Louis XV dies of smallpox on 10 May 1774. This terrible illness leaves in its wake a halo of terror and suspicion. A medical book which appears that year affirms that it is “the most general of all”. Ninety-five people out of every hundred in France contract it. One in seven dies from it.
Care is taken to avoid the people who frequented the King during his illness. For this reason, the young successor cannot even consult the ministers who advised his grandfather, right at his bedside. Louis-Auguste, as well as his two brothers, rapidly decide – in spite of the reprobation of the court elders – to have themselves innoculated.
During the few days which follow the operation, France lives in fear. Everyone waits for news of the King, who is suffering fever and discomfort. But, rapidly, the menace disappears and the people forgets its fear and praises the audacity of the Children of France. Voltaire says:
“History will not forget that the King, the Count of Provence and the Count of Artois, all three very young, taught the French, by being innoculated, that you must face danger to avoid death. The nation was touched and instructed.”
So, one by one, all those who had guided the steps of the future King Louis XVI left the scene, leaving him alone to assume the heavy burden which incumbs to the heir to the French Crown. To complete this sad picture, we must also note the disappearance of his governor Mr de La Vauguyon, in 1772, followed several years later by that of Abbot Soldini, his confessor.
On 11 June 1775, during the Festival of the Trinity, the King is consecrated at Reims. He struggles a bit under the thirty square feet of his heavy mantel, even though it is raised by the Grand Ecuyer. He had murmured when hearing of the death of his grandfather, Louis XV:
“My God, protect us, we are too young to reign.”
The prophecy of the Austrian Empress comes true, and he can’t escape it. The unctions of the holy oil open wide the doors of the kingdom to him…
The 6 August is a great day for the royal family. A beautiful child is born. But the mother is the Countess of Artois and the King is “still at the same point” according to Marie-Antoinette’s own expression. The unhappy wife is unable to conceal her chagrin “to see an heir [born] which is not from her”. At the announcement of his sister-in-law’s pregnancy, Louis XVI again consults a doctor. We learn from a letter sent by Marie-Antoinette to Marie-Therese that this doctor says
“just about the same as the others that the operation was not necessary and that there was every hope without it”.
To resume, there was every reason to hope… and every reason not to hope, for time was passing and age was advancing. Inside and out, in the salons and in the corridors, mocking words were starting to be heard.
“Each asks quietly:/Can the King? Or can’t He?/The sad Queen desperately tra la la, tra la lee.”
Tired of these songs, the Dauphine finally obtains from her husband the promise that
“if nothing has been decided in the next few months, he will decide, himself, on the operation”…
In the Spring, Joseph II visits Marie-Antoinette. The Emperor comes to give advice to his sister… and to get his own idea of the King. He reports to his brother Leopold:
“This man is rather weak, but not stupid; he has notions, he has judgement, but there is an apathy of body and mind.”
After her brother’s visit, Marie-Antoinette tries to get closer to her husband. And at last, the miracle happens. On 30 August 1777 – seven years after their marriage – she announces to her mother the news that all Europe awaits:
“I am in the most essential happiness of my whole life. My marriage has been perfectly consummated for more than a week; the proof has been reiterated, and again yesterday more completely than the first time.”
A few months later, the Dauphine, with great joy, declares to her husband jokingly:
“I come, Sire, to complain about one of your subjects who is so audacious as to give me kicks in the stomach…”
On 19 December 1778, a girl is born. Louis XVI is at last a father – not only the father of the nation, father of twenty-seven million French – but father of a little Marie-Therese-Charlotte whom he immediately cherishes tenderly.
The news spreads rapidly throughout the kingdom. The whole of France sinks into the intoxication of this happy event. To show her joy, the Empress of Austria sends her daughter two vases in petrified wood, decorated with precious stones. But these fragile objects, broken during the trip, never arrive at their destination… Is this another omen? In any case, the euphoria does not last long…
The King could have started to enjoy life from this day on. But it seems that destiny decided otherwise. Two of the three children who are born in the following years rapidly leave the land of the living, abandoning their father to the torments of History in the making. Here and there, riots break out in the street and a dull rumour of discontentment starts to rumble. Everywhere, oppositions are born. The King tries to resist for a time. But he is not prepared for an affrontment.
To be continued.