Talleyrand -- Priest, Statesman and Diplomat

2 Conversations

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord is undoubtedly one of the most controversial figures of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. He is seen by many as a Machiavellian trickster, ready to betray anybody to further his own career. Others, however, see him as a man of principle, only betraying those who had already betrayed the hopes of France and Europe. What nobody doubts is his incredible political skill. He was perhaps the finest diplomat ever, able to turn a twenty-year enmity into an alliance with just a few words, often of great wit. He was gifted with foresight like no other, able to predict the downfall of regimes that appeared as strong as there had ever been with uncanny accuracy. He was, however, also a man of many personal vices, as shown by his promiscuous personal life and financial greed. This is his story.

Early Life

The Ducs de Perigord were one of the oldest families in all France, able to trace thir ancestry back to one of the nobles who appointed Hugh Capet to the throne in 981. This man, when challenged in his actions by Hugh, replied that Hugh owed his position to him, not the other way round. A later Perigord was a powerful cardinal, the true voice behind the papal throne. With such a background, it was hardly surprising that Charles-Maurice turned out as he did.

Born on February 13th, 1754, the young Talleyrand spent most of his time in the care of his ancient great-grandmother, and her servants. It was while he was at her house that, at the age of four, he suffered an accident that left him with a club foot. He was not encouraged to walk on it at, so that his other leg withered and he was left a virtual cripple for the rest of his life. As the second son of the Duke, he was not the heir to the family estates, and so, when he was old enough, he was farmed off to ecclesiastical college to train as a priest, the usual career for young men in his position.

Talleyrand was ill-suited to being a priest. His high libido, which he discovered early, counted against it, and he was simply not interested in liturgy. He spent all the time he could alone in the college library, reading political texts, learning about the running of the French Absolutist state, and the freer constitution of Britain, which he found himself admiring. He realised that politics was his true vocation, and wished greatly for an opportunity to join it.

The Bishop of Autun

Having graduated, in spite of himself, as a priest, Talleyrand was appointed to the wealthy diosee of Autun, largely through his family's high standing. He was bored in the job, and rarely bothered to visit his cathedral. But he found an outlet for his political ambitions. Just about the only representative body in France was the General Assembley of the clergy, which he attended whenever he could. He became its Agent General, which effectively meant the liason officer with the French state. This role enabled him to practice his political skills.

The main way in which his role as general secretary offered Talleyrand political training was in the defence of the church's temporal property. In 1407, the Italian Count of Savoy had left a mansion in his will to the Celestine monastic order. Now the order had been abolished by papal command, and the Count's descendents were asking for the monastery back. Talleyrand argued that the mansion had been given to the order only as representatives of the church. All of the orders' property therefore became that of the church to use, provided it was to the glory of God. He lost this case, but it taught him how to debate.

The Estates-General

In 1787, the French state was declared bankrupt. King Louis XVI had discovered, to his amazement, that France was in fact a disguised constitutional monarchy, and he would have to call the Estates-General to enact the financial reforms he wanted. Talleyrand was hugely excited by the news. He did not have an automatic seat in the Estates-General -- nobody did -- and he was obliged to make a rare visit to his see to secure the votes of his priests to become their representative. This proved a success, and, once elected, Talleyrand left Autun forever, bound for Versailles.

The events in Versailles took Talleyrand by surprise, but he was not displeased. He had long believed that the division between the First and Second Estates was false, and, though he was not a unicameralist, he nonetheless joined the National Assembley. He did this quietly, appearing to be doing so because he thought it inevitable than because he wanted to. Still, he tended to vote liberally. But nobody foresaw what he would do next.

Leaving the Priesthood

The events of August 4th, 1789, proved decisive in Talleyrand's life. In that remarkable night, the National Assembley abolished all feudal privilege overnight. In the midst of this, Talleyrand stood up and announced that he had an idea for how to obtain state revenue -- by nationalising all the church's temporal property. The chamber was rendered speechless -- wasn't this the most vocal defendant of the church temporal? Talleyrand explained that this was perfectly justified, so long as the state provided for the continuation of the cult1. He was effectively suggesting that the clergy becone civil servants.

Still, this annoyed the Pope and most of the clergy. Talleyrand would have to watch his step from now on if he wanted a future as a clergyman, which he didn't. When the National Assembley published the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, it was denounced by the Pope, and the clergy overwhelmingly followed his lead. Talleyrand was the most senior of those who didn't. When he began investing new priests at the Fete de la Federation on July 14th 1790, according to the new rules, he was excommunicated. Talleyrand didn't care. He was now free to pursue a purely political career in the new France.


Just as Talleyrand seemed to have his dreams in his grasp, he was overtaken by events. Louis XVI's failed flight and the outbreak of war had radicalised the revolution in a way that Talleyrand did not support. His attempts to hold back the tide made him unpopular, as did the fact that he was a man of the ancien regime. He stayed for as long as he could, while Paris grew increasingly dangerous. He finally fled in 1792, a matter of hours before the start of the September massacres.

Talleyrand first moved to England, a country he liked. There, he found himself in an awkward position, disliked by the reactionaries who had fled the revolution at its outset, and mistrusted, as a man of the old regime, by the moderate revolutionaries who were now in exile. Still, he lived in London for a few years. But, as time went on, he found the English increasingly hostile to all Frenchmen, and, in 1794, was obliged to move on. He spent his next years of exile in the new USA. Here, he was treated pretty much as a nobody, snubbed by President Washington on his arrival. This led him to a lifelong dislike, of the United States, though this was mixed with great respect.

The Directory

With the reaction of Thermidor in July 1794, Talleyrand could hope to return to France. Following the establishment of the Directory, he was removed from the list of exiles, and, in July 1796, he returned. Respected for his political abilities, he was asked if he would work for the Directory as its Foreign Minister. He accepted, in spite of his dislike of republicanism. He simply believed that he could do more from within than from without. He likened his actions to the captain of a ship -- any port in a storm. He may not have liked the Directory, but France needed him.

Talleyrand worked under the Directory trying to secure peace in Europe. This was a common theme. He was no soldier, and had no love for military glory. He believed that France had to concentrate on its internal affairs. Ironically, he nearly led France into war with the USA in the notorious XYZ affair, when he offended three American diplomats by asking them for bribes2. Fortunately, he and US President John Adams managed to defuse the situation before hostilities could commence.

Talleyrand was a monarchist, believing the heriditary system to offer stability that republicanism did not offer -- the Reign of Terror had been evidence enough for him. So, while he worked for the Directory, he also worked against it. His dream was a constitutional Bourbon monarchy, but he realised that the French people would not accept a restoration at this stage. He realised, however, that, in the person of a young Corsican officer, he may have found an answer. He contacted Bonaparte to find out his political beliefs, and, on discovering that he was also a liberal, began plotting the coup that led Bonaparte to power. The evidence suggests that Talleyrand supported the Egyptian campaign, though he later denied it, and he was not himself directly active in the overthrow of the Directory, but had ensured that he knew all parts of the plot, and was essential to its success.

The Consulate

Talleyrand said in his memoirs that the Consulate was never intended as a permanent government. He saw it as way of phasing back monarchy in France -- firstly a powerful single executive, whose term would later become life, and then heriditary. This is precisely what happened, as Bonaparte became First Consul, then Cousul for life, and finally Emperor.

Talleyrand worked during the life of the Consulate trying to secure peace, which was signed with Britain in 1802. It was easy, as Napoleon spent five years pursuing his political ambitions within France. But, once he became Emperor, his ambitions grew. He wanted to become a King as well as Emperor, and so crowned himself King of Italy. Talleyrand began to tire of his warmongering.

The Empire

Nonetheless, Talleyrand worked for Napoleon, though he knew that Napoleon could not win the war with Britain, which resumed in 1803. He ensured that Napoleon be lenient with defeated Austria, but failed to achieve the same ends with Prussia, knowing that a well treated enemy will treat you with gratitude, but the badly treated will seize any chance for revenge. He also saw an opportinuity for a grateful ally in Poland, simply by resurrecting that state, which would also provide a valuable buffer between Prussia and Russia. But his attempt got no further than a Napoleonic statelet, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

Though he now made no secret of his opposition, Talleyrand accompanied Napoleon to Tilsit, for a meeting with Tsar Alexander. Napoleon wanted to bribe Alexander into an alliance, dividing Europe, and appeared to have succeeded until Talleyrand spoke to the Tsar alone, and persuaded him that, appearances to the contrary, Napoleon was finished. As a protest against Napoleon's abandoning of Poland in the Treaty of Tilsit, on July 7th, 1807, he resigned as Forieign Minister, though he remained at Napoleon's court as Grand-Vice Elector, a meaningless position.

Talleyrand was turning ever more against Napoleon, and became finally convinced of his ultimate failure at a time when the Empire was at its zenith. Napoleon had, in 1807, adopted the Continental system, and attempt to cut Britain off from trade and force it to sue for peace. Portugal refused to cooperate, so Napoleon attacked. En route, he overthrew his allies, the Spanish Bourbons, and gave Spain to his brother, Joseph. Spain erupted in guerilla warfare against him, which to Talleyrand was further evidence in favour of monarchy, when he compared it with the ease with which Napoleon had overthrown republics. Talleyrand allied with his old ememy, Fouche, in open opposition. Napoleon increasingly lost patience with him, eventually calling him 'S**t in a silk stocking.'

Napoleon's rage passed -- he knew Talleyrand to be valuable. But the opposition remained. Napoleon's Russian disaster and the defeat at Leipzig followed, and Talleyrand knew Napoleon was finished. As France collapsed, he was appointed President of a Provisional Government on April 1st, 1814 to negotiate with the invading allies. His first action was to declare Napoleon and the Bonaparte dynasty deposed. Louis XVIII was invited back to France. This legitimism, supporting the old, established ways, was crucial to Talleyrand's forthcoming strategy.

The Congress of Vienna

Talleyrand now went to his finest hour, the rebuilding of Europe at the congress of Vienna. As French ambassador, he immediately set about deconstrucing the Alliance, which he knew had only held together while Napoleon remained a common enemy. After having gained an equal position with the allied diplomats on grounds that the restoration regime was not the enemy, Talleyrand began to dismantle the alliance itself. His main reason for doing this, besides wanting to end France's isolation, was to prevent Prussia, which he saw as being France's future enemy, becoming too powerful.

Incredibly, Talleyrand was able to use issues such as Poland and Belgium to break the wartime alliance. Britain and Austria ended up on his side with the result that France was returned to its pre-Napoleonic borders, but not to those before the revolution. Unfortunately, this did not last, as Napoleon returned for the Hundred Days. After Waterloo, the Allies were in no mood to be so forgiving a second time, and the 1789 borders were restored. Talleyrand took consolation from the fact that the Hundred Days had enabled him to get his theme of Legitimacy firmly accepted, leading as it did to the removal from the Neapolitan throne of Murat, whom he particulary despised.

The First Retirement

As foreign minister once more, Talleyrand enjoyed the chance to put one over on Fouche, by making him Ambassador to Vienna, and so removing him from French political life. But this was just about his only pleasure. He was, himself, closely connected to both the revolution and Napoleon. In the wave of ultra-royalism that greeted the Second Restoration, he found himself under increasing pressure. He was in any event ageing by now, and decided on retirement ahead of sacking. He stepped down on September 23rd, 1815, returned to his mansion, and spent the next years writing his memoirs, though he remained in contact with Louis XVIII as an unofficial advisor.

Talleyrand grew to suspect, however, that his retirement would not prove to be permanent. There was a parallel developing with events in England about 150 years ago. Revolt, radicalisation, regicide, republic, seizure of power by a general, restoration. In England, Charles II had then been succeeded by his brother, who was overthrown and replaced by a liberal regime headed by the junior branch of the royal family. Could this happen to France? Louis XVIII was likely to be suceeded by his reactionary brother Charles. Was another revolution on the way?

The London Embassy

In 1830, Charles X attempted to restrict popular liberties in France. Sure enough, revolution broke out once again. Charles abdicated, and fled. But what was France to replace him with? Charles himself hoped for his grandson, who was effectively ruled out by that very fact. A new Republic was popular among some, but what if the Terror and 20 years of war followed again? France turned to its elder statesman, Talleyrand, for an answer3. Following the English precedent, Talleyrand called for Louis-Phillippe, the Duke of Orleans, and head of the Bourbon's cadet branch, to be the new king. Talleyrand justified this illegitimist act by saying that the legitimist principle was now simply unsalvagable, but the monarchist principle was not. Also, now that it was accepted that a governments existed for the benefit of the governed, one that did not persue the popular good became illegitimate itself.

Louis-Philippe offered Talleyrand the Foreign Ministry once more, but the 76-year old turned it down. He needed something quieter. He had liked England during his exile there, and asked if, instead, he could become the new regime's London ambassador. So he returned to England, and became a major face in England, whose Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, had become a firm friend of his at Vienna. Talleyrand's time in London was mostly spent dealing with the issue of Belgium, which had rebelled against Dutch rule in 1830, and was now in a state of Dutch occupation. Britain, France, and most other powers had recognised the new state, and a conference was arranged to sort out the problems. As the conference was held in London, Talleyrand became the French Representative4. Belgian independence was ensured, and Tallyrand saw his favoured candidate, the Prince of Saxe-Coburg, on its throne.

The Second Retirement

Four years after arriving in London, Talleyrand left for good. He was 80 years old, and had no wish to continue working. He retired to his mansion, where he spent his time adding an account of his time in London to his memoirs, and playing with his granddaughter. On May 17th, 1838, at the age of 84, Talleyrand died in his bed. His last words were uttered to the priest who was called to deliver the last rites on him, as was about to mark a cross on his hand as he would a layman, or parish priest: 'Don't forget -- I am a Bishop".

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

1That is, the cult of Christ. 'Cult' is the word Talleyrand himself used.2The XYZ Affair had its roots in the French seizure of American shipping in the late 1790s. The USA sent three diplomats to attempt to defuse the situation, but Talleyrand insisted through three agents (referred to in American correspondence as 'X', 'Y' and 'Z') that he be bribed $250,000 to see them officially. The Americans refused, and Talleyrand's further actions offended American opinion to the point of war. However, further diplomatic moves ended the dispute - which had involved a number of unofficial sea battles - in the 1800 Treaty of Mortefontaine.3Talleyrand's behaviour during Les Trois Glorieus, the three revolutionary days of 1830, is insightful with regards to his character. Looking out of his window on the second day he commented 'We are winning'. On being asked who 'we' were, he replied 'Not a word. I will tell you tomorrow'.4Indeed, the conference was believed by many to have been in London precisely so that Talleyrand could be the French representative.

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