REGENCY. A regent took the place of a monarch when the latter departed the realm, suffered incapacity, or succeeded to the throne at an age too young to rule. In the best circumstances, the king himself, prior to his final illness or on the eve of a departure, designated the regent, ordinarily favoring his mother or his queen or another close relative. In medieval England, however, even a high administrator or esteemed noble could serve. Although barons and royal councils in England and France, the most developed monarchies, might temper the regents' powers, tradition and precedent eventually accorded them the same powers as a king, no matter that they ruled temporarily. In early modern Europe, France experienced the most, and the most consequential, regencies, starting with the reign of Francis I (ruled 1515–1547). Preparing to wage war in Italy, Francis assigned the regency to his mother, Louise of Savoy, in keeping with what was then a long tradition. Louise served longer than Francis anticipated, because after his defeat at Pavia (1525), the king underwent captivity in Italy and Spain. Despite the ensuing pressure, Louise governed capably in 1525–1526, defending the realm against military threats and scoring diplomatic successes.
Catherine de Médicis, queen of France by virtue of her marriage to Henry II (ruled 1547–1559), became regent in 1560 when their son, and Henry's successor, Francis II (ruled 1559–1560), fell ill and died. Serving until 1564, when her second surviving son, Charles IX (ruled 1560–1574), came of age, she experienced a turbulent regency, marked by a deepening religious crisis, intensified by the court struggles between such great families as the Catholic Guise and the Calvinist Bourbons. But she at least preserved the fullness of royal power during a difficult time.
Henry IV (ruled 1589–1610) named his queen, Marie de Médicis, as regent just before his planned departure for a military campaign in 1610. Her regency began almost at once, however, because Henry died unexpectedly at the hands of an assassin. Once again, domestic and international pressures threatened the kingdom, if not the monarchy itself. But Marie and her councillors improved relations with Spain, the strongest European power, gaining a respite from war; conciliated and bought off the great nobles, without yielding to their larger ambitions; and preserved royal power intact during the Estates-General of 1614–1615. The coup d'état of 1617 by which her son Louis XIII (ruled 1610–1643) terminated, and thus tarnished, her government, obscured her achievements among historians for some time.
As his death approached, Louis XIII established his queen, Anne of Austria, as the regent apparent. Her regency lasted from 1643 to 1651, although her son Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715) left her and her first minister, Jules Mazarin, in charge of affairs until 1661. This regency, the most troubled in French history, coincided with the final stages of the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) and then the domestic upheaval and civil war known as the Fronde (1648–1653), when the absolute monarchy teetered on the verge of collapse. But, once again, the resolution of the queen regent, and this time the cunning of Mazarin, brought the monarchy through another crisis.
Louis XIV outlived his queen, Marie-Thérèsa, by thirty-two years and at his death in 1715 left the regency to his nephew, Philippe, duke of Orléans (1674–1723). In French history, this regency (1715–1723) stands out as the most successful and Philippe II as the regent par excellence. Philippe was articulate, affable, even irresistibly charming, and intellectually gifted. He was a discriminating connoisseur of painting and music and experimented with chemistry. Although physically unimpressive and acutely nearsighted, he proved his courage on the battlefield. Along with his gifts, however, Philippe suffered from the defect of irresolution that, more than his sexual appetite, which he indulged to the point of debauchery, threatened his regency.
At the death of Louis XIV, France had just emerged from more than twenty years of ruinous war; and it remained to be seen if the recent peace was merely a truce. Because of the wars, Philippe inherited a depleted treasury and a mountain of debt. The Parlement of Paris, along with its provincial counterparts, had grown restless under the repression of Louis XIV and hoped for a political comeback. Religious tensions now centered upon Jansenism, a version of Catholicism that church authorities deemed heretical. Philippe himself, despite his personal charm, had over the years antagonized some very important people. Many of these, especially his great rival, Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, the duke of Maine, the natural son of Louis XIV, now sat on the regency council, where Philippe had to cope with factions arrayed against him.
Louis de Rouvroy Saint-Simon, his lifelong friend, whose memoirs of the late reign and ensuing regency retain their literary and historical value, at first feared that Philippe, uncertain and anxious to avoid conflict, underestimated the perils that he, and France, faced. In fact, the regent, rising early and working late, was supremely dedicated to his duties and to the five-year-old Louis XV. He soon displayed a resolution that shocked enemies and friends alike.
After a period of compromise and deference, which only emboldened the parlement, Philippe asserted his authority over the tribunal and frightened it back into political submission. At the same time, he drove Maine out of the regency council and overcame the opposition factions there. He restored the late king's unitary council, discarding his experiment with multiple councils (polysynodie) staffed by great nobles. After administering a near-bankruptcy, the regent gave control of finances and the economy to the Scottish financier John Law of Lauriston (1671–1729), whose experiment with paper currency and banking reform, despite its ultimate failure, lightened the debt load and prepared the way for the commercial prosperity of the new century. The regent, tolerant in matters of religion, dampened the Jansenist dispute. While he did fight a brief (and successful) war against Spain, he also arrayed France diplomatically with the maritime powers Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, a new orientation.
Philippe died in 1723, leaving to Louis XV (1715–1774) a France in better condition than in 1715, as historians came to see. In addition to maintaining royal authority, Philippe's regency embraced economic and political ideas that pointed distinctly to the future. These achievements, in addition to the cultural glories symbolized by the mature work of the painter Antoine Watteau and the plays and poetry of the emerging Voltaire, best mark his regency.
See also Catherine de Médicis ; France ; Fronde ; Henry IV (France) ; Louis XIII (France) ; Louis XIV (France) ; Louis XV (France) ; Marie de Médicis ; Mazarin, Jules ; Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy .
Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel, and Jean-François Fitou. Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago and London, 2001.
Leclercq, Henri. Histoire de la régence pendant la minorité de Louis XV. 3 vols. Paris, 1921–1922.
Meyer, Jean. Le régent, 1674–1723. Paris, 1985.
Petitfils, Jean-Christian. Le régent. Paris, 1986.
Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy. Mémoires de Saint-Simon. Edited by Arthur André Gabriel Michel de Boislisle. 41 vols, plus index. Paris, 1879–1928.
Shennan, J. H. Philippe, Duke of Orléans: Regent of France, 1715–1723. London, 1979.
John J. Hurt
J. A. Cannon
Lampugnani (ed.) & Dinsmoor (1986);
H. Osborne (1975);
re·gen·cy / ˈrējənsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) the office or period of government by a regent. ∎ a commission acting as regent. ∎ (the Regency) the particular period of a regency, esp. (in Britain) from 1811 to 1820 and (in France) from 1715 to 1723. • adj. (Regency) relating to or denoting British architecture, clothing, and furniture of the Regency or, more widely, of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Regency style was contemporary with the Empire style and shares many of its features: elaborate and ornate, it is generally neoclassical, with a generous borrowing of Greek and Egyptian motifs.
Regency, in British history, the period of the last nine years (1811–20) of the reign of George III, when the king's insanity had rendered him unfit to rule and the government was vested in the prince of Wales (later George IV) as regent. The period witnessed the end (1815) of the Napoleonic Wars and growing social unrest, which was met by the Tory government of the time with harsh repression. Socially, the period took a distinctive coloration from the gay and dissolute regent and his companions. It was the time of a notable flowering in arts, letters, and architecture. In literature, the period marks the height of the romantic movement in the work of such poets as Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley and in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Regency architecture culminated in the elegant simplicity of the Regency style. Regency furniture shows a similar refinement of design and taste and a strong influence of the styles of the French Directoire.
See A. Bryant, The Age of Elegance (1950); J. B. Priestley, The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency (1969).