It is half past ten at night, on Friday 29 April 1774, when a doctor notices – while leaning over Louis XV, who is confined to bed – a few suspicious red marks on the royal face. He orders a servant to bring a candle closer so that he can see better and, with a worried expression, goes over to his colleagues present in the sovereign’s bedchamber. He murmurs a few words, and they all, one after the other, approach the patient to better examine him. After a brief consultation with each other, the doctors decide to forbid the royal family access to the patient’s bedchamber and, a few minutes later, the Duke de Bouillon informs the Court that “the King’s smallpox is declared”.
The news rapidly spreads throughout the palace but it is decided to keep the sovereign in ignorance of his illness. This is made easier because he believes that he has had smallpox in his youth and thinks himself immunised against it. They therefore talk to him about “suette militaire”, a malady characterised by the eruption of a rash, accompanied by abundant perspiration. This illness appeared in Picardie at the beginning of the century, and the King’s advanced age – sixty-four – normally shields him from a fatal outcome…
All that can be done is wait, for, in this matter, the doctors of the time know only too well the limitations of their art. Doctor Lorry declares “that on the subject of smallpox, we have said all that we know as soon as we have named it”, and another doctor, Lemonnier, answers the Cardinal de La Roche-Aymon, Grand Chaplain to the King, who questions him on the gravity of the illness, “that there is nothing in particular to say; it’s smallpox, you know it, you see it; I have nothing else to add”. At this precise moment, no-one can establish any prognosis for the evolution of the illness and the patient’s chances for survival.
For many people, this smallpox which takes hold of the royal person at the end of fifty-nine years of reign, assumes the dimension of a divine punishment. Jesuits, Jansenists, Members of Parliament, partisans of Choiseul, all those who have something with which to reproach the man who had been Louis le Bien-Aime [the Beloved] will see a celestial punishment in his last illness. On the preceding Holy Thursday, Abbot Jean-Baptiste Beauvais had prophesied from the pulpit. Recently promoted Bishop of Senez, and given the task of preaching during Lent, he had denounced the debauchery which reigned at Court and the guilty complacency of a King accused of “libertinage”. He reminded the sovereign of his wife’s death and that of six of his children, notably the Dauphin Louis, before accusing
“this monarch, glutted with voluptuousness, tired of having dipped into all the types of pleasures which surround the throne to awaken his wilted senses, who finishes by seeking out a new sort in the vile remains of public licence”.
After this direct allusion to Madame du Barry, wrongfully accused by public rumour of having been formerly an inmate of a Parisian house of pleasure, the predicator concluded with this terrible menace:
“Another forty days and Niniva will be destroyed… “
The sermon was pronounced on 1 April. On the following 10 May, Louis XV will breathe his last breath…
The King assumed his part of the Bishop of Senez’ scarcely veiled threats, and spent an excellent month of April, which introduced the first wafts of Spring. Installed at the Petit Trianon – which had just been finished – in the company of Mme du Barry, he consecrated himself above all to the pleasures of the hunt. It was noticed, however, that he didn’t look very well and had very little appetite from the 20th. His state became more serious on the 27th. Affected with headaches, he still went hunting, but had to give it up during the day. The situation grew worse the next day, for fever declared itself, accompanied by violent nauseas. Consulted, La Martiniere, First Surgeon, advised returning to the Palace, which augured ill for what was to follow, for it was thought that a sovereign in danger of death should naturally be among his own. In a few minutes, a carriage drove from the Petit Trianon to the Palace. During the night which followed, the pains grew worse. On Friday 29 April, Lemonnier, Ordinary Doctor to the King, decided to bleed him and consulted several of his colleagues, Lorry, Bordeu, Mme du Barry’s doctor, and Lassone, that of the Dauphine Marie-Antoinette. Nothing very precise came out of the discussions which were then engaged and they contented themselves with speaking of “humoral fever”. After having bled the King for the second time, they did their best to make the patient vomit and applied cataplasms to draw the “bad humours” out of the body… There was no question of smallpox since everybody then thought, like Louis XV, that he had had it in his youth and that he was therefore safe from it. No eruption of a rash was noticed, anyway. It was only during the evening of the 29th that the rash appeared, immediately revealing the amplitude of the disease which was affecting the unfortunate sovereign.
The last days of Louis XV are well-known thanks to the Souvenirs of Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, the King’s historiographer, and to the witness reports of the Duke de Belle-Isle and the Duke de Croy who, a close friend of the patient, had access to his bedside. Other witness reports, notably those of the Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt and the Baron de Besenval, use the story to get even with the King and certain members of the Court. The Chroniques de l’Oeil-de-Boeuf or other stories of libertine inspiration, heap blame on the dying man and contribute to soiling his memory durably. Taken up by Michelet, the black legend of a King uniquely preoccupied with hunting and his favourites, receiving by his atrocious death the just punishment for his sins, will be installed for a long time, and will please the Republican historiography of the XIXth Century. We have to wait for the works of Pierre Gaxotte or, more recently, those of Michel Antoine, for the truth to be re-established. Published in 1989, the excellent little book that Pierre Darmon consecrates to La Petite Verole mortelle de Louis XV has established a definitive end to the question.
To be continued.