It was nearly 11 p.m. on the 13th of February, 1820, and Louis-Pierre Louvel was waiting outside the Paris Opera. The night was cold and foggy, just barely above freezing,1 but the 37-year-old2 stablehand waited patiently. He had been thinking of this night for years, trying to build up the nerve to undertake the single greatest act of his entire life.

Louvel knew too that it could very well be the final act of his life, but this did not dissuade him much, any more than the cool weather did. He had dined with family that very day, in his hometown of Versailles, perhaps a way of saying goodbye, before returning to Paris to execute his plan. While he waited, Louvel’s thoughts may have turned to his great hero: Napoleon Bonaparte, then in his fifth year of exile on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena. Louvel had worked as a saddler in the emperor’s Grande Armée, and even traveled to the island of Elba during Napoleon’s first exile to work in his stables there. He knew well the bold, decisive strikes for which his hero was known, both on the battlefield and in politics, and was resolved that chilly evening to emulate the great man.3

Above: Louis-Pierre Henriquel-Dupont, “Portrait de Louis Pierre Louvel, en buste, de 3/4 dirigé à droite,” June 7, 1820. Public domain via Bibliothèque nationale de France. Note that while images of Louvel were widely circulated, historian David Skuy notes that “he virtually never has the same face. No attempt was made to portray Louvel’s features accurately.” David Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 124.

Inside the Opera, safely out of the chill evening, were a host of great names. The Paris Opera was performing three works that night, though the details of which ones matter even less to us than they did to the Opera’s attendees, who were there to be seen and to mingle.4 Honoré de Balzac described the Paris Opera as a “grand Museum of Beauty” where a sea of opera glasses turn regularly from the performance on the stage to observe the comings and goings of the rich and famous, in their most elegant wear.5 On this particular night, the sea of counts and countesses and doctors and bankers was enlivened by guests of royal blood, including the Duc and Duchesse d’Orléans and the king’s nephew, the Duc de Berry.6

At last, near the end of the long evening, Louvel’s wait came to an end. There was a flurry of activity outside as a middle-aged man in the finest clothes escorted a pretty 21-year-old princess out to a waiting carriage. Louvel stirred himself, drew a long dagger, and rushed forward silently.


This is The Siècle, Episode 14: Slipped on the Blood.

To properly tell the story of Louis-Pierre Louvel, we’re going to need to step back from the dagger-wielding stablehand — many years back, and many episodes. The story that climaxes at the Paris Opera on February 13, 1820 ties together strands previously discussed in Episode 5: The White Terror, in Episode 6: Our Friends the Enemies, in Episode 8: The Unexpected Chamber, and Episode 11: The Year Without a Summer, as well as Episode 13: Bourbons, Neat. Now, don’t worry if it’s been a while since you’ve listened to those episodes — I’ll recap everything important.

Our first strand goes back to Episodes 5 and 6: the occupation of northern France by a 150,000-man army of foreign soldiers, imposed after Waterloo as a condition of peace. These soldiers were intended to prevent a repeat of 1815, when Louis’s regime proved impotent in the face of Napoleon’s tiny invasion from Elba. Under the terms of the 1815 Treaty of Paris — of which France’s prime minister, the Duc de Richelieu, said “A Frenchman should be hanged for signing such a treaty”7 — France was required to provision and fund its own occupying army, which was entitled to stay on French soil until 1820.

Map of the occupation zones of the foreign “Occupation of Guarantee” in northeastern France from 1815 to 1818. Map © Christine Haynes, used with permission.

This was a huge burden for both the people in the occupied areas and for France as a whole, which had to bear the massive costs of housing, feeding and paying these 150,000 soldiers — on top of its existing expenses and debts and a huge war indemnity. Each Allied soldier was to receive each day a ration composed of the following: two pounds of bread, one half-pound of fresh meat, some form of grain or vegetable, either a liter of beer, a half-liter of wine or a twelfth of a liter of liquor, and 1/30th a pound of salt — not to mention a daily ration of tobacco — with more stipulations and variations spelled out in exacting detail. Officers were given “table allowances” for their dining purposes, according to rank, with generals getting the equivalent of 12 daily rations and majors three. Even the rations for common soldiers were much more generous than typical French diets, especially with their daily servings of meat.8

Meanwhile ordinary citizens in the occupation zones often had foreign soldiers forcibly quartered in their homes and were subjected to arbitrary military justice, forced requisitions, property damage, insults and physical attacks. That many of these were violations of the treaty that established the occupation was small comfort to someone who might have to wait months or years to receive some compensation for the violation they had suffered.9

Below: Thomas Lawrence, “Portrait of Armand Emmanuel, Duke of Richelieu,” 1818. This portrait of Richelieu was painted, on the commission of King George IV of England, at the 1818 Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Armand Emmanuel Duke of RichelieuIt’s no surprise, then, that the Duc de Richelieu made finding a way to end the occupation early his single overriding priority. Just six months into the occupation, he was already asking for reductions in the occupying force, warning that feeding the occupiers might prevent France from making its indemnity payments. These requests were ignored at first, but as famine started to spread in the aftermath of the Year Without A Summer — see Episode 11 — Richelieu got a different reception. Faced with the crisis France did what Richelieu had warned about and suspended its reparation payments. Meanwhile Allies began to worry that their occupation, rather than being a guarantee of stability, might be causing extra political unrest. So a new agreement was struck, by which France resumed its indemnity payments with the help of a foreign loan, in return for the army of occupation being reduced by one-fifth, from 150,000 soldiers to 120,000.10

Though this reduced the costs borne by the French state, it didn’t ease tensions with the occupied French people, who were if anything emboldened by the partial withdrawal to make trouble for their occupiers. Meanwhile French Ultra-royalists seem to have spread rumors that the Allies would never evacuate to undermine Richelieu and his relatively moderate ministry. With public opinion in the Allied countries softening towards France as well, all sides agreed to meet for a diplomatic conference in the fall of 1818 at the German town of Aachen, also known as Aix-la-Chapelle. 11

At the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, Richelieu achieved his long-sought goal. The Allies agreed to withdraw their soldiers in 1818, two years early, in exchange for a prompt French payment of a slightly reduced indemnity of 265 million francs. This was again financed by foreign financiers, but to absorb its costs France issued a domestic bond — which, despite the economic crisis caused by the still-recent harvest failure, raised 10 times the expected amount, a sign of how intensely French opinion wanted an end to the humiliating occupation. Bolstered by this display of support — one French newspaper quipped that there were “more people flocking to the treasury to offer money than ever did to receive some” France was able to easily finance its international obligations.12 The bond issue was so successful that one historian records that the Allies regretted agreeing to give France a discount on the indemnity.13 In return, the Allies agree to evacuate entirely by Nov. 30, 1818, just six weeks away from the conclusion of the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle.14

The news was received with celebrations across France, from ordinary people to whom the occupation had been a burden or affront, as well as among members of the ministry who felt they now had a concrete record of achievement to brag about to the voters.15 Less enthused were the Ultras, who had hoped the occupation would continue as leverage against their enemies to the left.16 But those hopes were now dashed. Ultras would live or die by their own political strength, without foreign bayonets to prop them up.

A royal wedding

For the second strand of our narrative, we need to focus on the royal family, the Bourbons. In the last episode, I noted that the Duc de Berry — the only member of Louis XVIII’s immediate family who seemed capable of fathering children — was still single at the time of the Restoration.

The king had no children; his brother Artois’s oldest son Angoulême was similarly childless. Berry was clearly fertile, as a string of illegitimate children indicated, but this kind of bad behavior meant Berry was a mid-30s bachelor by the time the Bourbons were established on their throne.17

Below: François Gérard, “Charles-Ferdinand d’Artois, duc de Berry,” 1820. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles-Ferdinand d'Artois, duc de BerryIt’s not that Berry had never faced possible marriage alliances. In 1814, during the First Restoration, Louis had negotiated with Tsar Alexander of Russia for a marriage between Berry and the Tsar’s 19-year-old sister Anna. This marriage, eminently sensible as an alliance between two great nations of Europe, foundered on the question of religion: Anna was Orthodox and the Bourbons were Catholic, and both royal families saw their religion as a core aspect of their identity. The Tsar insisted that his sister would arrive in France “as an Orthodox princess with Orthodox priests in her household,” which Louis refused to allow.18

The king’s ministers explored various other possibilities, including princesses of Saxony and Portugal. But ultimately everyone agreed the best option was a little bit of royal inbreeding: Berry should marry his cousin, Marie-Caroline of the Neapolitan Bourbons.19 Louis’s then-foreign minister, Talleyrand, expressed the beliefs of the king and his immediate family in 1815 when he wrote that it was “in keeping with the grandeur of the House of Bourbon… to seek to perpetuate itself only by marriages within the dynasty.”20 To be sure, Naples was a much weaker power than Russia, and France’s existing royal ties with the Neapolitan Bourbons meant the marriage match brought little geopolitical benefit. But Marie-Caroline was at least Catholic, so the marriage was agreed to with little difficulty — other than the fact that France’s new princess spoke very poor French21, and that when she arrived in France for her 1816 wedding she had to endure a stay in a quarantine hospital before being allowed to proceed to Paris.22

Below: Thomas Lawrence, “Portrait of Caroline Ferdinande of Bourbon-Two Sicilies (1798–1870), Duchess of Berry,” 1825. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

La Duchesse de BerryBut the new Duchesse de Berry was young, lively and charming, and ingratiated herself with everyone very quickly — except for Duc de Berry’s Orléans cousins, who endured both the threat that Berry’s marriage posed to their odds of inheriting the throne and a very specific insult when they weren’t invited to the wedding, even though the Duchesse d’Orléans was Marie-Caroline’s aunt on top of the duke’s relation to the groom.23 The Berrys became known as hosts and socialites, as the only fun-loving members of the Bourbon family, and would attract a huge swathe of Parisian high society to their balls.24

The other hope for the future of the French Bourbons were the same family who had been snubbed from Berry’s wedding, the Orléans. By the complicated laws of royal succession, if Louis, his brother the Comte d’Artois, and Artois’ sons the dukes of Angoulême and Berry, all died without legitimate sons, then the throne would pass to Louis-Philippe, the Duc d’Orléans, and his sons — of which he had two by Waterloo, and two more before Louis-Pierre Louvel lurked outside the Paris Opera on February 13, 1820.

Below: Louis-Joseph Noyal, after François Gérard, “Marie Amélie, Duchess of Orléans with her son the Duke of Chartres,” 1819. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Amélie, Duchess of Orléans with her son the Duke of Chartres.jpgLouis-Philippe, more liberal than his cousins, had spent much of the time post-Waterloo in a self-imposed exile in England — “pointedly” leaving on the same day as the first of the executions of the Legal White Terror. The Orléans family only returned in early 1817, after the right-wing parliament of the Chambre introuvable had been dissolved and replaced with a more moderate chamber.25 But though Louis’s ministry was more amenable to Louis-Philippe, the king himself remained relentlessly petty against his cousin. In the last episode I related several such snubs that Louis inflicted; yet another one is recorded in 1819, after a significant event for the dynasty: the Duchesse de Berry gave birth to a healthy child.

Unfortunately for the Bourbons, this child was not a son, and thus ineligible to inherit the throne under France’s medieval inheritance laws. But the baby Princess Louise was a sign that the couple was indeed fertile, and that a son might come next. At the princess’s baptism, a pen was presented to all the high nobles present to sign as witnesses: the king, Artois, the Duc and Duchesse of Angoulême, and the Duc de Berry. Louis-Philippe was next when Louis interrupted the proceedings, and called out: “Leave the pen, and have it handed over by one of the chapel clerks.” The duke was forced to wait, fuming, while “a sufficiently minor functionary was found.”26

These juvenile feuds didn’t prevent the Orléans from cutting a lively social scene of their own from their base in the Palais-Royal at the heart of Paris. (See Episode 4.) And so Louis-Philippe, his wife Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily, and his sister Adelaïde were all at the Paris Opera on February 13, 1820, where all three made their way over to the Berrys’ box to say hello.

The political seesaw

For the final important thread of our narrative, we need to go back to the Chambre Introuvable or Unexpected Chamber — the ultra-royalist Chamber of Deputies that had been elected after Waterloo, and which had clashed repeatedly with Louis, who the Ultras viewed as hopelessly weak. “Long live the King — despite everything” was their refrain, and the Louis returned their scorn. On Sept. 15, 1816, under pressure from both foreign ambassadors and his close confidant Élie Decazes, Louis used his power under the Charter to dissolve the Chambre Introuvable. I covered all of that in more detail in Episode 8.

But this was a big gamble. France still had the same electoral laws under which more than 80 percent of the electorate had voted for Ultras just one year before. Louis’s ministry, spearheaded by Decazes, his Minister of Police, was convinced that with Waterloo a year in the past and national emotions calmer, the Ultras wouldn’t do nearly as well.

And it turned out Decazes was right! Instead of 80 to 90 percent Ultras, the Chamber of Deputies returned in the 1816 elections was dominated by the so-called “Ministerial” faction — deputies supporting Louis XVIII and his ministry. The Ministerials were the political center of the period, in between the Ultras to their right, who won 40 percent of the seats, and the left wing, about 8 percent of the Chamber who were friendly to either republican or Bonapartist rule.27

So what changed? In general, Ultra strongholds in the south and west remained Ultra and returned deputies from the Chambre Introuvable. But in 1815 Ultras had won big in less royalist parts of the country, too, and in 1816 these areas tended to back more moderate Ministerial candidates.28 There’s an interesting historical debate — similar to political debates we have today! — about the degree to which the political shift from 1815 to 1816 was caused by voters changing their minds versus changes in who came out to vote. Remember that France at the time had an optional secret ballot, which in practice meant that supporters of the ruling party would vote openly, while anyone who voted secretly was obviously voting for the opposition.29

In any case, the election of 1816 restored calm to the French political system because all of its three branches — the hereditary monarch, the appointed ministry and Chamber of Peers, and the elected Chamber of Deputies — were in rough political agreement. The Charter had been strained by its experience of divided government under the Chambre Introuvable, and now — for a time, at least — those tensions were alleviated.

The 1817 election law

With its eye on the threat posed by the Ultras, the ministry in 1817 passed a new electoral law with some significant tweaks to France’s system of elections. The general structure, with the vote reserved to only those wealthy enough to pay 300 francs in taxes, and candidates picked by electoral colleges in France’s departments, was preserved. But its subtler changes had big impacts.

First of all, the new electoral law ended the old system by which the entire Chamber of Deputies would be elected every five years, in favor of a staggered system in which one-fifth of the Chamber would be elected every year.

More subtly, it revised the complicated system of electoral colleges by which deputies were chosen. Under the old system, voters met in their local community to elect delegates to a departmental electoral college, who chose deputies. But the new law eliminated the local elections, in favor of all eligible voters gathering in the departmental capital to choose deputies.

This was a little bit more democratic, since voters would now directly elect deputies instead of electing an intermediary electoral college. But it was also directly aimed at the Ultras, who were believed to be predominantly rural landowners, whereas more liberal voters were believed to cluster in the towns. Requiring everyone to come to the departmental capital for several days of voting, instead of voting in their local community, was a burden on rural voters, and thus, the ministry hoped, a burden on the Ultras.30

As it turned out, this law appeared to do exactly what it was intended to — sort of. Ultras did indeed lose perhaps a dozen seats to Ministerial candidates in the 1817 round of elections. But the law also had unintended side effects: a number of Ministerial candidates also lost to left-wing candidates, who had also been bolstered by the new election format. 31

Below: Horace Vernet, “Laurent, marquis de Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, maréchal de France,” 1821. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Laurent de Gouvion-Saint-CyrThough Richelieu remained in power, the changes meant the ministry inched to the left. Several Ultra ministers were pushed out, and replaced by men with Imperial backgrounds, such as the new Minister of War, Napoleonic Marshal Laurent de Gouvion-Saint-Cyr.32

Saint-Cyr was the key figure in the most important bill passed by the Richelieu ministry at this time, a reform of the army to try to restore some of its old Napoleonic effectiveness without bringing back Napoleonic loyalties. We’ll talk more about this in a future episode on the Restoration military, but suffice to say the Ultras saw this law as both bad policy and a dangerous one for the regime, and fought it to the hilt. Against this Richelieu and Decazes mustered all their efforts to secure a victory — including a sneaky maneuver to overcome Ultra opposition in the Chamber of Peers. On the day of the vote, the king invited several Ultra peers to accompany him on his daily carriage ride — a grand honor. Except that the wily king simply kept his carriage going and going around Paris for hours, until the Chamber was done voting, having approved the bill by the exact margin represented by the peers trapped in the royal carriage.33

But this legislative success, which also included the smooth passage of a new national budget, proved fleeting. The inciting incident was yet another round of elections for one-fifth of the Chamber of Deputies, this time in the fall of 1818. The government again pulled out all the stops to elect “Ministerial” deputies, but found it difficult to campaign against both the left and right simultaneously. When government officials bragged that they had successfully brought stability back to France, rebutting the Ultras, this undermined their other argument that voting for the liberals was a vote for dangerous revolution.34

Candidate Lafayette

To understand what these elections were like in the late 1810s, we can take the case study of perhaps the most famous person running for the Chamber of Deputies in 1818: Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette had lived a relatively quiet life since his time at the forefront of both the American and French revolutions, and subsequent time imprisoned after things went south, but he remained a committed and idealistic liberal. Lafayette backed various liberal newspapers, candidates and causes, but now in his 60s still harbored a desire to be in the arena himself.

Below: Artist unknown, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Circa 1815-1830. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Marquis de la FayetteLafayette put himself forward as a candidate in 1818 for his home department of Seine-et-Marne, not far from Paris.35 This was an era before what we would consider modern political campaigning — there were no speechmaking tours, or mass-market advertising, or posters plastered all over the district. Instead, candidates used friendly newspapers to boost their image, such as an April 1817 book review in a liberal newspaper that offhandedly mentioned Lafayette as an example of the kind of man who should be elected in France — before going on to praise Lafayette’s virtues for six pages. The article was almost certainly funded by Lafayette himself.36 Perhaps more importantly, though harder for historians to document, in this world of sharply limited electorates, “political ties could be maintained through the normal course of social life.”37

But despite his deep social ties in Seine-et-Marne, Lafayette faced steep obstacles. The department was close enough to Paris for the government to monitor it closely, and they appointed a competent prefect to run the department and, not incidentally, its elections. Government employees were enlisted to persuade, threaten, or bribe voters into backing preferred candidates; public funds were used to print Ministerial election pamphlets. One tax collector complained about the stinginess of the effort, in which he was given 143 francs to spend on behalf of ministerial candidates — barely enough to cover his expenses, such as “distributions of brandy” to likely voters. In Seine-et-Marne, at least, the pressure campaign was both wide-ranging and subtle, with different arguments made to different groups of people — Napoleonic officers were told of Lafayette’s opposition to Bonaparte, while more conservative voters were reminded that Lafayette had served in the legislature during the Hundred Days.38

Not leaving anything to chance, the government delayed the elections until after Richelieu negotiated the foreign withdrawal, so the government might benefit from this popular accomplishment. But they also, with little explanation, delayed elections in a select handful of departments by an additional week — an attempt at election chicanery.39 But in the case of Lafayette, this proved too clever by half: he lost in his home of Seine-et-Marne, but an ally promoted his candidacy in the delayed elections of a remote western department, where the ministry’s watchful eye was further away. Despite some more attempts to sway the outcome, the electoral college in Sarthe gave Lafayette 596 out of 1,055 votes, or 54 percent, sending him to the Chamber.40

While liberals reacted to Lafayette’s victory by calling it “the greatest triumph of public opinion known for years,” government forces were dismayed. Louis was visibly upset by the news, and Richelieu wrote to Decazes that while he had expected some liberal gains, “as for La Fayette, it’s too much.”41

The center cannot hold

But it wasn’t just Lafayette. In 1818 liberals had done well across the country, winning about 20 new seats out of 57 elected, plus more seats for center-left politicians.42 It was the third election in a row that the left’s strength had increased.

This provoked a crisis in the ministry, which didn’t have enough pure Ministerial deputies to control the chamber. They were faced with a choice: should the ministry try to find allies among the liberals, or the Ultras? This split the two biggest personalities of the ministry wide apart.

Decazes was of the opinion that the Ultras posed the greatest danger to Louis and his agenda of healing the lingering wounds of the Revolution. To keep the Ultras down, he was prepared to compromise with the Left. Richelieu, on the other hand, thought the danger the Ultras had posed in 1816 was now diminished; he now thought the bigger danger was “the invasion of democratic principles” and proposed “a rapprochement with the Ultras.”43

After the 1818 elections, the divide was sharp enough that Richelieu and Decazes could no longer see eye-to-eye on policy. One of them had to go in order to form a stable government. Richelieu was happy to be the one to go, being the rare public servant who genuinely had no interest in prolonging his power now that he had negotiated an end to the occupation. But while Louis genuinely wanted Richelieu to stay, recall that the king had an extremely close personal bond with Decazes, who is often referred to as “the king’s favorite.” The two exchanged an unending flurry of emotional letters and saw each other constantly. In one telling example for those of you who speak French, historian Philip Mansel writes that Decazes was one of only three people with whom the formal Louis used the informal pronoun “tu.”44 After several days of “feverish and chaotic discussions,” Richelieu accepted that Louis’s support for Decazes was ironclad, and that it would be difficult for him to form a government without Decazes, and resigned.45

The Decazes agenda

Below: Paolo Toschi, “Élie Decazes,” circa 1813. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Elie DecazesThis left Decazes in charge — though a certain General Dessolles served as a figurehead prime minister — and he set out with an ambitious agenda. Decazes’ goal was to “royalize the nation and nationalize the royalists” — to try to make Louis more acceptable to the parts of the divided country that remembered the Revolution or Empire fondly, while at the same time making the royalists more accepting of the Revolution’s legacy.46 This was a tall order in a country as divided as Restoration France, but Decazes believed his plan, with enough time to take effect, could cause just such a reconciliation.

To this end, Decazes set about trying to bind liberals and Bonapartists to the regime. This was both part of his grand plan, and also a political necessity — there weren’t enough Ministerial deputies to control the Chamber alone, and so Decazes needed the liberals’ votes. For example, Decazes let most of the political exiles who had been banished from France after Waterloo return, such as Marshall Soult, who had been Napoleon’s chief of staff at Waterloo.47 A host of lingering Ultra prefects and other officials were pushed out of their jobs. 48

Unlike with the liberal Talleyrand ministry in 1815, however, Decazes didn’t try to sideline Louis, but rather worked closely with the king — including persuading Louis to support several policies the king had originally opposed. Despite these doubts, Louis backed Decazes to the hilt, most notably when the new ministry faced opposition from the previously supportive Chamber of Peers. A group of center-right Peers went over to the opposition after Richelieu’s resignation and threatened to derail Decazes’ agenda. The king couldn’t dissolve the Chamber of Peers like he could the Chamber of Deputies — but the Charter did give him unlimited power to appoint new members. So Louis agreed to Decazes’ request to pack the upper chamber: he appointed more than 50 new peers, largely Decazes’ friends, more than half of whom had served in the Hundred Days.49

This revolt quelled, the ministry turned to what would prove the most important bill of 1819: a new law on press censorship. Restoration laws passed both before and after the Hundred Days had imposed fairly strict censorship, especially on newspapers. Publications had to submit articles for approval by a censor before publication, and remove anything to which the censor objected — a type of censorship called “prior restraint.” Newspapers themselves had to get a license from the government to operate, a license that specified in minute detail what types of news each newspaper was and wasn’t allowed to cover. This license could be arbitrarily withdrawn at any time.50 When journalists did publish something seen as seditious or libelous, they could be held criminally liable and faced with prison sentences and hefty fines.51

The new law uprooted all of this. Prior authorization and prior restraint were abolished, replaced by a system by which newspapers had to submit a deposit of 10,000 francs and a declaration of responsibility by two editors, to aid in prosecuting any legal action after the fact. More generally, the law established a liberal principle: “An opinion… does not become a crime by becoming public.” Under this principle, it was still a crime to incite violence, to libel someone, etc., but gone was the old idea that there were some opinions that it was alright to share among friends but illegal to publish in a newspaper.52

This new press law had an immediate and dramatic effect. What one historian dubs a “tidal wave of words” swept across France as new newspapers opened up left and right — literally. Most of the papers were partisan, including Ultra papers like Le Drapeau Blanc and Le Conservateur and liberal papers like Le Constitutionel and Le Censeur Européen. And these partisan papers didn’t mince words, attacking each other “mercilessly” but also, embarrassingly, criticizing “Decazes’s every move.” More extreme papers proved the most popular, with the result that, as historian David Skuy argues, “some of the most violent polemic the French public would ever read was published” in 1819 and 1820.53

As a result, when the 1819 elections rolled around, the French political climate was already exceptionally contentious. When the returns came back in, not only had the Left gained even more seats, but one of the victors was an old revolutionary named Henri Grégoire.

Grégoire

Below: Auguste Bry, “Abbé Grégoire,” circa 1800-1831. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Abbé Grégoire by Auguste BryGrégoire was a priest, a principled thinker, a committed republican, a linguistic reformer, and an advocate for Jewish rights and the abolition of slavery. He also had supported the execution of King Louis XVI while president of the revolutionary National Convention.54 In a country ruled by the dead king’s brother, Grégoire’s election was seen as an unacceptable insult not by only Ultras but also many moderates. Even liberals who largely agreed with Grégoire were split as to the wisdom of electing someone with his baggage.55

In fact, Grégoire won in large part because of his baggage. He trailed more moderate candidates in the first round of balloting — but won on the second because the region’s Ultras voted for him, cynically hoping to harm the liberal cause by elevating a particularly controversial liberal.56

This ploy absolutely succeeded. With his revolutionary and regicidal background, Grégoire’s election reinforced royalist suspicions that the liberals were Jacobins — the radical republican faction of Robespierre — “masquerading under a different name.”57

The very first order of business for the new Chamber of Deputies was a fierce debate to expel Grégoire from the Chamber. The battle was lost from the start, with liberals merely hoping to save face by expelling Grégoire over an electoral technicality instead of explicitly for his political views and history. Even this failed, and Grégoire was kicked out.58

Watching all this was Decazes, who now concluded — one year after Richelieu — that the left had eclipsed the Ultras as the greatest threat to him and Louis’s agenda. Belatedly, he tried to pivot back to the right, and proposed changing France’s electoral laws again, replacing the liberal-friendly law of 1817 with one aimed at boosting conservative voters.59 But now Decazes found himself out on a limb. The Ultras didn’t trust their old enemy’s ostensible conversion one bit — but the switch did succeed in alienating the left, including several ministers, who resigned. That included General Dessoles, the figurehead prime minister, which meant Decazes now assumed the role of prime minister himself. It was the height of French politics, but Decazes’ position had never been less secure.

And it’s at this moment, with Decazes scrambling for his political life, that we take this episode back full circle, to Louis-Pierre Louvel and the Paris Opera.

Assassination

Louvel, the ardent Bonapartist, was at the Paris Opera with a murderous plan. He wanted to wipe out the Bourbons, who he dubbed “the cruelest tyrants France has ever known.”60 His plan was simple: he’d kill one Bourbon, then the next, until they were all dead or he got caught.61

Finally, at around 11 p.m., Louvel’s planned target emerged: the Duc de Berry. Louvel was uneducated and largely illiterate, but he chose Berry with undeniable logic: kill him and cut off the entire Bourbon line.

The Duchesse de Berry, normally a vibrant socializer, had complained at an intermission of being tired, and requested to go home. The duke escorted her to the waiting carriage, but then turned around to go back inside — ostensibly to see the rest of the show, but in reality because his current mistress, the dancer Virginie Oreille, was performing and Berry was planning on a rendezvous after the show.62

It was the kind of tryst the notoriously lustful Berry had arranged hundreds of times before in his philandering life, but on February 13, 1820, following his carnal urges had fateful consequences. As Berry turned away from the carriage, Louvel darted out of the night, past Berry’s flummoxed guards, and plunged a seven-inch dagger into the duke’s back.63

Assassinat duc de Berry

Louis-François Charon, “Horrible Assassinat de S. A. R. M.gr Le Duc De Berry,” c. 1820. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As Louvel then turned and ran, Berry stood still for a moment in shock, then fell back into an aide’s arms, cried out, “I’m dying!” and pulled the blade out.64

Berry was right: the wound was fatal. But he showed surprising resilience and clung to life for hours, laid on a mattress in the opera manager’s office, as both doctors and dignitaries gathered around him. The Orléans family, still inside the opera, were informed by an usher of the events and rushed to Berry’s side.65 Decazes arrived soon, too, and after assessing the situation quickly left to brief the king.

Meanwhile, after a largely wasted life, Berry’s death was nothing short of magnificent. While doctors were trying to staunch the bleeding, Berry asked if the assassin was a foreigner, then sighed that it was “cruel to die at the hands of a Frenchman.” He asked to see his daughters, not only the infant princess, but also some of his illegitimate children, and gave them a fatherly blessing — an act that inspired the Duchess to later adopt the girls! The largely irreligious Berry asked for a priest so he could confess his sins and receive last rites, “crossing himself ostentatiously” despite his fatal wound.66

His most famous moment came when Louis finally arrived, having deliberately waited until 4 a.m., when word came that Berry wouldn’t last much longer. Louis’s arrival was supremely undignified, as the morbidly obese and unwell king had to be ungainly carried up the stairs by porters,67 but Berry, for once, had dignity enough for both of them. Before Louis could speak, Berry begged the king to spare his assassin’s life: “At least may I take with me the thought that the blood of a man will not be shed for me after my death!” Louis, of course, had no intention of pardoning Louvel, and put Berry off: “Only if it is the will of God.”68 At around 6 a.m., Berry died.

Louvel, meanwhile, had been quickly captured. His getaway plan had been little more than “run very fast,” and yet it might have worked, had a quick-thinking waiter not tackled the running Louvel as he passed a café.69 He was interrogated all night, including by Decazes himself, but needed no inducements to talk. Louvel shared everything freely with his interrogators: His hatred of the Bourbons, that he targeted Berry because of his potential to sire new Bourbon heirs, that if free he would continue trying to kill the royal family. Most importantly of all, despite repeated questioning, Louvel insisted that he was not part of a broader conspiracy: he was a lone knifeman, so to speak.70

Jean Baptiste Morret (engraver) and Sébastien Coeuré (designer), “Assassinat De M.gr Le Duc De Berry. Le Dimanche 13 Février 1820,” 1820. Public domain via Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Backlash

Louvel would, in time, be put on trial, convicted, and executed. But this process attracted surprisingly little public attention.71 Instead, the French political world focused its immediate attention on another man, who royalists insisted was almost as responsible for Berry’s death as Louvel: Élie Decazes.

Many royalists, of both Ultra and moderate varieties, had already believed the country was on a slippery slope toward revolution and Jacobinism before the assassination, due simply to Decazes’ liberal policies and the electoral victories of such old revolutionaries as Lafayette and Grégoire. Now, in an impulse we see to this very day, they believed that even if Louvel hadn’t been part of a conspiracy, his action had been inspired by dangerous rhetoric from their political opponents. One Ultra wrote a newspaper article in which he declared, in high dudgeon, “I saw Louvel’s dagger, and it was a liberal idea.” The writer and statesman Chateaubriand said, “The hand that struck the blow does not bear the heaviest guilt.”72

Other Ultras were even less restrained; rather than merely accusing Decazes of having inspired Louvel, they said he was actually an accomplice in the deed.73 Later Ultra pamphleteers would concoct wild and elaborate stories about Decazes directing the assassination, and other nefarious plots aimed at the royal family, through his role as director of a secret society called “The Association,” containing all the other usual liberal suspects.74 More level-headed Ultras feared that this kind of wild conspiracy theorizing would backfire, but they didn’t. The act was so shocking that many royalists believed there had to be a bigger conspiracy at work, even if no actual evidence ever emerged to suggest one.75

Decazes tried to survive, doubling down on the shift to the right that he’d already begun. In addition to changing the electoral law, as he had already planned, he proposed restoring censorship and giving the police extraordinary powers to lock up people suspected of threatening the state or royal family. This wasn’t a crazy strategy — moderate royalists were in fact interested in exactly those laws. But it didn’t matter: Decazes had become a political pariah, a dead man walking. After a few days, he played his only remaining card, and submitted his resignation to Louis — hoping that the king would stand by his favorite, reject the resignation, and thus give him a vote of royal confidence. Louis, who genuinely loved Decazes, was tempted to do just that. But after days of agonizing he reluctantly accepted the resignation — partially because of veiled threats that if Louis didn’t sack Decazes, some of his own guards might take matters into their own hands. The Duchesse d’Angoulême went down on her knees to both beg and threaten Louis: “Sire,” she said, “it is to spare another victim.”76

Not that we should weep too much for Decazes. Forced to discard his favorite, Louis gave him a golden parachute: he was made a duke, and appointed as ambassador to London with an annual salary of 300,000 francs.77 On the day Decazes left for London, Louis set the watchword for the day as “Élie,”78 and wrote him a farewell note: “Farewell, dear son; I bless you from the bottom of my broken heart; I kiss you a thousand times.”79

One moderate observer, the Comte de Molé, wrote that the assassination “caused the storm that was hanging over [Decazes] to break… he was the victim of an unjust accusation, and the hatred he had aroused.”80 But Chateaubriand’s more acid take on Decazes’ downfall is the one that has been remembered by history: “his foot slipped in the blood.”81

Regardless, Decazes was truly gone, and so was the Restoration’s liberal experiment. But it wasn’t merely Berry’s assassination that would spur an anti-liberal backlash. There was another development that helped inspire a surge of loyalty to the Bourbons among France’s elite and common folk alike — one final piece of the story that no one expected. Because as her husband lay dying, the Duchesse de Berry revealed a stunning secret — the reason, in fact, that she had left the Opera early that evening. The soon-to-be-widowed duchess was pregnant. Come back in two weeks for Episode 15: The Miracle Child.

  1. François Arago and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, eds., Annales de chimie et de physique,* vol. 13 (Paris: Crochard, 1820), 224. 

  2. Some sources say he was 36. 

  3. Sudhir Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon (London: Granta Books, 2004), 111-2. 

  4. They were the ballet Le Carnaval de Venise, the opera Le Rossignol, and the final work, the ballet Les Noces de Gamache, based on Don Quixote. Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 166. Though the social aspect of the opera cannot be denied, my glib dismissal does underplay the degree to which opera music was genuinely enjoyed, including by luminaries such as Berry. See, for example, Margery Weiner, The French Exiles: 1789-1815, (London: John Murray, 1960), 162. 

  5. Honoré De Balzac, Père Goriot, translated by Burton Raffel (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 96-8. 

  6. Munro Price, The Perilous Crown: France between Revolutions (London: Macmillan, 2007), 106. 

  7. Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, translated by Lynn M. Case (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 128-9. 

  8. Christine Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France After Napoleon (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2018), 57-8. 

  9. Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies, 60-65, 74-93. 

  10. Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies, 277-9. 

  11. Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies, 279-80, 285. 

  12. Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies, 283-4. 

  13. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 155. 

  14. Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies, 290. 

  15. Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies, 291. 

  16. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 151-2. 

  17. Presuming you ignore, as the Bourbons did, Berry’s alleged 1806 secret marriage during his exile to an English Protestant commoner. See Weiner, The French Exiles, 162-3. 

  18. Philip Mansel, Louis XVIII, Rev. ed. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1999), 231. Anna ended up alright, though — spared a marriage to Berry, she married the heir to the Kingdom of the Netherlands; both her husband and her son became kings. 

  19. Specifically, Berry and Marie-Caroline were the equivalent of first cousins; their son would be more inbred than any king of France except for Louis XV. For more information, see Erin Davis, Data Stuff, “How inbred are Europe’s monarchs?,” Dec. 29, 2018. Accessed Sept. 16, 2019. Davis helpfully shared her dataset and methodology via personal correspondence to help calculate the “coefficient of inbreeding” for Berry and Marie-Caroline. 

  20. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 338. 

  21. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 339. 

  22. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 270. 

  23. Price, The Perilous Crown, 97-8. 

  24. Mansel, Paris Between Empires, 166. 

  25. Price, The Perilous Crown, 87, 97. 

  26. Price, The Perilous Crown, 98. Price notes that Louis delivered his burn in “the high falsetto he sometimes used to dominate proceedings.” 

  27. Thomas D. Beck, French Legislators 1800-1834: A Study in Quantitative History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 169. 

  28. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 142. 

  29. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 297. 

  30. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 146. 

  31. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 147. 

  32. Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, 1st Marquis of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr, had spent more than 20 years in the armies of the Republic and Empire before becoming a marshal in 1813. He remained loyal to Louis during the Hundred Days and was rewarded with the ministry of war under the Talleyrand government, but lost this position a few months later when Talleyrand fell. 

  33. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 148. 

  34. Sylvia Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 1814-1824: Politics and Conspiracy in an Age of Reaction (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), 75. 

  35. Lafayette had also run for the Chamber in 1817, when he sought one of the eight seats representing Paris itself — seen as the most prestigious seats in the Chamber. Here he was specifically targeted by the ministry, who offered incentives to prominent liberals if they would drop support for Lafayette, and lost. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 65-6. 

  36. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 59. 

  37. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 64. 

  38. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 83. 

  39. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 81-2. 

  40. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 81-2, 85-90. 

  41. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 89-90. It wasn’t merely Lafayette’s position as an iconic revolutionary that irked Louis. He had a decades-old personal beef with Lafayette that included blaming him for the escalation of the Revolution, but went all the way back to an incident where Lafayette as a young man had deliberately insulted Louis at a party. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 12-3. 

  42. André Jardin and André-Jean Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 1815-1848, translated by Elborg Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 33; Beck, French Legislators 1800-1834, 170-1. 

  43. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 357. 

  44. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 330. 

  45. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 157 

  46. David Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 44. 

  47. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 364. Specifically 52 exiles were allowed to return, including some people who had been banished for their vote during the Revolution to execute Louis XVI. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 165-6, 160. 

  48. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 362. 

  49. Mansel gives the number of new peers as 68, while de Sauvigny and Skuy give it as 59. See Mansel, Louis XVIII, 362; Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 160-1; Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 45. 

  50. Irene Collins, The Government and the Newspaper Press in France, 1814-1881 (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 4-6, 11-3. 

  51. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 71. 

  52. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 161-2. 

  53. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 46. 

  54. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 46. 

  55. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 116-7. 

  56. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 163, Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 121. 

  57. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 47. 

  58. Neely, Lafayette and the Liberal Ideal, 128. 

  59. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 163-4. 

  60. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 190. 

  61. Louvel claimed he had planned other assassination, including Artois, but had chickened out. Procès de Louis-Pierre Louvel, assassin de S. A. R. monseigneur le duc de Berri […] (Paris: Delarue, 1820), 16. 

  62. Price, The Perilous Crown, 106. 

  63. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 8. 

  64. More precisely, Berry cried out, “Je suis assassiné!”, or “I am assassinated!” Procès de Louis-Pierre Louvel, 8. 

  65. Price, The Perilous Crown, 107. 

  66. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 11-12. 

  67. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 12. It took nearly an hour to get Louis up the stairs, as Berry clung to life. 

  68. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 12. In this telling, Berry had enough presence of mind to recognize the brushoff, and responded, “Alas, the king does not consent, and yet his forgiveness would have softened my last moments.” Other sources report the exchange differently, with Mansel quoting Louis as saying “It all demands reflection. Let us speak of you, my son. That will be more worthwhile.” Price reports Louis saying, “Nephew, you are not as badly hurt as you think, we will talk of it.” These are not necessarily contradictory, but perhaps reflect snippets from a more extensive deathbed conversation. 

  69. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 9. 

  70. Procès de Louis-Pierre Louvel, 14-18. 

  71. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 189-90. 

  72. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 165-6. The first quote was by Charles Nodier in the Journal des Débats

  73. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 105. 

  74. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 196-8. 

  75. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 105-6. 

  76. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 172. 

  77. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 48, Mansel, Louis XVIII, 373. 

  78. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 166. 

  79. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 373. 

  80. Skuy, Assassination, Politics and Miracles: France and the Royalist Reaction of 1820, 48. 

  81. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 371-2.