‘Talleyrand’ is a book that was written in 1932 and tells the story of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who was born in 1754. At various times he was the Bishop of Autun, Foreign Minister for France, Grand Chancellor and Ambassador to London. It is a story of an extraordinary man in extraordinary times.
After briefly describing his childhood, the book begins with the regime and court of Louis XV and Marie-Antoinette, from there the Terror and execution of the royal family, the new Directory, the Council under Napoleon Bonaparte, the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne, the Treaties of Vienna, the battle of Waterloo and second restoration of the royal family. His last official mission was the Treaty that saw the establishment of a Royal Family in and the current borders of Belgium.
All the famous names are there – Richelieu, of course Napoleon, Robespierre, and the Kings Louis XV, XVI and XVII, Chateaubriand, Lafayette, Dupont, Fouché, the Count d’Artois, Austria’s Metternich, the Czars Paul and Alexander, William Pitt, Lord Castlereagh, and at the end Lord Palmerston.
The first third of the book is a romp. Who knew that the big players on the stage at that time were so loose? For example, the Duke de Biron [who]… “had a reputation for gallantry which exceeded that of all competitors. His name has been associated with those of the Empress of Russian and the Queen of France, and English readers may be interested to remember that it was for this handsome Frenchman that the beautiful Lady Sarah Lennox, who had turned the young head of George III, formed so passionate an attachment that she was prepared to leave her husband on his behalf. … Having fought for American independence and having always proclaimed liberal sentiments, he embraced the cause of the Revolution from the first, commanded one of the earlier revolutionary armies, and perished by the guillotine, going to his death as gaily as he had gone through his life, and sharing a bottle of wine with his executioner”.
Going to the guillotine is something that Talleyrand managed to avoid. He escaped Paris at 1am on the morning that the massacres began in Paris in September 1792. He lived in exile in England and in America until he was pardoned. From America he returned to France via Hamburg and started to make overtures to the young Napoleon Bonaparte who was being noticed because of his successes on the battle field.
Talleyrand also achieved notoriety throughout his life because of his lifestyle. For example, he seems to have funded the purchase of his Chateau in Valencay during negotiations with various governments – commercial concessions and the negotiations on the spoils of war under Napoleon; also because his ability to change sides at the right moment. He ditched the cause of his fellow aristocrats during the revolution (but narrowly escaped Paris once the revolutionaries took power); he returned from exile and was appointed as Foreign Minister for the post-Robespierre revolutionary government when he was already dealing with Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was ditched in favour of the new government when he started losing battles, then finally the new government was ditched in favour of the restoration of the Royal family.
To add to the spice of his life, he walked with a limp which in no way hindered his success with the ladies. As a Bishop he got himself excommunicated by the Pope in order to marry a certain Madam Grande who was both a mistress at the time of various high ranked people and who was probably still married to a M. Grande who she met in India. After some time together he granted her an allowance on the understanding that she would live outside France and his niece, the wife of his nephew, became his companion for the last twenty years of his life.
During of the lifetime of Talleyrand, there were Kings in France, Prussia, Austria, England, Spain and Portugal. There was a Czar in Russia who was very much part of the European political sphere and Italy was a group of smaller principalities. On the other side of Austria from France was the Ottoman Empire, and America had just fought the War of Independence. While Talleyrand didn’t have many scruples, he was very clear and pragmatic vision of how Europe should look and what part France should play. Throughout his life he used all the skills that he possessed to establish a balance of power in Europe that would ensure peace and stability.
He believed that Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland were all crucial buffers between the bigger powers of France, Russia, Prussia and England. This seems a bit obvious, but after the first Napoleonic wars that saw France annex Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium & Austria and declare war on Prussia, Russia and Egypt, things were not so certain.
The name of Napoleon Bonaparte to me is synonymous with Corsica. On a recent visit to Corsica I asked my French connections to take me to the museum of Napoleon, or at the very least a monument. They looked confused and when eventually I did find the museum it was not what I expected – interesting but not in the league of the monuments and memorials in the north of France that commemorate the first and second World Wars. I said something along those lines, and the answer from the French was ‘well Napoleon achieved nothing, and took the country to the edge of extinction’. Certainly not my impression of him but after re-reading this book I can see what they mean.
In spite of the mistrust of his own government, at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 where England, Prussia, Russia and Austria got together to pound France after finally defeating Napoleon, Talleyrand and therefore France, manoeuvred himself into the negotiations. Furthermore it was he who set the agenda for the discussions, which was :
(1) to prevent Austria making one of her Princes the king of Sardinia
(2) Naples to be restored to its former owner
(3) the whole of Poland shall not pass to Russia, and
(4) Prussia shall not acquire the whole of Saxony.
It is one of many examples throughout the book of just how outstanding he was as a Statesman.
There is someone who is cleverer than Voltaire, cleverer than Bonaparte, cleverer than any of the Directors, than any Minister in the past or in the future; and that person is everybody (tout le monde).
He was also a visionary – he started to push for guarantees of freedom of the press, education for the masses and healthcare for the impoverished in his first speech to his diocese as the Bishop of Autun. He continued to support these themes throughout. Another early and consistent idea he had was to lobby for commercial treaties between France and England.
Is the Europe of Angela Merkel that changed from the Europe of Talleyrand? This needs more insight than I’m capable of, but certainly the same issues are still there, except the issues are economic rather than expansionist.
‘Talleyrand’ was written in 1932 by Duff Cooper, a colourful person in his own right – a conservative British politician and a war hero among other things.
If you want to read a sketch of the character or Talleyrand instead of the whole book, start with ‘A Priest In Spite of Himself’, a short story by Rudyard Kipling, from his book Rewards and Fairies.
If you want to be Talleyrand for a moment, you can visit his country house, the Chateau Valency, or take a tour his Parisian residence – the Hotel de Talleyrand on the Rue St Florentin; or why not visit his favourite baths at Bourbon l’Achambault for a cure. The Hotel de Talleyrand was bought from Talleyrand’s niece by the Rothschild family and then by the US Government. After WW2, it served as the head office for administration of the Marshall Plan.
Chateaux Valencay : http://www.chateau-valencay.fr/en/
Rue St Florentin : http://france.usembassy.gov/talleyrand.html
Bourbon l’Archambault (thermalism) – http://www.ot-bourbon.com/
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