Talleyrand (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord) was
born in Paris in February 1754 into a family background of
ancient nobility, wealth, and power, and with his father holding
a high rank in the French Royal army.
From infancy Talleyrand suffered from some physical distortion
in his feet which proved to bring with it an impaired physical
mobility. Given the circles, and the times, in which Talleyrand
lived this inevitably placed some limitations on his likely
future career. Talleyrand was even formally stripped of some of
his birth rights (e.g. inheritance of titles and property) -
these rights were passed to a younger brother who also became, in
the estimation of their parents, the son through whom the
aristocratic and military traditions of the ancient and prominent
noble house of Talleyrand-Périgord were to be conveyed
into the future.
One of Talleyrand's uncles was an archbishop and, as his
physical disability was not a disqualification for clerical life,
he was educated in theology at the seminary of Saint Sulpice
despite his not having had any religious vocation. He was
ordained a priest in 1779, and in 1780 was appointed
agent-general of the French clergy - a role that involved great
responsibilities with the finances of the Church. In March 1789
Talleyrand was named Bishop of Autun. Later that year Talleyrand
was present in the Estates General that convened at Versailles
from May 1789 to make representations before the King in relation
to how a deep financial crisis in the French Royal state should
There was an ancient tradition whereby an Estates General
functioned in three sections - Aristocratic, Clerical, and Third
Estate (or Commoner) - and Talleyrand initially opposed the
proposal of 1789 that these three Estates should instead jointly
convene as a National Assembly. Talleyrand found that, given the
overall approach of those opposed to such a National Assembly and
other reforms, he preferred to confine his own involvements to
In the event the initial meetings of the Estates General were
followed by a number of developments over the following weeks
including the formation of a National Assembly against the wishes
of the King and by demands for a Constitution that would provide
a legal framework for the governance of France as a
Constitutional monarchy. In early August there was a dramatic
renunciation of the previously feudal nature of French society.
As the financing of the French state remained precarious
Talleyrand, in turbulent times, proposed, on 10th October, that
the lands of the church could be taken up by the Assembly into
the service of the French nation.
Talleyrand was one of the very few bishops of the Catholic
Church who subscribed to the so-called Civil Constitution of the
Clergy whereby the National Constituent Assembly sought to
exercise authority over the Catholic church in France. In January
1791 Talleyrand resigned as Bishop of Autun and in March of that
year was declared by the Pope to be an excommunicant.
Robespierre and others secured the passing of a measure in the
Constituent Assembly whereby members of that assembly would not
be eligible for election to the assembly that immediately
succeeded it. This meant that Talleyrand was faced with the
necessity of finding an alternative outlet his talents and he
sought entry into the world of diplomacy.
In January 1792 Talleyrand was sent by the French government
to London, where he conducted informal negotiations for a
British-French alliance - he was able to tell his superiors that
the general climate of opinion in Britain was, at that time,
fairly favourable to France.
In August 1792 at a time when the new French state was
threatened with invasion the French monarchy (which had been
compromised by unsuccessful efforts to flee to seek the
protection of those who were now attempting to invade) was
overthrown. In September 1792 there were some massacres of those
within France who were believed to be opposed to the reforms
secured by the revolution - many of these murdered persons were
readily available to the hostility of their assailants as they
had been living as prisoners.
These developments tended to alienate British opinion.
Talleyrand returned to England as a private citizen on 23rd
September partly to escape the intensity of the course of events
in France and partly in the hope of working towards preventing
too wide a breach between France and Britain. Prior to his
departure he received the appropriate passports signed by
It happened that Talleyrand's private efforts at diplomacy
were rendered ineffective by continued unprecedented developments
in France including the execution of King Louis XVI. Active
hostilities broke out between France and Great Britain in 1793
and Talleyrand was actually listed as an
émigré by the French authorities. Such a
designation had previously been applied to many Aristrocratic and
other opponents of the revolution who had decided to leave France
and hence carried portentous political implications.
Talleyrand was also a suspect person in British eyes and as
such was expelled from England in 1794. This expulsion prompted
him to go to the United States where he was to live for many
months up to November 1795.
Talleyrand's eventual departure from the United States was
prompted by his friends in France having secured a removal of his
name from the list of émigrées. Upon his
return to Europe Talleyrand landed in Hamburg and stayed several
months with friends in the Germanies before returning to France
in September 1796. In July 1797 he was appointed foreign minister
under the Directory. This appointment being due in large part to
the influence of Madame de Staël with the director
In July 1799 Talleyrand resigned as foreign minister, and
subsequently was instrumental in furthering Sieyès
alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte leading up to the coup
d'état of 9th November 1799 that established the rule
of the Consulate under Napoleon, Sieyès and Ducos.
Talleyrand was appointed as foreign minister. Before long
Napoleon emerged as First Consul with Cambacérès
and Lebrun as junior partners.
In 1801-2 Talleyrand played a role in securing a Concordat
between Napoleonic France and the Papacy. In June 1802 the Pope
recognised that Talleyrand was no longer to be regarded as an
excommunicant and further recognised him as having reverted from
being an ordained person to being a secular person. All of this
eventually allowing Talleyrand to marry his mistress Madame Grand
(incidentally a divorcee) in September 1803.
This marriage, it seems, took place at Napoleon's order -
Napoleon made the case that Talleyrand's living openly with
Madame Grand, whilst in an unmarried state, was a cause of
scandal. Given that Talleyrand, as the foreign minister of
France, had to interact in sensitive negotiations with the papacy
and with foreign states and given that Madame Grand was often
brought into social interactions with the wives of foreign
diplomats it was desireable that the couple should enter into
It is accepted that Talleyrand made a fortune out of
traffiking in church lands on the east bank of the Rhine that
were being secularised early in 1803 in order to compensate
Princes of the (Holy Roman) Empire who had lost estates on the
west bank of the Rhine to French expansionism.
Napoleon often acted in ways that were not approved of by
Talleyrand who was himself more inclined to moderation and to
look to the future of France rather than that of Napoleon.
Talleyrand had been responsible for much of the negotiation of
the Peace of Amiens (signed March 1802) that was highly
advantageous to France. Napoleon's continued aspirations
contributed to the breakdown of this peace. He wanted to
incorporate Piedmont into France whereas Talleyrand preferred
that it should be restored to its legitimate ruler. In the event
war was renewed in May 1803.
The assumption of an Imperial title by Napoleon in May 1804
brought changes of title to many of his subordinates including
Talleyrand who became Grand Chamberlain of the Empire. In these
times the whole tenor of the French state was increasingly
altered towards a new acceptance of titles of nobility, and of
the awardance of military honours, and of a place for religion in
the life of the state. Talleyrand worked toward the
reconciliation of the new France - as formed by the revolution,
with the legacy of old France - that had been continued from
He also hoped to work for the establishment of a peace - in
his own words:-
'to establish monarchical institutions in France
which should guarantee the authority of the sovereign, to keep
her within her just boundaries, and so handle the Powers of
Europe as to make them forgive France her good fortune and her
Napoleon's territorial ambitions, however, contributed to a
renewal of a widespread conflict by provoking several continental
European powers into alliances with the British.
After the defeat of Austria in 1805 Talleyrand urged that
moderate peace terms be imposed but his counsels were overruled.
The historic 'Holy Roman Empire,' of which Habsburg Austria had
been the principal component, was dissolved and was replaced, in
parts of the Germanies that were under Napoleon's sway, by a
Confederation of the Rhine.
Talleyrand made vast sums out of the negotiations, and
inducements, that were associated with this re-organisation. In
July 1806 Talleyrand was ennobled as Prince de
Bénévent by Napoleon - Benevento being formerly an
historically papal territory in the south of the Italian
Talleyrand was opposed to Napoleon's wars against Austria,
Prussia, and Russia in 1805 and 1806, and greatly regretted the
often crushing peace terms imposed in their aftermath. There were
now, in Talleyrand's opinion, several humiliated states that
could only be expected to oppose Napoleonic France in the
Late in 1807 Napoleon, impatient with Talleyrand's independent
views on foreign policy, moved him away from holding the office of
foreign minister but continued to call upon Talleyrand's
services and counsels in foreign affairs.
After the displacement of the Spanish monarchy by Napoleon
from May 1808 Talleyrand was reluctantly obliged to accomodate
some of the exiled Spanish royals (as things transpired until
March 1814!) at his own estate and château of
Talleyrand had particularly disapproved of Napoleon's policy
of overthrowing the Spanish monarchy and, although he did not
advertise the fact, he had actually become convinced that for the
good of France and of Europe he should covertly plot to ensure
Napoleon and Alexander I Tsar of Russia met at the Congress of
Erfurt which began in late September, 1808. Most of the princes
of Germany were also in attendance at this Congress. Napoleon's
main policy goal at Erfurt was to impede any future alliance
between Russia and Austria. Talleyrand was entrusted with the
task of convincing the Tsar to support Napoleon against Austria -
but Talleyrand, following his own ideas of the future good of
France and Europe, hoped to ensure that only a limited degree of
support for Napoleonic France would be secured from the Tsar!
Talleyrand gave the benefit of his counsels to the Tsar to such
effect that he succeeded in frustrating the hopes that Napoleon
had for a diplomatic outcome favourable to his interests.
In December 1808 an apparently warm and public
rapprochment between Talleyrand and Fouché, the
Minister of Police, who had previously been widely accepted as
being Talleyrand's bitter political adversary, caused Napoleon to
conclude that there was some sort of a plot being hatched by the
two powerful men.
In late January 1809 Napoleon returned from Spain where he had
been busy leading armies and, at a meeting of the privy council a
few days later, delivered an half-hour long torrent of fulsome
and extravagant abuse at Talleyrand. The intensity of the
Emperors invective may have been somewhat provoked by the
apparent impassivity with which Talleyrand received it. It seems
that as the abuse was continued, in the presence of the most
senior officers of the state, Napoleon depicted Talleyrand himself as being
nothing but so much 'dung in a silk stocking" and brought up allegations that
Talleyrand's wife was unfaithful.
Talleyrand is reported to have remained impassive through it
all. The meeting was not continued beyond this tirade because
Napoleon was in no mood to focus on business. Most observers
thought that the Emperor's behaviour had been notably undignified.
As the meeting dispersed Talleyrand is recorded as having said to
a colleague 'What a pity that such a great man should be so
There was a partial reconciliation between Napoleon and
Talleyrand over the ensuing weeks - this happened because
Talleyrand, whatever his private thoughts on the matter, acted in ways
that indicated that he was ready overlook the numerous and extreme
insults that had been heaped upon him.
Napoleon was annoyed with Talleyrand but did not fear him - he
liked Talleyrand as a cultivated and able person and had also
found Talleyrand's advice to be very useful in the past. After
this episode Talleyrand did not enjoy the degree of favour that
had been the case previously and he was deprived of the title of
Grand Chamberlain of the Empire.
In 1809 Napoleon was wounded in battle and this caused people
to more seriously reflect upon the future of the french Empire
should he be killed in battle or die of natural causes.
After Napoleon's divorce of December 1809 from
Joséphine de Beauharnais, (the marriage had not produced an
heir so the divorce followed for political reasons), Talleyrand supported Napoleon's marriage
to the Archduchess
Marie-Louise, a daughter of the Austrial Imperial House of
Habsburg, as this he believed that this marriage would help to
protect Austria from future dismemberment by Napoleon and would
also generally tend to provide stability in Europe.
The marriage was celebrated, in Napoleons' absence, by proxy
in Vienna in April 1810 and the new Empress was escorted to Paris
amidst a host of Austrian and French dignitaries.
From 1807 Napoleon had instituted a 'Continental system' which
was intended to weaken Britain by prohibiting trade between the
Continent of Europe and Britain. One outcome of this was the
collapse in 1810 of certain Belgian banks to which Talleyrand had
entrusted his vast fortune. Talleyrand was utterly ruined
financially and was only enabled to maintain an appearance of
solvency through Napoleon's agreement to make available state funds including the purchase of
sumptious residence in Paris at a considerably inflated price whilst allowing him to continue to
In 1812 an enormous army sent by Napoleon to conquer Russia but
was decimated by the unusually early onset of a severe winter and
Talleyrand now more than ever considered that time was running
out for Napoleon as the ruler of France.
Early in 1814 as the allied forces arrayed against Napoleon
were on the point of victory Talleyrand attempted to persuade the rulers
of the allied powers that a principle of legitimacy should be
observed in the post-war settlement of Europe. That displaced
historic monarchies should, where at all possible, be restored in
efforts to secure future European peace. That through a
restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France the rest of Europe
might hope for a France that voluntarily 'ceased to be
gigantic in order to be great.'
On June 4th, after the fall of Napoleon and a restoration of
the House of Bourbon, in the person of King Louis XVIII, to power
in France Talleyrand was appointed foreign minister. His title of
Prince de Bénévent was now redundant and embarassing given the
territory of Benevento was now restored to Papal sovereignty but Louis XVIII
ennobled Talleyrand with the title of Prince de Talleyrand
and the further title 'Peer of France.'
The newly created Prince de Talleyrand represented France at
the Congress of Vienna from September 1814 to June 1815, where he
managed to transform the French diplomatic position away from being that of
a defeated power in the eyes of the allied powers towards being that of one of Europe's historic
Talleyrand was able to depict Napoleon and Bonapartism as having been the enemy and the
restored King Louis XVIII as a legitimately monarch who should be treated fairly by the other powers in the overall interest of achieving peace and progress in Europe.
During the course of the Congress a major disagreement arose
over the future status and extent of Poland and Saxony. The
former allies almost came to blows between themselves as Russian ambitions in
relation to Poland and Prussian ambitions in relation to Saxony somewhat alarmed Britain and Austria.
was able to achieve an actual alliance of behalf of the King of France with Britain and Austria as
a significant factor in this crisis. He also 'exploited / was of
use to' several lesser powers in bringing their aspirations and
fears to the attention of those major powers who thought that
many aspects of the future of Europe were theirs to decide. Given
the strained and competing relationships between the former
allies (and the wish of some of the major powers to avoid a
punitive peace) Talleyrand's diplomacy obtained lenient terms for
France from the former Allies.
Between July and September 1815 Talleyrand served as president
of council and foreign minister to King Louis XVIII of France but
was forced to resign in the turbulent aftermath of Napoleon's
return from Elba leading up to the battle of Waterloo (or Mont
St.Jean) of 18th June 1815.
During the July Revolution of 1830, Talleyrand persuaded Louis
Philippe, duc d'Orléans, to accept the French crown
offered to him by the Paris revolutionaries. Talleyrand, at the
age of 76, was offered the foreign ministry but preferred to
serve as the French ambassador to Great Britain (1830 to 1834)
and helped bring about an era of good relations between the two
nations. He also took an important part in the earlier
negotiations that eventually led up to the general recognition of
the independent kingdom of Belgium (1839).
As Talleyrand neared death in the early summer of 1838 King
Louis Phillippe was one of the visitors to his bedside. Following
his demise on May 17th 1838 there were many expressions of esteem
in relation to the great services he had rendered to France.
His mortal remains were interred at Valençay.