(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, reference specialist, European Division.)
During his lifetime, and for quite some time after that, the legendary French politician and diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), was a much-discussed, controversial figure both at home and abroad. He managed to survive, and significantly influence, conflicting trends during the French Revolution (1789-99), the Napoleonic era (1799-1815), as well as the succeeding reigns of the members of the Bourbon (1815-30) and Orléans (1830-48) branches of the French royal family. He is also remembered for his disreputable private life.
Talleyrand is perhaps best known for his conduct of French foreign affairs at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), where the political map of Europe was significantly redrawn after the fall of the French Emperor Napoleon, who had conquered large parts of Europe. Even now, historians disagree as to whether Talleyrand was a cynical opportunist, a wily defender of true French interests, or a cosmopolitan European bent on maintaining peace on the continent.
The Library of Congress holds scores works about and by Talleyrand, e.g., his memoirs and correspondence, not to mention the numerous volumes on 18th- and 19th-century European history, in which he is an important player. The British Cartoon Prints Collection holds various anti-French cartoons, including ones depicting Napoleon and his close associate, “Talley.”
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord—Prince de Bénévent as of 1806—was born to an aristocratic family and studied for a career in the church, where he indeed succeeded thanks to influential family contacts, as well as his undoubted intelligence and persuasive manner. In 1775, he became the abbot of Saint-Denis, at the city of Reims where, not coincidentally, his uncle was archbishop. From this stepping stone he moved to an influential position representing the French clergy in the government, thus acquiring experience in politics. Subsequently, he was appointed bishop of the city of Autun.
When revolutionary ideas began to disrupt the prevailing social structure in France, Talleyrand cleverly moved from supporting the then-prevailing church interests to a more revolutionary position when representing the clergy at a 1789 national assembly meeting of the three estates, i.e., the nobility, the clergy, and the rest of the population. Talleyrand’s radical proposals eventually resulted in the Pope excommunicating him.
Leaving the clergy, Talleyrand undertook various diplomatic missions for France, but as the revolution heated up, he decided it best to depart for the United States in 1794, where he had a successful financial career for the next two years. When the political situation in France stabilized, Talleyrand returned to various high-profile positions, culminating in that of Napoleon’s foreign minister. During this time he became enormously wealthy by accepting bribes. Very much a ladies’ man, Talleyrand decided it prudent—for the sake of appearances—to eventually marry his long-time friend, Catherine Grand, in 1801.
With hostilities between France and England resuming again in 1803, Talleyrand was most useful in staying abreast of the continuing rotation of shifting European alliances against France. When Napoleon jettisoned his revolutionary ideals and had himself proclaimed emperor in 1804, Talleyrand became his Grand Chamberlain, another position that provided opportunities for further enrichment.
However, Talleyrand resigned in 1807 having grown impatient with Napoleon’s expansionist policies which he thought went too far. He nonetheless attended the Emperor’s talks at Erfurt, Prussia (Germany), in 1808, an event famous for the patriotic Queen Louise of Prussia pleading the cause of her defeated country. At this meeting, Talleyrand was able to make the acquaintance of Tsar Alexander I, with whom he proceeded to intrigue against Napoleon. After the latter’s ignominious retreat from Russia in 1813, and subsequent loss of power, Talleyrand (while Alexander I stayed with him in Paris) convinced the Tsar of the necessity of restoring the royal Bourbon family’s Louis XVIII to power. As a reward, Talleyrand was again appointed foreign minister—this time by King Louis XVIII.
Talleyrand was one of the major negotiators at the high-level diplomatic assembly of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), which provided a long-term, post-Napoleonic peace plan for Europe. Not only did the participants affect the course of European history, but the Congress is also known for the fascinating political and amorous intrigues that took place. Indeed, Talleyrand entered into an arrangement with his nephew’s wife, Dorothée, Countess Edmond de Périgord, Duchess de Dino, who acted as his hostess. The Duchess de Dino’s sister was a good friend to Prince Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859), thus providing an informal conduit between the negotiators Talleyrand and Metternich, who was an Austrian diplomat, another crafty delegate interested in maintaining a balance of powers in Europe. It was at this time that Talleyrand divorced his wife.
After the Congress, Talleyrand fell out of favor and lived quietly for many years, writing his memoirs. However, when the opportunity arose, Talleyrand, then in his 70s, helped depose the Bourbons in favor of the Orléanist candidate, Louis-Philippe, who was crowned king in 1830. Talleyrand, accompanied by the Duchess de Dino, then successfully acted as France’s ambassador to Great Britain, retiring in 1834. Talleyrand died in 1838, reconciled to the church that he had left decades before.