Talleyrand, The Prince of diplomats


source : Castle of Valençay

Born in Paris on 2 February 1754, Talleyrand descended from a long line of family nobility.

A congenital malformation prevented him from embracing a military career. His family stripped him of his birthright and pre-ordained him, despite himself, to priesthood. He joined the Saint-Sulpice seminary in 1770, defended his theology thesis in 1774, and was ordained as a priest in 1779. The same year, he became general vicar of the Reims diocese.

Named Bishop of Autun in 1788, he was elected representative at the 1789 parliamentary assembly, and a member of the Constitution committee. He contributed actively to the Revolution by writing article 6 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens in 1789, by launching the metric system and drawing up the first report on public shools.

On 4 November 1789 he advocated for the secularisation of the clergy’s properties for the benefit of the state finances. Elected President of the National Assembly in 1790, he celebrated the Federation mass on 14 July, at the Champ de Mars. In December, he took an oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. He resigned from his diocese in January 1791, but still anointed the first « Oath bishops » as a bishop himself.

A diplomat in London, in February 1792 he was expelled by the London government, and went into exile to the United- States in 1794. At this time, Talleyrand could not return back to France since he had been indicted by the Convention following the discovery of compromising letters in Louis XVI ‘s armoire. He remained there for approximately 2 years, then returned to Paris with Madame de Stael ‘s help, and became, thanks to Barras, Minister for Foreign Affairs.

He stood by Bonaparte during the 18 Brumaire coup d’état, and maintained his position as Minister under the Consulate and at the beginning of the Empire. He purchased the Château of Valençay in 1803. Talleyrand then negotiated the treaties of Presbourg (1805) and Tilsit (1806). This is when he started doubting Napoleon. Concerned with Napoleon’s boundless ambition, he resigned from his position in August 1807 and gradually distanced himself from the Emperor who had named him Lord Chamberlain (1804) and Prince of Benevento (1806). Napoleon still ordered him to accommodate the Spanish Princes in exile (1808-1814) at the Château of Valençay.

In January 1809, he was in disgrace and stripped of his position as Lord Chamberlain. In 1813, Talleyrand refused yet another position at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, against the Emperor’s will. On 1 April, 1814, he was elected President of the provisional government by the senators and signed the armistice agreement with the Allies. On the Bourbons’ return, he resumed with his position as Minister in May 1814, and signed the treaty of Paris on 30 May.

Sent by Louis XVIII to defend French interests at the Vienna Congress, Talleyrand, the consummate diplomat, brought France back from the brink of disaster and managed to split the Allies. In 1815 under the second Restoration, he was President of the Council of Ministers for a few months, then Lord Chamberlain again. But he eventually had to resign under the « Ultras » pressure.

During the 1830 revolution, he was in favour of the House of Orléans, and worked towards establishing the July Monarchy. He was appointed Ambassador to London from 1830 to 1834 and took part in Belgium’s creation. Before his death, he reconciled with the Church (that had stripped him of his religious functions in 1802).

While enduring physical pain, he was still of a mind to initial a withdrawal (or reconciliation) letter addressed to Pope Gregoire XVI ; a letter that he would eventally sign on 17 May 1838. At eight in the morning, Louis Philippe, with his sister Madame Adélaïde, came to bid him a final farewell. The King knew that he owed his throne to the Prince, and was paying him the highest tribute.

Talleyrand died that very afternoon at 3:35. On 22 May, official and religious funerals took place and he was buried on 5 September in the school chapel close to the Château of Valençay.