Sunday, December 16, 2007

Louis XVIII: The Other Brother

Louis XVIII , known in his youth as the Comte de Provence, was the other brother of Louis XVI, and often his nemesis. He was not a bad looking man; his eyes radiate intelligence. Later he put on so much weight and had such a problem with gout, but then he was a gourmande, relishing the delights of the table. His chef at Versailles was equal to none.

As Comte de Provence, he was a consummate plotter. It is alleged that he had a private printing press at Versailles which produced pamphlets against Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Provence and his wife, Madame, were certainly responsible for circulating the gossip about Marie-Antoinette, slandering her virtue as much as possible. Provence thought that he was better qualified to rule than Louis XVI and so spent his life in a jockeying for power by trying to undermine his brother's rule. Also, Provence often intrigued against Louis XVI during the Revolution, corresponding with revolutionaries. How much his plotting contributed to the fall of the monarchy is explored in the novel Madame Royale.

Louis XVIII was a stickler for etiquette, unlike Louis XVI, who was more easy-going. Even at exile in Courland and England, when they had few resources, Louis XVIII insisted upon the full court etiquette as if they were all still at Versailles. This was beneficial in the long run, because they were able to function as a royal household when restored to the Tuileries. He was clever with money and made certain that all his family were well-provided for when he died. He was a brilliant Latin scholar and could have taught the classics at a university.

Napoleon at one point wrote to Louis XVIII in exile, begging him to renounce his claim to the throne. Louis responded with a "no" saying, "I may have lost my country, I may have lost my possessions, but I still have my honor, and with it I will die." On another occasion he said, "In this century, it is more glorious to merit a scepter than to wield it." In 1814 upon his return to France, the fat, gouty King was introduced to Napoleon's generals. They were so used to being shouted at by Napoleon that the charm and unctuous courtesy of Louis XVIII disarmed them, especially the fact that he knew their names and anecdotes of their exploits in battle. (That was the old-fashioned royal training.) He declared that whatever they had done for France on the field of battle, they had done for him. He won most of them over completely and they swore allegiance to him, although some later rejoined Napoleon during the Hundred Days.

Because of his liberal politics, Louis XVIII was known as "The Crowned Jacobin" and "King Voltaire." After Napoleon's defeat of Waterloo, it was only the intervention of Louis XVIII that kept the allies from totally ravaging France in revenge. The Prussians threatened to blow up the Iena bridge in Paris, until Louis threatened he would come over and sit on it. His favorite author was Horace, whom he quoted extensively. He did not actively practice his faith for over thirty years, which caused his niece Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte to have great anxiety over the state of his soul. The princess prevailed upon the old king's favorite, the attractive brunette Madame du Cayla, with whom Louis XVIII played backgammon, to get him to go to confession. (This was a hard thing for Thérèse since she despised Madame du Cayla.) At the moment he died in 1824, the courtiers ran from the room to greet the new king, leaving the faithful valet of Louis XVIII weeping alone by the corpse of his master.

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11 comments:

Stephanie said...

What about the charges that Monsieur/Provence (Louis XVIII) and Artois (Charles X) in exile during the period 1789-1793 hampered the efforts of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to enlist the assistance of other monarchs? Didn't Monsieur promote himself as King in exile after Louis XVI accepted the Constitution? Didn't Marie Antoinette respond to a letter from the emigre brothers with the comment, "Cain, Cain, they are killing us!"? Shouldn't these aspects of Louis XVIII’s behavior during the Revolution cause some concern?

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, they should cause some concern, Stephanie. Louis XVIII was a perfect wretch to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. He was awful to Madame Royale. Both Artois and Provence did so much harm when they were abroad; Provence was certainly the worst. The Wikipedia article linked to goes into some of it, but it is not a complete biography. Neither is this blog post; it is just a smattering of information. In both my novels I explore his dark side. Meanwhile, thanks for adding to the discussion with the tidbits of information.

elena maria vidal said...

I need to do a separate post on his wife, who was such a piece of work. I edited this post a bit, adding mention of Madame and her negative contribution, as well as more about Provence. But this is just one short article. Both Simon Schama in "Citizens" and Nesta Webster in "Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette" (Vol I and II) go into more details about the plottings of Monsieur and Madame.

Glenna said...

This is very fascinating. He certainly was a horrible instigator of bad tidings wasn't he? At least to his brother and his wife, the rightful King and Queen. Sad, and indeed it seems very Cain and Able.

elena maria vidal said...

He was definitely a Cain, very jealous of Louis XVI, whom he saw as inferior to himself. It infuriated him that Louis was king...and had a prettier wife.

de Brantigny said...

Yet Madame Royale in the spirit of Christian Charity put aside any feelings of enmity and was concerned for his soul. What a great ideal and model. Such is the stuff of Saints. What a glorious reflection on MA and Louis to have such a daughter. No hate just pity.

elena maria vidal said...

Good point. Especially after he knocked her to the floor in front of the entire court.

alaughland said...

I seem to recall some mention of this in your novel “Madame Royale”.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, there is a lot about Louis XVIII and his treatment of MTC.

Matterhorn said...

These unpleasant princes remind me of Charles of Belgium, who was also full of envy and hatred of his older brother, King Leopold III, and his sister-in-law, Princess Lilian. During Leopold's exile after World War II, Charles and his éminence grise, Andre de Staercke, even tried to bribe Lilian to leave Leopold, promising her lavish sums and luxurious advantages, if she would abandon her husband to his fate and return to Belgium with young Prince Baudouin, the heir to the throne. Needless to say, the Princess indignantly rejected the offer. (Those who want to present her as a gold-digger ought to meditate upon that fact). When Leopold mentioned this episode in his memoirs, his detractors accused him of making it all up. The story, however, was later proven to be true.

And yet, while Leopold and Lilian continue to be condemned and calumniated, Charles is celebrated by many Belgian historians for his supposed great wisdom and sense of duty as a Regent. I suspect that the real reason for all this praise is that he was simply useful to the political powers of the time.

Similarly, people like Provence never attract the criticism and abuse that is poured out upon Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

Matterhorn said...

Sorry- I should have said it was Charles and Van Acker that made the offer, not Charles and De Staercke.