Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V17, Page 44 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
LOUIS XV. (1710-1774), king of France, was the great-grandson of Louis XIV. and the third son of Louis, duke of Burgundy, and Marie Adelaide, princess of Savoy. The first son had died in 1705, and in 1712 the second son, the duke of Brittany, as well as his father and mother, was carried off by a mysterious disease. Louis was thus unexpectedly brought into the line of the succession, and was only five years old .when Louis XIV. died. The dead king had endeavoured by his will to control the administration even after his death by a carefully selected council of regency, in which the duke of Orleans should have only the nominal presidency; but with the help of the parlement of Paris the arrangement was at once set aside, and the duke was declared regent with full traditional powers. The duke had capacity, but his life was so licentious that what influence he had upon the king was for evil. Fleury, bishop of Frejus, was appointed his tutor, and the little king was sincerely attached to him. The king attained his legal majority at the age of thirteen, shortly before the death of the duke of Orleans. His first minister was the incapable duke of Bourbon, who in 1725 procured the repudiation of the Spanish princess, to whom the king had been betrothed, and his marriage to Maria Leszczynska, daughter of the exiled king of Poland, then resident in Alsace. In 1726 the duke of Bourbon was displaced by the king's tutor, Bishop (afterwards Cardinal) Fleury, who exercised almost absolute power, for the king took little interest in affairs of state. His administration was successful and peaceful until the year 1734, when a disputed succession in Poland brought about the interference of France on behalf of the queen's father. France was unsuccess`ul in her immediate object, but at the peace of Vienna (1735) secured the possession of Lorraine. Up to this point the reign had been prosperous; but from this time on it is a record of declining national strength, which was not compensated by some days of military glory. Fleury's great age (he died still in office at the age of ninety) prevented him from really controlling the policy of France and of Europe. In 1740 the war of the Austrian Succession broke out and France drifted into it as an ally of Frederick of Prussia and the enemy of England, and of Maria Theresa of Austria. On Fleury's death in 1743 no one took his place, and the ~ing professed to adopt the example of Louis XIV. and to establish a personal autocracy. But he was not strong enough .in will or intellect to give unity to the administration. The marquis d'Argenson writes that at the council table Louis " opened his mouth, said little and thought not at all," and again that " under the appearance of personal monarchy it was really anarchy that reigned." He had followed too in his domestic life the example of his predecessors. The queen for some time seems to have secured his affections, and she bore him seven children. But soon we hear of the royal mistresses. The first to acquire notoriety was the duchess of Chateauroux, the third sister of one family who held this position. She was at least in part the cause of the only moment of popularity which the king enjoyed. She urged him to take part personally in the war. France had just received a humiliating check at Dettingen, and the invasion of the north-eastern frontier was feared. The king went to Metz in 1744, and his presence there did something to ward off the danger. While the nation felt genuine gratitude for his energy and its success, he was reported to have fallen dangerously ill. The king, of whom it was said that the fear of hell was the only part of religion which had any reality for him, now dismissed the duchess of Chateauroux and promised amendment. Prayers were offered everywhere for his recovery, and the country was swept by a delirium of loyal enthusiasm, which conferred on him the title of Louis le biers aime. But his future life disappointed all these hopes. The duchess of Chateauroux died in the same year, but her place was taken in 1745 by Madame de Pompadour. This woman had philanthropic impulses and some real interest in art and letters; but her influence on public affairs was a fatal one. She had many rivals during her lifetime and on her death in 1764 she was succeeded by Madame du Barry (q.v.). But the mention of these three women gives no idea of the degradation of the king's life. There has doubtless been exaggeration as to certain details, and the story of his seraglio at the Parc aux cerfs is largely apocryphal. But it would be difficult to mention the name of any European king whose private life shows such a record of vulgar vice unredeemed by higher aims of any kind. He was not without ambition, but without sufficient tenacity of purpose to come near to realizing it. To the last he maintained the pretence of personal rule, but the machinery of government fell out of gear, and the disorder of the finances was never remedied before the revolution of 1789. The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), which ended the war of the Austrian Succession, brought no gains to France in spite of her victories at Fontenoy and Raucoux; and the king was blamed for the diplomatic failure. The interval between this war and the Seven Years' War (1756) saw that great reversal of affiances which is sometimes called the " Diplomatic Revolution "; whereby France repudiated the alliance of Frederick the Great and joined hands with her old enemy Austria. The intrigues of Madame de Pompadour played in this change an important though not a decisive part. It was the cause of immense disasters to France; for after a promising beginning, both by land and sea, France suffered reverses which lost her both India and Canada and deprived her of the leading position which she had so long held in Europe. Her humiliation was declared by the peace of Paris (1763). The article on the history of France (q.v.) shows how there arose during the last years of Louis XV.'s reign a strong reaction against the monarchy and its methods. Military success had given it its strength; and its prestige was ruined by military failure. In the parlements, provincial and Parisian; in religion, and in literature, a note of opposition is struck which was never to die until the monarchy was overthrown. France annexed Corsica in 1768, but this was felt to be the work of the minister Chauvelin, and reflected no credit on the king. He died in 1774 of smallpox. If the reign of his predecessor shows us almost the ideal of personal monarchy we may see in that of Louis XV. all the vices and errors exemplified which lie in wait for absolute hereditary rule which has survived the period of its usefulness, For the king's life generally see the memoirs of Saint-Simon, d'Argenson, Villars and Barbier, and for the details of his private life E. Boutaric, Correspondance secrete de Louis X V.; Madame de Pompadour's Correspondance published by P. Malassi; Dietric, Les Mattresses de Louis X V. ; and Fleury, Louis X V. intimes et les petites mattresses (1909). For the system of secret diplomacy and organized espionage, known as the Secret du roi, carried on under the auspices of Louis XV., see Albert duc de Broglie, Le Secret du roi. Correspondance secrete de Louis XV. avec ses agents diplomatiques 1752–1774 (Paris, 1878); and for a general account of the reign, H. Carr6, La France sous Louis XV. (Paris, 1891). For other works, general and special, see G. Monod, Bibliographie de la France, and the bibliography in the Histoire generate of Lavisse and Rambaud, vol. vii., and the Cambridge Modern History, vol. vi. (A. J. G.*)the extravagance of the ministry of Calonne, and brought on the Revolution by the resulting financial embarrassment.' The third part of his reign began with the meeting of the states-general on the 4th of May 1789, which marked the opening of the Revolution. The revolt of Paris and the taking of the Bastille on the 14th of July were its results. The suspicion, not without justification, of a second attempt at a coup d'etat led on the 6th of October to the " capture " of the king and royal family at Versailles by a mob from Paris, and their transference to the Tuileries. In spite of the growing radicalism of the clubs, however, loyalty to the king remained surprisingly strong. When he swore to maintain the constitution, then in progress of construction, at the festival of the federation on the 14th of July 1790, he was at the height of his popularity. Even his attempted flight on the loth of June 1791 did not entirely turn the nation against him, although he left documents which proved his opposition to the whole Revolution. Arrested at Varennes, and brought back to Paris, he was maintained as a constitutional king, and took his oath on the 13th of September 1791. But already a party was forming in Paris which demanded his deposition. This first became noticeable in connexion with the affair of the Champ de Mars on the 17th of July 1791. Crushed for a time the party gained strength through the winter of 1791-1792. The declaration of war against the emperor Francis II., nephew of Marie Antoinette, was forced upon the king by those who wished to discredit him by failure, or to compel him to declare himself openly an enemy to the Revolution. Their policy proved effective. The failure of the war, which intensified popular hatred of the Austrian queen, involved the king; and the invasion of the Tuileries on the loth of June 1792 was but the prelude to the conspiracy which resulted, on the loth of August, in the capture of the palace and the " suspension " of royalty by the Legislative Assembly until the convocation of a national convention in September. On the 21St of September 1792 the Convention declared royalty abolished, and in January it tried the king for his treason against the nation, and condemned him to death. He was executed on the 21st of January 1793. Louis XVI. was weak in character and mentally dull. His courage and dignity during his trial and on the scaffold has left him a better reputation than he deserves. His diary shows how little he understood, or cared for, the business of a king. Days on which he had not shot anything at the hunt were blank days for him. The entry on the 14th of July 1789 was " nothing "! The greater part of his time was spent hunting. He also amused himself making locks, and a little at masonry. Awkward and uncourtly, at heart shy, he was but a poor figure-head for the stately court of France. At first he did not care for Marie Antoinette, but after he came under her influence, her thoughtless conduct compromised him, and it was largely she who encouraged him in underhand opposition to the Revolution while he pretended to accept it. The only point on which he had of his own initiative shown a strong objection to revolutionary measures was in the matter of the civil constitution of the clergy. A devoted and sincere Roman Catholic, he refused at first to sanction a constitution for the church in France without the pope's approval, and after he had been compelled to allow the constitution to become law he resolved to oppose the Revolution definitely by intrigues. His policy was both feeble and false. He was singularly unfortunate even when he gave in, delaying his acquiescence until it had the air of a surrender. It is often said that Louis XVI. was the victim of the faults of his predecessors. He was also the victim of his own. Having lost his elder son in 1789 Louis left two children, Louis Charles, usually known as Louis XVII., and Marie Therese Charlotte (1778-1851), who married her cousin, Louis, duke of Angouleme, son of Charles X., in 1799. The " orphan of the Temple," as the princess was called, was in prison for three years, ' The responsibility of Marie Antoinette for the policy of the king before and during the Revolution has been the subject of much controversy. In general it may be said that her influence on politics has been much exaggerated. (See MARIE ANTOINETTE.) [Ed.]
End of Article: LOUIS XV

Additional information and Comments

There are no comments yet for this article.
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.