Portrait of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, byPierre-Paul Prud'hon, 1817. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was a diplomat’s death.
On the May 12, 1838, the eighty-four-year old Prince de Talleyrand vomited blood at his own dinner table. It happened in the Parisian palais on Rue St. Florentin where he passed his retirement in semi-regal splendor. He had been entertaining old friends, the Princesse de Lieven and the Duke de Noailles. The old man, ever courteous in the manner of an aristocrat brought up in theancien régime, apologized profusely and retired to bed.
Talleyrand was dying.
Having held high office in five successive French regimes, making himself indispensable to Bourbons, Revolutionaries, and Bonapartists alike, this man of many seasons—the éminence grise behind Napoleon’s rise, who had survived the Empire’s collapse to negotiate the Treaty of Vienna—had bowed out of the fray. Some in Europe considered him a genius, the greatest statesman of the age. Others, mainly fellow Frenchmen, regarded him as a corrupt opportunist who had abandoned friends and regimes with alacrity in accordance with the dictates of fickle political fashion, a greedy grandee who had grown rich on bribes. Napoleon, who had good reason to suspect his minister of Foreign Affairs of treason, once called him “shit in silk stockings.” According to eyewitnesses, the ice-cold diplomat didn’t move a muscle or utter a word during this furious diatribe by his spittle-flecked Emperor.
Statecraft had been Talleyrand’s second calling—his first was as a man of the cloth. When he was young, his family had forced Talleyrand into the church against his will on account of a club foot which rendered him unfit for the army. Ordained as a priest and later made a bishop, he had had a disastrous and heretical ecclesiastical career, ending in his ignominious excommunication. In the high summer of his life—by day a great statesman in chancelleries of Europe and by night a notorious libertine—he had cared not a whit for hellfire or the wrath of God. But now in the winter of his life, the traditional faith of his fathers had returned to haunt him. The old man was suffering a spiritual crisis.
It was his niece who introduced the dying man to the priest. She was fervently religious and worried that her uncle would die before being given last rights. What then would become of his soul? Would it take its rightful place in the kingdom of heaven where it surely belonged? She turned to her confessor, the Abbé Dupanloup, a man of eloquence and saintly disposition, and arranged for him to drop by her uncle’s house one night shortly after the vomiting episode. The Abbé had at first been leery and reluctant. After all, Parisians knew Prince Talleyrand to be the most formidable conversationalist in all of Europe, and the priest feared he’d be overwhelmed by erudition and wit. “Imagine my surprise therefore,” the Abbé wrote years later, “to find our conversation was actually religious. Talleyrand talked much of sermons and quoted several fine passages.” The prince was equally charmed and Dupanloup was invited back.
Both knew what needed to be done, but neither at first could bring himself to broach it. Days passed and Talleyrand was in visible decline. Then one day he took from a drawer a sheet of paper covered on both sides with his own handwriting and handed it to the Abbé.
“Pray take this to Archbishop of Paris” he ordered. Thus began Talleyrand’s last great negotiation—his treaty with God.
He had written a “retraction” admitting three great errors in the eyes of the Church—his acceptance during the Revolution of the civil constitution of the clergy, his ordination of bishops during the Revolution, and his marriage to a lady of easy virtue. It was received well. The Archbishop sent word that he would redraft it in more canonical form.
The Archbishop’s version arrived by messenger a few days later in two parts. One, couched in vague terms, admitted no specific error, merely regretting the grievous sins of the Revolution in which he had played a part. It ended with his submission to the discipline and doctrine of the Church. The other, a letter to the Pope, was equally unspecific and ended by stating, “my youth was dedicated to a profession for which I was not born.” These, the Archbishop insisted must be duly signed before the penitent Prince could receive absolution, religious consolation and a first-class ticket to paradise. When he had read them Talleyrand said, “Monsieur l’Abbé, I am very well satisfied with this paper.”
Home and dry, thought the priest. Now he’ll sign. But no, Dupanloup underestimated his man. Why would the statesman who had been Napoleon’s “master” and had run the diplomatic mediocrities of Europe ragged, make things simple? “Leave it with me” he said. “I wish to read it again.” The Abbé’s heart sank.
In his youth Talleyrand had looked up to Voltaire. Indeed when newly ordained at age twenty-four, he had paid a gloriously impious visit to the greatest eighteenth century scourge of the Church. Sixty years had passed since that happy day. One can imagine the dying Prince casting his mind back to the time when Voltaire, on his deathbed, had attempted to enter heaven—an attempt he badly botched. As his body had deteriorated in a dozen disagreeable ways, he too had summoned a priest. To the consternation of his anticlerical admirers, Voltaire had grudgingly handed this eager prelate a recantation “hoping that God will deign to forgive me all my errors.” The old deist had gone as far as he was willing to go to preserve decorum but it proved insufficient to secure a Bishop’s blessing. Memories of Voltaire’s farcical funeral, his corpse strapped upright in a carriage, leaving Paris in secret by night, in defiance of the Church, may now have prayed on Talleyrand’s mind. The great diplomat was holding out for a better treaty with the Almighty than the miserable one managed by the acerbic man of letters.
Talleyrand now announced to the Abbé that he wanted to add a few lines to the Archbishop’s draft before signing, but declared that he was too tired and in too much pain to do it. “Will he leave it too late?” asked his niece, a question le tout Paris was asking. Some took the view that for him to sign would betray the enlightenment values for which he had stood. Others said the greatest peacemaker of the age would surely not refuse to make his peace with God. With the doctors counseling haste, the Abbé Dupanloup said he would now report back to the Archbishop with a heavy heart.
“Tell him everything will be done” Talleyrand said.
“But when, M. le Prince?”
“Tomorrow, between five and six o’clock in the morning. You have my word.”
He was now deep into the fine print of his celestial treaty, negotiating with the Archbishop of Paris, the Pope and perhaps, the Almighty himself.
During the course of the night the doctors announced that the old man was sinking. His niece approached him with a candle. “Uncle, won’t you sign the two papers now? Please, while you are still able.” At that, the old dealmaker seemed to rally. It was as though for a brief moment he was back in the negotiating chamber in Vienna, scolding an upstart Prussian politician for his insolence. “No. I told you that I would sign tomorrow morning between five and six, and so I shall. I gave you my word. What more do you want? Go to bed.”
At half-past five, Dupanloup returned with the Duke du Poix and a clutch of unimpeachable noblemen dispatched by the Archbishop to witness the final act. At six, his niece approached the bed again with the papers and a pen.
“Uncle, it is time”
“Read them to me again out loud, my dear,” Talleyrand requested.
With pen in hand and eyes shut, he listened intently, propped up for the purpose on a pillow. The reading over, he nodded assent, dipped the pen in some ink and affixed his name firmly and boldly to the two documents. He chose to use his full signature, the one reserved for important state papers—Charles-Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand. In the event he never added the additional lines. Someone asked when to date the signatures. “Date them around the time of my last public appearance two months ago,” the Prince replied. Punctilious and sly unto the end, he did not wish it to be thought that he had signed while of unsound mind.
All that remained was for the Abbé to hear his confession and grant him absolution. But there was now a brief and potentially disastrous interruption. The King had arrived with his sister Madame Adélaïde to pay respects. Talleyrand, with the impeccable manners of a life long courtier, summoned all his strength, insisting on introducing Louis-Philippe to all present in the room, down to the second valet. After the Royals departed, he lost consciousness for several hours, and it was with difficulty that the Abbé, now beside himself with anxiety lest he run out of time, aroused him. After a brief confession, the holy oil for extreme unction was sprinkled on the backs of his hands, as befits a Bishop, and the deed was done.
Talleyrand had completed his last diplomatic mission and signed his final treaty. It had been on his timetable and on his terms. Death came within the hour.