Louis XVIII (1755-1824), the restored Bourbon king of France, reigned from 1814 to 1824. By taste and education he was a child of the Enlightenment: skeptical, secular, witty, and steeped in Voltaire.
Historians still disagree about the true character and principles of Louis XVIII. Some regard him as the epitome of moderation and statesmanship, a wise king who—like his ancestor Henry IV—wished to conciliate all factions. But for others, he was a cynical and narrow old monarch who resorted to compromise only when circumstances forced his hand. He probably had no admiration for Britain's parliamentary system, but he had astuteness enough to realize that he could not restore the Old Regime. Regarding the throne as a "comfortable armchair, " he was determined to do whatever was necessary to remain seated.
Prior to his accession Louis XVIII was known as Louis Stanislas Xavier, Count of Provence. He had emigrated in June 1791 (when his older brother Louis XVI made his abortive flight to Varennes) and had spent the next 2 decades wandering about Europe. After having sojourned in Germany, Italy, Poland, and Russia, he had repaired to England (1809), where he joined his brother the Count of Artois. In March 1814 the victorious Allies decided to restore the Bourbon dynasty, and on May 3 Louis XVIII entered Paris.
Having rejected the constitution hastily drafted by the Napoleonic Senate, Louis promulgated one of his own (June 4). The Charter of 1814 established a liberal constitutional monarchy and preserved many of the reforms of the Revolution. Disgusted by the king's program of reconciliation, some ultraroyalists talked of a coup against "King Voltaire, " and others complained that Louis had merely taken over Bonaparte's throne.
Napoleon, however, wanted it back and returned for the Hundred Days (March-June 1815), during which the court lived in exile at Ghent. After Waterloo, the Allies again restored (July 8) the Bourbons, but this time a wave of hysteria known as the White Terror seized the country and swept an ultraroyalist majority into the Chamber of Deputies. The King, however, dissolved this "Incomparable Chamber" in September 1816 and called for new elections, which the Constitutionals won.
The period from 1816 to 1820 was one of moderate reform, sponsored by the Richelieu and Decazes ministries. In 1818 the Allied indemnity was paid and the army of occupation withdrawn. A new army law opened careers to commoners with ability, and in 1819 a new press law allowed periodicals to appear without the prior consent of the government. But the rule of moderation ended in 1820, when the election of the Abbé Grégoire, a regicide, to the Chamber and the assassination of the Duke of Berry led to a reactionary backlash which returned the ultraoyalists to power. At this juncture, the obese Louis XVIII, racked by gout, virtually relinquished control of affairs to Artois and Villèle, the ultraroyalist premier. On Sept. 16, 1824, he died at the Tuileries.
There is no complete edition of Louis's letters, but some were published in the correspondence and memoirs of Lord Castlereagh, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, Prince Metternich, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, the Comte de Villèle, the Duke of Wellington, and other contemporary statesmen. The most comprehensive studies of Louis XVIII and his time are in French. In English, J. Lucas-Dubreton, Louis XVIII (1925; trans. 1927), is an old but still useful popular systhesis. A general account is John H. Stewart, The Restoration Era in France, 1814-1830 (1968). □
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