On Monday 2 May, there is an improvement in the King’s health. His temperature is lower, his urine is abundant and clear, and the suppuration seems to indicate that the process of expulsion of the illness has started. The optimism is not, however, general, and Doctor Lorry discretely declares to one of his friends:
“The King is better, everyone is clamouring victory. He will go on like this until the 11th, then the smallpox will turn to its worst, and on the 13th, he will no longer be alive. Believe my experience, he has a smallpox from which one does not return.”
The improvement is however confirmed on 3 May. The Duke de Belle-Isle reports in his Journal de la maladie du Roy, that Cardinal de La Roche-Aymon, the Grand Chaplain, has come to congratulate the patient
“for the notable improvement in which he was, and that he attributed it principally to the fervent prayers of forty hours that Monsignor the Archbishop had ordered”.
But it is on this same day that the sovereign understands, on his own, that he is suffering from smallpox. For the partisans of Madame du Barry and the Duke d’Aiguillon, this is a catastrophe. Their fears are quickly confirmed, for, in the evening, the patient sends his chambervalet, Laborde, to find the favourite. Poor Jeanne, who has watched by the King’s bedside each night, the daytime being reserved for his daughters, hesitates. She is, according to the Duke de Croy, “held back and encouraged by her Party” and herself wishes “to go away”, in these circumstances where she might risk being reproached for the death of her royal lover in a state of mortal sin. She obeys the King’s order, however, when he says to her around midnight:
“My duty is to God and to my people. So, you must retire from the Court tomorrow… “
On 4 May the patient’s state worsens, with the ceasing of the suppuration. He is made to drink Spanish wine to start it up again but, inexorably, “the poison turns inward”. Around ten o’clock in the morning, the Duke d’Aiguillon receives instructions about Mme du Barry’s departure. She leaves Versailles in the middle of the afternoon.
At midday, the Archbishop de Paris comes again to celebrate Mass in the King’s bedchamber, and Louis lets him know, on two occasions, that he is aware of the nature of his illness. However, the Archbishop does not seem in any hurry to evoke the necessary sacraments – the Duke d’Aiguillon’s Party is still insisting to the Grand Chaplain, Cardinal de La Roche-Aymon, that they would kill the patient. The Duke de Croy reports that the King’s daughters are still
“in the appalling dilemma of wanting him to confess himself, and of fearing that the revolution of fright and sacrifice would kill him”.
The situation remains stationary on the 5 and 6 May. The dying man’s mind is weakening, while no-one yet decides to administer the Last Rites to him. Even worse, Abbot Maudoux, the Curate of Saint-Louis de Versailles, who demands to hear the penitent, is kept away. Convoked on the evening of 5 May, the Grand Chaplain does not go to the patient’s bedside, and he has to wait until the night of 6 to 7 May, around two o’clock in the morning, when, in a moment of lucidity, Louis XV orders the Duke de Duras to call Abbot Maudoux. He even has to repeat his demand, for the Duke pretends not to have heard him. And even then, to justify himself in the eyes of the gathered courtiers, he thinks himself obliged to declare:
“Messieurs, you hear it, the King orders me to have his Confessor brought to him”.
A bit of time is gained, because of the inability of being able to find the required Confessor, to the point that, around four o’clock in the morning, the King worries about it. The Confession can at last take place half-an-hour later. In the morning, Cardinal de La Roche-Aymon administers the Last Rites.
This day of 7 May is marked by a real improvement, and La Martiniere is able to declare to the monarch, who has asked him to take his pulse,
“that it is better than before your Confession and if Your Majesty permits me to speak to him frankly, it will be even better when he has received Holy Communion, that will calm you”.
It is just the improvement that precedes the end. The fever redoubles, the suppuration ceases and calls to the innoculator, Robert Sutton, remain unanswered. During the day of the 9th, the Duke de Croy reports that
“the scabs are stopping the King from being able to see […]. He has a mask like bronze, made bigger by the scabs […] his mouth open, without the face being deformed elsewhere, nor showing agitation, sort of like the head of a Moor, a Negro, wax-like and swollen”.
Around nine o’clock in the evening, the dying man asks for Extreme Unction and the Prayers for the Dying. Abbot Maudoux remains the whole night near his penitent. In contradiction to the black legend which presents a dying Louis XV tormented by anguish and terrorised by the vision of infernal flames, all of the direct witnesses report that the King faced death courageously and calmly. The next day, a violent storm strikes Versailles while the royal family is praying in the chapel, and it is a little after three o’clock in the afternoon, after an agony which had begun two hours beforehand, that the King fades away in the arms of Laborde, his chambervalet.
The risks of contagion explain why the inhumation is organized according to a simplified rite. This ceremonial is the same as that which had accompanied the funeral of the Grand Dauphin, Louis XV’s grandfather, and of the Duke de Bourgogne, Louis XV’s father, both dead from smallpox in 1711 and 1712. That puts paid to the myth which says that the King’s funeral takes place in secret because of the King’s unpopularity. The remains are placed, surrounded by perfumed linen, inside a lead coffin placed inside another coffin of oak. Two days later, the King’s body is taken to Saint-Denis.
Louis XVI is now King of France. Immediately, the conditions in which his grandfather has disappeared (and, before him, two other generations of dead Dauphins, they too of smallpox) raises the question of innoculation. Of all of Europe’s princes, the new sovereign and his two brothers, the Counts of Provence and of Artois, are the only ones not to have been innoculated. The operation, having become relatively common over the previous thirty years, has, at the time of Louis XV’s death, already opened the way for the future eradication of the disease.
To be continued.