Philippe II, Duc d'Orléans (1674-1723), was regent of France during the minority of Louis XV. He failed in his efforts to reverse the tendency toward absolutism by restoring the power of the nobles.
Philippe II d'Orléans was the son of Philippe I d'Orléans, the second son of Louis XIII. Philippe began a successful military career at the age of 18 during the War of the League of Augsburg. In 1692 he married Mademoiselle de Blois, an illegitimate daughter of Louis XIV. In 1708, after a brilliant campaign in Spain, he was recalled because of suspicions that he was conspiring to replace Philip V, Louis XIV's grandson, on the Spanish throne. Such suspicions, as well as his dissolute life, caused Louis XIV to bar Philippe from the position of regent, one that according to tradition he should have held. However, after the death of Louis XIV, Philippe, with the aid of the nobles and the parlements, broke the late ruler's testament and became regent for the young Louis XV.
The regent had a number of praiseworthy qualities. He was intelligent, courageous, generous, sensitive to the arts (he was himself a minor poet), and interested in the sciences, particularly chemistry, which led to rumors that he practiced alchemy. He was tolerant of religious differences and briefly considered restoring the Edict of Nantes, which had granted considerable religious freedom to the Protestants and which Louis XIV had revoked. However, the regent's personal life was far less admirable; immoral and an alcoholic, he surrounded himself with friends whose way of life helped discredit his rule.
Philippe's internal policy was marked by an effort to restore the power of the nobles, which had been severely limited by strong ministers such as Richelieu and Mazarin and by Louis XIV. He returned to the parlements the right of remonstrance (the power to protest and to delay royal decrees), which Louis XIV had curtailed. In place of the system of powerful ministers employed by Louis XIV, the regent introduced the institution of polysynodie, with councils dominated by the nobles. However, by 1718 the nobles had demonstrated that they were incapable of governing, and the regent reluctantly restored the former system of administration by ministers. In order to reduce the enormous public debt left by Louis XIV's wars, the regent authorized the Scottish financier John Law to establish a royal bank and a company to exploit foreign commerce, the famous "system" of Law. The collapse of the system contributed to a decline in the prestige of the regency.
The regent's foreign policy reversed that of Louis XIV. He abandoned the family alliance with Spain and in 1717 signed the Triple Alliance of The Hague with Great Britain and the Netherlands, the great foes of the former ruler. In February 1723 Louis XV was declared to be of age, but the Duc d'Orléans continued in control until his death on Dec. 2, 1723.
Further Reading on Philippe II D'Orléans
There are many popular biographies that stress the personal life of Philippe II, particularly his vices, such as Warren Hamilton Lewis, The Scandalous Regent: A Life of Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, 1674-1723 and of His Family (1961). An old but still informative work is James Breck Perkins, France under the Regency (1892). For the regent's relationship to Louis XV see Pierre Gaxotte, Louis the Fifteenth and His Times (1934).
Additional Biography Sources
Shennan, J. H., Philippe, Duke of Orleans: Regent of France, 1715-1723, London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.