He joined the "Bayonnaise" at Brest in July 1788 and served in the West and East Indies. Arrested in the Isle of Bourbon under the Terror, he was set free by the revolution of Thermidor (July 1794). He acquired some property in the island, and married in 1799 the daughter of a great proprietor, M. Desbassyns de Richemont, whose estates he had managed. His apprenticeship to politics was served in the Colonial Assembly of Bourbon, where he fought successfully to preserve the colony from the consequences of perpetual interference from the authorities in Paris, and on the other hand to prevent local discontent from appealing to the English for protection.
The arrival of General Decaen, sent out by Bonaparte in 1802, restored security to the island, and five years later Villèle, who had now realized a large fortune, returned to France. He was mayor of his commune, and a member of the council of the Haute-Garonne under the Empire. At the restoration of 1814 he at once declared for royalist principles. He was mayor of Toulouse in 1814-15 and deputy for the Haute-Garonne in the Chambre Introuvable of 1815.
Villèle, who before the promulgation of the charter had written some Observations sur le projet de constitution opposing it, as too democratic in character, naturally took his place, on the extreme right with the ultra-royalists. In the new Chamber of 1816 Villèle found his party in a minority, but his personal authority nevertheless increased. He was looked on by the ministerialists as the least unreasonable of his party, and by the "ultras" as the safest of their leaders.
Under the electoral law of 1817 the Abbé Grégoire, who was popularly supposed to have voted for the death of Louis XVI in the Convention, was admitted to the Chamber of Deputies. The Conservative party gained strength from the alarm raised by this incident and still more from the shock caused by the assassination of the duc de Berri. The duc de Richelieu was compelled to admit to the cabinet two of the chiefs of the Left, Villèle and Corbière. Villèle resigned within a year, but on the fall of Richelieu at the end of 1821 he became the real chief of the new cabinet, in which he was minister of finance.
Although not himself a courtier, he was backed at court by Sosthenes de la Rochefoucauld and Madame du Cayla, and in 1822 Louis XVIII gave him the title of count and made him formally prime minister. He immediately proceeded to muzzle opposition by stringent press laws, and the discovery of minor liberal conspiracies afforded an excuse for further repression. Forced against his will into interference in Spain by Mathieu de Montmorency and Chateaubriand, he contrived to reap some credit for the monarchy from the successful campaign of 1823.
Meanwhile he had consolidated the royal power by persuading Louis XVIII to swamp the liberal majority in the upper house by the nomination of twenty-seven new peers; he availed himself of the temporary popularity of the monarchy after the Spanish campaign to summon a new Chamber of Deputies. This new and obedient legislature, to which only nineteen liberals were returned, made itself into a septennial parliament, thus providing time, it was thought, to restore some part of the ancien regime. Villèle's plans were assisted by the death of Louis XVIII and the accession of his bigoted brother. Prudent financial administration since 1815 had made possible the conversion of the state bonds from 5 to 4%. It was proposed to utilize the money set free by this operation to indemnify by a milliard francs the emigrés for the loss of their lands at the Revolution; it was also proposed to restore their former privileges to the religious congregations.
Both these propositions were, with some restrictions, secured. Sacrilege was made a crime punishable by death, and the ministry were preparing a law to alter the law of equal inheritance, and thus create anew the great estates. These measures roused violent opposition in the country, which a new and stringent press law, nicknamed the "law of justice and love," failed to put down. The peers rejected the law of inheritance and the press law; it was found necessary to disband the National Guard; and in November 1827 seventy-six new peers were created, and recourse was had to a general election. The new Chamber proved hostile to Villèle, who resigned to make way for the short-lived moderate ministry of Martignac.
The new ministry made Villèle's removal to the upper house a condition of taking office, and he took no further part in public affairs. At the time of his death, he had advanced as far as 1816 with his memoirs, which were completed from his correspondence by his family as Mémoires et correspondance du comte de Villèle (Paris, 5 vols., 1887-90).
See also C de Mazade, L'Opposition royaliste (Paris, 1894); JG Hyde de Neuville. Notice sur le comte de Villèle (Paris, 1899); and M Chotard, "L'Œuvre financiere de M. de Villèle," in Annales des sciences politicoes'' (vol. v., 1890).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.