‘The minority of kings marks stormy weather,’ glumly noted one royal official.1 Yet the auguries for the forthcoming period of regency were not all bad, and the new incumbent on the French throne carried with him his subjects’ hopes for a new start, a fresh dawn after the sunset of Louis-Quatorzian absolutism. On the same day that Louis XIV’s corpse was ignominiously being conveyed to Saint-Denis, Mathieu Marais, barrister in the Paris Parlement, recorded in his diary the scenes of joyous enthusiasm which greeted the young Louis XV on his passage through the capital – a mood contagious enough to be picked up by the orphan-monarch himself, who sweetly joined in the cries of ‘Vive le Roi!’ Although in time, this mood of expectation would prove a heavy burden for the regime to bear, at the outset it cushioned the stormy ride which seemed to be the likely fate of the king’s uncle, the dreaded Orléans.
The first, highly dramatic, episode in the new reign would be played out with the new ruler off the set. On 2 September 1715, less than twenty-four hours after Louis XIV’s death, there foregathered in the palace of justice on the Île de la Cité at the heart of Paris all the chambers of the Parlement, supplemented by the Princes of Blood and the dukes and peers of the realm, to arrange the circumstances of the regency which the new monarch’s young age necessitated. The hall of the Parlement was the customary constitutional venue for such changes of regime: the regency of Louis XIV’s mother, Anne of Austria, had been transacted here in 1643 (in a manner, prophetically, which had involved the tearing-up of Louis XIII’s will). All now present were dressed in mourning, save the magistrates, who were clothed in their customary red work-robes as a reminder of the ceremonial immortality of a polity in which kings symbolically never died. The drama unfolded as soon as Orléans entered the hall and Louis XIV’s testament, which the late king had entrusted to the Parlement, was solemnly brought forward. The duke was to make of this piece of political theatre a brilliant personal triumph – a triumph achieved, moreover, by trampling over Louis XIV’s last wishes.
Orléans addessed the magistrates firmly, claiming the post of Regent both as his constitutional right and as the dying wish of the former king. ‘My nephew,’ Orléans recounted the latter as having said, ‘I have made a will in which I have conserved you in all the rights due your birth … If [the young Louis XV] falls away, you will be master and the crown will belong to you.’ But Orléans seemed surprised – biting his lip, he was heard to mutter, ‘He deceived me’ – when the exact contents of Louis XIV’s will were read out.2The dead king’s stipulation that his nephew should only chair meetings of the Regency Council and that all matters should be decided by vote reduced Orléans from regal surrogate to glorified vote-counter. The terms of the will, moreover, also favoured Orléans’s rival, the legitimized duc du Maine, who now sat bathed smugly in general regard on the peers’ benches. The will stated that Maine was to receive the post of superintendent of the young king’s education, with command over select Household regiments – as though the young monarch needed protection against such a Regent …
A momentary break in the proceedings for discussions over the contents of the will allowed Orléans to regroup his forces and to frustrate Louis XIV’s post mortem attempts to choreograph the succession. Quietly and clandestinely over the previous week, Orléans had laid the groundwork for this moment. He had imposed a 24-hour news embargo following the king’s death so as to prevent couriers getting the news through too quickly to Philip V of Spain, whose claims to the crown Orléans feared. He also had planned a kind of pincer movement against his other great rival, the duc du Maine. He conducted covert dealings with the Princes of the Blood, who, like him, were ill-disposed towards the royal ‘bastards’. The three leading princes of the collateral house of Condé were promised places on the Regency Council, with the 23-year-old duc de Bourbon (Monsieur le Duc, as he was generally known) offered the post of ‘Head of the Regency Council’ in Orléans’s absence. Orléans opened a second anti-Maine front by cultivating opinion-leaders within the Parlement, many of whom were hostile to the dévot connections of the Maine-Maintenon ‘Old Court’ clan. The duke also did his best to reassure Jansenist and Gallican parlementaires and higher clergy that he would take a relaxed line on the Unigenitus bull. Select parlementaires as well as members of the old Sword nobility were lobbed airy promises too about places on the new system of councils of state which Orléans said he wished to establish along lines formerly evoked by the Burgundy circle. Most important of all, he also undertook to restore to the Parlement full rights of remonstrance lost in 1673.
After the adjournment, the parlementaires dutifully came up trumps, ridiculing the idea of ‘a regency without a regent’ which seemed to be implicit in Louis’s will, and invoking the need for ‘a single chief who represents the monarch’, before going on to acclaim Orléans Regent with full powers without the need for a vote. Maine’s humiliation was consummated in the afternoon session when Bourbon rose to support the new Regent’s protests against Maine receiving control of the young king’s Household regiments. Maine was left blathering impotently, with his role of superintendent of the young king’s education reduced to purely honorific status.
The leash which Louis XIV had planned to place on the new Regent had thus been removed. The only restrictions on Orléans’s power were self-administered: he would introduce, he insisted, a system of government councils; and he stipulated that whereas he alone should have sole powers to dispense favours and rewards within the state, his hands would be bound by a collective vote of the Regency Council if it were necessary to mete out punishments. With a homage to Fénelon’s hero which must have registered as clear as a bell among the assembled, he stated that – like the ideal monarch of Telemachus’s Mentor – ‘he strongly wished to be obstructed from doing evil, but he wished to be free to do good’.3
Orléans-Mentor could leave the Parlement chamber well satisfied with a day’s work in which he had combined genial acceptance of the need for change with warm-hearted improvisation and lavish reassurance. Spontaneity there had been; but also a good deal of preparation and rehearsal. The Parisian streets with their cheering crowds through which his carriage now conveyed him contained some 3,000 loyal troops each with ten rounds of shot, prudently disposed by Orléans’s ally, the marquis d’Argenson, the Paris Lieutenant General of Police, against the eventuality of an insurrection by the hapless Maine. In less than a week Orléans had passed from friendless pariah to sole head of government policy, with probably greater freedom of action than any regent in French history. Louis XIV’s actor-managerly attempt to choreograph not only his own death but also the accession of his great-grandchild had been frustrated by some masterly stage-management by the new Regent. The overturning of the king’s will showed, as Madame de Staal-Delaunay, one of the duchesse du Maine’s ladies-in-waiting, noted, that even for Louis the Great it was impossible to be ‘absolute beyond the grave’.4