André-Hercule de Fleury
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Life and government
He was born in Lodève, Hérault, the son of a tax farmer of a noble family. He was sent to Paris as a child to be educated by the Jesuits in philosophy and the Classics as much as in theology. He entered the priesthood nevertheless and through the influence of Cardinal Bonzi became almoner to Maria Theresa, queen of Louis XIV, and, after her death, to the king himself. In 1698 he was appointed bishop of Fréjus, but seventeen years in a provincial see eventually determined him to seek a position at court.
In May 1715, a few months before the Sun-King's death, Fleury became tutor to Louis' great-grandson and heir, and in spite of a seeming lack of ambition, he acquired an influence over the child that was never broken, fostered by Louis' love and confidence. On the death of the regent Philippe d'Orléans in 1723, Louis XV came of age. Fleury, although already seventy years of age, deferred his own supremacy by suggesting the appointment of Louis Henri, duke of Bourbon, as first minister. Fleury was present at all interviews between Louis XV and his titular first minister, and on Bourbon's attempt to break through this rule Fleury retired from court. Louis made Bourbon recall the tutor, who on 11 July 1726 took affairs into his own hands and secured the exile from court of Bourbon and of his mistress Madame de Prie. He continued to refuse the formal title of first minister, but his elevation to cardinal, in 1726, confirmed his precedence over any others.
Under the Régence, the Scottish economist John Law had introduced financial measures that were modern for the time: a national bank, easy credit to encourage investors, and paper money exchangeable for gold bullion. Investor overconfidence in the ability to exchange paper money for gold led to wild speculation after 1720, and when the bubble burst, Law and his policies were thoroughly discredited, and French finances were in as dire straits as they had been when Louis XIV died. Fleury was the right man for the moment; naturally cool and impeturbable in his demeanor, frugal and prudent, he carried these qualities into the administration. In 1726 he fixed the standard of the currency and secured French credit by initiating regular payment of interest on the national debt, with the result that in 1738/39 there was a surplus of 15,000,000 livres instead of the usual deficit. Fleury's stringencies were enforced through the contrôleur général des finances Philibert Orry (who remained in office until 1745). By exacting forced labor from the peasants (see corvée) he improved France's roads, though at the cost of rousing angry discontent. During the seventeen years of his orderly government, the country found time to recuperate its forces after the exhaustion caused by the ambitions of Louis XIV and extravagances of the regent, and national prosperity increased. Social peace was seriously disturbed by the severities which Fleury exercised against the Jansenists. He was one of the minority of French bishops who published Clement XI's bull Unigenitus and imprisoned priests who refused to accept it, and he met the Jansenist opposition of the Parlement of Paris by exiling forty of its members to a "gilded cage" not far from Paris.
In foreign affairs, the maintenance of peace was a preoccupation he shared with Sir Robert Walpole, and the two old enemies refrained from war during Fleury's ministry. Jacobite sympathizers in France had formed a most un-Masonic secret lodge of Freemasons; their attempts to influence Fleury to support the Stuart faction led instead to raids on their premises, and Fleury urged Pope Clement XII to issue a bull in 1738 that forbade all Roman Catholics to become Freemasons under threat of excommunication. It was only with reluctance that he supported the ambitious projects of Elizabeth Farnese, queen of Spain, in Italy by guaranteeing in 1729 the succession of Don Carlos to the duchies of Parma and Tuscany. French diplomacy however was losing its military bite. Fleury's cagey double game with the Corsican revolutionaries under the elder Paoli, smuggled arms to the island while assuring the Genoese of French support. Fleury thus began the manipulations that landed Corsica in the arms of France in 1768.
Fleury's economies in the army and navy, as elsewhere, found the nation poorly prepared when in 1733 war was forced upon France. He was compelled by court opinion to support the claims of Louis XV's father-in-law Stanislaus Leszczynski to the Polish crown on the death of Augustus II, against the Russian and Austrian candidate; but the despatch of a French expedition to Gdańsk turned into a humiliation. Fleury was pressed by his advisor Germain Louis Chauvelin to more energetic measures; he concluded a close alliance with the Spanish Bourbons and sent armies against the Austrians twice. Military successes on the Rhine and in Italy secured the favorable terms of the treaty of Vienna (1735–1738). France had joined with the other powers in guaranteeing the succession of Maria Theresa under the pragmatic sanction. But by a diplomatic quibble, Fleury found an excuse on the death of Charles VI in 1740 for repudiating his engagements, when he found the party of war supreme in the king's counsels. After the disasters of the Bohemian campaign at the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession he wrote in confidence a humble letter to the Habsburg general, Königsegg, who immediately published it. Fleury disavowed his own letter, and died in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a few days after the French evacuation of Prague on 20 January 1743.
In the years following Fleury's death, escalating Franco-British skirmishes at sea, culminated in a declaration of war with Britain in March 1744, a war he had avoided for so long, a war effectively ending the relatively peaceful period from 1713–1744, a period sometimes referred to the "Thirty Years' Peace" of which Cardinal Dubois and Philippe D'Orléans were the primary architects.
- Arthur McCandless Wilson, French Foreign Policy during the Administration of Cardinal Fleury, 1726–1743: A Study in Diplomacy and Commercial Development, the standard modern treatment .
- Catholic Encyclopedia entry
- Biographical dictionary of Roman Catholic cardinals
- Fleury's covert Corsican policy in a letter from the foreign minister, Chauvelin, to the French envoy at Genoa, January 30, 1735 (French)
- Drummond and other Scots Jacobites misread Fleury's politeness for support, and over-represent his vague promises in Scotland, 1742
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.