of the royal ‘little mistresses’. At all events, in November 1765, the government girded its loins, and arrested six magistrates from the Rennes Parlement, including La Chalotais and his son, and imprisoned them in the Bastille. The Rennes Parlement was exiled, and the government launched a campaign of black propaganda against Breton claims of autonomy.

The Paris Parlement had been too deeply immersed in its post-1763 honeymoon with Choiseul and Laverdy to give much initial support to the cause of their Rennes colleagues. The decision of the government to try La Chalotais and his fellow ‘conspirators’ by special government commission, and then to establish a new Parlement more loyal than the last, finally alerted Parisian magistrates to the gravity of the issues at stake (especially since government was also in the process of reconstituting the Pau Parlement at roughly the same time). The new Rennes Parlement, painstakingly assembled by d’Aiguillon and a team of imported government hatchet-men including future Controller-General Calonne and future Paris Police Lieutenant Le Noir, met for the first time in January 1766. Instantly dubbed ‘d’Aiguillon’s bailiwick’ (le bailliage d’Aiguillon), the new body triggered remonstrances from the Paris Parlement and other provincial bodies attacking the government’s assaults on the independence of magistrates and local privilege.

It was in direct response to parlementary protests that, on 2 March 1766, Louis XV held the Séance de la Flagellation, in which he roundly asserted the principles of an unbending absolutism which had no truck with the claims of parlements to represent the nation or with the theory of the union des classes.74 Yet in the continuing crisis, government showed itself unfailingly incapable of living up to these big words and proud sentiments. The government was increasingly split, as a major rival to Choiseul’s pre-eminence at court emerged, the pivotal figure around whom the Brittany Affair would now revolve, namely the duc d’Aiguillon.

D’Aiguillon had a hawkish, no-nonsense approach to provincial dissidence. ‘I think the government has to be firm’, he opined privately, ‘in order to do the work of the state and to keep everyone in his place.’75 By 1766, however, he was becoming disenchanted with the government’s failure to provide consistent support for such a policy. Ministers changed their minds on several occasions as to who exactly should try La Chalotais, each time leaving loyalist Breton supporters in the lurch and exposing them to local hostility from those supporting the parlementary cause. The king decided to use his powers of évocation to refer the case from Rennes to the Royal Council, yet followed this up in December 1766 by dropping all charges against La Chalotais – ‘I no longer want to find the guilty,’ he stated grandiloquently.76 D’Aiguillon also felt that Choiseul was covertly encouraging the cause of the parlements by allowing the rumour to circulate that the old Rennes Parlement might be recalled to take the place of ‘d’Aiguillon’s bailiwick’. The Commander was exposed to the taunts of local parlementaire supporters – who were claiming that he had always been a covert supporter of the Jesuits, and that the whole Brittany affair had been caused by his inability to control secret Jesuit caballing. D’Aiguillon’s plans to reform the provincial estates to make them more amenable were also cold-shouldered in Versailles. His resignation as Provincial Commander in Brittany in August 1768 was followed by outright governmental capitulation: the old Parlement was restored, and the six imprisoned Breton magistrates were released from the Bastille – only La Chalotais being made to stay in exile, this time in Saintes in the south-west.

D’Aiguillon’s departure from Brittany brought back to court a powerful and hostile critic of Choiseul and Choiseulian policies. The duke became the focus of a dévot faction which was beginning to reform following the deaths of the queen, the dauphin, and the dauphine. Links with the dévots derived less from any conspicuous personal devotion on the duke’s part than because of his entanglement with the Jansenist parlementaire lobby and on account of his family relationships – the dévot faction included his uncle by marriage, Secretary of State Saint-Florentin, and his cousin, the ageing duc de Richelieu. The dévots seemed to be making a habit of striving for virtue through accommodation with vice, for Richelieu was a famous roué, while the king’s last mistress, the comtesse du Barry, also came to be associated with the grouping.

Choiseul had thus to cope with the re-emergence of hostile factions at court, and also within the government (where ‘little minister’ Bertin also proved a dévot supporter), just as the limitations of his domestic policies were becoming apparent. The policies of modernization and economic liberalism had achieved much; but they had also brought problems. Although the economy had recovered remarkably well from the strains of the Seven Years War, freedom in the grain trade had produced consumer hostility. There were food riots sporadically from 1764 onwards right through to 1770, and by then it was also becoming clear that the strategy of boosting the economy had failed to solve the government’s financial problems, which looked increasingly dire. In 1767, Laverdy had been compelled to seek the Parlement’s approval for the prolongation of the 1763 vingtième: wanting a four-year extension of the tax, he and Choiseul lavished patronage and outright bribery on the magistrates, yet still had had to settle for only a two-year extension and endure pious parlementaire homilies on the need for state economy.

Choiseul’s policy of placating the Paris Parlement – first through the expulsion of the Jesuits, then through assiduous conciliation and lobbying – had won the government space and time when it needed it, during and in the difficult aftermath of the Seven Years War. Yet by the late 1760s – as the vingtième issue suggested – it was beginning to look as though this policy had whetted rather than assuaged the magistrates’ taste for politics. In 1763, the First President of the Parlement of Toulouse had claimed that the political crisis was caused by ‘ten hotheads in each Parlement [who] claim to rule the state’.77 By the end of the decade, in contrast, views which had been the preserve of radical minorities were being shared by the bulk of the magistrates. In Paris, for example, the rump of the old Jansenist grouping had been augmented by new blood, comprising magistrates who were noticeably more outspoken than those from longer-serving parlementary families. Prominent amongst them was Michau de Montblin, who from 1765 was running a kind of think-tank for like-minded colleagues, the Conférences sur le droit public de la France (‘Lectures on French Public Law’).

State finance was increasingly the target for parlementary remonstrances, while the Paris Parlement was also developing ever-closer links with court faction. Its tactic of inviting attendance from the princes and dukes and peers to discuss critical matters of state – daring when first used in 1755–6 during the debates in the Grand Conseil affair78 – was becoming commonplace. They made the same call in both 1766 and then again in 1768, over further government efforts, eventually thwarted, to revive the Grand Conseil. Although the king dissuaded his relatives from taking up the offer of attendance, it was clear that all the Princes of the Blood – with the sole exception of Conti’s son, the duc de La Marche – were increasingly warm in their support for the parlements. There was cooperation between Sword and Robe out in the provinces too, in opposition to Laverdy’s municipal reforms of 1764–5. Choiseul had never been very keen on the elective element in these measures, and he was not moved to obstruct grandees with provincial authority – such as Condé in Burgundy, Soubise in Flanders and Noailles in Roussillon – who caballed against the local introduction of the reforms: Soubise even turned on Choiseul over them, accusing him of ‘damaging the constitution [sic] of this country … and depriving it of its privileges’.79 In 1769–70, the reforms were being quietly laid to rest.

Choiseul’s inability to keep a lid on parlementary and provincial politicking was brought into stark relief by the turn of events in Brittany. The newly restored Rennes parlementaires seemed less moved by gratitude at their reinstatement in 1768 than egged on by resentment that La Chalotais was still not among their number. In March 1770, they solemnly determined to reopen the criminal investigations of 1766, but this time with d’Aiguillon as prime suspect rather La Chalotais (who had, after all, been declared innocent by the king himself). Proceedings started in Rennes, but d’Aiguillon sought the right to trial by his peers in the Paris Parlement. He wished to clear his name, but also to strike a blow against an institution which, he told the king, was seeking ‘to destroy the ancient form of government in order to substitute an administration to their own liking in which they will have the principal part’.80 ‘I consent, but you wait and see what happens!’, was Louis XV’s doleful response.81

The king’s foreboding proved well grounded. Though Chancellor Maupeou had supported the idea of a trial because he felt d’Aiguillon would be exonerated and his name cleared, the legal proceedings developed into a mare’s nest of accusations and counter-accusations. D’Aiguillon was even alleged to have planned to assassinate La Chalotais, and the Parlement formally stripped him of his rank of peer. Feeling things had gone too far, Louis convoked a lit de justice on 27 June 1770 which formally absolved d’Aiguillon of blame. To pardon La Chalotais was one thing, however; to do the same for his hated opponent, ignoring the evidence that the Parlement had accrued, was another. The magistrates were furious, and refused to regard d’Aiguillon’s exoneration as legal. Though their efforts to get the Princes of the Blood on their side were frustrated, it was clear that the latter were also alarmed at the maladroitness of the royal action. The provincial parlements swung into line, those at Bordeaux, Metz, Dijon and Rennes vehemently protesting against the lit de justice. Yet Louis attempted to ride out the crisis, arresting a couple of Breton magistrates for overstepping the mark, and then on 3 September 1770, descending in person on the Paris Parlement to scold them, stipulating that he would regard correspondence with other parlements as evidence of ‘a criminal confederation against his authority and against his person’.82

The ministry was in a state of chaos, with Choiseul, the major figure in the King’s Councils for more than a decade, in manifest difficulties. Already weakened by the recrudescence of the dévot lobby around d’Aiguillon at court, he also fell out with his erstwhile ally, Chancellor Maupeou. Controller-General Maynon had framed a radical set of financial reforms to set before the Royal Council in December 1769 in order to extricate the state from ‘the horrible state of ruin’ which it faced. Maupeou was instrumental in having the plans sabotaged, and when Maynon resigned, was able to prevail on the king to replace him not with Choiseul’s nominee but with his own, his long-term political ally, abbé Terray, a Paris parlementaire. A magistrate with a record of 100 per cent proof royalism, Terray also had links – worrying for Choiseul – to the meddlesome prince de Conti, on whose private council he had served. The financial policies on which Terray at once embarked further weakened Choiseul. The new Controller-General made big cuts in the main high-spending departments, the Army and Navy Ministries, run by the Choiseul cousins, thus damaging their patronage networks. Terray’s decision to implement a partial state bankruptcy in February 1770 also hit hard the court bankers whom Choiseul favoured, notably the financier La Borde.

Choiseul’s fate was sealed when he finally and irrecoverably blotted his copy-book over his conduct of foreign affairs. The trust which Louis XV had placed in him since the late 1750s had been grounded in the fact that both men had regarded the maintenance of peace as the first priority, though both also concurred over the need for the refurbishment of the armed forces. Yet the king’s hostility towards warfare was more deep-dyed than his minister’s. By late 1770, Choiseul was coming desperately close to giving Spain acarte blanche to resist the English settlement of the Malvinas (or Falkland Islands) in the south Atlantic. There seemed a chance of France being dragged into war when its armed forces were still insufficiently prepared, when its financial position was abysmal, and when it was the king’s express wish to remain at peace. ‘Monsieur,’ Louis XV glacially remarked to Choiseul days before the dénouement, ‘I told you that I did not want war.’83 Choiseul’s dismissal on 24 December 1770 was accompanied by personal missives from Louis to Charles III of Spain assuring him of the solidity of France’s intention to maintain existing alliances but also making it clear that this would not involve going to war with England. The king personally directed foreign policy for the next six months.

Choiseul’s dismissal threw Paris into a spin, not least because a major political crisis was already in train. On 3 December 1770, the Parlement had examined a royal Edict of Discipline, issued on 28 November, which Terray had drafted and about which Choiseul, significantly, had not even been consulted. The edict forbade correspondence between the parlements, and prohibited any protests against royal orders and lits de justice. This was strong stuff. Stronger still was the edict’s lengthy preamble, in which Maupeou twisted the knife into parlementary pretensions to be ‘representative of the nation, the necessary interpreters of the king’s will, and overseers of the administration of public affairs and the acquittal of the debts of the sovereign’.84 The parlementaireswere not disposed to take all this lying down, and within days they and the government were locked into a toe-to-toe conflict which seemed to offer either side precious little room for manoeuvre. Efforts to seek a compromise whereby the Parlement retracted its protests in return for the king withdrawing the Edict of Discipline came to nothing. Government hamfistedness only made matters worse: on the night of 19–20 January, every member of the Parlement was awakened by musketeers who asked them – yea or nay – whether they would agree to resume judicial service. Thirty-nine proffered a yea, but in the less isolated atmosphere of the Parlement’s session next day they recanted, and the body reaffirmed its collective opposition to the crown’s policies.

What followed was the beginnings of what contemporaries would call the ‘revolution’ of Maupeou, a new and distinctive turn in royal policy after the Choiseul years. During the night of 20–21 January, all the parlementaires who the previous night had refused to resume service were served lettres de cachet exiling them to grim locations throughout the country. Their offices, it was made clear, would be confiscated to the profit of the king – a quite unheard-of gesture. Maupeou, the author of this startling coup, clearly meant business. Within a year, aided and abetted by Terray at the Control-General and d’Aiguillon as Foreign Minister, he had dismantled the Parlement of Paris; broken up its sprawling constituency into a network of more compact jurisdictions; put a new, more malleable remonstrating body in the Parlement’s place; and accompanied all this with a programme of other important socio-legal reforms. The very juridical fabric of the Bourbon monarchy had been ripped open. The price of Maupeou’s ‘revolution’ was the expression of dissent more furious and more turbulent than any in Louis XV’s reign. An affair which had started in peripheral Brittany ended up mobilizing the full force of national opinion.

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