I want to introduce you to a man named Louis Stanislas Xavier, born to a wealthy French family in Paris. In some senses, Xavier’s story is typical of the tumultuous times in which he lived: he was a man with a dream.

It was a dream that gradually consumed his life. He spent his free time making plans. He’d talk about it late at night while drinking with his friends. He’d talk about it with total strangers.

All Xavier needed was a chance — the chance he deserved — and he’d be able to do huge things.

Finally, after years of interminable waiting, Xavier got his chance handed to him on a silver platter. And he promptly blew it.

The story of how Xavier blew his big chance over the course of a year is the perfect introduction to this series, which will tell the bigger story of 100 years of French history from 1814 to 1914. Xavier’s blunders are thematically appropriate to France’s century before World War I, which includes lots of major blunders. But the biggest reason why he’s appropriate is because you probably know Xavier by his pseudonym, or maybe by his more famous relatives.

Xavier’s grandfather was King Louis XV of France. His older brother was King Louis XVI. And 23 years after his brother and his sister-in-law were hauled off to Parisian guillotines, Louis Stanislas Xavier was enthroned as King Louis XVIII of France — a throne he’d manage to sit for less than a year before being chased out of the country.

This is The Siècle, Episode 1: The Return of the King.

Rosy beginnings

On April 24, 1814, Louis landed in Calais to a rapturous reception. It was the first time he had been in France for more than two decades, when he fled the increasingly radical French Revolution in the middle of the night, disguised as an English businessman.1 Two years later, Louis’s brother, King Louis XVI, was guillotined. Much to Louis’s disappointment, the Revolution did not fade away, but endured. When France finally abandoned a republic, it was not to restore Louis as France’s rightful king, but to crown the phenomenally successful Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor.

But Louis had endured, too, living in exile all over Europe and maintaining his claim to be King Louis XVIII of France. It wasn’t the grandest existence, but it had paid off: in 1814 the armies of Europe had invaded France and forced Napoleon to abdicate the French throne for exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. After some debate, the victorious Allied powers of Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia had decided that Louis was their best bet to rule France after Napoleon.

And when Louis returned, it seemed like the French people thought so, too. His ship was met by a cheering crowd, flattering speeches, chants of “Long live the king!”, a public banquet and a song composed in his honor calling him “The Desired One.” Vying to show off their love and support of the would-be king, the citizens of Calais unhorsed Louis’s carriage and hauled him through the streets themselves.

But we shouldn’t be misled — as Louis was — by the “crying, cheering and carriage-pulling” crowds.2 Many of the French were doubtlessly enthusiastic for the return of the Bourbons, Louis’s family. But for many more, the true return to be celebrated was not of Louis, but of peace.

King Louis XVIII standing on a balcony and a crowd below watching a hot air balloon in the distance.

King Louis XVIII greets a cheering crowd from the balcony of the Tuileries Palace in Paris after his return in 1814. Artist unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

France in 1814 had been engulfed in war and revolution for more than 20 years, first under the Revolutionary government and then under Napoleon. More than one million French people had died in these wars, out of an 1814 population of around 29 million. That’s as if 11 million modern Americans were to die violently.3 Astonishingly, historian Robert Tombs estimates that “more than one in three of all boys born between 1790 and 1795 were killed or wounded.” And few of these soldiers had gone willingly. In the world’s first mass war, Frenchmen had been conscripted into the armies of the Republic and Empire by the millions, “dragged to barracks roped together,” and sent abroad to fight and die.4

Meanwhile those who had remained home were often in rough shape, too. Even ignoring the theft, destruction, violence and rape brought about by that spring’s campaign,5 when the allies invaded France and forced Napoleon to abdicate, the quarter-century of war had been a “national disaster” for huge swathes of France’s economy. Inflation had destroyed savings and taxes had taken much of the rest. Recent years had seen severe food shortages and unemployment. The English blockade had “ruined France’s great sea trade,” while Napoleon’s Continental System kept it ruined. The fall of the ports in turn “caused the collapse of regional economies which had lived off their activity.”6

Louis and his relatives recognized this war weariness and tried to capitalize on it. In the crucial final days of Napoleon’s empire, when Louis’s return was not a foregone conclusion, his nephew made the Bourbon pitch to a Bordeaux crowd: “No more wars! No more conscription! No more oppressive taxes!” It worked — on this promise of peace and low taxes, the Bourbons drew popular acclaim that persuaded leaders in France and other European countries to return them to power.7 It was tantalizingly easy to imagine that the French people’s acclaim came from genuine love and not desperate self-interest.

Louis XVIII in his coronation robes (1814), by François Gerard (1770-1837). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Louis XVIII in his coronation robes (1814), by François Gerard (1770-1837). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Caught in the middle

These demands of the people for peace and prosperity were always going to be tricky to satisfy for Louis. But among all the celebrations of his return to Paris and formal coronation, the early fault lines that would drive Louis out of the country less than a year later were already evident.

The days of Louis’s absolutist ancestors were long gone (if they had ever truly existed). In 1814, the King of France could not simply order his kingdom around on a whim. Rather, Louis would have to balance four major different interest groups if he wanted to keep his hard-won throne — many of them in direct conflict with each other.

The first group is the common people, who we’ve already discussed. France was largely rural and agricultural at this point, and the masses of peasants desperately wanted relief from the depredations of war, conscription, and associated taxes. The peasants also wanted to protect a key gain from the Revolution: the abolition of the taxes and special rights that the ancien régime nobility and Church had possessed.8 (The ancien régime is French for “the old regime,” used to refer to France’s government before the Revolution.)

More prosperous and educated than France’s peasants and urban poor were the country’s bourgeoisie, many of whom had done quite well under the Republic and Empire. Politically, many of them wanted a liberal constitution for France, one that restricted some of the king’s powers and vested them in assemblies elected by affluent Frenchmen like themselves. Economically, a driving issue for this group were the biens nationaux — the land confiscated from the clergy and nobility by the revolutionary government and sold to the people of France. The bourgeoisie (and some wealthier peasants) were terrified that the Bourbon Restoration would take the land they had purchased years ago and return it to its prior owners. This was no small issue — around one French family in 10 had bought some of this confiscated property, and more than 10 percent of the country’s land changed hands because of the seizures.9 The bourgeoisie would feel any threat to the biens nationaux very deeply.

That brings us to the people who were threatening the biens nationaux: the Ultra-Royalists. These were the nobles and clergy who had opposed the Revolution from the beginning. Many had been driven into exile like Louis. But unlike the conciliatory Louis, historian Philip Mansel writes, “the Ultra-Royalists were out for revenge, violence and blood.”10 They wanted to undo as much of the Revolution as possible and punish those responsible for it to the greatest extent possible. They also wanted their share of power and wealth: offices, appointments and privileges. Not only were these Ultra-Royalists a significant force in many parts of rural France, but they included members of the king’s own family, including his brother Charles, the Comte d’Artois, or Count of Artois.

Charles, the Comte d'Artois, younger brother of Kings Louis XVI and Louis XVIII of France (1814). Artist unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles, the Comte d’Artois, younger brother of Kings Louis XVI and Louis XVIII of France (1814). Artist unknown. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons..

Last and by no means least was the French army. France had been at war for two decades and so had a huge number of soldiers under arms and veterans who had served — around 500,000 active troops when Louis first took the throne. These soldiers wanted material things including salaries and pensions, but they also wanted respect from the new regime. France’s armies had won victory after victory until very recently, and France’s veterans wanted their triumphs and sacrifices recognized.

With all these demands, Tombs writes, “it is hard to see how the Bourbons could have avoided disappointing their supporters and antagonizing their opponents.”11

Indeed, Louis would proceed to upset every one of these groups over his disastrous first year on his ancestral throne — a state of affairs that would be watched closely on the island of Elba.

Learning and forgetting

One of the most widely quoted quips about the Restoration is that the restored Bourbons had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” since the Revolution. That’s not quite fair — the original quote was a criticism of the Bourbons in the 1790s. By 1814, Louis at least had indeed learned many lessons from the Revolution.

For example, unlike his ancestors, Louis accepted that his power would be limited — to a degree. It was, Louis said, “the spirit of the age.”12 As Louis moved toward Paris in 1814, the old imperial Senate offered him the French crown — on the condition that he accept a constitution they wrote.

Louis refused this constitution — but offered up his own, the Charter, which included elected assemblies and guarantees of rights. Louis was willing to be limited — but insisted that any constitution would have to be come from the king down, not from the people up. This gambit paid off: at least at first, the French people and elites and the foreign armies still occupying France all broadly accepted Louis and his Charter. This established, Louis was crowned on July 8, 1814.

If Louis had forgotten nothing, he was at least willing to forgive. There were no purges. Political prisoners were freed. Former imperial officials were kept on, even in Louis’s cabinet, where a majority of ministers had served the Republic or Napoleon’s Empire.13

Of course, this leniency infuriated the Ultra-Royalists, who wanted their revenge and counter-revolution. With Louis’s brother at court, the king managed to ward off any organized opposition from the right.14 But the ultras made trouble for Louis indirectly — out in the provinces, they held ostentatious religious festivals, asserted old social privileges and pressured owners of the biens nationaux to sell them back.15

Other lessons Louis had learned were of mixed value. For example, his older brother had been forced to call the Estates General in 1789, kicking off the French Revolution, because of France’s bankruptcy. Louis was “obsessed” with the dangers of budget deficits and made balancing the French budget a top priority. This was good for the state’s credit, but ticked off almost everyone else.

For example, to cut costs, Louis cut the French army from 500,000 to 223,000 men — creating, in historian Munro Price’s words, “a reservoir of almost 300,000 demobilized, often unemployed and therefore often discontented ex-soldiers.” Especially dangerous were more than 10,000 “fervently Bonapartist” officers who were forcibly retired on half pay.”16

Meanwhile, if the budget was to be balanced, then France needed tax revenue. So Louis backtracked on his relatives’ promises to abolish Napoleon’s high taxes. The taxes would stay, including the hated excise taxes on wine, tobacco and salt — taxes Louis’s nephews had specifically promised to dump. On hearing the news, Bordeaux — the first city to proclaim Louis as king — rioted against him.17

Adding insult to injury, the one part of the budget that he didn’t cut was the part of the budget that went to his own household. “We must have splendour, outward show,” Louis said, defending a spending request of 40 million francs in a 548 million franc budget on himself.18

That’s indicative of the Restoration’s biggest blunders. On policy, Louis tried to steer a conciliatory course. But he kept undermining his own concessions with symbolic acts that turned huge swathes of his own people against him.

For example, Louis abolished France’s tricolor flag in favor of the old white Bourbon flag. He refused to wear the badge of the Legion of Honor, the award Napoleon had created for France’s bravest soldiers. He abolished Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard and created new units staffed with overpaid nobles. He showered honors on emigrés and brought back the old elaborate court ceremonies of the ancien régime. Even his name caused offense: “Louis XVIII” implied that he had been king not after Louis XVI, but after Louis XVI’s son, who had died a prisoner at age 10 without ever governing. Dating his regime to 1795 and not 1814 was “felt as an insult by many of the people who had served other regimes during the last nineteen years,” Mansel writes; on the streets of Paris you could buy a caricature of a man reading a blank book titled “History of the nineteen glorious years of the reign of Louis XVIII.”19

The French royal white flag is seeing flying at left in this 1820 painting by John Trumbull, "Surrender of Lord Cornwallis." Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The French royal white flag is seeing flying at left in this 1820 painting by John Trumbull, “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis.” This flag was used by the Restoration from 1814-1830. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cold and silent

All these provocations and blunders might have amounted to nothing if it weren’t for the man currently bored out of his mind playing enlightened dictator on what he described as an “operetta kingdom” off the coast of Italy.20 Napoleon Bonaparte certainly had not forgotten the years when he was master of France and Europe. Neither could Louis — when the new king finally returned home to the palace of Compiègne, in which he had spent part of his boyhood, he found the palace décor was covered by a swarm of Ns and bees and eagles — the emblems of the palace’s last occupant. Waiting for him were old friends — and a bevy of Napoleon’s top generals.21

Louis kept men like Marshal Ney, Marshal Jourdan and Marshal Victor around and on his staff, flattering their egos. Similarly, while he would slash the army’s ranks, he kept hundreds of thousands of Napoleon’s soldiers under arms. When Louis’s cousin Louis-Philippe returned to France in August, he encountered some of Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard, now scattered around the country as common soldiers while emigré nobles and Swiss mercenaries protected the king. “The officers cried: ‘Long live the king,’ but very few of the soldiers took it up,” Louis-Philippe’s sister noted. “They were cold and silent.”22

On Elba, Napoleon read French newspapers chronicling Louis’s rocky start, and received visitors assuring him that the French people and army were secretly still loyal to him.23 Back in Paris, Louis got his own information about rising unrest from police reports, private letters and even opposition newspapers. But Louis’s attempts to mitigate this through a modest charm offensive came to little, in the end.24

Napoleon slipped away from his prison on February 26, 1815, and landed in France on March 1 with 1,142 men and two cannons.25 Though the once-and-future emperor would reclaim his throne with ease, this was by no means guaranteed. For all the discontent among the army and some segments of the population, large numbers of the French people remained royalist. “Perhaps each monarch had the support of around half of France,” Mansel estimates.26 The royalist half included the region of Provence in which Napoleon had landed. Faced with popular opposition, the invasion could have ended before it began.

Napoleon I Leaves the Island of Elba, February 26, 1815 (1836). By Joseph Beaume (1796-1885). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon I Leaves the Island of Elba, February 26, 1815 (1836). By Joseph Beaume (1796-1885). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But Napoleon darted away from the coast, along the Alps, and soon reached friendlier territory. There the first soldiers sent to stop him switched sides — a pattern that would repeat itself all the way to Paris. Near the town of Laffrey, Napoleon faced down a larger battalion and won them over not with clever maneuvers but with charisma. “What, you old rascal, were you about to fire on your Emperor?” Napoleon later claimed he asked the assembled soldiers.27 As army after army sent to capture the emperor joined him instead, Louis lost his nerve and fled. The household guard Louis had created at such cost in political opinion melted away during the retreat, and the king slipped across the border into Belgium. He was, Mansel says, “almost completely alone, with only a discredited reputation for company.”28

"Return from the Island of Elba, 7 March 1815," showing Napoleon's encounter with troops sent to arrest him at Laffrey, by Karl Steuben (1788-1856). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Return from the Island of Elba, 7 March 1815,” showing Napoleon’s encounter with troops sent to arrest him at Laffrey, by Karl Steuben (1788-1856). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was, however, not the end for Louis Stanislas Xavier — nor for King Louis XVIII. Instead, over the course of the most famous hundred days in history, he’ll win his throne back through luck and a pair of victories: his own in the field of diplomacy, and the Duke of Wellington’s on the field of Waterloo. I hope you’ll join me next time for that story, as we plunge forward into The Siècle.

In the meantime, if you like what you’ve just heard, I hope you’ll support this podcast. The easiest way you can do it is to spread the word to your friends, in person and on social media. The online home of The Siècle is thesiecle.com — t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e.com. It’s also @thesiecle on Twitter and Facebook.

If you’re a fan and you have the means, I’d also greatly appreciate financial support, so I can afford to spend more time researching and writing episodes. There’s two ways to do this. At thesiecle.com/support, I’ve got a link to a Patreon, where you can pledge a monthly donation of as little as $1. That URL also has a link to an Amazon wish list of books about French history that I hope to use to research future episodes. I’ve already bought more than two dozen books for the show so far, and let me tell you, it adds up! If you’d like to show your support, that wish list lets you ship them straight to my door.

Thank you again for listening. Feel free to ask me questions on Twitter @thesiecle or by email at david@thesiecle.com. And don’t forget to come back in two weeks’ time for The Siècle, Episode 2: The Hundred Days.

  1. Philip Mansel, Louis XVIII, rev. ed. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1999), 53-4, 73-4. 

  2. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 176-7. 

  3. Peter McPhee, A Social History of France: 1789-1914. 2nd ed. (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 90. This million-casualty figure is about 3.5 percent of the French population alive in 1789, or 3.4 percent of the 1814 population. In contrast, the deadliest U.S. war ever as a share of the population, the Civil War, killed about 2.4 percent of the 1860 population. That’s counting both Union and Confederate casualties, while France’s figures account for just one side. 

  4. Robert Tombs, France 1814-1914 (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996), 330. 

  5. Tombs, France 1814-1914, 331. 

  6. François Caron, An Economic History of Modern France, translated by Barbara Bray (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 36-7. Tombs, France 1814-1914, 330. 

  7. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 167. 

  8. Tombs, France 1814-1914, 332. 

  9. McPhee, A Social History of France: 1789-1914, 98. 

  10. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 209. 

  11. Tombs, France 1814-1914, 332. 

  12. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 179. 

  13. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 187. 

  14. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 193. 

  15. Tombs, France 1814-1914, 332-3. Jardin and Tudesq, 16-7. 

  16. Munro Price, The Perilous Crown: France between Revolutions (London: Macmillan, 2007), 67. 

  17. André Jardin and André-Jean Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 1815-1848, translated by Elborg Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 14. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 191. 

  18. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 191. 

  19. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 200, 211-8. 

  20. Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life (New York: Viking Penguin, 2014), 723. 

  21. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 177-8. 

  22. Price, The Perilous Crown: France between Revolutions, 67-8. 

  23. Roberts, Napoleon: A Life, 726-9. 

  24. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 211-9. 

  25. Roberts, Napoleon: A Life, 730-1. 

  26. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 234. 

  27. Roberts, Napoleon: A Life, 731-6. 

  28. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 228, 230.