Louis XV King of France 1842
- Born: 16 Feb 1710, Versailles, Île-de-France, France
- Marriage (1): Maria Karolina Katarzyna Leszczynska Princess of Poland on 4 Sep 1725 1842
- Marriage (2): Marquise de Pompadour
- Died: 10 May 1774 at age 64
Louis XV (February 16, 1710 - May 10, 1774), called "the well-beloved" (French: le Bien-Aimé), was King of France from 1715 to 1774. Miraculously surviving the death of his entire family, he was loved by the French at the beginning of his reign. However, in time, his inability to reform the French monarchy and his policy of appeasement on the European stage lost him the support of his people, and he died as one of the most unpopular kings of France.
Louis XV is the king with the most ambivalent personality in the history of France. Though he has been much maligned by historians, modern research shows that he was in fact very intelligent and dedicated to the task of ruling the largest kingdom of Europe. However, his indecisiveness, fueled by his awareness of the complexity of problems ahead, as well as his profound timidity, hidden behind the mask of an imperious king, account for the poor results achieved during his reign. In many ways, Louis XV prefigures the bourgeois rulers of the romantic 19th century: although dutifully playing the role of the imperial king carved out by his great-grandfather Louis XIV, Louis XV in fact cherished nothing more than his private life far away from pomp and ceremony. Having lost his mother while still an infant, he always longed for a motherly and reassuring presence, which he tried to find in the intimate company of women, for which he was much slandered both during and after his life.
The Miracle Child
Louis XV was born at Versailles on February 15, 1710, while his great-grandfather Louis XIV was still on the throne. He was the son of Louis, Duke of Burgundy and of Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy. Marie-Adélaïde was a very lively woman of whom the old king Louis XIV was very fond, and the young couple, deeply in love with each other (quite an unusual fact at the court in Versailles), had rejuvenated the court of the old king and become the centre of attraction in Versailles. Louis XV had a brother, Louis, Duke of Brittany, who was older by three years. The Duke of Burgundy was the eldest son of Louis, the Grand Dauphin, who was the only son of Louis XIV. The Duke of Burgundy had two younger brothers: Philip, Duke of Anjou, soon to be confirmed as Philip V of Spain, and Charles, Duke of Berry. Thus, by 1710, Louis XIV had plenty of male descendants: one son, three grandsons, and two great-grandsons from his oldest grandson.
However, dramatic events altered the shape of the royal family. In 1700, the Duke of Anjou had become King of Spain under the name Philip V, inheriting the crown from his grandmother, wife of Louis XIV and a Spanish princess. In the War of the Spanish Succession that had followed, Philip V had had to renounce all claims to the French throne. England was loath to see Spain and its colonial empire united with France under a single king in the future. The renunciation of Philip V was not a major problem for Louis XIV since he had so many other male descendants. However, in April 1711 the Grand Dauphin died suddenly, and the Duke of Burgundy became heir to the throne. Then one year later, the vigorous and lively Marie-Adélaïde of Savoy contracted smallpox (or measles) and died on February 12, 1712, to the dismay of the old king Louis XIV. The Duke of Burgundy, heartbroken by the death of his wife, died within a week of the same disease. Within a week of the Duke of Burgundy's death, it was also clear that the two children of the couple had caught the virus. The eldest son, the Duke of Brittany, was bled repeatedly by doctors and died on March 8, 1712. His younger brother Louis XV was saved by his governess Madame de Ventadour, who vigorously forbade doctors to bleed the young boy and personally looked after him during his illness. Then finally in 1714 the Duke of Berry, third son of the Grand Dauphin, died.
Thus Louis XIV had lost four male descendants in just three years, and the fate of the dynasty now lay in the survival of a four-year-old boy. Should the boy die, the crown would pass to Philippe d'Orléans, the nephew of Louis XIV, and first cousin of the late Grand Dauphin. However, it appeared quite probable that Philip V of Spain would denounce the treaty whereby he had renounced the crown of France, and that a major European war, as well as a French civil war, was sure to happen. The young boy was made very conscious of the heavy responsibility lying on his shoulders, and his life was carefully watched every single minute. Moreover, he was now an orphan, with no surviving siblings, no uncles or aunts (except Philip V who was in Madrid and whom he would never meet), and no first cousins (again, excepting those in Madrid). This family context shaped much of the later personality of the king.
The Regency of the Duke of Orléans
Towards the end of August 1715, Louis XIV was dying of gangrene. On August 26 he called his five-year-old great-grandson Louis to his bedside and spoke to him, saying these famous words: "My child, you are going to be a great king. Do not imitate me in my liking for buildings and for wars. On the contrary, do try to have peace with your neighbors. Render to God what you owe Him; acknowledge the obligations under which you are placed to Him; make Him honored by your subjects. Always follow good advice. Do try to relieve the suffering of your people, which I am most distressed at not having been able to do. [...] "¹ Six days later, the man who had ruled France for more than 50 years died, and Louis XV was immediately greeted as the new King of France.
In August 1714, about a year before he died, Louis XIV had made a will which granted a prominent role in the regency to come to two sons who had been born to him by his former mistress, Madame de Montespan, and who had since been legitimised, and were now known as the Duke of Maine and the Count of Toulouse. By legitimising his bastard sons, Louis XIV was trying to remedy the death of most of his male heirs in the three preceding years, and ensure the future of the endangered dynasty. The calculation was that should the young Louis XV die, the bastard sons of Louis XIV would succeed him on the throne. This was in blatant contravention of the traditional rule of succession to the throne of France. The move also resulted from the insistence of Louis XIV's second wife, Madame de Maintenon, who had raised the two boys and was on close and friendly terms with them (other bastard sons of the king, not raised by Madame de Maintenon, were not legitimised). The will sought to enhance the positions of Toulouse, and especially the elder son, Maine, at the expense of the man who was expected, by traditional right, to become regent and rule France until Louis XV reached adulthood, Philippe d'Orléans, son of Louis XIV's younger brother. The will stipulated that until the new king reached the age of majority, the nation was to be run by a Regency Council of 14 members. Philippe d'Orléans was named president of the council, but all decisions were to be taken by majority vote; and the composition of the council, which included Maine, Toulouse and various members of Louis XIV's administration, was such that Orléans would usually be outvoted.
The content of this will had become known, and factions had begun to line up behind Maine, Toulouse and Maintenon on one hand, and Orléans on the other. Orléans enjoyed the support of many amongst the old sword nobility (noblesse d'épée), descending from medieval knights, as opposed to the noblesse de robe, the new aristocracy of recently ennobled lawyers and civil servants. Louis XIV had usually excluded the noblesse d'épée from government in favour of commoners from the bourgeoisie who often entered the noblesse de robe and whom he could control better. Thus the noblesse d'épée yearned for a change of policy more favourable to them, and were greatly displeased with the legitimisation of the "royal bastards" Maine and Toulouse, which they regarded as an affront to the traditional rules of inheritance.
The Parlement of Paris, another political entity which Louis XIV had shut out of power, also hoped for an Orléans government and a change of course in the government, with increased powers to the Parlement. Religion too entered the picture. Madame de Maintenon was a supporter of the Jesuits, the Pope, and the Pope's controversial Bull Unigenitus, a 1713 papal bull directed against the Jansenists, a Catholic group popular in France who were deemed to have too many protestant tendencies. Philippe d'Orléans was naturally supported by the Jansenists and the Gallicans (French Catholics who wanted their church to be more independent from Rome), since they thought he would dislodge the Jesuit-Papist group from power after his own accession to power.
It appears that in the final weeks before his death, King Louis XIV arrived at somewhat of a reconciliation with his nephew Philippe d'Orléans. Bidding adieu to the closest courtiers and ministers on August 26, the king had told them: "Always obey the orders my nephew [Philippe d'Orléans] will give you; he will govern the kingdom".
In the following days, Philippe d'Orléans had meetings, and made promises, to various aristocrats, clergymen, and members of the Parlement of Paris who he hoped would support him. He promised the aristocrats places on new government councils he intended to form, which would eventually become known as the polysynody; he assured Jansenists and Gallicans he would be lenient regarding Unigenitas; and he promised the Parlement he would restore its right of remonstrance (the right to criticize and delay royal edicts), which had been taken away from the Parlament by Louis XIV in 1673.
On September 2, the day after Louis XIV passed away, there was a special session of the Parlement of Paris. It was attended not only by the magistrates who were usually there, but also by the peers and princes of the blood. The king's will was read, and the future of the government decided. Philippe d'Orléans addressed the assembly. He stated his claim to be made regent, asking that he be given full power. He referred to a recent conversation in which the king had indicated to him that he would govern. He reminded those present of the arrangements he had negotiated with them over the preceding days.
The Parlement responded affirmatively. He was granted the crucial right to choose his own Regency Council. Thus the king's written will was to a large extent nullified, and Philippe d'Orléans became, in fact, regent. He was 41 years old. The Parlement, on the other hand, recovered to right of remonstrance. This court coup was recorded in detail by Saint-Simon, the famous writer of memoirs. The regent Philippe d'Orléans took the symbolic decision to relocate the government to Paris, and the court in Versailles disbanded.
The regent conducted affairs of state from his Parisian palace, the Palais Royal. The young Louis XV was moved to the modern lodgings attached to the medieval fortress of Vincennes, located 7 km/4.5 miles east of Paris in the Forest of Vincennes, where the air was deemed more wholesome and healthy than in Paris. Later during the regency he was moved to the Tuileries Palace, in the center of Paris, near the Palais Royal.
In keeping with the tradition that all French royal princes, when they reached their seventh birthdays, should be put under the care of men, a tearful Louis was separated from his governess, Madame de Ventadour, in February 1717, and put in the care of the Duke of Villeroi, who had been designated as his governor in Louis XIV's will of August 1714.³ The Duke of Villeroi served under the formal authority of the Duke of Maine, made superintendent of the king's education. He was aided by André-Hercule de Fleury (later to become Cardinal de Fleury), tutor to the young king. The Duke of Villeroi, an old and vain courtier, loved to show the good manners and talents of his pupil. The young king, during endless public ceremonies, had to learn to hide his feelings and his natural shyness. He acquired the cold attitude and air of majesty that he would display during his entire life in public, as well as a taste for private apartments and intimate circles - in short an almost private bourgeois lifestyle.
Fleury, his tutor, gave him an excellent education, with renowned professors such as the geographer Guillaume Delisle. Louis XV's was an extremely curious and open-minded personality. He was an avid reader of eclectic tastes. A man of the Enlightenment, fond of science and new technologies, he pushed for the creation of a department of physics (1769) and mechanics (1773) at the Collège de France. The Cardinal de Fleury, an ambitious man, and, like the king, secretive, but above all affable, was deeply admired by Louis XV, and had a great influence on the rest of the king's life.
During the Régence, the regent, Philippe d'Orléans, in search of support, and in keeping with his promises, favoured the nobility (aristocrats) who had been deprived of power during the reign of Louis XIV. He established the so-called polysynody (September 15, 1715), which allowed the aristocracy to participate in the government. He concluded an alliance with Great Britain in 1717 (Triple Alliance) in an effort to prevent Philip V of Spain from claiming the crown of France should the young Louis XV die. Confronted with a total lack of expertise amongst the aristocracy in government affairs, the regent reverted to the monarchical organization of government that existed under Louis XIV and by 1718 reinstated secretaries of state. Cardinal Dubois, close confident of the regent, was made prime minister in 1722. In an attempt to replenish the French treasury the regency tried a number of original financial experiments, notable amongst which was the famous financial system of John Law, a financial bubble which ended up in bankruptcy and brought about the ruin of many aristocrats.
In 1721, Louis XV was betrothed to his first cousin, Marianne Victoria of Bourbon, daughter of Philip V of Spain and his second wife Elizabeth Farnese. The eleven-year-old king found no interest in the arrival in Paris of his future wife, the three-year-old Spanish infanta, who only bored him. In June 1722 the young king and the court returned to Versailles, where they would stay until the end of the reign. In October of the same year, Louis XV was officially crowned in Reims Cathedral. On February 15, 1723, as he turned thirteen, the king was declared of majority by the Parlement of Paris, thus ending the Régence. The king left the Duke of Orléans in charge of state affairs. The Duke of Orléans was made prime minister on the death of Cardinal Dubois in August 1723, and he himself died in December of the same year. Following the advice of Fleury, Louis XV appointed his cousin the Duke of Bourbon, Prince of Condé, to replace the late Duke of Orléans.
The Ministry of the Duke of Bourbon
The king took no part in the decisions of the government under the Duke of Bourbon. The government was secretly under the influence of a group of speculators and wheeler-dealers such as É. Berthelot de Pléneuf and banker J. Pâris-Duverney.
The Duke of Bourbon was worried by the health of the young king, not so much out of concern for the king or the future of the dynasty, but in fact out of a desire to prevent the House of Orléans (of the late regent) from ascending the throne should the king die. The Duke of Bourbon saw the House of Orléans as his enemy. The king was quite frail, and several alerts led to concern for his life. The Spanish infanta was too young to procreate and give an heir. Thus, the Duke of Bourbon, who was also hostile to Spain, sent the infanta back to Spain and set about choosing a European princess old enough to produce an heir. Eventually, the choice fell on 21-year-old Marie Leszczynska, daughter of Stanislaus I of Poland, the toppled King of Poland. A poor princess who had followed her father's misfortunes, she was nonetheless said to be virtuous, and quite charming. She was also from a royal family who had never interbred with the French royal family, and it was hoped that she would bring new blood to it. The relatively low status of her father would also ensure that the marriage would not cause diplomatic embarrassment to France by having to choose one royal court over another. The marriage was celebrated in September 1725. The young king immediately fell in love with his new wife, who was seven years older than he. Nonetheless, the marriage of the most powerful king in Europe with such a low-ranking princess was considered to be improper and lacking in grandeur by most of Europe.
The ministry of the Duke of Bourbon was marked by the persecution of Protestants (1726), several monetary manipulations, the creation of new taxes such as the fiftieth (cinquantième) in 1725, and the high price of grain, all of which created troubles and economic depression.
In 1726, the king, who was now sixteen and had since his marriage shown a new health and authority that everyone at court noticed, dismissed the Duke of Bourbon, who was extremely unpopular and was preparing a war against Spain and Austria. As his replacement he chose his old tutor, Cardinal de Fleury, to serve as prime minister.
The Ministry of Cardinal de Fleury
From 1726 until his death in 1743, Cardinal de Fleury ruled France with the king's assent. It was the most peaceful and prosperous part of the reign of Louis XV, despite some Parliamentarian and Jansenist unrest. After the financial and human losses suffered at the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the rule of Fleury, generating peace and order, is seen by historians as a period of "recovery" (French historians talk of a gouvernement "réparateur"). It is hard to determine exactly what part the king took in the decisions of the Fleury government, but it remains certain that the king steadily supported Fleury against the intrigues of the court and the conspiracies of the courtiers.
With the help of controllers-general of finances Michel Robert Le Peletier des Forts (1726-1730) and above all Philibert Orry (1730-1745), Fleury stabilized the French currency (1726) and eventually managed to balance the budget in 1738. Economic expansion was also a central goal of the government: communications were improved, with the completion of the Saint-Quentin canal (linking the Oise and Somme rivers) in 1738, later extended to the Escaut River and the Low Countries, and above all with the systematic building of a national road network. The body of ponts et chaussées engineers, instituted by the central state, built modern straight highways starting in Paris and reaching the far-away borders of France, in the typical star pattern that is still the backbone of the National Highway network of France today. By the middle of the 18th century, France had the most modern and extensive road network in the world, with most of these highways still used today by automobile traffic. Maritime trade was also stimulated by the Bureau and the Council of Commerce, and the French foreign maritime trade increased from 80 to 308 million livres between 1716 and 1748. However, rigid Colbertist laws (prefiguring dirigisme) hindered industrial development.
The power of the absolute monarchy was demonstrated with the quelling of the Jansenist and Gallican oppositions. The troubles caused by the convulsionaries of the Saint-Médard graveyard in Paris (a group of Jansenists pretending that miracles took place in this graveyard) were put to an end in 1732. On the other hand, after the "exile" of 139 Parliamentarians in the provinces, the parlement of Paris had to register the Unigenitus papal bull and was forbidden to hear religious cases in the future.
Abroad, Fleury sought peace at all cost, averse as he was to wars. His peace policy was based on an English alliance and the reconciliation with Spain. In September 1729, at the end of her third pregnancy, the queen finally gave birth to a male child, Louis, dauphin de France, who immediately became heir to the throne. The birth of a long awaited heir, which ensured the survival of the dynasty for the first time since 1712, was welcomed with tremendous joy and celebrations in all spheres of French society, and indeed in most European courts. The royal couple was at the time very united and in love with each other, and the young king was extremely popular. The birth of a male heir also dispelled the risks of a succession crisis and the likely war with Spain that would have resulted.
In 1733, despite Fleury's peace policy, the king, won over by his secretary of state for foreign affairs Germain Louis Chauvelin (1727-1737), intervened in the War of the Polish Succession in an attempt to restore his father-in-law Stanislaus Leszczynski on the Polish throne. France also hoped to secure the long-coveted duchy of Lorraine from its duke Francis III, who was expected to marry Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI's daughter, Maria Theresa, which would bring Austrian power dangerously close to the French border. The half-hearted French intervention in the east was unable to reverse the course of the war, and Stanislaus could not recover his throne. In the west, however, French troops rapidly overran Lorraine, and peace was restored as early as 1735. By the Treaty of Vienna (November 1738), Stanislaus was compensated for the loss of his Polish throne with the duchy of Lorraine, which was scheduled to pass to France on his death (through his daughter, the wife of Louis XV), while Duke Francis III of Lorraine was made heir to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany as a compensation for the loss of Lorraine. The war cost very little to France, compared to the financial and human drains of Louis XIV's wars, and was a clear success for French diplomacy. The acquisition of Lorraine (effective in 1766 at Stanislaus' death) was to be the last territorial expansion of France on the continent before the French Revolution.
Shortly after this favorable result, France's mediation in the war between the Austrian Empire and the Ottoman Empire led to the Treaty of Belgrade (September 1739) which ended the war in favor of the Ottoman Empire, a traditional ally of France against the Habsburgs (since the early 16th century). As a result, in 1740 the Ottoman Empire renewed the French capitulations, which marked the supremacy of French trade in the Middle East. After all these successes, the prestige of Louis XV, arbiter of Europe, was at its highest.
In 1740, the death of Emperor Charles VI and his succession by his daughter Maria Theresa started the European War of the Austrian Succession. The old cardinal de Fleury did not have enough energy left to oppose the war, and the king gave in to the strong pressure of the anti-Austrian party at court: he entered the war in 1741 by allying himself with Prussia. The war would last seven long years. France was renewing the cycle of wars so typical of Louis XIV's reign. Fleury, however, did not live to see the end of the war and died in January 1743. The king, following at last the example of his predecessor Louis XIV, decided henceforth to rule without a prime minister, thus starting his personal reign.
First signs of unpopularity
At the death of his old tutor Fleury in 1743, the king was 33 years old. He had experienced a few years of happiness with his devoted Polish queen, who worshipped him as she worshipped God. A child was born almost every year. However, the queen eventually tired of continual pregnancies, while the king tired of the queen's unconditional love. Moreover, most of the queen's pregnancies produced girls, which the king eventually resented. Out of ten children born of the queen, there were only two sons, only one of whom survived, the dauphin. This did not help dispel the concerns about the future of the dynasty brought about by the repeated deaths of the early 1710s (read above). In 1734, for the first time, the queen complained to her father about the king's infidelities. The king found love with Madame de Mailly, then with her younger sister Madame de Vintimille, then at her death with her younger sister Madame de Châteauroux, while the queen took refuge in religion and charities.
The year after the death of Fleury saw the dramatic events of Metz (August 1744), which left profound scars on the psyche of the king as well as on French political life. The king, who had left Versailles for the front in order to take personal command of his armies fighting in the War of the Austrian Succession, fell gravely ill in Metz. The doctors thought death was imminent. The people, who still loved him, gave him the royal nickname "Well-Beloved", and public prayers were held all across France to ask God to save the king from a certain death. His mistress Madame de Châteauroux, who had accompanied the king to the front, was forced to leave to the boos of the public, while the queen hastily arrived in Metz.
Pressed by the dévot party, Msgr. de Fitz-James, First Chaplain (premier aumônier) of the king, refused to give the king the absolution without a public confession of his sins, in which the king appeared as an immoral person not worthy of the name of Very Christian King (Rex Christianissimus, a traditional title of the kings of France, who had inherited the role of protector of the Church and the papacy from the Frankish Empire in the Middle Ages). The king's confession, spread across the kingdom by the clergy, stunned the masses and tarnished the prestige of the monarchy. The king had escaped death, but the sense of guilt pushed him even further into adultery.
Marquise de Pompadour, met in February 1745 at a lavish masked ball given in honor of the dauphin's marriage, was the most famous mistress of the reign, and the most honorable one. She was the daughter of a chief agent of the powerful Pâris family of financiers who became embroiled in the intrigue that ousted the Duke of Bourbon as head of the Regency council in favor of Cardinal de Fleury. A beautiful woman, educated, cultured, intelligent, and sincerely attached to the king, she nonetheless possessed one major shortcoming in the eyes of the masses: she was a commoner, from the bourgeoisie, and even worse, a commoner who meddled in royal politics. The public had generally accepted the mistresses of Louis XIV, who, apart from Madame de Maintenon, where all chosen in the highest spheres of the aristocracy and had absolutely no influence on the government. But that the king may thus compromise himself with a commoner was felt to be a profound disgrace. Soon there were libels called poissonnades (a word meaning something like "fish stew", a pun based on the Marquise de Pompadour's family name, Poisson, which means "fish" in French), violently attacking the Marquise and slandering her, such as shown in this example: "Daughter of a leech, and a leech herself, Poisson ["Fish"], with an extreme arrogance, flaunts itself in this château, without fear or dread, the substance of the people and the shame of the King."
Despite the critics, the Marquise de Pompadour had an undeniable influence on the flourishing of French arts during the reign of Louis XV, a reign that is often considered the peak of French architecture and interior design (see: Louis XV style). A patron of the arts, the Marquise amassed a considerable amount of furniture and objet d'art in her various estates. She was responsible for the tremendous development of the porcelain manufactory of Sèvres, which became one of the most famous porcelain manufacturer in Europe, and her commands ensured the living of artists and families of craftsmen for many years. She was also a prominent patron of architecture, being responsible for the building of the Place Louis XV (now called Place de la Concorde) and the École Militaire in Paris, both built by her protégé Jacques-Ange Gabriel. The École Militaire, for the creation of which she successfully lobbied the king, showed her commitment to the training of officers from poor families of the aristocracy (one student of the École Militaire, Napoléon Bonaparte, would later rise to fame). The Marquise was a liberal at heart and she steadily defended the Encyclopédie against the attacks of the Church. She was a supporter of the Philosophy of the Enlightenment, and tried to win the king to its new ideas, albeit not quite as successfully as she hoped. She was criticised for the lavish display of luxury in her various estates, although her rich family of financiers in many instances gave money to the government and saved the monarchy from bankruptcy. All her estates, which she had bequeathed to the state, reverted to the crown at her death.
The Marquise de Pompadour was officially settled on the third floor (second storey) of the Palace of Versailles, in small but cozy apartments that can still be visited today. There, she organized fine suppers for the king, with chosen guests, far from the pomp and etiquette of the court which the king detested. The atmosphere in these private quarters was so relaxed that the king was said to serve coffee during the suppers. She often entertained the king, trying to relieve him from the state of boredom in which the court often plunged him. The king, who liked a more bourgeois lifestyle than his forefather Louis XIV, found in the private apartments of the Marquise de Pompadour, located above his own office and bedchamber, the intimacy and reassuring feminine presence of which he had been deprived during his childhood.
The Marquise de Pompadour, who was reportedly frigid and in frail health, was no more than a friend after 1750. Although the sexual relationship stopped, the Marquise remained the close confident and friend of the king until her death, which is quite a feat in the history of royal mistresses. She, more than anyone else, was adept at understanding the complex and demanding personality of the king. After 1750, the king was mired in a series of short-lived love affairs and sexual relationships, hiding his temporary conquests in a small mansion at the Parc-aux-Cerfs ("Stags' Park"), the most famous of whom was Marie-Louise O'Murphy. Legend later enormously exaggerated the events taking place at the Parc-aux-Cerfs, contributing to the dark reputation still associated with Louis XV's name today. The oft-mentioned womanizing of the king, however, was not very different from that of many of his ancestors, such as kings Francis I or Henry IV, known for their relentless pursuit of women, but nonetheless two of the best remembered kings of France today, to say nothing of other European monarchs such as Henry VIII of England.
First try at reform
All these love affairs did not take the king away from the duties of his office, but he lacked the inexhaustible energy of his great-grandfather Louis XIV. He had gotten used to taking decisions based on Cardinal de Fleury's advice, and to relying on him for the execution of government policies. During the 17 long years of Fleury's government, the king had formed his judgment but had not forged his will.
Starting in 1743 with the death of Fleury, the king ruled alone without a prime minister. time and again he read the instructions of Louis XIV: "Listen to people, seek advice from your Council, but decide [alone]." Although he was without a doubt more intelligent and cultured than his great-grandfather, Louis XV lacked self-confidence. His political correspondence reveals his deep knowledge of public affairs as well as the soundness of his judgment. However, the king was often afraid of taking firm decisions, fearing that he might be wrong and other people might be right. It was only when pushed to the limit, often when it was too late, that he suddenly resolved to bold action, with a brutality that stunned people.
Always supportive and friendly towards his ministers in appearance, his disgrace fell suddenly without warning on the ministers that he felt dissatisfied with, leading to his reputation of deviousness. It was very difficult for ministers to decipher the king, or to know if their action was in agreement with what he really thought. Usually, they were given great independence each in their ministry, the king never really directing them, and they never received any warning or sign of displeasure from the king, until there came the sudden disgrace. Moreover, the king often acted without their knowing it, such as in the case of the "Secret of the king" ("Secret du roi"), a secret diplomatic correspondence between the king and the courts of the nations against which France was fighting during the wars of the reign. Most of government work was conducted in committees of ministers which met without the king. The king was sitting in the High Council (Conseil d'en haut), created by Louis XIV, in charge of secrets of State regarding religion, diplomacy, and war. There, he let various political factions oppose each other and vie for influence and power: the dévot party, led by the Comte d'Argenson, secretary of state for war, opposed the parti philosophique, which supported the Enlightenment philosophy and was led by Machault d'Arnouville, controller-general of finances.
The parti philosophique was supported by the Marquise de Pompadour, who acted as a sort of minister without portfolio from the time she became royal mistress in 1745 until her death in 1764. The Marquise was in favor of reforms. Supported by her clan of financiers (Pâris-Duverney, Montmartel, etc.), she obtained from the king the appointment of ministers (Bernis, secretary of state for foreign affairs, in 1757), as well as their dismissal (Orry, controller-general of finances, in 1745; Maurepas, secretary of state for the Navy, in 1749). On her advice, the king supported the policy of fiscal justice designed by Machault d'Arnouville. In order to finance the budget deficit, which amounted to 100 million livres in 1745, Machault d'Arnouville created a tax on the twentieth of all revenues which affected also the privileged classes (Edict of Marly, 1749). This breach in the privileged status of the aristocracy and the clergy, normally exempt from taxes, was a first in French history, although it had already been advocated by visionary minds such as Vauban under Louis XIV. However, the new tax was received with violent protest from the privileged classes sitting in the provincial estates (états provinciaux) of the few provinces which still kept the right to decide over taxation (most provinces had long lost their privileged status and the right to decide over taxation that came with it). The new tax was also violently opposed by the clergy and by the parlements. Pressed and eventually won over by his entourage at court, the king gave in and exempted the clergy from the twentieth in 1751. Eventually, the twentieth became a mere increase in the already existing taille, the most important direct tax of the monarchy from which privileged classes were exempted. It was the first defeat in the "taxation war" waged against the privileged classes.
As a result of these attempts at reform, the parlement of Paris, using the quarrel between the clergy and the Jansenists as a pretext, addressed remonstrances to the king (April 1753). In these remonstrances, the parlement, which was made up of privileged aristocrats and ennobled commoners, proclaimed itself the "natural defender of the fundamental laws of the kingdom" against the arbitrariness of the monarchy.
Abroad, the policy of the king seemed inconsistent. The period was dominated by the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), which had started under Fleury. The war pitted the French and Prussians against the Austrians, English, and Dutch. The latter part of the war saw a series of major French victories: Battle of Fontenoy (1745), Battle of Rocourt (1746), and Battle of Lawfeld (1747). In particular, the Battle of Fontenoy, won by the Maréchal de Saxe, is considered one of the most resounding French victories in history against the English, and is still well remembered in France today. As a result of these victories, France occupied the entire Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium), at the time the wealthiest area of Europe, and Louis XV was well on his way to fulfill the old dream of France to establish the country's northeastern border on the Rhine River. The king was then at the peak of his popularity.
However, at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, France restored all its conquests to Austria, to the amazement of French people, and to the surprise of European powers. Louis XV, who at heart was not a bellicose king, unlike his great-grandfather Louis XIV, felt content with his almost perfect hexagon-shaped kingdom, which he called his pré carré (i.e. "square field"), a concept still used in French politics today. He thought it better to cultivate his pré carré rather than trying to expand it. The king declared he had made peace "as a king and not as a merchant". The attitude of the king was hailed in Europe, and he became overnight the "arbiter of Europe". At home, however the consequences for his popularity were catastrophic. The people had forgiven Louis XIV for his high taxes, his mistresses, and his lavish expenditures, as long as he was successful in wars. As for Louis XV, the incident of Metz (1744) weighed little in the eyes of the public against the king's victories in the War of the Austrian Succession. But the news that the king had restored the Southern Netherlands to Austria at the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle was met with disbelief and bitterness. Parisians coined the phrase: "As stupid as peace" ("Bête comme la paix"). Historians usually consider that the year 1748 saw the first true manifestation of public opinion in France, a nationalist public opinion that the king did not understand. 1748 was also the turning point in the king's popularity at home: after 1748, his popularity steadily declined, never to recover, and pamphlets against his mistresses and his lifestyle arose en masse.
Moreover, in 1756, breaking with the traditional Franco-Prussian alliance, the king operated the so-called "reversal of alliances". A new European conflict was brewing, the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle being but a sort of truce. Already, French and English were fighting each other in North America without a declaration of war (see Indian Wars). In 1755, the English seized 300 French merchant ships, in violation of international law. A few months later, on January 16, 1756, the United Kingdom and Prussia signed a treaty of "neutrality". In Paris and Versailles, the parti philosophique and the Marquise de Pompadour could not hide their disappointment at this betrayal by King Frederick II of Prussia, who was until then seen as an enlightened sovereign friend of the Philosophers. Frederick II had even welcomed Voltaire in Potsdam when the famous writer had run into trouble with the dévot party in France. But the truth was that Frederick II was motivated first and foremost by personal interests and the desire to expand the territory of Prussia by any means available. He had already abandoned his French ally during the War of Austrian Succession, signing a separate peace treaty with Austria in December 1745, which had greatly angered the French. The Marquise de Pompadour particularly disliked Frederick II, who had always showed contempt for her, and even named one of his poodles "Pompadour". At the same time, French officials realized that the Habsburg empire of Austria was no more the danger it had been in the heyday of the Habsburgs, back in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they controlled Spain and most of Europe and presented a formidable challenge to France. The new dangerous power looming now on the horizon was Prussia. It was in this context that the parti philosophique and the Marquise managed to win over the king to a reversal of alliances. By the Treaty of Versailles signed on April 1, 1756, the king, overruling his ministers, who were still attached to the policy of Habsburg containment followed under Richelieu and Louis XIV, allied himself with Austria and thus put an end to more than 200 years of conflict with the Habsburgs.
At the end of August 1756, Frederick II invaded Saxony without a declaration of war. He soon defeated the unprepared Saxon and Austrian armies and occupied the whole of Saxony. His treatment of the electoral family of Saxony was particularly brutal; the Electress Maria Josepha died from maltreatment. These actions by Frederick II profoundly shocked Europe, and particularly France. The wife of the dauphin, who was the daughter of the Elector and Electress of Saxony, had a miscarriage as a result of the news coming from Saxony. Louis XV was left with no choice but to enter the war. Meanwhile England had already declared war on France on May 18, 1756. The ensuing Seven Years' War (1756-1763) was to have profound consequences for France and England.
At home, discontent grew, fueled by the perceived political incompetence of the king and the spending spree of the court. As previously highlighted, modern historians have shown that the king was in fact not incompetent, albeit not resolute enough. The spending at court was also not particularly high under Louis XV, at any rate not any higher than under previous French kings, and certainly much lower than in some other European courts, such as in Russia, where Peter the Great and Empress Elizabeth spent enormous amounts of money to build palaces in and around Saint Petersburg. Court spending also helped to carry French arts to their zenith under Louis XV, and supported thousands of families of artists and craftsmen. French arts were admired and copied all over Europe. Even today, 250 years later, "Louis XV" style is still a favorite among the rich and famous around the world. Yet at the time the French public, influenced as it was by a violent campaign of libels against the king and the Marquise de Pompadour starting in the mid-1740s, could only see royal incompetence and spending sprees.
This was what may have inspired the assassination attempt on the king by Robert Damiens. On January 5, 1757, would-be assassin Damiens entered the Palace of Versailles, as did thousands of people every day to petition the king. At 6 p.m., as night had fallen on a cold Versailles covered in snow, the king, who was visiting his daughter, left her apartments to return to the Trianon where he was staying that day. As he was walking in the Marble Courtyard between two lines of guards lighting the way with torches, headed toward his carriage which was waiting at the edge of the Marble Courtyard, Damiens suddenly emerged from the dark, passed through the guards, and stabbed the king in the side with a penknife. The 8.1 cm (3.2 in.) blade entered the king's body between the fourth and fifth ribs. The king, who was bleeding, remained calm and called for a confessor as he thought he would die. Thoughts of poison came to his mind. At the sight of the queen, who had come in a hurry, he asked for forgiveness for his misbehavior. However, the king survived. He was probably saved by the thick layers of clothes he wore on that cold day, which cushioned the blade, protecting the internal organs. Allegedly, the blade penetrated only 1 cm (0.4 in.) into the king's body, leading Voltaire to mock what he called a "pinprick".
Damiens, who was mentally unstable, had been a servant of members of the Parlement of Paris where he had heard much criticism of the king. This, combined with the violent pamphlets and general discontent with the king, convinced him that he had to commit regicide in order to save France. Other sources say that he did not want to kill the king, but merely to give him a warning and thus force him to change his behavior. In any case, it was the first attempt at regicide in France since the murder of King Henry IV by Ravaillac in 1610. The king, bent on forgiving Damiens, could not avoid a trial for regicide. Tried by the Parlement of Paris, Damiens was executed on the Place de Grève on March 28, 1757, following the horrible procedure applied to regicides: after numerous tortures, Damiens was carried to the Place de Grève in the cold afternoon of that day. There, the hand which had hold the penknife was burnt with sulphur, his chest was opened and molten lead was poured into the wounds, then his four limbs were severed by horses (quartering), and finally his trunk, still alive, was thrown into the fire. There was an immense crowd to watch this gruesome spectacle, which nobody had witnessed in 147 years. Balconies in buildings above the Place de Grève were rented to women of the aristocracy for the exorbitant price of 100 livres per balcony (approx. $700 in 2005 US dollars)
The king was already so unpopular that whatever sympathy for him the attempted murder had generated in the public quickly disappeared with the execution of Damiens. This gruesome execution was harshly criticized by Philosophers, who saw it as a remnant of the dark ages. In truth, the king himself had not much to do with the method of execution. It was the members of the Parlement of Paris who chose such a horrific spectacle, as they thought it would please the king, willing as they were to reconcile themselves with the king after their opposition to the tax on the twentieth and their support of the Jansenists against the king's will. But above all, the people were outraged that the king did not dismiss Madame de Pompadour, despite the clear signal sent by Damiens. Posters appeared on the walls of Paris with the following ironic pun: "Ruling from the Mint: A louis not properly struck shall be struck a second time." The Austrian ambassador wrote to Vienna: " The public discontent is general. All the conversations are about death and poison. There appeared in the Hall of Mirrors of Versailles some dreadful posters threatening the life of the king."
The king, who had displayed calm and royal dignity on the day of the assassination attempt, sank into profound depression in the following weeks. He became convinced that he was on the wrong track, since his people had disowned him. All attempts at reforms were abandoned. At the Marquise de Pompadour's instigation, the king dismissed his two most hated ministers, the comte d'Argenson, secretary of state for war, and Machault d'Arnouville, keeper of the seals (justice minister) and before that controller-general of finances; and he called Choiseul to the government. Reforms would resume only with Maupeou in 1771.
Louis XIV had left France in a financial mess and in a general decline. Unfortunately, Louis XV failed to overcome these fiscal problems, mainly due to his chronic indecision and lack of commitment. At Versailles, the king and the nobility surrounding him showed signs of boredom, signaling a monarchy in steady decline. Worse, Louis seemed to be aware of the forces of anti-monarchism threatening his family's rule and yet failed to do anything to stop them. Popular legend has it that Louis even predicted, "After us will come the deluge (Après nous, le déluge)." A chillingly accurate prediction, whose coming true Louis XV could have done something to prevent.
King Louis expended a great deal of energy in the pursuit of women. His marriage to Marie Leszczynska produced many children (see below), but the king was persistently (and notoriously) unfaithful. Some of his mistresses, such as Madame de Pompadour and the former prostitute Madame du Barry, are as well-known as the king himself, and his affairs with all five Mailly-Nesle sisters are documented by the formal agreements into which he entered. In his later years, Louis developed a penchant for young girls, keeping several at a time in a house known as the Parc aux Cerfs ("Deer Park").
At first he was known popularly as Louis XV, Le Bien-aimé (the well-beloved) after a near-death illness in Metz in 1744 when the entire country prayed for his recovery. However, his weak and ineffective rule was a contributing factor to the general decline that culminated in the French Revolution. Popular faith in the monarchy was shaken by the scandals of Louis' private life, and by the end of his life he had become the well-hated. On January 5, 1757, would-be assassin Robert Damiens entered Versailles and stabbed him in the side with a penknife.
In 1743, France entered the War of the Austrian Succession. During Louis' reign Corsica and Lorraine were won, but a few years later the huge colonial empire was lost, a result of the Seven Years' War with Great Britain. The Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years' War, was one of the most humiliating episodes of the French monarchy. France abandoned India, Canada, and the west bank of the Mississippi River. Although France still held New Orleans, lands west of the Mississippi, and Guadeloupe, it was this defeat and the signing of the treaty that marked the first stage of a total abandonment of the New World. France's foreign policies were a dismal failure. Its prestige sank dramatically.
King Louis XV died of smallpox at the Palace of Versailles. He was the first Bourbon whose heart was not, as tradition demanded, cut out and placed in a special coffer. Instead, alcohol was poured into his coffin and his remains were soaked in quicklime. In a surreptitious late-night ceremony attended by only one courtier, the body was taken to the cemetery at Saint Denis Basilica.
Louis XV's son, Louis, Dauphin de France, having died nine years earlier, Louis's grandson ascended to the throne as King Louis XVI.
The king's mismanagement of the financial situation and his scandalous private life undermined the entire French monarchy, and the problems of Louis XV's reign would haunt (and eventually destroy) the lives of his successors - Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Two of Louis's other grandchildren also became Kings of France - Louis XVIII and Charles X. 1842
1. Acceded: King of France, 1 Sep 1715-10 May 1774. 1842
Louis married Maria Karolina Katarzyna Leszczynska Princess of Poland on 4 Sep 1725.1842 (Maria Karolina Katarzyna Leszczynska Princess of Poland was born on 23 Jun 1703 in Poznan, Poland 1842 and died on 24 Jun 1768 in Versailles, Île-de-France, France 1842.)
Louis next married Marquise de Pompadour. (Marquise de Pompadour was born on 29 Dec 1721 1846 and died on 15 Apr 1764 1846.)