Modern history

Penguin walking logo


Forestalling Deluge (1756–70)


On the freezing evening of 5 January 1757, the eve of the Epiphany, la fête des Rois, Louis XV suffered an assassination attempt. He was leaving Versailles to return to the Trianon after paying a visit to his influenza-stricken daughter, Madame Victoire. As he descended the palace steps to join his carriage, a figure clad in riding-coat and hat muscled past the Swiss Guards and stabbed him in the side. Bringing his hand to his side and seeing blood, Louis exclaimed, ‘Someone has touched me.’ Then, spotting the lowering figure of his assassin wiping his knife-blade, he ordered, ‘Arrest him and do him no harm.’ Louis was bundled upstairs, and dutifully acted out the role of dying monarch, summoning his Jesuit confessor, entrusting power to the Dauphin, and making public amends to his wife and daughters for his scandalous life.

Then the surgeons discovered the wound was not life-threatening.

The chance for crying ‘Vive le Roi!’ for le Bien-Aimé was still there, but few found it worthwhile to make the effort. Courtiers felt that Louis was making more of the incident than it deserved, and the episode caused little concern (or even interest) in Paris.

The would-be royal assassin, who spent his Epiphany having the soles of his feet burned in torture under the accommodating eye of ‘Iron Head’ Machault, was an unemployed, forty-something domestic servant originally from the Arras region called François Damiens. He had, it seemed, used the shorter, three-inch penknife blade on his weapon, and this, and the heavy muffling the king had worn to keep out the cold, made the blow between the king’s ribs cause little more than a flesh wound. Throughout his interrogations and trial, Damiens gave the impression of being a loner, who had acted out of his own, rather confused motives. Yet if he was a nobody, he was, as Dale Van Kley has noted, ‘a nobody not unknown by some pretty important somebodies’.1 His career as a servant had taken him through a wide range of noble households, including those of several Jansenist members of the Paris Parlement, where he had observed and listened enough to develop a sense of ‘religion’ which he cited as his main motive in making the attack. He had been moved to act, he elaborated, by royal taxes and the misery of the people; he did not seek to kill the king but to ‘touch’ him (an ironic reversal of the Royal Touch, from which the king had long desisted), so as ‘to prompt him to restore all things to order and tranquillity in his states’.2 Nobody could quite believe he was not a tool of faction. The Parlement and the Jansenists claimed that he had been put up to it by the Jesuits (who had supplied Ravaillac, the murderer of Henry IV in 1610); while just about everyone else thought that the finger of blame pointed at the pro-Jansenist parlementaires in whose homes Damiens had devised his odd exercise in political bargaining by assassination attempt.

All this was intensely embarrassing for the Paris Parlement, which in January 1757 was in the midst of a stand-off with the government – the second major political crisis in which it had become embroiled in the 1750s. The roots of these crises – in 1752–4, then 1756–7 – lay in the ongoing and venomous atmosphere in church-state relations caused by the so-called billets de confession issue. Christophe de Beaumont, appointed archbishop of Paris in 1746, had launched a spirited attack on Jansenism in his diocese, culminating in his orders for parish priests to refuse the sacrament of the last rites to any individual who failed to produce a billet de confession, that is, a notice of spiritual orthodoxy signed by a priest who had publicly subscribed to the Unigenitus bull. The Parlement objected to this refusal of sacraments, on the grounds that it offended individuals, threatened public disorder and implied that the church rather than the law had final say over matters of conscience and law. The magistrates’ opinion found favour with a majority of the Parisian population – including Damiens, who claimed that he had formed his plan to attack the king at ‘the time of the first refusals [of sacraments] by the archbishop’.3 Following an incident in March 1752 in which a particularly devout and popular Parisian priest called Lemerre was denied the last rites by his confessor, the Parlement weighed in, condemning outright the practice of billets de confession, and on 18 April it issued an arrêt which prohibited their use within the city. The crown scolded theparlementaires for overstepping the line between the temporal and the spiritual arms, and decreed silence on all Unigenitus issues – that favoured procrastinatory, Fleuryite response – while the king awaited the report of a special royal commission established to examine the question. Silence, as Fleury had well known, however, needed to be managed: it never happened of its own accord, as the government now appeared to believe. Tension soon built up with a string of sacrament refusal cases, not simply in Paris but also in other northern dioceses under the jurisdiction of the Parlement. In December 1752, the latter struck back against archbishop Beaumont, ordering the seizure of his property and inviting the peers of the realm to join them in his impeachment. When the king blocked this step, issuing Letters Patent warning the Parlement off, the latter reacted by drawing up Grand Remonstrances (grandes remontrances) to justify their position.

The quasi-contractualist logic of the Grand Remonstrances – ‘subjects owe their ruler devotion and obedience’, the text ran, ‘[and] the ruler owes his subjects protection and defence’4 – ensured the king’s stern rebuff. Faced with deadlock, the Parlement voted, on 5 May 1753, for the suspension of its normal services. The government acted with a coup de force, exiling individual parlementaires to cities and places of confinement all over France, then transferring to Pontoise the Parlement’s most senior arm, the Grande Chambre (and subsequently exiling it to Soissons). In this game of bluff and counter-bluff, the parlementaires calculated that their absence – which entailed much of the country being without an appellate jurisdiction – would force the government to treat for terms. Yet ministers only tightened the screw, establishing a handpicked ‘Royal Chamber’ in September 1753 to attend to judicial business usually handled by the Parlement. Subaltern courts recognized the new body – but did little business with it. In fact, the king’s treatment of the Paris Parlement stimulated a nationwide support campaign on the magistrates’ behalf involving the important Paris Châtelet court and a number of provincial parlements. Eventually, on 2 September 1754, following negotiations brokered by the prince de Conti, the king recalled the Parlement and reissued a Law of Silence, enjoining all parties to the dispute to refrain from discussion of the refusal of the sacraments.

The government’s attempts to resolve the conflicting interests of church and Parlement in the 1752–4 crisis were short-lived, not least because the Law of Silence accorded the Parlement an important policing role, which the truculent parlementaires gleefully deployed against the archbishop. When in early December Beaumont publicly approved a refusal of the sacraments, they forced him into exile forthwith, and followed this up by issuing a decree on 18 March 1755 denying the Unigenitus bull the character of a rule of faith. The government proscribed this decree, quietly beginning negotiations with pope Benedict XIV, through the careful diplomacy of the comte de Stainville (future duc de Choiseul), to secure a papal ruling which could defuse the situation. The Parlement, however, was growing boisterous over other matters too. It framed a hostile response to royal attempts in 1755 to give the docile Grand Conseil court powers of enacting legislation without the endorsement of the Parlement – a move which the latter feared was the thin end of a wedge aimed at reducing its powers. And it was unprecedentedly critical of the government’s tax measures to finance the incipient war against Prussia and England. When the country was faced by war, the Parlement usually passed such measures unopposed. Yet in July 1756, it remonstrated pointedly, and was only brought to heel by a royal lit de justice on 21 August forcing the financial edicts through.

The arrival from Rome in October 1756 of the papal encyclical, Ex Omnibus, on the refusal of sacraments issue only worsened matters, triggering the second major political crisis of the 1750s. Paradoxically, the pope’s ruling largely endorsed the view of the Parlement over billets de confession, envisaging the refusal of sacraments only in the outlandish circumstances of recalcitrant sinners. This demobilized the posture of Beaumont and the dévot interest. Yet even this was not good enough for the Parlement. The magistrates took umbrage less over the content of the encyclical than over the way in which the crown seemed to be implementing it within France without referring the document, in true Gallican spirit, for parlementary ratification.

The Parlement’s decision on 7 December 1756 to outlaw the papal encyclical led court factions marshalled by Keeper of the Seals Machault to spur the king into radical action. Silencing the Parlement would help bring religious peace and also mute criticism of the government’s financial policies. Consequently, on 13 December, Louis held a lit de justice in the Parlement to enforce registration of an ‘Edict of Discipline’ (dated 10 December): the gist of the Ex Omnibus encyclical was enacted; the powers of the Parlement to remonstrate were more carefully regulated; the institution’s authority to interrupt the proceedings of justice and to create political protest were limited; organizational changes increased the power of senior magistrates at the expense of the more radical younger ones, known as the zélés (‘the zealous’); and two chambers of the Parlement – approximately ninety posts out of the full parlementary contingent of around 500 posts – were abolished. The latter reduction was not necessarily unpopular, since the price of office within the Parlement had been falling (possibly because of the reduction in the amount of judicial business the court handled) and so the suppression could have boosted office prices and protected magistrates’ investment. In this particular context, however, the parlementaires saw in the Edict of Discipline only a concerted effort to reduce their power, combined with a victory for Beaumont and his minions. With the judicial strike now made illegal, some 140 magistrates resigned their offices.

Damiens’s Epiphany gesture in January 1757 thus struck in the midst of a severe and multi-layered political crisis. The latter’s resolution was consequently complicated by the fact that the Parlement, the focus of opposition to the crown, was also trying (and would eventually convict) the would-be king-killer. The legal process became a show-trial. Though collectively engaged in a political stand-off with the king, the magistrates protested their eternal loyalty and their horror at the acts of the hapless regicide. The presence at the trial of the prince de Conti – seemingly fishing in troubled waters – further complicated its character. Ultra-loyalist sentiments also served to divert attention away from evidence which highlighted the role of parlementary opposition in the formulation of Damiens’s crazed plans. Official accounts invariably skated over the turbulent political context in which the act had occurred, yet the Parisian chronicler Barbier was not alone in thinking that Damiens’s act had its origins in ‘the Jansenist system’, and, ‘the impression with which this party has affected the public and troubled people’s minds’.5

Damiens played out his part as ceremonial fall-guy in the horrifying act of his execution in March 1757 on the Place de Gréve in Paris, which the Parlement had insisted should replicate that of his more effective predecessor, Ravaillac, assassin of Henry IV. An ornate set of symbolically retaliatory tortures – burnings, rippings of flesh, breaking of bones – proceeded with quasi-liturgical exactitude, climaxing in the efforts of four champing horses to pull Damiens’s limbs out from his body (in a gruesome twist, his body stubbornly refused to be depieced and had to be further chopped and battered by public executioner Sanson).6 This act of judicial theatre – played out before a full and appreciative crowd – symbolically countered the would-be assassin’s pathetic act of violence by an overpowering expression of the coercive force of the wounded sovereign. Designed by the Parlement, the grisly mise-en-scène, which horrified many philosophes, was intended to wipe the Parlement’s slate clean of any putative stain of anti-monarchism.

Diderot once summed up the political tactics of the Parlement as being ‘for the king against the king’, and this was certainly the case over the Damiens trial and execution.7 There were pragmatic reasons for an oblique stance under an absolute monarchy, in which disloyalty and opposition were only a hair’s breadth away from outright treason, and where subservient mouthings of absolutist maxims consequently served as self-protection. Beneath the formalities, however, the bases of a much more formidable political opposition were evolving in the 1750s whose tenets countered those customarily embodied in absolutist theory. At the heart of the revitalized parlementary discourse was a concern to restrict the prerogatives of royal authority save when these were grounded in the nation’s fundamental laws whose custodian the Parlement claimed to be. Over and against absolutist dogma’s emphasis on the indivisibility of royal sovereignty, lodged in the ruler’s corporeal frame, the parlementaires now argued that political harmony depended on the cooperation of ‘sovereign authority, the law and the ministers of the law’. ‘[T]he king, the laws and the magistrates’, they continued, ‘are one, an indivisible whole.’8 The magistrates highlighted the primacy of law, rather than that of the king himself, deploying historical arguments which foregrounded the ancient constitution in ways evoked by Boulainvilliers and Montesquieu, and now crystallized in the Lettres historiques sur les fonctions essentielles du Parlement (‘Historical Letters on the Essential Functions of the Parlement’), penned in 1753 by the crypto-convulsionary barrister Louis-Adrien Le Paige. Drawing on punctilious archival research, and deploying arguments which had surfaced occasionally in the past at moments of crown-Parlement dispute, Le Paige established a legitimation for the Parlement’s authority which was part history, part romantic fiction, and part political wishful thinking. The parlements, it was claimed, were as ancient as – indeed, even more ancient than – the monarchy, for they originated in the Germanic assemblies described by Frankish chroniclers as forming the basis of Merovingian political culture. The authority of the Parlement in 1753 was, for Le Paige, ‘precisely what it was in the time of Clovis’, namely ‘a wall of bronze’ against any diminution of the force of law.9 ‘Sire,’ the Parlement had remonstrated in 1755 over the Grand Conseil issue, ‘for the thirteen hundred years that the monarchy has existed your parlement, under a variety of denominations, has always formed the same tribunal and exercises the same functions within the state.’10 The bewigged and red-robed parlementaires, sage advisers to Louis XV, were thus consubstantial with Clovis’s hairy-chested sixth-century Merovingian warriors forming the ‘Court of France’ on the Champ de Mars.

The Parlement thus increasingly prided itself on being the ‘depository of the laws’, the protector of constitutional rectitude. This formulation, as we have seen,11 with its strong link to the theological language of Figurism, had crystallized in the parlementary disputes over Jansenism in 1730–32, and it had received further endorsement from Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des lois, published in 1748. Given the inconstancy of monarchs and aristocrats, the Bordeaux parlementaire-philosophe had argued, a ‘depository of the laws is necessary … There must be a body which ensures that the laws come forth from the dust in which they lie buried.’12 Le Paige now pushed this doctrine even further: the Parlement was the ‘depository of the laws’, embodying ‘the primitive and essential constitution’ of the nation in much the same way that he saw the Jansenist sect to which he belonged as the heir of the early church and ‘depository of truth’ in a persecuting world.

There were thus Jansenist fingerprints all over the contestatory language of opposition which the Parlement developed in the 1750s. As the marquis d’Argenson noted, moreover, the Parlement’s arguments implying that ‘the nation is above kings just as the universal church is above the pope’ had a quasi-conciliarist ring to them.13 The Parlement was not simply representing the laws to the king, but also seemed to imply that they rather than the monarch now represented the body of the ‘nation’. The latter term (like ‘state’), d’Argenson noted, ‘[had] never [been] uttered under Louis XIV [but] was now replacing the more archaic ‘subjects’ or ‘peoples’ in parlementary discourse.14 As the remonstrances of the Rennes Parlement put it in early 1757, ‘the Parlement only ever speaks to the nation in the name of the king, and similarly, it only addresses its king in the name of the nation. The remonstrances are the remonstrances of the nation.’15 This rhetorical polarization of ‘king’ and ‘nation’ – with the parlements purporting to play a vital mediatory role – was formally antithetical to the Bourbon view that state and nation were embodied in the corporeal frame of the ruler.

After the débâcle of the Convulsionary episode, Jansenists remaining associated with the Parlement had sought integration and the pursuit of their spiritual goals by tying their religious arguments even more tightly into the jurisdictional claims of the court. Their numbers were comparatively small – maybe only a score of the 250 of so magistrates normally involved in parlementary business in the 1750s were committed Jansenists. These zélés owed their impact, first, to their cooperation with another energetic minority of roughly the same size comprising the Jansenist barristers led by Le Paige, and, second, to the extraordinary energy they displayed. Besides concerting parlementary strategy and seeking to squeeze their religious demands within the jurisdictional corsets of their more sedate fellow parlementaires, these groupings were also responsible for spreading the Parlement’s line of arguments outside Paris. This development was a particular feature of the crises of the mid-1750s. One of the jurisdictional arguments on which Le Paige and others insisted was that the original Frankish assemblies of which the Parlement was continuator had been unjustly subdivided in the past. In consequence, all the parlements really formed elements (or classes) of the same body – ‘the diverse classes of a single and unique parlement, the various members of a single and unique body, animated by the same spirit, nourished in the same principles and concerned with the same object’, as parlementary remonstrances put it in 1756.16 The idea of the ‘union of classes’ (union des classes) justified a more rumbustious and daring involvement of provincial parlements in political disputes than at any time since the Fronde of 1648–53. In 1753–4, the Parlements of Aix, Bordeaux, Rennes and Rouen remonstrated in support of the exiled Paris institution. Chancellor Lamoignon responded by convoking groups from the protesting institutions for formal admonition – yet the provincial magistrates took advantage of their visit to the capital to rub shoulders and develop solidarity with the barristers and other supporters of their Parisian confrères. By the mid-1750s, the Parlements of Toulouse, Bordeaux, Metz, Grenoble and Aix were invoking Frankish history to legitimize their remonstrances in support of the Paris Parlement, while the Rennes court was developing a jurisprudence grounded in the laws of the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. Mutual support by the parlements extended to financial as well as religious and jurisdictional issues.

Important elements in the shift in political culture occurring in the 1750s were the strong and increasingly concerted provincial dimension to parlementary politics and the crystallization of fragments of political arguments, both old and new, both Jansenist and parlementary, into a resilient body of oppositional discourse. With the growing public sphere acting as voice-box, languages of contestation resonated more widely and more subversively than at any time in the century. In 1714, royal propagandist Jean-Nicolas Moreau noted, the Jansenist issue had simply been ‘a matter of knowing whether Father Quesnel had explained the nature and effects of grace in a very devout and rather boring book’. By the 1750s, at issue was ‘[the] matter of knowing whether the king was master in his realm’.17 The question was all the more pressing, moreover, in that the state had in 1756 embarked on a European, and global, war.

Problems were exacerbated by a shortage of political management skills at the very top of the political tree. Consistency in government policy was undermined by the king’s personal mixture of authoritarianism and spiritual contrition which seemed to make it difficult for him to get a grip on events. As even the scourge of anti-Jansenism, Le Paige, quizzically noted, the Royal Council was ‘sometimes for the clergy, sometimes for the Parlement and sometimes in between’.18 Without Fleury to depend on, the king proved no abler at controlling court faction than at managing the parlements. His backing-down from confrontation with the church over the vingtième in the early 1750s left his valiant Controller-General, Machault, very much a lame duck. Machault lingered on, for Louis XV trusted him, but in a ministerial reshuffle in mid-1754, he exchanged the post of Controller-General for the Secretaryship of State for the Navy (though he also was retained as Keeper of the Seals). With ‘Iron Head’ increasingly a political lightweight, destabilizing factional power-struggles started to re-emerge. The dévots, grouped around the queen and the dauphin, with War Minister d’Argenson and a majority of the episcopacy behind them, formed an unofficial opposition, which, though chastened by Beaumont’s routing in the billets de confessions issue, still launched numerous attacks on the faction focused around Madame de Pompadour, whose influence was probably stronger in the mid- and late 1750s than at any other time. Her opponents portrayed her as keeping the government together by ceaseless patronage, but this was only one weapon in her armoury. Despite her very real political skills, on which Louis was heavily dependent, her status as royal mistress restricted what she could achieve.

Just when Louis needed support from the Parlement, moreover, he alienated the body, exiling sixteen magistrates, on 27 January 1757, with an imperiousness which set the whole institution against him. He followed this on 1 February 1757, by dismissing Machault, reputed framer of the 1756 Edict of Discipline, and a Pompadour man who had blotted his copybook with the mistress by suggesting she leave court at the time of Damiens’s assassination attempt. At the same time – as if every tit should have its tat – the experienced dévot War Minister, d’Argenson, was also dismissed. The ministers who took their place were, moreover, nonentities – and only moderately competent nonentities to boot. In the event, Madame de Pompadour filled the policy void, promoting the cause of one of her protégés, the abbé de Bernis, a key figure in government since his role as architect of the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, which, as we shall see, had been the prelude to the outbreak of war.19 Trusted by the church, Bernis also had the sense to realize that the Parlement needed mollifying if it was to be prevented from becoming a political obstacle to the financing of the war. Fleury-like, he worked assiduously behind the scenes to find a compromise, building up a pro-government faction – or parti ministériel – in the Parlement, and then finally persuading the king in September 1757 to decree that the Edict of Discipline should not be implemented.

Bernis’s adroit political skills temporarily appeased the Parlement. Yet within weeks the government found itself in the midst of a profound political crisis, though one with military rather than parlementary roots: on 5 November 1757, Frederick II of Prussia inflicted on French forces in the battle of Rossbach one of their severest defeats in the eighteenth century, calling into question the military substance of the state and seeming to constitute, for the anxious marquis de Caraman, ‘the signal for the approaching destruction of our monarchy’.20

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!