With this reissue of the biography of Louis XVIII by the journalist and writer Pierre Lafue, originally published in 1944, the France Empire editions invite us to dwell on a king of France with a very singular destiny. A monarch who faced the worst difficulties that the monarchy has ever faced, was never able, because of his physical infirmities, to shine on the battlefield like Henry IV his model. A monarch whose action was however always guided by the desire to reconcile the French between themselves and France with itself, as the Béarnais did. Project may be utopian, but rich in lessons ...
A very singular destiny
Pierre Lafue in this work, evokes in a strictly chronological way the life of Louis XVIII, born Louis Stanislas Xavier on November 16, 1755 and initially count of Provence. Younger brother of the future Louis XVI and eldest of the future Comte d'Artois Charles X, Louis Stanislas quickly distinguished himself among the siblings. Sharper intelligence than his brothers, he is also endowed with a strong wit and valuable aptitudes for shining in society. Fully aware of his worth, he soon imagined himself as a ruler more capable than his elder brother, shy and little appreciative of public affairs. Like his brothers, the Count of Provence grew up in a surprisingly "bourgeois" setting (these are the words of the author) for the context of the brilliant and elitist reign of Louis XV. The Bottlenose dolphin and Marie Josephus of Saxony, loving and caring parents, lead their children to lead a life relatively removed from the excesses of the court. Embedded in religious principles, they strive to make their children into good Christians, perhaps to the detriment of their learning as future heirs to the throne. Only Louis Stanislas seems to escape this conservative imprint and develop a more autonomous thought.
A studious student eager for knowledge, precociously afflicted with an overweight that would eventually become obesity (with serious consequences for his health), the Count of Provence disdains physical exercise for the sake of study. Good spirit, he is passionate about poetry, literature and much more dangerous in this Age of Enlightenment, for philosophy ... Pierre Lafue does not hesitate to call the young Louis Stanislas a "Voltairian" for his opinions. A trend that goes against the wishes of his parents and opposes him to his brothers.
The young count of Provence, not always very interested in his wife Marie Joséphine of Savoy, receives scientists (which he sponsors and finances) and writers, devotes himself to literature, publishing posts and poems (sometimes frankly anti-aristocratic in tone) under a pseudonym. With the death of Louis XV and the accession to the throne of his brother, he officially becomes the brother of King "Monsieur" as usual, the second character of the kingdom. This function, which he takes seriously, does not, however, prevent him from expressing his political views which are quite distant from those of the new monarch. Thus he criticizes Louis XVI's desire to be conciliatory with the Parliaments that his predecessor had so much faced. It is that the future Louis XVIII sensed much better than his brother, the need for a reform of the monarchical system ...
Frustrated at not being able to influence royal policy more widely, the Count of Provence began with his younger brother in 1777 a journey that took him to the south. An experiment he repeated the following year towards the eastern borders. These two discoveries of the reality of the kingdom, reinforce his reformist opinions and make him aware of his growing popularity among the people.
Still physically active, fulfilled by his relationship with his mistress Countess of Balbi, intoxicated by the favor he enjoys in the country, the Count of Provence will then give in to what the author describes as "demagogic temptation. During the 1780s, the French monarchy plunged into an increasingly inextricable political crisis. Louis XVI, often indecisive or too easily influenced, failed to fundamentally reform the structure of the state. To this must be added growing financial difficulties, which prompted the king to convene an assembly of notables at the end of 1786. From the outset, the Comte de Provence, a brilliant orator, stood out there for his daring and his spirit of opposition. Maintaining strained relations with Louis XVI and especially Marie Antoinette (whose frivolity and political options he did not taste), the future Louis XVIII might for a moment (according to the author) dream of seizing the throne. In any case, it appears to some supporters of philosophical ideas as a desirable alternative to Louis XVI ...
In reality the count of Provence, despite this "factious crisis", will quickly show solidarity with the fate of the monarchy. In love with social harmony and justice, the riots and crowd movements which marked the year 1789 made him realize that the Revolution would not be the "Royal Revolution" he dreamed of. Originally very conciliating with the third estate, more or less close to the ideas of Mirabeau, "Sir" will then work to save the monarchy he knows threatened in the long term.
After the days of October 5 and 6, 1789 which saw him share the same dangers as Louis XVI, the Count of Provence plots to shield the royal family from the revolutionaries and in particular from the men of Lafayette. His main supporter and enforcer in the case, the Marquis de Favras, is arrested and very quickly suspicions are directed towards "Monsieur". Whoever the year before appeared as the favorite of popular opinion was then booed, insulted and threatened, even by the philosophical party which he had long enjoyed favor. To defend himself, the Count of Provence will not hesitate to appear in person before the Assembly of the Electors at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, once again demonstrating great oratorical talent.
Leaving the faithful Favras to his fate (he will be executed), the future Louis XVIII, presenting himself as a prince imbued with civic spirit, manages to silence the accusations, even being acclaimed one last time. In reality, this event will reinforce the Count of Provence's resolve to escape the revolutionaries and restore monarchical authority, if necessary by force. He thus actively participated in the preparation of the escape plan of June 20, 1791 which, for his elder brother, ended in the disaster of Varennes. Refugee in Brussels, where he found his younger brother, the Count of Artois, became de facto and de jure the head of emigration and the royal party, Louis XVI having entrusted him with the function of Lieutenant General of the kingdom.
A more than delicate situation given the weakness of the means available and its almost total dependence on the aid (particularly financial) provided by the foreign powers opposed to the Revolution. Refusing the constitution of 1791, approved without the consent of his brother, he inspires the emperor Leopold and the King of Prussia Frederick William the declaration of Pilnitz which makes the cause of the French monarchy that of all the monarchies of Europe. For such anti-revolutionary activism, he was sentenced to death in absentia in 1792. All hope of conciliation being dashed, the future Louis XVIII was inspired by his model Henri IV, to prepare for the military reconquest of the kingdom. When war broke out in the spring of 1792, "Monsieur" organized a small royal army of about 12,000 men. At the head of this, he entered France at the beginning of September. Despite his obesity he appears on horseback and galvanizes his troops as best he can. Nevertheless the campaign quickly turns into a fiasco. Prussians and Austrians met with only limited success and the famous cannonade of Valmy finally get them to give up the invasion. The army of the Princes of the Count of Provence and Artois can only retreat too.
More or less a game of conflicting ambitions and the goodwill of the anti-revolutionary powers, the future Louis XVIII leads a not always comfortable existence of an exiled aristocrat. On January 22, 1793, he learned of his brother's execution and six days later proclaimed himself regent for the young Louis XVII, then a prisoner of the revolutionaries. The regicide, which shocked many French people, made his cause more popular in France itself. The Regent, well aware of royalist movements and insurrections in France, speaks with their leaders, while at the same time striving to establish himself as the privileged interlocutor of foreign powers. Living in Verona is enthusiastic about the royalist uprisings that are shaking the west of France. It was there that he learned at the very beginning of June 1795 of the death of Louis XVII. The Count of Provence and Regent of the kingdom becomes Louis XVIII.
Funny king of France, this one, exiled on the territory of the Republic of Venice and leading a very bourgeois lifestyle, surrounded by a small handful of faithful courtiers… Referring explicitly to Henry IV, the new king addresses to his people a declaration in which he exposes his conception of a popular, paternalistic and balanced monarchy and of a France reconciled with itself. This is the program of the Restoration which is expressed in dotted lines. However, the latter is still only a fantasy and will take nearly twenty years to become reality.
In France even the anti-revolutionary insurrections are in turn crushed and the King is at the mercy of the wishes of the powers which welcome him and finance his cause. The opening of the Italian campaign in 1796 prompted the Republic of Venice to encourage Louis XVIII to leave its territory. Returned to the army of Prince of Condé, on the banks of the Rhine, he had to deal with the distrust of the Austrian Marshal Wurmser who feared his influence on the emigrants. When the Directory's troops entered Germany, the King was forced to move east. He then definitively renounced a direct military reconquest of the kingdom, which the success of the Republic and a certain Bonaparte condemn them to failure.
In Blankenbourg in Brunswick (Louis XVIII could not find refuge in Austria or in Prussia), he leads a fairly simple life, renting the second floor (three rooms) of a brewer's house… Cruel symbol of impotence of a monarch to significantly influence the course of a story that seems very unfavorable to his cause. Plots organized to overthrow the Directory are a weak substitute for military action and fail miserably. The King hesitates, doubts and is forced into a new exile this time in Mitau in Courland…
The Tsar of Russia, Paul I, of which he is the host, nevertheless treats him with generosity which allows him to maintain a court worthy of the name. It is from Courland that Louis XVIII observes with interest the upheavals that shake the directory and the rise of Bonaparte. Could the latter, who for a time appear to be a peacemaker and who recognizes obvious qualities in the king, favor the return of Louis XVIII to the throne as General Monk did for Charles II of England? Vain illusion which ceased to deceive the king when the 1er Consul persuades his new friend, Tsar Paul, to drive out the exiled king from Mitau in January 1801. Very fortunately for Louis XVIII, Paul I perishing assassinated some time later, his successor Alexander III enabled him to return to Courland and once again reconstitute his court there. Subject to such vicissitudes, the action of the French monarch, can only be insignificant in the gigantic game of chess that the European powers were then engaged in.
What can he inherit from the Bourbons do in the face of a general who has become Emperor, whom nothing seems to resist? With the peace of Tilsit, the king who now suffers from gout and can hardly move around, understands that the Tsar, who has to come to terms with Napoleon, can no longer accommodate him. The paths of exile then took him to England, where he was initially received in a private capacity as a simple Earl of Lille. Embracing the mourning of his wife in November 1810 with dignity, he steadfastly maintained his efforts to ensure that the royal cause was not forgotten. And it was with the campaign of 1812 in Russia that fate finally began to smile on him. Very quickly, the King understood that the Emperor was lost. He must therefore prepare a march to the throne, sown with pitfalls ...
At the beginning of 1814, with the (hesitant) support of England and (reluctant) Russia, he addressed a proclamation to the French in which he undertook to ensure the return of the monarchy in a spirit of conciliation (maintenance of the Napoleon Code , insurance given to owners of national property.). Lest the allies accept an imperial regency, he had himself proclaimed by the nephew of the Duke of Angoulême in insurgent Bordeaux. The enthusiasm for his cause as the Empire crumbles and his determination not to appear as the puppet of European powers impose him as the rightful monarch.
On April 24, 1814, the king disembarked in Calais then set off for Paris. The welcome extended to him by the war-weary French people was triumphant. Meeting his council on May 5, Louis XVIII immediately set out to build a constitutional order capable of anchoring the monarchy in the 19th century and ensuring its sustainability. The result of his efforts is the charter that it grants to the French. Although it gives pride of place to royal authority (which has the upper hand over the executive and part of the legislature) it established two chambers with which the monarch will have to deal. If Louis XVIII is indeed "sovereign by the grace of God" he nevertheless grants fundamental freedoms to the French and lays the foundations for a modern parliamentary system.
In the exercise of power, he exhibits an astonishing mixture of old-fashioned politeness and unwavering firmness. Subtle he is able to stand up to great minds such as Talleyrand or Chateaubriand. The early days of his reign were not without success. Thus he quickly obtained the departure of the coalition troops from France and a treaty guaranteeing the borders of 1791. His rather liberal (in the 19th century sense) and conciliatory domestic policy seemed to win the support of public opinion. Nevertheless it arouses the opposition of the ultra monarchist circles (with at their head the Count d'Artois, heir to the throne) frustrated with a real revenge as for the revolutionary excesses and of the Bonapartist or Jacobin circles whose eyes are turned towards the Island. from Elba. The army, scalded by the melting of its troops, is sometimes nostalgic for the Empire and the half-pay is booming.
In Parliament, very agitated sessions demonstrate the limits of the King's policy of good sense and moderation. The national reconciliation he carries at arm's length seems illusory. So when Napoleon landed in Golfe Juan, the delicate building of the Restoration collapsed. Once again the invalid monarch is forced into exile, runs this one, in Ghent. After the end of the Hundred Days, the generous concessions the monarch obtained from the allies in 1814 are only a distant memory. The failure of the last Napoleonic adventure will considerably lower the prestige of France and complicate the task of Louis XVIII.
If on his return the people once again gave him an enthusiastic welcome, the sovereign knew how fragile his position was. He will cleverly strengthen it by establishing himself as a bulwark of the people against the demands of the originally very harsh occupying powers. Stubborn in his desire not to give in too much, Louis XVIII ended up obtaining from the allies a less draconian treaty than one might have feared.
Domestically, he had to deal with the ultra-royalist passions which demanded the vengeance of which the sovereign had long deprived them. In the provinces and especially in the South and the West, more or less improvised massacres are taking place. At the chamber elected in August, the famous Room not found, the Ultras are very much in the majority and fuel the fury against revolutionary. If the king succeeds in re-establishing order in the provinces, he must accept a legal purge of the administration and the army, which if necessary contrasts sharply with his plans of 1814. This "white terror" (to resume the expression) illustrates the limits of Louis XVIII's ability to govern in a spirit of reconciliation.
During the remaining nine years of his reign and despite the deterioration of his state of health (the king was then almost unable to move on his own and he suffered from arteriosclerosis), Louis XVIII worked to arbitrate the conflicts between liberals and ultra-royalists. If he respects Parliament (by systematically constituting cabinets resulting from the majority, then nothing obliges him to do so) he does not hesitate to risk the showdown from time to time, as during the dissolution of the chamber not found in 1816.
The assassination of duke of berry (the son of the Count of Artois future Charles X) known for his ultra feelings on February 13, 1820 by a Bonapartist, will lead to the fall of the Minister of Police Decazes long the king's favorite and a moderate monarchist. With its fall, a real return to an order regime is taking place under the aegis of Duke of Richelieu. The King, whose health was then declining, once again saw his desire for national reconciliation undermined by events.
In the twilight of his life, Louis XVII understood that his attempt to "nationalize royalty" or "to royalize the nation" and the system which resulted from it, may not survive his person. The future Charles X hardly seems able to maintain the subtle balance that Louis XVIII established. Nevertheless, he can be proud of the success of the restoration on the economic level, France is prosperous, the finances sound (healthier than they have been since the reign of Louis XIV and that they will be until today) and the Spanish Expedition (1823) consecrated the kingdom's return to the scene of the great powers.
The King finally passed away on September 16, 1824 after a long ordeal, his body literally eaten away by disease. Half of his reign, which he spent in France, was an unprecedented experience of moderate political liberalism in a country yet overwhelmed by partisan hatred ...
This bibliography of Louis XVIII by Pierre Lafue, is written in a style quite affordable and lively. The author, journalist and writer, has displayed great talent in making his subject matter human and endearing, while keeping up with the issues of the period under consideration. We will retain the attention that was paid to the count of Artois' youth, to his intellectual training but also to his living conditions in exile. The chronological account, which does not fall into the verbose analyst, reads straight and maintains its consistency throughout.
One could perhaps reproach the author for certain biases, a line clearly favorable to the moderate royalism embodied by Louis XVIII and which tends to paint a very dark portrait of the Revolution and the Empire. It should also be borne in mind that the work dates from 1944 and that therefore its bibliography (mainly works from the 19th century) is no longer in tune with modern historiography.
Anyway, for all those who wish to have a pleasant first approach to the reign of this king with the singular fate that was Louis XVIII, we recommend this book. When closing it, we will find ourselves wondering what could have happened if the "King Armchair" as he called himself had been able to enjoy good health and a lineage formed by him ...
P LAFUE, Louis XVIII, Editions France-Empire, Paris, 2012.