Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, the Allies agreed to restore King Louis XVIII to the throne of France. This marked the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and set the stage for a new era in the country.
The Hundred Days
On 26 February 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped his island prison of Elba and embarked for France. His return to the country instigated a wave of excitement and unrest among the population as he sought to regain his former glory. Despite this, King Louis XVIII of France did not view Bonaparte's endeavour as a significant threat, believing that the small number of troops accompanying him could be easily defeated. Unfortunately, the king had overlooked the fact that there were still loyal Bonapartist troops within the military. As a result, large numbers of soldiers abandoned the Bourbon armies and joined forces with Bonaparte. This miscalculation had catastrophic consequences. On 19th March, Bonaparte’s army stationed outside Paris, leaving the city vulnerable to attack. That very day, Louis XVIII left the capital in the middle of the night accompanied by a small escort, and Napoleon assumed control of the country.
However, Napoleon's rule over France did not last long, as he suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June, at the hands of the armies led by the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Blücher. In the aftermath, the Allies reached a consensus that Louis XVIII should be reinstated as the rightful ruler of France.
Louis' Return to France
Louis XVIII returned to France after Napoleon's defeat, ensuring his second restoration by traveling with Wellington's troops. On June 26, the king arrived at Cambrai and issued a proclamation granting amnesty to those who served Napoleon during the Hundred Days, and, concerned about potential revenge from counter-revolutionary elements, promised to establish a constitution that would safeguard the public debt, freedom of the press and religion, as well as equality before the law.
On July 8, 1815, Louis entered Paris to an enthusiastic reception, with crowds gathering in the Tuileries Palace gardens. Despite the desires of the ultra-royalist exiles for revenge and the restoration of the old regime, Louis favoured continuity, reconciliation, peace, and prosperity.
During his rule, Louis took a modest role in politics, delegating most of his duties to his council. Reforms were initiated during the summer of 1815, including the dissolution of the Royal Council and its replacement with a privy council known as the "Ministère de Roi”. His reign also saw a surge in anti-Napoleonic sentiment in southern France, leading to the White Terror, characterized by the purge and execution of Napoleonic officials. The king publicly deplored the illegal acts but supported the prosecution of marshals who aided Napoleon during the Hundred Days. In January 1816, an amnesty proclamation was issued for the "traitors," although the house of Bonaparte was banned from owning property or entering France.
In November 1815, Louis's government signed another Treaty of Paris, less favourable to France than the previous one. This treaty resulted in a contraction of the country's borders and significant financial obligations to the Allies. The military law passed in 1818 increased the army's size, and in October of the same year, the Allied Powers agreed to an early withdrawal of their armies in exchange for a substantial sum of money.
Louis aimed to appease the populace by selecting centrist cabinets, which caused disagreement with his ultra-royalist brother, the Count of Artois. As a result, Louis harboured concerns that upon his death, Artois would shift the government toward an ultra-royalist autocracy. In the spring of 1824, the king’s health began to fail and he passed away on 16 September. He was succeeded by his youngest brother, the Count of Artois, as Charles X.
Louis XVIII's return to France marked the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration, a period of transition and reconciliation for the nation. His reign was marked by efforts to strike a delicate balance between appeasing the different factions and restoring the monarchy's authority while acknowledging the desire for certain reforms. In order to do so, he recognized the need to bridge the gap between traditional monarchical values and the demands for constitutional rights and liberties.
Louis XVIII's policies sought to restore the aristocracy, rebuild the economy, and rebuild France's international reputation. His reign witnessed efforts to mend the wounds of the revolution, restore order, and promote cultural and intellectual development. Despite the challenges and compromises faced, his reign laid the foundation for subsequent political developments and paved the way for the evolution of France into a constitutional monarchy under Louis-Philippe in the July Monarchy.
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