This is The Siècle, Episode 33: Martignac.

Welcome back!

In recent episodes of The Siècle, we’ve met the centrist Doctrinaires, seen France get involved with the Greek War of Independence, followed the stunning twists of France’s 1827 elections, and taken a deep dive into anticlerical conspiracy theories.

The episode you’re about to hear is in one sense a straightforward political narrative that picks up where Episode 31, on the Election of 1827, left off. But more deeply, it’s going to tie all these different episodes together while also posing a fascinating historical what-if — a moment where history pivoted as a result of a specific choice made by a historical actor. Our actor today is King Charles X of France, and the way he deals with the aftermath of 1827 is going to matter a whole lot.

How? Let’s find out.

We last left our narrative after the elections of 1827 wiped out Joseph Villèle’s ultraroyalist majority in the Chamber of Deputies. (If that doesn’t ring a bell to you, pause right now and go listen to Episode 31. I’ll be waiting.) But while the elections were a clear verdict on the soon-to-be former prime minister Villèle, that was maybe the only clear thing about the new Chamber of Deputies.

The newly elected chamber had four or five general factions, none of whom controlled a majority. The two biggest factions were the pro-Villèle group of ultraroyalists, perhaps 200 strong, and a broad left-center group somewhere around 180 men. There were also up to 20 other deputies who formed the chamber’s far left, men like Lafayette and Benjamin Constant. If you add up the left and left-center, then the Villèlists and the liberals both have around 47 percent of the total chamber. The remaining share were around 32 men of the far-right “counter-opposition,” devoted ultraroyalists who for whatever reason despised Villèle.1

Don’t take any of these figures too literally. All these numbers are approximate guesses about an era without formal political parties. And all of these factions “were sub-divided into two or three shades of opinion.”2 Each faction had its hard-liners and its pragmatists, those who were willing to cross the aisle in the right circumstances and those who never would.

Regardless, it was a mess. And the man with the responsibility of sorting out this chaos was King Charles X. Under the Restoration political system, the king appointed his ministers. That much was clear and uncontroversial. What was controversial was the question of how much leeway Charles had to appoint his ministers. Was he obligated to appoint a government that could command a majority in the Chamber of Deputies? Charles himself thought he was under no such obligation.3 But even he admitted that it would make his life easier if his government could actually pass laws. So in late 1827 and early 1828, Charles began casting around for a prime minister who the Deputies could accept.

Charles’ first preference was to stick with Villèle, despite the election. He could have picked a fight to try and force the Chambers to accept Villèle, but Charles instead tried to negotiate. Villèle’s old governing coalition was defeated, but maybe he could forge a new one? Unfortunately for Villèle, the moderate royalists wouldn’t work with him. Neither would far-right counter-opposition leaders like Jules de Polignac, who scorned Villèle for being too timid at enacting ultraroyalist policies. So Charles reluctantly agreed to Villèle’s resignation.4

The king’s son, the Duc d’Angoulême, was the one who finally brought Villèle the bad news. Supposedly, Angoulême apologetically told Villèle that he “had become too unpopular,” and Villèle replied, “God grant, sir, that it is only I who have become unpopular.”5

With Villèle out, Charles’ next preference was to find another ultraroyalist who lacked Villèle’s baggage. The election had been a defeat, sure, but some of that was personal animosity towards Villèle. Perhaps there was an equally Ultra figure who could let Charles continue on without any policy concessions. We know there was talk about figures like Polignac or the Comte de la Bourdonnaye, who was infamous for endorsing “irons, executioners and torture” as the only way to deal with liberals and Bonapartists. But these far-right figures had their own issues assembling a majority.6

The first concessions

This bind forced Charles to accept the inevitable: he was going to have to appoint a more moderate ministry. But the king was determined to budge as little as he had to. So he started with a modest ministry reshuffle. Some of Villèle’s ministers would go, replaced by center-right politicians or technocrats without strong ideologies. But other Ultra ministers would stay, including the Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Denis Frayssinous.7 As I discussed in Episode 32, Frayssinous was controversial due to his role in France’s roiling battle over the alleged influence of the Jesuits and the mythical Catholic secret society, the Congregation.

When this mismatched crew of moderates and Ultras came to formally swear their oath of office to the king, Charles made it clear his concessions were grudging and limited. “I must say to you,” Charles told them, “that I am sorry to lose M. de Villèle. The public misjudged him. His system was mine, and I hope you will do your best to conform to it yourselves.”8

The king did make some symbolic concessions besides purging a few ministers, with the goal of calming things down. People had been complaining about Jesuit-run schools? Okay, so Charles appointed a commission to investigate. Some anti-government academics had sanctions against them lifted; that meant, among other things, that the Doctrinaire historian François Guizot was allowed to resume his popular lecture series at the Sorbonne.9 Among the crowds who packed into the lecture halls to hear Guizot’s revived talks was a young Alexis de Tocqueville, but that’s a story for another day.10

These concessions were appreciated, but they didn’t change the dynamic. The rickety ministry Charles had assembled collapsed almost immediately after the new Chambers officially convened on Feb. 5, 1828. As was tradition, the king opened the proceedings with a speech, an address that Charles’s biographer Vincent Beach describes as relatively “conciliatory” by Charles’s standards. The king praised France’s recent naval victory at the Battle of Navarino, said he had ordered “rigid economy” from his ministers to address a budget deficit brought on by a recent recession, and even offered up another olive branch: instead of giving one minister authority over both ecclesiastical affairs and education, Charles would split the ministry in two. That was a defeat for Ultras, who generally wanted the Catholic Church in charge of education. The deputies received the speech with an ovation, though many left-leaning members were concerned by a remark near the end. Charles vowed to maintain France’s constitution, the Charter of 1814, but also promised to guarantee the “happiness of France.” To do so, Charles said, he would “preserve the great and protective authority which belongs to my crown.”11 The implication, of course, is that Charles would preserve that authority against the Chamber of Deputies.

The next word rested with the Chamber of Deputies, which traditionally approved a formal reply to the king’s opening address. We’ve seen this reply stir up trouble in the past, such as in Episode 18. That episode covered November 1821, when a so-called “coalition monstreuse” of left and far right voted a reply that cast aspersions on Louis XVIII’s foreign policy, prompting Louis to respond with cold fury.

In 1828, the flashpoint wasn’t foreign policy but domestic. A combination of anti-Villèle deputies of various stripes added the following sentence to the Chamber’s reply: “The unhappy French people have reputiated the deplorable system which rendered your promises meaningless.” Now, while this is technically blaming Villèle the evil counselor for everything, you can understand why Charles got ticked off at the insinuation that his promises had been meaningless. Especially when you consider that Charles had recently told his ministers that he considered Villèle’s system to be his own. And especially when Charles saw himself as having made “one concession after another” since the election. The king supposedly came close to dissolving the newly elected Chamber of Deputies on the spot, before calming down and restricting himself to a mild rebuke.12

The most immediate effect of this brouhaha was that Frayssinous and the other remaining Ultra minister both resigned, leading to another cabinet reshuffle.13 And that means it’s time to finally introduce this episode’s title character: Jean Baptiste Gay, the vicomte de Martignac.


Illustration.Perhaps the most important thing to know about the man who now stood at the center of French politics was that Martignac had been a staunch Villèlist — but one who came out of his service in the ultraroyalist government with a reputation “as a moderate and responsible public official.”14

Right: Jean-Baptiste de Martignac by Sophie Feytaud, 1824. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Both parts of that are important. Martignac was a friendly fellow; Guizot said he left on friends and enemies alike “a strong impression of esteem and good will.” But he was no liberal. He had been a vocal supporter of Villèle and had served capably in the most right-wing government France had seen since the ancien régime. Despite this, he struck observers as less ideological than Villèle or other leading Ultras like Polignac or La Bourdonnaye.15

After serving as a deputy and in various administrative positions Martignac had been appointed Interior Minister on Jan. 4, 1828, part of Charles’s first cabinet reshuffle that I talked about earlier. But Martignac was not appointed prime minister. No one was. This sometimes happened in Restoration ministries, where “prime minister” was less a formal position than just “the primary minister” of a government. (I’ll explore the nuances here more in a future episode breaking down how France’s executive branch worked.) Back in Episode 18 I mentioned how Villèle had originally been one of a leaderless group of ministers appointed back in 1821, but soon became their leading figure before eventually being named the primary minister. Something similar started unfolding in 1828, where Martignac quickly became the most prominent minister in Charles X’s government without ever being formally promoted. A big reason why was that Martignac was the only good speechmaker in the entire ministry, so when a bill needed to be introduced or defended, it was usually Martignac up at the podium making the case. Contemporaries and modern historians alike refer to “the Martignac ministry” even though technically Martignac was never formally named prime minister.16

Give and take

Besides the nature of Martignac himself, the other key thing to understand is the politics of the ministry left behind after the February resignations of the remaining Ultra ministers. To replace them, Martignac cut a deal with the single most prominent figure in the anti-Villèle opposition: François-René de Chateaubriand.

The famous writer and statesman Chateaubriand had been in opposition since Louis XVIII and Villèle fired him as foreign minister in 1824. Chateaubriand was one of the principal organizers of the opposition campaign in the elections of 1827 through his group, “Friends of the Liberty of the Press.” Politically, Chateaubriand had been an ultraroyalist, but with liberal leanings on questions like censorship; in the late 1820s, he was best understood as being on the center-right of Restoration politics.

Martignac went to Chateaubriand and offered him a deal: support the ministry in return for being named Minister of the Navy. Chateaubriand rejected this as too junior a ministry for a politician of his stature. But he struck a deal anyway: a Chateaubriand ally got appointed to the naval ministry, and the devout Chateaubriand himself was appointed ambassador to the Pope in Rome. In return, Chateaubriand’s center-right faction began supporting the government, and so did their newspaper, the prominent Journal des débats.17

This little quid-pro-quo was more than a bit of political horse-trading. The result was a Chamber of Deputies where the center-right held the balance of power. The Left demanded reforms; Charles and the Ultras resisted them. Caught in the middle was Martignac, who maintained a precarious political balancing act as long as he could. It’s no wonder historian Irene Collins comments that, “politics after the fall of Villèle were more confused than at any other time during the Restoration.”18

Recruiting the militia of revolutions

In practice, while Martignac never broke entirely from the policies of the old Villèle government, there was a major shift in emphasis. The Villèle ministry had been known for its electoral skullduggery; Martignac proposed an electoral reform further limiting the government’s ability to manipulate the vote.

Among the changes in the Martingac elections bill were that voter registration lists would now be permanent, instead of being drawn up from scratch every year. The list would be revised each year and — crucially — posted publicly with each voter’s tax payments noted next to their name. The extremely public nature of these lists would make it much harder for prefects to omit opposition members or sneak on government supporters. The law also made it easier to appeal adverse judgments to the courts.19

Now, Martignac wasn’t ending the era of the government putting its thumb on the scale in legislative elections. He explicitly declared that the government “is obligated to exercise a protective influence… in order to offset the pressures that are brought to bear to prejudice the government’s position.”20 In other words, there was no real concept of a major distinction between a pro-government political party and the government itself. But it was a step toward limiting the government’s powers in this regard, and as such was received well by the opposition. In contrast, the Gazette de France, a Villèle-affiliated newspaper, attacked the 1828 election law as “the enactment of the democratic principle, the permanent enrolling and recruiting of the militia of revolutions.”21

No one expects the Liberal Inquisition

There was also some lingering business from the last election. During the 1827 elections, opposition voters had filed a blizzard of petitions alleging illegal electoral activities by prefects. As we know from Episode 31, many of these charges were true; prefects were cheating. In the past, that wouldn’t have mattered — these complaints would be been received and ignored. But in the wake of the earthquake of 1827, Martignac’s government felt they had to do something about all these accusations. So he did what governments always do: he appointed a commission to study the matter.22

This commission sorted through the mountain of complaints and focused in on accusations against 22 prefects. When the final report came out in October, 12 accused prefects were exonerated; two were found guilty of “minor improprieties”; four were guilty of “less grave offenses”; and four, it had found, had committed the “gravest offenses.” As historian Sherman Kent notes, these findings “seem on the mild side to one who has read… the prefectoral correspondence,” where they discuss a host of shenanigans. And nothing terribly bad happened to even those prefects who had committed those “gravest offenses” — the worst punishment Kent found was one prefect reassigned to a smaller, more remote department.23

But even without much in the way of criminal or even career consequences for prefects, all these complaints brought results. Prefects dubbed the investigations the “Liberal Inquisition” and clearly resented this new phenomenon of having their dirty laundry aired in public. As a result? “Under Martignac, prefects were more scrupulous.” Many departments that had featured rampant cheating in 1827 held relatively fair by-elections in 1828.24

The Morea Expedition

Another leftover from 1827 that Martignac had to deal with was Greece. You might recall from Episode 30 the decisive Battle of Navarino, where the British, French and Russian fleets annihilated a combined Ottoman-Egyptian fleet. That took place on Oct. 20, 1827, just a few weeks before the Election of 1827. The loss of his navy made it effectively impossible for Sultan Mahmud II to continue his war against the Greeks, but the Sultan dug in his heels and refused to accept the new state of affairs. Mahmud wasn’t just resisting granting Greece independence — he even refused Western suggestions to give the Greeks de facto autonomy while remaining their official overlord. The Egyptian army that had so effectively defeated the Greeks on land remained in possession of its captured strongholds. Even though Egyptian leader Muhammad Ali was eager to withdraw, the Sultan’s obstinacy made that difficult.25

This presented Martignac with a golden opportunity to intervene and seize a little bit of glory. He dispatched a 14,000-man military expedition to Greece, an army we today might call a peacekeeping force. Much to the frustration of its officers, this army didn’t get a chance to achieve much battlefield glory; instead, it was mostly left to supervise a peaceful Egyptian withdrawal. Once that was done, the French stuck around to help rebuild the devastated Greece. French military engineers conducted the first topographic survey of the Peloponnesian peninsula, built bridges and roads, and helped reconstruct towns. In direct imitation of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition a generation earlier, the French also brought a host of scientific experts who produced “lavishly illustrated” reports on Greek archeology, architecture and science.26

There was fighting going on in Greece and the Ottoman Empire — it’s just that the French weren’t involved. In 1828 Russia declared war on the Ottomans, and over a year and a half inflicted a series of defeats on the Turkish forces. The Greeks had been hoping for Russian assistance since the very beginning of their revolt in 1821, and figuring better late than never, they took advantage of the Russian invasion to seize more territory on mainland Greece. When the dust settled, the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople forced the Sultan to accept Greek autonomy. A decade of devastating war was over; only the details remained to be worked out.27

One domestic aftereffect was the return to France of Col. Charles Fabvier, the liberal revolutionary who had been driven into exile after determined opposition to Bourbon rule. Fabvier’s philhellenic service in Greece turned out to work wonders for his image back home, and after a bit of debate the French government decided to celebrate Fabvier as a hero instead of arresting him as a traitor.28

The sword of the Inquisition

Perhaps the most significant concession the Martignac government made to the opposition was a crackdown against the controversial Jesuit order. As I covered in Episode 32, France in the mid-1820s was convulsed by conspiracy theories about the Jesuits. And as we covered in that episode, the Jesuits were definitely operating schools in France in technical violation of the law, though not nearly at the scale their opponents alleged.

Martignac and Charles took some early steps to try and calm matters. In January 1828, as I mentioned earlier, Charles appointed a commission to study Jesuit influence in schools. In February, Charles separated the education ministry from the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs. And in April, the king undid an 1824 decree giving bishops control of primary schools. Instead, schools would be controlled by a committee, with just three of nine members appointed by bishops.29

The question of the Jesuit order divided even ultraroyalists, with one branch of Ultras seeing the Jesuits as the foot-soldiers of counter-revolution, but another seeing them as a threat to the traditional independence of the French Catholic Church. It was, in modern political terms, a perfect “wedge issue” that unified the opposition and divided the government. Even that blue-ribbon commission to investigate religious schools that I mentioned a little bit ago was divided, with five members recommending that individual Jesuits be freely allowed to teach and four that the illegal group be suppressed.30

With the politics so fraught, Martignac decided the wiser move was the crackdown on the Jesuits. More surprisingly, Charles backed him, and signed a June 16, 1828 ordinance which seized control of all eight Jesuit schools and required all teachers in France swear that they did not belong to any unauthorized religious orders. Opponents exulted, with the Journal des Débats declaring in triumph that “The sword of the Inquisition is broken.” But devoted Catholics protested furiously, led by most of the French bishops.31

The split among the Catholic hierarchy over the Jesuit ban is extremely interesting. The Archbishop of Paris and dozens of other bishops signed a formal protest, and boycotted the new committees overseeing primary schools. But the Jesuits themselves didn’t raise a peep. Charles had consulted the head of the Jesuits in France before signing the ordinances, and was told to sign them! From the Jesuit point of view, Beach summarizes, the laws “were a sop to public opinion… The lost ground could be regained at a more propitious moment.” Most interestingly, when faced with the bishops’ backlash, Charles went behind their backs to ask support from Pope Leo XII — and got it. Leo told French bishops “to trust in the great piety and wisdom of the French monarch in the execution of the ordinances and to walk in step with the king”. Charles, invigorated, doubled down on the decrees he had only signed reluctantly in the first place. Under pressure, all but 21 of around 70 balking bishops eventually gave in.32 Meanwhile the Martignac government enforced the decrees lightly — for example, it didn’t actually enforce the provision requiring teachers to swear they weren’t Jesuits.33

It took a while, but Martignac’s intuition seems to have been proven right. Though die-hard anti-Jesuits didn’t trust the ordinances, more moderate figures were mollified, and the controversy over the Jesuits died down for a while.34

Freeing the press (sort of)

While Martignac’s electoral law and Jesuit crackdown were moves to the left, his approach to press censorship was more of a mixed bag. At the time, France had no formal censorship law, though it did have fairly aggressive libel laws that the government sometimes used against the opposition press. It also had a legal provision that let the king impose censorship by decree while the Chambers weren’t in session. When Charles did this in 1827, press freedom became one of the major opposition issues in that year’s elections.35

With this background, Martignac proposed a new press law that added some new freedoms. The king’s ability to unilaterally impose censorship was gone. The law had no “prior authorization,” the requirement for censors to approve articles before they publish. It also abolished the law that let the government prosecute a newspaper for a “general tendency… injurious to public peace” even if no individual article was itself illegal.36

But where Martignac’s law gave, it also took. Some reforms wanted by liberals were absent, like returning press trials to juries, which were usually friendlier to newspapers than judges. The law also increased the size of the “caution money” that newspaper publishers had to put up, a sort of security deposit for future fines. And it expanded the requirement to put up caution money to literary journals, which had previously been exempt.37

When first proposed, the press bill drew widespread praise. But criticism steadily mounted as people pored through its provisions. The liberal newspaper Le Constitutionnel began by calling Martignac’s bill an improvement, and ended by denouncing it as “Machiavellian.”38 Whatever the merits of these critiques, when the press law passed, it was followed by a rapid proliferation of newer — and bolder — newspapers.39

The King and I

Martignac’s relatively moderate approach seems to have successfully de-escalated some of the tensions that had built up over the past two years. When Charles took a tour of Alsace in August 1828, he received an excellent reception in this liberal-leaning region. Martignac, who accompanied the king, made a point to note how speeches from local notables particularly praised Charles for cracking down on the Jesuits. But Charles didn’t agree with Martignac’s interpretation that the government’s concessions had led to this increase in popularity. Instead, he saw it as proof that the people of France truly liked him in particular. “If I had known I was so much loved, I would have kept Villèle,” Charles said at the time.40

You can follow Charles’ line of logic here. He had never wanted to make concessions to the opposition to begin with. He didn’t like Martignac very much personally, and only felt obligated to keep him on due to political necessity — and he was now beginning to doubt that necessity.41

Outside of the king, Martignac was discovering that the political center just means you’re exposed to fire from both sides. Ultraroyalist newspapers regularly attacked Martignac for “making too many concessions to the liberals” and “undermining royal power,” while liberal newspapers attacked him for not making enough concessions and keeping too many old Villèlists around. Martignac’s government was trying to form a durable coalition of the center-left and center-right, and indeed men like Victor de Broglie and Chateaubriand were on board. But buffeted from all sides, Martignac was increasingly dependent on the goodwill of a king who disliked both him and his policies.42

Complicating all of this were the ongoing special elections to fill vacancies in the Chamber of Deputies. In short, liberals kept winning them. In 1828 France had 57 of these special elections, which saw liberals of various stripes gain 17 seats.43 Martignac had already been caught between an ultraroyalist king and a more moderate Chamber of Deputies, but now the Chamber was moving to the left. Martignac could accomodate the changing Chamber by moving to the left himself — but Charles already felt he had gone too far.

The Martignac ministry tried to force the issue by sending Charles a joint memorandum asking for him to either endorse their centrist strategy, or to repudiate it. In effect, they argued that Charles had a choice between bending a little now by making strategic concessions, or being forced to bend a lot later by an opposition that was growing stronger. As proof of his support, they asked Charles in November to approve firing a host of old Villèle loyalists in senior administrative positions. The king resisted, and ultimately agreed to get rid of only 13 men from a much larger list. The result was a lose-lose: Charles did enough that the ministry didn’t feel a need to resign, but not enough to satisfy the left. Meanwhile the king came away resentful that his own government had forced him to get rid of even a small number of loyal servants.44

So it should be no surprise that as 1828 ended and 1829 dawned, Charles was working hard behind the scenes to try to line up a replacement for Martignac.

“My dear Jules”

From the very beginning, there was one man at the top of Charles’s list for a new prime minister: Jules de Polignac. I’ve already mentioned Polignac as a leading ultraroyalist, the kind of man who thought Villèle was irredeemably squishy. But understanding why Charles was fixated on Polignac as his next prime minister requires us to go a little deeper.

The Polignacs were an old noble family who had been closely aligned with a young Charles and Marie Antoinette in the years before the French Revolution. When the Revolution did break out, Jules de Polignac went into exile along with Charles, and worked closely with him. When he returned to France in 1804, Polignac was arrested for plotting to assassinate Napoleon (probably accurately). Meanwhile Polignac and Charles had a quasi-familial connection. This is complicated, so bear with me. Jules de Polignac had an uncle named Denis de Polastron, whose wife Louise de Polastron was Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting. Charles began an affair with Louise de Polastron in 1785, and the two had a long-lasting and deeply meaningful relationship that lasted until Louise’s death in 1804. On her deathbed, Charles reportedly swore a vow of perpetual chastity. And if someone sleeping with your uncle’s wife doesn’t sound like the foundation of a lifelong friendship, well, you have a lot to learn about ancien régime aristocrats.45

Indeed, Charles referred to Polignac as “mon cher Jules,” or “my dear Jules.”46 After the Restoration, Polignac was one of a tiny handful of confidential advisers to his “lifelong friend” Charles. Polignac was an early member of the right-wing secret society, the Chevaliers de la Foi, which I talked about in Episode 32. Early in the Restoration, Polignac was one of several Ultras who refused to swear an oath to the Charter; he called its guarantee of religious liberty “ridiculous.” Louis XVIII sent Polignac as an envoy to Rome as part of his efforts to negotiate a new settlement with the papacy; in gratitude, the Pope granted Polignac the Roman title of “prince.”47 Compared to a fellow ultraroyalist like Villèle, Polignac was described as a “pure,” in that his ultraroyalism was not diluted with practical compromises. Villèle in turn had Polignac appointed ambassador to Britain for much of the 1820s, which was at once a prestigious job and also a way to keep Polignac safely out of the country.

Polignac indeed had a strong fondness for Britain, where he had spent much of his exile. In 1816, he married Barbara Campbell, a Scottish heiress worth 200,000 francs per year. In particular, Polignac loved the powerful British House of Lords; he saw the French Chamber of Peers as impotent in comparison and wanted to bolster it into a cornerstone of the nation like the House of Lords. (Ironically, historian Munro Price points out, Polignac formed this opinion just as the House of Lords was about to see its power start a slow but irreversible decline.)48

Given their personal and political closeness, many liberals and moderates in French politics feared that Charles would appoint Polignac as a minister. Rumors to that effect had already spread in 1825.49 In 1828, Chateaubriand reassured one such worried friend: “The entry of M. de Polignac in the council, in the present circumstances, would be nothing less than a sort of revolution. The Chamber of Deputies would have to be dissolved, etc. That is not even worth the bother of talking about, nor for me to waste paper in proving to you the absurdity of such a rumor.”50 Absurd it might have been, but Charles was deadly serious.

The prince that was promised

As early as September of 1828, when Charles returned to Paris from his trip to Alsace, he went as far as ordering a courier ready to leave for London on a moment’s notice with a message to Polignac.51 Nothing happened then, but Charles was now waiting for his chance. In January 1829, the foreign minister had to step aside due to ill health. Martignac proposed Chateaubriand as his replacement, but Charles rejected this out of hand. Instead, he secretly ordered Polignac to return to Paris. This plan foundered when Martignac and his ministers insisted they would never accept Polignac in the government. “What, doesn’t the king have the right to choose a minister?” exclaimed Charles’s son, the Duc d’Angoulême. “He can choose nine,” Martignac replied — an implicit threat that the entire ministry would resign rather than serve with Polignac.52

Despite this threat, Charles went so far in January 1829 as to privately ask Polignac to form a ministry. But with the Chambers scheduled to return in just a few days, there wasn’t time to assemble a brand new ministry, and Polignac was ordered back to London. But it was an open secret what was going on. Martignac was living on borrowed time.53

The last straw

With the support of the king hanging by a thread, Martignac only remained in power to the degree that he could demonstrate majorities in the Chamber of Deputies. And in early 1829, liberal deputies had a condition for their continued support: local government reform.54

France in the Bourbon Restoration had a highly centralized administration. All officials, including departmental prefects, mayors and town councils, were appointed by the king and his government. This system had had its critics from the very beginning, among royalists as well as liberals.55 But in 1829 it was the Left who was demanding reform, seeing local decentralization as a way to guard against an ultraroyalist king. So Martignac brought a proposal to make part of local government elected. But while the broad strokes of the bill were what the Left wanted, the details were extremely friendly to royalists.56 As historian Robert Alexander put it, “Behind a government proposal designed perhaps to entice Liberals, but calibrated to favor ultraroyalists, stood Charles X. Martignac could go no further than what was offered.”57

In short, the bill would have created local elected councils with no real power, just the ability to advise the centrally appointed prefects and mayors. This fell short of what the Left wanted, especially at the departmental level where liberals hoped elected councils could check the power of royal prefects. Moreover, Martignac’s proposed voting requirements were extremely limited, even more restrictive than the already tight voting requirements for the Chamber of Deputies!58

With this backdrop began some intricate parliamentary maneuvering. The local government reform was divided into two bills: the controversial departmental change, and a comparatively popular bill for local communities. The latter seemed “headed for quick adoption,” but the Left proposed to start the debate on the departmental reform. For this maneuver, the Left didn’t have the votes — until Ultra deputies joined them to prioritize the departmental bill. This wasn’t because the Ultras were eager to create departmental councils. Quite the opposite! The ultraroyalists were voting cynically to try to accelerate a confrontation between the Chambers and Charles.59

This strategy went even further when things came down to substance. On April 8, 1829, liberals offered up a major amendment to the bill, one everyone knew Charles would never accept. The Ultra deputies abstained from the vote en masse, letting the Left carry the day with a plurality. Almost immediately, Charles ordered the bill withdrawn. “I say emphatically that there is no way to come to terms with these people. It is time to stop them,” Charles told Martignac.60

Charles did not fire Martignac on that day in April 1829. But he might as well have. Martignac was a dead man walking and knew it. “All we can do is lead the monarchy to the bottom of the stairs, while the others would throw it out the window,” Martignac lamented. Charles let Martignac limp along until the end of the legislative session, biding his time. In the meantime, Charles facilitated negotiations to assemble a ministry for his dear Jules to lead when the king called for him.

The Martignac experiment?

We’ll have to wait until another episode to see what happens when Charles makes that call. For now, I want to reflect just a little bit more on the Martignac ministry.

With the benefit of hindsight, Martignac was probably doomed from the start. Charles appointed this moderate ministry only with extreme reluctance, and never gave it his full support. As historian Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny puts it, it’s hard to even call Martignac’s ministry an “experiment.” To call it that, Sauvigny writes, “it would have had to have been undertaken as such and carried out from beginning to end with a minimum of good will and good faith.”61

A decade earlier, Charles’s brother Louis XVIII had shown genuine political flexibility, first backing the relatively moderate government of Élie Decazes, then pivoting hard to the right after 1820. In both cases Louis had given his full support to his chosen ministers. That’s support Martignac never enjoyed from Charles.

So what might have happened if Charles had been genuinely open to compromise with a Chamber of Deputies more liberal than him? This inevitably falls into the realm of speculation, not history, but as I said in the beginning, this is a fascinating “what-if” scenario. Could a Martignac with genuine backing from his king have corralled support from the Chamber’s elusive center and passed a popular agenda? If so, would this have benefitted Charles?

We can’t say, because the real Charles did not back Martignac, and dumped him at the first opportunity. Certainly Decazes could have told Martignac about the dangers of trying to hold the middle ground in Restoration politics — Decazes’s plan to “royalize the nation and nationalize the royalists” had ultimately failed.62

We also need to consider the agency of French liberals here, too. Historian Robert Alexander has argued that the French Left had learned hard lessons from the failure of the Carbonari uprisings in 1821 and 1822. Under Charles, even radical figures like Lafayette “acted with what was for them discretion,” including constant avowals of support for the monarchy. The result was that the tenuous alliance between Left and Center-Left held mostly firm. Back in 1820, some moderate liberals had defected in a crisis and supported reactionary measures like the Law of the Double Vote. In 1829 there were no such defections, however much Martignac might have liked to bring them about.63

Between a king unwilling to move to the left and an opposition not willing to move to the right, it’s not surprising that Martignac failed. Now it’s time to see what happens when Charles gets to try an experiment he’s actually committed to.


Before I close, I want to thank again those of you who have supported the show, either by spreading the word or by pledging as little as $1 per month on Patreon. Since I last thanked new supporters, The Siècle’s patrons have been joined by Bram, Alexis Pabois, Christine Pizan, Asher Jacobs, “The Raving Celt,” Michael Lynch, Anne Moore, Samuel Watson, “Cubankilljoy,” Jean-Christophe Rondy, “mothbag,” and — all the way from the pages of Beowulf — Scyld Scefing. My thanks to all of you for helping to make this show possible.

I’ve also got something new to announce. A listener reached out to say he wanted to support The Siècle, but didn’t want to sign up for monthly pledges. So on his request I set up the ability to make one-time donations to the show via Ko-fi. Thank you to Mark and Galina for making initial donations there! You can find a link to that, as well as to my Patreon, at

In the meantime, I’m hard at work on a lot of great content for you all. Our narrative is accelerating towards a climactic confrontation for the Bourbon Restoration. But before we reach that showdown, there are a few more concepts I need to put on the board. So I’m going to pull back the camera a little bit for some thematic episodes exploring life under the Restoration. In the near future you can look forward to a bonus episode where I interview a scholar who’s researched one of Restoration France’s most significant cultural icons — a man I like to think of as the Bob Dylan of the Bourbon Restoration.

The main series of episodes will continue where we left off today. After grudgingly trying compromise for a while under Martignac, in 1829 Charles is going to finally get the government he wanted all along: determined, ultraroyalist, and led by his lifelong friend. Join me next time for Episode 34: Polignac.

  1. Sherman Kent, The Election of 1827 in France (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1975), 161-83. Donald R. Smith, The French Elections of 1824 and 1827: A Quantitative Analysis, PhD diss. (University of Iowa, 1978), 132-3. 

  2. Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, translated by Lynn M. Case (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 392. 

  3. Vincent W. Beach, Charles X of France: His Life and Times (Boulder, Colo.: Pruett Publishing Company, 1971), 255. 

  4. Kent, The Election of 1827 in France, 184-5. Beach, Charles X, 250. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 392-3. 

  5. Beach, Charles X, 250. This quote is snappy and appropriate, but I think skepticism is warranted about whether it was actually said at the time, rather than invented after the fact. 

  6. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 132. Kent, The Election of 1827 in France, 185. 

  7. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 406-7. 

  8. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 406. 

  9. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 407. 

  10. Hugh Brogan, Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 90-94. 

  11. Beach, Charles X, 255-6. 

  12. Beach, Charles X, 256. 

  13. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 408. 

  14. Beach, Charles X, 254. 

  15. Beach, Charles X, 254, De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 406. 

  16. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 406. 

  17. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 408. 

  18. Irene Collins, The Government and the Newspaper Press in France, 1814-1881 (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 53. 

  19. Beach, Charles X, 257. 

  20. Beach, Charles X, 257. 

  21. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 409. 

  22. Kent, The Election of 1827 in France, 154-5. 

  23. Kent, The Election of 1827 in France, 155. 

  24. Robert Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition: Liberal Opposition and the Fall of the Bourbon Monarchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 260. 

  25. Mark Mazower, The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe (New York: Penguin Press, 2021), 430. 

  26. Mazower, The Greek Revolution, 430-1. 

  27. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 404, Mazower, The Greek Revolution, 433. 

  28. William St. Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2008), 349. 

  29. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 410-1. 

  30. Beach, Charles X, 259-60. 

  31. Beach, Charles X, 259-60. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 411-2. The law also included a small silver lining for the Church, 1.2 million francs for seminary scholarships. Note that Beach cites seven seized schools, but Geoffrey Cubitt’s more focused research claims seven. Geoffrey Cubitt, The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 95. 

  32. Beach, Charles X, 260-1. 

  33. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 413. 

  34. Cubitt, The Jesuit Myth, 95-7. 

  35. See Episode 31

  36. Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition, 242. Collins, The Government and the Newspaper Press in France, 55. 

  37. Collins, The Government and the Newspaper Press in France, 55. 

  38. Collins, The Government and the Newspaper Press in France, 54. 

  39. Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition, 242. 

  40. Beach, Charles X, 261-1. 

  41. Beach, Charles X, 261. 

  42. Collins, The Government and the Newspaper Press in France, 54-5. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 410, 413. 

  43. Kent, The Election of 1827 in France, 187-8. 

  44. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 413-4. Beach, Charles X, 265. 

  45. Beach, Charles X, 6, 9, 41, 48, 66. Margery Weiner, The French Exiles: 1789-1815, (London: John Murray, 1960), 158-9. 

  46. Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 229. 

  47. Beach, Charles X, 162-3, 167. René Rémond, The Right Wing in France: From 1815 to de Gaulle, 2nd American ed., translated by James M. Laux (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), 41. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 15, 303. Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition, 194. “Jules-Armand, prince de Polignac,” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 26, 2023. 

  48. Mansel, Paris Between Empires, 151. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 289. Munro Price, The Perilous Crown: France between Revolutions (London: Macmillan, 2007), 140. 

  49. Beach, Charles X, 197. 

  50. Mansel, Paris Between Empires, 220. 

  51. Beach, Charles X, 263. 

  52. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 415. 

  53. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 415. 

  54. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 415-6. 

  55. Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition, 249-50. 

  56. Beach, Charles X, 268. 

  57. Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition, 243. 

  58. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 416-7, Beach, Charles X, 268. 

  59. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 417. 

  60. Beach, Charles X, 269-70. 

  61. De Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 419. 

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

  63. Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition, 244, 251, 263.