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The diplomacy of Talleyrand

Talleyrand & the Congress of Vienna

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 be addressed.

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 financial matters.

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 Danton.

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 Barras.

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 marriage.

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 before 1789.
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 glory.'

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 peninsula.

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 future.
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 Valençay.
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's downfall.

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 ill-bred.'

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 Talleyrand's sumptious residence in Paris at a considerably inflated price whilst allowing him to continue to live there.

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 major powers.
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.
Talleyrand 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.