Why Did The Restored Bourbon Monarchy Fail In France Essay

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Why Did The Restored Bourbon Monarchy Fail In France

Why did the restored Bourbon monarchy fail in France (1814-30)? Much of the historical interest in the restored Bourbon monarchy has concentrated on its shortcomings, often giving the impression that it was destined to failure from its very inception. Indeed, as both the First and Second Restorations ended in relatively swift revolutions, it is difficult to argue against the validity of this method. However, I don’t believe that the question of “˜why a failure occurred’ can be addressed properly without some prior discussion about the nature of this failure. Therefore, this essay will first concentrate on the sense in which the Bourbon monarchy can be said to have failed between 1814 and 1830, before progressing to deal with the reasons for this failure.

J.P.T. Bury argues that the reigns of Louis XVIII and Charles X could be termed a success in the financial and economic sphere, in its cultural achievement, and in foreign policy, and there is certainly a case to be made in each of these areas. For instance, it is widely agreed that France underwent a “profound economic change” during this period, with the appearance of savings banks and joint-stock companies, improvements in agriculture, and the expansion of the transport network.

Moreover, the rapid repayment of the war indemnity was of important symbolic value as it represented the return to financial solvency for the first time in a generation. It must be acknowledged that many of these improvements are difficult to quantify accurately, and were due in some extent a wider evolution in the European economy, while the intermittent depression that France suffered after 1826 reduced the pace of progress. On the whole however, the Bourbon monarchy can claim success in its economic performance.

Similarly, the rich literary and fallout from the conflict between the Classicists and Romantics during the 1820’s, the re-emergence of the Sorbonne as an international centre of education, and the political philosophy of Constant and Lammenais can all be used as evidence to dismiss the verdict of failure when assessing the restored Bourbon monarchy. Furthermore, between 1814 and 1830 France was to a largely rehabilitated as a Great Power, and the establishment of French influence in North Africa had began. When the extent of France’s humiliation in 1815 is taken into account, it is therefore difficult to dispute Pamela Pilbeam’s claim that the foreign policy of the Bourbons “should not be underestimated”.

It is the reality of the 1830 Revolution that means, despite its evident achievements, the restored Bourbon monarchy as a system of government must be deemed a failure. Consequently, the principal causes of this failure must lie in the aspects of Bourbon policy that have not yet been covered, namely the political and social framework of the country during the period in question, which had undergone a fundamental transformation during the previous quarter of a century The damage to the notion of Bourbon legitimacy done by the French Revolution was apparent immediately after Napoleon’s abdication, when there was very little initial clamour for a return of the dynasty. Even France’s opponents were unsure as to whether Louis XVIII should rule; instead he owed his restoration to the political manoeuvring of influential French notables including Talleyrand.

Consequently, when the King and his emigre supporters finally returned, the monarchy’s position in the conflict between royal and popular sovereignty was already weakened – many of the principles of the Revolution were conceded in the Charter of 1814, which aimed to create a largely constitutional monarchy. Ostensibly granted by a sovereign King, this document promised an elected two-chamber legislature to scrutinise the directly appointed executive, guaranteed the revolutionary land settlement, retained the Napoleonic administrative structure and promised equality before the law. Nevertheless, provision was soon made for the replacement of Imperial army officers by emigres, a mildly redistributive land law in favour of the royalists was introduced, and the tricolour was replaced by the Bourbon arms.

The difficulty of superimposing a stable monarchy upon post-Revolutionary France was made evident by the ease with which Napoleon subsequently seized control of the country during the “˜Hundred Days’. It could be argued that an inexperienced government’s lack of coherence and authority was an important reason for Napoleon’s success, but it might be more accurate to view the dissatisfaction felt by members of the Imperial elites (especially the pensioned-off army officers) towards the monarchy, as the decisive factor. Such a sense of alienation was compounded by the return of Louis XVIII “in the baggage of the Allies”, which led to his identification with the harsh and humiliating peace treaty.

The “˜Hundred Days’ thus revealed the divisions between the “old and the new France, that of the “˜emigration’ and that of the “˜revolution'”, neither of whom seemed reconciled to the Bourbon monarchy in its new form. The main objective of the royalists, with whom the aristocracy and Catholic Church were closely associated, was a return to pre-revolutionary monarchy, in which the land settlement would be revised in their favour, and the (largely Ultramontist) clergy would regain their past influence. Alternately, those who had prospered since 1789 (often termed the bourgeoisie) were anxious to retain their new wealth and freedoms, were often anticlerical, and were thus suspicious of Bourbon intentions.

In order to achieve stability in the long-term, it was essential for the King to reconcile these two diametrically opposed groups, or at the very least act as a mediator in the inevitable conflicts that the split would create. Otherwise those conflicts could destroy the Restoration settlement. Louis XVIII was fully aware of this danger, insisting that his government’s priority be to “fuse the two peoples, who exist only too much in fact, into a single one”. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the “˜Hundred Days’, the “˜Ultra’ royalists used extra-parliamentary means to undermined this aim, fomenting widespread attacks on Protestants and Liberals in the south of France. This “˜White Terror’ increased the perception amongst some of the politically active class that they were henceforth in danger from a monarchy, and were to be excluded from public life. The large purge of officials that followed, in addition to the presence of groups such as the Chevaliers de la Foi, who were wholly committed to restoring the society of orders, highlighted the scope of the potential conflict.

The shortcomings of the narrow electoral system also contributed to the divisions, as its local emphasis resulted in a 90% reactionary “˜Chambre Introuvable’ in 1815. However, another of the latent flaws in the constitution, which made ministers dependent on the King rather than the Chamber, allowed Louis XVIII to appoint relatively moderate governments under Richelieu and Decazes, and even to dissolve the Chamber if it refused to accept the Restoration settlement, as in 1816. The danger of such tactics lay in the political instability in engendered; a centrist government could be attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, while the multiplicity of parties within each side of the spectrum often led to difficulties in forming coalitions. Consequently, the party with the most internal coherence – the “˜Ultras’ – gained influence during the later years in Louis XVIII’s reign, causing the Liberals to gradually abandon the politics of compromise. Nevertheless, as long as the King remained largely above faction, it remained possible to mediate between, if not reconcile, the antagonistic elements of the Restoration system.

The succession of Charles X posed serious problems for this compromise, as he was closely identified with the most ultra-conservative elements in the aristocracy and clergy. This bias was manifested in a succession of reactionary legislation, which made sacrilege punishable by death, restricted press freedoms, and redefined the land settlement in a way that pleased neither “˜Right’ nor “˜Left’- furthermore his coronation ceremony seemed to claim divine mandate for his position.

As a result, there was a consolidation of a heterogeneous group of anticlericals, industrialists and disappointed politicians into a more unified opposition; the social elites were becoming polarised along the battle lines of the previous Revolution. The extent of Liberal resentment was revealed by the size of hostile newspaper circulation, with the anti-government press outselling their “˜Ultra’ counterparts by over 100% (approximately 40,000 to 15,000, although splits within the monarchists contributed to some extent). It can therefore be argued that the Bourbon system of government was indeed impossible if the King was unable to create an image of being above faction.

Charles X reaction to the subsequent electoral defeat of the “˜Ultras’ reveals the extent to which he desired to the real leader of his government, as he continued to appoint deeply conservative ministries. However, while Louis XVIII had used this power to defuse the building tension, Charles X actions merely exacerbated it, with the result that the Chamber refused to accept his choices. A constitutional problem that dated to the initial Restoration – must the government resign if they did could not count on the support of the Chamber – now emerged to impair its stability, as the only form of opposition lay in extra-parliamentary means.

Simultaneously, other changes in society were adding to the problems faced by the Bourbons. Demographic growth had not been met by a corresponding increase in agricultural and industrial output, which inevitably resulted in food shortages and unemployment. Increasing urbanisation had thus created a large amount of city dwellers who lacked both work and bread, and consequently any stake in society. At the beginning of 1830 moreover, the Polignac government was not capable of effective resistance to such groups in the event of major disturbance, as many troops were abroad, and the National Guard had been disbanded (but not unarmed) three years earlier, because of their palpable opposition to King and clergy.

When discontent was translated into disturbance, Charles crucially refused to accept the compromise necessary for the survival of the Bourbon system, and disturbance was thus able to become revolution during the “˜Three Glorious Days’. The close association of government and monarchy additionally meant that when the ministry fell, so did the Bourbons. With the model of revolution already established by that of 1789, the municipalities mirrored the capital, and the elder branch of the Bourbon monarchy was deposed.

In conclusion therefore, it is possible to argue that the Bourbon monarchy ultimately failed in France because it was unable to heal the divisions amongst the political elite created by the French Revolution. Louis XVIII recognised the importance of maintaining stability through supporting governments of the centre, and was able to largely mediate between (if not reconcile) these groups, by straining to appear detached from both. However, the Liberal group perceived Charles X as the leader of the aristocratic and clerical factions who represented the abuses of the ancien regime, which led them to consolidate in opposition.

As the structural flaws within the constitutional monarchy prevented them from effective parliamentary resistance, this group was forced to resort to more extreme means. Economic and social factors created a simultaneous upsurge in popular discontent, to the point where revolution ensued. Consequently, the Bourbon line that reigned between 1814 and 1830 failed, to be replaced by a constitutional “˜King of the French’ who was willing to accept the role of unifying figurehead.


Artz, F, France under the Bourbon Restoration 1814-1930, New York, Russell & Russell Inc., 1963.

Bury, J, France (1814-1940) 3rd ed., London, Meuthen & Co., 1954.

Cobban, A, A History of Modern France (Vol. 2: 1799-1870), London, Penguin, 1961.

Fortescue, W, Revolution and Counter Revolution in France 1815-52, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Pilbeam, P, The Constitutional Monarchy in France, Harlow, Longman, 2000.

Sperber, J, Revolutionary Europe 1780-1850, Harlow, Longman, 2000.

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