Madame de Pompadour and the death of Louis XV.

Madame de Pompadour. Mistress of Louis XV.

Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour and the death of Louis XV.

Clever, though too light and volatile—haughty, and yet supple — the Duke of Choiseul had early learned the art of ingratiating himself in famale favour; thus carrying into practice the advice of Madame de Montmorin to her son: ” If you wish to succeed in France, fall in love with all the women.” His light, caustic wit, and skilful flattery, compensated for the insignificance of his personal appearance. The universal, and not very disinterested desire, which then existed, of making gallantry a means of success in ambition, had reacted on the character of the men by whom it was employed. Women are excellent judges of a certain species of individual merit. An elegant address, natural manners, taste, wit, and eloquence, generally find favour with them. The superficial nature of their education renders them less capable of appreciating gravity of thought and solidity of judgment. The men whose task and interest it was to please women, naturally adopted the manners most likely to accomplish this purpose. But, though female influence thus gave an undue importance to mere externals, the frivolous tone of society, and the tendency which therefore existed to govern it by the laws of ridicule, were not exclusively the work of women: these characteristics of the last century may more fairly be attributed to the want of political rights, which induced men to win by favour and intrigue what they might have sought openly in a free country.

Whilst Madame de Pompadour governed the State, Louis XV. continued his life of indolence and shameless profligacy. He was by far too clear-sighted not to perceive that monarchy was declining, and that a great change must necessarily take place in the condition of the nation; but not even this knowledge could rouse him from his selfish apathy. He felt tolerably certain that no serious disturbance would occur during his lifetime: “the rest concerns my successor he often observed. It did, indeed, concern the hapless Louis XVI. The prestige which had so long environed Louis XV. vanished; for his people saw what sort of a king was on the throne. Louis XV. the beloved, was now named thus only in the almanacks, published every year: the endearing epithet had long been erased from every heart in France. When he appeared, in public, he was received with ominous silence,— contempt and hatred were the secret feelings of those who gazed on him. A life of voluptuous indulgence soon bred satiety: ennui, as well as a feeling of inquisitiveness natural to unoccupied minds, made Louis XV. seek for amusement in an acquaintance with all the scandalous news of the day.
To know the minutest details of the private life of his courtiers and ministers, as well as to be informed of all the intrigues that took place in Paris, was one of the greatest pleasures and most earnest occupations of the king. For this purpose he kept a private police of his own; being too suspicious to trust entirely to the lieutenant of police. This functionary was, however, summoned every Sunday to the presence of the king, with whom he spent several hours. He then laid before his majesty every fact of importance or interest which numerous spies, of every rank, had discovered in the course of the week. It was also his task to read to him the extracts from letters which had been unsealed and read by the post-office authorities,— an infamous custom, first introduced under Louis XIV. by the minister Louvois. Louis XV. sometimes communicated to his ministers these extracts from the private correspondence of his subjects. The Duke of Choiseul was often favoured thus; but, being naturally indiscreet, he divulged amongst his acquaintances matters affecting the honour of individuals, or exposing them to scorn and ridicule. The king, besides the information he thus gained, also heard every morning five classes of police reports, concerning the princes of the blood, the courtiers, bishops, ministers, clergymen, women of dissolute life, &c.

The deep, heart-rending misery of the working classes had at length forced itself on public attention. Persons of every rank began to consider the best means of alleviating a wretchedness to which even the king and Madame de Pompadour could not remain wholly insensible. Quesnay, their favourite surgeon, was one of the most popular economists: his views were inserted in the ” Encyclopédie,“ with the chief writers of which he was on intimate terms. He had also many influential friends among men of rank: one of his adherents was Mirabeau the elder, that “friend of man” who wrote twenty volumes of philanthropic works, and behaved like a fierce tyrant to all those over whom he had power. Louis XV. took some interest in his physician’s system, and indulged in the novel amusement of causing his essays to be printed, revising the proofs with his own royal hand. Gournay (Jean Claude Marie Vincent, Marquis de Gournay 1712-1759, was a French economist. Gournay came from a family of Breton ship chandlers and was the son of a rich merchant) opposed the views of Quesnay ( François Quesnay 1694-1774 was a French physician and economist. He is considered the founder of the school of economics physiocratic and encyclopedist.) by a system based on wholly different principles. This difference of opinion led to a bitter controversy between their respective partisans. The women, as usual, took an active share in the matter: most of them imperiously proscribed in their circle any views but those they had chosen to adopt; those who would willingly have remained indifferent on such subjects were not allowed to do so; so deeply and universally felt was the necessity of some radical change.

None showed more zeal in the cause of political economy than the pretty and agreeable Madame du Marchais, a relative of Madame de Pompadour’s, and the wife of the dauphin’s valet de chambre.
Though this lady held a somewhat subordinate position, her connection with Madame de Pompadour, and the great charm of her conversation, drew around her the most eminent men of the day, and rendered her little apartment in the palace of Versailles the rendezvous of the most intellectual society of those times. There was much in Madame du Marchais, afterwards Madame d’Angivilliers, to fascinate and attract. She was diminutive in person, but pretty and graceful as a fairy. Her mind was remarkable for two high and rare qualities; an extreme clearness of understanding and a complete impartiality, even with regard to those subjects which interested her most. Madame du Marchais was thus admirably adapted to the part she had taken on herself as expounder of the rival systems of the day. The elegant perspicuity of her language, the precision with which she conveyed, in a few words, the substance of whatever treatise or discourse she wished to condense for the benefit of her hearers, were invaluable to her friends, at an epoch when the fate of the most important questions often hung on the manner in which they were discussed. The comprehensiveness of her intellect enabled Madame du Marchais to abstract herself whenever she pleased from ordinary cares, without neglecting them in the main. Her mind was stored with all that had been written for or against the science she favoured; she was an authority to be consulted with perfect safety, for no party spirit ever disfigured the clearness and calmness of her statements. The letters of Turgot to Terrai, Necker’s treatises, the dialogues of Galiani, and Morellet’s refutations were alike read and consulted by the dispassionate Madame du Marchais.
Though she saw persons of every class, Madame du Marchais chiefly received academicians and political economists. La Harpe, Diderot, Marmontel, D’Alembert, Duclos, Thomas, and Quesnay constantly met at her house. Such was her influence that she not only named academicians whenever vacant seats occurred in the academy, but she had even the occult power of directing the motions of that body; whom she once caused to propose an eulogy of Sully for the “concours” of eloquence. The essay of Thomas had the prize; but the triumph he obtained was less his own than that of Madame du Marchais’s friend, Quesnay, whose principles he had developed under the name of Sully. Never, indeed, was literature less free and independent than in those times, when even the fairy tales of Duclos took a philosophic turn.

Death of Dauphin

The inclinations and great talents of Madame du Marchais entitled her to do for political economy in France what Madame du Chatelet had effected for Leibnitz and Newton before her such, indeed, was her aim, and she devoted her whole energies and attention to the purpose of aiding the progress of doctrines she believed calculated to rescue her country from its unhappy condition. Time showed that deeper changes than those it was in the power of political economy to effect for France were needful; but the aim of Madame du Marchais was not the less noble or pure. Madame du Deffand, incapable of appreciating anything elevated or unselfish, sought to chase her ever-renewing ennui by attacking all the economists with the utmost coarseness and vehemence. She partook, however, of Madame du Marehais’s excellent suppers, in company with the hated tribe, but did not fail to turn her friend into ridicule on every favourable occasion. Undeterred by her satirical remarks, Madame du Marchais steadily persevered in her object. Many women of those times shone more than she did by the exercise of frivolous talents, but none had an aim so disinterested and so useful.

Disgrace of Choiseul.

The favour, and consequently the power of the Duke of Choiseul (Étienne-François de Choiseul d’Amboise 1719-1785) continued even after the death of Madame de Pompadour. His light frivolous manner of treating the most important state matters amused without ever wearying the king. As long as Choiseul remained minister, the philosophic party—especially that worldly epicurian portion which met at the house of Madame du Deffand (Marie de Vichy-Chamrond (ou Champrond), marquise du Deffand 1697-1780, was a famous French salonière in the Age of Enlightenment. Her culturally and historically interesting letters were received not only in the history of literature, but they have also found to be one of the most astute minds of her century.) — raised their patron to the skies, and enjoyed a considerable degree of his countenance. Thus encouraged, they expressed their opinions with still greater freedom than they had been in the habit of manifesting. The death of Louis XV.’s only son was also a great subject of triumph to the philosophers. They supposed the dauphin, as a moral and religious prince, to be their natural foe: he was, indeed, the foe of their errors; but he had a virtue of which they knew nothing, and that was a singular tolerance for opinions the most opposed to his own. But he was the partisan of the Jesuits, and very much opposed to the power of Choiseul: these were the real causes of the dislike of the philosophers. He died at Compiègne, where the court was delayed until his decease, which was hourly expected, should have taken place. The prince, who remained sensible to the last, could see from the window of his room the preparations which all the courtiers were making for their approaching departure. “They are getting impatient; it is time for me to be gone,” he observed to his doctor, with a bitter smile. The agony of this last hour was, however, soothed by the devotedness of the dauphiness: a pure, noble-minded woman, who waited on her husband, through his long and painful illness, with unwearied love, and who died of grief for his loss. The death of his son was announced to the king by his eldest grandson, the Duke of Berri (Louis XVI.), being introduced into his presence as Monseigneur le Dauphin. This event appeared to rouse the sovereign from his usual apathy. “Poor France!” said he, with a deep sigh, “thou hast now got a king of fifty, and a dauphin of eleven!” And as he cast a sad and troubled look on the child before him, the future woes of his posterity seemed for a while to be revealed to, and to appal, the guilty soul of Louis XV. Choiseul thought himself fairly consolidated in his power by the death of the dauphin. The king was getting old, and it seemed scarcely probable that he would take another acknowledged mistress. Such was not the wish of the handsome and unprincipled court ladies; who, on the death of Madame de Pompadour, strove to succeed her in the favour of the monarch. Their blandishments were, however, lavished in vain: a common courtesan was destined to succeed the bourgeoise, and to rule over the court of France.

The beauty of Madame du Barry

All the sermons that could be preached on the increasing immorality and shamelessness of the times, would never speak so eloquently as the love of Louis XV. for Madame du Barry. The first mistresses of the king had been comparatively modest women: they were highly born, clever, and educated ladies, who knew how to sin with a proper regard for the bienseances: some of them even possessed high qualities, and strove to make a worthy use of a corrupt power.

Marie Jeanne, comtesse du Barry

Marie Jeanne, comtesse du Barry in hunting costume

Madame de Pompadour, a bourgeoise and a parvenue, though she served the passions of the king in an infamous manner, and was deservedly hated for her insolence and tyranny, was still an immaculate woman, if compared to her successor. To the pure and modest beauty of a Madonna, Madame du Barry united the language and manners of a common courtesan. It was this contrast and this licentiousness that fascinated the corrupt heart of Louis XV. Even in the choice of royal mistresses may be traced the descending tendency so characteristic of the times. From the daughters of nobles to the wife of a bourgeoise, and from her again to a woman of the people, the differences were sufficiently striking.

Princess of Beauveau. French nobility. Beauty Girl. 18th century fashion. Rococo costumes

Princess of Beauveau

When Madame du Barry was declared the mistress “en titre” of Louis XV., all the high-born ladies—who construed it into an open insult that none of them should have been thought worthy of the place bestowed on her—opposed her favour with violent and bitter hostility. At the head of this party were the Duchess de Grammont (Béatrix de Choiseul-Stainville, duchesse de Gramont 1730-1794) and the Princess of Beauveau (Marie Charlotte de La Tour d’Auvergne 1729-1763). Both were former favourites of Madame de Pompadour. Madame de Grammont, a reckless, despotic woman, the sister of Choiseul—over whose mind she possessed great influence—had vainly attempted to succeed Madame de Pompadour in the favour of the king. Exasperated and blinded by her wounded pride, she prevented her brother from accepting the protection Madame du Barry was at first willing to offer. Not satisfied with being, through Choiseul, the arbiter of every important state affair, and the distributor of places and favours, Madame de Grammont urged her brother to use his ascendancy over the mind of the king, in order to banish Madame du Barry. As it long remained doubtful which, of the minister or the mistress, would retire vanquished from the contest, Madame de Grammont and the Princess of Beauveau enlisted almost the whole court in their cause. Whilst the saloons of the Duke of Choiseul and his sister were daily thronged with courtiers, Madame du Barry saw herself almost wholly deserted. The vindictive Madame de Grammont even caused libels to be circulated and songs to be sung against her rival, wherever the royal favourite might go: even at Marly, and in the presence of the king, she was followed with insults. The nobles, through a spirit of caste; the philosophers, because they were protected and encouraged by Choiseul and his sister; the people, from hatred to the royal profligacy,— all took up the cry against Madame du Barry whose only crime was, that she was fit for the degrading position to which the love of the king had called her.

She patiently endured these insults; and Louis XV., with still greater patience, put no stop to the insolence of M. de Choiseul. The minister became convinced that the king could not dispense with his services. In order to render himself still more necessary to him, he married the young dauphin (Louis XVI.) to Marie Antoinette, the favourite daughter of Maria Theresa: he also hoped, by this alliance, to give himself a hold on the future sovereigns of France.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Navarre

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Navarre

The chief consideration which kept Louis XV. faithful to his minister so long, was, in fact, his own extreme indolence. Madame du Barry, seeing at last that the warfare waged against her was a deadly one, took up the struggle in good earnest, by attacking the philosophers and the parliaments, and protecting the religious party. Selfpreservation rendered her active: she teazed the king incessantly to send away Choiseul. Louis XV. still hesitated between his love for his mistress and his value for his minister: the imprudence of Madame de Graminont precipitated the catastrophe. With the secret connivance of her brother, the duchess travelled through France, entering into communications with the chief agitators of the provincial parliaments. Her design, and that of Choiseul, was to establish a powerful link between all the parliaments and that of Paris, and thus, in case of necessity, to renew the times of the league and the Fronde. This was enough to doom both Madame de Grammont and her brother in the mind of the king. When he saw that, not satisfied with interfering with his pleasure, Choiseul and his audacious sister sought even to rouse the nation against him, Louis XV., yielding to the representations of Madame du Barry, suddenly dismissed the daring minister. M. de Choiseul was sent into exile; in consideration of his amiable wife, the king allowed him to retire to Chanteloup, where he possessed a magnificent residence. Madame de Grammont, banished from the court, became a provincial canoness, and lived in a state of mediocrity, until she ascended the scaffold, in the time of the Revolution.
The disgrace of Choiseul was a real triumph, and showed not only the weakness of royal authority, but the immense progress the philosophic party had made. All that the land held of noble and distinguished flocked around the minister in his exile; and, as though to brave the monarch more openly still, there was erected at Chanteloup a column, on which all the names of the visitors were inscribed, in order to perpetuate the memory of this protest against the personal will of the sovereign. Never was the powerlessness of absolute monarchy more clearly manifested.

Terracotta bust Madame du Barry. Augustin Pajou. French school. Marquis Alfred Lau d'Allemans.

Madame du Barry bust

Madame du Barry made a moderate use of her triumph. Though so much hated and reviled, she was indifferent to revenge. If she had caused Choiseul to be dismissed, it was because his ruin or hers was necessary. This natural kindness of heart, and the perfect good humour which she always displayed, greatly contributed to fascinate the king. “We must shut up the bastille; you will send no one to it,” he often observed to her. One of Madame du Barry’s first acts was to make her lover, the Duke of Aiguillon (Emmanuel Armand de Vignerot du Plessis de Richelieu 1720-1782), minister. It is asserted—on somewhat doubtful authority, indeed, but the temper of Louis XV. renders the fact probable that Madame du Barry ordered D’Aiguillon to go and thank the king for the foreign ministry, though it had never been given to him; and that, with his usual apathy, Louis XV. submitted to the will of his mistress, and allowed D’Aiguillon to enter on the duties of the office she had thus bestowed on him of her own authority.

The political power of Madame du Barry led to what had been the constant aim of monarchy since Louis XIV., the suppression of the parliaments. This coup d’etat, the work of a capricious favourite and of her lover,—for it was D’Aiguillon, who, whilst governor of Brittany, had rendered himself so notorious in the affairs of La Chalotais,— did not produce a very deep or real effect on the philosophic power of society. The parliaments represented Jansenism: there was no real sympathy between them and the philosophers ; who looked upon them as an old and worn-out form of opposition, and whose aim was far more bold and destructive. The influence of Madame Du Barry was extremely slight. On society at large she had no power: nor, indeed lid she seek to exercise any. Her own conversation was free from wit or delicacy: it was bold, and even licentious. At court, Madame du Barry exercised, however, some power. The opposition, which had been raised as long as Choiseul was in authority, ceased when the power of the royal favourite was fully consolidated. The most noble names in the land were, ultimately, inscribed at the door of Madame du Barry, as they had formerly been inscribed on the column of Chanteloup. It was on these persons that the freedom of speech of Madame du Barry — a freedom in which the king evidently took pleasure—reacted. In order to win a few favours, and pay their court to the monarch, Richelieu and other old courtiers entered, as they said themselves, on the ways of perdition, and relinquished that elegant phraseology, for which they had been remarkable so long, in order to adopt the language which Madame du Barry had picked up among abandoned women and chevaliers d’industrie, the companions of her youth.

Le château de Chanteloup

Le château de Chanteloup


Though the necessity of her position had made Madame du Barry enter into the views of the devout party since she opposed the philosophic supporters of Choiseul, whom they naturally disliked — there existed no real sympathy between her and the religious portion of the nation. Never, perhaps, was there so uncompromising a reproof administered, as that which Louis XV. received, in the presence of his favourite and of the whole court, from the Bishop of Senez; who, when preaching before him, reproached him with the numerous errors of his life, and with that last scandal of all, the favour of Madame du Barry, in terms which might well have made the monarch blush with shame, if shame had not long since ceased to colour that withered cheek.* Notwithstanding the audacity of his reproofs, or perhaps on that very account, the same Bishop of Senez was called upon to preach before the king during the Lent of the year 1774. He chose for one of his texts the words of the Prophet: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!“ and when the forty days were past, Louis XV. was lying dead in the royal abbey of Saint-Denis.
* “Qu’il avait été ramasser dans le ruisseau les vestes de la corruption publique,” was the expression used by the Bishop of Senez.

A sudden attack of the smallpox carried off the guilty king in the sixty-fourth year of his age. As long as there seemed any chance of his recovery, the death-bed of the sick monarch witnessed a struggle as disgraceful as that of Metz. The set of devotees, who had submitted to the degrading protection of Madame du Barry, delayed, as long as decency would allow, the religious rites which must necessarily have caused her removal from court; whilst, on the contrary, the atheistical and philosophic friends of the ex-minister Choiseul, sought by their intrigues to terrify the dying king, and hasten the ceremony that was to ruin Madame du Barry. Religious terror at length prevailed once more over the mind of Louis XV.
He ordered D’Aiguillon to take away Madame du Barry; and, after a tender and final adieu to his mistress, he delivered himself over to his confessor. As it was not yet quite certain whether the king would recover or not, several persons of the court thought fit to call on Madame du Barry in her retirement; and, in consequence of this were, for several years afterwards, looked upon with disfavour under the reign of Louis XVI.
When doubt no longer existed with regard to the approaching death of the king, the event was expected with general apathy. Prayers were offered up for him by the clergy in the churches; but few of his subjects joined in these petitions. The poissardes kept their vow: Louis XV. had neither a “pater” nor an “ave” from them. With the exception of the partisans of Madame du Barry, none of the courtiers cared to conceal their entire indiiference on the subject of the life or death of their sovereign. The neglected daughters of Louis XV. alone had sufficient courage and devotedness to attend on their father; whose loathsome disease, aggravated by a dissolute life, filled all who approached him with horror.
On the 10th of May, 1774, the whole court was hourly expecting, in the “oeil de boeuf” of the palace of Versailles, the dissolution of the king. The dauphin, and the rest of the royal family, were to leave the palace as soon as Louis XV. should have breathed his last. Everything was in readiness, and one of the few attendants who lingered in the chamber of the dying monarch had placed a lighted taper behind one of the windows, to act as a signal. It was known beforehand, that when that feeble light vanished, Louis XV. would have ceased to exist.
The taper was extinguished. The dauphin was then with his young wife in a remote part of the palace. A sound, like that of loud thunder, was heard: it was the rush of innumerable courtiers, eagerly pressing forward to do homage to the new king. Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette trembled and turned pale. An instinctive and irresistible impulse made them both fall down on their knees: a feeling of dread seemed to usher in for them their most inauspicious reign. With heads humbly bowed, clasped hands, and gushing tears, they exclaimed, in a faltering tone, “Guide us, oh Grod! Protect us! we are called to reign too young.”
How often, yet, whilst reading the history of that fatal reign, will human wisdom ask, Oh, why did not Heaven hear that prayer ?

French King Louis XVI. 18th century costume. Rococo court dress

King Louis XVI.

The Countess of Noailles entered the apartment, and was the first to salute the new sovereigns. All the grand officers of the crown followed in succession. When this duty was over, Marie Antoinette, leaning on her husband’s arm, entered the carriage in waiting, and rode off with the rest of the royal suite. As soon as it was known that the young king and queen were gone, the courtiers deserted the royal palace. Every one now dreaded to stay any longer near the deceased monarch, whose decaying remains exhaled a contagion as foul as the foul corruption of his reign.
A few attendants watched by the corpse, which was placed in a coffin without being embalmed, and conveyed as speedily and privately as possible to Saint-Denis. There it rested; until the people, maddened with hatred, caused by ages of misery, rose in their wrath, and, after immolating the living, spent the last efforts of their vengeance on the senseless dead.

Page 3 from 3

Madame de Pompadour. Her political power and general influence.
The court of Louis XV. and Madame de Pompadour
3 Madame de Pompadour and the death of Louis XV.

By Julia Kavanagh, Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard 1850.

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