The diary entry of the new king is succinct:
10 [May 1774]: Death of the King at two in the afternoon and departure for Choisy.
This château was 9 kilometres to the south of Paris. Infection hung about Versailles and the royal family lost no time getting out. By 4 o’clock, just two hours after the king’s death, Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, his brothers the counts of Provence and Artois and their wives all found themselves in one coach en route for the smaller château. Their baggage and the rest of the Court followed after. At first the occupants of the coach were solemn, but a flippant comment by the comtesse d’Artois broke the ice and they all started giggling. Only the new king had loved the old one. Marie-Antoinette was not to return to Versailles for nearly six months.
Marie-Antoinette’s chief concern during these months in 1774 was personal vengeance against those she considered to have wronged her during her unhappy time as dauphine, namely Madame du Barry, the duc d’Aiguillon and the comtesse de Noailles; and an attempt to reward the exiled Choiseul who had assisted her mother and Providence in placing her on the ‘finest throne in Europe’. She played no part, indeed took no interest, in the major decisions of this year: the appointment of the comte de Maurepas as personal adviser to the young king and of Anne-Robert Turgot to the Finance Ministry, and the recall of the old Parlement.
The appointment or rather recall of Maurepas (for he was given no official position) took Mercy-Argenteau and Marie-Antoinette by surprise. Mercy asked her whether Maurepas had been recalled as a prime minister. She replied ‘that such an eventuality was not on the table and that he was there merely to give the technical advice and advice on protocol of which he stood in great need’.
Maurepas had been a naval minister (1723–49) and Louis XVI, who was passionate about the navy, wanted to build it up: at his accession there was only one battleship in service. La Vauguyon had also turned to Maurepas to suggest tutors for his charge. He had been dismissed and exiled to his estates in 1749 for circulating scurrilous verses about Madame de Pompadour. This gave him a hatred of Louis XV and all his works (including his reform of the Parlement) and an abiding mistrust of women meddling in politics, be they king’s mistress or king’s wife. This was emphatically demonstrated by his own installation in Madame du Barry’s apartments. His fall had preceded Choiseul’s rise but both were due to the Pompadour, and Maurepas was determined to block Marie-Antoinette’s attempts to restore Choiseul to favour. Maurepas had hinted that the new king should make him prime minister, and though Louis did not take the hint Maurepas gradually became an informal one. Mercy was of the belief that the political influence of prime ministers and queens was mutually exclusive. It might depend on whether the king went up the stairs to see Maurepas or along the passage to see his wife. This triangular relationship would be the matrix for Marie-Antoinette’s political activity until Maurepas’ death in 1781.
Marie-Antoinette had nothing to do with the appointment of Turgot as finance minister in August 1774, though her brother welcomed the appointment of one of the greatest economists of the age. But he thwarted one of her protégés, the comte de Guines, ambassador to London, and she swore to have Guines made a duc and Turgot thrown into the Bastille on the same day. Her early interventions were not subtle.
Turgot was an honourable man but at the outset of his ministerial career he made a Faustian bargain that would undermine his attempts to reform the monarchy. Out of gratitude, one supposes, to Maurepas for getting him the Finance Ministry, he agreed, against his better judgement, to support Maurepas’ attempts to persuade the king, against his better judgement also, to recall the old Parlement. Maurepas had left the ministry before the internecine struggles between Crown and Parlement that had culminated in Maupeou’s coup d’état. And Maurepas’ father, the chancellor Pontchartrain, had instilled in him the slogan ‘no parlement no monarchy’; by which he meant that the parlements properly managed could sell royal policies, especially the high taxation needed to fund both land and sea wars, without an appearance of despotism. So Maurepas wanted a return to the golden age of the monarchy and of his youth under the premiership of Cardinal Fleury before Louis XV’s reign was tainted by the rule of the mistresses. The trouble was that the regime could only be reformed over the dead bodies of the Parlement, who as well as being judges were also noble landowners determined to preserve their tax privileges. The brief period of Marie-Antoinette’s ascendancy, 1787–8, which was also her political apprenticeship, would be dominated by a fight to the death with the Parlement.
Yet in 1774, Marie-Antoinette was completely ignorant of the issues involved. On 21 November, Louis XVI restored the old Parlement, with certain restrictions such as forbidding the judges to go on strike, which had the potential to bring such a litigious society to its knees. Four days earlier Mercy had written to Maria-Theresa:
Her Majesty spoke a lot about the possible outcome of this event. I took the opportunity to give her some idea about a topic on which hitherto she had had no desire whatsoever to inform herself, always saying that the matter was too difficult for her to understand a word of it. I foresaw that she would say something similar to Your Majesty. I repeatedly stressed that without getting involved in a matter so complicated and so serious, it was nonetheless necessary that she acquire enough knowledge to understand the core of the matter and to be able to reply to the king’s questions.
The main point of this, Mercy argued, was to dispel the notion that Marie-Antoinette had no influence over major policy matters. If she had understood the issues involved, Marie-Antoinette would have known that her mother favoured the Parlement Maupeou and found the restoration of the old rebellious Parlement ‘incomprehensible’.
From Marie-Antoinette by John Hardman. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with Permission.
John Hardman is one of the world’s leading experts on the French Revolution and the author of several well-regarded books on the subject. He was formerly lecturer in modern history at the University of Edinburgh.