Julian Swann (Birkbeck College, University of London) - Of secrets and supper parties: disgrace and exile at the court of Louis XV

seminar report

During his long reign, Louis XV disgraced or exiled several hundred formerly favoured servants — ministers and senior judges, aristocratic courtiers or other favourites, including princes of the blood and other grandees. Forms and severity of disgrace varied greatly. A study of its character and use reveals much about the nature of court politics and the role of the Parlement of Paris. We find that Louis’ manipulation of this tool of royal authority was subtle and masterful, a skilful use of his power to re-assert monarchical authority over an often divided court and discontented princes, peers and parlementary judges. At its mildest, disgrace consisted of being cold-shouldered by the King, embarrassingly excluded from his intimate supper parties; at worst, exile for years from court, the end of a brilliant career (the fate of the duc de Choiseul in 1770) or imprisonment without trial by lettre de cachet. Examination of the fate of two of the King’s closest collaborators, the prince de Conti and the comte de Broglie, co-authors with him of the secret du roy (the King’s secret and personal diplomacy) suggests how disgrace could affect its victims in very different ways. So does the fate of Choiseul and his numerous supporters, courtiers who challenged Louis’ authority by visiting the Duke during his exile on his estate at Chanteloup, which developed into an alternative court for aristocratic malcontents. More threatening was the challenge by the judges of the parlements of Paris and elsewhere in 1771. This revolutionary confrontation — born from their resentment of radical ministerial reforms, and forged by an alliance of the judges with princes, grandees and aristocratic supporters — provoked the severest political crisis of the reign. Successful appeals by Louis’ opponents to the French people and to constitutional principles aroused memories of the Fronde and threatened the monarchical system. That the crisis was resolved in the King’s favour was due in large part to Louis’ nuanced and flexible employment of the disgrace and exile of grandees and parlementaires. Such events well illustrate the centrality of the ‘politics of disgrace’ during the reign. CCN