Biography of Louis XV, Beloved King of France

A likable king but a ruler criticized by history

Painted portrait of King Louis XV in full regalia
Portrait of King Louis XV by Jean-Baptiste van Loo.

Krzysztof Golik / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

King Louis XV of France (February 15, 1710 – May 10, 1774) was the second-to-last king of France prior to the French Revolution. Although he was known as “Louis the Beloved,” his fiscal irresponsibility and political maneuvers set the stage for the French Revolution and, ultimately, the fall of the French monarchy.

Fast Facts: Louis XV

  • Full Name: Louis of the house of Bourbon
  • Occupation: King of France
  • Born: February 15, 1710 in the Palace of Versailles, France
  • Died: May 10, 1774 in the Palace of Versailles, France
  • Spouse: Marie Leszczyńska
  • Children: Louise Élisabeth, Duchess of Parma; Princess Henriette; Princess Marie Louise; Louis, Dauphin of France; Philippe, Duke of Anjou; Princess Marie Adélaïde; Princess Victoire; Princess Sophie; Princess Thérèse; Louise, Abbess of Saint Denis
  • Key Accomplishments: Louis XV led France through a period of immense change, winning (and losing) territories and ruling over the second-longest reign in French history. His political choices, however, laid the foundation of dissent that would eventually lead to the French Revolution.

Becoming the Dauphin

Louis was the second surviving son of Louis, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Princess Marie Adelaide of Savoy. The Duke of Burgundy was the eldest son of the Dauphin, Louis, who was in turn the eldest son of King Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” The Duke of Burgundy was known as “Le Petit Dauphin” and his father as “le Grand Dauphin.”

From 1711 to 1712, a series of illnesses struck the royal family, causing chaos in the line of succession. On April 14, 1711, the “Grand Dauphin” died of smallpox, which meant that Louis’ father, the Duke of Burgundy, became first in line for the throne. Then, in February 1712, both of Louis’ parents fell ill with measles. Marie Adelaide died on February 12, and the Duke of Burgundy died less than a week later on February 18.

This left Louis’ brother, the Duke of Brittany (also, confusingly, named Louis) as the new Dauphin and heir at the age of five. However, in March 1712, both brothers contracted measles as well. A day or two into their illness, the Duke of Brittany died. Their governess, Madame de Ventadour, refused to let doctors continue bleeding Louis, which likely saved his life. He recovered and became the heir to his great-grandfather, Louis XIV.

In 1715, Louis XIV died, and five-year-old Louis became King Louis XV. The laws of the land required there to be a regency for the next eight years, until Louis turned thirteen. Officially, the role of Regent went to Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans, the son of Louis XIV’s brother Phillippe. However, Louis XIV had distrusted the Duke of Orleans and preferred that the Regency be held by his favorite illegitimate son, the Duke of Maine; to this end, he had rewritten his will to create a Regency council rather than a singular Regent. In order to circumvent this, Phillippe made a deal with the Parlement of Paris: annul Louis XIV’s changed will in exchange for the return of the droit de remontrance: the right to challenge the king’s decisions. This would prove fatal to the monarchy’s functioning and ultimately lead to the French Revolution.

Regency and the Boy King

During the Regency, Louis XV spent most of his time at the Tuileries Palace. At the age of seven, his time under Madame de Ventadour’s care ended and he was placed under the tutelage of François, the Duke of Villeroy, who educated him and taught him royal etiquette and protocol. Louis developed what would be a lifelong love for hunting and horseback riding. He also came to have an interest in geography and science, which would influence his reign.

In October 1722, Louis XV was formally crowned king, and in February 1723, the Regency was formally ended. The Duke of Orleans transitioned into the role of prime minister, but soon died. In his place, Louis XV appointed his cousin, the Duke of Bourbon. The duke turned his attention to brokering a royal marriage. After evaluating nearly a hundred candidates, the somewhat surprisingly choice was Marie Leszczyńska, a princess from the deposed Polish royal family who was seven years Louis’ senior, and they married in 1725, when he was 15 and she was 22.

Their first child was born in 1727, and they had a total of ten children—eight daughters and two sons—over the next decade. Although the king and queen loved one another, the successive pregnancies took a toll on their marriage, and the king began taking mistresses. The most famous of those was Madame de Pompadour, who was his mistress from 1745 to 1750 but remained a close friend and advisor, as well as a major cultural influence.

Religious dissent was the first and most enduring problem of Louis’ reign. In 1726, a delayed request from Louis XIV to the pope was fulfilled, and a papal bull was issued condemning Jansenism, a popular subset of Catholic doctrine. Ultimately, the bull was enforced by Cardinal de Fleury (who persuaded Louis to back it), and heavy penalties were levied on religious dissenters. De Fleury and the Duke of Bourbon clashed over the king’s favor, and de Fleury ultimately was the victor.

Rule of Fleury

From this point until his death in 1743, Cardinal de Fleury was the de facto ruler of France, manipulating and flattering the king into allowing him to make all the decisions. Although the cardinal’s rule produced an appearance of harmony, his strategies for keeping power actually resulted in a growing amount of opposition. He banned debate in Parlement and weakened the navy, both of which came back to haunt the monarchy in huge ways.

France was involved in two wars in relatively quick succession. In 1732, the War of Polish Succession began, with France supporting the Queen of France’s father Stanislaw and an Eastern European bloc secretly agreeing to bypass him. Ultimately, Fleury spearheaded a diplomatic solution. Following this, and its role in negotiating the Treaty of Belgrade between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, France was hailed as a major diplomatic power and came to control trade in the Middle East.

The War of Austrian Succession began in late 1740. Louis XV initially refused involvement, but under Fleury’s influence, France allied with Prussia against Austria. By 1744, France was struggling, and Louis XV went to the Netherlands to lead his army himself. In 1746, the French occupied Brussels. The war didn’t end, though, until 1749, and many French citizens were unhappy with the terms of the treaty.

Louis’ Later Reign and Legacy

With Fleury dead, Louis decided to rule without a prime minister. His first act was to try to reduce the national debt and improve the tax system, but his plans met with fierce opposition from the nobility and the clergy because it taxed them, rather than just “ordinary” citizens. He also attempted to purge Jansenists from a semi-religious organization of hospitals and shelters.

War followed again, first in the New World in the French and Indian War, then against Prussia and Britain directly in the Seven Years’ War. The end result was the end of French rule in Canada and the West Indies. Louis’ government continued to falter; the Parlements rebelled against the king’s taxation authority, which would begin the pre-Revolution dissent.

By 1765, Louis had suffered major losses. Madame de Pompadour died in 1764, and his son and heir Louis died of tuberculosis in 1765. Fortunately, the Dauphin had a son who became Dauphin in turn, the future Louis XVI. Tragedy continued: the late Dauphin’s wife died, followed in 1768 by the Queen. By 1769, Louis XV had a new mistress: Madame du Barry, who gained a reputation for crassness and impertinence.

In 1770, Louis’ ministers began fighting back against the rebellious Parlements, consolidating royal power, imposing controls on the price of grain, and attempting to rid the tax system of corruption. The same year, Marie Antoinette came to court as the wife of the future Louis XVI. Even in his final years, Louis XV pursued new construction projects. In 1774, Louis fell ill with smallpox. He died on May 10 and was succeeded by his grandson Louis XVI.

Although Louis XV was popular during his lifetime, historians point to his hands-off approach, his conflicts with Parlements, his expensive wars and courts, and his suppressive activities as laying the foundation for the French Revolution. The French Enlightenment took place during his reign, with the participation of brilliant minds such as Voltaire and Rousseau, but he also censored many of their works. A handful of historians defend Louis and suggest his negative reputation was created to justify the French Revolution, but that view is in the minority. Ultimately, Louis XV is typically viewed as a poor monarch who gave over too much of his power and in so doing set in motion events that would eventually lead to the destruction of the monarchy and the upheaval of France.

Sources

  • Bernier, Olivier. Louis the Beloved: The Life of Louis XV, (1984).
  • “Louis XV.” Biography, https://www.biography.com/royalty/louis-xv.
  • “Louis XV: King of France.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-XV.