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Talleyrand: 1775-1738

For the sixty and more years of his adult life Talleyrand demonstrates a rare genius in surviving and profiting from every social and political change. He cheerfully makes the most of the ancien régime, the early French revolution, the consulate, the empire, the restoration and the 1830 revolution, changing sides whenever it suits his own best interests.

An aristocrat destined for the church, he keeps a mistress while at a theological seminary and sees no reason to change his ways in 1775, soon after his twenty-first birthday, when the king makes him an abbot. By 1789 he is the bishop of Autun. He naturally becomes his clergy's representative at the estates general in Versailles.

Seeing the way the wind is blowing, Talleyrand sides with the anti-clerical forces of the revolution. He votes for the appropriation of church property and is soon conducting the main religious ceremonies for the republican regime - leading to his excommunication by the pope in 1791.

In that same year he makes his first fortune, at the gambling tables, and begins his long diplomatic career with a post as ambassador to London. He stays abroad, mainly in America, during the Terror but is back in France by 1796. In 1797 he persuades the Directors to appoint him foreign minister. Soon a well-judged alliance with Napoleon brings him increasing power, continuing in his post as foreign minister from 1799 to 1807.

In 1814 he contrives to be on hand to offer hospitality and his diplomatic services to the victorious allies when they enter Paris. He helps to negotiate the return of Louis XVIII and argues skillfully on behalf of royal France at the Congress of Vienna.

After the congress Talleyrand's chequered past returns, for the first time, to haunt him. Louis XVIII dispenses with his services as foreign minister, under pressure from ultra-royalist factions in Paris who object to an ex-revolutionary in this prominent role. Talleyrand spends his early seventies in retirement, writing his memoirs. But in 1829 he senses a new political opportunity.

With public opposition mounting to the rule of the reactionary Charles X, Talleyrand makes contact with Louis-Philippe and helps to effect the July Revolution of 1830. As a result he enjoys, in his late seventies, four final years of luxury and influence as ambassador to London.

Talleyrand inevitably has many enemies, but with the approach of death only one is important - the Catholic church. With a few hours to spare, the excommunicated ex-bishop signs on his deathbed a document regretting his past irreligious conduct. He duly receives the last sacraments in time, as he hopes, to meet his maker - the climax to a nicely judged career in diplomacy.

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