Voltaire’s Louis XV, from bien-aimé to mal-aimé

The French victory at Fontenoy in 1745 provided Voltaire, newly appointed historiographe de France, with a welcome opportunity. Present with the French army on 11 May had been Louis XV himself, at his best on campaign and already nicknamed le bien-aimé. Voltaire had a distinct turn for flattery when it suited him. What could be more fitting than the composition of an account of the ‘campagnes du Roi’?

This is the context for the first half of what became Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29A). After Fontenoy Voltaire looked with the rest of France for a favourable and honourable peace, with French glory personified in the figure of the king. But the war dragged on until 1748, by which point Voltaire’s enthusiasm for reporting it had dwindled: ‘les détails en sont si ennuyeux’, as he said to Frederick II. It was not ideal subject matter for Europe’s most renowned poet and dramatist.

The second volume of the Précis, now published (OCV, vol.29B), completes the text, showing how what began as a celebration of the king’s campaigns transforms itself into a history of Voltaire’s time.

Accordingly, the succession of endless marches and manoeuvres, the clash and clang of victory and defeat, give way to a series of chapters featuring men whose deeds provide heroic highlights beyond the battlefield. What do Admiral George Anson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the naval adventurer Mahé de la Bourdonnais have in common? Not much, except that Voltaire bunches them together to fill out his account of the final years of a war in which he had lost interest. These characters – their literary function is as relevant as the historical examples they provide – are all instances of personal heroism and perseverance in the face of long odds.

The Shooting of Admiral Byng

The Shooting of Admiral Byng, on board the Monarque, 1757. (British Museum)

After the war Voltaire may have felt that he had finished with writing about conflict, but although he regarded the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) as a truce rather than a lasting peace, he did not anticipate the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, over which he passes with comparative brevity. While the earlier war is spread across twenty-five chapters in the Précis, its sequel is compressed into just five (ch.31-35). The first of these centres on the execution of the British Admiral Byng, ‘pour encourager les autres’, followed by that of the Franco-Irish general Lally, condemned for his military failures in India. The struggle for Canada is reduced to a dispute over a few acres of snow. The struggle in Europe is reduced to a personal contest between Frederick II and the duc de Richelieu. War is no longer a realm of heroism, and it is painted in a harshly negative light. Louis XV is nowhere to be seen. Voltaire, settled into life as seigneur of Ferney, no longer had to try to flatter his king.

Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d'avoir la tête tranchée

‘Thomas Arthur de Lally, condamné par arrêt du parlement de Paris d’avoir la tête tranchée en place de grève le 8 mai 1766’. (BnF/Gallica)

The later chapters – mostly written in the 1760s, soon after the events they describe – allow Voltaire to move beyond war. They reflect the preoccupations of the philosophe engagé that he was soon to become. Religious questions are ever-present: the problems surrounding the papal bull Unigenitus and the refusal of sacraments; the expulsion of the Jesuits from Bourbon Europe. The dangers of religious fanaticism are highlighted through chapters on Damiens’s attack on Louis XV, or the attempt on the life of the king of Portugal. Voltaire’s campaign for justice and tolerance comes to the fore in his strongly argued advocacy of judicial reform.

Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens

‘Le vrai portrait de Robert François Damiens, infâme parricide de Louis XV, le bien-aimé’. (BnF/Gallica)

These later chapters demonstrate the melding of Voltaire’s historical and philosophical concerns. The final chapter reviews the progress of l’esprit humain in Voltaire’s own time. His findings are mixed: despite some advances in certain areas, notably science, literature is in decline and can do no more than distract the reader, who would otherwise be ‘trop accablé de la contemplation des misères humaines’. As for the king, Voltaire almost blames him for bringing about his own death by sanctioning France’s failure to adopt the practice of smallpox inoculation. Louis le bien-aimé has by now become le mal-aimé.

Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV tracks its author’s development as a philosophe, but also as a historian, analyst and commentator on his own time, making it both a summary account of the age of Louis XV and a reflection of Voltaire’s concerns over the last thirty-three years of his own career.

– Janet Godden and James Hanrahan

The Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire: a new addition to the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire

In the autumn of 1744, amidst the turmoil of the War of the Austrian Succession, an anonymous, rather lengthy pamphlet entitled Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire appeared in print. It addressed the members of the Reichstag (the Imperial Diet) and urged them to take sides with Charles VII, Holy Roman Emperor, against Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. The Représentation circulated widely across Europe, and copies can still be found in Germany, Sweden, Slovakia, and the Netherlands, as well as in France. However, the sudden death of Charles VII on 20 January 1745 rendered the project expounded in the Représentation utterly impracticable, thus dooming the pamphlet to be quickly forgotten.

Page 1 of Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire, 1744 (image Gallica).

Page 1 of Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire, 1744 (image Gallica).

The Représentation briefly resurfaced in 1887, when Jacques-Victor-Albert, duc de Broglie, republished the pamphlet in the first issue of the Revue d’histoire diplomatique. De Broglie identified the author of the pamphlet as none other than Voltaire, and made the further claim that the latter had produced the text at the request of the marquis d’Argenson, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, probably because de Broglie provided very little evidence to support his argument for Voltaire’s authorship, the Représentation again failed to garner long-lasting attention and, to the best of my knowledge, no further mentions of it were made in Voltairean scholarship.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

In July 2015, however, I made a discovery that was to shed new light on this question. As I was working in the Archivio di Stato di Firenze, I found 170 letters from Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet to Luigi Lorenzi, French Resident Minister to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Many of these letters provide insights into Voltaire’s activities in the 1740s. A letter dated 1 March 1743, in particular, the main subject of which is Voltaire’s comédie-ballet La Princesse de Navarre, proceeds explicitly to mention Voltaire as the author of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire.

After unearthing this document, I decided to investigate further. Off I went to Paris, and after a few days of research at the Archives du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, the papers of Malbran de Lanoue (French ambassador to the Imperial Diet from 1738 to 1749) yielded a manuscript of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire. This manuscript is not in Voltaire’s hand, nor in that of any of his known secretaries. However, it bears several corrections which are in his hand. Furthermore, a marginal note on the front page reads: ‘cet écrit est du poète Voltaire’.

Study of this manuscript soon revealed significant similarities with other Voltairean texts, notably the Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV and the Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire. It also showed, however, remarkable differences from the text of the 1744 print edition that de Broglie had republished in the Revue d’histoire diplomatique in 1887. Another manuscript which I found amongst de Lanoue’s papers – the ‘Remarques de M. de Bussy sur l’écrit intitulé Représentations [sic] aux Etats de l’Empire de M. de Voltaire de novembre 1744’ – revealed that the manuscript of the Représentation had in fact been sent to diplomat François de Bussy for revision, before it was sent to press in 1744.

A manuscript with corrections in Voltaire’s hand, a marginal note unequivocally asserting Voltaire’s authorship, several textual similarities with other Voltairean works, an endorsement from Trublet… There seems to be sufficient evidence to include the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire! [1]

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] A critical edition of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire will be published in the forthcoming volume 29 of the Voltaire Foundation’s Œuvres completes de Voltaire, alongside Janet Godden and James Hanrahan’s edition of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV. In a brief introduction, I shall provide further evidence of Voltaire’s authorship and details on the pamphlet’s complex publication history. I shall also discuss the relationship between the Représentation and other diplomatic despatches that Voltaire penned on behalf of the marquis d’Argenson in the mid-1740s – e.g. the Lettre du Roi à la Czarine pour le projet de paix of May 1745, the Manifeste du Roi de France en faveur du prince Charles Edouard of December 1745 and, most importantly, the Représentations aux Etats-Généraux de Hollande (all three texts are already available in the Œuvres complètes). Finally, I shall consider François de Bussy’s interventionist approach in preparing Voltaire’s manuscript for publication, which further complicates the crucial question of authorship.

Battles on and off the field

The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de la guerre de 1741 in which the battle of Fontenoy was central. In this he aimed to present a new kind of modern history to his contemporaries [1].


The Battle of Fontenoy (Praetiriti Fides, Exemplumque Futuri, http://pfef.free.fr/Index.htm)



Part of the work appeared in 1755 in an unauthorised edition, based on a stolen manuscript, rapidly followed by further editions and several English translations in 1756. Voltaire continued to develop the work and in an Avant-propos he makes the point that, in contrast to ancient history, modern history has been largely presented to the public through gazettes and newspapers, which ‘forment presque la seule histoire des changements arrivés de nos jours’ while ‘Il est important à la génération présente d’être informée au juste de ce qui la regarde’ [2]. The avant-propos was not published in Voltaire’s lifetime, as his falling out with the king made authorised publication of this work impossible. Instead the text went through several metamorphoses that were incorporated into the Essai sur les mœurs, and then the Précis du siècle de Louis XV which appeared first as an addendum to Le Siècle de Louis XIV.


Robert-François Damiens (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France)


The Précis allowed for a candid view of Louis XV’s reign and reads like a contemporary political account of the period. Indeed, in the Précis Voltaire goes so far as to provide many details of the case against Robert-François Damiens, who had attacked and wounded the king, and the accusations made by this ‘régicide’ against prominent magistrates of the parlement of Paris who, Damiens claimed, had influenced his actions. Voltaire knew that ‘le parlement serait fâché qu’on vît dans l’histoire ce qu’on voit dans le procès verbal’ (D10985, 6 February 1763), but included it nonetheless. The modernity of Voltaire’s views on the need for modern history is summed up by his belief in the importance of transparency: ‘Il est utile de savoir la vérité de ce qui nous regarde, difficile de la démêler, et dangereux de la dire’ [2].

– James Hanrahan, Trinity College Dublin

[1] On this topic see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the necessity of modern history’, Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3 (2009), p.457-484.

[2] Voltaire, Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ed. by Jacques Maurens (Paris, Garnier, 1971), p.3.