How successful was Louis XVIII as the King of France? Essay
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In April 1814, Napoleon abdicated from the throne unconditionally due to other European monarchs rising against him. This meant the question erupts to who was going to rule France. This decision fell on the shoulders of the quadruple alliance (Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia), who then decided to restore the Bourbon Dynasty that had ruled in 1793. The rightful Bourbon heir was Louis XVIII, brother of King Louis XVI. To decide if King Louis XVIII was a successful monarch, success must first be defined.
I would define a successful monarch as one for which puts the interests of their country first, not necessarily pleasing everybody all the time, but assuring the countries’ stability in the best way possible. When Louis first arrived on the throne he had a series of problems he needed to overcome, for which some were more difficult than others, yet he managed these issues with ease. Surely this is a sign of a successful king, but how successful was he exactly?
One of the more apparent problems was that of unpopularity of the Bourbon name. For 20 years the Bourbon name had been in disgrace, after the execution by guillotine of King Louis XVI on 21st January 1793. Even just the mention of the name would bring disgust to Frenchmen’s faces. The family and its supporters had been associated with the enemies of France, especially now due to the Bourbon Dynasty being reinstated by the allies with hesitance. This unpopularity became very apparent when Napoleon returned from his mild exile to Elba to rule for 100 days. He was extremely popular in France compared to Louis XVIII, to the extent for which had to flee for safety.
The congress of Vienna was introduced soon after the second restoration of the Bourbon monarch. The allies had decided that the French public had proved themselves to be untrustworthy and ungrateful for the lenient actions of both the Paris Treaties. It isolated France from the rest of Europe which decreased morale yet again. As a result of this and the failure of the twenty-five year war, morale in France was low. People had lost faith in the country and cracks were beginning to show among the public. Therefore Louis was to rehabilitate the Bourbon name and raise the morale once again. He also needed to ease foreign hostility as France was certainly not regarded as an equal to other European countries.
The congress of Vienna also demanded that Louis bring in a constitution of some form before he was restored, hence the introduction of the charter. The charter gave the French similar rights to the people of other western European countries. Some of the points included; Equality before the law and equal eligibility for civil and military office; freedom from obituary arrest and trial; freedom of conscience, worship and expression. No monarch of France had ever ruled under the regulations of a charter. Therefore the reign of Louis XVIII would be very different to that of any other previous French monarch
The reintroduction of the Bourbon Dynasty and the introduction of the charter divided France. The Ultra-royalists were very much in favour of the King and the powers he should have, whereas the left liberals were very much against the king and in favour of a republic. They blamed him for the drop in morale and increase in debts, although this was hardly fair. In fact, the ultra-royalists caused some concern to Louis. They were devoted to him and hated buy the rest of France. They had supported him during his time of need so he had to think of a way of rewarding them without triggering a reaction from the rest of the country. He needed to quieten them down in order to reduce the possibility of them provoking a reaction and causing another revolution.
Another issue Louis XVIII faced was the huge debts he had inherited from Napoleon. The war indemnity brought about by the Second Treaty of Paris and the costs of the allied army occupation meant debts soared. Louis also had to arrange a way to pay the sums owed to foreign countries by virtue contracts made in the past by private individuals. Due to this claims dating back to the 7 year s war were brought forward by the countries concerned. Austria for example claimed a total of 170 million francs. Then there was also the case of the countries deficit Louis had also inherited.
All these issues needed to dealt with smoothly and efficiently. Louis had various options available to him; it was merely a matter of selecting the correct procedures, many of which had an impact on multiple issues. It would have been far easier for Louis to choose to side with his extreme ultra royalist supporters who had won a large majority at the elections held for the Chamber. They used this opportunity and power to take revenge and execute some Bonapartist Generals, known as the “White Terror”. This amongst other things, this caused a Bonapartist uprising at Grenoble in May 1816. At this point realised this had potential of causing a national uprising. The king was far more moderate than the ultra royalists as he realised France could not return back to the ‘Ancien Regime’.
He therefore decided to dissolve the chamber in the hope that a more moderate group would get in. This was a crucially intelligent move, as in the next election the more moderate Royalist Constitutionalists won the majority. This helped the reestablishment of the Bourbon name as the majority of France supported this decision. At this time, the organisation of the French finances was beginning to take shape on a sound basis due to the expertise of Baron Louis and Count Corvetto. They introduced a new form of accounting, which in 1818meant Ministers had to present an annual report on the spending of their department. By 1818 the indemnity was paid off and the French government solvent. Therefore it was one less problem Louis had to deal with.
In fact 1818 was a very successful year for King Louis. He managed to formalise the withdrawal of foreign forces and readmission of France to the family of European nations. This was a sign of the allies beginning to trust France once again and allow it to become an equal due to the Congress of Aix-La-Chapelle. The Gouvion-St-Cyr Conscription law was also introduced in this year. This allowed France to have a peace-time army of 240,000 which was designed to be used to put down uprisings. This again, was a demonstration of just how opinion of France in the rest of Europe had changed to allow France and Louis more freedom.
The King’s support for the more moderate parties was becoming more apparent, even to the extent of changing the method of election to mean the Ultras chance of influencing the vote was more difficult and less difficult for the liberals. Although this did not concern the King, for when the given the decision to chose between the more experienced royalist Chief Minister Richelieu and more moderate Decazes, he chose the more moderate option. This was possibly the most crucial mistake the King had made. Up to this point, Louis had had great success in overcoming all the issues.
Decazes regime was unfortunately not very successful. There was not enough stability and it suited neither the right wing nor the left. The King was becoming less and less able to rule due to ageing and sickness, and pressure from the Ultras, in particularly the Comte D’Artois. The assassination of the Duke De Berry on February 13th 1820 was the final straw as Richelieu was brought back in. This could certainly be classified as a failure for the king. His original success was therefore not consistent throughout his reign. Despite this fall, due to Richelieu determination, the elections of 1820 produced a large Ultra majority in the chamber. Therefore the throne was incredibly secure with very little risk of revolution.
Another success came in the form of a Spanish revolution in 1820. A revolt in Spain had forced the Bourbon King there to re-instate the Constitution of 1812. The French were keen to intervene and in 1822 at the Congress of Verona the majority of the great power supported and approved French intervention. This was another a demonstration of the growing trust that Europe had in France, to the extent for which Louis XVIII was invited to conquer Spain on a short-term basis, whereas Napoleons attempt had been opposed. In 1823 the French forces won an easy victory in Spain. This was extremely good for France on many levels. It restored national morale and rehabilitated the Bourbon name, whilst improving dramatically relations with European powers.
Despite these successes, it is likely due to Louis’ declining ability to rule that the future king Charles X had some say in making a lot of the decisions. However, when Louis XVIII died in 1824 huge crowds of the French public stood sullenly and respectfully outside, whilst many took the opportunity to file past his body. In a book written by Philip Marsell about the king, stated “Louis XVIII, not Louis XIII, as is often said, was the last king of France for whom his people mourned”. The statement alone clarifies just how Louis had managed to win over the respect of the country, from practically being a detested outsider to becoming a beloved King. The book also comments how “the throne had never been more secure”.
This shows just how the King and the decisions he made had changed what could only be classified as a country of political instability to one for which there was no question who should rule the country in the future. At the beginning of this essay I defined a successful king as ‘as one for which puts the interests of their country first, not necessarily pleasing everybody all the time, but assuring the countries’ stability in the best way possible.’ This is very true of King Louis XVIII. He could never please both the liberals and the Ultras, yet he made decisions that allowed France to recover from the Napoleonic wars and gain the structure and stability that had been lacking in the previous 20 years. Not only did his actions improve the country financially and politically, he became a King for which the country was proud to have and sad to see go, despite the history of the Bourbon Dynasty.