A young French lawyer of Casanova’s acquaintance called Claude Pierre Patu commented, rather presciently if Casanova’s recollections are to be trusted, about the French monarchy:
“It is certain that everything here causes foreigners to believe that the French people adore the king, but all thinking men here know well enough that there is more show than reality in that adoration, and the court has no confidence in it. When the king comes to Paris, everybody calls out, ‘Vive le Roi!’ because some idle fellow begins, or because some policeman has given the signal from the midst of the crowd, but it is really a cry which has no importance, a cry given out of cheerfulness, sometimes out of fear, and which the king himself does not accept as gospel. He does not feel comfortable in Paris, and he prefers being in Versailles, surrounded by twenty-five thousand men who protect him against the fury of that same people of Paris, who, if ever they became wiser, might very well one day call out, ‘Death to the King!’ instead of, ‘Long life to the King!’
(Casanova Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter VI)
This was 1750 and Casanova’s first expedition to Paris. Louis XV was on the throne, having inherited it in 1715 at the tender age of 5. Both of his parents and older brother had died of illness (probably measles) and he himself had been infected. For the previous thirty years the reign of Louis XIV had become increasingly loathed as a consequence of religious persecution and his favouring of dynastic interests above those of the state and the people. The consequence of the latter was the ruinously expensive war of the Spanish Succession which plunged the country into famine and debt. As far as popularity goes, therefore, Louis XIV wasn’t a hard act to follow.
Until Louis reached the age of majority France was to be governed by a Regency Council. At eleven he was engaged to his cousin, three-year-old Infanta Maria Anna Victoria of Spain. In 1723 the regency was ended and the Duke of Orléans was put in charge. Given the Spanish Infanta’s youth and her inability to provide an heir Maria Anna Victoria was set aside for the twenty-one year old Marie Leszczynska of Polish royal stock. In 1725, when the king was fifteen, the two were married and, to great relief all round, offspring duly followed. In 1726 Cardinal Fleury was put in charge until his death in 1743 and France began to recover.
Thus everything was looking rosy. Religious tensions and foreign adventures continued to blot the royal copy book but nothing on the previous scale and under the sound financial and economic stewardship of Fleury and comptrollers-general of finances such as Michel Robert le Peletier des Forts and Philibert Orry France was becoming a more peaceful and prosperous place. Unfortunately, however, this was about as good as it was going to get. It was around this time of optimism that Louis acquired his nickname ‘Le Bien-Aime’ (‘The Beloved’).
True to Bourbon form, in the 1740s France managed to get itself embroiled in another war of succession, in this case that of the Austrian succession, with the usual costs to blood and treasure. Upon Fleury’s death Louis took over the reins of state himself, doing away with a first minister. Militarily, the war went quite well. By 1748 France occupied the Austrian Netherlands. However, in a fit of magnanimity rare in international diplomatic relations and to the utter bemusement of his subjects, at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle Louis gave away much of what France had gained, (hence the emergence in France of sayings such as ‘as stupid as the peace’).
The reputation of the king, moreover, was not enhanced by the extent of his infidelities which in the 1740s became public knowledge. It was accepted at the time that a king took mistresses and there was even a formal court position of official mistress but in the case of Louis XV it was the scale of his indiscretions which people balked at (made worse by the fact that his wife, a devout catholic, was held in great affection by the general populace and was famed for her generosity to the poor). In the 1730s, for example, Louis had a series of love affairs with four sisters from the same family (all with formal agreements). In 1745 Jeanne Antoinette le Normant d’Étiolles (aka Madame de Pompadour) became the king’s official mistress, shortly after the sudden and unexpected death of Louis’s third official mistress, Marie Anne de Mailly-Nesle, (one of the four sisters). Jeanne Antoinette’s extravagant tastes and massive spending along with her unparalleled influence over the king in all aspects of his rule only served to undermine his reputation even more.
Around the time of Casanova’s first visit to Paris, Pompadour’s relationship with Louis became platonic although they were still close (and remained so until her death in 1764). Consequently she established the Parc-aux-Cerfs (‘Stag Park’, also referred to as ‘The Birdcage’) for her royal lover, which became a symbol of Louis XV’s sexual excesses. Young virgins (to prevent any danger of sexually transmitted diseases) were selected for his majesty’s pleasure and housed in a building near the palace, although the king himself would never visit there. Everything was supervised by Pompadour both to ensure that not only were the king’s desires fully catered for but that no rivals should surface to replace her in the king’s affections.
In his memoirs Casanova gives an account of one young virgin who ended up in Parc-aux-Cerf, a thirteen-year-old girl called Marie-Louise O’Morphy (dubbed O-Morphi by Casanova – a play on the Greek for ‘beautiful’). What is made clear throughout this whole episode is the extent to which sex, in this religious society, was regarded as a commodity to be bought and sold without scruple. Casanova came across O’Morphy while out on the town with the young lawyer Patu. She was the younger sister of a Flemish actress Patu was interested in. Casanova, in his telling of the tale, offered her a crown if he could watch her undress:
She undressed, laid herself on her miserable straw bed, and covered herself with an old curtain. In that state, the impression made by her dirty tatters disappeared, and I only saw a perfect beauty. But I wanted to see her entirely. I tried to satisfy my wishes, she opposed some resistance, but a double crown of six francs made her obedient, and finding that her only fault was a complete absence of cleanliness, I began to wash her with my own hands.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter IX)
The girl made it clear to Casanova, who did not, as it happened, want to have sex with her, that the price of her virginity would be at least twenty-five louis. Instead, enchanted by her beauty, and after further financial negotiations, Casanova had a nude portrait of her painted. A copy of the painting found its way to Louis who requested to see the girl:
His majesty then sat down, took the young girl on his knees, bestowed a few caresses on her, and having ascertained with his royal hand that the fruit had not yet been plucked, he gave her a kiss.
O-Morphi was looking attentively at her master, and smiled.
“What are you laughing at?” said the king.
“I laugh because you and a crown of six francs are as like as two peas.”
That naivete made the king laugh heartily, and he asked her whether she would like to remain in Versailles.
“That depends upon my sister,” answered the child.
But the sister hastened to tell the king that she could not aspire to a greater honour. The king locked them up again in the pavilion and went away, but in less than a quarter of an hour St. Quentin came to fetch them, placed the young girl in an apartment under the care of a female attendant, and with the sister he went to meet at the hotel the German artist to whom he gave fifty Louis for the portrait, and nothing to Morphi. He only took her address, promising her that she would soon hear from him; the next day she received one thousand louis. The worthy German gave me twenty-five louis for my portrait, with a promise to make a careful copy of the one I had given to Patu, and he offered to paint for me gratuitously the likeness of every girl of whom I might wish to keep a portrait.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter IX)
O’Morphy went on to become the mother of one of Louis’ children but, according to Casanova, fell foul of court jealousies. She was manipulated into inadvertently insulting the king with regards to the treatment of his wife and consequently was banished from court.
On top of the costs of the Austrian War of Succession, the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle and his infidelity, Louis’ reputation was further undermined by his own extravagant life-style, something that was perhaps tolerable when the economy was doing well, but far more difficult to stomach in times of hardship and increasing taxes. Casanova records:
Louis XV, who was passionately fond of hunting, was in the habit of spending six weeks every year at the Chateau of Fontainebleau. He always returned to Versailles towards the middle of November. That trip cost him, or rather cost France, five millions of francs. He always took with him all that could contribute to the amusement of the foreign ambassadors and of his numerous court.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter VII)
With the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1754, which went very badly for the French, it was inevitable that Louis’ reputation should plummet further. On 5th January, 1757 (the day, as it happened, that Casanova arrived in Paris for the second time) the king survived an assassination attempt by Robert Damiens who was to be gruesomely tortured and executed for his crime just over two-months later.
Under Louis the standing of the Bourbon monarchy had fallen to its lowest ebb to date, leaving a toxic legacy to his successors. He was so ridiculed and reviled that when he died the people celebrated. Casanova himself, however, was always very sympathetic:
Louis XV was great in all things, and he would have had no faults if flattery had not forced them upon him. But how could he possibly have supposed himself faulty in anything when everyone around him repeated constantly that he was the best of kings? A king, in the opinion of which he was imbued respecting his own person, was a being of a nature by far too superior to ordinary men for him not to have the right to consider himself akin to a god. Sad destiny of kings! Vile flatterers are constantly doing everything necessary to reduce them below the condition of man.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter VII)
Louis XV died of smallpox at 3.15pm 10th May, 1774 aged 64.
Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)