The Road from Versailles
Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Fall of the French Monarchy
By Munro Price
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Munro Price
All rights reserved.
THE KING AND HIS FAMILY
At midday on 5 May 1789, Louis XVI entered the Hall of the Menus Plaisirs at Versailles to open the first meeting of the Estates General to be held since 1614. The king took his seat at one end of the hall, already occupied by 1,200 deputies, on a dais carpeted in violet interspersed with gold fleurs-de-lys. He was followed by the queen, Marie Antoinette, the other members of the royal family, the principal officers of the royal household and the keeper of the seals, who arranged themselves around the steps of the throne. The king then removed his plumed hat encrusted with diamonds to greet the assembly, which had risen to cheer him as he made his entrance.
Even though it had been in abeyance for 175 years, the Estates General was the chief representative body of the kingdom of France. In the past, its deputies had normally been drawn in equal proportions from the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners, the third estate. Yet on this occasion, in recognition of the great increase in the third estate's size and importance over the course of the century, the number of deputies it sent to the Estates General had been doubled. A daunting task lay before the assembly: to agree with the king a major programme of reforms to regenerate the kingdom and restore its ailing finances.
Although nobody present could have conceived it then, scattered amidst the throng of deputies were men who would shortly make a revolution. The marquis de La Fayette, standing in the ranks of the nobility, had already gained fame as George Washington's aide-de-camp in the American War of Independence and as a symbol of French support for the cause of liberty. As commander of the Paris National Guard after July 1789, he would emerge as a dominant figure in the moderate phase of the Revolution. In the third estate, a young lawyer of surpassing eloquence from Grenoble, Antoine Barnave, would soon become one of the outstanding orators of the Revolution, sharing La Fayette's political principles but divided from him by personal rivalry.
An altogether more exalted figure, sitting with the nobility, was the king's cousin, Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d'Orléans. Already sensing political opportunity in these uncharted waters, Orléans would swiftly transform himself into a leader of the Left. In 1793, he would vote for his cousin's death, without reprieve. Another nobleman, yet symbolically aligned with the commons as third estate deputy for Aix-en-Provence, was the charismatic, pockmarked and notoriously libertine comte de Mirabeau. Tribune of the people in 1789 and 1790, Mirabeau was to end his Promethean career a year later as secret counter-revolutionary adviser to the king and queen. And somewhere in the body of the hall, anonymous in the sober black of the third estate, was an obscure deputy who would end by eclipsing them all, Maximilien Robespierre.
Everybody present realized the significance of the occasion. The scene around them – the king surrounded by the representatives of the people, the third estate facing him, the deputies of the first estate, the clergy, on his right, and those of the second, the nobility, on his left – vividly symbolized the break with the past. By the very act of convoking the Estates General, Louis XVI had brought to an end over a century of absolute monarchy, by which, in theory at least, the king had ruled without the assistance of a representative body. Reviving the long-dormant Estates General was an exceptional act, as the king reminded the deputies in a short opening speech:
Gentlemen, the day my heart has long awaited has finally arrived, and I see myself surrounded by the representatives of the nation which it is my glory to command.
A long interval has elapsed since the last meeting of the Estates General, and although the practice of holding assemblies seemed to have fallen into disuse, I have not hesitated to reestablish a custom from which the kingdom may gain new strength and which may open up for the nation a new source of happiness ...
The future shape of the monarchy ushered in by the convocation of the Estates General was less clear. For traditionalists, probably a majority of the first two estates, their summoning merely signified a return to earlier practice within the context of an already existing constitution. For radicals, on the other hand, who soon came to include a majority of the third estate, the aim was an entirely new political system incorporating equality of rights and many of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Within two months of the king's speech from the throne, the incipient struggle over how best to replace the absolute monarchy, and with what, had led to revolution.
* * *
The thirty-five-year-old monarch welcoming the deputies to the Estates General was and has remained an enigma. He was clearly unlike his predecessors. Apart from the family Roman nose, he bore little resemblance to his Bourbon ancestors with their dark hair and complexions and beady brown eyes. With his blond hair, large blue eyes and heavy build, he owed much more to the German stock of his mother, Maria Josepha of Saxony. Where Louis XIV and Louis XV had been gifted with tremendous physical presence, Louis XVI cut an unimpressive figure in public. Tall by the standards of his time and extremely strong, he none the less had bad posture and an undignified walk. He was also painfully tongue-tied in public, which his ministers could only remedy by supplying him with ready-made phrases in advance of public receptions. Apart from hunting, the traditional sport of kings, his pleasures were simple and manual; he had a forge installed above his study at Versailles, and proved to be a talented amateur blacksmith, specializing in making locks.
This unkingly man had a complex and secretive personality, shaped by a series of early bereavements. Born on 23 August 1754 and christened Louis-Auguste, for the first fourteen years of his life the future Louis XVI had had no inkling that he would eventually rule France. The second surviving child of Louis XV's son and heir Louis-Ferdinand, the 'old dauphin', he only became king in 1774 through a succession of deaths in his family. The cause was tuberculosis, which carried off his three closest relatives in six years. In 1761, it killed his precocious elder brother, the duc de Bourgogne, to whom he was devoted. Four years later, his father too succumbed. Within fifteen months, Louis's mother, Maria Josepha, who caught the disease while nursing her husband, had also died.
The two formative influences on Louis-Auguste were his father, the old dauphin, and his grandfather, Louis XV. Yet by the time the young man was eleven his father was dead, so the dominant figure in his life became the old king himself. Outwardly there was little to unite the ageing monarch, still handsome and imposing in his sixties, and his gauche, retiring grandson. The fact that Louis-Auguste, as he grew up, showed no interest in sex also formed a strong contrast to the obsessive womanizing that so marked his grandfather's life. Despite these differences, Louis XV and his grandson soon grew close, particularly once they had discovered one great passion in common – the hunt. In private conversations on and off the hunting field, the king patiently initiated his heir into the business of government.
The intimacy between the two men was cemented by the fact that in one area their characters were very similar. Both were taciturn, watchful and deeply reserved, and probably derived these qualities from the same source – early experience of bereavement. Louis-Auguste had lost both his parents and elder brother to tuberculosis by the age of thirteen; his grandfather had lost his own mother, father and elder brother to smallpox when he was only two. These traumas were most likely also responsible for a further defect that afflicted both Louis XV and Louis XVI throughout their lives – chronic indecision. Louis XV's vacillation was notorious. As for Louis XVI, his younger brother the comte de Provence once came up with a devastating description of how difficult it was to get him to make up his mind: 'Imagine a set of oiled billiard-balls that you vainly try to hold together.'
Louis XVI's intellectual capacity has traditionally been portrayed as limited. The standard view presents him as dull and phlegmatic, more interested in his hunting and locksmithing than in the business of government. In fact, Louis's surviving work for his tutors depicts a pupil of definitely above-average intelligence, with a particular aptitude for mathematics and geography. This was to persist into later life, in the king's sound grasp of public finance and fascination with cartography. Related to this was his love of the sea and of naval affairs; he was to play a significant role in the direction of the maritime aspects of the American war, and helped draw up the instructions for the explorer La Pérouse's expedition to the South Seas in 1785. He devoured Captain Cook's accounts of his voyages as soon as they appeared. Ironically, Louis XVI only saw the sea once in his life, when he travelled to Cherbourg to open the new harbour there in 1786. This was the only visit he made to any French province before the Revolution.
The future king was also a good linguist, with an excellent grasp of Latin, Italian and, more unusually, English. Throughout his life he was to be alternately attracted and repelled by England, enviably prosperous and powerful and his own kingdom's greatest rival. As king, he always followed closely reports of the proceedings of both the Lords and the Commons. He even kept this habit up during the Revolution. In 1792, during council meetings with the Girondin ministers, whom he despised, he would ostentatiously read the English newspapers, translating them on sight if necessary for the business in hand.
Louis's politcal views were shaped in boyhood by his governor, the duc de la Vauguyon, and his collaborators, the Jesuit Guillaume-François Berthier and the future historiographer royal, Jacob-Nicolas Moreau. Their method was to set before their pupil a series of maxims, on which he would comment in the form of 'reflections'. These 'reflections', the most important of which Louis wrote when he was fourteen, form the best guide to the concept of monarchy he absorbed from his teachers. It was quite uncompromising. In one particularly significant sentence, Louis set out a vision of fair-minded but resolutely authoritarian rule: 'The power of the throne is absolute, nothing can check it, but it must be founded on justice and reason, and must always be open to warning and good counsel.'
These ringing statements of faith prefigured Louis's politics for at least the first thirteen years of his reign. Up until 1787 at the earliest, there is no evidence that he wavered in his commitment to the absolute monarchy he had inherited from his grandfather.
The death of Louis XV on 10 May 1774 transformed the dauphin Louis-Auguste into King Louis XVI, and confronted him with the formidable task of ruling France. It also bequeathed to him the headship of a large royal family, all of whose members had power, status and their own political agendas. Prime among Louis's older relatives were his unmarried aunts, Louis XV's daughters, Mesdames Adélaïde, Victoire, Sophie and Louise. He remained deeply attached to them all his life, particularly since they had helped bring him up when he was orphaned. The strongest character among them was Mme Adélaïde, imperious, masculine and deeply pious, closely followed by the plump Mme Victoire, whose favourite pastime was playing the bagpipes. The four sisters could always be relied upon to support tradition in Church, State and foreign policy. They were, however, too eccentric to carry much political weight. Horace Walpole, who met them at Versailles, described them as 'clumsy plump old wenches, with a bad likeness to their father ... with black cloaks and knotting-bags, looking good-humoured, not knowing what to say, and wriggling as if they wanted to make water'.
Closest of all the king's blood relations were his two younger brothers, Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, comte de Provence, born in 1755, and Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois, born in 1757, and his youngest sister, Mme Elisabeth. Intelligent, witty, of a literary bent, Provence was fundamentally cold. He had mistresses, but also possessed a strong voyeuristic streak. This has recently been made clear by the publication of a series of obscene letters addressed by him to his friend the duc de Lévis. Written in English in the style of Smollett, these display a prurient fascination with every detail of Lévis's sexual practices with his mistresses. As his attitude to his elder brother after 1789 was to show, Provence's coldness and cynicism also extended to his politics.
Artois shared neither Provence's corpulence nor his brains. Handsome, athletic and promiscuous, his limited talents were initially devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. The crisis of the old regime was to transform him into the most prominent defender of the essential core of absolute monarchy – royal authority and the social, if not the fiscal, privileges of the first two orders. It was left to Mme Elisabeth to supply the quality Provence and Artois essentially lacked – loyalty to their elder brother. Plump, devout and dedicated to good works, Mme Elisabeth was devoted to Louis, and remained with him to the end.
Around the immediate royal family clustered the princes of the blood – Condé, Conti, Orléans and Penthièvre. The two who were to loom largest in the history of Louis's reign were the king's cousins Louis-Henri-Joseph, prince de Condé, and Louis-Philippe-Joseph, duc d'Orléans. Fifty-three in 1789, eighteen years older than Louis XVI, Condé was the only living Bourbon with a military reputation; as a young general at the end of the Seven Years War, he had won the battle of Johannisberg against the Prussians and Hanoverians. He was both ambitious and strongly conservative. Orléans, seven years older than Louis XVI, was very different. By the outbreak of the Revolution he had still found no suitable outlet for his energies. His attempt to build a naval career had been unsuccessful, and his extravagance and womanizing were notorious. Orléans's relationship with his royal cousin was also difficult. He felt that Louis had not supported him sufficiently when his conduct during a naval battle in 1778 was criticized, and never forgave him for this. The king for his part was well aware of his cousin's hostility. The opening of the Estates General gave Orléans an irresistible opportunity to purge his frustrations.
The final figure on this crowded stage arrived in France on 8 May 1770. This was Louis XVI's future queen, the fifteen-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia, daughter of the Empress of Austria, Maria Theresa. On 16 May the couple were married at Versailles, the bride's name rendered into French and for posterity as Marie Antoinette.
Outwardly, the new dauphine had all that was needed to please public opinion. She was lively and pretty, with large blue eyes, a high forehead and a short, aquiline nose. The only hint of the jutting Habsburg jaw was a rather full lower lip. Her complexion was good, and her hands and arms elegant and well shaped. Although she was still extremely young, her character appeared promising. She was lively, vivacious and well-meaning, with a straightforward, spontaneous nature. With time, Marie Antoinette was to mould these qualities into a very particular and memorable presence, dignified and imposing yet also simple and unaffected. Her charm was legendary. Something of the impression she made on her contemporaries can be glimpsed in Edmund Burke's famous recollection, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, of her holding court as a young bride, in the days of glory before 1789:
It is now fifteen or sixteen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, – glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour, and joy.
Marie Antoinette's intellectual capacities have received even rougher treatment from historians than those of her husband. She has gone down to posterity as stupid and frivolous, forever associated with an infamous remark about cake that she probably never made. In reality, the queen was far from a fool, although she never shared her husband's love of knowledge for its own sake. She had a sound if ordinary mind, occasionally lit up by flashes of genuine intuition and discernment. Unfortunately, her early education at the Viennese court had been seriously neglected. Until the age of twelve she had had almost no formal lessons. It was only the glittering prospect of her marriage to the heir to the throne of France, as a human token of Austria's fidelity to the alliance of 1756, that jolted Maria Theresa into remedying the situation. Versailles was consulted, and in this unaccustomed role of tutorial agency sent to Vienna an approved teacher, the abbé de Vermond. Of a humble but talented family (his brother was to become Marie Antoinette's obstetrician and delivered all her children), Vermond skilfully made his task palatable to his unintellectual charge, and established an influence over her that lasted until the Revolution. Vermond was an expert at covering his tracks, so that even today his real political power remains impalpable; it is appropriate that the only serious study of him, Eugène Welwert's article of 1921, is entitled 'L'éminence grise de Marie Antoinette'. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Road from Versailles by Munro Price. Copyright © 2002 Munro Price. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.