Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

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Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (February 2, 1754 - May 17, 1838) was a French diplomat. He worked successfully from the regime of Louis XVI, through the revolution and then under Napoleon I, Louis XVIII and Louis-Philippe. Known since the turn of the 19th century simply by the name Talleyrand, he is widely regarded as one of the most versatile and influential diplomats in European history, although he was known to accept bribes from other European powers, especially while serving under Napoleon.

Talleyrand was born into an aristocratic family in Paris. By his own account, a foot injury in childhood left him unable to enter the anticipated military career. He was therefore directed by his family into a career in the Church, possibly in order for the Bishopric of Autun to remain in the Talleyrand family. He attended the Collège d'Harcourt and Saint-Sulpice College until the age of 21. He was ordained in 1779. In 1780 he became a Church representative to the Crown, as the Agent-General of the Clergy. In this position, he was instrumental in drafting a general tableau of church properties in France as of 1785, along with a defence of "inalienable rights of church"; a stance he was to deny later. In 1789, due to the influence of his father, the already notably unbelieving Talleyrand was appointed Bishop of Autun.

In the Estates-General of 1789, he represented the clergy, the First Estate. During the French Revolution he supported the revolutionary cause. He assisted Mirabeau in the secularization of ecclesiastical properties. He participated the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and proposed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that nationalized the Church, and was the person to swear in the first two constitutional bishops, though he had himself resigned as Bishop following his excommunication by Pope Pius VI. Notably, he promoted the public education in full spirit of Enlightenment. He celebrated the mass during the Fête de la Fédération on the 14 July 1790.

In 1792 he was sent twice, though not officially, to Britain to avert war: Besides an initial declaration of neutrality during the first campaigns of 1792, it ultimately failed. In September 1792, he left Paris for England just at the beginning of September Massacres, yet declined the émigré status. Because of his aristocratic background, Convention issued a warrant for his arrest in December 1792. His stay in England wasn't uneventful as well; in March 1794, he was forced to leave the country by Pitt's expulsion order. He then arrived at the United States where he stayed until his return to France in 1796. During his stay, he subsidized himself by working as a bank agent, involving in commodity trading and real-estate speculation. After the 9 Thermidor and demise of Robespierre, he mobilized his friends (most notably Desrenaudes and Germaine de Staël) to lobby in Convention and newly established Directoire for his return. His name was then suppressed from the émigré list and he returned to France in September 25, 1796. In 1797 he became Foreign Minister. Talleyrand saw a possible political career for Napoleon during the Italian campaigns of 1796/1797. He wrote many letters to Napoleon and the two became close allies. Talleyrand was against the destruction of the Republic of Venice, but he complimented Napoleon when peace with Austria was concluded and Venice was finished, probably because he wanted to reinforce his alliance with Napoleon. Together with Napoleon's younger brother, Lucien Bonaparte, he was instrumental in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, 1799 and soon after he was made Foreign Minister by Napoleon, although he rarely agreed with Napoleon's foreign policy. The Pope also released him from the ban of excommunication.

In March 1804 he was involved in the kidnapping and execution of the Duke of Enghien; in response to those events, and once again, to avert any blame from himself, he made what was perhaps his most famous quip: "That was worse than a crime; it was a mistake". In May 1804 Napoleon made him Grand Chamberlain and Vice-elector of the Empire; during this year, Talleyrand also bought the Chateau Valençay. In 1806 he was made Sovereign Prince of Benevento (or Bénévent). Talleyrand was against the crude treatment of Prussia in the Peace of Tilsit in 1807. The queen of Prussia wept and was consoled by Talleyrand. This gave him a good name among the elite of the European countries outside France. He resigned as minister of foreign affairs in 1807 over his opposition to the Franco-Russian Alliance and by 1809 he was even further from the Emperor, a break completed in 1812 with the attack on Russia. Talleyrand had no responsible occupation between 1807 and 1812. Napoleon appointed him as representative of France at the Congress of Erfurt. Tsar Alexander I of Russia wanted his advice in dealing with Napoleon and they met regularly during the congress. It is said that Tsar Alexander changed his attitude towards Napoleon thanks to Talleyrand. Alexander was afraid of Napoleon, because the Russians had been defeated twice. He admired the modern institutions of France and wanted to reform his country. Talleyrand allegedly convinced him that Napoleon's France was a threat to European nation states and that Russia should resist the will of emperor Napoleon. Talleyrand became a Russian secret agent from 1812 onwards, but his political career was over until the fall of Napoleon.

While serving under Napoleon, Talleyrand began to accept bribes from hostile countries, particularly Austria and Russia, to betray Napoleon's secrets. It is said that Talleyrand's continuous intriguing and plotting caused Napoleon to once denounce him to his face as "shit in a silk stocking," [1] to which the minister coldly retorted, once Napoleon had left, "Pity that so great a man should have been so badly brought up!"

When Napoleon was succeeded by Louis XVIII in April 1814, Talleyrand was one of the key creators of the restoration of the Bourbons while opposing the new legislation of Louis's rule. Tsar Alexander would probably not have leaned that way, but Talleyrand wanted the restoration of Louis XVIII. Talleyrand was the chief French negotiator at the Congress of Vienna, and in that same year he signed the Treaty of Paris. It was due, in part, to his skills that the terms of the treaty were remarkably lenient towards France. At the start, only four countries made the decisions: Austria, the United Kingdom, Prussia, and Russia. France and other European countries were invited, but had no influence on the decision making. Talleyrand became the champion of the small countries and demanded admission with the decision makers. The big four admitted France and Spain to the decision making back rooms of the conference after a lot of havoc making. Spain was excluded after a while, but France (Talleyrand) was allowed to participate until the end. Russia and Prussia wanted to enlarge their territory during the congress. Austria was afraid to lose territories to them and United Kingdom was against their expansion as well. Talleyrand managed to establish a middle position and received some favours from the other countries in exchange for his support. France even returned to its 1792 boundaries with no reparations, with French control over papal Avignon and Salm, which had been independent at the start of the French Revolution in 1789. (Some historians critical of Talleyrand blame his diplomacy for establishing the faultlines of World War I, especially for allowing Prussia to engulf small German states west of Rhine. This simultaneously placed Prussian armed forces at the French-German frontier—which had never happened before—, made Prussia the biggest power in Germany in terms of territorial extent, population and the industry of the Ruhr and Rhineland; and eventually paved the way to German unification under Prussian throne.)

Napoleon's return to France in 1815 and his subsequent defeat, the Hundred Days, was a reverse for the diplomatic victories of Talleyrand; the second peace settlement was markedly less lenient and it was fortunate for France that the business of the Congress had been concluded. Talleyrand resigned in September of that year, either over the second treaty or under pressure from opponents in France. He thereafter restricted himself to the role of 'elder statesman', criticising -and intriguing- from the sidelines. Under King Louis-Philippe he was ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1830-34, where he strived to reinforce the legitimacy of Louis-Phillipe which came to power after 1830 Revolution (also known as the July Revolution). As ambassador in London he proposed a partition plan for the Netherlands.

Catherine (Worlée) Grand, princesse de Talleyrand-Périgord, painted by François Gérard 1805–6
Catherine (Worlée) Grand, princesse de Talleyrand-Périgord, painted by François Gérard 1805–6

Talleyrand was a womanizer. Many women fell for his charms, his fluent conversation and elegant manner, despite his limping leg. He used women for his political networking. He became minister of foreign affairs in 1797, after initial letters of a woman towards Barras, the most powerful politician in France at that time. He lived together with Catherine Worlée, born in India and married there to Charles Grand, who then adventured about before settling in Paris as a notorious courtesan in the 1780s for several years before she divorced Grand and they married in 1802. Talleyrand tried to prevent a marriage, but after a lot of postponement, he was obliged to marry on instigation of Napoleon: otherwise his political career would have been over. Visitors to Talleyrand were shocked by the behaviour of his wife, who was regarded as a beauty, but very stupid.

Talleyrand liked money as well. He got a lot of money from his occupations, for instance his behaviour during the German Mediatization (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss), the consolidation of the small German states. German rulers and elites paid him lots of money to save their possesions, or to enlarge their territories.

Talleyrand was said to be vain: He kept on using his title, prince of Benevento, after Napoleon was defeated, despite his principality being reincorporated into Italy. This irritated king Louis XVIII and his court.

Talleyrand was a great conversationalist, gourmand, and wine connoisseur. From 1801 to 1804 he owned Château Haut-Brion in Bordeaux. He employed the renowned French chef Carême, one of the first celebrity chef known as "chef of kings and king of chefs."

Talleyrand died on May 17, 1838 and was buried at his Château of Valençay.

Today, when speaking of the art of diplomacy, the phrase "he is a Talleyrand" denotes a statesman of great resource and skill.

Preceded by:
Prime Minister of France
Followed by:
Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu


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