This is The Siècle, Supplemental 5: Assassination Vacation.
THE SIÈCLE: I’m David Montgomery, host of The Siècle, a history podcast covering France’s overlooked century in between Napoleon and the First World War.
SIÈCLE: Last month, we both released podcast episodes that turned on big political assassinations.
HUME: InPax Britannica, the 1628 stabbing of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham and favorite of King Charles I.
SIÈCLE: And in The Siècle, the 1820 stabbing of Charles Ferdinand d’Artois, duc de Berry and nephew of King Louis XVIII.
I was struck by this coincidence, but also by the many similarities between these two killings, as well as some key differences. So my thanks to Sam for hopping on a call for an informal chat!</i>
HUME: Thanks for suggesting it! This is brilliant idea, because you’re right — there are so many comparisons to be made between these two killings, even though they are, you know, two centuries apart.
SIÈCLE: Before we start diving into the comparisons, I think it’d be a good idea to go over the basics of these two killings so everyone’s on the same page. Sam, your murder happened first, so why don’t you start by introducing us to the Duke of Buckingham and his assassin, John Felton?
HUME: Absolutely. So, the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, had been a favorite of James VI/I from about 1615. He had rapidly risen from the position of cupbearer to a member of the high nobility, continuing to climb the ranks until he was made duke in 1623. Buckingham’s relationship with the king was probably sexual in nature, at least in part, but he was a competent political operator in his own right, and effectively saw off every attempt to replace him in the affections of James, and after his death in 1625, of his son Charles.
That was, though, one of the few things he was actually competent in. His rapid promotion included a number of positions in the government, including the Lord Admiralship, and considering he had never been in a battle, and was frequently seasick, he probably wasn’t the best choice. His other main ability was for graft. He was famously, stupendously corrupt, even by the standards of the time, so he was already unpopular by the time that the three kingdoms went to war, and suddenly needed a Lord Admiral who knew what he was doing. Buckingham was indirectly or directly responsible for multiple failed naval expeditions, and the Duke’s future assassin would be involved in two of these expeditions.
John Felton was a career soldier who seems to have begun his career with [the] attack on Cadiz, arranged but not overseen directly by Buckingham. After spending some time in Ireland, he tried and failed to be promoted to captain. In an expedition to France in 1627, he again attempted to gain a commission as a captain, and was not only refused but was not selected to be part of the initial force. For all of these setbacks he blamed Buckingham personally.
He eventually made it to the island of Re, just in time to get involved in a failed storm of the fortress. He survived, although many didn’t, and returned to England. Adding to this, Felton repeatedly complained that he had not been paid, and believed that this was down to the Duke too. Combining with his personal grudges against Buckingham were the political complaints coming out of parliament, and all of this combined was enough motivation for Felton to travel to Portsmouth, approach the Duke in a crowded inn, and stab him in the heart.
So David, do you want to tell us about the French assassination?
SIÈCLE: Sure. Just a little background: In 1814, and again in 1815, the powers of Europe defeated Napoleon and placed on the throne of France Louis XVIII, the elderly and morbidly obese brother of the guillotined Louis XVI. Louis XVIII’s agenda, pursued with fits and starts, was to try to reconcile the divided people of France with his Bourbon dynasty, but his long-term plans were severely hampered by one of the biggest defects a king can have: he was childless.
Louis’s heir was therefore his younger brother, the Comte d’Artois, who was also elderly. Artois was not childless, but his own eldest child was also seemingly incapable of fathering children. That meant the future of the dynasty — the only hope of keeping the crown in the family, rather than seeing it go to distant and disliked cousins, was if Artois’s youngest son had a child. This youngest son was the duc de Berry, a hothead and notorious playboy who was only recently married. As of 1820, Berry had fathered a daughter, but still no sons — and under France’s ancient inheritance laws, the throne could only be inherited through the male line.
Enter Louis-Pierre Louvel, a middle-aged, largely illiterate saddlehand who was a devoted Bonapartist. Louvel had served with Napoleon’s Grande Armée, and also worked in the stables on the island of Elba when the Emperor was exiled there. Now, he was consumed with hatred for the royal family that had replaced Napoleon, and he hatched a plan to end the dynasty — starting with only Bourbon who seemed capable of fathering an heir, the duc de Berry.
On Feb. 13, 1820, Louvel lurked outside of the Paris Opera, where Berry and many other grandees were attending a triple-feature. Just before 11 p.m., the Duchesse de Berry complained of feeling tired, and so her husband escorted her out to a waiting carriage. As the duke turned to go back into the opera, Louvel rushed out of the fog and plunged a seven-inch dagger into Berry’s back.
The wound was fatal, though not before Berry had time for a long, dramatic death scene, in which he blessed some of his very many illegitimate children, and pleaded with the king to pardon his killer. But into this mood of tragedy came a wild card when the duchess announced that she was pregnant — pregnant, as it would turn out, with a posthumous son and heir to Berry and the Bourbon line.
So Sam, what kind of impact did Buckingham’s death have on Charles’s regime? Did it bring him additional support or sympathy? Did it weaken him politically?
HUME: The first and most immediate result was that it very immediately removed one of the most unpopular figures Charles’s government. Throughout the rest of Charles’s reign, no other individual would hold anywhere close to the amount of influence that Buckingham [did]. Charles at this point could have chosen to distance himself from his prior reign. He could have drawn a line under it and said, ‘From now on I’m going to rule in a different way, I’m going to govern differently — that was all Buckingham’s influence.’ But he didn’t. He continued to rule in the same way he had before; he continued to rack up complaints. But now he didn’t have an infamous evil councilor that he could shift all the blame onto. He had William Laud and the Earl of Stratford, they were also high-profile, but again, they didn’t have the influence that Buckingham had enjoyed, so they didn’t have as much effect as as successful scapegoat.
In terms of sympathy, there was barely any, at least publicly. The public presses rejoiced at the murder. This obviously horrified Charles, because this man was if not a father figure to him, a best friend — and here were his subjects cheering his murder. But it did bring him close to the future Archbishop of Canturbury, William Laud, because Laud had also been very close to Buckingham. But this wasn’t a good thing for either of their personalities in the long run.
One silver lining, one positive to come out of it, was his marriage. His marriage with Princess — the French princess, as it happens — Henrietta Maria had been difficult for political and diplomatic reasons, but also because of the presence of Buckingham, because Buckingham rightly saw the princess as a contender for Charles’s affections, Charles’s attention. So the strain had been there. With his removal, their marriage became much better, and within a few years the queen was now pregnant with the future Charles II. So that sense, in a political sense, because, you know, heirs are very important, it was an improvement. But I don’t think it was a price that Buckingham would have willingly paid.
SIÈCLE: Was the removal of Buckingham as an adviser, in terms of the quality of advice he was giving, was that an improvement for Charles? Or did it not make a difference?
HUME: I think it had a role to play with the eventual peace with both the Habsburgs and the separate peace with Spain, because Buckingham was — he had accidentally brought the kingdoms into war with France, because of the general machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, and his removal meant that, obviously now [with] the highly personal diplomatic goings-on of Early Modern Europe, his better relations with his French wife meant he was going to have better relations with the French kingdom. Buckingham himself, in terms of, say, religious matters, was being advised by Archbishop William Laud. Now the middleman was removed and Laud was speaking directly to the king. So in that sense I don’t think it gave as much of an impact as Felton certainly wished.
To turn it back on you, David, what impact did the Duc de Berry’s death have on the French regime?
SIÈCLE: It had a very significant political impact. For one thing, it sparked a huge wave of sympathy for Louis and the Bourbon family. It swayed a lot of moderates into at least temporary support for the Bourbons. The crime was seen as an outrage, and a lot of people who’d been on the fence, or even critical of the political decisions that Louis and his government had been making, suddenly switched sides. It also highlighted a concern about the sort of revolutionary potential that France still had, less than a generation away from the French Revolution. So it sparked a backlash against France’s left-wing opposition group, the liberals, who’d been gaining in multiple consecutive elections and seemed on the verge of maybe seizing power in the French parliament, the elected Chamber of Deputies.
This was deliberately played up by royalist political actors, who played down Louvel’s very real Bonapartist sympathies, and cast him as a stalking horse of the liberal opposition, accusing hin of acting under the inspiration or even the direct orders of prominent liberal politicians like the Marquis de Lafayette, or Élie Decazes, who was Louis’s favorite — who was sympathetic to the liberals and who was widely detested by the French right wing. The murder of Berry ended up being Decazes’ downfall; he was pushed out as a sort of sacrificial lamb, showing that perhaps Louis XVIII, whatever his other faults, had slightly better political instincts than Charles I.
In addition to Decazes’ downfall, it also led to a backlash in the French parliament, which passed some repressive laws, including changing the election laws to favor conservative candidates, and effectively neutered the liberals as a political force for half a decade.
Louvel, meanwhile, was captured, immediately confessed to the crime, and was eventually guillotined after a one-day trial before the upper house of the French parliament, the Chamber of Peers. Interestingly, he died in relative obscurity, subsumed beneath the country’s broader political dramas, to which he was connected only as an alleged pawn.
HUME: So that’s interesting. The parallels between 19th Century France and 17th Century England, Scotland and Ireland are clear: we’ve got a monarchy that’s dealing with a, not a cooperative assembled body, we’ll put it like that. But the outcomes of the murders are very different. And I wonder, what kind of difference do you think it made that in the English sense, Felton had murdered a political figure, whereas Louvel had killed a member of the royal family?
SIÈCLE: I think that was probably really important. For one thing, political figures are by definition controversial, because they’re taking political stands, which — people have political opinions. Dynastic figures are often a step removed, they’re more symbolic. It’s not like people can’t hate kings and princes, but they’re often not on the front line in terms of going out and taking political positions, and certainly Berry, while he had his own politics, was not as intimately involved in the trenches and associated with specific decisions as the Duke of Buckingham was.
So in that sense, it probably helped engender more sympathy. As opposed to the elimination of a politician, this was the future of the regime, the future of the king, to which a lot of French people had some general support, even if there was varying degrees of intensity.
Interestingly in the English case, it was the king’s favorite who was murdered. In the French case, the king’s favorite also ended up being the political loser in the situation — Élie Decazes ended up being forced out, blamed or associated with the murder. His rhetoric was accused of having inspired Louvel, and there were even direct conspiracy allegations made in the French parliament that he had ordered it. Both 19th Century France and 17th Century England were very conspiratorially minded places. The king’s favorite, the king’s evil advisers, as the trope goes, were very easy to blame, whereas someone a little more distant from politics, like Berry, was a more sympathetic figure. Even people who disliked Berry, disagreed with his politics, which were fairly right-wing, found it much more difficult to attack Berry. There was, a few people on the French Left made some half-hearted attempts to celebrate the death, but they were relatively few and far between, and they were very quickly suppressed in the wave of repressive laws that followd the assassinations.
HUME: I think that’s a very good point. The point you made about politicians being more easy to target than royalty, especially royalty that are not specifically involved in political decisions — something that played into the Duke of Buckingham’s fate was that he was an “upjumped gentleman” in a highly hierarchical society. Now he wasn’t a peasant, by any stretch of the means, but he went from a gentleman to as high as you can climb without being royalty. He became a duke, in the space of about eight years. That’s significant ambition that was not seen in a positive sense, and this mattered in 17th Century Britain — especially considering that royalty was, to a certain extent, and depending on who you were speaking to, God-appointed. If you have a problem with what the king is doing, you’re kind of having a problem with God’s decision. Whereas kings themselves are still mortal and make mortal mistakes, like trusting evil councilors.
And everyone had a reason to dislike Buckingham, and to justify his death. Not that he was universally disliked, but every part of society had at least one reason to. Catholics because he attacked Catholic France and Spain. Protestants because he was feared to be a crypto-Catholic. Nobility because he’d sold titles, and he climbed the social ladder too quickly. Merchants because he’d profited from illegal duties. Supporters of the king — now, obviously everyone believed themselves to be a supporter of the king, in one way or another — but supporters of the king’s agenda were glad to see the back of Buckingham because he was toxic, whereas opponents of the king’s agenda were now happy that the person who had been misleading the king with these bad policies was now gone. You can get away with a lot more criticism when you’re dealing with just an ordinary person, rather than when you’re dealing with a member of the royal family. That mattered a lot more to people at the time.
SIÈCLE: One of the interesting comparisons between these two scenes, early 19th Century France and early 17th Century England, was the question of legitimacy. In early 19th Century France there had obviously been multiple regime changes in the course of a generation, from monarchy to republic to empire back to monarchy, a brief revival of empire, back to monarchy again. Louis XVIII was trying very hard to try to rebuild the legitimacy of the Bourbon dynasty and monarchy in general. Whereas in 17th Century England, it was sort of on the other slope. It’s always bad to sort of read history backwards, but obviously a legitimacy crisis for the English monarchy is looming, down in the future. In the French case the death of the Duc de Berry, especially because of the posthumous birth of a son and heir, probably ended up being a boost to the legitimacy of the Bourbons, in terms of the sympathy it engendered, as well as not eliminating the dynasty’s future because of the heir. Do you think that the death of the Duke of Buckingham and the fallout that happened had any impact on the Stuarts’ legitimacy?
HUME: I think it did, in the sense that because Charles continued his course, and because he had reacted so badly to the death — previous evil councilors had been removed, even as late as James VI/I. He had agreed to remove them, they had been imprisoned in the Tower — they had a comfy life after that, they were released after a few days, but the king had taken action. And he had listened to his subjects’ concerns and he had done something about it. Charles had not. One of Charles’s subjects had taken matters into his own hands. This cannot have helped Charles’ legitimacy one iota. And then you get into what comes afterwards; it becomes readily apparent, even to the most ardent monarchists, that no, Buckingham was not the problem here. Buckingham was maybe adding to the problem, he may have been helping guide it, but the king is still the king, and the problems are still happening. So I think that that played a significant role in the gradual breakdown of king and subject relations over the coming decade, although I don’t think anyone expected it to go quite as far as it eventually did.
SIÈCLE: The other day I read a really interesting comment talking about modern-day England, in which someone commented about the current Prince Charles’s very long time as the heir apparent, and commented that not too many centuries ago, someone in Charles’s position probably would have had Queen Elizabeth offed, to accelerate his own rise up the political ladder. Which was an amusing comment, but sort of provoked a deeper idea, which is that today, we don’t see that many political assassinations, at least in developed countries, because there are other ways to rise up the ladder, to effect change. Politicians resign in disgrace all the time; they’re pushed out; they’re defeated in elections. But in both these cases, we have monarchical systems, albeit with functioning politics, and killing someone was a way to effect political change. I wonder what you think these two parallel episodes tell us about the role of assassination as a political weapon.
HUME: I think it tells us something about, when there’s a nonviolent, or to phrase it a different way, a safer way to effect change, people will generally go for that. I think that at least in the English sense, the safe, legal way of effecting change, in this case removing the Duke of Buckingham from government, would be impeachment. And that had been repeatedly prevented and blocked by Charles. I think that once you begin removing the safe, legal options, and yet the problem still persists, you begin to find more and more people who are willing to go beyond the legal and peaceful options and start considering more abrupt ways to go about it.
I mean, The Siècle so far, how many purges have you had? How many terrors, sanctioned or otherwise? Yes, there’s a sanctioned democracy, kind of, but it’s certainly far from foolproof.
SIÈCLE: Exactly. And of course, when you’re talking about the death of a prince, even in a country that had an elected parliament like Restoration France did, as Stuart England did, you can’t impeach a prince. If you want to end a dynasty, it sort of has to involve violence, whether that’s murder or revolution. The French had plenty of experience with the latter, both in the past and again in the future. But if Louis-Pierre Louvel wanted to end the Bourbon dynasty, passing out pamphlets to encourage an impeachment or censure vote in parliament wouldn’t have done anything. This was an old-style inheritance system. There was really no other way to stop the Bourbon dynasty from continuing.
HUME: Unless, of course, the left wing actually managed to achieve its aims and it became more radical, then who knows, maybe there would have been a legal abolition of the monarchy. But we’ll never know, because Louvel put a knife into the Duc de Berry’s heart.
SIÈCLE: It’s important to keep in mind, much as you talk about how Charles had foiled attempts to use the legitimate political means of the day to resolve this crisis, in a sort of broader sense, one of the things related to the backlash after Berry’s death was the unwillingness of Louis’s government, and Louis himself, to tolerate a liberal-led government. The possibility of the liberals gaining a majority was just unfathomable. Louis was relatively flexible, much more flexible than Charles I was, or than his brother, another Charles — and accepted governments of the center-left and center-right and far-right over his time, but he had limits, and he was not willing to countenance the left-wing opposition gaining power. Perhaps sensibly, because many of these people, though they professed loyalty to the regime, secretly would have preferred a different system of government, be it a republic or an empire — they hadn’t really sorted that out yet. Both before and especially after, during the repression, when the electoral laws were changed to make it almost impossible, at least in the short run, for liberals to win a majority, there was the sense that the legitimate ways of seizing power had been taken away. So after Berry’s death and after this repression, you see the French left turn towards conspiracies and plots, attempted coups and revolutions, rather than focusing on trying to win elections.
HUME: So in a sense you’re saying that the government removed the legitimacy of its own function of government.
SIÈCLE: That’s certainly one of the big arguments that’s made, that the repressive actions, and especially the changing of the electoral laws, removed some of the democratic legitimacy that the French Charter of Government of 1814 had given them. Under this Charter, the Bourbons weren’t just ruling by divine right, though that’s how they certainly preferred to cast it; they also were ruling the with the sanction of an elected body, albeit one elected by only the richest 1 percent or so of French men. By changing the electoral law and removing it further from that electorate, that sort of removed some of the democratic legitimacy that they had. And as it turns out, in the 19th Century at least, and increasingly as you’re about to find out — we’re both getting in to foreshadowing here — in the 17th Century, pure divine right is not necessarily a very firm foundation for monarchy once you get into the Early Modern and Modern periods. As the French experience will show, when you sacrifice your other form of legitimacy, another leg of that stool, that can make your regime, while perhaps shoring it up in the short run, can considerably weaken it in the long run.
HUME: That’s a fair assessment, especially with what’s coming for both our respective monarchs.
If I could go back to Louvel for a moment, you already discussed it slightly, you already discussed his fate. But what was his actual personal legacy?
SIÈCLE: Very little. One of the interesting things about Louvel, this whole incident was just devoured in the popular press. It was hugely popular. There were newspapers and pamphlets and books that were rushed into publication. Lots of hagiographies of the Duc de Berry and his wife, Louvel was damned as a base villain, though more usually as a simple tool of dastardly liberals. One of the interesting things was that although an incredible variety of images were created and published about this — dramatic deathbed pictures, pictures of the assassination, etc. — Louvel’s face was almost never the same from one image to another. All these artists who were selling depictions of the murder and the death and all that, took great care to represent the Duc de Berry’s features, and the Duchesse de Berry’s features, and the king’s features, and everything else, but Louvel was just this generic figure. He looked surly in one picture and blank in another, a completely different person — different face, different picture. He was just an anonymous hand who had struck, and he was essentially almost forgotten almost the moment the crime had happened and the details of the crime came out. He was executed in the middle of a fierce political debate that everyone was paying far more attention to. You might expect the guy who killed the prince in the crime of the century, there would be huge throngs of people attending his execution. None of that happened. It was all very quiet and speedy. He was just an afterthought.
You had mentioned that Felton was celebrated. How did the somewhat more primitive press of the 17th Century treat him?
HUME: Yeah, it’s interesting in comparison, because Felton’s popular memory fate was completely different from Louvel’s, because he was praised. He was a martyr. He was literally martyred. At least, that’s what some of the popular press said. Some of the religious imagery is actually quite extreme, almost ridiculous. His final words were said after the fact to have been declaring that he was right to have done what he did, that he had no shame, blah blah blah, all this stuff. When in reality he had followed custom and confessed his regret, and followed all the steps that had the best chance that his family would not be punished for his crimes. Things like his body hanging in a gibbet were actually, in this framing, an honor, because he wasn’t going to be stuck in the ground with the filth and the worms. He was closer to God, close to Heaven.
His political statement, for why he killed Buckingham, the one, he’d kept it in his hat. Once he was captured that was distributed, it was widely published, and people had toasts over his memory and his honor, there was poetry describing his act, and claiming he was the Christian warrior that England needed. Felton was compared to Buckingham, him being manly and brave and Protestant, and Buckingham being effeminate and cowardly and a crypto-Catholic. It could not have been more different from the popular treatment of Louvel, and I think that comes down to what we talked about earlier — one was, at least, the vocal minority if not the majority of people considered him a villain, and the Duc de Berry, who was not.
SIÈCLE: Felton’s political statement was widely circulated; Louvel’s openly confessed political motivation for killing the Bourbons was effectively suppressed, and didn’t become widely known until much later.
You had mentioned that Felton had been treated in the popular press with sort of overt religious imagery; in France it was Berry and his wife and their unborn son who were the focus of this religious depiction. The son was dubbed the ‘Miracle Child.’ There were very florid prayers that were issued all around the country for the health of the mother and the unborn child. And Berry was cast up as this martyr himself, who had been a martyr to the dynasty, to the great family of the Bourbons, etc.
All of which was sort of ironic because in life, Berry was known as sort of a lout and a cad. The only reason that he ended up dying and getting killed at this night at the Paris Opera was because after dropping his wife off in her carriage, he turned to go back into the opera for the reason that he had a mistress who was a dancer there, and wanted to arrange a rendezvous.
In fact his mistress would also give birth to a posthumous illegitimate Berry child. There were in fact four children born to Berry after his death, one the famous Miracle Child, as well as three illegitimate children. But all of this was sort of washed away in a sort of glorious death. Death was, as they say today sometimes, a very good career move for the Duc de Berry.
HUME: That sounds right. I’ve just got a quick question about that. How were the other three bastard miracle children treated in the press. Were they also not talked about?
SIÈCLE: The public press doesn’t really get into illegitimate children like that, especially with the degree of censorship the Bourbons had. But some of these children ended up marrying quite well, for illegitimate children of commoners, being their only official connection, some of them married nobility, and managed to do well for themselves. The only one of real historic note is the Comte de Chambord, his legitimate child, the Miracle Baby. He was the one who would be a political actor over the course of the century. The rest are just an amusing historical footnote.
HUME: Well, there’s worth things to be.
SIÈCLE: Well, Sam, thanks for hopping on a call to discuss this. I’m really enjoying your leadup to the coming turmoil in 17th Century England, and thought it was interesting the parallels as France approaches its own turmoil in the 19th Century.
HUME: Thanks for having me on. I’ve been loving The Siècle, and I hadn’t put it into quite the same terms as you did when you approached me, but I was thinking “Huh, what a coincidence, that we came to two great political murders, right about the same time.”
SIÈCLE: Well good luck with your next episode, Sam. I’ll let you get back to your research.
HUME: And you to yours.