Modern history


Après nous, le déluge.’

Madame de Pompadour’s notorious remark – which historians have been perhaps too quick to see as a prophecy of 1789 – is alleged to have been uttered in 1757, one of the most depressing years in the reign of a depressive monarch. The Damiens episode had left deeper scars on the king’s psyche than on his body – contemporaries noted the prevalence of black-dog moods, and an English secret intelligence source even suggested, in a coded report to London in August of that year, that Louis ‘[had] lately frequently burst into tears; and at times discovered an inclination to resign the crown’.21 Maybe the English spy was taking too seriously royal expressions of weariness with the strains of office, which were not infrequent. Yet the circumstances in which the king found himself in that year were particularly grim – and would deteriorate. The severe domestic difficulties which the government had been having were overlaid by engagement in a war which – as the Rossbach defeat highlighted – humiliated the regime and presented a tough challenge which would have made rulers far abler than Louis XV flinch.

The gloom of 1757 was all the gloomier for contrasting with the rather hopeful outset to the war the year before, following a startling realignment of international relations in a process of alliance reversals which historians term the Diplomatic Revolution. The latter’s most striking feature consisted of France’s alliance with the Austrian Habsburgs, who had been the almost uninterrupted target of French aggression for more than two centuries. The initiative behind the shift came from Vienna, and in particular from the Austrian statesman Kaunitz, who from 1749 estimated that alliance with France offered the best chance for Austria to regain Silesia, lost to Frederick II’s Prussia in the War of Austrian Succession. The task of winning over Maria Theresa to the idea was a long one, and one which Kaunitz refined in his spell as Austrian ambassador in Versailles between 1750 and 1753. It was his replacement, Starhemberg, who in 1755 made a secret approach from the Empress to Louis XV, symptomatically routed via Madame Pompadour. An initially sceptical Louis XV put Pompadour’s protégé, Bernis, on to the case. Working in total secrecy, Bernis and Starhemberg met in sundry shifting locations around Bellevue, Madame Pompadour’s residence. Their negotiations were given added pertinence by the Westminster convention in March 1756 between England and France’s erstwhile ally, Prussia. Despite Frederick II of Prussia’s protestations that he was ‘the most faithful, most zealous and most grateful ally in the world’,22 he had proved unreliable to France. An Anglo-Russian convention of 1755 whereby the Russians agreed to provide troops on England’s side if Hanover were subject to foreign aggression had made him calculate that he had much to gain from a mutual guarantee of possessions with the English.

Though the public disclosure of the First Treaty of Versailles in May 1756 linking France and Austria in formal alliance caused consternation and amazement, this complete break with hallowed diplomatic tradition made a good deal of sense. Austria was no longer the all-threatening, would-be hegemonic power of yore. It had failed to turn the Holy Roman Empire into a unitary Habsburg state. The War of Austrian Succession had shown that the customary theatres of Franco-Austrian conflict – the Low Countries and northern Italy – were no longer target zones for Austrian expansion, and that France seemed ‘satisfied’23 with what it had. Once-Habsburg Spain was in the hands of a Bourbon too, so that French fears of encirclement seemed otiose. The Habsburgs were now primarily concerned to consolidate their possessions in south-east Europe and to win back Silesia. France, for its part, had reasons to value Habsburg friendship. Fleury had correctly grasped the wisdom of forestalling possible Austrian revanchisme over Lorraine, while France’s biggest international problems emanated from England, its commercial and colonial rival on the global stage. Alliance with Austria could thus herald an era of continental peace and allow France to concentrate on its global commitments against an England with which it was already virtually at war in North America and India, and which it had just deprived of its main continental ally. Domestically, alliance with another great Catholic power would palliate the discontent of parts of the dévotfaction. All this could only be achieved, however, if France resisted Austria’s gung-ho enthusiasm to lead an assault on Prussia to get Silesia back. The Versailles Treaty was therefore a defensive alliance, which neutralized the Low Countries, while also ruling out Austrian aid for France in the Americas. It was followed by the decision of Russia – infuriated by the Convention of Westminster – to break with the English and conclude an offensive alliance with Austria, and to seek France’s friendship.

The odds had stacked up curiously: Catholic Europe seemed to be opposed to the Protestant powers of England and Prussia. It was less piety than pragmatism, however, which led Frederick II, fearing encirclement by Austria and Russia, and keen to get his retaliation in first, to invade Saxony in August 1756 as a stepping stone towards Austrian Bohemia. This brought France into the fray on the side of its Habsburg ally. It was anticipated that war would be short and sweet: Prussia had a strong army and a brilliant commander, in the person of Frederick, but seemed very light on the scales against the combined military forces of France, Austria and Russia. With only ‘perfidious Albion’ as aide, Prussia’s 3.6 million inhabitants seemed a poor match for the 70 million to be found in the domains of the allies. Seeking a swift termination of continental struggle, France threw money at the war effort: there were big subsidies for Russia, Sweden and Saxony, while a second Treaty of Versailles promised larger subsidies to Austria plus more than 100,000 men in armed support, in return for various gains and rearrangements in the Low Countries. Early campaign successes in Germany set Prussian forces on the defensive, while the conflict with England also opened very promisingly, and looked likely to redress the considerable indignities the French had suffered at English hands over the two previous years.24 England’s attempts to bring land war to the continent failed – assaults and attempted landings in Normandy and Brittany were repulsed – and in May 1756, the French seized Minorca, which had been in English hands since the Peace of Utrecht. The government followed up by negotiating with Genoa the right to establish naval and military outposts on Corsica. In the Americas, the French commander, Montcalm, deployed his meagre military forces effectively alongside settlers and Indian tribesmen, completing a bad year for the English.

1757 could be said to have been the year that things came apart for France – had things not got worse in 1758 and worse still in 1759. Frederick II transformed the character of the war, with a brace of brilliant victories in lower Germany: at Rossbach over French and imperial forces on 5 November, and at Leuthen over the Austrians on 5 December. Rossbach was immediately perceived in France as a most terrible humiliation. ‘The King has the worst infantry under the sun,’ was the conclusion of the veteran comte de Saint-Germain, while the army’s leadership was pilloried even more viciously.25 With far fewer troops at his disposal, Frederick had out-generaled and out-manoeuvred the flower of Austro-French chivalry – and out-strategized it too, for the victory consolidated Prussia’s links with England and called into question the military wisdom of the Franco-Austrian alliance.

So powerful was the blow to French morale that there was some thought of moving swiftly to sue for peace. The government was in too deep, however, to make that a viable option. Ominously, the Austrian compulsion to regain Silesia seemed to be dictating the way forward. Although sheer strength of numbers over Prussia made it seem that Austro-French victory could not be far away, lack of military coordination, plus some pretty poor generalship (which the brilliance of Frederick II made all the more glaring) consistently prevented this. Over the next years, Frederick would lose more battles than he won, as each campaigning season the allied forces swept down on him from two directions, east and west. Yet he proved able to achieve crucial victories at key moments over his numerous foes, keeping Prussia in the game as all the combatants fought themselves to a standstill.

The single-minded focus on the armed struggle which Frederick exemplified was not matched in France. Indeed, even in 1757 it had become apparent that there were still major problems in the formation of strategy at the heart of government. Besides the dismissal of Machault and d’Argenson, the retirement in 1756 of the aged Noailles from the Council of State removed an experienced hand. In swift succession there followed the defection of one of the policy advisers on whom the depression-prone and secrecy-obsessed Louis XV had most relied, namely, his cousin, the prince de Conti. Meeting regularly in secret since the early 1740s, Louis and Conti had developed a parallel diplomacy to state international strategy, the so-called Secret du Roi, focused initially around moves to have Conti elected king of Poland. Conti had never got on with Madame de Pompadour, however, and relations between the two worsened as the mistress consolidated her authority.

The Diplomatic Revolution came as a severe shock to Conti, who had been left out of the information loop. The refusal of the king (or was it Pompadour?) to allow him either continuing participation in the Secret du Roi or a compensatory military command threw him among the regime’s malcontents. ‘The crown belongs to us all,’ he once insouciantly remarked of the Princes of the Blood. ‘Our most senior member wears it.’26 This dynastic stirrer was soon shaping up as unreconstructed Frondeur, creating a political bloc of support in ways which emulated the conduct of his eminent forebears who had participated in the 1648 Fronde. He had developed links to the Paris Parlement through the crises of the mid-1750s, and the Parlement’s principal apologist, Le Paige, after 1756 was working out under Conti’s wing in the Temple precincts, a safe haven from direct police censorship. The prince made the Parlement’s causes his own: he supported the right of the magistrates to invite the dukes and peers to their meetings in 1755, and he took a wilfully prominent role in the trial of Damiens. As Pompadour’s links with the philosophes became less intense, Conti developed good relations with them (notably with Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau) and he also dabbled in freemasonry. In 1757, moreover, rumours reached the king’s ears that Conti was seeking to profit from Louis’s post-Damiens depression to put together plans for Protestant revolt conjoined with an English landing in western France. The Diplomatic Revolution had been a blow to ‘New Convert’ hopes for greater religious toleration, for by 1757 the war was taking on the aspect, as the marquis d’Argenson put it, of ‘a general crusade of the Catholic party against the Protestants in Europe’ (adding, in a sly reference to France’s heavy commitment to financial subsidies, ‘with France as treasurer’).27 Conti’s plans for revolt – if plans there were – came to nothing, but the king redoubled his distance from his erstwhile confidant.

The passage of Conti into oppositional politics – where he remained, on and off, down to his death in 1776 – was a severe blow, all the more so with the state at war, and in a condition of perpetual governmental crisis, with ministers being changed as rapidly as scenery at the opera.28 The ministerial replacements for Machault and d’Argenson lasted only a year: the War Ministry passed through the hands of the marquis de Paulmy to the ageing Belle-Isle in 1758, while at the Navy Office, Machault’s successor, Peyrenc de Moras, was succeeded in turn by the marquis de Massiac, then Pompadour’s protege, Berryer. There were no fewer than five incumbents of the crucial post of Controller-General between 1754 and November 1759, a rate of turnover partly due to the sheer incapacity for the job of a number of the incumbents. The most durable figure in power was one of the least talented – Chancellor Lamoignon, widely viewed as less animated than Vaucanson’s famous automata which were being shown at court around this time.

Faction and royal whim were instrumental in the fall from power of Bernis, the figure who represented a measure of continuity in the mid-1750s and who had gamely tried to keep the ship of state afloat. The prestige which he had acquired first by orchestrating the Diplomatic Revolution, and then by defusing post-Damiens parlementary opposition led to his promotion to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and membership of the Royal Council, then election to a cardinalcy. Yet he overplayed his hand. He formally resigned Foreign Affairs to the comte de Stainville in late 1758, offering the latter his continued service for relations with both the clergy and the Parlement, a role for which he had some flair. This was to raise the prospect of a duumvirate – ‘two heads in the same hat’, as Bernis quaintly put it.29 The king, for his part, clearly felt one would do. Resistant since the death of Fleury to the idea of a principal minister, especially one who risked inspiring ministerial jealousies, the king abruptly dismissed Bernis from the State Council in December 1758 and exiled him from court. Fortunately for the monarchy, he now turned to the comte de Stainville, from 1758 duc de Choiseul, whom he appointed to the Foreign Affairs portfolio as Bernis’s successor.

Choiseul entered a State Council which was relatively denuded of talent through deaths, political exile, and poor ministerial choices, and at a moment when the state’s fortunes were in a singularly deep trough. A first step along the road to recovery was the rehabilitation of the appalling financial position in which the government found itself in the late 1750s. State finances had not been in bad shape at the outset of the war: Machault’s vingtième had done a good job in bringing post-1748 debts under control, and, despite protests from the Parlement, a second vingtième was imposed in July 1756 for the duration of the war. From then onwards, the state looked to loans (and in particular the highly uneconomic life-annuity loans, or rentes viagères) rather than taxation, to finance the war. The cost of credit rose, moreover, the longer the war continued, and the more remote the prospect of a satisfactory peace became. It became apparent that the war was running at nearly twice the cost of its predecessor, the War of Austrian Succession. A state bankruptcy looked a real possibility. ‘A government which is short of cash’, the marquis de Mirabeau warned, ‘abdicates legitimate authority and renounces its primordial essence.’30 Desperate measures were consequently tried for these desperate times. In 1758, an annual ‘free gift’ (don gratuit) was imposed on all towns and bourgs for six years, yet the following year, the shortfall in government revenue was still some 200 million livres, roughly equivalent to one year’s normal state revenue. In September of that year, the new Controller-General Silhouette tried a more radical approach. His composite plan for a ‘General Subvention’, which was forced through the Parlement by lit de justice, included the imposition of a third vingtième, and wide-ranging taxation on luxury items, from tobacco through to carriages, lackeys, wallpapers, silks and gold and silver plate. This atavistic act in what was an increasingly consumerist age31 produced almost universal condemnation by the social and political elite. Louis tried to rally to his minister’s support by sending court gold and silver plate to the mint – a grand, Louis-Quatorzian gesture which backfired spectacularly by frightening potential lenders to the state. The impending collapse of credit obliged Louis to sack Silhouette. The latter’s successor, Bertin, dropped the taxes on luxury but salvaged what he could from the ‘General Subvention’, notably the third vingtième for the duration of the war. He also imposed a doubling of the capitation for individuals who were exempt from thetaille.These measures rekindled the opposition of the parlementaires, who as non-taillables were personally affected by the measure.32

War prospects were poor. By aligning itself too closely for its own good to Silesia-obsessed Austria, France had failed to keep the fighting in Europe short. The perpetuation of campaigning in Germany with the commitment of more than 100,000 men plus high subsidies to allies made it difficult to divert funds to the global conflict with England. Despite the deceptively bright start in North America, French forces failed to stop the English from opening up the Saint Lawrence seaway through Louisbourg, which fell in 1758, and French fortresses along the Ohio river passed seriatim into English hands. It was a sign of desperation that Choiseul got the king to agree to the organization of an amphibious landing in England for 1759. Aimed to coincide with a Jacobite rising in Scotland, the scheme would, it was hoped, relieve pressure in North America and perhaps drive the English to the conference table. This was combined with a scaling-down of France’s financial commitments to Austria in the third Treaty of Versailles in March 1759. The Treaty markedly reduced what France could expect to gain at the peace – but in the circumstances this was the least of the French worries. Lack of realism about the invasion scheme, however, was punished by crushing naval defeats which the Royal Navy meted out to the French Mediterranean fleet off Portugal in August and to the Brest fleet at Quiberon Bay in November. Hopes for invasion collapsed.

The Royal Navy ruled the waves. For the remainder of the war, it delivered reinforcements of supplies and men to give England local superiority in all global theatres of conflict. Even had they been able to afford it, or to organize with the zeal which Prime Minister William Pitt was displaying in England, the French were henceforth blocked from invading England and denied access to the extra-European world. French overseas commanders were consequently at a consistent disadvantage. In Canada, Montcalm’s 3,000 men had defeated some 15,000 English troops at Fort Carillon in 1758, but given this kind of numerical imbalance it was asking too much to expect a string of victories. In September 1759, Quebec fell to armed assault by English forces under Wolfe comprising 76 vessels, 13,500 sailors and 9,000 soldiers. A year later it was the turn of Montreal, where 2,000 Frenchmen were outnumbered by 17,000 English troops. The situation was much the same at the other end of the world: 22,000 English troops besieged the French Governor Lally-Tollendal with 700 men under his command for some months at Pondicherry before the key Indian trading post fell in January 1761. Naval supremacy allowed the English to pick off other French outposts throughout the world, which started falling like plums into the English lap.

The efforts of Choiseul in particular to mitigate the scale of the disasters raining in on the Bourbon polity were serendipitously helped by dynastic changes in Europe’s ruling houses. In 1759, Ferdinand VI of Spain died and was replaced by the more energetic Charles III, who was determined to counter the trading dominance which the English, through trade, force of arms and privateering, had achieved in the New World. Charles approached France for an alliance, which resulted in the second ‘Family Compact’ of August 1761 conjoining the Bourbons of France, Spain, Naples and Parma. Secret clauses committed Spain to join the war on France’s side on 1 January 1762. The impact of this shift in the balance of forces was attenuated, however, by two factors. First, the English continued their rash of naval victories, taking the key Spanish centres at Havana in the Caribbean and Manila in the Philippines and thereby threatening the overall integrity of the Spanish empire; and second, a change of ruler in Russia made Frederick II’s proverbial luck seem quasi-miraculous. In 1762, the Prussian ruler was given unlooked-for relief by the death of Empress Elisabeth of Russia and the succession of Peter III, a deranged Fredericophile, who immediately switched sides in the war, restoring Russian-occupied East Prussia to Frederick. By now, all parties to the conflict seemed to have reasons for ending it – even England, where the bellicose Pitt had been replaced by the more emollient Bute. Peace talks began in earnest in November 1762 and on 10 February 1763 produced the Treaty of Paris, followed five days later by the Treaty of Hubersburg ending the continental war.

The intervention of Spain in 1762 had changed the terms under which peace was agreed: difficult though it may be to imagine, peace conditions would probably have been even worse for France in 1761. On the bright side was France’s retention of its main sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean (Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, Martinique). Among other small mercies for which the French could be grateful, the defeat had produced less genuine hardship within the country itself than many other wars: the campaigns had been conducted in Germany or in the wider world, so that the effects of warfare, though serious, were neither first-hand nor materially devastating, and left a decent margin for recovery. All the same, the 1763 peace was extremely punishing for France, which gained nothing in Europe for the expenditure of its men, money and efforts over seven years: the main clauses of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748 were confirmed, with Silesia remaining in Prussian hands – and indeed Minorca passing back to the English. On the global stage, the scale of loss was huge and humiliating, worse even than Utrecht. With the exception of the tiny Saint Pierre et Miquelon islands, France lost all North American and Canadian possessions, merely retaining fishing rights off Newfoundland. Its Louisianan territories were given – seemingly in some kind of chivalrous family gesture – to Spain, to compensate the latter for the loss of Florida to the English. There were losses in the Caribbean too, while, with the exception of Gorée, Senegal passed out of French hands, and in India, France was cut back to five trading stations.

Some made light of the situation. The retention of the sugar islands more than compensated, in the eye of most contemporaries, for the loss of Louisiana, land of John Law’s pipe-dreams, and of ‘a few arpents of [Canadian] snow’, as Voltaire put it in Candide.Yet most contemporaries adjudged the peace as massively humiliating for the institution of the monarchy, whose most cherished values and structures had been wounded. Its armies had been shown to be ineffectual, its navy of nugatory value. Its aristocratic officer corps had been exposed as weak, while its bureaucracy had been hampered by factional squabbles at the heart of government. Above all, the honour of the state – that indefinable entity with which Louis XV had proclaimed his magnanimity at Aix-la-Chapelle – had been as palpably compromised as at almost any moment in the annals of the monarchy.

The recovery of that honour would be the task that Choiseul assigned himself. Down to his fall from power in 1770, he would shuffle the key Foreign Affairs, Army and Navy portfolios in various combinations, building a wide power-base for his growing dominance. He needed to have his wits about him, for the political context in the 1760s was changing fast: respect for the king was at an all-time low; the prince de Conti was reopening dynastic politics; critical political discourses were evolving, notably in the Parlement, which questioned the customary values of absolutism; and a public sphere of debate and discussion had opened up on which the government was finding it difficult to put a lid.

Over the next years, Choiseul utilized his position at the heart of government to lead the state through a process of reform and restructuring in the wake of humiliating military defeat and political demoralization. In the event, his efforts would be crowned by success – but only subsequent to his removal from politics: the happy outcome for France of the American War of Independence would have been unthinkable without Choiseul’s reforms.

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