Reality never matched the popular image of the all-powerful French King. Even Louis XIV, exalted by his own propagandists and many historians as the Sun King, never actually enjoyed that kind of authority. Theories of divine right, which linked the King to God, proved untenable for many. Yet, by the reign of Louis XIV the monarch was no longer a weak power against which nobles were regularly in revolt.

We pick up the story of the French monarchy at the beginning of the eighteenth century, by which time the Bourbon Kings had taken on an unprecedented level of responsibility for ruling all of France. Previously they had shared this task with the higher nobles—princes, dukes, and counts. However, many continued to compete with the crown for authority, from the lords of the manors to municipal and regional governments. Even the King's own officers—especially the judges of the royal law courts—were only partly under the control of the monarchy. So the actual functioning of government was a balance between the King, the royal bureaucracy, and local elites consisting of nobles and non-nobles who made money from the land they owned, professional fees, financial investments (especially in royal bonds), and wholesale commerce.

To a historian, perhaps the most interesting aspect of eighteenth century French politics was a battle being waged among political theorists. In general, those closest to the King favored classical notions of monarchy, such as the theory developed in the late seventeenth century by Jacques-Bénigné Bossuet for Louis XIV, which became known as absolutism. Other eighteenth-century descriptions of monarchy advocated centralizing power in the hands of the King. When the Franks first decided to establish their own government to replace the fading Roman Empire, argued Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, they entrusted the King with all authority.

To spread ideas such as Moreau's, French monarchs published newspapers supporting their actions. In one such periodical, the Gazette of France, the crown took a subtle rather than a propagandistic approach: it never mentioned its opponents and treated royalty with total reverence—even though the news being reported was not necessarily the most important events of the day. But the monarchy's position on its role in society did not always need cloaking. In 1765 Louis XV informed the highest law courts in the land in no uncertain terms of his divine right to rule and his unquestioned authority. Even up to 1787, on the eve of the Revolution, the King told these same judges that he was the "sovereign chief" who held his power indivisibly.

Despite all this royal bravado, the monarchy faced significant challenges —some even life threatening, as Louis XV discovered on 5 January 1757, when a domestic servant named Robert-François Damiens tried to kill the King. Damiens succeeded only in scratching Louis XV with his knife. Not surprisingly, supporters of the monarchy regarded this act as a heinous crime and thought that its perpetrator must have been a madman who should be exorcised from society. But mixed in with the public outcry over the assassination attempt were rumors of plots against the monarchy.







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