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King for a Day? How About King for 20 Minutes? The Story of Louis XIX, the Shortest-Reigning Monarch in History
The history of monarchies throughout the world is rife with conflict and disputes as to the legitimacy of claims to the throne. The traditional process of ascension to rule through hereditary succession has led to many instances of kings and regents who have only ruled for several months, or even weeks, before being deposed or forced to abdicate the throne to a stronger ruler. No reign in the history of the world, however, can match the brevity of that of King Louis XIX of France. Rising to the throne during a chaotic time of populist rebellion in the kingdom, he abdicated the throne to his nephew a mere 20 minutes after receiving it, setting a record that is likely never to be broken in the future.
Louis XIX was born Louis Antoine, the oldest son of Charles Philippe, who in turn was the youngest brother of King Louis XVI. By contemporary accounts, he was a very shy young man with a pronounced stammer in his speech. Under normal circumstances, he would have likely passed through life without ever being anywhere near the front of the line of succession to the French throne. However, when he was 14 years old, the French Revolution broke out. King Louis and Marie Antoinette, along with almost the entire immediate royal family, were killed in the uprising. In the ensuing years, a chaotic period of revolution and counter-revolution resulted in the monarchy being reinstated and deposed a number of times, ultimately leading the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to the dictatorship of France.
With Napoleon as the head of state, the French court -- led by Louis Antoine’s uncle, King Louis XVIII -- fled to exile to the Prussian-controlled Warsaw. Louis Antoine took a position as an adviser to the King and married the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Princess Marie Thérèse. This marriage suddenly placed him second in line to the throne after his father, the younger brother of the king. As the court was in exile, however, this was for the time being a moot point.
The Bourbon Restoration
After a decade in exile, Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France by the Allied Powers of the Sixth Coalition of Europe, who had defeated Napoleon and exiled him to Elba. After the chaos of the previous two decades, his rule was marked by a more liberal and centrist style that served as a balance between the revolutionary and reactionary forces that had been warring over the country. This was a useful stance, as the Restoration put into place a constitutional monarchy, requiring the cooperation of the throne and France’s parliament in order to govern. However, the conflicts between the radicals on both sides were not quelled by this balance, and long-held hostilities would continue to simmer.
Louis XVIII died in September of 1824. As he had no sons, the throne fell to Charles Philippe, who titled himself Charles X of France. Charles’ ascension made Louis Antoine, who in his youth was so far out of the line of succession as to not even have been mentioned as a potential king, the heir apparent to the throne.
Charles X and the July Revolution
Charles X assumed the mantle of the leader of the royalist faction of French society, and right from the beginning of his reign, it became clear that he was not afraid to throw his proverbial weight around in the pursuit of that faction’s goals. The Roman Catholic Church was restored to the position of legal power that it had enjoyed prior to the Revolution. Lands that had been seized from the aristocracy during the past two decades were restored to them, with restitution paid for their damages. Laws of hereditary claims to land were restored. The press was suppressed to prevent the dissemination of further revolutionary sentiment.
Despite these reactionary reforms, however, Charles was able to keep his ruling coalition from being overturned in parliamentary elections, signifying, if not outright support for his policies among the country, then at least not enough unified opposition to it to make a difference. However, a severe economic downturn in the late 1820s, followed by the rise of a more liberal press in Paris that defied Charles’ reforms, turned the support of the moderate royalists and the business community against Charles’ rule.
In March of 1830, parliament held a vote of no confidence in the rule of Charles X, which passed handily. In response, Charles instituted a series of four “Ordinances” in an attempt to dissolve the form of government set up by the Restoration. These ordinances dissolved the parliament’s Chamber of Deputies, severely restricted the freedom of the press, restricted the vote to France’s wealthiest citizens, and called for a new election with the new smaller set of voters. This exercise of power against the will of the people, combined with the discontent of the citizenry, led to the July Revolution.
The Ascension, and Abdication, of Louis XIX
Despite his status as monarch, the simple fact of the matter was that Charles could not govern without the support of parliament and the citizenry. A series of mob uprisings began in Paris in July of 1830, attacking official state buildings with whatever they could get their hands on and assembling barricades in the streets. After Charles attempted to shut down the liberal Parisian presses, the mobs turned their attention to attacking the official state papers, effectively preventing the propaganda of the Crown from swaying the public opinion.
Riding this tide, parliament called for the abdication of Charles X in favor of his distant cousin, Louis Philippe of the House of Orléans, who had made arrangements with parliament to rule France as a constitutional monarch in the vein of Louis XVIII before him. After three days of the revolts, Charles agreed to abdicate the throne. However, he chose to follow the hereditary order of succession, and chose his son Louis Antoine to succeed him as Louis XIX.
Louis was immediately set upon by officials of parliament before his father had even signed the papers of abdication. The Chamber of Deputies had its preferred candidate for king and would not be deterred in seeing him placed on the throne. By all contemporary accounts, Louis XIX did not have the will or the political acumen to resist the people pressuring him. Despite the protestations of Marie Thérèse, the new queen, Louis also agreed to abdicate the throne. However, like his father, he chose to follow the hereditary line of succession as well. Louis had no children, so the throne fell to his nephew, who would become Henry V of France.
Louis XIX and Charles X traveled to Scotland to take up residence after their respective abdications. Henry V’s reign, while not as brief as Louis’, ended 7 days later when he himself abdicated the throne to the parliament’s hand-chosen successor, Louis Philippe, who would take the title of “The Citizen King”. The July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, as it would become known, lasted for 18 years, when France became caught up along with the rest of Europe in the socialist revolutions of 1848. France installed Napoleon's descendent Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte as the Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. The younger Napoleon ruled until the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when the monarchy was dissolved for good.
With the brevity of his reign, Louis XIX became a historical footnote, holding a record among monarchs that is likely never to be broken. His reign, along with the week-long reign of Henry V, is symbolic of the tumultuous times of the early 1800s in France, as the nation struggled through incredibly difficult growing pains as a constitutional republic. It is telling that Louis XIX lived out the remainder of his life in peace while France would know continuing internal strife for decades afterwards.