General History

XVIIIth and XIXth centuries in France part I : The twilight of the Sun King and Louis XV

The XVIIIth and XIXth centuries in French history are often very confusing for foreigners. Revolutions, restorations, changes of governments and government types can be difficult to understand. This article will serve as reminder and time-line for those of who have a hard time distinguishing the various changes that occurred in France in these two centuries.


To simplify the complexity of the XVIIIth century in France, we could divide it into three different categories : The reign of Louis XV, the reign of Louis XVI and the revolutionary/post-revolutionary period.

At the beginning of the 1700s, the Sun King Louis XIV was still ruling, though the old monarch was declining and near the dusk of his life. During his 72 years long reign, Louis XIV had made France the first European power but also plundged his kingdom into a catastrophic financial crisis. In the years before his death, the old king suffered great losses in his family. Most of his heirs would die, affecting Louis XIV’s wellbeing but it also created complicated and dangerous situations concerning the succession. The king lost his only surviving legitimate son, three grandsons and a young geat-grandson. The 1rst of September 1715, the Sun King finally passed away after weeks of agony leaving on his throne a 5 years old prince with a weak health, now called Louis XV.

As the new monarch was only 5 years old, a close kin of the late ruler of France, Philippe d’Orléans ( who became Louis XV’s heir ) assured the regency of the kingdom. Despite his libertine behaviour , the bilan of the regent was mostly positive. He favoured peace over war ( advise given by the late Sun King to his successor; realizing that too much war was one of his mistakes ) with Spain, he reformed the state and adopted the economic system of the Scottish John Law which helped a decrease of the debts and a boost in the economy, a relief for both the government and the people. However, the regent also made what is considered by many historians a terrible decision with funest consequences for the French monarchy. Indeed, d’Orléans gave back the parliaments the right of questioning and blocking a royal decision. Though it looks like a step forward to a more democratic regime, the parliaments would then prevent almost all the reforms wanted by Louis XV and his successors, leading to the people’s anger and the Revolution.

In 1723, the regent died and Louis XV was finally declared king ( 13 years old being the royal majority ) but let the power in the hands of the Duke of Bourbon who would for three years serve as Prime Minister. He was hated by almost everyone and finally disgraced and exiled. However he was the one who found a queen for Louis XV in the person of Marie Leszczynska. The next Prime Minister was the Cardinal of Fréjus who served until his death in 1743. It was only after the Cardinal’s death that Louis XV took himself power. He was widely popular during his early reign. His beauty, kindness and the people’s hope for a better time ( after the difficult period of Louis XIV ) earned him the nicnkname of “ the well-beloved “. The king was a learned man with a passion for many subjects such as geography and other scientific school but he was terribly shy and lacked assurance and self-confidence. Pious, Louis stayed faithful to his wife for the first ten years of their union ( he was 15 years old and her 22 when they married ) which despite being political seemed to have grown into love. However after ten years and ten children, the Queen decided to close her bedchamber to her royal husband as she feared another pregnancy and so the King went elsewhere. The place his mistresses took during his remaining years went beyond expectation, especially Madame de Pompadour.

The King grew tired of power and public life thus leaving much more place to plotters and conspirators. Madame de Pompadour managed to put her own men in very powerful positions and offices while the monarch mostly worked in the shadows ( he created an early and important intelligence service, the King’s Secret ) and abandonned himself to hunting and debauchery. The court was divided into powerful and influencial parties and Louis XV had lost his popularity to the people. France waged several wars but his victories were badly used ( except the gain of several territories in Europe ) and the defeats severe and catastrophic ( loss of oversea territories ). The king of France was supposed to represent family and piety but the known libertine activities of the Louis cut many links he had and was supposed to have with the common people. During his late reign, Louis XV also suffered the loss of kinsmen including his wife, Madame de Pompadour, his son and oldest grandson. The sovereign attempted to repent and take back his political power. The kingdom regained economic stability and was quite prosperous but the king’s bad reputation never left him and the “ well-beloved “ died in almost complete indiffence by the people in May 1774.

By Alister

Studying at the University of Besaçon, Burgundy Franche-Comté, France