Charles M. Talleyrand-Périgord (‘Since the masses are always eager to believe something, for their benefit nothing is so easy as to arrange the facts.’

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Charles M. Talleyrand-Périgord (‘Since the masses are always eager to believe something, for their benefit nothing is so easy as to arrange the facts.’

Talleyrand /

Talleyrand /

The French statesman was born in 1754 with a club-foot, a piece of bad luck he shared with Kaiser Wilhelm II and Lord Byron. None of the three allowed their pronounced limp to impede an upwardly mobile career. Byron, a poet who loved boxing, swam the Hellespont, an act of physical courage most athletes with both feet intact would shy away from. The Kaiser thought his kingly first cousins found his limp funny and mimicked it. He was thus only too anxious to have a world war, and achieved that ambition. Charles Talleyrand found the French army closed to him, so he became a priest instead.

There was no religious bent in Charles, so he entered the political side of the Church where he became agent-genéràl of all the clergy in  France. Though he remained firmly anti-clerical he was made Bishop of Autun in 1788 at the age of thirty-four. As he was aristocratic by birth he was soon elected as a noble deputy in the Estates-General – the administration of France.

Priest and club-footed or not, he was a womaniser of the first degree, and was one of those bishops who have mistresses and (mostly) recognised children by them. In fact this prelate of the Church was notorious for enjoying to the full the sexual pleasures of a normal hot-blooded male: perhaps ‘rake’ would make a better description. Cartoonists of the epoch made full use of this formidable aspect of M. Talleyrand.

In politics he preferred the usually uncomfortable position of sitting on the fence gazing at what was happening. He rarely committed himself, except when he proposed the confiscation of Church lands by the State, in 1789, timing this rather odd proposition (for a churchman) with the opening of the French Revolution.

He took the oath to the ‘Civil Constitution of the Clergy’ and consecrated the first elected  Bishops of the newly constitutionalized Church, in accordance with the Jacobins, who found it dubious. It did not matter because Talleyrand left Mother Church in 1791 to take over the job of French Ambassador to England, which occupied him until news came of the guillotining of the French monarch Louis XVI and his Queen – whereupon he sailed rapidly for the United States, staying there safely until the Directory was established in France after the Brumaire coup d’état, orchestrated by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Bonaparte invited him to become his Foreign Minister in 1799 when he was fifty-four. He stayed at the Ministry until 1807, during the Napoleonic wars with the rest of Europe. He negotiated a Concordat with the Pope, and the Peace of Amiens with England. He had not forgotten the Germans either and established The Confederation of the Rhine.

A little later he became deeply worried about Napoleon, whom he saw as over-extending himself. It is true to say that even loyal Frenchman could now see clearly the Emperor’s tremendous and uncontrollable ambition. Talleyrand resigned only a month after the Treaty of Tilsit, and by 1814 he was plotting with the Allies (Britain, Austria, Prussia etc.). Using his fluent rhetoric, he persuaded the French Senate to depose Napoleon – no mean task. As soon as the Corsican had gone, he invited the Bourbon Louis XVIII to regain his lost throne.*

Still not thoroughly satisfied, Talleyrand went to off to be, supposedly, a pliant and silent witness at the Congress of Vienna (q.v.) with which we have dealt in a previous post. Fortunately he had never been pliant or silent in his life and his performance at Versailles got him back in the ambassadorial palace in London for four years from 1830. By now he was eighty-six years old, but still able enough to create (with others) an independent Kingdom of Belgium. Charles Meurice de Talleyrand-Périgord died in 1838, full of honours and years.

*No one thought at the time that Napoleon would escape and try again to dominate the world.


About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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