b. February 2, 1754
d. May 17, 1838
Often referred to simply as Talleyrand. Prince of Benevento and Peer of France. A 18-19th Century French bishop and diplomat, with a hand in pretty much every piece of French history that took place in his lifetime. Famously described by Napoleon as a "piece of shit in a silk stocking".
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand Perigord was born in 1754 to a French noble family, which he claimed was descended from a vassal of Hugh Capet. His parents were both well positioned in the court of Louis XV.
Talleyrand was born with a club foot, due to his affliction with Marfan syndrome. He would later try to claim that the disability was due to a fall sustained in his youth.
Whatever the case, the club foot was to loom large in Talleyrand's life. His parents obviously felt that the disability made him unfit to carry on the family lineage, and stripped him of his birth right and inheritance at an early age. He lost the right to pass on the family wealth to any children he might have, as well as most of his inheritance. While he was still technically part of the nobility, Talleyrand was essentially without any class or standing from birth.
Because of his peculiar social standing, he was encouraged from an early age to join the clergy, as this was one of the few ways that he could make something respectable of himself and be of use to his family. In 1770 he began studying for his holy orders at the seminary of St. Sulpice, despite the fact that he seemed to have little enthusiasm or aptitude for his studies (and was rather more interested with having affairs with Paris actresses).
At the age of 25, he received his degree from the Sorbonne, and was ordained a priest. The following year he was appointed to the Agent General of the Clergy, and in 1785 began to represent the Roman Catholic Church to the French government, particularly in matters of taxation and finance.
Talleyrand's ordination did little to put a damper on his libido. A son was born of his affair with Countess Adelaide de Flahaut in 1785, and was named for his father. Little Father Charles Junior would go on to father one of Napoleon III's half-brothers. It's a small world after all.
In 1788, Talleyrand was appointed Bishop of Autun by King Louis XVI (with some reluctance), following a petition by his dying father (the same father that had disinherited him thirty years ago). Talleyrand did not linger long in his diocese; after three weeks, he departed, having been elected deputy of the clergy (the First Estate) to the Estates General.
The Revolutionary Years
It's worth noting that despite his status in the Church, Talleyrand had been exposed to revolutionary philosophy during his term at St. Sulpice (and presumably later on as well). He is reported to have celebrated mass on the Champs de Mars in 1790 to commemorate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Thus it is perhaps not entirely surprising that he was appointed to the constitutional committee of the National Assembly in 1789, and became a signatory of the constitution that the committee presented to the King. However, one must also keep in mind that Talleyrand had earlier urged the King to dissolve the assembly, and only joined when he felt that the democratic movement was becoming unstoppable.
What was much more surprising is that Talleyrand soon became one of the leading men in the confiscation of Church property for the national government. He also took part in the organization of a civil clergy that would be bound by the new constitution. For these (and other) actions, Talleyrand was excommunicated in April, 1791.
In 1792, Talleyrand was sent to England on an unofficial mission to secure English aide in supporting the Revolution, and quell their fears regarding the new order emerging across the channel. Ultimately, he succeeded in no more than gaining a promise of English neutrality.
In 1793, a warrant was issued for Talleyrand's arrest in France by the National Convention. It's unclear what exactly Talleyrand was accused of, but he clearly took the charges rather seriously, and fled to the United States following his deportation from England in 1794. In the U.S., he traded in commodities and land in Massachusetts until the warrant was revoked and he returned to France in 1796.
The Napoleonic Era
Upon his return to France, Talleyrand was appointed Foreign Affairs Ministry of the Directory, thanks to the intervention of well-placed friends (one of which he may have fathered painter Eugène Delacroix with). It was in this position that he met Napoleon Bonaparte, and in him recognized the man who would put an end to the many vicissitudes of revolutionary France. Sensing the way the wind was blowing (something at which Talleyrand was exceptionally skilled) he resigned his post with the directory, and began working to prepare the foundation for the coup that would bring Napoleon to power.
It was also during his time in the Foreign Ministry that Talleyrand participated in one of the best remembered scandals of the age: the XYZ affair. The scandal, centered around bribe demands made by French officials in the foreign ministry, soured affairs between the United States and France, resulting in what John Adams called a state of "quasi-war" between the two former allies.
When Napoleon assumed control as first consul, Talleyrand was again made Foreign Minister. Napoleon handled most foreign affairs himself, leaving Talleyrand little to do. Talleyrand didn't seem to mind to much; the fact that he collected over sixty millions francs for his nominal services must have softened the blow. During the same period (1802), Talleyrand married (at Napoleon's insistence) his mistress Catherine Grand. Historians have sometimes debated why Talleyrand chose to marry at this point; some believe that it was Madame Grand who was the mother of the mysterious young girl named Charlotte, who Talleyrand adopted in 1803 and lavished with gifts and attention. Talleyrand also purchased an enormous (on the order of 30,000 acres) property in the countryside in 1803, the chateua de Valencay, where he periodically would live until his death.
In 1804, Talleyrand was named Napoleon's Grand Chamberlain, but tension soon appeared in their relationship. Talleyrand disagreed with the Emperor's policies with regard to the wars with Austria and Prussia. He began to secretly send information to the Tzar of Russia. Finding himself in increasing disagreement with Napoleon's ambitions in Europe, and particularly in Spain, Talleyrand contrived an excuse to step down from his post as Foreign Minister in 1807. In 1808, Napoleon further offended Talleyrand by 'borrowing' his chateau to serve as a gilded cage for Spanish princes captured during the fighting. Talleyrand was without the use of his property until 1816.
In the fall of 1808, Talleyrand had his revenge on Napoleon at the Congress of Erfurt. Charged by the Emperor with securing an alliance with Russia, and preventing Russia from allying with Austria, he instead secretly engineered an alliance between Francis II of Austria and the Tzar of Russia. Napoleon gained nothing, and the crowned heads of Europe learned they had an ally in Napoleon's own court.
Later in 1808, Talleyrand was accused of treason by the Emperor. Napoleon suspected that his chamberlain had been plotting an assassination with his minister of police, Fouchè, who Talleyrand was known to detest personally, but for whom he had thrown an elaborate reception. Napoleon called a meeting of his council, where he treated Talleyrand crudely (calling him "a piece of shit in a silk stocking"), and dismissed him from his post as Chamberlain, rather than taking more serious action.
Following his dismissal, Talleyrand continued to publicly attempt to curry favor with Napoleon, helping to secure his marriage to his second wife. He also continued to ally himself with Austria, and seek financial help from Alexander I of Russia. Yet in 1813, Talleyrand refused to once again serve as Napoleon's Foreign Minister. That Napoleon would even ask seems incomprehensible.
Just as surprisingly, in 1814 Napoleon empowered Talleyrand to negotiate on his behalf with the allied European powers, even as he was criticizing Talleyrand for his private politics. By this time, Talleyrand seems to have once again smelled change on the wind, and hastened to reconcile himself with the vestiges of the Bourbon dynasty, becoming advisor to the future Louis XVIII.
The Bourbon Restoration
In the spring of 1814, Talleyrand received Alexander I and Louis XVIII in Paris and presided over the latter's ascension to the French throne. A month later, Talleyrand was elected president of the provisional government. He presided over the construction of a new French constitution that would establish the powers of the king, which was accepted by Louis XVIII. With the establishment of the king's new government, Talleyrand became now the king's foreign minister (the third time since the start of the French Revolution that he would hold this post).
Talleyrand would now pull off his most fantastic feat yet. At the Congress of Vienna, Allied Europe hoped to take advantage of France's weakened position (France was not officially included in the proceedings of the Congress) to their own gain. Talleyrand managed to get himself included in the negotiations, despite France's lack of official standing at the proceedings. Furthermore, he managed to preserve France's 1792 borders, and break the European alliance by forging a secret pact between England and Austria, in opposition to Russia and Prussia.
Following the chaos of the 100 Days, Talleyrand was again made Foreign Minister, as well as President of the Council of Ministers. Despite his appointment of his former conspirator Fouchè as Minister of Police, Talleyrand was unable to restore civil order in Paris and the provinces. Furthermore, he was unable to effectively bring to heel the occupying Allied armies, nor negotiate with their governments. Talleyrand was forced to resign his post, and was eventually replaced as President of the Council of Ministers by Richelieu, who he would despise for the rest of his life.
Talleyrand was now essentially forced out of the political limelight, sitting on the sidelines and criticizing the players, rather than taking an active role. He hoped that he would somehow regain the King's favor, but was constantly rebuffed. He made occasional public statements, but was generally isolated from the political world until the Revolution of 1830.
The Revolution of 1830 and The Orleans Dynasty
Following the Revolution of 1830, King Louis-Philippe wisely elected to make use of Talleyrand in calming the fears of the other European monarchies. Talleyrand was made Ambassador to England, a move seen by many of the European powers as indicating that France would not be taking a hand in encouraging revolution in other nations. Talleyrand went on to aide in the negotiations surrounding the independence of Belgium (which many feared would be annexed by France, upsetting the balance in Europe that had been achieved at the Congress of Vienna), and helped strengthen ties between England and France.
Despite his achievements while in England, Talleyrand found himself facing a barrage of criticism upon his return to France in 1834. Every faction who had been wronged in the revolutionary events of the past 50 years or so felt that they had been harmed in some way by Talleyrand (and given his repeatedly changed loyalties, there's a fair chance that they had a legitimate complaint). Talleyrand continued to enjoy the confidence of the king, but chose to retire from public life once and for all.
Retirement, Decline, and Further Bargaining
In retirement, Talleyrand wrote his memoirs, and planned for his death. He desired above all else to be buried and received honorably, which presented something of a challenge. Though his excommunication had been lifted in 1802, Rome continued to regard Talleyrand as a rogue bishop, living in violation of his holy orders. Talleyrand spent the last two months of his life negotiating the content of a letter of retraction that would reconcile him to Rome, in which he would retract his heretical acts and views. This letter, along with an appeal to Pope Gregory XVI, was signed at 6 AM. At 8, Louis-Philippe himself visited and paid his respects. After giving his final confession to a priest at the end of the morning, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand Perigord died shortly before 4 o'clock on May 17, 1838. He was buried on his estate at Valencay in a small chapel near the chateau.
Talleyrand is one of the most controversial and fascinating figures of his era- which is saying a great deal! Throughout his career, he provoked hatred and disgust, but also fanatical confidence in his abilities. Historians continue to argue over basic facts of Talleyrand's character; was he a selfless diplomat, who valued the integrity and survival of his nation above all else, or a self-serving mercenary, ready to give his loyalty to whoever held the reigns of power. His achievements at the negotiating table, and the confidence with which even those who despised him placed in his abilities make it clear that Talleyrand was no garden-variety political hanger-on. Yet his perpetually shifting allegiances, and the fantastic personal profit that he reaped from them (ownership of one of the largest properties in France, a 10,000 volume private library, a hotel in Paris, and a personal fortune of millions of francs) speaks of someone whose interests extended well beyond public service.
In the end, it is perhaps Talleyrand's ability to stay alive and active in a political era that seemed determined to devour many of its participants. Of his changing loyalties, Talleyrand wrote in his memoirs that he had "never betrayed a government which had not betrayed itself first." Whatever the truth, Talleyrand remains in history one of the most skillful and adept political operators of any century. A silk stocking full of shit, or a ruthless patriot Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand Perigord was a man who left an indelible mark on the age in which he lived.
Thanks to Gorgonzola for extra info on Talleyrand and the XYZ affair, including the quote from John Adams.