Which historical figure springs to mind when you hear the words: “the last king of the French”? We’re guessing it’s probably Louis XVI, the long-haired fop who lost his head in the French Revolution. But what if we told you that the story of France’s kings didn’t end with the guillotine slicing through Louis’s neck in 1793? What if we told you that France didn’t say goodbye to its last king until over fifty years later?
Well, it’s time you met that last king. Louis Philippe was a man whose life turned on revolution. Born into an aristocratic family, he survived the first French Revolution that killed his father, only to become king in yet another revolution that toppled his father’s cousin. As figurehead of the July Monarchy, he survived rebellions and Napoleonic coups, before losing everything when the streets of Paris once more rose up… this time against him. A lifelong liberal who became a dictator-king, an exile who grew up to rule the nation that exiled him, this is the complex, fascinating life of Louis-Philippe, the last King of the French.
The World on Fire
In the early hours of October 6, 1789, fate handed the teenage Louis-Philippe a front row seat to history.
The previous evening, a huge mob of women had gathered in Paris and set off for Versailles, the opulent palace of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
It was the early days of the French Revolution. Not three months before, the Bastille had fallen. And now here Louis-Philippe was, leaning out a window on a cool October night as the women of Paris forcibly dragged the king and his family back to the capital.
Watching the procession of women passing below, Louis-Philippe had good reason to be scared. He was the eldest son of the Duc d’Orléans. The captured king was his first cousin once removed.
But 16-year old Louis-Philippe wasn’t scared.
He was already planning to ride this wave of revolution to greatness.
Born on October 6, 1773, Louis-Philippe had had what you might all an unusual upbringing.
His father, the Duc d’Orléans, was obsessed with social experimentation. While other royal children were learning the basics of ruling, Louis-Philippe and his siblings were completing strenuous physical tasks while reciting Jean Jacques Rousseau.
This meant a childhood that left the boy in excellent physical and mental shape; and the father with a reputation as a very unroyal royal.
This reputation turned out to be useful when the French Revolution hit.
While other aristocrats fled into exile, the Duc was elected to the revolutionary National Assembly, changing his name to Philippe Égalité.
So when teenage Louis-Philippe witnessed the 1789 Women’s March from our cold open, he didn’t panic. Instead he joined the Jacobin Club – that’s the same Jacobin Club Robespierre came from – and enrolled in the French Army.
As France went to war with Austria in 1792, Louis-Philippe found himself soaring up the ranks, eventually becoming attached to the staff of General Dumouriez.
At this stage, it might have seemed like the Revolution was a godsend for the Orléans family. In January 1793, the Duc – or Philippe Égalité or whatever you want to call him – even voted alongside the National Assembly to execute his cousin, Louis XVI.
But this was just the family’s high point. Like a rollercoaster cart approaching the top of a peak, the only way for the Orléans clan now was down.
In April, 1793, Louis-Philippe discovered General Dumouriez was plotting a coup. While he didn’t join the plot, he also didn’t report it, which became pretty awkward when the coup was uncovered.
As General Dumouriez and his fellow plotters fled to Austria, Louis-Philippe was forced to flee alongside them. Suddenly, the Orléans name was synonymous with counterrevolution.
Back in Paris, the Committee of Public Safety arrested the entire family. That November, Philippe Égalité was guillotined.
Louis-Philippe was hiding in Switzerland when he got the news that his father was dead, and that he was now the Duc d’Orléans.
For the rest of his life, he would blame himself for his father’s death.
The next few years were turbulent times in Europe.
While Louis-Philippe traveled the continent under an assumed name, in France the Thermidorian Reaction ended the Reign of Terror and sent Robespierre to the guillotine. In the place of the Revolutionary government the Directory rose up.
It was their agents who finally tracked Louis-Philippe to Denmark in 1796.
The Directory wasn’t as vicious as Robespierre’s goon squad. However, they did not want an Orléans running around Europe, especially now exiled Orléanists were plotting to put the new Duc on the French throne.
So they made Louis-Philippe an offer he couldn’t refuse. Get the heck out of Europe and we won’t guillotine the rest of your family.
And that was how the future French king, Louis-Philippe, wound up going to America.
Exile and Return
Despite the Directory’s fears, Louis-Philippe wasn’t much of a threat.
When Orleanists started plotting to overthrow the Directory and make him king, the new Duc was super clear that he wanted nothing to do with this harebrained scheme.
That may be why, in 1800, he was able to finally make peace with the Comte d’Artois.
The Comte was the younger brother of Louis XVI. He’d fled into exile with his other brother, Louis XVIII, right after the Revolution exploded and was now living in England.
When Louis-Philippe joined the Comte after a couple of years in America, the Comte had every reason to hate the Orléans name.
Remember, the last Duc had voted for his brother’s execution. The Comte’s living brother, Louis XVIII, was even convinced the entire revolution had been an Orleanist plot!
But this was 1800. The Directory had now fallen. With the situation in France in flux, the Comte was determined the royal family rebuild their bridges. So, despite Louis XVIII being all like “what dude? No!”, the Comte invited Louis-Philippe back into the fold.
Not that this reconciliation had much real world effect. By the time the family made up, Napoleon Bonaparte was firmly in control of France and no-one was clamoring for a royal return.
That was pretty much it for the next decade. While Napoleon did his thang, conquering everything in sight, Louis-Philippe pottered around London, doing whatever it is kings do in exile, before moving to Sicily to marry Marie Antoinette’s niece.
Really, his story could have ended there… were it not for 1812.
1812 is the year Napoleon made the classic dictator mistake of invading Russia. As his army and empire disintegrated around him, it began to look like Napoleon wouldn’t be leading France too much longer.
All of which raised a potent question. Who would?
As the Allies marched into Paris in April, 1814, it wasn’t clear who would get the restored French throne.
While Louis XVIII was the obvious choice, there was a powerful Orleanist movement in parts of French society that wanted the Duc to be king.
It didn’t help that Louis-Philippe kept quiet right until the last second, when he finally declared for Louis XVIII.
Some think the Duc was cajoled into this by the Comte. More likely, the Allies had a quiet word with him, something like: “hey, idiot, we don’t need you screwing up our post-Napoleon plans by starting a civil war.”
Either way, Louis-Philippe’s late support for Louis XVIII definitely wasn’t wholehearted.
During the Hundred Days, when Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to France, Louis-Philippe lurked around Paris, looking for all the world like someone waiting to snatch the throne when Napoleon inevitably fell again.
After Waterloo, when Louis XVIII was restored for the second time, Louis-Philippe began lavishing gifts and patronage upon liberals, looking for all the world like someone trying to fashion himself as an attractive alternative king.
But the clearest indication we have about the Duc’s ambitions came in September, 1820.
Earlier that year, the Comte d’Artois’ surviving son had been assassinated. With his death, Louis-Philippe had become third in line for the throne.
But then it turned out the dead man had impregnated his wife before dying. Seven months later she gave birth to their child, Henri and, just like that, Louis-Philippe was out the running for king.
The news of the miracle baby gave Louis-Philippe a breakdown. He reportedly collapsed when the news reached him, wailing that the Orléans would now never amount to anything.
It was a touch melodramatic. It was also untrue. Nobody at that time had any way of knowing it, but Louis-Philippe was just one good revolution away from becoming king.
Manning the Barricades
On September 16, 1824, Louis XVIII passed away. In his place, the Comte d’Artois assumed the French throne under the name Charles X.
By this time, Louis-Philippe had more or less given up on being king, becoming instead a big player on the business scene and a friend of the bourgeois liberals in the government’s opposition.
Thus the Duc was perfectly placed to see just how quickly France soured on Charles X.
Back when Louis XVIII ascended in 1814, a whole bunch of people in France had been kinda like “Whoa! Time out. We don’t want another corrupt Louis lording over us with absolute power.”
So, Louis XVIII had signed something called the Charter of 1814, a semi-Constitution that basically said “the king shalt not act like a gigantic penis”.
Although Louis had thought the Charter an outrage, he stood by it out of necessity, realizing times had changed.
But Charles didn’t get the message. Almost the first thing he did after being coronated was to figuratively bend over and use the Charter to wipe his royal backside.
Under Charles’s ministry, freedom of speech was axed, capital punishment for religious offenses was revived, and the franchise was restricted until not even the wealthy bourgeois could vote.
By 1830, Charles was so close to being a dictator that his advisors actually advised he launch a royal coup. So he did.
On Sunday, July 25, 1830, Charles published something known as the Four Ordinances, outlawing the opposition and freedom of the press. His government thought it was a masterstroke.
The people of Paris thought different.
That Monday, the French capital trembled with unrest. There were protests, anti-monarchy chants, the smashing of property.
It might have died down of its own accord, had Charles not sent in the army to shoot some protestors as an example.
It was as effective a suicide as if Charles had tied a rock to his neck and dived headfirst into the Seine.
The next day, July 27, 1830, Paris went up in flames. Across the capital, rioters built barricades and armed themselves. When the soldiers came storming in, firefights erupted.
There was carnage. Blood in the streets. Outmaneuvered by the angry Parisians, the army had to abandon the city.
As they left, the last thing Charles’s soldiers saw was the white flag of the monarchy being torn down, and the revolutionary Tricolor hoisted in the air. The July Revolution had begun!
So where, you might ask, was Louis-Philippe?
Well, not anywhere, really. The future king was holed up at his estate, trying his absolute best not to look like someone waiting around to snatch the throne after Charles was guillotined.
It was his liberal opposition friends in Paris who were doing all the work.
As Paris fell to the rioters, the upper-bourgeois businessmen and opposition leaders Louis-Philippe surrounded himself with all got together and decided they needed to do something.
The July Revolution had caught them all by surprise. They were glad the streetfighters of Paris seemed to want tyrannical Charles gone, but equally terrified the next logical step would be a Robespierre revival group wheeling out the guillotine.
So they hatched a plan to make sure that, this time, the Duc d’Orléans succeeded in his dreams of becoming king.
With most of the newspapers on their side, they printed out posters, declaring Paris was revolting and that the Duc d’Orléans was the last friend of the people.
They then dispatched an emissary to Louis-Philippe’s estate who told him to get his ass to Paris and grab the opportunity they’d just handed him.
Louis-Philippe arrived in Paris just before midnight on Friday, July 30, 1830. That same evening, Charles X fled his palace ahead of a lynch mob.
Just like that, the king was gone. The French throne was suddenly vacant.
Now all Louis-Philippe needed to do was convince the rioters to let him take it.
Birth of a Monarchy
Have you ever had one of those mornings where you wake up, remember what you did last night, and immediately curl up into a ball and start screaming?
That was Louis-Philippe’s morning on July 31, 1830.
When he realized he’d just toppled his cousin once removed and willingly rode into the middle of revolutionary Paris, Louis-Philippe had a total meltdown.
He actually begged all those liberals who’d dragged him there not to make him king, which must have seemed all sorts of ironic.
But there was no way he could back out now.
The simple truth was that if someone didn’t take this revolutionary bull by the horns, the July Revolution wasn’t gonna stop with Charles.
And everyone present had all-too real memories of the swish, thunk sound of the guillotine.
In the end, Louis-Philippe agreed to clear up this mess.
Draping himself in the Tricolor, he rode out onto the raging streets of Paris.
Now this was dangerous. No-one in Paris had gone into revolt because they desperately wanted to replace one doughy old king with another royal lardass.
By riding out like that, Louis-Philippe was putting himself at real risk of someone screaming “that guy’s a Duke! Let’s cut his head off!”
That this didn’t happen is thanks to the Marquis de Lafayette.
A legendary French hero who’d played a significant role in both the American and original French Revolutions, the Marquis was respected by everyone, even Parisian streetfighters.
When he met Louis-Philippe outside the Hôtel de Ville and enthusiastically embraced him, it sent a clear signal to Paris. This revolution was over.
Not that Charles X realized it.
Still alive with his head attached to his body, the king was desperately scheming to get his family back on the throne.
The idea he hit on was almost ingenious. The people wanted a new king? Well, he’d give them one. He’d abdicate for his grandson, the miracle baby we mentioned earlier.
It was a cunning move that could have saved the Bourbon line. Unfortunately for Charles, the idea came too late.
As Charles was abdicating, Paris was watching Louis-Philippe and the Marquis de Lafayette waving the Tricolor from a balcony, signaling the dawn of a new era.
Any thoughts the people of Paris had of allowing another Bourbon to take the throne died that day.
On August 9, 1830, Louis-Philippe was crowned. It was agreed beforehand that he would take the title King of the French, implying a public servant who looked after his people, rather than the traditional title King of France, which implied a grumpy landlord angry with all these peasants stinking up his place.
It was the moment Louis-Philippe had been waiting for his entire life.
Forty one years ago, the new King of the French had leaned out a window and watched as Paris’s women marched King Louis XVI back from Versailles.
Now here he was, wearing the crown his long dead relative had lost to the guillotine. Not just the survivor of two French revolutions, but the beneficiary.
As Charles X fled into exile, the establishment of Louis-Philippe’s July Monarchy looked a whole lot like a new chapter in French royal history, one that would establish a new, glorious dynasty.
In a way, this was right. It really was a new chapter for France’s monarchy.
It was also its last.
Coups and Chaos
The July Monarchy was popular for approximately, oh, twenty three minutes before reality hit.
The problem was Louis-Philippe had been put on the throne by a bunch of bourgeois liberals. But the people who’d done all the fighting and dying during the July Revolution were workers who wanted actual progress to show for all that bloodshed.
Louis-Philippe failed to deliver on this spectacularly.
Oh, sure, he wasn’t anywhere near as autocratic as Charles. More people could vote, freedom of the press was guaranteed, and the government had a healthy opposition.
But if you were some unemployed Parisian streetfighter? “Less autocratic than the last guy” wasn’t exactly what you’d fought for.
In the first few years of its existence, the July Monarchy had to face down all manner of threats.
There was a Bonapartist plot to topple Louis-Philippe and put one of Napoleon’s relatives on the throne. A Legitimist uprising to topple Louis-Philippe and replace him with Charles’s grandson.
There was the infamous June Rebellion of 1832, the one Les Misérables is based on. This Parisian uprising left 800 dead.
Ironically, though, all these attempted revolts actually shored up Louis-Philippe’s support.
Faced with the prospect of a not-great monarch or the workers wheeling out the guillotine, the middle classes always chose the monarchy.
But there was one man who saw in the July Monarchy not a bulwark against terror, but a golden opportunity.
Yep, it’s time to welcome into this story our old friend, Napoleon III.
As you’ll no doubt recall from our video on him, Napoleon III was the exiled nephew of the original Napoleon, now living under the insane delusion that he should be emperor of France.
He was also a gigantic pain in Louis-Philippe’s derriere.
In 1836, when Louis-Philippe was desperately trying to shore up support, Napoleon III launched a tragically inept coup in Strasbourg that succeeded only in embarrassing everyone.
When Louis-Philippe tried to return Napoleon I’s ashes to France in 1840, Napoleon III was there again, soaking up the limelight by launching yet another coup so incompetent even anti-Bonapartists felt sorry for him.
Unable to deal with the bad publicity executing a living link to Napoleon I would bring, Louis-Philippe simply had the wanabee emperor locked up.
But he could afford to be lenient on crazy old Napoleon III in 1840.
By that point, the July Monarchy was no longer really unpopular.
This was more of an accident than any grand plan on Louis-Philippe’s part. Between 1840 and 1846, France experienced an economic boom that hoisted up living standards and kept the middle classes happy.
But even during these halcyon days, the warning signs were there for the monarchy’s future.
Louis-Philippe’s most important minister was a guy called François Guizot, the conservative iron fist in the king’s soft, liberal glove.
As the economy boomed, Guizot used precisely none of that money to support the lower classes.
Those men and women who’d manned the barricades during the July Revolution? They got squat.
It wasn’t just money they didn’t get. Although one of the July Monarchy’s raisons d’etre was to enlarge the franchise that had been so restricted under Charles, voting was still something only the one percent could do.
The rest of the country was starting to wonder why their voices weren’t being heard.
That’s where things were as 1846 rolled into view. The July Monarchy was popular-ish, just so long as the good times kept on rolling, and no massive shock upset the precarious foundation of sand Louis-Philippe had built his royal house on.
But this is Louis-Philippe we’re talking about, the king whose life turned on revolutions.
Little did the King of the French know, but he was fast approaching his final one.
The Volcano Erupts
On January 29, 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville got to his feet in the French Chamber of Deputies and made a prophetic speech.
“I am told that there is no danger because there are no riots,” he said, “I am told that, because there is no visible disorder on the surface of society, there is no revolution at hand.
Gentlemen, permit me to say that I believe you are deceived… This is my profound conviction: I believe that we are at this moment sleeping on a volcano.”
It was two years on from where we last left Louis-Philippe, hoping the good times would never stop rolling.
In fact, they’d not just stopped rolling. The entire cart had fallen to pieces.
1846 had seen a major recession hit France, throwing millions out of work. At the same time, a great famine had swept Europe, making life so painful that the decade became known as the “hungry forties”.
This was the volcano de Tocqueville was talking about, a France boiling with invisible rage, hidden by a restrictive franchise that locked most people out of power.
Only the discontent wasn’t entirely invisible.
The previous year, opposition deputies had begun organizing banquets across France to air their grievances.
Under the July Monarchy, protest was illegal, so private banquets that just “happened” to feature political speeches were a way around the law.
Tens of thousands attended, among them Friedrich Engels, of The Communist Manifesto fame.
By January, 1848, though, the banquet campaign had mostly fizzled out. The organizers decided to put together one last, grand one in Paris to cap off the year’s work.
Only, this banquet didn’t go ahead. Fed up with even this limited freedom of speech, the Guizot government banned it at the last second.
This was a big deal. Even under the July Monarchy, people had a right to assemble.
After some debate, the organizers decided to reschedule for February 22. They would hold a symbolic banquet, just to prove they still had rights, and then disperse without making any political speeches.
That was how, on February 22, 1848, Paris found itself hosting thousands upon thousands of super politicized people, angry and primed to believe that cancelling the day’s banquet would signal the complete stripping of their rights.
If you’ve watched our other 19th Century videos, you may have heard us joke before about how a ban on banquets somehow sparked a revolution in France in 1848.
Well, this is how. Faced with all these hostile people right in the heart of Paris, Guizot cancelled the banquet anyway. Those hostile people then did what angry, hostile people tend to do.
Within hours of the cancellation, barricades were springing up across the city. Workers were arming themselves.
By the morning of February 23, 1830, Paris was a gigantic tinderbox. The city was paralyzed by crowds demanding Guizot’s head.
Terrified by what he’d unleashed, Guizot resigned. But then some random soldier decided to throw a match onto the highly-combustible situation by opening fire on the crowd that gathered to hear Guizot’s resignation.
When the smoke cleared, 52 Parisians were dead.
The massacre caused the volcano to blow its top. By dawn of February 24, the French capital was out of control, the army was mutinying, and the National Guard were joining the revolutionaries.
Today, some historians think if Louis-Philippe had ordered loyal regiments of the army to attack the city, the July Monarchy could still have survived.
But here’s the thing about Louis-Philippe. At heart, he wanted to be loved.
For all his faults, this was a man who, when king, had wandered the streets of Paris in a businessman’s suit, shaking hands with his subjects. He was ambitious, yes, but he also genuinely believed he was popular.
To cast that last illusion aside by attacking Paris was simply a step too far.
That day, February 24, 1848, Louis-Philippe abdicated the French crown. At the last moment, he tried to take a leaf from Charles X’s playbook and make his grandson king, but what hadn’t worked for Charles didn’t work for Louis-Philippe, either.
On February 26, 1848, with France in revolt, the French monarchy was abolished for good.
There would be no more kings, no more queens. The last chapter of the monarchy ended not in glory, but with Louis-Philippe fleeing into exile.
However, there was a postscript.
Across Europe, the July Monarchy’s collapse triggered a wave of revolutions. In Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Prussia, old certainties were swept away, new stories written.
Back in France, the end of Louis-Philippe’s story wound up being the start of another man’s.
That’s right: it’s time for Napoleon III to step back into the spotlight. Within months of Louis-Philippe’s fall, the bumbling coup-plotter was riding this latest wave of revolution, just as Louis-Philippe had rode the July Revolution.
On December 10, Napoleon III became the first ever President of France. Not four years later, he declared himself Emperor for life.
As Napoleon III was snatching Louis-Philippe’s crown, now with extra imperial trimming, the one-time Duc was settling into a short, unhappy retirement in England.
We mean short. On August 26, 1850, not three years after his final revolution, Louis-Philippe passed away. He was 76.
Was Louis-Philippe a tyrant, a schemer, or just unlucky? More likely, he was merely an anachronism. A man who’d decided he’d one day be king, and fulfilled that dream just as France was deciding it no longer needed a monarchy.
Today, the last King of the French is little more than a footnote in history. But we shouldn’t let that distract us from the miracle that was Louis-Philippe’s turbulent life.
He was a man who survived three separate French Revolutions! Three times, he found himself at the epicenter of European history. In the end, his entire life was perhaps no different from that of the sixteen year old boy he’d once been. The boy who leaned out his window above the Women’s March on Versailles, determined to witness history.
Philippe Égalité: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-Philippe-Joseph-duc-dOrleans
Volcano Speech: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/tocqueville-the-recollections-of-alexis-de-tocqueville-1896