Friday, March 20, 2015

Monarch Profile: King Louis XVIII of France

Prince Louis Stanislas Xavier, Count of Provence, was born on November 17, 1755 in Versailles, the third (surviving) son of the Dauphin Louis and Maria Josepha of Saxony. He was the grandson of King Louis XV of France and King Augustus III of Poland. Being fourth in the line of succession, little consideration was given to him at the time that he might actually become King of France one day. However, that changed rather quickly with the death of his eldest brother the Duke of Burgundy in 1761 (another elder had died before he was born). In 1765 his father died, making him second only to his one surviving older brother, future King Louis XVI, to succeed his grandfather King Louis XV. As a child he was doted on by his governess, Madame de Marsan, and was greatly attached to her. When he began his traditional upbringing as a prince of the blood he was found to be an exceptionally bright child. Classical history and literature were his favorite subjects, he could quote Horace from memory (his favorite author), was an expert on the Bible and became fluent in English and Italian as well as his native French language. As he grew into young adulthood, he had many fine qualities but some shortcomings as the inevitable search for a suitable bride for him began.

Maria Giuseppina of Savoy
The Count of Provence, while very intellectual, never enjoyed exercise or physical activity. He did enjoy eating and there were plenty of fine, French delicacies on hand and, not long after reaching adulthood, he grew increasingly overweight. To best serve the interests of France, it was decided that he should be married to a princess of the House of Savoy and, to the disappointment of both, the choice fell on Princess Maria Giuseppina of Savoy, daughter of King Victor Amadeus III of Piedmont-Sardinia. The Count found her unattractive and woefully ignorant of the complex court etiquette of Versailles (the Savoy court in Turin being more simple and military-style) and though the two were married in 1771 it was several years before he consummated the marriage. There was some debate about this as the marriage of another French prince to a Savoy princess caused a bit of an anti-Italian backlash in the court between the circles of the younger princes and the circle of the Austrian queen-to-be Marie Antoinette. The Dauphin and Count of Provence did not always get along and that bitterness was dutifully taken up by their wives and respective friends at court. When the Dauphin proved unable to consummate his own marriage, many believe this prompted the Count to boast of his own bedroom exploits as a way of making Marie Antoinette jealous. Even more vindictive was the account that he announced that his wife was pregnant, before she actually was, as a way to embarrass Marie Antoinette for not yet producing an heir-to-the-throne. However, by 1774 Princess Marie Josephine (as she was called in France) did finally come to be “with child” but, sadly, it ended in miscarriages and none of the couples’ pregnancies were productive.

That same year Louis XV died and the Dauphin became King Louis XVI of France and, in the absence of a male heir, the Count of Provence was then only one step away from the French throne. Unfortunately, this did not bring the two brothers closer together but was the cause of more bitterness. The Count of Provence, with his mastery of the classics and remarkable memory, probably did not have the highest estimation of his brother’s intelligence and wanted very much to have a seat on the king’s council. As the next in line for the throne, he felt entitled to such a position but King Louis XVI would not allow it and this offended the Count a great deal. Frustrated that his talents were not being put to use, he often left the court and spent much of his time traveling around the country. Proud and ambitious, he was more relieved than happy when the King and Queen were finally able to start having children, starting with a girl. That relief turned to disappointment when a son and heir was born in 1781. Yet, he and his younger brother the Count of Artois (future Charles X) had to stand in for the boy’s absent godfather Austrian Emperor Joseph II at the baptism of the little Dauphin.

The count in his youth
By that time the Count of Provence had a mistress and his marriage had been reduced to a mere formality. As he was given no part to play in affairs of state, he withdrew and mostly stayed at home, devoting his time to his mistress and his extensive library. With his improper private life, obesity and lavish spending (his brother the King often had to settle his considerable debts) the Count of Provence could easily have been held up as a propaganda tool for the revolutionaries as an illustration of what was wrong with the French monarchy. When new taxes (on the landowners, which were nobles & clergy) were proposed to pay for, among other things, French intervention in the American War for Independence, the Count of Provence was among the “notables” who opposed this and the issue was adopted and twisted by radicals to stir up rebellion. The Count of Provence had, inadvertently, aided the enemies of the monarchy. However, later he was the only one of the Assembly of Notables to support granting more representation to the common people in the Estates-General which was being summoned which the King did agree to. When the Third Estate demanded tax reform, the Count of Provence opposed this and urged the King to adopt a hard-line and refuse to compromise.

The political situation began to get out of hand but, while the Count of Artois took his family to the safety of Turin, the Count of Provence remained at Versailles with his big brother. Despite their differences, the French Revolution brought the two brothers together and while he had not been as helpful as he could have, when it came down to it there was no doubt that the Count supported his brother and the Kingdom of France to the utmost. He remained at his side until the attempted escape by the King and Queen to Varennes in 1791. The Count of Provence and his family left at the same time, escaping to Belgium (then the Austrian Netherlands) but, of course, the King and Queen were not so fortunate and the attempt sealed their fate. Rather too early for some, the Count declared himself regent of France on the grounds that his brother was the prisoner of the revolutionaries and could not freely rule as King. It was the beginning of many long years of exile for Provence. He soon called on the other crowned heads of Europe to rush their armies to France to rescue their fellow monarch, something which certainly made things difficult for the King but, in reality, he was already a doomed man. After the regicide of King Louis XVI, the Count of Provence declared himself regent for his nephew, the child-King Louis XVII who remained in confinement at the hands of the revolutionaries (he would ultimately be left to starve to death).

In 1795, when it was learned that the little Dauphin was dead, the royalists proclaimed the Count of Provence King Louis XVIII of France. He was haunted by the Revolution and the horror would never leave him for the rest of his life but, for the time being, he had to stay ahead of the revolutionary forces to keep the legitimate royal line alive. He moved to Italy, taking up residence in Verona in what was then the Republic of Venice. He managed to get Princess Marie-Therese, the only surviving child of the late King and Queen, released but only a year later he had to flee again as the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Italy, eventually splitting the territory of Venice with Austria. He was forced to move to northern Germany, living in very modest conditions, until, as with Austria, political moves forced Prussia to abandon him. Fortunately, the staunchly legitimist Czar Paul I of Russia came to his rescue and offered him asylum in Latvia along with a pension (though this was never paid).

Louis XVIII tried to unite the royalist enemies of the revolutionary regime, rally the European powers and present a united front on the part of the Royal Family, which was certainly not easy. As almost all of Europe came to be dominated by Napoleon or forced to make peace with him, Louis XVIII was probably at his lowest point. Feeling he had no other choice, he wrote personally to Napoleon to try to convince him, as he had put a stop to the worst excesses of the Revolution and restored normalcy to France, to restore the legitimate monarchy. Of course, Napoleon would never do such a thing as, even as he moved to the right, he planned to supplant the Bourbons with his own dynasty rather than restore them. In return, Napoleon tried to convince Louis to renounce his own claim to the throne which, naturally, went nowhere as well. Finally, even the Czar of Russia would no longer provide safe haven to the King and he had to assume a disguise and move to Prussia in 1801, selling off personal possessions to pay for the trip. When Prussia proved unfriendly, due to French pressure, Louis returned to Russian territory as the new Czar Alexander I lifted the ban against him but was also less accommodating. The uncrowned King returned to the Baltic but planned to move to Britain as soon as possible. Later, he was advised to leave and traveled to England via Sweden.

King Louis XVIII
With Great Britain alone standing still opposed to Napoleon, it was the only option left to the Bourbon court-in-exile and the political situation also forced Louis to moderate his political position. He ceased to advocate a simple restoration of the old Kingdom of France and began to hint that some of the changes that had come with the Revolution could be retained. However, he was necessarily and increasingly vague in his statements about what France would look like were the monarchy restored. He wanted to win over those who were disillusioned with the current state of affairs but who were farther and farther removed from the old kingdom while also not wishing to alienate his core supporters, most of whom were ardent royalists who wanted a total return to the old regime. Hard times had ensured that only the most zealous royalists were left. This was a difficult balancing act but one that Louis XVIII handled quite well, saying little but just enough to reassure both sides so that they could assume he agreed with them. He finally promised that those who had gone along with the republic and Napoleon would not be punished as traitors (which would have been impossible in any event as by this point there were simply too many of them) and that confiscated lands would not be returned but that the former owners would be compensated for their loss.

When the allied powers finally defeated Napoleon and forced him to abdicate, King Louis XVIII was obviously quite pleased but also careful as he knew, if his most ardent royalist supporters did not, that a restoration was not a forgone conclusion. The French Napoleonic government tried to establish his return on their own terms but Louis was having none of that and, thankfully, the allies supported him. Unfortunately, when the time came in 1814, Louis XVIII was unable to travel immediately and so sent his brother, the Count of Artois, ahead to secure his place as “Lieutenant General of the Kingdom”. Stranded in Britain by an attack of gout, Louis XVIII had to wait while Artois went before him and acted as ruler of the country, effectively setting up his own private government that would, regardless of their intentions, be a source of division throughout the life of the restored Kingdom of France.

Allegory of Louis XVIII rescuing France
When King Louis XVIII was able to return, he was greeting by cheering crowds of war-weary people. Although the King was happy to enjoy his own again, he did not take it to heart. The memory of the Revolution was still with him and he knew the mobs who cheered him could turn on him in an instant. For the sake of peace and order the allies did insist on France becoming a constitutional monarchy and King Louis XVIII was willing to oblige. He produced the Charter of 1814 which represented his best effort at a compromise between the old Kingdom of France and post-Revolutionary France. There would be democracy but with a very limited franchise. Catholicism would again be the state religion but the old religious laws and privileges would not be back. There would be a representative government, enumerated rights and freedoms but, it was made clear, these were gifts of the King who reigned by the grace of God. In short, he would give the moderate liberals at least what they wanted but on his own terms. It was a limited monarchy but built on a traditional foundation. All things considered, it was probably the best that he could have done. The republicans, of course, were not happy (nor were the Bonapartists) and the royalists were not best pleased either, partly because the initial rule of Artois had raised their hopes too high but the rightful king was back, his sovereignty was based on “divine right” rather than the “rights of man” and the tricolor had been replaced with the Bourbon white flag and golden lily.

Louis XVIII signed the Treaty of Paris, which aimed to go easy on the French in order to smooth the way for the restoration to more firmly establish itself. Unfortunately, it seemed that the King had scarcely got the throne warm when Napoleon escaped from exile and landed on the shores of France. At first, Louis XVIII was not too worried. The problem was that most of the army was Napoleonic veterans greatly attached to their former chief and even those units that had been disbanded had been allowed to retain their arms. One unit after another sent to confront the Corsican conqueror collapsed conspicuously into his clinch. King Louis XVIII did not panic but he was extremely worried as Napoleon swept into Paris and declared himself emperor again. The King felt very fortunate that the Bourbon monarchy had been given a second chance and was very concerned that, lost again, would not be given a third. He moved to the border and then finally crossed into Belgium (then part of the Kingdom of the United Netherlands). Whether he would ever see France again was an open question. Czar Alexander I of Russia openly suggested that Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, might be given the throne instead, if and when Napoleon was defeated.

King Louis XVIII
This was a very sore point with King Louis XVIII who certainly did not get along famously with his cousin the Duke of Orleans, managing to tolerate him only out of a desire to present a united Royal Family to the public. They were really not all that different in terms of practical policy but the King could not forgive the part of the Orleans family in the Revolution and, unlike his cousin, could not countenance the idea of a monarch reigning by public approval rather than by the grace of God. Both were agreed that a limited monarchy and moderate policies were best but, to use a touchy word, it was a matter of legitimacy that most separated them. For Louis XVIII the source of his authority and legitimacy had to come from God alone and while he was willing to share power, he was unwilling to do so on any other basis than that it pleased him to do so. To put it another way, he would give a constitution but would not be given a constitution. Fortunately for the King, Napoleon was decisively defeated at Waterloo and the allies agreed that Louis XVIII would resume his reign, though the restrictions placed on France were much harsher than they had been before. Some French politicians even asked for an imported monarch, undoubtedly hoping for one who would be entirely in their power but, most crucially, the Duke of Wellington staunchly supported Louis XVIII.

This time, there were more reprisals on the part of the royalists but it is certainly understandable given how false and ungrateful their enemies had been recently. For his part, King Louis XVIII took no part in these activities but undoubtedly had little sympathy for the victims. He pressed on with trying to make his original constitutional settlement take root, this time taking a firmer hold of the army and purging it of Napoleonic elements who had proven their disloyalty. He also sought to uphold the principle of monarchial legitimacy by sending French troops into Spain in 1823 where rebellion had risen up against the Bourbon King Fernando VII. However, the King did not last long after that. His health had grown worse and worse and he probably suffered from even more ailments than we know of. He had become so fat that he lacked the strength to even hold his head up and had to have a cushion placed on his desk when he was in his office. His bitterness towards the Duke of Orleans never went away though he also feared that his immediate successor, Artois, lacked good sense, both for being too stridently reactionary (in his view) and being too friendly with the Duke of Orleans.

King Louis XVIII
After a long, painful decline King Louis XVIII of France passed away on September 16, 1824 at which point his younger brother became King Charles X. He was the last French monarch to die as king and pass the crown to his successor. All in all, King Louis XVIII receives much less credit than he deserves. Certainly, his personal behavior was often less than ideal and he could have been of more help to his older brother in the build-up to the Revolution. However, he always had the right priorities and while he escaped the guillotine, he suffered a great deal and carried on with remarkable skill and determination in carrying the torch of traditional French monarchism in the darkest of times. He was very intelligent, very practical and, unlike some, had a firm grasp of what was realistic and what was not. He understood, very well, that “politics is the art of the possible” (as Bismarck later said) and he skillfully steered a course that took account of the Revolution and the empire and what impact these had on France without sacrificing the fundamental values of the traditional French monarchy. He was never the sort of monarch who would attract admiration but he was probably the best man for the job at such a difficult time.


  1. I think that most Monarchists today feel that the best possible outcome in today's world would be similar to that which happened under the Bourbon restoration of King Louis XVIII. I however am of the opinion that at this point, only a major spiritual revival (brought about by Republican collapse and the brink of human extinction, no doubt) can bring back the Monarchies in the way that they should exist. Another great profile, of a good King.

  2. Hello my Mad friend , greeting from Cuba. I know my next question is off topic but it is something that I have been curious about for a while. I am quite the optimistic guy so I believe that at least 1 monarchy will be restored now my likely candidates are Serbia and Montenegro in the short run and Laos in the long run. Now which do you think will be first if any? Once again sorry for Being off topic and for my English

    1. Buenos dias to you in the 'Pearl of the Antilles'. Serbia, Montenegro and Laos are all good candidates, though I would say Laos is the least likely just because Vietnam still basically occupies the country, the people have remained more loyal than most realize. The most likely would probably be Montenegro. It has come the farthest, it's already been restored in all but name so I would say that would be the safe bet. They have the least distance to go to make it official and become a monarchy again.

    2. Well I only mentioned Laos due to its deomcratic Government in exile that recently stated that there dream is for a Laos Kingdom but sadly my Country is doomed to be a republic we made Che Guevara a national Hero for gods sake

  3. I lobbed reading yiur essay on King Louis 18 bourbon. I'm very well read in history of the world but never new this
    see your never to old to learn. something new .ser magnific viva la France.

  4. he was a king who was democratic as did not want any side whether the leftist or rightist to benefit from the other

  5. The reason we don't hear about this guy much is probably just because he was obese. It's kind of sad that being thin is always the most important thing to society.


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