Louis XV and the Decline of the French Monarchy

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Representational culture

At the great palace of Versailles Louis XIV had created a monarchical culture, which established a European standard. Every branch of' the arts was enlisted to create an image of majesty which was both distanced from the ordinary observer and highly conspicuous. This was not just a monarch ruling by divine right; it was also a monarchy legitimized by spectacle. As Peter Burke has written, Louis XIV 'was charismatic in every sense – the original sense of having been anointed with chrism, a symbol of divine grace, as well as the modern sense of a leader surrounded by an aura of authority'.' In its heyday, that is during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, the Versailles system combined political authority with social control and European hegemony.

But even before Louis XIV's death, its glamour was beginning to fade. As his foreign policy went badly wrong in the War of the Spanish Succession and death approached, the old king became increasingly morose and his court correspondingly gloomy. The aristocratic world of fashion decamped for Paris, returning to Versailles only when unavoidable duty called. This cultural shift from court to capital was symbolized by the decision of the duc d'’Orleans, who acted as regent for the infant Louis XV, to establish his court at the Tuilleries palace in the centre of Paris. It is tempting but pointless to speculate what might have happened to the French monarchy if it had stayed there. In 1722 the decision was taken to move back to Versailles, perhaps because the now adolescent king had happy memories of his early childhood there, more likely because Orleans had been upset by his personal unpopularity with the Parisians.

Back at Versailles, Louis proved to have many of the qualities necessary to operate successfully in a 'representational culture' (representational in the sense that it relied on representing or making present the values of the regime). He was tall, strong, athletic, good-looking and imposing. He was also intelligent, the most intelligent of all the Bourbons according to his most recent biographer. Unfortunately, he also had a weak, high-pitched voice and was a very poor public speaker. Partly for that reason, he was also very timid, secretive, elusive, indecisive and prone to long periods of complete silence. On the great stage built by his predecessor, he appeared with growing reluctance and diminishing confidence. He kept the palace open to the public and continued to observe the great royal festivals, but he appeared at the regular court functions ever more seldom. What he liked was to withdraw to his private apartments (as opposed to the ceremonial state apartments), where he could relax with his intimate friends. Indeed, he began to spend long periods away from Versailles altogether, preferring smaller secluded chateaux such as La Muette, Choisy and the Trianon. In 1750, for example, he spent only 52 nights at Versailles and only 63 the following year. But when he was absent, the court was dead. Gradually, the system created by Louis XIV fell apart.

One of Louis XV's favorite private residences was the chateau of Choisy, which he had given to his most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Many French kings had maintained mistresses. Indeed, the most popular of all the Bourbons – Henry IV – had been a fornicator on a legendary scale and Louis XIV had also fathered several illegitimate children. Sexual potency was and remains a highly desirable attribute of kingship, as any anthropologist will confirm. So when the fifteen year-old Louis XV supplied his twenty-two year-old bride with 'seven tokens of his love' on their wedding-night (as the official report decorously put it) he was establishing his credentials to be head of the herd in no uncertain fashion. Alas, what had been thought permissible in the past was increasingly frowned on in the eighteenth century, often depicted as an age of sexual license hut in reality a distinctly priggish period.

Louis made matters much worse by the scale of his promiscuity. After he had debauched in turn three daughters of the marquis de Nesle, the wags asked: 'To select an entire family – is that being unfaithful or constant?'

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