While the Faculty’s representatives busy themselves around the dying monarch, the affrontment of the clans and factions is in full swing at the door of the royal bedchamber. Jacob Nicolas Moreau indignantly says:
“Everybody is thinking of himself. Nobody is thinking of the King or of the State.”
It is a sacred union against Madame du Barry and the Duke d’Aiguillon. Among them, the partisans of Choiseul, the King’s three daughters, and the Clerical Party which hasn’t forgotten the expulsion of the Jesuits… In his Correspondance politique et litteraire, Metra, although hostile to the King, comes to pity
“the unfortunate Louis XV. The most appalling intrigues were being woven right up to the foot of his death-bed. In his last moments, there were three or four cabals which were tearing each other apart, even in his bedchamber. Some wanted the priests to take hold of his person, the others wanted to get him away from their power.”
In a letter adressed to his sister on 5 May, Prince Francois-Xavier de Saxe also evokes
“all the indecent and unworthy cabals and intrigues which are taking place here, and which horrify. If it weren’t for my attachment, and if I dare say, my love for the dear and worthy King, which makes me remain here, I would like to be far away so as to see and hear nothing.”
In fact, two principal camps are going to affront each other: that of Mme du Barry and the Duke d’Aiguillon on the one hand, and that of the partisans of Choiseul on the other.
A former fashion salesgirl, Jeanne Becu, the mistress of Jean du Barry, was noticed in 1768 by Louis XV; her vivacity lit up the elderly sovereign’s final years. However, Choiseul’s disgrace, in 1770, is attributed to her, as well as the creation of the triumvirat which unites Chancellor Maupeou, Abbot Terray and the Duke d’Aiguillon. Obviously, the King’s death would endanger the political changes which have occurred over the course of the last few years. Even the administration of the Last Rites is dangerous: by imposing the banishment of the favourite, it would shake up a good number of acquired positions (the memory of the departure of Madame de Chateauroux, thirty years earlier, is still raw). Mme du Barry’s partisans intend, therefore, to hide the gravity of his illness from the King for as long as possible, so as to avoid the ultimate Confession, which would be the signal for the banishment of the favourite, an act which could very possibly be definitive. Even if the King recovers, he will have then taken the engagement to escape the state of mortal sin into which his guilty liaison had plunged him. At his age, and fearing an approaching death, it is probable that he would not reverse Jeanne’s banishment, which would have the same disastrous consequences for the Party whose spokeswoman she had become. The Duke d’Aiguillon and his followers are therefore going to insist that the gravity of the patient’s state not be revealed to him, and that the administration of the Last Rites be deferred for as long as possible.
The partisans of Choiseul, who had been disgraced four years before, remain hopeful on this point. They fear that they will be reproached with the sovereign’s eventual death if they insist on the administration of the Last Rites, which could strongly shock the patient’s mind.
The hostilities had begun in a muffled way as early as 29 April, even before the eruption of the redness which will reveal the nature of the illness. It then concerned the imposing of a third blood-letting on the patient. Now everyone knows that the King considers, according to the witness report of the Duke de Croy,
“that one must not go to the third blood-letting unless one has christianly prepared oneself for death”.
So, prodded by the Duke d’Aiguillon’s Party, the doctors, Bordeu, Lorry and Lemonnier, renounce performing the third blood-letting. When the illness declares itself, the debate gets nasty – the Duke de Croy, the most reliable witness to the events, gives this account of it:
“Some were saying that it would be appalling, through prejudice, to kill him on purpose by frightening him; others that it would be appalling to risk leaving him to die without sacraments, which would be without precedent since Clovis.”
The doctors fearing that the slightest fright could “make the poison turn inward” and finish off the patient, it is decided not to inform him of his state, with the agreement of his three daughters.
Disappointed, Choiseul’s partisans think for an instant that they are going to reverse the situation for their own benefit when the arrival at Versailles of the Archbishop of Paris is announced. No-one doubts that he is coming to the Palace to hear the royal patient’s Confession. With his habitual gruffness, Christophe de Beaumont is readying himself to bluntly reveal to the sovereign the gravity of his illness and demand the immediate departure of Mme du Barry. Her partisans play their last card by mobilising Madame Adelaide, the King’s eldest daughter, thanks to Madame de Narbonne, her governess. Mme Adelaide begs the Prelate to say nothing about the smallpox and the Last Rites, for the motive that such words would be fatal to the patient. On Sunday 1 May, the Archbishop comes to celebrate Mass in the royal bedchamber but retires without having had a private conversation with the patient. Followed by his chamber-pot – for he is afflicted with very painful nephritic colics – he goes to Mme Adelaide who exhorts him to discretion so as to avoid making “the poison turn inward” in her father’s body. Convinced, the Prelate is then buttonholed by the Duke de Richelieu who also dissuades him from evoking the Last Rites during his next interview with Louis XV. This interview will last only a few minutes and it is mainly the King who enquires about his visitor’s health. An attitude that is surprising at the very least, and which makes several witnesses indignant. The Duke de Croy reports that
“the Archbishop de Paris, dying of gravel, came this day, saw the King, that it was great question of the Archbishop’s malady, and then that’s all; and, extraordinary thing, that the Archbishop returned to Paris”.
Jacob Nicolas Moreau is no less indignant:
“Instead of sending away all these base courtiers and doing his job, the Archbishop contented himself with answering the questions that the King asked him about the Archbishop’s own health; His Majesty talked to him about his nephritis, had his pulse taken by his doctors, and the poor Prelate left…”
The Archbishop of Paris’ strange attitude has a reason. The Prelate, it is true, detests Louis XV, even though it is the King who had him named Archbishop of Paris in 1745; but it is also the King who decided the expulsion of the Jesuits. As well as that, he knows that Louis XV risks dying in a state of mortal sin. However, he is not in a hurry to send him a priest. Why? Because he fears that the banishment of the favourite might result in the return of Choiseul, his sworn enemy.
To be continued.