Louis XV (1710–1774), king of France. He began his reign as "Louis the Well-Beloved" but died unmourned because serious defects of character made him unwilling and unable to reign effectively.
Louis was born at Versailles on Feb. 15, 1710, the son of the Duke of Burgundy, who died in 1712, and great-grandson of Louis XIV. He became king at the age of five when Louis XIV died in 1715. The country was governed by a regent, the Duke d'Orléans, until Louis reached his legal majority in 1723. The young King continued to rule through intermediaries, however. The Duke de Bourbon served as first minister until 1726, arranging the marriage of Louis to Marie Leszczynska, daughter of the dethroned King of Poland, Stanislas. Cardinal Fleury, the King's former tutor, then became head of the government. He gave France almost two decades of stability before he died in 1743, although public opinion forced him to enter the War of the Polish Succession (1733–1735) on behalf of the dethroned Stanislas. After Fleury's death Louis declared his intention of being his own first minister and personally coordinating the activities of his ministers.
The King's Character
Neither his education nor his character suited Louis for the task of governing France personally, as Louis XIV had. Although Louis was handsome and intelligent, his potential was spoiled by a thoroughly inadequate education that taught him that he was the center of the nation's life yet failed to awaken in him any real sense of responsibility for the welfare of his realm. Courtly life at Versailles, moreover, isolated him from his subjects, bored him with its elaborate etiquette, accentuated his self-centeredness, and catered to a prodigious sexual appetite that he in no way tried to curb. An avid, energetic huntsman and lover, Louis XV was not physically lazy, but he became an indolent, do-nothing king because he would not apply himself to the daily, but crucially important, routine of government.
The Decline of Royal Government
During Louis XV's reign France suffered diplomatic and military reverses, narrowly escaping a serious setback in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and ultimately losing most of its colonial empire to Britain in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Because the government was unable to increase its revenues, the costs of the latter struggle almost bankrupted the crown. Eventually Louis XV and the royal government as a whole lost the respect, affection, and confidence of the nation.
Unlike his great-grandfather, however, Louis XV did not deliberately pursue a bellicose and expensive foreign policy. He was, nevertheless, responsible for the misfortunes and disasters of his reign because he would neither govern nor accept and trust a first minister who would. For 30 years, consequently, French government, both in domestic and foreign affairs, lacked continuity, unity of purpose, and firmness, as cabinet succeeded cabinet, and ministers rose and fell. The King's gravest failure was his inability to direct and unify his ministers. He further weakened royal government by dealing with each minister separately, often intriguing against his own appointees. Under Louis XV political success and survival came to depend not on faithful, efficient service to the King but on court intrigue and favoritism. It was in the realm of factional intrigue and place-seeking that the royal "official mistresses" exercised a certain amount of political influence.
Louis elevated a succession of women to that office. Each had her favorites and enemies among the courtiers vying for office. Marie de Mailly-Nesle, Duchess de Chateauroux, was the first of the important mistresses. She was succeeded by Jeanne Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, the beautiful and intelligent patroness of the arts and of enlightened philosophy. Louis' last mistress was Jeanne Bécu, Countess du Barry. The actual political importance of the royal mistresses has often been exaggerated. In general, their role was restricted to favoring or intriguing against office-holders or aspirants to office. Thus, they merely exacerbated existing factional strife.
Last Attempts at Reform
Under Louis XV royal government was seriously weakened, perhaps fatally so. His reign, however, was not without accomplishments. The Duke de Choiseul's military and naval reforms, for example, were important and long-lasting. Even Louis XV himself, late in life, acted with admirable energy and determination when he decided to reassert royal authority over the aristocracy.
For decades the aristocracy, entrenched in the high law courts (the parlements), had prevented the crown from enacting new and more equitable tax measures. The government urgently needed additional revenue, and even though the aristocracy was virtually untaxed, the parlements refused to accept reform. Their persistent obstruction finally drove the usually indecisive King into action in 1771. Aided by René Maupeou, his chancellor, Louis boldly abolished the old parlements, reorganized the administration of justice, and created new parlements that were excluded from the legislative process.
Unfortunately the "Maupeou parlements" did not last long enough to prove their worth or restore the government's prestige. When Louis XV died of smallpox at Versailles on May 10, 1774, his successor, Louis XVI, reinstated the old parlements, thus nullifying the one deed that might have partially redeemed one of the Bourbon monarchy's most disastrous reigns (Bienvenu, Richard T. "Louis XV (France) (1710–1774)." Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online, 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012)