Having borne the title of duke of Montpensier until his grandfather's death in 1752, he became duke of Chartres, and in 1769 married Louise Marie Adelaide de Bourbon-Penthievre, daughter and heiress of the duke of Penthievre, grand admiral of France, and the richest heiress of the time. Her wealth made it certain that he would be the richest man in France, and he determined to play a part equal to that of his great-grandfather, the regent, whom he resembled in character and debauchery.
As duke of Chartres he opposed the plans of Maupeou in 1771, and was promptly exiled to his country estate of Villers-Côtterets (Aisne). When Louis XVI came to the throne in 1774 Chartres still found himself looked on coldly at court; Marie Antoinette hated him, and envied him for his wealth, wit and freedom from etiquette, and he was not slow to return her hatred with scorn. In 1778 he served in the squadron of D'Orvilliers, and was present in the naval battle of Ushant on July 27, 1778. He hoped to see further service, but the queen was opposed to this, and he was removed from the navy, and given the honorary post of colonel-general of hussars.
He then abandoned himself to pleasure; he often visited London, and became an intimate friend of the prince of Wales (afterwards George IV); he brought to Paris the "anglo-mania," as it was called, and made jockeys as fashionable as they were in England. He also made himself very popular in Paris by his large gifts to the poor in time of famine, and by throwing open the gardens of the Palais Royal to the people. Before the meeting of the notables in 1787 he had succeeded his father as duke of Orleans, and showed his liberal ideas, which were largely learnt in England, so boldly that he was believed to be aiming at becoming constitutional king of France. In November he again showed his liberalism in the lit de justice, which Brienne had made the king hold, and was again exiled to Villers-Côtterets.
The approaching convocation of the states-general made his friends very active on his behalf; he circulated in every bailliage the pamphlets which EJ Sieyès had drawn up at his request, and was elected in three--by the noblesse of Paris, Villers-Côtterets and Crepy-en-Valois. In the estate of the nobility he headed the liberal minority under the guidance of Adrien Duport, and led the minority of forty-seven noblemen who seceded from their own estate (June 1789) and joined the Tiers État. The part he played during the summer of 1789 is one of the most debated points in the history of the Revolution. The court accused him of being at the bottom of every popular movement, and saw the "gold of Orleans" as the cause of the Reveillon riot and the taking-of the Bastille, as the republicans later saw the "gold of Pitt" in every germ of opposition to themselves. There can be no doubt that he hated the queen, and bitterly resented his long disgrace at court, and also that he sincerely wished for a thorough reform of the government and the establishment of some such constitution as that of England; and no doubt such friends as Adrien Duport and Choderlos de Laclos, for their own reasons, wished to see him king of France.
The best testimony for the behaviour of Orléans during this summer is the testimony of an English lady, Mrs Grace Dalrymple Elliott, who shared his heart with the comtesse de Buffon, and from which it is absolutely certain that at the time of the riot of July 12 he was on a fishing excursion, and was rudely treated by the king on the next day when going to offer him his services. He indeed became so disgusted with the false position of a pretender to the crown, into which he was being forced, that he wished to go to America, but, as the comtesse de Buffon would not go with him, he decided to remain in Paris. He was again accused, unjustly, of having caused the march of the women to Versailles on October 5. La Fayette, jealous of his popularity, persuaded the king to send the duke to England on a mission, and thus get him out of France, and he accordingly remained in England from October 1789 to July 1790. On July 7 he took his seat in the Assembly, and on October 2 both he and Mirabeau were declared by the Assembly entirely free of any complicity in the events of October.
He now tried to keep himself as much out of the political world as possible, but in vain, for the court would suspect him, and his friends would talk about his being king. The best proof of his not being ambitious of such a doubtful piece of preferment is that he made no attempt to get himself made king, regent or lieutenant-general of the kingdom at the time of the flight to Varennes in June 1791. He, on the contrary, again tried to make his peace with the court in January 1792, but he was so insulted that he was not encouraged to sacrifice himself for the sake of the king and queen, who persisted in remembering all old enmities in their time of trouble. In the summer of 1792 he was present for a short time with the army of the north, with his two sons, the duke of Chartres and the duke of Montpensier, but had returned to Paris before August 10.
After that day he underwent great personal risk in saving fugitives; in particular, he saved the life of the count of Champcenetz, the governor of the Tuileries, who was his personal enemy, at the request of Mrs Elliott. It was impossible for him to recede, and, after accepting the title of Citoyen Égalitéé, conferred on him by the commune of Paris, he was elected twentieth and last deputy for Paris to the Convention. In that body he sat as quietly as he had done in the National Assembly, but on the occasion of the king's trial he had to speak, and then only to give his vote for the death of Louis. His compliance did not save him from suspicion, which was especially aroused by the friendship of his eldest son, the duke of Chartres, with Dumouriez, and when the news of the desertion of Chartres with Dumouriez became known at Paris all the Bourbons left in France, including Égalité, were ordered to be arrested on April 5. He remained in prison till the month of October, when the Reign of Terror began. He was naturally the very sort of victim wanted, and he was decreed "of accusation" on October 3. He was tried on November 6 and was guillotined on the same day, with a smile upon his lips and without any appearance of fear.
No man ever was more blamed than Orléans during the Revolution, but the faults of ambition and intrigue were his friends', not his own; it was his friends who wished him to be on the throne. Personally he possessed the charming manners of a polished grand seigneur: debauched and cynical, but never rude or cruel, full of gentle consideration for all about him but selfish in his pursuit of pleasure, he has had to bear a heavy load of blame, but it is ridiculous to describe the idle and courteous voluptuary as being a dark and designing scoundrel, capable of murder if it would serve his ambition. The execution of Philippe Égalité made the friend of Dumouriez, who was living in exile, duke of Orleans.