Louis XV (France) (1710–1774; Ruled 1715–1774)
LOUIS XV (FRANCE) (1710–1774; ruled 1715–1774), king of France. Louis, duc d'Anjou, was the second surviving son of Louis, duke of Burgundy, and Marie-Adelaïde, daughter of Duke Victor-Amadeus II of Savoy, and great-grandson of Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715). When Louis XIV's eldest son Louis (the Grand Dauphin) died in 1711, the little duc d'Anjou's father became heir to the throne. But less than a year later his father, mother, and elder brother were killed by smallpox, leaving him the sole direct descendant and heir to the old Sun King. During Louis's boyhood, France was ruled in practice by his distant cousin the regent, Philippe, duke of Orléans, even after the boy came officially of age in 1723. When Orléans died unexpectedly later that year, the unpopular duke of Bourbon took over as principal minister, to be succeeded by Louis's tutor, Cardinal André Hercule de Fleury, in 1726. Louis can hardly be said to have been in command during the turbulent first decade of his reign, which was marked by two bankruptcies and the dizzying stock-market and currency bubble of John Law, but his strong loyalty and affection for his tutor were the reasons the cardinal got power and kept it for so long. Louis only began to take a significant independent role in the early 1740s, when he was already in his thirties, at which time he became known as le bien-aimé, 'the well-beloved'.
Fleury had taken over as tutor when Louis was six years old, and he supervised the king's education by a splendid team of instructors, including some of the most learned men of letters, scientists, and mathematicians of the day. The king developed a special interest in geography, the natural sciences, and medicine, which he kept all his life. For hobbies, he enjoyed learning to operate a printing press and a lathe. Hunting was his first obsession; women came later. From the age of ten, Louis sat on the Regency council, as his great-grandfather had prescribed in his will, and he seems to have taken an active interest in proceedings; Orléans and the successive prime ministers tutored him in the political issues of the day. But, deprived of parents from an early age, Louis was secretive and often incommunicative. These traits remained with him through his life. He could play the royal part, but he did not revel in public life like the Sun King, and he lacked his great-grandfather's self-confidence.
Overturning an ephemeral engagement to the four-year-old daughter of Philip V of Spain, the duc de Bourbon persuaded Louis to marry Marie, the 22-year-old daughter of Stanislas Lesczynski, the ousted king of Poland. By 1737 the queen had borne Louis an heir, the Old Dauphin (father of Louis XVI), a second son who died in childhood, and eight daughters. Marie's social limitations and colorless personality eventually took their toll. In 1733, Louis began a series of affairs with the three aristocratic Nesle sisters, Madame de Mailly, Madame de Vintimille, and Madame de la Tournelle, countess of Châteauroux. Then, around 1743, he began a more lasting liaison with Madame de Pompadour, the wife of a tax-farmer; the physical relationship ended by 1750, but she remained the official mistress until her death in 1764. Louis prized her because she understood him and could put him at ease. His more basic needs were taken care of by several dispensable young women whom she provided for the purpose, and then, after the death of the queen (1768), by a permanent relationship with Jeanne Bécu. Bécu, who became the comtesse du Barry (1743–1793), was said to be the most beautiful woman of the eighteenth century, but she had a dubious background. Madame de Pompadour is the only woman who played a significant political role in Louis's life, principally as dispenser of royal largesse and jobs, a task in which, unfortunately, she seldom excelled.
In foreign policy, Louis was successful until the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), when his diplomats were unable to parlay military wins in the Low Countries into territorial gains. France played a reactive rather than active role in the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, when she lost her Prussian ally and aligned with Austria, and in the start of the Seven Years' War on the Continent. There was little choice here, but the decision to commit further to the Austrian cause in 1757, when the effort should have been concentrated on the maritime war against Britain, was a choice—a bad one. France's disastrous losses at the Treaty of Paris of 1763 (Canada, most of India, etc.) are well known. Louis did not make the same mistake again in 1770, when he restrained his bellicose foreign secretary, Étienne François, the duke of Choiseul (1719–1785) from taking an unprepared country to war with Britain to defend Spanish rights in the Falkland Islands.
Domestic policy was to a large extent conditioned by these outcomes: the end of each war in this period caused a domestic crisis because the state had to raise new revenue or carry over some wartime taxes into peacetime, in order to retire unpaid war debts. In 1748–1749, controller general Jean-Baptiste de Machault d'Arnouville (1701–1794) attempted this with a vast reform program, including a new peacetime income tax, the vingtième, a package of laissez-faire economic reforms, the expansion of the money market, and attempts to limit "unproductive" church acquisition of land. This program touched off violent conflicts with privileged groups, notably the church and the remaining provincial estates; the church and the parlements seized on the perceived weakness of the crown to fight their own wars over Jansenism and clerical control of lay society and crown control over taxation. As French rulers commonly did, Louis sought an equilibrium between the contending groups in society and within his own ministry, but through the 1740s and 1750s he came down on balance against the conservative forces to which Fleury had previously appealed—the church hierarchy, which was firmly anti-Jansenist, and the landed elites, who hated land taxes—and he tried hard to mollify the parlements, the Jansenists, and the men of letters. These tensions formed the background to a failed assassination attempt on the king in 1757 by Damiens, a domestic servant obsessed by the current religious quarrels. Louis stuck with his policy, however, going so far as to permit the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1764 and to appoint several leading members of the Parlement of Paris to ministries in order to neutralize the powerful court. After the defeat of 1763, the controllers general, Henri Léonard Jean-Baptiste Bertin (1720–1792) and Clément Charles François de Laverdy de Nizeret (1724–1793), resorted to a version of the 1749 program to solve the post-war financial crisis, but they did so in dire financial straits, without the confidence that a diplomatic victory would have inspired in the investing classes. The result was seven years of bankruptcy on the installment plan. Choiseul's position had been weakened by the death of his ally Madame de Pompadour in 1764 and his failure to quell the notorious Brittany Affair, an interminable quarrel between the Parlement of Brittany and the duc d'Aiguillon, the military commander in that province. So, in late 1770, when Choiseul pushed recklessly for war with Britain in defense of Spain's claim to the Falkland Islands, Louis dismissed him and allowed his chancellor, René Nicolas de Maupeou, to virtually destroy the parlements' powers of remonstrance and to restructure the judicial system, and his controller-general, Abbé Terray, to complete the partial bankruptcy that had begun in 1759. It was a total political reversal of the policy and personnel of the previous period. The reforms of 1770–1774 gave the monarchy a new lease on life but also created much antagonism; if Louis had lived longer, perhaps he would have ridden out the storm, but he was suddenly carried off by smallpox on 10 May 1774. Louis XV was a ruler with considerable natural gifts who had to rule in difficult times; his choices in 1749 and again in 1770 showed the lucidity and the necessary ruthlessness that are the marks of a leader, but his belated start in personally ruling the country, his indolence, and the introversion he inherited from his lonely childhood prevented him from developing into a first-rate politician.
See also Austrian Succession, War of the (1740–1748) ; Bourbon Dynasty (France) ; France ; Louis XIV (France) ; Polish Succession, War of the (1733–1738) ; Pompadour, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson ; Seven Years' War (1756–1763) .
Argenson, René-Louis de Voyer, marquis d'. Journal et mémoires du marquis d'Argenson. Edited by E. J. B. Rathery. Paris, 1859–1867.
Barbier, Edmond Jean François. Journal historique et anecdotique du règne de Louis XV. Paris, 1847–1856.
Croÿ, Emmanuel, duc de. Journal inédit, 1718–1785. Paris, 1906–1907.
Luynes, Charles Philippe d'Albert, duc de. Mémoires du duc de Luynes sur la cour de Louis XV (1735–1758) Paris, 1860–1865.
Antoine, Michel. Le dur métier de Roi: Études sur la civilisation politique de la France d'ancien régime. Paris, 1986.
——. Le gouvernement et l'administration sous Louis XV: Dictionnaire biographique. Paris, 1978.
——. Louis XV. Paris, 1989. Best recent treatment; good bibliography.
Bernier, Olivier. Louis the Beloved: The Life of Louis XV. Garden City, N.Y., 1984.
Bluche, François. Louis XV. Paris, 2000.
Butler, Rohan. Choiseul. Vol. I, Father and Son, 1719–1754. Oxford, 1980.
Campbell, Peter R. Power and Politics in Old Regime France, 1720–1745. London, 1996.
Egret, Jean. Louis XV et l'opposition parlementaire, 1715– 1774. Paris, 1970.
Gooch, G. P. Louis XV: The Monarchy in Decline. London, 1956.
Jones, Colin. Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress. London, 2002.
Meyer, J. La Chalotais: Affaires de femmes et affaires d'état sous l'ancien régime. Paris, 1995
Mitford, Nancy. Madame de Pompadour. London, 1968.
Nolhac, Pierre de. Madame de Pompadour et la politique. Paris, 1928.
Rogister, John. Louis XV and the Parlement of Paris, 1737– 1754. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.
Shennan, J. H. Philippe, Duke of Orléans: Regent of France, 1715–1723. London, 1979.
Swann, Julian. Politics and the Parlement of Paris under Louis XV, 1754–1774. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.
Van Kley, Dale K. The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Ancien Regime, 1750–1770. Princeton, 1984.
——. The Jansenists and the Expulsion of the Jesuits from France, 1757–1765. New Haven, 1975.
T. J. A. Le Goff
Louis XV (1710-1774) was king of France form 1715 to 1774. His reign was marked by the decline of the prestige of the monarchy and the deepening of the crisis that eventually led to the French Revolution.
Since Louis XV, the great-grandson of Louis XIV, was only 5 years old when he became king, the regent, the Duc d'Orléans, was the actual ruler until his death in 1723. In 1725 Louis XV was married to Marie Leszczynska, daughter of a claimant to the Polish throne. Although the Queen bore him nine children, this political marriage to a woman 7 years his senior was not a happy one. In 1726 Cardinal Fleury, already 73 years old, became first minister, a position that he retained until his death (1743).
Louis XV's personal reign began with the death of Fleury. His decision to rule without a first minister gave promise of a strong regime in the tradition of Louis XIV. However, although the King was intelligent, generous, and, at the beginning at least, sincere in his desire to aid his people, he lacked the qualities of a strong ruler. He was timid, cynical, bored by administrative matters, and incapable of sustained effort. The result of the King's lassitude was the emergence of court factions which sought to influence policy. Although the political role of the succession of royal mistresses has sometimes been exaggerated, such favorites as Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry often intervened to obtain gifts and positions for their friends.
The foreign policy of Louis XV, under the direction of Cardinal Fleury, was based upon the principle that France could not afford more wars after the reign of Louis XIV and that cordial relations with England must be maintained. During the personal rule of Louis XV it might be said that France had two foreign policies, an official one and the King's personal diplomacy, the so-called secret du roi, carried out by secret agents. The main objective of Louis XV's diplomacy was to maintain an influence in Poland and to strengthen France's allies in central and eastern Europe. In addition to France's involvement in Continental affairs, the conflict with England for colonial supremacy continued. However, both on the Continent and in the colonial world, France suffered military and diplomatic setbacks during the reign of Louis XV.
Although Louis XV recognized the need for internal reforms, particularly of the inequitable system of taxation, until the end of his reign he failed to back up his reforming ministers against opposition from the court and coalitions of all those threatened by change. In 1771, however, Louis XV resolutely supported the minister Maupeou, who successfully limited the powers of the parlements, the main obstacle to change, and began a program of fiscal and economic reform. However, after Louis XV's death in 1774, his successor, Louis XVI, abandoned an effort that might have saved the monarchy. Despite this late attempt at reform, Louis XV, at first called the bien-aimé (the much beloved), died an unpopular ruler.
Pierre Gaxotte, Louis the Fifteenth and His Times (trans. 1934), is a royalist interpretation. G. P. Gooch, Louis XV: The Monarchy in Decline (1956), is more recent. Also useful is Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France, vol. 1 (1957; new ed., 3 vols. in 1, 1965).
Antoine, Michel, Louis XV, Paris: Fayard, 1989.
Bernier, Olivier, Louis the Beloved: the life of Louis XV, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984. □