Drama documentary. A costumed romp through the reign of Louis XV, one of history's greatest libertines. A saga of sex, war, torture, gluttony and some truly astonishing wigs.
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The world's most magnificent palace
is about to become its most notorious.
Home to decadence on a truly royal scale.
Prostitution and gluttony.
Gambling and torture.
And enough sex to scandalised even the French.
This is the story of a king who took Versailles,
turned it into his palace of pleasure,
and brought the monarchy to the brink of collapse.
The waking ceremony of the Duke of Anjou,
by grace of God, King Louis XV, Monarch of France and Navarre,
and just an 11-year-old boy.
Louis will reign for 58 years,
but his whole life will be lived in the shadow of another man's glory,
his predecessor, Louis XIV.
Louis XIV was an incredibly tough act to follow.
He is seen as The Great.
He is the Conqueror of Europe.
He adds to France.
He is the greatest monarch
of the 17th century.
He was the first act on the stage of Versailles.
He was the sun,
he was Apollo the sun god.
Everything orbited around him.
The etiquette of the court, the day of the court,
the extraordinary life lived entirely in the public gaze.
In his patronage of the arts, in his building projects,
in his personal conduct,
in the way he dressed,
the way he ate, the way he looked,
the way he walked...
From the fountains in his gardens to the silver by his bed,
he had established a form of etiquette
with the sole view of making the whole country of France
entirely focused upon his person
and his power.
Louis XV never expected to be king, but both his father
and grandfather died before they could reach the throne.
Louis XV loses his parents and his grandparents
when he's two years old.
He's an orphan brought up by people
that he doesn't know very well,
some of whom are probably fairly
terrifying as courtiers.
He is a sickly child very early on.
Wherever he went,
Louis was surrounded by the legacy of his great-grandfather,
the man who first built the extraordinary palace
that was his home.
Certainly, one would imagine Louis XV has been traumatised
by the death of all his near family,
and is a lonely and probably
slightly disturbed child in his youth,
and I think this carries through the rest of his life.
Louis had been called the King of France since he was five,
but others ran the country in his name.
On his 12th birthday, it was time for him to take his crown,
and his place on the world stage.
The coronation of Louis XV was a moment of great hope
and expectation for the French people.
They'd had long years of war,
and now the country was at peace,
and it had a young king,
in whom it was possible to invest every conceivable hope.
So, they could project their ambitions
and expectations for the new reign on this young, as yet, untested king.
But, there was a shadow over Louis's inheritance,
cast not by an eclipse, but by a mountain of debt.
Despite all his success in war and diplomacy,
Louis XIV never managed to balance the books,
or even pay for the building of his enormous palace.
Louis XIV, when he died, left France in absolutely dire straits.
After a long war he, of course, left France,
something like, 20 years revenue in debt,
2 billion livres in debt, at least.
And this was going to be an absolutely massive problem.
2 billion livres. That's £160 billion in today's money.
But, before he could start work on that problem,
there was one other thing that demanded
the new King's immediate attention,
Louis XV was more than ready to get married.
When he was 15, his original fiance,
who was the little Infanta of Spain, was still only five years old.
And, since 15-year-old boys loathe sweet, little girls,
he was rather embarrassed to have her around the place.
Also, the ministers were terribly keen to get him breeding,
so the little Infanta and her dolls were packed off back to Madrid,
and a new wife had to be found.
They cast about for princesses,
and they eventually settled on Marie Leszczynska,
who wasn't the most obvious choice,
since her father was the deposed king of Poland,
and she really had no money.
She was 22, quite pretty,
although, as the female courtiers disparagingly remarked,
"Her complexion had never known any other cosmetic than snow."
Nonetheless, 15-year-old boys aren't really very choosy,
and Louis fell madly in love with her at once.
Royal sex lives were public property,
and Louis's was much discussed in the corridors of Versailles,
if not always believed.
Louis was now a husband, but he had yet to truly become a ruler.
So, he set out to copy his great-grandfather.
Louis XIV had begun his reign by becoming his own Prime Minister.
So, now, number 15 decided to do exactly the same.
It would have been very simple for Louis XV to choose a prime minister,
which would have been a much better solution for him,
because he could have then had someone
picked and appointed for the job.
He's got this sense of,
he has to follow in the footsteps of his great grandfather,
Louis XIV, and to be a real king, he has to be a new Louis XIV.
Louis was living just like his great-grandfather,
ruling as an absolute monarch,
enjoying the hunting in the forests around Versailles,
and soon fulfilling the first and most important
of all his Royal roles,
fathering an heir.
The relationship between Louis XV and his wife,
Marie Leszczynska, started very well, really.
They managed to put together a relationship,
which, over a period of ten years, certainly, was quite a happy one.
They had a string of children and they seemed to have found a certain,
you know, sort of, emotional support in each other's company.
More children followed, at regular intervals,
over the next ten happy years.
Eight girls and two boys.
Louis may have enjoyed being a father, but the Queen,
after a decade of non-stop pregnancies,
was fed up with it all.
The Queen began to complain that she was either pregnant, in bed,
or being brought to bed.
Eventually, they had ten children by the time Louis, himself, was 27.
The Queen had really had enough.
So, she began to tell the king
that he wasn't allowed to come into her bedroom on certain saints days,
because she was a very pious woman.
Gradually the saints days got more frequent,
and the saints, themselves, became increasingly obscure until,
finally, Louis lost his temper and asked Lebel,
who was the concierge of Versailles, to bring him a woman, any woman.
Louis only had to ask,
and just about anything and anyone could be provided, and was.
The King gradually got into the habit of first having dalliances
with the court ladies and then full-blown affairs.
Louis began a life of carnal adventures
that would turn him into one of history's greatest libertines.
He was a great womaniser, but there was nothing unusual about that.
French kings were expected to be womanisers.
This was seen as a sign that they were virile,
and we're going to produce an heir, and were, in fact,
acting in an aristocratic and masculine way.
Indeed, within the aristocratic society
that the King had been raised,
the idea of marriage or fidelity was seen as laughable.
Louis's first illicit amour was Louise Julie de Nesle,
a beautiful young aristocrat
and the eldest of five equally attractive sisters.
What was interesting was that he proceeded
to take all the other sisters in her family as his mistresses, too.
And, although it's slightly doubtful
that he had an affair with the fourth,
it's probable that he did.
It was rumoured that one of the sisters, the Duchesse de Chateauroux,
would ask her other sister to come along
and give matters a helping hand, occasionally.
In some senses, it was a scandal,
but I think people thought it was funny, rather than disgraceful.
Both Louis XIV and Louis XV had huge sexual appetites
and perhaps four women were really what the Bourbon blood needed.
Louis's affairs with his favourite sisters,
and his simultaneous flings with many other women,
produced the inevitable consequences.
In the course of his reign,
the King would father a whole brood of illegitimate children.
We're not actually sure how many,
but certainly in the region of 30, I think, would be a decent guess.
But as the rooms of Versailles filled up with Louis's offspring,
the King's mind moved to affairs of state.
He decided to copy his illustrious predecessor in another way,
by taking France to war.
The decision of Louis XV to go to war in 1744 was hugely popular.
This was what the King of France should do.
He should be seen at the head of his armies,
fighting and leading his troops.
Louis's declaration of war against France's traditional enemies,
of Britain, and Austria, made him a hero on the streets.
And so did his decision to lead his armies in person, accompanied,
of course, by two of the de Nesle sisters.
But war was to bring Louis his first brush with death.
While he was at Metz,
he fell terribly ill, and it was considered that he was going to die.
Certainly the doctors had given up hope,
and back in France, the population were shocked, genuinely,
absolutely frozen with fear that they would lose their king.
In order, as a Catholic, to receive the last sacraments,
he had to confess.
And, in order to confess, he had to send away his mistress
and renounce her.
Louis didn't think much of his marriage vows,
but like most people of his age, he did believe in heaven and hell.
And he knew which one he wanted to avoid.
like the least of his subjects,
was afraid of dying
and was afraid for the state of his immortal soul.
He knew that one day he would have to face God,
and give an account of himself,
and then he would just be a man before God,
like any other man.
The mistresses were sent away, but they refused to go completely.
They hung around in the town of Metz,
until the bishops were obliged to send a message
saying that, "Our Lord wasn't really going to wait upon their pleasure,
"and would they please get out."
So, the de Nesle sisters were dispatched,
the King promised that if he were saved,
he would dedicate the rest of his life
to the well-being of religion and his subjects.
The King received the last rites, but then, miraculously recovered.
And, it's from this period that his name
"Bien-Aime", the Well-Beloved, dates,
because the people were so pleased that their young king
had recovered from his illness.
But Louis's new-found piety didn't last long.
As soon as he possibly could, he went back to his old ways.
And, within a few months,
Madame de Chateauroux was back in his bed.
Louis, the beloved, became even more popular in 1745.
He was present on the battlefield as the French army crushed
the Austrians and the British at the Battle of Fontenoy.
France was the dominant power in Europe, once again,
just as she had been in the time of Louis XIV.
It was the perfect moment for Louis to meet the love of his life.
He's out hunting in the forests outside Versailles,
and he comes across, in her carriage, this very beautiful,
very striking young woman.
Everyone knows he's taken by her.
People referred to her as Louis XV's latest piece of game.
She was called Jeanne Antoinette Poisson,
the future Marquise de Pompadour,
and she was much more than a piece of game.
In fact, Madame de Pompadour is a rather well-connected woman,
with one of the key factions at the heart of power,
who formed part of a big financial clique.
What everyone says, she's strikingly beautiful.
And her beauty is really the key to her initial success.
She uses her beauty. She uses her very considerable political acumen
to establish herself at the heart of the King's power.
She was nicknamed Reinette, the little queen, as a child,
because when she was eight she had gone to see a fortune teller,
who had told her that the King of France would fall in love with her.
So, she and her family were absolutely convinced
that this was her destiny.
She sang, she danced, she had a beautiful voice,
she was very well read, marvellous conversationist,
extremely charming woman.
Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour were really very much in love,
and, at first, in fact, for some years,
their relationship was sexually passionate.
He found her very desirable.
Not so much, I think, because she was as sexy
as the de Nesle sisters had been,
but because she understood him very well.
She knew how to amuse him, to captivate him, to charm him,
and to divert him.
She was a very emotionally intelligent woman,
Madame de Pompadour, and I think it was this that Louis loved in her.
Unfortunately, she herself said that she was physically a cold woman.
She didn't really derive any pleasure from lovemaking.
She didn't have the temperament for it. But, she tried very hard.
She put herself on all these sorts of ridiculous diets of, you know,
egg yolks, and red wine with gold flakes sprinkled on it
to try and build herself up and increase the heat of her temperament,
in order to satisfy Louis in bed, but her maid, Madame du Hausset,
pointed out that
she would kill herself rather than please Louis by doing this,
and so she gave it up.
Madame Pompadour may have been a favourite with her lover, the King,
but most other inhabitants of Versailles
were not impressed with her.
The courtiers loathed Madame de Pompadour, because she was bourgeois.
They could not forgive her for being middle class.
It was just about acceptable for a king to have liaisons
with lower class prostitutes,
but a maitresses en titres had always been an aristocratic woman.
Ignoring the snobs at court, Pompadour used all her charm
to advance the interests of her small group of friends,
and do down her rivals.
She was associated with a cabal, a cabal at court,
who were constantly trying to promote the interests
of such and such a general.
So, she had a kind of political baggage that she carried.
Children are rarely keen on their father's new girlfriend,
and the same was true at Versailles.
Especially when Louis's many children
saw him spending a fortune on her.
They felt, rightly or wrongly, that her presence, somehow,
demeaned their father.
As a consequence, of course, they famously dubbed her...
Louis's children may have loathed her,
but their mother, the Queen, was rather impressed.
She was particularly nice to the Queen,
which poor old Marie Leszczynska was very grateful for,
because until Madame de Pompadour arrived,
nobody had ever taken any notice of her, at all.
In fact, the first time she was ever sent flowers
was at Madame de Pompadour's instigation.
And, although, obviously, the difference in their positions
meant that they could never be anything like friends,
the Queen was heard to say, if there must be a mistress,
better that it is this one.
Louis was victorious in war and lucky in love.
And it made him grow over confident.
In a grand personal gesture, he agreed to a peace deal with Austria.
One that handed back most of the territory
his generals had just won for him.
His ministers thought it was a terrible idea, and told him so.
The peace is not a very good peace for France,
because France gets absolutely nothing for it,
except enormous debts from its participation in the war.
The French public, having dispensed millions of livres,
and lost countless men dead,
could not understand why their king was giving up his conquests.
As a result, schoolchildren and fishwives
were said to be running around in Paris
with a line, "You're as stupid as the peace."
Just as Louis's popularity began to wane,
his love affair with Madame Pompadour
was also drawing to a close.
His solution was a private harem in the town of Versailles,
known as the Deer Park.
When Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour
ceased to have a sexual relationship,
Louis XV didn't really want to replace her with another mistress,
they got onto well for that,
and from now on,
his sexual appetite was catered for
by a series of young women who were brought out from Paris.
Teenage nymphets, uneducated,
often they had no idea who their powerful lover was.
beautiful girls are brought in for his sexual gratification.
But, this is developed into something
altogether more salacious by the press at this time.
When things had been going well, Louis was forgiven,
even praised, for indulging his royal lust.
But after his hated peace treaty,
people saw their king's behaviour very differently.
There's a, sort of, gutter press, effectively,
which just amplifies this,
makes him an absolute sexual debauchee
of the worst imaginable kind.
The Deer Park, obviously, did create rumours, at the time.
It was, according to them,
the scene of these terrible orgies,
in which underage girls would be shipped in droves from Paris
for wicked Louis XV to enjoy.
And one of the worst things that was said,
was that Madame de Pompadour acted as a sort of procuress,
that she would find the girls for Louis
and entice them to the Deer Park.
It couldn't have been less true.
Madame de Pompadour knew about it, and she accepted it as a necessity.
Faced with a deluge of criticism,
Louis turned to the one person he could trust completely.
Ironically, the influence of Madame de Pompadour actually increases
as she stops sharing the King's bed.
She grew more important to him, because she was his friend.
She was one of the few people, almost the only person,
that he could actually trust at court.
You have to remember that the court
is a place of intrigue and masks and pretence,
and nobody tells the truth to the King, so he really needed her.
He needed her in his life as his friend.
As the top powerbroker in Versailles,
Pompadour was drawn more and more into the business of government.
Madame de Pompadour's excursion into politics
is not something that would make a feminist proud.
She was a clever woman, but she really didn't understand politics.
Louis, very foolishly,
entrusted her as a go-between with the Austrian ambassador,
and Madame de Pompadour was so proud of herself,
being given this important role,
she took it terribly seriously, and was very excited,
and she was completely manipulated by the ambassador.
Louis's peace with Austria was unpopular,
but his decision to allow Madame Pompadour to secure an actual
alliance with the old enemy was downright detested.
Madame de Pompadour certainly is in favour of an alliance with Austria.
So, it's an absolute shock to courtiers,
many of whom have long-term loyalties,
and, no doubt, family connections,
to find that France is now allied with a traditional enemy.
Criticism of Louis and Pompadour became even more lurid,
and it reached every corner of Versailles.
They would accuse her
of sexual diseases.
They would accuse her of procuring
young girls for the King,
they would say anything they wanted.
There were secret pamphlets, secret poems,
extremely rude poems about her physique and her body.
Poems would be left in Versailles by court officials,
perhaps even members of his family.
Some of the secret notes even threatened the King with death.
One of the most famous of these contained the phrase,
"Wake-up," or, "Stir yourselves, the sons of Ravaillac!"
which was a direct reference to the man
who had assassinated Henry IV in 1610,
and so, for the first time,
we start to see references in these pamphlets
to calls for the killing of the King.
In 1750, there is the extraordinary episode where there is a rumour,
and there are riots, that Louis XV is having his police force
kidnap children so that he can cure himself of some horrible illness
by bathing in the blood of these kidnapped Parisian children.
So, this is a very serious, and very shocking state of affairs.
Louis's one-man diplomacy was supposed to bring peace to Europe,
but instead, in 1756, he joined his new ally, Austria,
in a war against Britain and Prussia.
It started well,
but messengers were soon arriving at Versailles
with bad news from the front.
As the tide of war changed against the French,
the Parisian public actually got into the habit
of dancing in the streets to celebrate their defeats,
and by doing so, showing how much they detested that Austrian alliance.
The war was not going well for Louis or for France,
and public frustration with the King took a dangerous turn.
In January, 1757, Louis XV is going to his carriage,
going down the steps,
and a certain individual called Damiens rushes up.
And then he feels blood and he says,
"I've been hit. That's the man that did it."
Damiens is immediately arrested, tortured on his feet
by the Chancellor, although Louis XV did not want him to be tortured,
to see whether he had any accomplices,
and whether the knife was, in fact, a poison knife,
which is the great fear that they have at the time.
As far as we can see, he seems to be a nobody.
He's a Lee Harvey Oswald figure, if you like,
but what makes people suspicious is that he's a "nobody"
connected to some quite important "somebodies".
He's worked as a servant for a number of members of the Paris Parlement.
People are never quite certain whether he's not part of a, sort of,
wave of hostility towards Louis XV.
Louis took this amateurish attempt on his life very badly.
Although his doctors promised a full recovery,
he was convinced that this was the end of him.
It's a flesh wound, the mildest of cuts, effectively,
but it has a disproportionate effect on Louis XV.
He goes into a very deep depression after this because he feels that,
you know, he has become, instead of the Well-Beloved,
he's become the Well-Hated.
Rather amusingly, an old marshal comes along
and asks him to cough, spit, and piss,
and he says, "Well, you're OK, my lad.
"There's nothing important been touched."
But that's not, of course, the way Louis XV sees it.
The psychological shock of one of his own subjects attacking him,
this situation is the culmination
of his lack of virtue,
so he's bound to feel that it's his own fault,
he's bound to feel guilty,
and it's bound to give rise to a great deal of self-questioning.
Hearing the grim details of the punishment
planned for his would-be assassin did nothing to improve Louis's mood.
He's going to pay for this very, very dearly,
in that he's not merely going to be executed.
He's going to be put to death in the most horrible way that can be
devised by judicial cruelty.
He's executed in the most extraordinarily gory way
on the Place de Greve, in Paris.
Strapped down to the wheel,
and the executioner goes round
breaking most bones in his body with an iron bar.
He is burnt with tongs
and his flesh is knowingly pulled away from his body.
And it goes on and on and on, but at the end of it,
four horses are attached to each of his limbs, and they're encouraged
to gallop off in different directions,
pulling his body to pieces.
Well, they do that and it's not working,
so the executioner goes back and he starts hacking at various pieces,
so, effectively, he can be pulled to pieces.
Damiens stays alive and conscious for much of this operation.
He finally dies after four hours of absolute torment,
which is going to disgust people by its reports.
Louis had had nothing to do with the grisly execution,
but accounts of it stained his reputation right across Europe.
It gives the reign of Louis XV this incredibly ghastly,
sort of, backward, sort of, feeling to it.
Although his physical suffering was nothing
compared to that meted out to Damiens,
Louis's mental stability was badly shaken by the affair.
His closest aides described him as troubled and depressed.
For a monarch who takes being a king extremely seriously,
this is a big thing,
and all the court talk about, over the next couple of years,
is this depression, this, sort of, melancholic vein to Louis XV.
To make matters worse,
the conflict with Britain was proving to be disastrous.
By the end of what's called the Seven Years War,
the French were driven out of Canada, India,
and much of the Caribbean.
The British, largely because of their Navy,
were able, completely, to turn the tables on France.
France has really lost all her pretensions
to becoming a global superpower,
and she has lost that to England, basically.
If the world is speaking English today,
it is partly because of the outcome of the Seven Years War
in the 18th century.
It was a disaster for France, it was a disaster for the French monarchy.
For a king
whose greatest hope was to live up to the glory of his predecessor,
this was almost too much to bear.
The main thing that a King of France was supposed to do,
which is sometimes forgotten, le metier du roi,
was the conduct of foreign policy.
Now, he wasn't really supposed to mess around
with things like the Parlement, internal politics.
That wasn't his job. It was foreign policy.
And, if you can't even get that right, you're going to be hated.
Badly shaken by the assassination attempt,
and widely blamed for a each fresh military disaster,
Louis hid himself away at Versailles.
The Seven Years War was, undoubtedly, the nadir for Louis XV.
He withdrew into himself,
and instead of doing what he had done during the Austrian War,
of getting to the front and leading his troops,
instead he spent his time hunting, and if he wasn't hunting,
he was with the girls in the Deer Park.
Louis may have lost a war,
but he was still the absolute ruler of France.
And when the criticism of him became too much to bear,
he came up with a suitably absolutist response.
Even the first Encyclopaedia in the French language,
one of the great intellectual achievements of the age,
went on to the bonfire.
Unfortunately, Louis XV was, by nature,
suspicious of anything he saw as unorthodox,
and as a consequence,
he just didn't associate himself
with this great outpouring of French culture and knowledge.
Louis was still close to Madame Pompadour,
who tried to change his mind.
At a dinner party one evening in Versailles,
a Duke said, "What is gunpowder made of?"
And Madame de Pompadour seized the moment, and said,
"It's true, we don't know what gunpowder is.
"What a pity it is that your Majesty, in his wisdom,
"you've banned the encyclopaedia,
"otherwise we could have looked in the encyclopaedia
"and found out what gunpowder is constituted from."
So, they sent for a copy of the banned encyclopaedia,
which, of course, the King had in his private library,
and they spent the rest of the evening reading articles
from the encyclopaedia,
and of course, he was intrigued by this,
and this was supposed to be one of the reasons why he had it reinstated.
Getting Louis to rescind the ban on the encyclopaedia was to be
one of Madame Pompadour's last contributions to his life.
In 1764 she contracted tuberculosis.
She's shifted out of Versailles, and courtiers record that,
I think, as he's seeing the carriage taking her out of Versailles,
he weeps a tear. So, he is upset, undoubtedly, by it.
He stood on the balcony and he cried,
because he had lost the person he had trusted the most in the world,
and he felt very alone without her.
Her death in 1764 is followed by the death of his son, the Dauphin,
in 1765, and a couple of years later in 1768,
the death of his Queen, Marie Leszczynska,
so, this is the removal of some very important people in his life.
The deaths of these people who are close to him,
in the mid-1760s, undoubtedly has a very big impact on him emotionally.
The death of his closest confidant began the worst
period of Louis's life.
He spent days lost in introspection,
or deep in discussion with philosophers and astronomers.
You can see that he did have a clear tendency
towards some sort of depression.
For the rest of his life, he remains withdrawn, somewhat depressive,
and obsessed with death.
Just as his courtiers were almost giving up hope for Louis,
he recovered his lust for life.
The reason was a new mistress, nearly 40 years younger than him.
I'm rather fond of Madame du Barry.
She was as beautiful as an angel, and as stupid as a basket,
but she made Louis very happy. She was utterly, utterly gorgeous.
I mean, all the King's mistresses were always described as ravishing,
but I think she was the one who truly was.
She was fabulously sexy.
She was, I suppose, the 18th-century version of the tart with a heart.
Madame du Barry had an instant effect on the ageing King.
He could think of nothing else but her.
She was extremely beautiful.
She was supposed to have looked like a kind of debauched angel.
Not too bright, but very good fun.
Madame du Barry sort of gives him a bit of a,
a bit of a perk up, really.
Madame du Barry has an enormous effect upon Louis XV.
He's a man of 60 at this point, and she has been a kept woman.
I wouldn't necessarily say she's been a prostitute,
but she suddenly learnt a thing or two in the long periods
that she spent with a certain number of particular individuals.
And, I think, Louis XV is delighted with the various tricks
that she's learned to keep him young,
and so, it is very good for his mental health, we might say.
Madame du Barry may have perked up the ageing Louis,
but that did not make her, or him, any more popular.
She was absolutely loathed. Everyone hated her.
The Parisians hated her because she wasn't an aristocrat.
The aristocrats hated her
because she was really little better than a streetwalker.
But, the King adored her, and he made her very happy.
Louis XV went far too far, and he was seen, really, as slumming it.
It was beneath the dignity of the king to have these sorts of liaisons.
There is no doubt that Louis XV was somebody who was seen as becoming
increasingly dissolute, even degenerate,
and who was just failing
to live up to the standards expected of a man who was king.
Whatever people said about him, the new relationship
gave Louis the confidence to embark on a grand project,
to give his new heir, the future Louis XVI,
the greatest wedding of the century.
The young Louis was due to marry Marie Antoinette of Austria,
and Louis wanted the ceremony to take place
in a brand-new theatre inside Versailles,
a project abandoned years before by Louis XIV.
Louis XV felt the Crown was under threat from the Parlement,
from different sections of society.
It had suffered the defeats of the Seven Years War,
therefore, he wanted a spectacular royal wedding
to assert the splendour and power of the monarchy.
The politicians grumbled about the crippling cost of the Royal wedding,
but Louis just kept on spending.
Parlement becomes an endless thorn in the side of the Crown.
Sometimes the King is conciliatory towards them,
at other times he's very repressive against them.
But in 1770 he decides to tackle the problem in a different way.
He basically tries to abolish the Parlement.
Louis's decision to remove the one organisation in France
that could challenge him for authority
was a flagrant abuse of royal power.
So, this is coups d'etat in the sense that
one of the things that is absolutely key
for the self-image of the French monarchy is that it is a legitimate,
absolute monarchy that rules according to the laws,
so to abolish the law courts, themselves,
is a very powerful signal,
and a very blatant act of royal despotism.
Louis believed he was acting in the best interests of France,
whose outdated legal system stood in the way of progress.
So, he introduced wholesale reforms, for example, free justice.
Also the judges, themselves,
were now to be appointed by the Crown for life.
And they would no longer buy their position as judge,
as had been the case before.
So, for many, including Voltaire,
this was seen as an enlightened reform.
Unfortunately for Louis XV, by silencing the Parlement,
the King unleashed opposition on a scale
that had not been seen for generations.
It was too late for Louis to play the reformer.
Years of erotic self-indulgence, along with failed wars
and bungled diplomacy, had cemented his subjects' opinion of him,
a bad king and a bad man.
Louis XV, towards the end of his reign, is sunk in vice,
and the people of Paris and the courtiers
are all very well aware that he has, somehow,
taken the path of personal pleasure and not been a very successful king.
His reforms are falling flat,
he's got a mistress who is, frankly,
not of courtly rank,
and he's simply not kingly.
On top of it all, on Easter Sunday, 1774,
The Abbe Beauvais, the most eloquent sermoniser at the court of Louis XV,
makes this devastating sermon.
This is really scandalous.
It is such a direct attack on the morality of the King
that's never been witnessed at court.
Louis XV, himself, must be intensely mortified
by the fact that he is not loved, that he faces opposition at court,
and for the fact that he is so isolated
within his own courtly environment.
If the Abbe intended to wound Louis,
he could not have expected what happened next.
Weeks after this humiliating dressing down
by the Abbe Beauvais at Easter, Louis XV falls ill.
Nobody knows what's wrong with him.
And it takes the doctors, gathered around him,
several days to work out what's going on.
They bleed him, which can only weaken him, to my mind,
and then, suddenly, one of the doctor sees familiar blotches,
and they realise that he has smallpox.
It is a complete bolt out of the blue.
Smallpox, in the 18th-century, is still an absolute killer disease.
He had a particularly unpleasant form of it,
which was the black variety,
that changed the entire colour of the face to a sort of dark copper mask.
And so, he was completely disfigured.
Even as he approached death,
Louis's enemies spread stories about his sex life.
It was suggested that he may have caught his smallpox
from a prostitute, but the whole idea of a corrupt body of a corrupt king
were very resonant, and it is thought that this was a fitting punishment.
The outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible damnation.
It riddles his body and it produces a horrible stench
as his inner organs start decaying.
Underneath it all, he is very devout.
And he goes into ultra-devout mode.
He sends away Madame du Barry from the court
in the same way that he sent away
the Duchesse de Chateauroux in 1744 at Metz.
Once she had left, it was possible
for him to receive the last rites of the church, and, in his final hours,
he made a great effort, I think, to die as a Christian.
In fact, he did face it, the last few days, with considerable courage.
He goes about dying like a good Christian, like a good king,
dying, in fact, like Louis XIV.
When the announcement came, no-one seemed to care.
When he actually dies, you can hear a stampede,
almost a thunder of running feet,
as everybody abandons the antechamber where he's lying.
The death of every king, you had to have an autopsy,
and the King's physician offers this to the ceremonial offices,
and they don't want to know, at all.
They turned their back and run rather fast, clutching their noses,
as they do so, and the King is sealed into an iron coffin.
Once the news of his death was known, there was great celebration.
There was a general sense of relief that the man who had once been
Louis the Well-Beloved, had gone.
The population had just lost any hope or confidence in their king,
and indeed, I think it's fair to say,
they'd fallen out of love with their king.
It has been argued that the monarchy could never recover
from the harm engendered by Louis XV.
He had dragged it into such disrepute that there was no recovery.
The abiding memory of Louis XV
is a man who is morally corrupt
and is unable to rise above his melancholy into any kind of grandeur.
He is the least grand of the French monarchs, surely.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
A glorious costumed romp through the most scandalous years of the Palace of Versailles, telling the story of Louis XV, one of history's greatest libertines.
Louis ruled for almost 60 years, when the salons of Versailles were filled with the glories of the Age of the Enlightenment, and a society freeing itself of the constraints of the previous century. As a military leader he was popular and successful, but he then led France into the disastrous Seven Year War with Britain. As his Empire dwindled and his treasury emptied, Louis amused himself with a series of scandalous love affairs, set up his own private brothel in the gardens of his palace and bedded five sisters from the same aristocratic family. He fathered at least 30 illegitimate children, survived an assassination attempt and for many years effectively shared power with his favourite mistress - the glamorous and brilliant Madame Pompadour.
This is a florid and hugely enjoyable saga of sex, war, torture, gluttony, and some truly astonishing wigs.