Louis XIV - John S. C. Abbott

The Last Days of Louis XIV


Upon the death of the king's son, the Duke of Burgoyne assumed the title of Dauphin, which his father had previously borne, and became direct heir to the crown. He was a retiring, formal man, very much devoted to study, and somewhat pedantic. He was also religiously inclined. In his study, where he passed most of his time, he divided his hours between works of devotion and books of science. His sudden advent to the direct heirship to the French throne surrounded him with courtiers and flatterers. The palace at Meudon, where he generally resided, was now crowded with noble guests.

He became affable, frequently showed himself in public, entered into amusements, and was soon regarded as a general favorite. Taught by Madame de Maintenon, he succeeded, by his marked respect for the king and his submission to his slightest wishes, in gaining the good will of the homage-loving monarch. The years had rolled rapidly along, and the young dauphin was thirty years of age. He had three children, and, being irreproachable in his domestic relations, was developing a very noble character. The dauphiness had attained her twenty-seventh year. She was an extremely beautiful and fascinating woman.

The dauphiness was fond of snuff. On the 3d of February, 1712, the Duke de Noailles, a true friend, presented her with a box of Spanish snuff, with which she was delighted. She left the box upon the table in her boudoir. It was there for a couple of days, she frequently indulging in the luxury of a pinch. On the 5th she was attacked with sudden sickness, accompanied by shivering fits, burning fever, and intense pain in the head. The attack was so sudden and extraordinary that all the attendants thought of poison, though none ventured to give utterance to the surmise. For four days she grew worse, with frequent seasons of delirium. The dauphin was almost frantic. The king sat in anguish, hour after hour, at her bedside.

No remedies were of any avail. Her sufferings were so great that the dauphin could not remain in her dying chamber to witness her agony. She was greatly surprised when informed that she must die. All the offices of the Church were attended to. She received the rite of extreme unction, and, in the wildness of delirium, lost all recognition of those who were around her. The king, bowed down with anguish, was with difficulty prevailed upon to retire. He had but reached the door of the palace when she expired.

The king was now a world-weary, heart-stricken old man, who had numbered more than his threescore years and ten. He seemed crushed with grief, and his eyes were flooded with tears as he returned, with Madame de Maintenon, to Marly. The apartment which the dauphin paced in agony was immediately above the dying chamber. As soon as the death-struggle was over, he was induced to retire to Marly, that he might be spared the anguish of witnessing the preparations for the funeral.

As the dauphin entered the chamber of the king, the monarch was startled in witnessing the change which had taken place in his appearance. His face was flushed with fever; his eyes were dilated and inflamed, and livid stains covered his face. It was manifest that the same disease, whatever it was, which had stricken down the dauphiness, had also attacked the dauphin. The malady made rapid progress. In the intensity of his anguish, the sufferer declared his entrails were on fire. Conscious that his dying hour had come, he, on the night of the 17th, partook of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and almost immediately expired.

The dreadful tidings were conveyed to the king as he sat in the apartment of Madame de Maintenon, with the younger brother of the dauphin, Charles, the duke de Berri, by his side. The king, anticipating the announcement, sat with his head bent down upon his breast, and clasping almost convulsively the hand of the prince who sat at his feet. Throwing his arms around the neck of the Duke de Berri, the king exclaimed, in accents of despair, "Alas! my son, you alone are now left to me."

The Duke of Burgoyne had buried three children. There were two then living. The eldest, the Duke of Bretagne, was five years of age. The youngest, the Duke of Anjou, had just attained his second year. By the death of the Duke of Burgoyne, his eldest child became the dauphin and the immediate heir to the crown. The next day both of these children were taken sick, evidently with the same malady, whether of natural disease or the effect of poison, which had proved so fatal to their parents. The eldest immediately died. The same funeral car conveyed the remains of the father, the mother, and the child to the gloomy vaults of St. Denis.

The youngest child, the Duke of Anjou, by the most careful nursing recovered to ascend the throne with the title of Louis XV., and to present to the world, in his character, one of the most infamous kings who had ever worn an earthly crown.

We have previously mentioned the death of the king's only brother, Philip, duke of Orleans. He left a son, the Duke of Chartres. Upon the death of the Duke of Orleans his son inherited the title and the estate of his father. He was an exceedingly dissolute man. Should all the legitimate descendants of the king die, he would be heir to the throne. With the exception of Philip, who was King of Spain, and thus precluded from inheriting the throne of France, all were now dead except the infant Duke of Anjou. The death of that child would place the crown upon the brow of Philip, duke of Orleans.

As it was evident that all these victims had died of poison, suspicion was so directed against the Duke of Orleans that the accusation was often hooted at him in the streets. There is, however, no convincing evidence that he was guilty. One of the daughters of the Duke of Orleans had married the Duke de Berri. She was as wicked as she was beautiful, and scarcely condescended to disguise her profligacy. The duke intercepted some letters which proved her guilty intimacy with an officer of her household. A violent quarrel took place in the royal presence. The husband kicked his wife with his heavy boot, and the king lifted his cane to strike the duke.

A sort of reconciliation was effected. The duchess, who, beyond all doubt, was a guilty woman, professed to be satisfied with the apologies which her husband made. Soon after they went on a wolf-hunt in the forest of Marly. Both appeared in high spirits. The run was long. Heated by the race and thirsty, the duke asked the duchess if she had any thing with her with which he could quench his thirst. She drew from the pocket of her carriage a small bottle, which contained, she said, an exquisite cordial with which she was always provided in case of over-fatigue. The duke drained it, and returned the empty bottle to the duchess. As she took it she said, with a smile, "I am very glad to have met you so opportunely."

Thus they parted. In a few hours the duke was a corpse. It was so manifestly for the interest of the dissolute and unprincipled Duke of Orleans that the princes which stood between him and the throne should be removed, that all these cases of poisoning were attributed to him. Indeed, one of the motives which might have influenced his daughter, the Duchess de Berri, to poison her husband, whom she loathed, may have been the hope of seeing her father upon the throne. When the funeral procession passed near the Palais Royal, the residence of the duke, the tumult was so great that it was feared that the palace might be sacked.

The anguish of the duke, thus clamorously assailed with the crime of the most atrocious series of assassinations, was great. A friend, the Marquis de Canillac, calling upon him one day, found him prostrate upon the floor of his apartment in utter despair. He knew that he was suspected by his uncle the king, and by the court as well as by the populace. At last he went boldly to the king, and demanded that he should be arrested, sent to the Bastile, and put upon trial. The king sternly, and without any manifestation of sympathy, refused, saying that such a scandal should not, with his consent, be made any more public than it already was. The king also recoiled from the idea of having a prince of the blood royal tried for murder.

As it was known that the king could not live long, and a babe of but two years was to be his successor—a feeble babe, who had already narrowly escaped death by poison, the question of the regency, during the minority of this babe, and of heirship to the throne in case the babe should die, became a matter of vast moment. The court was filled with intrigues and plots. The Duke of Orleans had his numerous partisans, men of opulence and rank. He was but a nephew of the king—son of the king's brother.

On the other hand was the Duke du Maine, an acknowledged son  of the king—the legitimated son of Madame de Montespan. But no royal decree, no act of Parliament could obliterate the stain of his birth. He had many and powerful supporters, who, by his accession to power, would be placed in all the offices of honor and emolument. Madame de Maintenon, in herself a host, was one of the most devoted of his friends. She had been his tutor. She had ever loved him ardently. He had also pledged her, in case of his success, that she should be recognized as Queen of France.

The monarch was harassed and bewildered by these contending factions. The populace took sides. The Duke of Orleans could not leave his palace without being exposed to the hootings of the rabble. He withdrew from his city residence, the Palais Royal, to the splendid palace of St. Cloud. He was accompanied by a magnificent train of nobles, and, being a man of almost boundless wealth, he established his court here in regal splendor.

There was no proof  that the Duke of Orleans was implicated in the poisonings. The king was unwilling to receive evidence that his brother's son could be guilty of such a crime. Being superstitiously a religionist, the king recoiled from the attempt to place upon the throne a son of Madame de Montespan, who was the acknowledged wife of another man. He therefore favored the claims of the Duke of Orleans, and sent him word at St. Cloud that he recognized his innocence of the crime of which public rumor accused him.

It is, however, very evident that this was a measure of policy and not of sincere conviction. He entered into no friendly relations with the duke, and kept him at a respectful distance. The disastrous war of the Spanish Succession was now closed, through the curious complications of state policy. Philip VI. retained his throne, but France was exhausted and impoverished. The king often sat for hours, with his head leaning upon his hand, in a state of profound listlessness and melancholy. Famine was ravaging the land. A wail of woe came from millions whom his wars and extravagance had reduced to starvation.

The Duchess de Berri, the unblushing profligate, the undoubted murderess, was, as the daughter of the king's brother, the only legitimate princess left to preside over the royal court. She was fascinating in person and manners, with scarcely a redeeming virtue to atone for her undisguised vices.

"Thus the stately court of Anne of Austria, the punctilious circle of Maria Theresa, and the elegant society of the Duchess of Burgoyne were—at the very period of his life when Louis XIV., at length disenchanted of the greatness, and disgusted with the vices of the world, was seeking to purify his heart and to exalt his thoughts that they might become more meet for heaven—superseded by the orgies of a wanton, who, with unabashed brow and unshrinking eye, carried her intrigues into the very saloons of Marly."

Madame de Maintenon resorted to every measure she could devise to induce the king to appoint her favorite pupil, the Duke du Maine, regent during the minority of the infant Duke of Anjou. The king was greatly harassed. Old, infirm, world-weary, heart-stricken, and pulled in opposite directions, by powers so strong, he knew not what to do. At last he adopted a sort of compromise, which gave satisfaction to neither party.

The king appointed a council of regency, of which the Duke of Orleans was president. But the Duke du Maine was a member of the council, and was also intrusted with the guardianship and education of the young heir to the throne. This will was carefully concealed in a cavity opened in the wall of a tower of the state apartment. The iron door of this closet was protected by three keys, one of which was held by the president of the chambers, one by the attorney general, and one by the public registrar.

A royal edict forbade the closet to be opened until after the death of the king, and then only in the presence of the assembled Parliament, the princes, and the peers. The document had been extorted from the king. It was not in accordance with his wishes. Indeed, it satisfied no one. As he placed the papers in the hands of the president of the chambers, he said to him, gloomily,

"Here is my will. The experience of my predecessors has taught me that it may not be respected. But I have been tormented to frame it. I have been allowed neither peace nor rest until I complied. Take it away. Whatever may happen to it, I hope that I shall now be left in quiet."

The advanced age of the king and his many infirmities rendered even a slight indisposition alarming. On the evening of the 3d of May, 1715, the king, having supped with the Duchess de Berri, retired to bed early, complaining of weariness and exhaustion. The rumor spread rapidly that the king was dangerously sick. The foreign embassadors promptly dispatched the news to their several courts.

The jealous king, who kept himself minutely informed of every thing which transpired, was very indignant in view of this apparent eagerness to hurry him to the tomb. To prove, not only to the court, but to all Europe, that he was still every inch a king, he ordered a magnificent review of the royal troops at Marly. The trumpet of preparation was blown loudly. Many came, not only from different parts of the kingdom, but from the other states of Europe, to witness the spectacle. It took place on the 20th of June, 1715. As the troops, in their gorgeous uniforms, defiled before the terrace of Marly, quite a spruce-looking man, surrounded by obsequious attendants, emerged from the principal entrance of the palace, descended the marble steps and mounted his horse. It was the poor old king. Inspired by vanity, which even dying convulsions could not quell, he had rouged his pale and haggard cheeks, wigged his thin locks, padded his skeleton limbs, and dressed himself in the almost juvenile costume of earlier years. Sustained by artificial stimulants, this poor old man kept his tottering seat upon his saddle for four long hours. He then, having proved that he was still young and vigorous, returned to his chamber. The wig was thrown aside, the pads removed, the paint washed off, and the infirm septuagenarian sought rest from his exhaustion upon the royal couch.

Day after day the king grew more feeble, with the usual alternations of nervous strength and debility, but with no abatement of his chronic gloom. The struggles which he endured to conceal the approaches of decay did but accelerate that decay. He was restless, and again lethargic. Dropsical symptoms appeared in his discolored feet and swollen ankles. Still he insisted every day upon seeing his ministers, and exhibited himself padded, and rouged, and costumed in the highest style of art. He even affected, in his gait and gesture, the elasticity of youth. In his restlessness, the king repaired, with his court, from Marly to Versailles.

Here the king was again taken seriously sick with an attack of fever. With unabated resolution, he continued his struggles against the approaches of the angel of death. While the fevered blood was throbbing in his veins, he declared that he was but slightly indisposed, and summoned a musical band to his presence, with orders that the musicians should perform only the most animating and cheerful melodies.

But the fever and other alarming symptoms increased so rapidly that scarcely had the band been assembled when the court physicians became apprehensive that the king's dissolution was immediately to take place. The king's confessor and the Cardinal de Rohan were promptly summoned to attend to the last services of the Catholic Church for the dying. There was a scene of confusion in the palace. The confessor, Le Tellier, communicated to the king the intelligence that he was probably near his end. While he was receiving the confession  of the royal penitent, the cardinal was hurrying to the chapel to get the viaticum for administering the communion, and the holy oil for the rite of extreme unction.

It was customary that the pyx, as the box was called in which the host was kept, should be conveyed to the bedside of expiring royalty in formal procession. The cardinal, in his robes of office, led the way. Several attendants of the royal household followed, bearing torches. Then came Madame de Maintenon. They all gathered in the magnificent chamber, and around the massive, sumptuous couch of the monarch. The cardinal, after speaking a few words in reference to the solemnity of a dying hour, administered the sacrament and the holy oils. The king listened reverently and in silence, and then sank back upon his pillow, apparently resigned to die.

To the surprise of all, he revived. Patiently he bore his sufferings, which at times were severe. His legs began to swell badly and painfully. Mortification took place. He was informed that the amputation of the leg was necessary to save him from speedy death.

"Will the operation prolong my life?" inquired the king.

"Yes, sire," the surgeon replied; "certainly for some days, perhaps for several weeks."

"If that be all," said the king, "it is not worth the suffering. God's will be done."

The king could not conceal the anguish with which he was agitated in view of his wicked life. He fully believed in the religion of the New Testament, and that after death came the judgment. He tried to believe that the priest had power to grant him absolution from his sins. How far he succeeded in this no one can know.

Openly he expressed his anguish in view of the profligacy of his youth, and wept bitterly in the retrospect of those excesses. We know not what compunctions of conscience visited him as he reflected upon the misery he had caused by the persecution of the Protestants. But he had been urged to this by his highest ecclesiastics, and even by the holy father himself.

It would not be strange, under these circumstances, if a man of his superstitious and fanatical spirit should, even in a dying hour, reflect with some complacency upon these crimes, believing that thus he had been doing God service. It is this which gives to papal fanaticism  its terrible and demoniac energy. The sincere  papist believes "heresy"  to be poison for the soul infinitely more dreadful than any poison for the body. Such poison must be banished from the world at whatever cost of suffering. Many an ecclesiastic has gone from his closet of prayer to kindle the flames which consumed his victim. The more sincere  the papist is in his belief, the more mercilessly will he swing the scourge and fire the fagot.

Loudly, however, he deplored the madness of his ambition which had involved Europe in such desolating wars. Bitterly he expressed his regret that he left France in a state of such exhaustion, impoverished, burdened with taxation, and hopelessly crushed by debt.

The condition of the realm was indeed deplorable. A boy of five years of age was to inherit the throne. A man so profligate that he was infamous even in a court which rivaled Sodom in its corruption was to be invested with the regency of the kingdom—a man who was accused, by the general voice of the nation, of having poisoned those who stood between him and the throne. That man's sister, an unblushing wanton, who had poisoned her own husband, presided over the festivities of the palace. The nobles, abandoned to sensual indulgence, were diligent and ingenious only in their endeavors to wrench money from the poor. The masses of the people were wretched beyond description, and almost beyond imagination in our land of liberty and competence. The execrations of the starving millions were rising in a long wail around the throne.

Thomas Jefferson, subsequently President of the United States, who, not many years after this, was the American embassador at Paris, wrote, in 1785, to Mrs. Trist, of Philadelphia,

"Of twenty millions of people supposed to be in France, I am of the opinion that there are nineteen millions more wretched, more accursed in every circumstance of human existence than the most conspicuously wretched individual of the whole United States."

Even the Duke of Orleans, the appointed regent, said, "If I were a subject I would certainly revolt. The people are good-natured fools to suffer so long."

These sufferings and these corruptions were the origin and cause of the French Revolution. Napoleon, the great advocate of the rights of the people in antagonism to this aristocratic privilege, said, at St. Helena,

"Our Revolution was a national convulsion as irresistible in its effects as an eruption of Vesuvius. When the mysterious fusion which takes place in the entrails of the earth is at such a crisis that an explosion follows, the eruption bursts forth. The unperceived workings of the discontent of the people follow exactly the same course. In France, the sufferings of the people, the moral combinations which produce a revolution, had arrived at maturity, and the explosion took place."

Such was the condition in which unhappy France was left by Louis XIV., after a reign of seventy years. He was now seventy-seven years of age. Madame de Maintenon, two years his senior, was entering her eightieth year. With unwearied devotion she watched at the bedside of that selfish husband whose pride would never allow him to acknowledge her publicly as his wife.

Feeling that his end was drawing near, the king summoned the Duke of Orleans to his bedside, and informed him minutely of the measures he wished to have adopted after his death. The duke listened respectfully, but paid no more regard to the wishes of the now powerless and dying king than to the wailing of the wind. The king had penetration enough to see that his day was over. He sank back upon his pillow in despair.

On the 26th of August several prominent members of his court were invited to the dying chamber of the king. His voice was almost gone. He beckoned them to gather near around his bed. Then, in feeble tones, tremulous with emotion, the pitiable old man, conscious of his summons to the tribunal of God, said,

"Gentlemen, I ask your pardon for the bad example I have set you. I thank you for your fidelity to me, and beg you to be equally faithful to my grandson. Farewell, gentlemen. Forgive me. I hope you will sometimes think of me when I am gone."

"By many a death-bed I have been,

By many a sinner's parting scene,

But never aught like this."

It was, indeed, a spectacle mournfully sublime. The dying chamber was one of the most magnificent apartments in the palace of Versailles. The royal couch, massive in its architecture, richly curtained in its embroidered upholstery of satin and gold, presented a bed whose pillowed luxury exhibited haggard death in the strongest possible contrast.

Upon this gorgeous bed the gray-haired king reclined, wrinkled and wan, and with a countenance which bore the traces both of physical suffering and of keen remorse. The velvet hangings of the bed were looped back with heavy tassels of gold. A group of nobles in gorgeous court costumes were kneeling around the bed. Dispersed over the vast apartment were other groups of courtiers and ladies, in picturesque attitudes of real or affected grief. The gilded cornices, the richly-painted ceilings, the soft carpet, yielding to the pressure of the foot, the lavish display of the most costly and luxurious furniture, all conspired to render the dimmed eye, and wasted cheek, and palsied frame of the dying more impressive.

At a gesture from the king nearly all retired. For a few moments there was unbroken silence. The king then requested his great grandchild, who was to be his successor, to be brought to him. A cushion was placed by the side of the bed, and the half-frightened child, clinging to the hand of his governess, kneeled upon it. Louis XIV. gazed for a few moments with almost pitying tenderness upon the infant prince, and then said,

"My child, you are about to become a great king. Do not imitate me either in my taste for building or in my love of war. Live in peace with the nations. Render to God all that you owe him. Teach your subjects to honor His name. Strive to relieve the burdens of your people, in which I have been so unfortunate as to fail. Never forget the gratitude you owe to the Duchess de Ventadour."

"Madame," said the king, addressing Madame de Ventadour, "permit me to embrace the prince."

The dauphin was placed upon the bed. The king encircled him in his arms, pressed him fondly to his breast, and said, in a voice broken by emotion,

"I bless you, my dear child, with all my heart." He then raised his eyes to heaven, and uttered a short prayer for God's blessing upon the boy.

The next day, after another night of languor and suffering, the restless, conscience-stricken king again summoned the dignitaries of the court to his bedside, and said to them, in the presence of Madame de Maintenon and of his confessor, who had mainly instigated him in the persecution of the Protestants,

"Gentlemen, I die in the faith and obedience of the Church. I know nothing of the dogmas by which it is divided. I have followed the advice which I have received, and have done only what I was desired to do. If I have erred, my guides alone must answer before God, whom I call upon to witness this assertion."

The succeeding night the king was restless and greatly agitated. He could not sleep, and seemed to pass the whole night in agonizing prayer. In the morning he said to Madame de Maintenon,

"At this moment I only regret yourself. I have not made you happy. But I have ever felt for you all the regard and affection which you deserved. My only consolation in leaving you exists in the hope that we shall, ere long, meet again in eternity."

Hours of agony, bodily and mental, were still allotted to the king. His limbs were badly swollen. Upon one of them mortification was rapidly advancing. He was often delirious, with but brief intervals of consciousness. The service for the dying was performed. The ceremony seemed slightly to arouse him from his lethargy. His voice was heard occasionally blending with the prayers of the ecclesiastics as he repeated several times,

"Now, in the hour of death, O my God, come to my aid."

These were his last words. He sank back insensible upon his pillow. A few hours of painful breathing passed away, and at eight o'clock in the morning of the 1st of September, 1715, he expired, in the seventy-seventh year of his age and the seventy-second of his reign. It was the longest reign in the annals of France. Had he been governed through this period by enlightened Christian principle, how many millions might have been made happy whom his crimes doomed to life-long woe!

An immense concourse was assembled in the court-yard at Versailles, anticipating the announcement of his death. The moment he breathed his last sigh, the captain of the body-guard approached the great balcony, threw open the massive windows, and, looking down upon the multitude below, raised his truncheon above his head, broke it in the centre, threw the fragments down into the court-yard, and cried sadly, "The king is dead!"

Then, instantly seizing another staff from the hands of an attendant, he waved it joyfully above his head, and shouted triumphantly, "Long live the king, Louis XV.!" A huzza burst from the lips of the assembled thousands almost loud enough to pierce the ear of the king, now palsied in death.

Death of Louis XIV


There were few to mourn the departed monarch. As his remains were hurried to the vaults of St. Denis, those vaults which he had so much dreaded, the populace shouted execrations and pelted his coffin with mud. Not the slightest regard was paid to his will. The Duke of Orleans assumed the regency with absolute power. His reign was execrable, followed by the still more infamous reign of Louis XV. Then came the Revolution, as the sceptre of utterly despotic sway passed into the hands of the feeble Louis XVI. The storm, which had been gathering for ages, burst with fury which appalled the world. A more tremendous event has not occurred in the history of our race. The story has too often been told by those who were in sympathy with the kings and the nobles. The time will come when the people's  side of the story will be received, and the terrible drama will be better understood.