Philippe Egalite

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

As I mentioned back in Episode 3.25, the Duke d’Orléans, the renegade Prince of the Blood who was now styling himself Philippe Egalite deserves more attention than I have been able to give him. Since he is about to get his head chopped off, I figured that now would be the perfect time to try to correct this oversight. So, without further ado, let’s hop in the wayback machine and head back into the days of the Ancien Régime. Because the story of the coming of the French Revolution is absolutely not complete without explaining the part played by the Duke d’Orléans. 

Young Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orléans was born in 1747 into the House of Orléans, the senior cadet branch of the Royal House of Bourbon. His grandfather was Philippe Duke d’Orléans, a younger brother of King Louis XIV, and it was to him that both the family name and their cadet branch status traced back to. The Orléans branch, being so close to the immediate Royal Family, but just outside of it, earned their senior male patriarchs the distinction of being the first Prince of the Blood, an official court position reserved for the most senior royal prince not in the King’s immediate family. What this meant in practice was that if all the inner circle Bourbons were to die out, the throne would pass to the House of Orléans. And that is going to be important. 

When Louis Philippe was 22, he married one of his cousins, Louisa Marie, who happened to be the daughter of an insanely wealthy duke, who himself happened to be the son of one of King Louis XIV legitimized illegitimate children, if you can follow along with that. So Louise Marie’s dowry, combined with the already huge estates of the House of Orléans, meant that when Louis Philippe inherited the title Duke to Orléans from his father, he became one of the richest men in France. This is also going to be important. 

Now, from very early on, Louis Philippe cultivated an antagonistic edge in his dealings with the King’s immediate Royal family. He first ran afoul of them in the early 1770s, when Lord Chancellor Maupeou made his play at shutting down the Parlement, which we talked about way back in Episode 3.3

While Louis Philippe, not yet Duke d’Orléans, set himself up as a champion and patron of the Parlement, for this, he earned popular acclaim and the enmity of the King’s ministry and a lettres de cachet was issued, exiling him from Paris. Not the last time that that would happen. He kept up his tweaking of the Bourbons after Louis XVI ascended to the throne and it took no time at all for Louis Philippe and Marie Antoinette to come to utterly despise each other. 

When his father died in 1785, Louis Philippe became the Duke d’Orléans and first Prince of the Blood, which rankled the King’s inner circle to no end. He also inherited the Palais Royale, a huge palace just a few blocks from the Tuileries in Paris. One of the subtle little quirks of Ancien Régime law was that royal residences like the Palais Royale were not subject to official censorship laws. So when Orléans inherited the property, he threw its doors open to the public and basically created a safe space to print and distribute material that might otherwise run afoul of the sensors. The arcades of the Palais were soon brimming with shops and cafes and books, pamphlets and newspapers that advocated all kinds of crazy stuff were distributed at will. 

So, just as the pre Revolution was heating up, the Palais Royale served as the great clearinghouse for any and all dangerously seditious notions, like, hey, maybe we should call the Estates General again. This political and literary patronage made Orléans very popular with the people and very unpopular with the inner Royal family, most especially Queen Marie Antoinette, who saw in everything Orléans did as further proof that he was going to try to overthrow the Bourbons and set himself up as King. Now, for his part, Orléans hated the Queen right back, believing her to be a frivolous spendthrift whose loyalty to France was suspect at best. 

So the really critical thing to understand here is that in the late 1780s, when the political and economic reform movement was running into Enlightenment philosophy, which was running into complaints about the King and the Church, they were all coming together in the Palais Royale, which was owned and operated by the Duke d’Orléans. So though, the Queen’s paranoia about her husband’s cousin went too far – I mean, she blamed him for everything – it’s really not hard to see why she thought him and his money were behind all the misfortunes that were about to befall her family. 

When the monarchy went bankrupt and Controller General Calonne had to call the Assembly of Notables in 1787, the Duke d’Orléans was of course invited, because he had to be invited – he was the first Prince of the Blood and he, of course became the most prominent critic of Calonne’s reform package. Then, during the disastrous Royal session of November 1787 that we talked about in Episode 3.7, that was when the King was supposed to make nice and instead went off script and demanded fealty to his will. It was the Duke d’Orléans who got up and stammered that what the King was doing was illegal. And this affront got Orléans exiled from Paris again, helping to spark another round of pointed complaints against the whole lettres de cachet system that was now being used to silence the great patron of French liberty. 

When the Estates General was finally called in the spring of 1789, the Duke d’Orléans on was of course elected to the Second Estate and he was clearly ready to stand out as one of the liberal noble champions of the Third Estate. After Louis failed to intimidate the Third Estate during another disastrous Royal session, the Duke d’Orléans was the one who led the delegation of 47 nobles into the now self proclaimed National Assembly, which effectively ended any possibility that the Estates might be kept separate. This forced Louis to call on everyone else to come together. We talked about all of this back in Episode 3.10

Now, as if all this standing up to the King wasn’t bad enough, do you remember where it was that Camille Desmoulins gave his famous speech that roused Paris to arms and led directly to the Fall of the Bastille in July 1789? That’s right. He delivered it from atop a cafe table in the Palais Royale. This left no doubt in the minds of the King’s immediate family that the Duke d’Orléans was orchestrating the Revolution to oust them from power and get himself crowned King. 

But though this all looks really suspicious, Orléans is actually not much of an arch puppeteer. What’s going on here is that the French Revolution was a time of rampant paranoia when everyone, Royalists and moderates and revolutionaries, were all convinced that everyone else was a part of some vast, sinister plot to destroy them. So while the Royal Family was now convinced that Orléans was a revolutionary mastermind, really he was just a rich, liberal noble who enjoyed tweaking his cousins. 

If he was really aiming to overthrow them, he certainly never did much to finally close the deal. And indeed, once things started getting a little nuts in 1789, Orléans backed off and attempted to get right with the King and Queen. He even accepted an order to leave the country and go on a little diplomatic mission up to England when the King asked him to. And then, if there was ever a moment for Orléans to try to capitalize on all this alleged sinister plotting, it was right after the flight to Varennes when the King and Queen were utterly discredited and suspended from power. But the Duke d’Orléans made no attempt to seize the crown. He, of course, had followers pushing him in that direction, but instead of doing that, we find evidence that he actually tried to help his cousins through the crisis. But of course, by that point, they were so ticked off at him that they rejected all his overtures. 

After the flight to Varennes, Orléans decided that the time had finally come to make a good show of his permanent commitment to the Revolution, and he started publicly calling himself Citizen Philippe Egalite. And it was under that name that he was elected to the National Convention in September 1792. But once in the Convention, Philippe Egalite discovered that the times had really changed around him. He sat with Robespierre in the Mountain, but even as he tried to keep up with the times, he discovered that he was now little more than an embarrassment and a liability for the Mountain. This was the age of the Republic, and despite his superficial name change, everyone knew he was a Prince of the Blood. The charge that he had made Revolution to get himself crowned king was no longer an accusation thrown at him by rightwing conservatives, but rather now by left wing radicals. 

In their war on the Mountain, the Girondins twice made direct attacks on Philippe and accused the Mountain of being his accomplices, which forced the Mountain into the uncomfortable position of defending Philippe Egalite and saying, well, now, this is all a bunch of crazy talk,  he’s not really like that. But even they had doubts about his real motives. When the time came to sit in judgment on the King, and Philippe Egalite voted death without appeal, it was impossible, even for his alleged allies, to not believe that he wasn’t still trying to pave the way for his own coronation

Whether he really wanted to be king or not is a mystery of his inner mind that will likely never know the answer to. But if Philippe Egalite did want to be king, he pretty much blew any shot he had at it quite a long time ago. In the spring of 1793, he was finally brought down by events outside his control. As we talked about back in Episode 3.27, when General Dumouriez defected, Philippe Egalite’s first born son and heir went with him. When this defection led to a general crackdown on aristocrats still in France, there was nothing Philippe Egalite could say or do to avoid getting swept up by the authorities. His son had just been an accomplice to one of the great treasonous betrayals of the whole Revolution. Egalite was arrested in April 1793, and all his assets were seized

Once this is all said and done, I have some ambition to cobble together a book on the children that the Revolution devoured. And the first chapter will be about the Duke d’Orléans who did so much in the late 1780s to harbor political dissidents and create a hotbed of activism that fed directly into the Revolution and who then gave so much patronage and money to the cause in the early going. I mean, he gave it protection when no one else would. He was so involved in the early days that, as I said, the King and Queen truly thought that the entire Revolution was a massive plot by the Duke d’Orléans to oust them from power

But that turned out to not really be the case. And it is a little bit ironic that those same accusations were the accusations that would bring him down, but they would ultimately come from the left, not the right. Philippe Egalite languished in prison until November, but once the Reign of Terror got going, he was moved quickly to the front of the line, what with being a Prince of the Blood and all. On November 6, 1793, Philippe Egalite, formerly Duke d’Orléans, was tried, convicted and guillotined all on the same day

But there is an interesting little postscript to all this. After Napoleon went down and the brothers of Louis XVI came back into town to restore the monarchy, they wound up running an arch conservative kingdom that, in the words of Talleyrand, had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. So after about 15 years of enduring the Bourbons attempting to turn French citizens back into French subjects, the French got sick of it all and overthrew the restored Bourbons in July 1830. The man they turned to to lead a new constitutional monarchy was the Duke d’Orléans’s son, Louis Philippe. So, just as Marie Antoinette feared, the House of Orléans did eventually succeed in overthrowing and replacing the House of Bourbon. It just took a little longer than she thought. 

Okay, so next week there will not be an episode, because I only managed to crank out three supplementals before I left. But when we return in two weeks, I will be just getting back from the first ever American Revolution tour and to celebrate, I wrote up a little thing on the young French ambassador dispatched by the National Convention in early 1793 to drum up support for revolutionary France in the new United States of America. With all of Europe now arrayed against them, it was critical that France secured support from their Republican brothers in the new world. Which is why it was so unfortunate that the young ambassador the Convention sent was the needlessly provocative and endlessly infuriating Citizen Gêne.

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