Modern history

B) THE POLYSYNODY EXPERIMENT

Orléans was back in the Parlement on 12 September, this time with the young king in tow, for the latter to hold a lit de justice, formally ratifying the momentous decisions of the 2nd. The Regent kept his word, agreeing to restore the Parlement’s rights of remonstrance, and gave further details of his planned system of councils. Under the Polysynody, as the abbé de Saint-Pierre, erstwhile satellite of the Burgundy circle, later called it, the Regency Council was to be flanked by seven councils, each of which was to be headed by a grandee and to have twelve members, half from the older nobility, and half from the ranks of state officials. There were councils for religious affairs (the Council of Conscience, or conseil de conscience), headed by the Jesuitophobic cardinal de Noailles; for foreign affairs, headed by the marshal d’Huxelles; for the army and the navy, headed by the marshal de Villars and the comte de Toulouse respectively; for home affairs, headed by the duc d’Antin (Maine’s step-brother); for finance, headed by the duc de Noailles (who thereby took over the role though not the title of Controller-General); and for trade, headed by the duc de La Force. A new deal for the high nobility – frozen out of the political arena by the ceremonial court life of Louis XIV’s Versailles, and by the system of the secretaries of state – seemed to be on the cards. Members of the Robe sat alongside members of the old Sword nobility. Newcomers to high office were cheek-by-jowl next to individuals with a distinguished record of service under Louis XIV. And opponents of the Unigenitus bull jostled collegially with anti-Jansenist supporters of the ‘Old Court’, such as the diplomat Colbert de Torcy and ministerial veteran Pontchartrain, who were both placed on the Regency Council. The secretaries of state, bugbear of the Burgundy circle, suffered a major blow: their number was reduced from four to three, and they lost their ministerial status, as only one of them sat on the Regency Council – and he in a quasi-clerical role. The impression that the system of councils was opening up a new space within the polity seemed to be confirmed by Orléans’s decision to abandon the architectural constriction of Versailles for the looser, more teeming framework of Paris. The duke would continue to be based in the Palais-Royal, while the young monarch would lodge at the nearby Tuileries palace.

Contemporaries filled the new political space with sundry musings and imaginings about the meanings and ramifications of change. There were hopes for open discussion and debate after the furtive lobbying and clandestine publication of the former reign. Some individuals, however, wanted a lot more than this. The abbé de Saint-Pierre, for example, saw in the principle of Polysynody a framework for refashioning the polity so as to make it markedly less authoritarian than under Louis XIV. Boulainvilliers went further, urging Orléans to use the councils as the first step in a more general move to shift power back to the feudal nobility, who should be primed to dominate a revived Estates General. Saint-Simon held similar views.

Yet the extent to which and exactly how Orléans was attempting to remodel political culture is open to doubt. The new Regent was a difficult man to judge. He deliberately presented a somewhat inscrutable, slightly bored, ennui-laden exterior to a world long accustomed to thinking the worst of him. The air of carefree insouciance which he had developed as self-defence in the antagonistic environment of Louis XIV’s court was, however, the gentlemanly construction of a grand seigneur, designed to hide a ferocious taste for hard work, an elephantine memory for detail and the low cunning of a fox. The circumstances in which he found himself, moreover, pushed him towards prioritizing the short- over the long-term, and preferring inspired improvisation to sagacious foresight. Regencies were always difficult, but who, frankly, knew what the future might hold? It was far from certain, for example, that Louis XV, a relatively sickly child from an ill-starred family, would survive infancy – there were indeed a number of serious royal health scares in the early years. Were Louis to die, Orléans would presumably succeed. Would the sometime goad of Louis-Quatorzian absolutism wish to engage in the kind of power-sharing that the circumstances of a Regency entailed? Would this self-styled Mentor turn into an ideal ruler – or a tyrant-Idomeneo?5 Nor was it certain how strong the forces of opposition to Orléans himself might prove to be. His own accession might well trigger a counter-claim from Philip V of Spain, who under the fundamental laws of the kingdom (and despite the prohibitions stipulated at Utrecht in 1713) had a stronger right to the throne than he. And if the fundamental laws could be circumvented in this case, then could their manipulation not also allow the king’s former bastards a claim on the succession? The Regency was built on sand – and shifting sand at that.

The conciliar system which Orléans sponsored from the outset did enjoy some success, even if its deficiencies were soon plain enough. The Army and Navy Councils used the period of peace to make long-overdue reforms. Toulouse in particular was an effective operator at the Navy Office, while at Finance Noailles capably filled the gap left by the non-appointment of a Controller-General, and showed considerable toughness and even some political imagination in efforts to get the kingdom’s woeful finances back on track.6For every able administrator given his head under this political experiment, however, there were more than a few nonentities, cruising unengaged through council meetings, squabbling mindlessly about precedence issues, and leaving the hard work to the technicians. Yet any lack-lustredness about the performance of the councils owed much also to the restrictions placed upon their effectiveness by Orléans himself. The creator of the Polysynody did his best to keep the councils on a tight leash, and did not permit their existence to compromise the unitary nature of government will. From the very earliest days, Orléans made it clear that he alone retained the ex-king’s powers of executive decision-making, including a monopoly of signing and settling government accounts (which Louis XIV had claimed on his accession to personal rule in 1661). The Regency Council suffered from these presumptions to the prerogatives of majesty. Orléans nodded politely towards the letter of Louis XIV’s testament, by allowing council voting, whose outcome he invariably observed. Yet he was careful to make sure that no major issues went to the vote in the first place. Council members like the duc d’Antin complained that there was no real debate, since matters coming before them had been stitched up in advance.7 The work of the other councils also tended to be consultative in character rather than legislative or executive. It could be short-circuited too, for Orléans did much business direct with council presidents and established ad hoc groupings for particular issues. He also used his own special advisers – notably the abbé Dubois on foreign policy and the Scot John Law on finances – in a way which undermined the system as a whole.

Nor was the Polysynody allowed to interfere with the normal functioning of subaltern domains of administration. At the centre, the secretaries of state might be in eclipse, but below ministerial level, the administrative machinery operated in much the same way as under Louis XIV. The bureaucratic support to the new conciliar system was still in the hands of the same legally trained masters of requests (maîtres des requêtes)8 as under Louis XIV, and these also dominated the technical councils of state dealing with litigious matters. In the provinces, the Intendants stayed in place, their powers undiminished, belying the power-sharing hopes of provincial governors, local estates and municipal governments. Indeed, the more the anxious early days were passed and the regime stabilized, the more the old absolutist machinery became dominant. By September 1718, the Regent felt that he could dissolve the councils, and re-establish the posts of secretary of state. The abbé Dubois was appointed to Foreign Affairs, with Maurepas, scion of the absolutist service dynasty par excellence the Phélypeaux, taking the Navy Ministry. The Navy and Commerce Councils were provisionally maintained, but in a largely technical capacity, and they too were liquidated in 1712–3. In 1720, John Law would be appointed to the post of Controller-General, thus completing the return to the past. The Regent looked to sweeten the pill for potential malcontents among the dispossessed councils’ members by nominating them to the Regency Council, whose size was increased from fourteen in 1717 to twenty-nine in 1719 (and thirty-five in 1722) – a dilation in numbers which went hand-in-hand with a dilution of real power, for the Council met less and less and played an increasingly insignificant role.

Given Orléans’s character and the circumstances in which he found himself, it is probably prudent to conclude that the Polysynody was less a principled rejection of the Louis-Quatorzian heritage as Saint-Pierre would have it, or a Boulainvilliers-style ‘feudal reaction’, than a controlled state experiment in establishing a framework for action which did not focalize hostility on Orléans’s role as Regent – and which both kept the aristocracy sweet and bought him political time. By 1718, much of that time had been effectively bought, and there seemed a growing risk that the councils might become a platform for criticism of Regency policy (particularly over foreign policy issues, which, as we shall see, were becoming fraught at this moment). Orléans had no compunction in destroying a system he had created – much as he might put down a house pet whose useful life had ended. There were to be few tears for the Polysynody. The maverick abbé de Saint-Pierre wrote passionately in their defence, but his unwise reference to the secretaries of state as ‘vizirs’ brought a stern rebuff from the Regent, who had him drummed out of the Académie française and had his printer gaoled in the Bastille to cool his heels. At such moments, the mantle of Louis XIV seemed to sit all too easily on this would-be Mentor’s shoulders.

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