The Count of Provence (comte de Provence), later Louis XVIII, was born 17 November 1755 at the Palace of Versailles to Louis, Dauphin of France and his wife Maria Josepha of Saxony. In accordance with Bourbon tradition, he spent the first six months of his life nameless before he was baptized Louis Stanislas Xavier. He proved to be a favorite among his siblings and was considered an intelligent boy. He was also said to be studious and a prodigious reader.
In April 1771, when the Count’s education formally ended, he received several other titles but was still usually called the Count of Provence. His own independent household was also established and by 1773 was so extravagant with its 300 servants his contemporaries were astounded. A month after he finished his education, on 14 May 1771, he married the Princess Maria Giuseppina of Savoy (known in France as Marie Joséphine). The Princess’s sister, Maria Teresa, was the Countess of Artois and married to the Count of Provence’s younger brother, and the Princess’s brother, Charles Emmanuel IV, was married to the Count of Provence’s younger sister, Clotilde. Moreover, the Savoy Princess and her sister were also cousins to the Princesse de Lamballe.
Despite all the close relations, the Count of Provence’s marriage to Marie Joséphine was no love match. He was supposedly repulsed by her, partly because she was said to be ugly in appearance and because she had poor personal hygiene (she didn’t brush her teeth, use perfume, or pluck her eyebrows). They supposedly did not get along either and quarreled frequently. The quarreling, however, did not stop them from having sexual relations because she became pregnant twice, although both pregnancies ended in miscarriage.
The Count was said to most resemble his older brother Louis XVI in looks. However, when it came to morals, he was most like his younger brother, the Count of Artois (later Charles X). Similar to the Count of Artois, the Count of Provence had many affairs. There were also reports of him spending time “in houses of ill-fame, and was … an excellent customer of the seraglio of Gourdan, a noted bawd of that time.”
At the outbreak of the French Revolution, on 16 July 1789, the Count of Artois left France with his family, while the Count of Provence remained. When the march on Versailles occurred in October, and the royal family was taken to the Tuileries Palace, the Count of Provence and his family also relocated. However, they went to stay at the Luxembourg Palace.
Later, in June 1791, when the flight to Varennes was undertaken by the royal family, the Count of Provence and his wife successfully escape and fled to the Austrian Netherlands. They then later lived in exile in Prussia, the United Kingdom, and Russia. On 21 September 1792, the National Convention abolished the monarchy and deposed King Louis XVI who they later executed by guillotine. Louis XVI’s son then became (nominally) King of France and Navarre in the eyes of the royalists and was called Louis XVII. When Louis XVII died from tuberculosis in June of 1795, the Count of Provence became the titular King.
After a series of military defeats resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte‘s abdication in 1814, Louis XVIII then gained what French royalists considered his rightful position as king. He returned to Paris and was nicknamed “the Desired” (le Désiré). A year later, Napoleon attempted to regain power with his “Hundred Days,” but he was defeated at Waterloo in June of 1815. This time Napoleon was sent into exile at St. Helena, while Louis XVIII was restored a second time to the throne.
As King, Louis XVIII loved his role and followed the same daily routine:
“At that hour precisely, etiquette resumed its empire; his servants entered the chamber, lit the fire, opened his bed-curtains, brought him water to wash in a silver-gilt basin, drew on his stockings, dressed him, presented him with holy water, and waited in silence while he offered up his mental prayer, fixed by etiquette as well as piety for the first act of the king on his awakening.
After he made the sign of the cross, the king ordered the door to be opened to the officers of his household, and to the great dignitaries of the court, the church, and the army…These courtiers formed a circle, or passed before him, whilst his pages and his valèts-de-chambre finished his toilette, held the looking-glass for him, and brought him, on golden trays, the coats, the decorations, and the sword, in which he was dressed for the remainder of the day. He occupied himself in this manner till the hour of déjeuner with the members of his family or with those personages whom the privileges of their respective offices authorized to partake of this first royal meal; and he proceeded accompanied by this cortége, to the breakfast-room. All the royal family, some of the great officers of his household, and the principal officers of the royal guard on duty, were admitted to his table, which was sumptuously served … he [ate] nothing but two fresh eggs, and drank nothing but a small glass of foreign wine, poured out by his cup-bearer.”
Besides his love for routine, Louis XVIII was considered to be emotionally needy. That characteristics played into the hands of a Zoé Victoire Talon, styled Countess of Cayla. She was the protégée of Viscount Sosthène de La Rochefoucauld. She was also considered pretty, amiable, and intelligent. She had married the Count Baschi du Cayla and they had two children. However, their relationship was not a happy one, and they separated on the grounds of “incompatibility of temper.” Later, when she appealed to Louis XVIII to him to protect her from her resentful husband, she gained his notice.
Reports are that Louis XVIII was affected and fascinated by the Countess from the first moment he met her. Little by little their relationship grew. “He began to write frequently [to her] … then every day, then several times a day. He spoke of everything to her, consulted her on everything … [and the] ultra-royalists were in ecstacies over this result.” One person wrote, he “fell in love … as much in love as was possible for him.” But, it seems his love was likely paternal, as many people believed they never had sexual relations.
From about 1817 onward the Countess functioned as the major avenue through which the Ultras (a political group that were strong supporters of the royals) influenced the King. Then when Louis began suffering from health problems and being “nailed to his armchair by [his] sufferings,” the Countess initiated regular visits every Wednesday. They were said to be important enough that he ordered no one should disturb them.
The favor the King felt for the Countess became more obvious in 1821 when he razed the Château of Saint Ouen and employed Jacques-Marie Huvé to build a residence. It was initially thought the property was for the Duchess of Angoulême, but on 2 May 1821 when the first stones were laid, it was the Countess who was there with the King. Moreover, every penny spent on it came from the King’s own purse as there was no traces in the official budget of the Maison du Roi. The King also supervised every detail related to construction and furnishing the château. For instance, he had François Gérard paint a portrait of him. It was hung in the grand salon when the château was finished at the end of 1822.
By the spring of 1824, it became evident the King’s health was even worse and that he had no more than a few months to live. He was suffering from obesity, gout, and gangrene, both dry and wet, in his legs and spine. The Count of Puymaigre wrote about seeing the King a the close of the year and he noted:
“When I was admitted to what is called a special audience, according to his usual custom, he was sitting at a table whose covering came down to the carpet, and left nothing visible but the upper part of his body, the coquetry of an old man who wants to his his defects. He was no longer the same man; that appearance of force, that piercing glance, that sonorous voice, which always provoked positive replies were gone.” One writer described him as “a living corpse from the physical point of view, on the moral side he preserved an energy which does the greatest honor to his firmness of character.”
On the evening of Sunday, 12 September 1824, the King laid down and never rose from his bed again.
“Neither his family nor the dignified clergy could get him to receive the last sacraments. It was only managed by recalling madame du Cayla, who had been removed from court. At her persuasion he consented.”
On Thursday, the 15th of September, the King’s breathing became labored and around one o’clock in the morning on the 16th it was announced “the King is dead.” As Louis XVIII had no children, the crown passed to his brother, the Count of Artois who became Charles X. Of his death, the French general and nobleman Auguste de Marmont who became Marshal of France, wrote:
“The death of Louis XVIII … is one of the most admirable spectacles I ever beheld. His courage, his resignation, and his calmness were extraordinary. He looked his end in the face without anxiety and without terror.”
-  Secret Amours of the Bourbons, 1831 Volumes 1-2, 1831, p. 3.
-  Littell’s Living Age, Volume 36, 1853, p. 547-548.
-  Saint-Armand, Imbert de, Famous Women of the French Court, 1892, p. 261.
-  Ibid., p. 260.
-  Ibid., p. 256.
-  Saint-Armand, Imbert de, The Duchess of Berry and the Court of Louis XVIII, 1900, p. 284.
-  Saint-Armand, Imbert de, 1892, p. 283-284.
- . Littell’s Living Age, p. 548.
-  Saint-Armand, Imbert de, 1892, p. 288.