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1774 The death of Louis XV



10 May 1774

Louis XV died aged 64 on 10 May 1774, in the bedchamber of his inner apartment. His 59-year old reign ended, the longest after Louis XIV. Few could have predicted that the “Well-Loved” would end up “Unloved”.

After setting out on 26 April for the Petit Trianon with Mme du Barry and a few friends, the king woke up the next morning feeling unwell. He felt stiff and had a headache, but he decided to go ahead with the planned hunt. In the evening, feeling no better, he went to bed without supper. The next day he felt no better. On 28 April his chief doctor, La Martinière, ordered his transfer to Versailles: the king had to be cared for in his bedchamber. On the morning of the 29th the first bleeding was given. The king was lying on a camp bed, surrounded by a crowd of doctors and health officers who argued over the diagnosis and the remedies. Around 10.30 am no more doubt was possible: the king had smallpox, an illness he had not had and was not inoculated against. The royal family was kept away to avoid any risk of infection. Paradoxically, part of the Court was relieved: the infection was identified and the king would get over it. But others were more pessimistic.

The head-aches persisted and the fever intensified. The king’s body broke out in pustules. On 1 May, his condition seemed stationary. He improved progressively as the pustules suppurated on his body and face. Then, on 8 May, he reached the key moment in the development of the illness: it could intensify or decline. And then his fever began to rise and his pulse increased alarmingly. The king became delirious and the suppuration slowed down. The doctors regarded him as doomed. On 9 May, the disease continued to progress. The scabs and dried pustules turned black and those formed in the throat prevented him from swallowing. His confessor and chief chaplain was called to give him extreme unction. He was administered a final remedy without any hope. The king’s face was blackened and deformed by the scabs. On the morning of 10 May, he was unable to move but still conscious. His death agony began at 11 am and ended only at 3.15 pm.

Crying “Long live the king!”, the crowd of courtiers rushed through the Hall of Mirrors to reach the Dauphin’s apartment on the ground floor. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette knelt down. Embracing each other, they murmured: “My God, protect us, we are so young to reign!”. The reign of Louis XVI began. It was to be the last in Versailles.

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