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The King of France who loved the Vale

A portrait of King Louis XVIII hanging in the Hartwell House library.Pictures below show Melling's painting of the King's departure from Hartwell, his wife Queen Marie Josephine of Savoy, King Louis in his younger days and the bridge at Hartwell as it is today

A portrait of King Louis XVIII hanging in the Hartwell House library.Pictures below show Melling's painting of the King's departure from Hartwell, his wife Queen Marie Josephine of Savoy, King Louis in his younger days and the bridge at Hartwell as it is today

 

When King Louis XVIII returned to the French throne in 1814, he still had Hartwell House, where he spent five years in exile, very much in his heart.

He immediately sent revered artists Jean-Charles Develly and Victor Baltard to the outskirts of Aylesbury to paint the country house on to a porcelain plate, from which the King would then eat off.

Judging by his large size, he certainly would have been reminded of Hartwell many times throughout the day.

Antoine Ignace Melling was also commissioned to recreate the King’s grand departure while Louis asked for a miniature English garden to be created at his new home in Versailles.

The King’s stay in Bucks completed his 23 years in exile during the French Revolution before the Sixth Coalition finally defeated Napoleon and restored Louis to the throne.

British ministers were concerned about relations with Napoleon but eventually agreed to allow 54-year-old Louis to settle outside of London and with the help of the Marquess of Buckingham, he arrived at Hartwell House.

During his time in England, Louis was obsessive in his habits and would stick to a military-style daily routine which began promptly with breakfast at 10am before mass in Hartwell’s old chapel.

The King would consult the barometer in the hall as the clock struck exactly midday and weather permitting, he would then take a stroll in his beloved garden to check the progress of his roses or perhaps ask his coachmen to ride him through the Bucks countryside.

An early dinner at the house would end with the King nursing his swollen legs, sat in his library armchair, entertaining guests with witty word games and playing hands of whist.

One such guest at the house was diarist and cricketer Charles Greville who, upon visiting with his dad in 1812, said the King’s manner of swinging his body back and forth made his father ‘feel something like being sea-sick’.

Greville also described the house, which the King rented for £500 a year, as a ‘little town, a small rising colony’.

Shops sprang up in the outhouses and the roof of the house was used as a farm to grow vegetables as well as keeping chickens and rabbits in cages.

Almost 200 courtiers were squeezed into tiny living spaces which made privacy impossible and sanitation non-existent.

The King was joined by his niece, the Duchesse d’Angouleme who was described by a local woman as a ‘picture of misery’.

But when the news reached Hartwell that Napoleon had been defeated and her uncle proclaimed King, she was said to be ‘wild with joy’.

Louis’ alcoholic wife Marie Josephine of Savoy, who died of Edema at Hartwell in the autumn of 1810, was described as a ‘sour, poisonous creature’.

Every mealtime, a discreet but determined effort was made to keep the bottles of wine away from the Queen and she even asked Louis to remove the carved figures from the staircase as their shadows spooked her out when stumbling up to bed at night.

She was considered one of the ugliest women in Europe and spent long hours at the house, not with her husband, but instead writing letters to her female lover Madame de Gourbillion.

Despite this, the King mourned her death until the New Year when he dusted down her bedroom to host another exiled King – Gustavus IV of Sweden, who became Louis’ billiard partner for several weeks.

Louis left Hartwell on April 20 1814, having signed documents proclaiming him King of France in its library.

He then led a great procession through Aylesbury to say his farewells – including to the daughter of the publican at the Kings Arms whom he had grown fond of during his stay – as part of an emotional exit for the King who loved the Vale.

 

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