Episode 6: Revolt of the Parlements


Episode 6, ‘Revolt of the Parlements’, examines the events that unfold once Charles Alexandre de Calonne resigns from the government after having his agenda blocked by the Assembly of Notables. The Archbishop of Toulouse, Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, replaces Calonne and tries once more to pass an altered reform package through the Assembly of Notables. Rebuffed by the Notables, Brienne tackles the Parlements instead, courts who were no strangers to obstructing the monarch’s will. Unfortunately for France, the Parlements were also obstructing a potential solution to the impending bankruptcy.

New Man, New Plan

Calonne resigned on the 8th of April, 1787, and the King thus found himself with neither a minister nor a plan. Eventually, Louis settled on Assembly of Notables’ defacto leader, Brienne. The Archbishop had, in essence, become the leader of the opposition during Calonne’s attempts to push reforms through the Assembly of Notables. In fact, the publication Correspondance secrete described him as such in their 9 March edition. Having led the rebellion of the Notables, who better to help crush it?

Seeking to win favor with the Notables and seize the initiative, Brienne opened up the books for inspection and gave in to several demands including distinguishing orders in the proposed provincial assemblies. The Notables, however, continued to demand concessions that the King refused to grant. These included the creation of an independent, annual audit of the nation’s finances.  Realizing no path forward could be found with its self-created problem, the government dismissed the Assembly on the 25th of May.

On the 23rd of April, a week before his appointment as the President of the Royal Council of Finances, Brienne suggested two rather bold ideas to remedy the nation’s looming bankruptcy that didn’t involve the Assembly of Notables. Presenting the ideas to the King and the Queen, the plan was met with outright hostility from the monarchs. The King was outraged by the proposed two-point plan.

“What! Then you believe we are lost? The Estates General? Oh! You can overthrow state and royalty, do whatever you like, except those two things! Reforms, reduction of expenditure, the Queen and I are willing and ready; but for pity’s sake, do not insist upon either Monsieur Necker or the Estates General” – King Louis XVI

Brienne’s original suggestions to the King were by no means poor ones, but at the time, the monarchs were not yet in a position where they felt they had to concede these two points. Time was against the King and Queen, however.  As the Notables returned home, their accounts of recent months momentum to the calls for the reinstallment of Necker and the summoning of the Estates-General.

“Thus, then, have the Notables returned home; carrying to all quarters of France, such notions of deficit, decrepitude, distraction; and that States- General will cure it, or will not cure it but kill it.” – Historian Thomas Carlyle

The Paris Parlement

A Divided Opposition

Refusing to summon an Estates-General, Brienne was forced to try to have the Parlements register his reforms instead. The Parlements opposition to either the monarchy or the monarchy’s reform package was by no means guaranteed. The ranks of Parlements were riddled with division over how to tackle the current crisis.  The Paris Parlement, leading all of the courts as it usually did, could be divided into two broad camps. Those who preached steadfast opposition, and those who preached compromise.

The former group was also comprised of two factions, the Conservatives and the Radicals. The Conservatives were led by a capable orator named D’Epremesnil, and they saw the Estates-General as a vehicle which the aristocracy could use to control the levers of power. Sitting in its traditional format, the First and Second Estates, dominated by the nobility, would outvote the Third Estate 2 to 1. The Radicals were led by Duport, and this faction saw the Estates-General as a means to create a truly national chamber of representative government. Like members of the liberal nobility and intellectual bourgeoise, they believed that the Estates-General should have its format altered. Instead of 300 representatives for each estate, and the estates themselves voting in unified blocks, why not give each individual member a vote? Furthermore, they proposed that the Third Estate, representing roughly 97% of the population, should have their numbers doubled. Liberal nobles and poorer members of the clergy would then vote with the Third, and completely shift the traditional power dynamics of the body. The ramifications of this division were profound. The opposition within the Parlement was fundamentally divided. For the moment however, the Conservatives and the Radicals shared the same goal.

While D’Espremesnil and Duport smelt blood in the water as the monarchy pleaded for financial reforms to be undertaken to avoid bankruptcy, the moderates within the Parlement did not believe that the current crisis was the dying breaths of absolute monarchy. Instead, they perceived it to be the dying breaths of their own Parlement.  They reasoned that one of two outcomes would occur from continuous opposition. Either the King found the political capital to suppress them like Louis XV had done in 1771, or an Estates General would be called. If the former happened, no King would be foolish enough to re-instate the Parlements in the future, while an Estates-General could usurp the Parlements popular status as the defenders of the people, the counterbalance to royal absolutism, and the check on unrestrained tyranny. The moderates believed that responsibility, and the popularity that came with it, could hypothetically shift to the Estates-General. Furthermore, what if that representative body sought to abolish the privileges the Parlements had safeguarded for so long? The very privileges that D’Espremesnil and his conservatives were trying to protect if not expand with an Estates General. Thus, the moderates saw relentless opposition as a recipe for disaster, not success, and that was before any patriotic notions compelled them to help the King in order to avoid financial calamity… As one senior judge proclaimed to his radical companions, “Messieurs, this is not a game for children; the first time that France see the Estates-General she will also see a terrible revolution.”

A Sleepy Lit De Justice

As a result of all these divisions, opposition was not guaranteed from the outset. Indeed, any serious pushback from the Parlement failed to materialize in the first couple of weeks. The internal grain trade was liberated, reforms to the corvée approved, and the provincial assemblies, despite all the protests from the Notables around their constitutional legality, were also agreed upon. But progress vanished as the government tried to tackle thornier issues. The Parlement rejected Brienne’s stamp tax on the 2nd of July, and the land tax just a couple of weeks later. To make matters worse for the government, the press and the public galleries were encouraging opposition to the reforms in order to force an Estates-General.

The government sought to play its trump card, a  lit de justice.  A lit de justice was a formal sitting of the Parlement where the King could order the Parlement to register his reforms. On the 6th of August 1787, that’s exactly what happened. The Parlements, having been summoned to Versailles for a special ceremony, had no choice but to comply. With the King’s will known, the Parlement had no constitutional authority to prevent the registration of both the land tax and the stamp tax. This should have been the end of the debate; had Louis not been asleep. Just as Louis’ Keeper of the Seals, Lamoignon, informed the Paris Parlement that he was forcing them to register the King’s vital, urgent and necessary reforms, the King’s snoring could be heard by all in attendance.  Louis had fallen asleep upon his bed of pillows at the ceremony, and this only enraged the members of the Parlement to take more drastic action once they were back in Paris.

Renewed Resistance

At first, it looked like the Parlement rebellion had been crushed. After one last objection by the Parlements President d’Aligre, in which he proclaimed that the remedy for the nation was calling an Estates-General, the taxes had been registered by force.  However, despite defeat at Versailles, the members of the Parlement were far from defeated once back in Paris. As the Parlement’s members made their way back to the city, the people rushed to express their support. A bookseller by the name of Hardy wrote in his diary about the scenes at Versailles:

“[The] people were gathered around the vehicles in the courtyard of the chateau and as the members of the Parlement were leaving, the people are said to have yelled out to them, “Surely you will put right all the wrong that has just been done to use here.”

The cries of the people and the snores of the King sounded like a call to arms for some members of the Paris Parlement. War with Crown was declared by both the conservative and radical factions of the Parlement. The conservatives struck first. The day after the lit de justice, D’Espremesnil declared the registration of the edicts illegal, reaffirming the belief that only the Estates-General had the constitutional authority to levy permanent taxes. He declared, “The constitutional principle of the French monarchy was that taxes should be consented to by those who had to bear them.” Not to be outdone, Duport helped to lead an attack on Calonne, opening criminal proceedings against the monarchy’s former Controller General on August the 10th. In reality, Duport was not attacking the monarchy’s former minister, but rather the monarchy itself. The people of Paris followed the example set by the Parlement. Government posters were torn from their place, soldiers and law enforcement officials were heckled and harassed, and effigies of leading ministers were burnt in a public showing of solidarity with the Parlements. Facing outright revolt, the King exiled the Paris Parlement to Troyes on the night of the 14th/15th, while the government cracked down on all the nests of opposition within the city. The Palais de Justice was locked up by the authorities on the 17th, followed by the seizure of printing presses, the intimidation of journalists, and the closure of political clubs. The suppression only fuelled the deterioration of the situation.

“This was only adding fuel to the flames. In the streets of Paris the Comte d’Artois, the King’s brother, was met by catcalls, and the names of the Queen and members of the Polignac family were the subject of lampoons and bitter execration. Every provincial parlement suspended registration of decrees and demanded a meeting of the States-General. At Troyes, deputations flocked in from all sides; a stream of addresses congratulated the ‘Fathers of the Country’ on their heroism, and demanded convocation of the States- General, now the watchword of resistance.” – Historian Gaetano Salvemini

“The exile of the Paris Parlement was followed by resolutions of all the provincial Parlements calling for the States General, and complaining bitterly against the present helplessness of the one body having even a semblance of a constitutional check upon the extravagance and violence of the court. And this universal outcry, coupled with his need of funds, compelled Brienne to patch up a bargain with the Paris Parlement.” – Historian Shailer Matthews

A Potential Compromise

The actions against the Parlements, the self-styled defenders of the people, had made things much worse for the government. Public opinion and the impending bankruptcy was weakening monarchy’s position. However, the Parlements were being forced back the negotiating table as well. The moderates within the Paris Parlement were seeing their power rise. The violent measures taken by the Crown to exile the Parlement and suppress the opposition within Paris had spooked some previously defiant members into cooperation. More importantly, the power of the moderates was increasing as the Crown was outflanking the radicals and the conservatives. The government had been busily installing and opening the provincial assemblies that had been agreed to some before, and these assemblies were doing exactly what the moderates in the Paris Parlement had feared the Estates General would do; the assemblies were replacing the Parlement as the true defenders of the people. Filled with members of the bourgeoisie, the assemblies successfully claimed to be more representative and legitimate than the Parelments. Furthermore, the assemblies were often full of those members of the bourgeoisie who came from the lower levels of the legal profession, meaning they were comprised of men who had scores to settle with the noble-dominated Parlements who had long stifled their careers. Packed with bourgeoise lawyers with scores to settle, and nobles hand-picked by the authorities, the assemblies vocally started to embrace a pro-monarchy tone.The Crown was thus scoring some solid wins in the campaign for public support, despite the mess Brienne and Lamoignon had been creating in Paris.

Historian Simon Schama sums up the situation, which helps to bring the Parlements to the negotiating table, as follows:

“By stressing the social equity of the work of tax assessment and by co-opting personnel who might have been expected to belong to the Parlementaire camp, the government was trying to show that the reforms were popular rather than bureaucratic. And its efforts were by no means wasted. During the autumn, all the evidence suggests that the provincial assemblies did in fact begin their work in earnest and that Parlementaire protests became desultory and ineffective. And this development may have prompted a more conciliatory attitude in the Court of Peers in Paris”.

By mid-November, the Paris Parlement had returned to the capital and a compromise had more or less been worked out. The government would drop the land and stamp taxes and agreed to call an Estates-General in five years time. In return, the Parlement would consent to a revamped vingtieme tax. If it sounds like the monarchy got a bad deal, its because it did. Without the land or stamp taxes, the monarchy’s key reforms were dead, but the government got the best deal it could.

Rogue King

On the 19th of November, 1787, the monarchy attempted to finalize the deal through a séance royale, a far more informal assembly that the lit de justice that occurred in August. In a séance royale, opinions could be given freely, meaning that opponents of the deal had one last platform in which to try to derail it.

In the robust debate that occurred, radical and conservative members of the Paris Parlement criticized the deal for its flaws. The opposition within the Parlement was primarily rallying against having to wait 5 long years for an Estates-General. As the debate dragged on, King Louis went rogue. No one knows why the King intervened in the séance royale. Potentially the King felt the upcoming vote was going to go against him, or perhaps he was frustrated by the fact that the members of the Parlements were speaking their minds (as entitled). Whatever the cause, the ramifications are clear. As the King spoke, he essentially turned the informal séance royale into a lit de justice, and ordered the Parlement to register the edicts. No one could quite believe what they were witnessing, including the King’s cousin. The Duc of Orleans protested that such an order was illegal, and the King dismissed him sharply by declaring it was legal because he wished it.

Having shocked all those around him, Louis left the Parlement to its deliberations. Pushing the vote in favor of the opposition, Louis’ actions left the deal Brienne was so close to accomplishing in tatters. Both the radical and conservative wings of the Parlement immediately reaffirmed their opposition to the ministry and reasserted their demands for an immediate Estates-General. Deadlock resumed for several months. In an attempt to insulate themselves from the reprisals the government was planning, the Paris Parlement made a series of announcements in April 1788 to reaffirm their public image as the counterbalance to royal tyranny and as the defender of the common people. On April 11, the Parlement declared that the King’s will was insufficient to introduce new laws.  On the 29th, the Parlement nullified the edicts permitting the second vingtieme tax that the King claims had been registered on the 19th of November. D’Espremesnil declared on the 3rd of May 1788 the ‘Fundamental laws of the Kingdom’. According to the proclamation, only the Estates-General had the authority to raise taxes, and that the judges of the Parlements were irremovable. Furthermore, the letters de cachet were illegal as they violated the rights of Frenchman, and the customs and privileges of the provinces were sacrosanct. The only bone thrown to the monarchy was a reaffirmation that the monarchy was heredity. That bone was not enough to shield the Parlement from the backlash brewing in Versailles.

The government responded by arresting d’Espremesnil and Goislard, another member of the Parlement, on the 6th of May. Two days later, Louis XVI, following the footsteps of his predecessor, stripped the rebellious Parlements of almost all their power. The King’s Keeper of the Seals Lamoignon introduced a radical new judicial system which neutered the Parlement by making it a court for the nobility and introduced a new plenary court which was responsible for registering royal edicts.  Just as the moderates had feared in the middle of 1787, the Parlements resolute opposition had resulted in suppression. Only time would tell if the Parlement would remain suppressed.

Grey History