Louis XV.

The King made a lot of enemies over the course of the last ten years of his reign.  The expulsion of the Jesuits in 1763, gave him the inimity of the Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Christophe de Beaumont.  Chancellor Maupeou’s reform had abolished the venality of parliamentary charges, and put in place a magistrature now deprived of political powers:  this had mobilised public opinion against the sovereign.  The Counsellors in Parliament had been tricking the People for a long time.  They had been passing themselves off as defenders of public liberties while, in fact, they were only interested in preserving their own privileges.

However, although the King counted numerous enemies in 1774, it is quite inexact to claim that he was the object of general unpopularity.  At the end of a long reign, he was no longer the “Beloved” [Bien-Aime] of old, but the noisy agitation of the Court and the capital did not show the true state of public opinion at this moment.

Louis XV giving peace to Europe in 1729.

Up until then, the sovereign had shown himself to be of solid good health and, right at the beginning of his illness, nothing could lead anyone to suppose that he was about to die.  In 1721, fifty years earlier, a simple blood-letting had put an end to a worrying fever and, in October 1728, at Fontainebleau, the young King had been affected with a rash without consequences, precisely the one that made him think that he had already confronted smallpox.  In fact, it was just a simple chicken pox.  The “Metz illness” of August 1744 had been much more spectacular.  The King was then thirty-four.  Suffering from a high temperature, submitted to five blood-lettings, he had then appeared to be dangerously ill, at the moment when he was hurrying to the kingdom’s borders, which were being threatened by an Austrian invasion.  This episode is important for, although the illness was probably only a bad insolation, the King still received the Last Rites and, for this, had been obliged to send away his favourite of the moment, the Duchess de Chateauroux.  This precedent is going to weigh heavily on the ten days of the royal agony, thirty years later.

At this time, Louis XV had known no other particularly serious health problems but he had seen a lot of people around him die.  Of the ten children given to him by Marie Leszczynska, only four daughters had survived, the Mesdames Tantes” [My Lady Aunts] of the Court of Louis XVI, Marie-Adelaide, Marie-Victoire, Sophie and Louise-Marie.  Three children died between the ages of three and eight, which was relatively banal at this epoch, but three others disappeared as adults, Anne-Henriette at twenty-five, in 1752, her twin sister Louise-Elisabeth, the wife of the Infant Philippe of Parme, seven years later, then the Dauphin Louis (the father of the future Louis XVI) in 1765, two years before his mother, Marie Leszczynska.  In 1770, Monsignor Christophe de Beaumont took malicious pleasure in coming in person to announce to the King the entry into Carmel of Louise-Marie, the youngest of his daughters, which plunged Louis XV into immense sadness. “Dead to the world”, she would never again see her father, even in his last moments.  These multiple dramas engendered deep melancholy in the sovereign.  In this context, the presence of Madame du Barry is more comforting than libertine for this aged sovereign.  The sudden death, in front of him, of the Marquis de Chauvelin, struck down by an attack of apoplexia during a game of whist, in November 1773, had increased the ageing monarch’s anxiety about the perspective of a possible death in the near future, like any other man of his age.  Chauvelin had not had time to make his confession;  the fear of a similar death tormented the sovereign throughout the months which preceded “the declaration of smallpox”.


As soon as the sovereign’s illness is made public, the courtisan manoeuvres begin, each clan advancing its pawns in function of its interests, while calculating the patient’s chances for survival.  At the same time, lampoons and pamphlets circulate, heaping blame on the King, that adversary of Parliaments and Jesuits.  In Versailles, the doctors busy themselves at their patient’s bedside but their helplessness is total;  they are reduced to letting the illness evolve, knowing that it can end just as well in a cure as in death.

It is well known how the illness reached the King.  A few days before the King, the Countess de Provence had contracted the illness, as well as the Chancellor of Spain who did not survive.  In his Journal, the Duke de Croy gives precisions:

“Rumours were spread about how he had caught this illness, but the fact is that a few children had had it in the Trianon neighbourhood, and that a little girl of two died from it in an attic, at the end of the park, and was taken away at night, in a sheet;  […]  which spread the venom in the gardens, where he often went.  Louis XV therefore seems to have caught his disease in the beautiful greenhouses and the botanical garden.”

Voltaire reports that the King had contracted the disease by approaching the coffin of a young girl who had died of smallpox, whose funeral procession he had passed, while leaving for a hunt.  Two days later, the monarch’s dentist is supposed to have noticed suspicious symptoms on his gums.  The hypothesis of the author of the Dictionnaire philosophique cannot however be retained, for the episode that he evokes took place only a few days before the disease’s appearance, while the incubation period lasts two weeks.

Malevolent minds ironise about this “small pox” which comes to complete the action of the “big pox” [syphilis] abusively bestowed upon the King through a life judged to be dissolute.  It is even suspected that the sovereign had, at the instigation of the shameful favourite, put into his bed a little girl suffering, without anyone knowing it, from the sinister smallpox.  So many interpretations, all as malevolent as they are unfounded – but nevertheless regularly brought up again – which go to add to the King’s black legend.  Seven years after the King’s death, Moufle d’Angerville takes up this theme again in his Vie privee de Louis XV, which is a simple collection of rumours and calumnies:

“Following this blind fatality which plays with men’s vain projects and often confounds the greatest wisdom, even the efforts of these corruptors [Mme du Barry’s partisans] to perpetuate their empire, turned against them, and France was saved…”

To be continued.