Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

War of the Austrian Succession

The king had barely been proclaimed of age at thirteen, when the wicked regent was stricken with apoplexy. As Louis XV. could not yet take charge of affairs, they were entrusted to the Duke of Bourbon,—a distant relative,—who selected Fleury as his minister. They founded the French Exchange (Bourse), and before long decided that it would be well for the young king to marry as soon as possible so as to have an heir. Louis had been betrothed to a little Spanish princess, who was being educated in France, and upon whom he is said to have bestowed a wonderful doll, worth $5000. But as it would take this child years to grow up, it was decided to send her home and marry the king to Marie, daughter of a dethroned King of Poland (Stanislas Leszczynski), although the lady was seven years older than Louis XV.

The future Queen of France was then living modestly with her parents in a small town of Germany, little dreaming of the exalted position awaiting her. But one day the proud father burst into the room where the princess and her mother were busily sewing, crying out rapturously, "Let us get down on our knees and thank God!" When Marie thereupon wonderingly inquired whether he had been recalled to Poland, he replied, "Better still, you are to be Queen of France!"

Princess Marie married Louis XV. in 1726, and showed her kind heart by immediately distributing among her friends and ladies-in-waiting the sum of money which her royal spouse sent her as a wedding gift (corbeille). Her delight was expressed in the simple exclamation, "Ah! this is the first time in my life that I have been able to make presents!" Louis's queen was good, amiable, gentle, and generous as long as she lived, but never had much influence over her husband, who neglected and insulted her. She was always a devoted mother to the many daughters whom her husband scorned at first, and called by numbers (Madam the First, Madam the Second, etc.), as well as to the long-desired son, next to the youngest in the royal nursery.

The same year that the king married, he craftily got rid of his minister, the Duke of Bourbon, by exiling him, and pretended thereafter to govern the country himself, although all he did was to sit in the council room, playing with a pet cat, while Fleury did the real work of ruling France for seventeen years.

When the ruling King of Poland died and an election took place to decide upon his successor, the father of Queen Marie secured so many votes that he thought it wise to attempt to recover his lost scepter. Louis XV. felt in honor bound to support his father-in-law's claims, and thus France became involved in the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1738). But after the French had won two battles in Italy over the allies of the rival candidate, a treaty was signed, which provided that the French queen's father should have Lorraine instead of Poland, and should leave that province to France at his death. Thus Lorraine became part of France in 1766 and remained French until 1871, when, as we shall see, it was seized by the Prussians.

Peace had not lasted very long, when another war broke out which was to involve all Europe, as well as some of the colonies. This is what is known in Europe as the War of the Austrian Succession, and in United States history as King George's War. By rights there should have been no war at all, for the late Emperor had made all neighboring kings swear not to molest his only daughter, Maria Theresa, whom he appointed, by Pragmatic Sanction (special law) and in his will, sole heir to the Austrian dominions.

But as soon as this Emperor was dead, five different claimants for the Austrian lands arose, and in the conflict which resulted (1741-1748), France, Bavaria, Prussia, and Spain fought against Austria, England, Holland, and Russia. One of the serious engagements was at Dettingen (1743), where George II. of England commanded in person and defeated the French.

The next year, a great sensation was caused in France by the king's severe illness at Metz. In Paris six thousand masses were said at the great church of Notre Dame for his recovery, and when the news finally arrived that he was out of danger, his loyal people were beside themselves with joy. On hearing that they were calling him "Louis the Well-Beloved," the king was so touched that he remorsefully cried, "What have I done to deserve such love?" But whereas Louis XV. seemed truly penitent when near to death, he no sooner recovered his health than he fell back into all his self-indulgent ways.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Both the king and the Dauphin ("the Dauphin" was always the title of the king's eldest son, heir to the throne) were present at the battle of Fontenoy, when the English cried, "Gentlemen of the French Guard, fire first." "Fire yourselves, gentlemen of England; we never fire first! retorted the Frenchmen, whose general had told them that those who began the fight were invariably beaten. Although this general (Marshal de Saxe) was very ill at the time, he nevertheless won a brilliant victory, over which there was great rejoicing. This triumph was followed by others, and then the war was ended by the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748). The King of France, having haughtily declared that "he would treat like a king and not like a merchant," retained none of his conquests; besides, he consented to banish the Stuart princes from France,—the refuge of their family ever since the Revolution of 1688 in England).

Shortly after the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle had been signed, when France was just beginning to enjoy an eight-year period of peace, Louis XV. fell under the spell of the Marquise de Pompadour, a court lady whose original mode of dressing her hair proved fashionable in her day, and has since been revived. Such was the influence of this designing woman, that from 1748 to 1764 she was practically regent of France, appointing ministers and generals according to her fancy, making the king give her one fourth of the public money every year for private expenses, and setting a most pernicious example to both court and nation.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


Had she been a good and conscientious woman, Madame de Pompadour was certainly clever enough to have done wonders, but she was really base, and so fickle that France had no less than twenty-five ministers of her choosing in eight years (1755-1763). She worked hard, however, to charm the worthless king and to retain his favor, for she knew how selfish he was, and how easily she might be supplanted and forgotten. This is proved by the remark she once made, "If the king found some one else with whom he could talk about his hunting and his affairs, at the end of three days he would not know the difference if I were gone."