Modern history


Beneath the automaton-like surface of court ritual and ceremony, the last years of Louis XIV’s reign thus experienced a heaving world of faction, disharmony and political reimaginings, underpinned by religious discord, social distress, financial insolvency and re-emergent political ambitions. Critiques of royal authority were issuing from a wide array of positions, ranging from the geographical margins of the country to the very heart of the state, from the rugged Cévennes mountains to the antechambers of Versailles. And the attacks on Louis XIV’s mythic present seemed even, as we have suggested, to be shifting the modes of self-presentation of the king himself. Bourbon political culture seemed to be ripe for a return to the drawing board: the king was being called on to attend to the welfare of his people – as well as juggling domestic tranquillity with international prestige. And if these new demands alarmed the dying monarch, they alarmed him all the more in that the period following his death was likely to be a regency.

An unpredictable bout of mortality within the royal family in the last years of Louis’s reign transformed the circumstances of a succession which had looked more than adequately well supplied with suitable candidates. In a kind of princely holocaust spread over a couple of dozen months, death carried off a string of able successors, beginning in April 1711 with Louis’s son and presumptive heir, the ‘grand dauphin’, or ‘Monseigneur’, a victim of smallpox. An epidemic of scarlet fever in 1712 accounted for Monseigneur’s son, the duke of Burgundy, on whom so many hopes had been pinned, and his beloved wife, while a riding accident shortly afterwards accounted for the grand dauphin’s other son, the duc de Berry. One of Burgundy’s children, the four-year-old duke of Brittany, succumbed to the same disease as his parents. This left the even younger duc d’Anjou (1710–74; r. 1715–74 as Louis XV), who sickened but failed to die of the same illness. If on his deathbed Louis XIV did at least have the comfort of surviving legitimate issue – Anjou’s nurse, Madame de Ventadour, stoutly resisted the doctors’ efforts to get their hands on the child – thorny problems remained. The extreme youth and sickly disposition of the future Louis XV was a poor guarantee of political security in a society in which, on average, only one child in two reached adulthood and where – as the hecatomb of 1711–12 had shown – an aristocratic pedigree was no protection against life-threatening sickness even for those in the prime of life. Louis thus knew that power, on his death, would pass to a regent. And, for Louis, what a regent!

Constitutional convention and fundamental maxims had it that, in the absence of a queen mother, the premier eligible Prince of the Blood would accede to the regency on the death of the king. And if the little Anjou died without issue, then the throne would pass, it seemed, to the same man, namely, Philip, duc d’Orléans. Orléans was Louis’s nephew, the issue of the king’s perfumed dandy of a brother and the prim, superannuated tomboy Charlotte-Elisabeth, daughter of the Elector Palatine. At his birth, his mother had had his horoscope cast: her son, it was predicted, would be pope – though she herself thought a future as Anti-Christ more likely! Her son did what he could to live up to the maternal prediction, dabbling in chemistry with alchemical intent, allegedly renouncing God and invoking demons, and generally cocking a snook at conventional values. He cultivated the aura, if not quite of the Anti-Christ, at least of an Anti-Sun King, discountenancing his uncle and shocking the dévots by preferring the intimacy and informality of a clique of drinking companions to the formal longueurs of the courtly round, and championing sexual and intellectual freedom over against the stuffy orthodoxy of a Maintenon-dominated court. He combined young mistresses with Old Masters, collecting his own favourite artists (he owned, inter alia, a score of Titians, half a dozen Rembrandts and Rubenses, nine Giorgiones and three Leonardos) rather than the artists responsible for the cult of Louis XIV, and he mocked the memory of Lully, Louis’s house composer. To Versailles, the duke preferred the lively ambience of Paris, where he was luxuriously ensconced in his private residence, the Palais-Royal. He never, it should be noted, totally renounced his inheritance: a critic of the court round, he benefited to the tune of a cool two million livres a year from royal largesse (which made him the wealthiest private individual in the kingdom); affable in manners, he remained intensely aware of his rights as premier Prince of the Blood; humiliated by having imposed upon him in marriage while still a teenager an illegitimate daughter of Louis XIV, Mademoiselle de Blois, he bowed and accepted as a prince should; and, though scorned for his eccentricity, he was a courageous warrior and wily diplomat, blocked in advancement only by petty court rivalries. Nothing, however, about Orléans’s life – save only, sneakingly, a brio which recalled his own youth – would persuade Louis XIV that here was a future regent in whom either he or the nation could have confidence.

The adventitious disappearance of those nearer the throne than the duke had, moreover, set tongues awagging. After all, while the loss of one generation of male heirs might be understandable, the loss of three (Monseigneur; Burgundy and Berry; Brittany) suggested more than carelessness. Gossip, with a good helping of malice, transmuted Orléans’s amateur interest in chemistry into professional poisoning – a claim which caused Paris crowds to hiss him in the street and courtiers to ostracize him. Only a faithful few kept him in touch, including his mother – disabused defender of her son and stern critic of ‘the Old Shit’ (as she termed Madame de Maintenon)33 – and the eccentric Saint-Simon. Partly through the latter, Orléans benefited from overtures from the Burgundy circle following the death of the royal heir. In the event, however, the circle’s leading lights, notably Fénelon, Chevreuse and Beauvillier, preceded Louis XIV to the grave, further perpetuating Orléans’s political isolation.

The uncertainties associated with the succession and the looming profile of this Bourbon black sheep led Louis XIV to try even harder to lay down the law after his death. It was as if the grand ballet-master, who had spent his reign getting the nation to dance to his tune and who lay dying according to his own courtly protocols, now wanted to choreograph his succession. The princely holocaust of 1711–12 had revealed a major area of constitutional ambiguity in this regard. According to many would-be constitutional experts (including even Orléans’s ally, Saint-Simon), the nation’s fundamental laws dictated an alternative to the duke serving as regent and even maybe acceding to the crown, namely, Philip V of Spain. The latter, son of ‘Monseigneur’, was Louis’s surviving grandson and consequently more closely related to the Sun King than Orléans. The aged king adjudged the Spanish option, whatever its constitutional propriety, as even worse than an Orléans regency. The European powers had only allowed France to come to the conference table at Utrecht in 1713 on the specific undertaking that Philip renounced his claims to the French crown, a stipulation which had been incorporated into the Utrecht treaty (along with a counter-renunciation, whereby Orléans disclaimed rights to the Spanish throne). To allow Philip V priority over Orléans to the regency or the throne would thus infringe international law and trigger a European war which would endanger the presence of a Bourbon ruler in Spain and be disastrous to a France still recuperating from decades of damaging warfare. Even if Philip V were to abide by his renunciation, however, Louis feared that an unrestrained Orléans, who cultivated a well-known personal rivalry with the Spanish Bourbon, might get drawn into a dogfight against him, leading France into European war by another route and risking the unravelling of Louis’s absolutist inheritance at home.

Louis attempted to square the constitutional and political circles in the will that he drew up in April 1714. Seeking to bolster the line of succession leading to his great-grandson, while also checking against any bellicose intent by Orléans, he stipulated that on his death the country should be governed by a Regency Council composed of the Princes of the Blood who had achieved their majority, high dignitaries of state and the ministers of state. Orléans would preside; but he would be obliged to respect a vote of council members on all issues. This strategy of the ageing king was combined with another crafty move – equally outside the framework of the kingdom’s fundamental laws – which was aimed both to keep Orléans in check and to increase the likelihood of his own blood descent acceding to the throne in due time. He both legitimized and increased the power within the state of his own illegitimate issue.

In all, Louis had had thirteen illegitimate children in his sexually perky youth and had done his best by them, marrying them into the families of dukes and princes. Gender balance and premature deaths meant that by the last years of his reign, there were only two children of the thirteen who counted politically, the duc du Maine and his younger brother, the comte de Toulouse, children of the marquise de Montespan, official mistress to the king in the 1670s. Maine and Toulouse enjoyed a status lower than Princes of the Blood but higher than French dukes and peers, and, more important, benefited from the whole-hearted support of Madame de Maintenon, and a great deal of dévot support as a consequence. Maintenon had been governess to the children in the late 1670s before acceding to the king’s favours. Far from resenting the sons of her predecessor in the king’s bed, she loved the boys all the more for hating the debauched Orléans. The royal deaths of 1711–12 caused Louis to listen more attentively to Maintenon’s advocacy. In July 1714 the king conferred on Maine and Toulouse the status of legitimate offspring, with the right to succeed to the throne if direct heirs were lacking, and he then elevated them in May 1715 to the rank of Princes of the Blood. These measures flew in the face of France’s fundamental laws – kings in France were born, not made. Yet Louis went even further in support of the ‘bastards’, reserving for Maine in particular a key role in counterbalancing Orléans. He and his brother were to sit on the Regency Council and he was in addition to command the king’s Household regiments during the minority and to have superintendence of the education of the young Louis XV. Maybe even responding to the poisoning rumours targeted at Orléans, Louis insisted that the child should be brought up at Vincennes, said to be healthier than either Versailles or Orléans’s Palais-Royal.

If a regency threatened to be problematic for the dynasty, then, this derived not simply from the character, activities and political disposition of Orléans but also from Louis XIV’s double infringement of the country’s fundamental laws: the renunciation of Philip V’s rights and the opening up of a route to the throne for his illegitimate issue. At least Orléans could take comfort that it was not he alone who opposed the rivalrous Maine clique: every duke and peer worthy of the title did as much, while the parlementsshuddered in constitutionalist horror at the impropriety of the bastards’ promotion.

The progress of the king’s illness was the backdrop against which the succession drama unfolded. Louis was no doubt aware of the extent to which the balance of Europe as well as the fortunes of France hung on the succession, as well as mindful of his own bellicose excesses in the past. He gravely told his little great-grandson, brought mewling and whimpering to his bedside, that the child’s future greatness depended on his concern for his duty towards God and his people:

You must avoid making war as much as you can; it is the ruin of peoples. Do not follow the bad example I have given you in this. I have often undertaken war too lightly and pursued it out of vanity. Do not imitate me, but be a peaceful prince … 34

Louis accorded Orléans the respect which was his due, making a semi-public and somewhat surprisingly warm-hearted reconciliation with the duke. From 20 August, Orléans’s antechamber, which had been spectacularly empty in the wake of the earlier poisoning accusations, began to fill with clients and well-wishers who abandoned the bedside of the dying monarch. To the disgust of the doctors, the royal family at Versailles allowed one Brun, a wandering empiric (‘a yokel’, dixit Saint-Simon),35 to administer a proprietary ‘sovereign remedy’ to the ailing monarch. Astonishingly, the king’s health rallied, causing Orléans’s antechamber to become deserted again as courtiers rushed back to dance attendance at the royal bedside. Quackery, however, had its limits, and by 29 August the king’s death seemed only a matter of time. After joining the king to make a bonfire of confidential records (including their own letters to each other), Madame de Maintenon was despatched to the abbéy of Saint-Cyr.

Faced with his own imminent death, no one was taking the mythic present in which the regime had been bathed less seriously than the king himself. Louis had done his best to choreograph his succession, and seemed now to turn his mind to playing the part of the dying Christian. Under his Jesuit chaplain, abbé Le Tellier, he accordingly followed the rituals for the ‘good death’ developed by the Catholic church in the wake of the Council of Trent – a complex programme of piety involving prayers, spiritual exercises, edifying reconciliations with family members, fond farewells, personal bequests and so on. The king was dying, noted Pierre Narbonne, an unremarkable police official in the town of Versailles, of the king’s virtuoso deathbed performance, as ‘a Christian, a king and a hero’ (though he could not refrain from adding, acerbically and parenthetically ‘albeit in the arms of a Jesuit’).36 Louis delivered a final dévot snub to the Jansenists when he made a deathbed request that his heart should be buried in the Jesuit mother-house in Paris – his body would lie with his predecessors in the abbey of Saint-Denis, for over a thousand years necropolis of the kings of France.

On 1 September, four days before the king’s seventy-seventh birthday, the dance of death finally ended. The duc de Bouillon, the king’s Grand Chamberlain, officiously placed a black feather in his black hat, went out on to the balcony facing over the Cour de Marbre at the heart of the palace, beneath which a large crowd had long been waiting. ‘King Louis XIV is dead!’ he exclaimed, before going back into the palace, replacing the black with a white feather and returning to the balcony to cry out, three times, ‘Vive le roi Louis XV!’ If the 76-year-old Louis XIV had died, the ceremonial body of the French monarch lived on, now located in the frail frame of a five-year-old child, under the protection of a regent who excited less reassurance than dread.

The mortal remains of the Sun King were delivered straight away into the hands of the physicians who were widely held to have caused his death. He was decapitated on the surgeon’s slab, his head sectioned, and what was left of him after autopsy and division of entrails was solemnly conveyed to the Saint-Denis basilica. Many French men and women seemed only too delighted to see ‘Louis the Great’ in his grave. Marquees along the Saint-Denis road past which the king’s body was conveyed were filled with people ‘drinking, dancing and laughing’, and spitting out their contempt for the late king and his links with the Jesuits.37 Yet the political heritage of Louis XIV would not be disposed of as easily as his biological body. His reign provided a kind of template of kingship which it was to prove extremely difficult to eradicate from the political consciousness of his successors and the statesmen who served them. For most of the remainder of the eighteenth century, politics would be conducted not at all in the anticipation of the Revolution of 1789 – as historians sometimes blithely assume – but in dialogue with Louis XIV’s reign. Even though the enduring and ubiquitous popularity of Fénelon’s political fable of virtuous monarchy attested a widespread wish to reform the overweening political culture of the ‘Louis the Great’, it would prove extremely difficult to wash the Sun King out of the French nation’s hair.

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