Charles Maurice De Talleyrand: Skilled Diplomat or Turncoat?

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand illustration
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. duncan1890 / Getty Images

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (born February 2, 1754, in Paris, France—died May 17, 1838, in Paris), was a defrocked French Bishop, diplomat, foreign minister, and politician. Alternately renowned and reviled for his tactical skills of political survival, Talleyrand served at the highest levels of the French government for nearly half a century during the reign of King Louis XVI, the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the reigns of Kings Louis XVIII, and Louis-Philippe. Admired and distrusted in equal measure by those he served, Talleyrand has proven difficult for historians to evaluate. While some tout him as one of the most skilled and proficient diplomats in French history, others paint him as a self-serving traitor, who betrayed the ideals of Napoleon and the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity. Today, the term “Talleyrand” is used to refer to the practice of skillfully deceitful diplomacy.

Fast Facts: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

  • Known for: Diplomat, politician, member of the Catholic clergy
  • Born: February 2, 1754 in Paris, France
  • Parents: Count Daniel de Talleyrand-Périgord and Alexandrine de Damas d'Antigny
  • Died: May 17, 1838 in Paris, France
  • Education: University of Paris
  • Key Accomplishments and Awards: Foreign minister under four Kings of France, during the French Revolution, and under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte; played a key role in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy
  • Spouse's Name: Catherine Worlée
  • Known Children: (disputed) Charles Joseph, comte de Flahaut; Adelaide Filleul; Marquise de Souza-Botelho; “Mysterious Charlotte”

Early Life, Education, and Career in the Catholic Clergy

Talleyrand was born on February 2, 1754, in Paris, France, to his 20-year-old father, Count Daniel de Talleyrand-Périgord and his mother, Alexandrine de Damas d'Antigny. Though both parents held positions in the court of King Louis XVI, neither earned a steady income. Having walked with a limp since childhood, Talleyrand was excluded from his anticipated career in the military. As an alternative, Talleyrand sought a career in the Catholic clergy, bent on replacing his uncle, Alexandre Angélique de Talleyrand-Périgord, as the Archbishop of Reims, one of the wealthiest dioceses in France.

After studying theology at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice and the University of Paris until age 21, Talleyrand went on to become an ordained priest in 1779. A year later, he was appointed Agent-General of the Clergy to the French Crown. In 1789, despite being disliked by the King, he was appointed Bishop of Autun. During the French Revolution, Talleyrand largely abandoned the Catholic religion and resigned as a Bishop after being excommunicated by Pope Pius VI in 1791.

From France to England to America and Back

As the French Revolution progressed the French government took note of Talleyrand’s skills as a negotiator. In 1791, the French foreign minister sent him to London to persuade the British government to remain neutral, rather than joining Austria and several other European monarchies in the looming war against France. After failing twice, he returned to Paris. When the September Massacres broke out in 1792, Talleyrand, now an endangered aristocrat, fled Paris for England without defecting. In December 1792, the French government issued a warrant for his arrest. Finding himself no more popular in England than in France, he was expelled from the country in March 1794 by British Prime Minister William Pitt. Until returning to France in 1796, Talleyrand lived in the war-neutral United States as a house guest of influential American politician Aaron Burr.

During his stay in the United States, Talleyrand lobbied the French government to allow him to return. Always the crafty negotiator, he succeeded and returned to France in September 1796. By 1797, Talleyrand, recently persona non grata in France, had been appointed the country’s foreign minister. Immediately after being appointed foreign minister, Talleyrand added to his infamous reputation of placing personal greed above duty by demanding the payment of bribes by American diplomats involved in the XYZ Affair, which escalated into the limited, undeclared Quasi-War with the United States from 1798 to 1799. 

Talleyrand and Napoleon: An Opera of Deceit

Partly out of gratitude for his assistance in the 1799 coup d’état that saw him crowned Emperor in 1804, Napoleon made Talleyrand his minister of foreign affairs. In addition, the Pope overturned his excommunication from the Catholic Church. Working to solidify France’s gains in the wars, he brokered peace with Austria in 1801 and with Britain in 1802. When Napoleon moved to continue France’s wars against Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1805, Talleyrand opposed the decision. Now losing his confidence in the future of Napoleon’s reign, Talleyrand resigned as foreign minister in 1807 but was retained by Napoleon as vice-grand elector of the Empire. Despite his resignation, Talleyrand did not lose Napoleon’s trust. However, the Emperor’s trust was misplaced as Talleyrand went behind his back, secretly negotiating personally profitable peace agreements with Russia and Austria.

Having resigned as Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand abandoned traditional diplomacy and sought peace by accepting bribes from the leaders of Austria and Russia in return for Napoleon’s secret military plans. At the same time, Talleyrand had started plotting with other French politicians on how to best protect their own wealth and status during the struggle for power they knew would erupt after Napoleon’s death. When Napoleon learned of these plots, he declared them treasonous. Though he still refused to discharge Talleyrand, Napoleon famously chastised him, saying he would “break him like a glass, but it’s not worth the trouble.”

As France’s vice-grand elector, Talleyrand continued to be at odds with Napoleon, first opposing the Emperor’s harsh treatment of the Austrian people after the end of the War of the Fifth Coalition in 1809, and criticizing the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Though he was invited to return to his old office as foreign minister in 1813, Talleyrand refused, sensing that Napoleon was quickly losing the support of the people and the rest of the government. Despite what had become his utter hatred for Napoleon, Talleyrand remained dedicated to a peaceful transition of power.

On April 1, 1814 Talleyrand convinced the French Senate to create a provisional government in Paris, with him as president. The next day, he led the French Senate in official deposing Napoleon as Emperor and forcing him into exile the island of Elba. On April 11, 1814, the French Senate, in approving the Treaty of Fontainebleau adopted a new constitution that returned power to the Bourbon monarchy.

Talleyrand and the Bourbon Restoration

Talleyrand played a key role in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. After King Louis XVIII of the House of Bourbon succeeded Napoleon. He served as chief French negotiator at the 1814 Congress of Vienna, securing advantageous peace settlements for France in what was then the most-comprehensive treaty in European history. Later the same year, he represented France in negotiating the Treaty of Paris ending the Napoleonic Wars between France and Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. 

Representing the aggressor nation, Talleyrand faced a daunting task in negotiating the Treaty of Paris. However, his diplomatic skills were credited for securing terms that were extremely lenient to France. When the peace talks began, only Austria, the United Kingdom, Prussia, and Russia were to be allowed to have decision-making power. France and the smaller European countries were to be allowed only to attend the meetings. However, Talleyrand succeeded in convincing the four powers to allow France and Spain to attend the backroom decision-making meetings. Now a hero to the smaller countries, Talleyrand proceeded to secure agreements under which France was allowed to maintain its pre-war 1792 boundaries without paying further reparations. Not only did he succeed in ensuring that France would not be partitioned by the victorious countries, he greatly enhanced his own image and standing in the French monarchy.

Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba and returned to France in March 1815 bent on forcibly retaking power. Though Napoleon was ultimately defeated in the Hundred Days, dying in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, Talleyrand’s diplomatic reputation had suffered in the process. Bowing to the wishes of his quickly expanding group of political enemies, he resigned in September 1815. For the next 15 years, Talleyrand publicly portrayed himself as an “elder statesman,” while continuing to criticize and scheme against King Charles X from the shadows.

Upon learning of Napoleon’s death at Waterloo, Talleyrand cynically commented, “It is not an event, it is a piece of news.”

When King Louis-Philippe I, a cousin of King Louis XVI, came to power after the July Revolution of 1830, Talleyrand returned to government service as ambassador to the United Kingdom until 1834.

Family Life

Well known for using relationships with influential aristocratic women to advance his political position, Talleyrand had several affairs during his life, including a longtime intimate relationship with a married woman who would eventually become his only wife, Catherine Worlée Grand. In 1802, French Emperor Napoleon, concerned that the French people viewed his foreign minister as a notorious womanizer, ordered Talleyrand to marry the now divorced Catherine Worlée. The couple remained together until Catherine’s death in 1834, after which the now 80-year-old Talleyrand lived with the Duchess of Dino, Dorothea von Biron, the divorced wife of his nephew. 

The number and names of the children Talleyrand fathered during his life is not clearly established. Though he may have fathered at least four children, none were known to have been legitimate. The four children most widely agreed on by historians include Charles Joseph, Comte de Flahaut; Adelaide Filleul; Marquise de Souza-Botelho; and a girl known only as “Mysterious Charlotte.”

Later Life and Death

After permanently retiring from his political career in 1834, Talleyrand, accompanied by the Duchess of Dino, moved to his estate at Valençay. He would spend his final years adding to his voluminous personal library and writing his memoirs.

As he neared the end of his life, Talleyrand realized that as an apostate bishop, he would have to rectify his old disputes with the Catholic Church in order to be given an honorable church burial. With the help of his niece, Dorothée, he arranged with the Archbishop de Quélen and abbot Dupanloup to sign an official letter in which he would acknowledge his past transgressions and beg for divine forgiveness. Talleyrand would spend the last two months of his life writing and re-writing this letter in which he eloquently disavowed “the great errors which [in his opinion] had troubled and afflicted the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church, and in which he himself had had the misfortune to fall.”

On May 17, 1838, abbot Dupanloup, having accepted Talleyrand’s letter, came to see the dying man. After hearing his last confession, the priest anointed the back of Talleyrand’s hands, a rite reserved only for ordained bishops. Talleyrand passed away at 3:35 in the afternoon of the same day. State and religious funeral services were held on May 22, and on September 5, Talleyrand was buried in the Notre-Dame Chapel, near his château in Valençay.

Did You Know?

Today, the term “Talleyrand” is used to refer to the practice of skillfully deceitful diplomacy.

Legacy

Talleyrand may be the epitome of a walking contradiction. Clearly morally corrupt, he commonly used deceit as a tactic, demanded bribes from persons with whom he was negotiating, and openly lived with mistresses and courtesans for decades. Politically, many regard him as a traitor because of his support for multiple regimes and leaders, some of which were hostile toward each other.

On the other hand, as philosopher Simone Weil contends, some criticism of Talleyrand’s loyalty may be overstated, as while he not only served every regime that ruled France, he also served the “France behind every regime.”

Famous Quotes

Traitor, patriot, or both, Talleyrand was an artist with a pallet of words he used skillfully to the benefit of both himself and those he served. Some of his more memorable quotes include:

  • “Whoever did not live in the years neighboring 1789 does not know what the pleasure of living means.”
  • “It is not an event, it is a piece of news.” (upon learning of Napoleon’s death)
  • “I am more afraid of an army of one hundred sheep led by a lion than an army of one hundred lions led by a sheep.”
  • And perhaps most self-revealing: “Man was given speech to disguise his thoughts.”

Sources

  • Tully, Mark. Remembering Talleyrand Restorus, May 17, 2016
  • Haine, Scott. “The History of France (1st ed.).” Greenwood Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-313-30328-2.
  • Palmer, Robert Roswell; Joel Colton (1995). “A History of the Modern World (8 ed.).” New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 978-0-67943-253-1.
  • . Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PérigordNapoleon and Empire
  • Scott, Samuel F. and Rothaus Barry, eds., Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution 1789–1799 (vol. 2 1985)
  • Weil, Simone (2002). “The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind.” Routledge Classics. ISBN 0-415-27102-9.