It is a commonplace that early modern diplomats' extensive letters were foremost filled with details on the sovereign's and the main courtiers' health. My current research aims to demonstrate that the "physical" or "pre-rational logic" (Bourdieu) of dynastic politics was not the only factor in play, but that (international) lawyers, as prophets of rational statecraft, made the whole machinery run and consequently transformed the system after 1713. Nevertheless, I regularly come across wonderful excerpts, bringing imaginary flesh and bones to paper political actors.
One of those examples is a letter by Lord James Waldegrave, British Ambassador in Versailles, to the Duke of Newcastle (Secretary of Sate for the Southern Department), dated 16 May 1738 (kept in the State Papers at the National Archives in Kew, series 78-218). Louis XV was then 28 years old. In normal circumstances, the French king was major at the age of thirteen. For Louis, this had been formally staged at a Lit de Justice in 1723 under the auspices of the then Regent Philip of Orléans. However, after Philip's death, the King continued to rely on elder statesmen for the exercise of power. First his remote parent the Duke of Bourbon (1723-1726) and then the sexagenarian Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury (1726-1743) held the reins of government.
(Louis XV of France by Van Loo)
(Cardinal Fleury by Rigaud)
(James Waldegrave by Lunberg)
Louis, already difficult to master as an infant king (constantly terrorizing the staff that was supposed to look after him), started taking mistresses in the 1730s and enjoyed life to the fullest. His physical constitution was not always up to this. Already in 1725, at the age of 15, Louis caused a panic at Versailles. He ate to much diablotin-chocolate bonbons and almost succumbed to a severe indigestion.This led to the Duke of Bourbon sending his promised spouse, the Spanish infanta Maria Ana Victoria, back to Madrid, thus breaking off a precious alliance with the Bourbon colleague, contracted in 1721. This in turn led to the formation of two blocks: a Spanish-Habsburg alliance ("Ripperda" Treaty of April/May 1725) against a Franco-British league (League of Hannover, September 1725) and thus possibly to all-out war in Europe.
Consequently, with both a senescent prime minister and a sovereign "living it up", the British ambassador had to be on his guards. Every rumour of frailty or incremental disease was of prime political importance. Traditionally an enemy of France, Britain had been in a rather cordial relationship, shifting from alliance to entente cordiale ever since the peace of Utrecht in 1713. A "coup" could put an abrupt end to Fleury's peaceful foreign policy and cause confrontation on the continent or overseas.
I had an opportunity of paying my court to His Most Christian Majesty since my arrival here: He received me exceeding civilly, and talked to me a good deal. It is true he is pretty much taken away, but really had I not expected it, and had I not known him fatter some time ago, I should not have taken much notice of his leanness, for his complexion was clearer, his eyes more lively, and his voice much stronger, than I have observed this great while. In time, in my opinion, he is far from being likely to die soon of a consumption, as the generality // here will have it.
The cardinal had a small fainting fit on monday morning, which occasioned a report in Paris, that he was a dying; but I was at his lodgings the next morning by half an hour after light, and found he was gone to Mass. At his return before nine I had my audience of him, and he seemed as hearty as in my preceding visits. One of those fits will probably carry him off; perhaps the first, and perhaps not the hundredth.