Modern history

Penguin walking logo


Bourbon Monarchy on the Rack (1784–8)


The scene had echoes of the last act of The Marriage of Figaro. It was midnight on the summery evening of 11 August 1784, in the ‘Copse of Venus’, a shadowy grove in palace grounds. A young woman in cloak and veil, in her hands a rose. A becloaked man approaches, his hat pulled over his face. He bows, kisses the hem of the woman’s robe, takes the rose. A few muttered female words as sign of recognition: ‘you may hope that the past will be forgotten’. Noises off. The two flee the spot, and each other.

This affair of furtive misrecognition, of misplaced passions of the heart, was the central incident – the ‘sting’ – in an elaborate piece of confidence trickery which, once revealed, would be the talk of France and Europe’s fascination. A mildly amusing fait diverswas transformed – by the king, ironically – into a political issue which, as it played out, would highlight the weakening of the bases of monarchical power, further blacken the image of the royal court and sully the reputation and honour of the queen, whose only fault in this rococo tale was to have loved diamonds too much.

Almost as much as she was known to love diamonds, Marie-Antoinette hated Louis, prince de Rohan, Grand Almoner to the king, cardinal bishop of Strasbourg. The causes of the hatred were inscrutable. Was it something Rohan had said or done while French ambassador in Vienna in the early 1770s? His known wariness about the Austrian alliance? His worldly air of the hedonistic prelate, notorious for his taste for foxhunting, ostentatious luxuries and beautiful women? His grandee’s disdain and the wicked wit which castigated vulgarity even in the courts of kings and (especially) queens? Or was it, maybe, that Rohan wanted power, wanted it palpably, wanted it so badly that it hurt? At all events, the cardinal realized that he was hated by the queen, and realized that the high office which he craved would never come his way while that hatred endured.

It was a down-at-heel aristocrat, one Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois, Madame de La Motte, alleged descendant of illegitimate offspring of Henry II, who served him up with the idea that the way to Marie-Antoinette’s heart might lie through her love for diamonds. The ingenious adventuress, who may have become Rohan’s mistress, formed a plan to make her fortune out of the cardinal’s passion for power and the queen’s passion for gems. The mysterious midnight meeting in the ‘Copse of Venus’ was the focal point of an elaborate web of skulduggery, by which a woman whom Rohan mistook to be Marie-Antoinette (in fact it was a hired prostitute, Nicole Leguay) signalled ‘her’ forgiveness to the cardinal. By then, Madame de La Motte had already extorted considerable sums from the cardinal, allegedly to supply the queen with ready money. Then diamonds had appeared on the scene, in the form of a fabulous bejewelled necklace, which had originally been fashioned by court jewellers, Boehmer and Bossange, for Louis XV to give to Madame du Barry, but which had remained unsold. Rohan was persuaded by Madame de La Motte that the queen needed the clandestine services of a confidante to effect the purchase of this brilliant confection. Duly prompted, the cardinal sprang into the breach. The jewellers received the queen’s purported purchase order, and Rohan’s promise of the money – a cool 1.6 million livres.

The trickery was revealed when Boehmer went direct to Marie-Antoinette to query the first instalment of this massive sum, clutching the invoice on which was visible Marie-Antoinette’s signature – or rather, its forgery. (By then in fact the necklace had been dismembered and its 500-odd stones were being sold on the Paris and London black-markets by La Motte’s accomplices.) The ruse discovered, Marie-Antoinette went berserk with indignation. On 15 August 1785, Cardinal Rohan was arrested within the Versailles palace as he was preparing to say mass, interrogated personally by the king, placed under arrest and marched off in full cardinal’s regalia through crowds of dumbfounded courtiers to the Bastille prison.

The whole thing had been, Louis wrote to Vergennes the following day, ‘the most wretched and horrible affair that I’ve ever seen’.1 In imprisoning the cardinal, the king seems to have been motivated by a sense of chivalric marital fidelity, freely agreeing to the queen’s extraordinary demand that he would only discuss the affair with his ministers in her presence. ‘The affair was concerted between myself and the king,’ Marie-Antoinette told her brother, Emperor Joseph II. ‘The ministers didn’t know anything.’2 Wily advisers such as Miromesnil and Vergennes stressed the need to separate royal responsibilities from marital amour-propre, but their warnings went unheeded. Louis listened instead to the Royal Household Minister, Breteuil, who used the occasion to boost his own influence at the expense of his fellow ministers. In particular, he promised the king that he would ensure that the Parlement produced a guilty verdict if and when the case was brought to trial.

Yet even an absolute monarch did not imprison a ‘cousin’ (a form of royal address to which Rohan, as cardinal and as luminary of one of France’s most distinguished aristocratic families, was entitled) without causing profound political reverberations. On the first day of his imprisonment, Rohan was visited in the Bastille by a veritable Who’s Who of the French aristocracy, headed by two Princes of the Blood. The outpouring of sympathy was not a mere flash in the pan. Rohan’s cause was championed by much of the court nobility, most of the ecclesiastical establishment, and a public opinion which stubbornly refused to rally to the royal family’s view of the incident. By the time the case came to trial, even the judges in the Parlement were displaying scepticism about Rohan’s guilt. On 31 May 1786, following a roll-call in which each magistrate individually declared his view, the verdicts were handed down: Madame de La Motte was declared guilty, and was sentenced to branding and life imprisonment (she soon escaped); but, by a majority of 26 to 23, the Cardinal was declared innocent. The magistrates were mobbed by vivat-yelling crowds, some 10,000 of whom made their way to the Bastille where they clamoured for Rohan’s release. The Gazette de Leyde rejoiced to see ‘oppressed innocence triumph over fraud, artifice, imposture and ingratitude’.3

The queen was distraught at the verdicts, her husband furious. The king had totally misjudged the mood of the political elite and of public opinion. His imprisonment of Rohan by lettre de cachet was compared with the recent act of casual royal vindictiveness which had left Beaumarchais kicking his heels in the Saint-Lazare monastery.4 After Rohan was acquitted, moreover, Louis had him exiled to a remote Auvergnat fastness, and dismissed him as Grand Almoner, following this up with a further act of pettiness, namely, the removal from the State Council of the aged political has-been, the marshal de Soubise, simply because he was a Rohan. By taking the affair out into the open and having a trial in the Parlement, Louis had placed his and his wife’s reputation under public scrutiny. Vergennes and the new Lieutenant-General of Police, de Crosne, had worked overtime to censor a flurry of subversive productions by sundry hacks and caricaturists, but a great deal of damage was done to the queen’s reputation in the ensuing pamphlet war. The legal substance of the affair meant that the main medium for debate – the mémoire judiciaire, or printed legal brief – was free from censorship. Pioneered by the Jansenists and dramatically exploited by Voltaire over the Calas affair, themémoire judiciaireboth appealed to the broader public, supreme tribunal of wrongs and rights, and also purported to embody that public and to constitute, as Malesherbes claimed, ‘the last rampart of national liberty’.5 The breakdown of the corporative structure of barristers in the Maupeou years had stimulated the advent of more aggressive and theatricalized forms of forensic address, making of court proceedings, as Le Paige put it, ‘an arena of gladiators, who tear into each other with sharp teeth’,6 and the briefs of the Diamond Necklace case brought the melodramatic antics of the courtroom vividly into the public sphere. Rohan’s defence counsel, Target, was one of the most acclaimed exponents of the art of the mémoire judiciaire, and his work on this case as well as the dozens of briefs produced by other counsel during the trial had print-runs of several thousands – over 20,000 in the case of the first defence brief for Marie-Antoinette look-alike Nicole Leguay.

The biggest casualty of Louis’s profound misjudgement proved to be his wife’s reputation, the protection of which had been one of his original reasons for being so personally involved in the issue. No longer were diamonds the queen’s best friend. By judging that Rohan was a dupe rather than a criminal, the parlementaires implicitly accepted that it was plausible that the queen of France should have had nocturnal meetings and got involved in mildly erotic underhand dealings to procure herself ruinously expensive jewellery. That conclusion emerged not just from the sworn evidence but from the mountain of polemical writings which the affair had instigated. The Diamond Necklace affair spilled out into a much-extended public sphere, where pamphleteers and tyro barristers wanting to make a name or earn a few sous rubbed shoulders with all those who had a grudge against the queen, the court or the government.

Marie-Antoinette was no saint: her political meddling, her love of ostentation, her addiction to gambling, her mindless frivolity were already well known. It was not just pamphleteers but ultra-conventional courtiers like the marquis de Bombelles who were revolted by her model village at Trianon – the colossal sums of money which had gone into making the queen’s ‘cottage’ look authentically impoverished should have been spent, the marquis fumed, on improving neighbouring peasant dwellings.7 Yet she simply could not be as bad as she was painted in spleen-venting polemics by aristocratic outsiders to her court clique, Austrophobes, the tail of Maurepas’s followers and others. Such writings took for granted Marie-Antoinette’s unbridled lust, as chronicled in underground political pornography, and added a further portfolio of sins and vices: hard-hearted frivolity, deceit, corruption, vampiric greed. The stories told were all the more widely believed in that they played into narratives of class and gender circulating widely within political culture. Marie-Antoinette stood proxy for the indolent and corrupt aristocracy in that anti-noble, anti-court current of thinking already exploited in the Marriage of Figaro affair. To make matters worse, she was a woman. As we have seen, the Rousseauian view that politics should be the sole domain of virtuous males problematized the place of women in public life and strongly urged the confinement of women within the private sphere of domesticity. The failure of the queen to observe this gender boundary brought opprobrium upon her head – but was also implicitly reproof against her husband. The sacral aura of the absolutist monarch was insufficient protection against the telling Rousseauian charge that Louis had failed to keep even his own family in order. In the coded political language of the mémoire judiciaire this was tantamount to charging that the king, ‘father of his peoples’, was also failing in his wider patriarchal duties.

With its recurrent themes of queenly vice, regal weakness and court corruption, the Diamond Necklace affair highlighted the royal couple’s major image problem, and openly broadcast that problem to a much extended audience. If, to some degree, the king had himself to blame for this state of affairs, he was also badly let down by his ministers. Breteuil had been foolish to encourage the king to take the matter so personally and to flush it into the public sphere. But the affair was more than his single responsibility, and to a degree Louis and Marie-Antoinette suffered the fall-out from disunity within the ministry after Maurepas’s death. The advent of Calonne as Controller-General and Breteuil as Minister for the Royal Household in November 1783 meant that the ministry now contained (with Vergennes) three rivalrously ambitious ministers with conflicting philosophies and power bases. Vergennes’s wish to succeed to Maurepas’s supra-ministerial role was still intact, though following the d’Ormesson fiasco8 his credit was rather low: he was unable to prevent the dissolution of the comité des finances through which he had monitored state expenditure and kept ministerial rivals in check. Breteuil had attained power through the influence of the queen’s party and remained committed to the notion, which he had once shared with Austrian ambassador Mercy, of ‘having the queen rule’.9 In 1784, he saw through the purchase of the palace of Saint-Cloud from the duc d’Orléans as a residence for the queen. Plans for the internal operation of the residence – servants were to wear the queen’s livery, for example, and orders were to be given ‘In the Queen’s Name’ – shocked many contemporaries as utterly irregular. The idea of the queen’s independent interests seemed extraordinary, while the heavy expense irked Controller-General Calonne on financial grounds. Breteuil thus had seen the Diamond Necklace affair as an opportunity to re-establish his credit with the royal couple at the expense of his two ministerial rivals.

Breteuil viewed the Diamond Necklace affair as a vehicle for his own advancement, with little thought for the potential damage which it might cause the royal couple. His misplaced confidence in securing a guilty verdict against Rohan underestimated the difficulty of the arts of parlementary management. Since the death of arch-fixer Maurepas, the Paris Parlement had begun to grow unruly again. Calonne’s prior political record frightened the parlementaires, and he was also blamed for introducing initiatives in 1783–4 (which in the end came to nothing) to reform the Parlement, by cutting the enormous size of its area of jurisdiction, and also by rejigging its fee-system. Furthermore, shifts of power within the Parlement itself also made the task of management more difficult. Maurepas had always highlighted the need to keep sweet the most senior magistrates in the Grande Chambre. The obverse of this was the relative neglect of patronage among those not thought important enough to feature in the parti ministériel. This neglect was most marked in the subaltern chambers, where parlementaires with more radical and disenchanted views were to be found, as well as in provincial parlements which were proving even less docile than their Parisian counterpart. Although the Paris Parlement’s junior chambers did not play a direct part in Cardinal Rohan’s trial, which took place in the Grande Chambre, they contributed to public rumbustiousness surrounding the trial.

The anti-ministerialists received aid, moreover, from an unlikely source, namely the government itself. Breteuil’s ministerial rivals, Vergennes and Calonne, were determined to prevent the affair from increasing his influence at their expense. Calonne had been appointed in 1783 largely through the good offices of Marie-Antoinette’s connection, but had drifted away from the queen once in office, and the Saint-Cloud purchase alienated the two definitively. Calonne’s career anyway marked him out as a loyal and orthodox servant of the king: he was known to have been Louis XV’s scriptwriter for the so-called Séance de la Flagellation in 1766, had worked alongside the duc d’Aiguillon in the La Chalotais affair in Brittany in the late 1760s,10 and then done a spell as Intendant in Flanders. He was soon collaborating with Vergennes and Keeper of the Seals Miromesnil to reduce the influence of Breteuil and the queen. While Breteuil did his best to bolster the parti ministériel, Calonne used all his wiles to boost the cause of those wishing to exculpate the cardinal. Austrian ambassador Mercy subsequently claimed that at least a dozen of those who had voted for Rohan’s innocence were directly benefiting from Calonne’s patronage.11 Vergennes for his part – who in addition had close links of friendship and patronage with the Rohan clan-worked surreptitiously for the cardinal’s cause, strengthening the defence case by having the forger of Marie-Antoinette’s signature, for example, extradited from Geneva (where Breteuil would cheerfully have left him).

The Diamond Necklace case, with the Controller-General using royal patronage to frustrate the wishes of fellow ministers and the cause of the king, both highlighted and exacerbated the grave political situation in which the government now found itself. Following its post-Maupeou slumberings, the Paris Parlement seemed to be waking up to a political role. Miromesnil had always held that ‘nothing disconcerts intriguers like unity amongst ministers and with the Premier President [of the Parlement]’,12 and now ministerial disunity acted as encouragement to opposition. The Paris Parlement issued seventeen sets of remonstrances under Calonne’s ministry, and some of the provincial parlements were even more outspoken. It was also particularly worrying, moreover, that one of the areas on which magistrates were choosing to focus was state finance – and in particular Controller-General Calonne’s policies.

Calonne was no miracle-worker. The trouble was, he claimed to be one. On coming to power, he was aware that he had only a limited time-window to get things right: in 1786, the third vingtième which Joly de Fleury had got past the Parlement in 1783 in the aftermath of the American War would run out, and the term on the General Farm’s lease would also expire. He later claimed that he found the state treasury in far worse shape than Necker had claimed, with public confidence – boosted by Necker’s Compte Rendu – his only asset. Consequently, he chose to refrain from contemplating new taxes or a bankruptcy (against which Louis XVI was anyway dead set). Instead of pleading poverty, he pleaded wealth. Witty, smooth-talking, beautifully mannered and affable, a Robin who got on well with the court aristocracy as well as being plugged into financial milieux, Calonne was a gambler by night, who slept off his excesses by day (even dozing, it was said, in the King’s Council). From 1783 to 1786, as the financial solvency of the state eroded under his feet, he gambled on the future by continuing the easy money policy which Necker had instigated. Down to 1787 he borrowed more – 635 million livres – than the Genevan had managed between 1777 and 1781, adding thereby some 45 million of interest payments to the annual deficit. Necker had at least had the excuse that the state was at war. Even though the international state of affairs in the mid-1780s prohibited a thoroughgoing run-down of the military and naval establishments, Calonne was a peacetime minister.

Talleyrand remarked of Calonne that he had the air of ‘an adroit steward to a bankrupt debauchee’,13 and it was the Controller-General’s heavy expenditure on court cronies which had the highest profile and drew the greatest flak. His unwonted prodigality – around a half of all pensions granted in Louis XVI’s reign were made under his stewardship – attracted to his side many of the erstwhile followers of the queen’s party, led by the comte d’Artois, into whose pockets he was later said to have shovelled some 56 million livres. Although the big prizes went to court cronies, the Controller-General also gave generously to musicians and artists, adding to the air of douceur de vivre of these last years of absolute rule. He defended his bountifulness as forming part of a larger – economic – plan. France, he argued, was ‘a kingdom where resources are increased by the very act of expenditure’.14 He maintained that the air of stinginess which Necker had encouraged by his Household cuts, for example, had given the impression of unbecoming royal impecuni-ousness, which had deterred potential lenders to the state. Borrowing was absolutely essential to raise the capital which the economy of a great state like France required, Calonne argued, and if this necessitated laying on ostentatious shows of wealth, then so be it. In giving to the very wealthy, moreover, one was giving to the principal stakeholders in the kingdom. He took special care to ensure that the government looked like the kind of enterprise with which investors, national and international, would want to do business. Accordingly, he made sure that rentes were paid more promptly than under his predecessors, and he set up a ‘sinking fund’ (caisse d’amortissement), rescheduling the payment of past debts. He made a show of resisting stock-market speculation, forcing the Caisse d’escompte in 1784 to cut its dividends so as to dampen a flare-up in share prices. High rates of interest on government loans were intended to attract not only the wealthy within France but also disposable funds on the Dutch, Genoan and Swiss money markets. By the late 1780s, over one-quarter of investment in government loans was in foreign hands.

Calonne’s instinct to spend his way out of financial trouble was not as mindless as was sometimes portrayed. His brains trust of advisers and publicists – men like the second-generation Physiocrat Dupont de Nemours, the Swiss banker Clavière, the Belgian banker Seneffe and the publicist Mirabeau fils – were less panicked by the scale of the problems in the state’s financial structure than excited by the rosy potential for France’s prosperity in the aftermath of the American War. The country’s enormous landed wealth made its credit position much stronger, they argued, than the paper strength of rival England, which was still adjusting to its American losses. ‘He who lends to England’, puffed Senac de Meilhan, ‘lends to a gambler who can only pay back if he wins; he who lends to France lends to a man of real substance.’15 Though England’s industry was taking impressive strides, and its economy recovering remarkably swiftly from the American humiliation, France had more competitive wage rates and an unmatched record in the leading-edge technology. What was desperately needed in this moment of historic opportunity was the stimulation of home demand (and here Calonne had plans for attacking guild restrictiveness and protected markets) and above all the formation of capital. If these goals could be attained, went the argument, then there was no reason why France should not achieve in the economic sphere the kinds of successes which the country was enjoying diplomatically and culturally.

Calonne invested heavily in infrastructure projects which boosted industry, fine-tuned technology and improved communications. A major development, for example, was the huge naval centre constructed at Cherbourg, which Louis proudly visited in 1786, to popular rejoicings. The port was a boost to local industry, a laboratory for new marine technology and a military reminder to commercial rival England of the seriousness of France’s global intentions. Calonne also approved major spending on urbanization projects in big commercial cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux (as well as Paris), and provided additional credits for road- and canal-building projects. In 1785, his establishment of a new Indies Company (Compagnie des Indes) had been rather against England’s wishes, but Calonne felt confident enough in France’s economic potential to cooperate with the English as well, and in 1786 he drove through an Anglo-French Trade Treaty. The agreement was predicated on the assumption that the export of French wines and brandy would be matched by imports of English manufactured goods. The latter seemed to offer few dangers since, as zealous shoppers pointed out, it was possible to acquire most English knick-knacks in Parisian stores despite the embargoes which already existed.

Calonne postured as the industrialist’s as well as the merchant’s best friend, taking over Necker’s interest in neo-Colbertian promotion of manufacturing industry. Where Necker had snubbed such individuals, Calonne proffered numerous state subventions, the incentive of cheap credit and, where helpful, support in poaching skilled workmen from international competitors – one of the most effective means of achieving technology transfers. The textiles and chemical industries benefited strongly from this aid, but Calonne’s favour tended to go to heavy industry: in particular he made large investments in the Le Creusot industrial concentration in Burgundy which became in the 1780s Europe’s most advanced iron foundry complex.

Like a traditional Controller-General, Calonne expected those who had bought into the state through venal office or tax farming to be wealthy and ready enough to provide the state with much of its credit requirements. What was new, however, was his more systematic attempt to encourage the state’s creditors and its wealthiest pensionaries to engage in investment partnerships with government which boosted production and built up infrastructure. Continuing the aristocratic penchant for industrial investment noted earlier,16 Artois set up chemical works at Javel and developed a porcelain works, while Orléans owned glassworks and printed cotton factories and showed boyish enthusiasm for the industrial potential of steam engines. Similarly, the Farmers General were egged on into investing in a customs wall around the city of Paris which would make its collection of indirect taxes more efficient (and Calonne squeezed an extra 16 million livres out of them on the basis of it in the renewal of their lease in 1786). A particularly striking exponent of such public-private partnership was Baudard de Saint-James, incumbent of the venal post of Navy Treasurer, who invested up to 7 million livres of his own money in industrial and infrastructure projects: besides 1.7 million in Le Creusot, he also had a colossal share-holding in the Company of the North, which traded with the Baltic, plus extensive investment in sailcloth in Angers, and mining in Navarre and on the Loire. He also was principal director of the Compagnie des Eaux, the Parisian water-supply company based on the engineering skills of the Périer brothers, and had slave plantations on Saint-Domingue.

The wave of investment which Calonne supervised and stimulated in the 1780s boosted consumer demand and encouraged industrial concentration, technological innovation, capital-formation and dynamism in important sectors of the economy. Growth rates were not unimpressive.17 Yet ultimately advances were neither rapid enough nor well enough equilibrated to transform the condition of the state finances by the end of the time-window for reform with which he had been faced in 1783. Indeed by 1786 and 1787 there were ominous signs of speculative boom. Calonne had originally tried hard to keep under control a surge of speculation which the policy of easy money since the late 1770s had encouraged, but the task was daunting. The Caisse d’escompte – the discount bank which Calonne controlled increasingly closely – was above all ‘a lending bank’, as Isaac Panchaud remarked:18 bankers borrowed from it at 4 to 5 per cent and then lent the money out at 5 or 6 per cent, or alternatively purchased state paper bearing anything between 6 and 10 per cent. Financial syndicates and bankers boosted share prices with their own personal enrichment in view, and a number of the trading companies – including Calonne’s brainchild, the Compagnie des Indes – turned very little business.

Calonne had worked closely with a team of bankers and financiers led by the Belgian, Seneffe, who was also closely linked to Artois and to Genevan money in the Austrian Netherlands. (This gave the Controller-General’s critics a new line to exploit: he was linked not just to leeches on the body social but to foreign leeches.) By 1785 and 1786, however, the group was far from running the show, and indeed Calonne seemed to be on the way to becoming the plaything of competing syndicates who were intent on making what they could out of the speculative bubble, which extended to widespread property speculation in Paris. The economy had started to overheat, and at the end of 1786, the public exposure of a counterfeiting racket of scarily indeterminate dimensions undermined the whole credit market, and triggered the worst money famine in the whole of the eighteenth century. With loans being called in as business confidence waned, and with the radical press gleefully linking Calonne and his cronies to this new revelation of financial shadiness, the bubble burst. Between January and June 1787, five of the biggest state financiers – including Baudard de Saint-James and his equally entrepreneurial counterpart at the Army Office, Mégret de Sérilly – faced liquidity crises so intense that they declared bankruptcy, triggering a host of minor business failures. Calonne’s economic boom was running into the sand, leaving his fiscal policies high and dry. Short-term credit would be at a premium down to the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.

Breteuil, who combined commercial and political rivalry with Calonne (they were even attached to different syndicates offering to supply water to Paris), worked tirelessly to make the deteriorating economic and financial position seem worse than it was. In particular, he had stories of the Controller-General’s cronyism, corruption and incompetence leaked to court circles, magistrates in the Parlement and press publicists. Calonne’s tarnished reputation for financial double-dealing and wanton prodigality was a particular impediment for him as regards his relations with the Paris Parlement. The Parlement had been willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt in agreeing loans in late 1783 and 1784, but made clear its preference for the kind of transparency in public accounting which Necker had offered in his Compte Rendu. (And Necker added fuel to the fire, condemning Calonne’s methods in the self-serving Traité de l’administration des finances (Treatise on the Adminstration of the Finances’), which he published in 1784.) Remonstrances fired warning shots across the Controller-General’s bows, urging more prudent budgeting and greater accountability. When Calonne was obliged to return to the Parlement in December 1785 to seek authorization of a further loan, the magistrates frankly stated their disquiet over the Controller-General’s stewardship of the state finances. Calonne survived this political storm – and indeed a further skirmish in March 1786 when the parlementaires implied that a financially prudent government measure to readjust the gold-silver ratio in coinage was motivated by a quest for personal profits. Calonne still enjoyed the support of the king. In a lit de justice which the king held on 23 December 1785 to enforce the loan legislation, Louis personally ripped out remonstrances from the Parlement’s registers, sacked one of Calonne’s most vociferous critics, rapporteur du roi Amécourt, and declared, ‘I want it to be known that I am happy with my Controller-General.’19 Such ringing declarations by a monarch well known for his vacillation cut little ice, and, instead, highlighted Calonne’s shrinking options.

Calonne’s triumph over Breteuil in the Diamond Necklace affair in mid-1786 was thus a pyrrhic victory. The Controller-General was now hopelessly boxed in. The annual deficit was running at around 100 million, and some kind of financial repackaging was essential. Yet his place within the ministry was undermined by rivalries and resentments which reduced his freedom of manoeuvre, while the Parlement, whose unruliness was partly at least a consequence of his divisive management strategies during the Diamond Necklace affair, was spoiling for a fight should he go back to it with plans for more loans or (worse still) new peacetime taxes. Cuts and economies were too slight a remedy for the state’s ills, while the king stood as a watchdog against any thought of a bankruptcy. With the economy entering a sticky patch, and with panic seizing the credit market, Calonne the gambler gambled again: he proposed that the king should seek the endorsement of a reform package from a representative assembly, the Assembly of Notables, which had last met in 1626. Would, however, such an assembly find it easy to accept the blandishments of a minister whose reputation was increasingly besmirched by untrustworthiness? Much would depend on whether public opinion was willing to be wooed.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!