Louis XV and the Decline of the French Monarchy

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The other main attribute of' kingship was justice. In an age which seeks safeguards against tyranny in representative constitutions and democratic institutions, it is difficult for us to appreciate just how much importance was attached to the rule of law. It was held to be what distinguished the civilized countries of western Europe from 'oriental despotisms' such as Russia and the Ottoman Empire, whose wretched inhabitants were subject to the arbitrary caprice of their rulers. The King of France may have been the sole legislator, but he was as much subject to the law of the land as anyone else. His theoretical legislative monopoly was limited by the 'fundamental laws' (lois fondamentales) of the kingdom, which governed the all-important question of royal succession and royal possessions, and by the 'maxims of the kingdom' (maximes du royaume), a package of traditions, conventions and principles none the less binding for not being codified'.

It proved to be deeply damaging for the French monarchy that during the reign of Louis XV a dispute developed which led many contemporaries to conclude that France was degenerating into a despotism. The main point at issue was 'Jansenism', which took its name from Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), bishop of Ypres in what was then the Spanish Netherlands. His exposition of the theology of St Augustine, published posthumously in 1640, made a deep and lasting impact on all Catholic Europe. In France, however, the movement which came to bear his name had political overtones from the start, because Jansen had been critical of Cardinal Richelieu's foreign policy and because many of his sup- porters took an active part on the side of the opposition in the Frondes, the French civil wars of 1648-1653. Louis XIV referred to the Jansenists as 'republicans' and towards the end of his life launched a vigorous campaign against them. In 1713 he obtained a papal bull – 'Unigenitus' – condemning Jansenism as heretical.

That the king of France should seek the assistance of the Pope in Rome to persecute a group of French men and women, who always vehemently denied that they were heretics, was found deeply disturbing even by non-Jansenists. Defence of 'Gallican liberties' was always calculated to strike a responsive chord. Their opposition found vital institutional support from the Parlements, many of whose members were Jansenist sympathisers. Moreover, when Louis XIV died two years later, in 1715, the Parlements regained the right to remonstrate before registering royal legislation which they had lost in 1673. So when the infant Louis XV came to the throne, trouble was already brewing. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the theological dispute may have been, it was most unfortunate from a political point of view that the opportunity was not taken to reverse Louis XIV's policy. Aided and abetted by Cardinal Fleury, his first minister from 1726 until 1743, Louis XV continued the anti-Jansenist line.

In doing so, he wilfully discarded the most powerful card in the royal pack – the association of the monarchy with the defence of national integrity. By perpetuating the unnatural alliance with Rome, he allowed the Parlements to pick up the nationalist card and play it for all it was worth. The result was a series of bruising encounters between king and Parlements, as the latter repeatedly sprang to the defence of the Jansenists. In this struggle, the Parlements developed two crucial weapons: promoting solidarity between all thirteen of their number, so that they could not be played off against each other; and appealing to public opinion by printing and publicising their remonstrances. The king and his advisers proved to be much less adaptable. Their increasingly strident declarations of royal absolutism made them seem unresponsive, insensitive, dictatorial – in a word 'despotic'. A gulf began to open up between the interest of the king and what was perceived to be the interest of the nation, a gulf enhanced of course by the disastrous foreign policy described in the previous section. As J.S. Bromley has written: 'national sovereignty was the most dynamic concept that was crystallised out of the parliamentary struggle...parliamentary Jansenism, and with it what d'Argenson called Jansenist nationalism, did more to shake the fabric of French absolutism, in its theory and its practice, than the philosophers.'

The expulsion from France in 1764 of the Jesuits, the arch-enemies of the Jansenists, seemed to symbolise the victory of the Parlements. In 1771, however, Louis XV took advantage of a long-running secular dispute over the conduct of the royal governor of Brittany, the duc d'Aiguillon, to abolish the Parlements altogether and to replace them with a new judicial structure more directly under royal control. For most contemporaries, this intervention confirmed their growing suspicion that the French monarchy was turning into a despotism. If the Parlements could no longer defend the national interest and national liberties against encroachment, a sterner remedy would be needed. So not the least alarming feature of the uproar caused by the 'Maupeou revolution' (named after the minister in charge of the coup against the Parlements) was the increasingly numerous and insistent calls for the summoning of the Estates General, last convened in 1614. When Louis XV died suddenly from smallpox in 1774, his successor could recall the Parlements. But he could not repair the fissures in the delicate fabric of trust in the monarchy rent by his grandfather's long and unhappy reign.

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