Louis XVIII Of France

Since both the republican and imperial models were discredited and unacceptable to the victorious Allies, a royal restoration was inevitable; the victor of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, warned that there would be no peace in Europe unless the Bourbons mounted the throne again. The Congress of Vienna, held to define European frontiers after two decades of war, reversed Napoleon’s conquests but was otherwise generous to France after Talleyrand inserted himself into the deliberations; in a sign of flexibility among recent adversaries, Britain and Austria allied with France to block a Prussian attempt to absorb Saxony.

However, the new monarch who called himself Louis XVIII in deference to his nephew who had died in prison two decades earlier, made a poor fist of it on his return from exile in Britain in May 1814. The corpulent 59-year-old king surrounded himself with appointees who had been out of government business for more than two decades. His principal minister, the Count of Blacas, was a minor noble who devoted himself to building up a fortune, arousing wide unpopularity and lacking authority. The army was alienated by the appointment of royalists for loyalty rather than ability, and the sacking of veterans who had borne the standard of Napoleonic glory. The monarch’s influence was undercut by his reactionary brother, the Count of Artois, and his circle of supporters set on revenge for the Revolution. Louis was unperturbed. As Paris amused itself with balls, he said he slept as well as in his youth.

This complacency was shattered on 26 February 1815, when Bonaparte escaped from Elba to stage an attempted comeback, reaching Paris on 20 March after getting a mixed but generally not unfriendly reception across the country. Louis fled as Napoleon raised a 125,000-strong army and attracted figures who had temporarily sided with the king. A referendum approved a constitution drawn up by the political theorist, Benjamin Constant, though the abstention rate was very high. Seeing a quick and decisive battlefield victory as the way to gain recognition from the Allies, Bonaparte launched his army across the north-eastern border to confront the British and Prussians. The resulting battle at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, was, as Wellington remarked, ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’, but defeat dethroned France as a great European power. The universe changed direction, Victor Hugo would judge. More to the point, France had had enough of its emperor. Even if he had not lost at Waterloo, Bonaparte’s days would have been numbered. His enemies were simply too strong, France too weakened and his political support too frayed.1

Escaping from the rout of his army, Napoleon regained Paris and put on as brave a face as he could. ‘All is not lost,’ he declared while taking a bath in the Élysée Palace. But the Chamber of Deputies obliged him to abdicate, and he threw himself on the mercy of the British, ending up in his second exile on the bleak South Atlantic outpost of St Helena.

The crowds cheered as Louis XVIII was driven in his carriage to the Tuileries Palace in the centre of Paris on 8 July 1815. A National Guard sergeant kissed the hand of the twice-restored monarch. Now referred to by his supporters as le Désiré (the Desired One), Louis made his Parisian palace, with its succession of halls and apartments stretching down what is now the rue de Rivoli to the Louvre, facing gardens laid out by the great designer Le Nôtre, the centre of festivities that summer. Balls were held at night outside – when the authorities tried to stop them to protect the lawns, the monarch called from the window ‘Dance on the grass!’ The surrounding buildings were illuminated at night. There were firework displays. Musicians strolled the streets and a charity kitchen fed the poor in the Saint-Antoine district. The Treaty of Paris signed with the victorious Allies assured Parisians that they would ‘continue to enjoy their rights and liberties’.

The restored monarch went to see plays at the Comédie-Française and, each morning, courtiers gathered to listen to his stories as he sat in a large armchair and gave them every opportunity to agree with his high appreciation of his wit. Rejecting Napoleon’s view that he should exercise despotic rule, he fancied himself as father of the people, refusing to be ‘king of two Frances’. A royal proclamation issued a week after Waterloo set out his intention ‘to call round our paternal throne the immense majority of Frenchmen whose fidelity, courage and devotedness have brought such pleasing consolation to our heart’.

With a charter setting out rights for the richer sections of society, Louis sought to win over bourgeois liberals and some Bonapartists, though democracy was still far off with an electorate limited to 75,000 men. A police report told him that barely 10 per cent of the French favoured a return of the ancien régime. As the writer Charles-Louis Lesur put it in 1817, however deplorable its excesses, the Revolution would ‘leave for ever great models as well as salutary lessons’.

Voting for the Chamber of Deputies was on a rolling basis with staggered five-yearly polls. A new upper house mixed old and new figures. Civil rights, religious toleration and press freedom were guaranteed. Conservatives were reassured that ‘abuses’ would be controlled by Article 14 of the Charter, which enabled the crown to decree ordinances for state security in times of danger. Most important for the middle class and richer peasants, the purchase of land taken from aristocrats and the church was left in their ownership.

Still, the king showed the limits of his tolerance by insisting on the white royal flag in place of the tricolour and dating his reign from the death of his nephew. Royal statues were restored. Streets and squares reverted to old names. Church building underlined the monarchy’s identification with Catholicism. The column erected by Napoleon to his glory in the Place Vendôme was torn down.

Louis insisted all power had to devolve from the throne, even if he chose to allow others to exercise it on his behalf. Citizens were to revert to being subjects. It was he who granted the constitution rather than accepting one drawn up by parliament. Ministers needed majority backing in the Chamber but, when they presented proposals to the throne, they said simply, ‘Here is our opinion’ to which the sovereign replied, ‘Here is my will’.

Property owners might be reassured but the outlook was distinctly unpromising for their fellow countrymen. The army, wounded and humiliated, was kept south of the Loire by the Allies. The demobilisation of hundreds of thousands of troops swelled the underclass. Ex-soldiers joined outlaw bands that roamed the countryside.

The restored king and his ministers were subject to the dictates of the Allies, represented in Paris by Wellington and Castlereagh for Britain, Metternich for Austria, the Tsar Alexander for Russia and the 72-year-old Prussian Marshal Blücher whose intervention had been decisive at Waterloo. They had at their command an occupation army of 150,000 men. The tents of the invaders stretched along the Champs-Élysées and frequently drunken British troops reeled through the streets mocking Louis as ‘an old bloated poltroon’ or referring to his liking for oysters by calling him ‘Louis des huîtres’.

Some foreign national treasures, which French armies had seized on their conquests, were reclaimed; a French observer recorded Wellington mounting a ladder to help take pictures down from walls. The Allied commander also annoyed farmers by importing his pack of hounds and hunting with them over fields without warning or compensation for the damage caused; eventually, when protests swelled, he gave the dogs to Louis XVIII.

The Prussians were the most set on revenge, looting at will. Occupying the Place du Carrousel at the end of the Louvre, they trained their cannons on the royal palace. Blücher proposed to blow up the Pont d’Iéna over the Seine commemorating Napoleon’s victory over Prussia in 1806, but Louis XVIII said he would go to the bridge to share its fate; hurrying to the scene, Talleyrand offered to change its name to the Pont de l’École Militaire, calculating that, once the invaders were gone, it could revert to Iéna. Most tellingly, Wellington posted a British soldier on the bridge, correctly guessing Blücher would not risk blowing him up.

The economy was in a sorry state, aggravated by financial indemnities to the Allies including meeting the cost of the occupation. Parts of eastern France had been ruined by fighting; in the historic centre of Laon, 280 of 350 homes had been destroyed. National output was below that of 1789; production in Marseilles was 25 per cent lower than at the outbreak of the Revolution. Farming was stagnant. The beetroot industry, encouraged by Napoleon to ensure home-grown supplies of sugar, went bust as imports from the West Indies resumed. There were few big factories; the most advanced city, Paris, was a web of small workshops and artisans doing piecework. Annual coal output was 800,000 tons compared to 17 million tons in Britain. Metallurgy remained stuck where it had been in 1789. British entrepreneurs used their techniques to set up a thriving lace industry round Calais, and an iron foundry and gas works outside Paris.

Barter was common in rural areas. For the better-off, income from land and interest from state securities took precedence over other forms of investment. Trade was at half the level of the mid-1780s. High duties raised the price of imports and manufactured goods were generally not competitive abroad. Falling exports hit port cities hard – the population of Bordeaux had dropped by a third since pre-Revolutionary days and grass grew on the quays. Industrial production in Marseilles was 25 per cent lower than at the outbreak of the Revolution, but the port still received several thousand cargo ships a year and its energetic Greek merchant community conducted commerce with the Levant in cotton, wool, horses, wheat and dried vegetables; one trader, who had a concession from the Pasha of Egypt, made a million francs in profit in 1817.

Banking and finance were hindered by regulation and an unadventurous spirit. Only seven shares were quoted on the Paris stock exchange. When the banker, Jacques Laffitte, proposed to create a company to take deposits to fund credit, the Conseil d’État rejected the idea. Though the state debt was low, government credit was limited and capital remained scarce. The new regime was obliged to raise funds by a forced loan and pawning royal forests, but still faced a budget deficit of 300 million francs and its ability to pay the indemnity to the Allies was in doubt, meaning that the occupation would drag on.

The Catholic church had been the biggest loser of the Revolution in terms of property and influence; nearly all its 4–5 million hectares of land holdings had been confiscated and mainly sold off, compared to an estimated half of those of the nobility. The priesthood had been reduced by more than 20,000 during the anti-Christian crusade from 1789 to 1793 and had not recovered significantly. So it now lost no time in seeking to restore its ranks. Ordinations rose from 900 to 2,500 a year and the number of nuns doubled to 25,000.

Some felt that the church should ally itself with the cause of liberty and progress – the prominent priest and philosopher Hugues-Félicité de Lamennais preached theocratic democracy. But most clergy were loyal to the traditional fusion of church and royal state as the priesthood played a role similar to that of the army under Napoleon in terms of jobs and career advancement for young men without wealth to support them. The importance of the family was stressed. Divorce was banned in 1816; a right-wing deputy castigated it for creating ‘a veritable domestic democracy [which] allows the wife, the weaker sex, to rise up against marital authority.’

Despite its sufferings and exile during the Revolution, the nobility still possessed at least a fifth of all land – some aristocrats who fled abroad had used agents to secretly buy property requisitioned from their peers or from the church. On their estates, they tapped in to proroyalist sentiment among peasants and smallholders who had been alienated by taxation and conscription under the Jacobins and the Empire. In regions like the Gard, Ardèche, Aveyron and Lozère, as well as the Vendée, they drew on rural anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois, anti-Protestant sentiment, conjuring up rose-coloured memories of paternalistic ancien régime welfare to buttress their authority while cutting themselves off from progress.

In towns and villages alike, life was harsh for most people, 60 per cent of whom were illiterate. Bad water and lack of hygiene spread disease. Despite the efforts of the Jacobins to encourage national education, most people outside the Paris area communicated in the local patois; the port city of Toulon was known as ‘the northern colony’ because it was the only southern town where the national language was spoken by a majority of inhabitants. There were great empty, silent spaces. Stepping down from a coach at a staging post only thirteen miles from the provincial capital of Bourges in central France, Stendhal was struck by the sense of ‘complete isolation’ while, a little later, the German poet, Heinrich Heine, found Brittany ‘a wretched, desolate land where mankind is stupid and dirty’. The Landes in the south-west was known as ‘our Sahara’, a great deserted region where a travelling official recorded that ‘for several hours, I saw nothing but flat country varied by thickets of briar, and now and then, by a forest of pines on the horizon . . . the only inhabitants a few rare shepherds perched on their long stilts.’

Rural people faced the continuous threat of bad harvests and hunger. Much of the countryside, where 90 per cent of the population lived, was a backward patchwork of small farms, hamlets and country towns, isolated by poor communications, high hills and mountains, wide rivers, swamps and forests. Lack of transport and paved roads impeded the distribution of food and goods, and farmers held on to what they had for fear of famine. Meat was rare – a pig had to last a family for a year. Peasants depended on the local nobility or teachers and priests to mediate with the authorities on their behalf and lacked the concept of a world beyond their immediate surroundings. Some men escaped to become day labourers in towns or travelling pedlars, but women were confined to the most humdrum, restricted existences.

Poverty and backwardness was most marked south of a line from the border of Normandy and Brittany at St-Malo across to Grenoble in the Alps. North and east of this, people were generally taller, fitter and better educated. They also had better road communications. But even in this more evolved half of France, disparities were great and poverty widespread. Most inhabitants of big cities died without leaving any assets. Urban workers huddled in slums, prey to disease and exploitation or, in the capital, in filthy shanty towns for migrant workers outside the city walls.


Episode of the French intervention in Spain 1823 by Hippolyte Lecomte.

Despite the misgivings of the king, the nationalist, legitimist right pushed France into its first post-1815 foreign foray in Spain, where civil war had broken out in 1822 after the Bourbon King Ferdinand VII sought to re-establish the absolute monarchy he had been forced to renounce by a constitution ten years earlier.

Austria, Prussia and Russia backed French intervention and Louis did an about-turn saying, ‘a hundred thousand French are ready to march invoking the god of St Louis to keep the throne of Spain for a descendant of Henri IV’. Angoulême commanded the army that advanced to Madrid in May 1824, took Seville and Cadiz, and freed Ferdinand to launch a ferocious counter-revolution. In November, Angoulême returned to a hero’s welcome, leaving behind an occupying force of 45,000 men that was not fully withdrawn until 1828. Though he likened the expedition to an episode from Don Quixote, Ultras celebrated not only victory but also the restoration of absolute monarchy in Spain. For them, France had paid its dues in the counter-revolutionary alliance directed by Metternich from Vienna.