What did the Duke of Wellington think of Louis XVIII?
Though Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, is usually associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, he had an equally large impact on Napoleon’s successor, King Louis XVIII. It was thanks to Wellington’s and Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 that Louis XVIII, a member of the House of Bourbon, regained the throne of France. While Louis had a pronounced fondness for the British field marshal, Wellington thought rather less of the French king.
Wellington and the First Restoration
The Duke of Wellington played a role in Louis XVIII’s fate even before the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke’s victory in the Peninsular War contributed to Napoleon’s first abdication of the French throne in April 1814. As a result, Louis XVIII became king of France.
During the First Restoration, Wellington served as Britain’s ambassador in Paris. For the embassy, he purchased the Hôtel de Charost from Napoleon’s sister Pauline. Before he was called away to be the British representative at the Congress of Vienna, Wellington had many encounters with the royal family. He hunted with them, and attended dinners, concerts, plays and other gatherings frequented by Louis and his court.
Louis XVIII was favourably impressed with Wellington. When the latter left for Vienna in January 1815, the King wrote to Foreign Minister Talleyrand: “I could not have been better pleased with [the Duke of Wellington] and I think he has gone away not ill satisfied with me. The Duke also has a character to sustain, that, not of a king-maker, but of a king-restorer, which is better.” (1) In later letters, he described Wellington as “an honorable man…whose zeal in my service I cannot possibly overpraise.” (2)
Wellington and the Second Restoration
After Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France in March 1815, Wellington hurried to Belgium to play his famous role in the Emperor’s final defeat. Emerging victorious at Waterloo, Wellington urged Louis XVIII to return quickly to Paris. The King’s restoration to the throne was by no means guaranteed, and Wellington considered it essential for France’s stability. At his headquarters in Neuilly, Wellington conducted negotiations for the King’s return and the formation of a new government before the other allied leaders could arrive.
I knew, on my arrival in Paris, that the Allies were by no means unanimous in the king’s favour; that they did not particularly desire the restoration; that the army and the Chambers were opposed to it; that there were four provinces in a state of rebellion; and that the rest, including Paris, were perfectly indifferent. It was very evident to me that, unless I gained over Fouché to the cause of the restoration, his Majesty would be obliged to remain at St. Denis, at all events till the sovereigns should arrive, which must have been, in any case, hurtful to his authority and his dignity. I recommended his Majesty to take Fouché into his service; and I am perfectly certain that to this advice his Majesty is indebted for his quiet restoration. (3)
Louis XVIII entered Paris on July 8, 1815. That night, British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh wrote:
The King sent for the Duke and me, this evening, to the Tuileries…. We found him in a state of great emotion and exultation at the reception he had met with from his subjects…. Indeed, during the long audience to which we were admitted, it was almost impossible to converse, so loud were the shouts of the people in the Tuileries gardens, which were full of people, though it was then dark.
Previous to the King’s dismissing us, he carried the Duke and me to the open window. Candles were then brought, which enabled the people to see the king, with the Duke by his side. They ran from all parts of the garden, and formed a solid mass, of an immense extent, rending the air with acclamations. (4)
During the Second Restoration, the Duke of Wellington served as commander-in-chief of the allied occupation army, which remained in France until 1818. He deepened his acquaintance with royal family during this period, and helped Louis solidify his reign. The King expressed his gratitude by presenting Wellington with a 102-piece dinner service of Sèvres porcelain, and the comment: “Do little gifts – keep friendship alive.” (5) The china, originally commissioned for Napoleon’s wife Josephine and decorated with images of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, can be seen at the Duke’s residence of Apsley House in London.
Louis also made Wellington a Knight of the Order of St. Esprit. Wellington wears the badge in Napoleon in America.
Wellington’s opinion of Louis XVIII
Though he considered King Louis the best available option for France at the time, Wellington later admitted that he had “a very bad opinion of Louis XVIII.” (6) He described the King as “a perfect walking sore – not a part of his body was sound – even his head let out a sort of humour.” (7) He also called him “selfish and false in the highest degree.” (8)
Wellington actually had a higher opinion of Louis XVIII’s brother and successor, Charles X (previously the Count of Artois). He described him as “a man of great strength and activity,” and “a cleverer man, as far as knowledge of the world went, though Louis XVIII was much better informed.” (9)
I was surprised…about Charles the Tenth. I knew indeed that Louis was the man of most education and information – the best bookman; but I always thought that as a man of the world – for action – Charles the Tenth was his superior. (10)
Among other things, Wellington admired Charles’ stamina and skill at hunting.
In 1825, the last time I was Paris, I went out shooting with Charles X in the forest of St. Germains. I had shot with him before at Versailles and the other royal domains. He was then a very old man, yet he walked from half-past nine till half-past three – a measured distance of 15 or 16 miles. He is a very good shot; in the first 160 times that he fired, I saw that he did not miss once. (11)
Perhaps there was something about the splendour of the French court that attracted Wellington. At dinner at Apsley House in 1840, Wellington’s eyes fixed on a pair of full-length portraits of Louis XVIII and Charles X in their royal robes. “How much better after all,” he said, laughing, “these two look with their fleurs-de-lis and Saint-Esprits, than the two corporals behind, or the fancy dress between!” The “corporals” were portraits of Tsar Alexander I of Russia and King Frederick William III of Prussia, and the “fancy dress” was a painting of King George IV of Britain in a Highland kilt and bonnet. (12)
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- G. Pallain, ed., The Correspondence of Prince Talleyrand and King Louis XVIII During the Congress of Vienna (New York, 1881), p. 154.
- Ibid., pp. 181, 234.
- Alexis Henri Brialmont, History of the Life of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, translated and edited by G.R. Glieg, Vol. II (London, 1858), p. 509.
- Robert Stewart Castlereagh, Correspondence, Despatches, and Other Papers of Viscount Castlereagh, edited by Charles William Vane, Vol. II (London, 1853), p. 420.
- Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, Vol. 12 (London, 1865), p. 430.
- Earl Philip Henry Stanhope, Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831-1851 (London, 1889), p. 36.
- Ibid., p. 32.
- Ibid., p. 36.
- Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, p. 94; and Charles C. F. Greville, The Greville Memoirs: A Journal of the Reigns of King George IV and King William IV, edited by Henry Reeve, Vol. II, (London, 1874), p. 305.
- Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, p. 32.
- Ibid., p. 36.
- Ibid., p. 218.
Louis the Eighteenth was a walking sore – a perfect walking sore – not a part of his body was sound – even his head let out a sort of humour.
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington