Louis XV

Louis XV (1710-1774) was king of France form 1715 to 1774. His reign was marked by the decline of the prestige of the monarchy and the deepening of the crisis that eventually led to the French Revolution.

Since Louis XV, the great-grandson of Louis XIV, was only 5 years old when he became king, the regent, the Duc d'Orléans, was the actual ruler until his death in 1723. In 1725 Louis XV was married to Marie Leszczynska, daughter of a claimant to the Polish throne. Although the Queen bore him nine children, this political marriage to a woman 7 years his senior was not a happy one. In 1726 Cardinal Fleury, already 73 years old, became first minister, a position that he retained until his death (1743).

Louis XV's personal reign began with the death of Fleury. His decision to rule without a first minister gave promise of a strong regime in the tradition of Louis XIV. However, although the King was intelligent, generous, and, at the beginning at least, sincere in his desire to aid his people, he lacked the qualities of a strong ruler. He was timid, cynical, bored by administrative matters, and incapable of sustained effort. The result of the King's lassitude was the emergence of court factions which sought to influence policy. Although the political role of the succession of royal mistresses has sometimes been exaggerated, such favorites as Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry often intervened to obtain gifts and positions for their friends.

The foreign policy of Louis XV, under the direction of Cardinal Fleury, was based upon the principle that France could not afford more wars after the reign of Louis XIV and that cordial relations with England must be maintained. During the personal rule of Louis XV it might be said that France had two foreign policies, an official one and the King's personal diplomacy, the so-called secret du roi, carried out by secret agents. The main objective of Louis XV's diplomacy was to maintain an influence in Poland and to strengthen France's allies in central and eastern Europe. In addition to France's involvement in Continental affairs, the conflict with England for colonial supremacy continued. However, both on the Continent and in the colonial world, France suffered military and diplomatic setbacks during the reign of Louis XV.

Although Louis XV recognized the need for internal reforms, particularly of the inequitable system of taxation, until the end of his reign he failed to back up his reforming ministers against opposition from the court and coalitions of all those threatened by change. In 1771, however, Louis XV resolutely supported the minister Maupeou, who successfully limited the powers of the parlements, the main obstacle to change, and began a program of fiscal and economic reform. However, after Louis XV's death in 1774, his successor, Louis XVI, abandoned an effort that might have saved the monarchy. Despite this late attempt at reform, Louis XV, at first called the bien-aimé (the much beloved), died an unpopular ruler.

Further Reading on Louis XV

Pierre Gaxotte, Louis the Fifteenth and His Times (trans. 1934), is a royalist interpretation. G. P. Gooch, Louis XV: The Monarchy in Decline (1956), is more recent. Also useful is Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France, vol. 1 (1957; new ed., 3 vols. in 1, 1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Antoine, Michel, Louis XV, Paris: Fayard, 1989.

Bernier, Olivier, Louis the Beloved: the life of Louis XV, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.

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