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Nicolas Fouquet
Nicolas Fouquet
Fouquet Divider

Ultimate Glory and Final Deceit in 1661

Already in May 1661 was the Louis XIV's mind was made up. The Surintendant de Finances was to be imprisoned as soon as he had supplied the treasury with the money he had promised. But to secure the money, he had to make Fouquet believe that there was no danger at all. Therefore the King expressed a desire to admire the latest improvements at Vaux-le-Vicomte of which the whole court spoke with praise. It was Vaux-le-Vicomte then, against the background of France's most beautiful château, that Fouquet gave an incomparable fête in honour of the King on 17th August 1661. 

The night of the fête was indeed a memorable one, with 6.000 guests entertained at a cost of over 120.000 livres. Against a background of splendour and beauty created by the joint efforts of the finest artists of the day, the probably most magnificent fête ever took place, only to be copied later by Louis XIV and the court of Versailles. The guests were enchanted by fireworks, theatricals, dinner and by a ballet written by Lully especially for this fête. But Louis XIV thought it too much of a good thing. Not only did it far surpass anything he himself could provide but it angered him that his Minister of Finances should be so prodigiously rich when the royal finances were strained to breaking point. Worse, still, Fouquet did not take sufficiently seriously Louis's determination to be his own first minister: tactlessly he had made advances to the current royal mistress Mademoiselle de la Vallière (blond and boring in her simplicity regarding intelligence, but very pretty and loved by the young Louis), and he had 'fortified' another residence at Belle-Île in a manner which revived in Louis's mind memories of the overmighty subjects of his childhood at the time of the Fronde, although this so-called fortification were merely works on the island coast's security. Colbert, eager to succeed to Fouquet's title, supplied the evidence, in fact the lies, of his speculation.

Three weeks later at Nantes, on 5th September 1661 (Louis XIV birthday, what a shameful and petty display of sarcasm and hatred), was d'Artagnan, Captain of the King's Musketeers, and Fouquet's best long-time friend, forced to arrest Fouquet on the orders of Louis XIV and he brought his prisoner before a specially convened emergency court.

The day before, when Charles de Batz de Castlemore, called d'Artagnan, had received the order, he was seen crying, torn between his duty and his friendship. They remained for many months afterwards together, d'Artagnan being his guard in several prisons, and their friendship always remained the same, although d'Artagnan was said to have never forgiven himself, a victim of Louis XIV cruel character, like so many other of the King's subjects.

The political reasons behind the lies and cruelty, apart from the personal hatred and envy, were that Colbert's policies were designed to stimulate a more active and productive economy. Meanwhile they could not be implemented, nor could he attain the summit, while Fouquet was in power: he was therefore resolved to destroy Fouquet and did not hesitate, where necessary, to doctor the evidence. Since Colbert had worked for Mazarin as his intendant, and built his master's fortune by means as questionable as those employed by the Surintendant, he would have personal reasons for ensuring a clean break with the past.

Nicolas Fouquet's policies should not be judged, as he was by the chambre de justice back in the 1661, simply on the evidence that it was given to weigh, but with reference to the circumstances in which he took office, the financial world in which he had to operate and the methods he was forced to use. The chambre de justice would find that around three to four million livres out of 23 had been spent in ways that could not be called royal service. Undeniably however he had given good service. His system, if such a medley of improvisations can be called a 'system', served its main purpose. He was a conscientious royal servant, the victim, as much as the manager of the crown's financial machine. That there was a case for him, even within the narrow terms imposed on the chambre, can be gathered from the facts that the trial lasted nearly three years, did not bring sentence of death, but originally banishment and then "only" life imprisonment: that he was detained under conditions that ensured that he could neither state his case nor rally his friends; and that several of them, notably Olivier d'Ormesson, had the courage to speak for him.

There is no foundation for Colbert's story that Mazarin, on his deathbed, decided to tell the King of Fouquet's misdoing. However, there was a carelessness, which no minister could afford in Fouquet's relationship with the King, and certainly not when taking Louis XIV character into consideration and the way he and his régime of Absolutism turned out later, together with his firm believe in Divine Kingship. Louis XIV surely had a tremendous inferiority complex, caused by the traumatising events of the Fronde in his childhood, which made him into this extremely absolutistic sovereign and person he was. Secure in his Parisian côterie, Nicolas Fouquet came close to patronising the young King. During the Fronde he had been loyal; now he was an agent of reconciliation; yet Louis saw him as belonging to that Parisian establishment whose view of monarchy seemed so demeaning. The King needed Colbert at his elbow to associate disorder in the finances with the political disorders he had recently experienced. Even Fouquet's patronage offended.

Painting of Fouquet's TrialDespite the pressure brought to bear upon the magistrates by the King, the trial (the painting shows Fouquet's trial and is on display in the Bibliotèqe Nationale in Paris, France) - falsified in many parts by Colbert - dragged on for more than three years, as mentioned above, and turned gradually to the advantage of the accused. The King having had only the chance to arrest Fouquet in the first place, by having talked him into putting down his office as Procureur-général by lies and deceiving words in the first place. The King was counting on the death penalty, but the majority of the judges were for banishing Nicolas Fouquet. This was tantamount to an acquittal, for Fouquet would have found freedom beyond the confines of the Kingdom.

For the first and last time in French history, the head of the state, in whose hands lies the power to pardon an offender, overruled the court's decision, not to ease the sentence, but to worsen it. Louis XIV sentenced his former, ever loyal Minister of Finances to life-imprisonment.
Fouquet was dispatched to Pignerol, a small fortified position in the Alps of Savoy, dominated by the dungeon of the fortress in which he was to be imprisoned and closely guarded until his mysterious death on 23rd March 1680. The rumours of him having been poisoned as a last desperate act by Louis XIV to silence him forever, when his release was no longer to be postponed, have never ceased to exist. The King's injustice and hatred towards his brilliant, beautiful and magnificent Surintendant having cast a dark cloud before the Sun King's glory forever.

By this denial of justice Louis XIV placed under lock and key certain sensitive state secrets to which he suspected Fouquet was privy, and his imprisonment was indeed one of the harshest and hardest imaginable, incredibly lonely and sadistically inhuman one. This theory has led to a number of authors, among them Alexandre Dumas in "Le Vicomte de Bragelonne" to link the fate of Fouquet to that of the man in the iron mask, but alas, this is, so does history prove, only the writers' poetic license.

The Defence of Fouquet

Fouquet loved life and office too much to be simply fatalistic when he sensed the dawn of his downfall. After 1658 he was at least contemplating the possibility that he might be dismissed. But all he did was considering plans to mobilise his friends in the country, governors of certain fortresses and the admiral of the Biscay. Some nobles actually signed professions of loyalty to Fouquet.

When he was allowed to speak for himself, to give at least the impression of some possibility of self-defence, Fouquet said:

"Certain acts of mine may have been wrong. I do not excuse myself for them. I did things which had to be done and it was by doing them that I kept up royal business, which I could not otherwise have done."
He also wished, however, to stress that it was not only he but, posthumously, his superior who was on trial:
"...and then, with Cardinal Mazarin one could not be certain of the rules in money matters. He never used to give precise orders. He blamed and nevertheless permitted. He disapproved of everything; and after one had convinced him of the impossibility of succeeding otherwise, he approved of everything."
It is evident that Fouquet was not only a victim of Mazarin's and therefore his own financial policies, but furthermore of envy. The grey and invisible Colbert had once been Fouquet's friend, but the latter made the mistake to underestimate the envy of the uglier and less able man. Even worse, he far underestimated Louis XIV's determination to become the absolute monarch. 
Fouquet was destroyed by his own charms, pride, abilities, beauty, and the resulting kind of naiveté, that made him believe he were invincible. In fact many people, like d'Ormesson, La Fontaine, Madame Sévigné (who were a very close friend to his family until her death), his most loyal and faithful valet Pélisson-Fontanier, his physician Jean Pecquet (who was voluntarily imprisoned with Fouquet for three and a half years, and had offered to be further imprisoned with Fouquet in Pignerol until his death, but was refused by Louis to do so, and who died before Nicolas Fouquet, when he fell off his horse drunk, because he had taken to the abuse of alcohol), and many more, sacrificed their own careers, liberty and lives, to stand up and speak loyally for Nicolas Fouquet; even after his sudden and cruel downfall.

Of all of Fouquet's numerous friends the poet La Fontaine remained the most faithful. He wrote the famous "Elegy to the Nymphs of Vaux", in which he took up the defence of his former friend and patron, and begged for royal forgiveness, thus falling into the King's disgrace. And the aforementioned Madame de Sevigné never ceased to reiterate her undying loyalty to the minister and his family.

On the other hand, there is the shameful display of disloyalty by Charles Le Brun, the painter whom Nicolas Fouquet had supported so well and brought initially to fame. Le Brun abandoned the apotheosis of Fouquet he was to paint on the dome of the entrance hall of Vaux-le-Vicomte abruptly, and on the day after the arrest the painter cowardly begged Mme Colbert to accept the present of a drawing.

* The memoirs of the Duc de Saint Simon, written sixty years later after Fouquet's arrest, contain the following epitaph, inspired by the contrasts in the life of one who, "after eight years as Financial secretary, paid for Mazarin's stolen millions, the jealousy of Tellier and Colbert, and a touch too much gaiety and magnificence, with nineteen years of imprisonment."

Nicolas Fouquet's biggest "mistake" was being a magnificent rising star, who shone even brighter than the later 'Sun King', forgetting that the sun could not endure a rivalling star beside him...

Of Fouquet's brilliance, there remains Vaux-le-Vicomte forever.

Thereafter... a note of reconciliation

On 23 June 1758, in the Battle at Crefelt, Germany, at the crushing defeat of the regiments under the Comte de Clermont, a certain Comte de Gisors was killed in action. The battle of Crefelt is chiefly remembered for M. de Gisors' death, who was no other than the only child of the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, and the great-grandson of Nicolas Fouquet. The Comte de Gisors was 26 when he died, and with him died the bloodline of Fouquet, since he had no children with his young wife, who mourned him to the end of her days and refused to marry again, just like Nicolas Fouquet's young wife Madeleine had done, almost a hundred years before.
M. de Gisors was truly mourned by high and low, in Paris, at Versailles, in England and even in Germany, and none less than Frederick the Great was heard saying several times that he "could forgive the French a great deal for having produced the Comte de Gisors". 
His father, the Maréchal de Belle-Isle and grandson of Nicolas Fouquet, was stricken with grief. The famous Madame de Pompadour convinced Louis XV, grandson of the 'Sun King', who had hated Fouquet obviously more than can be put into words, who was terrified of grief usually, to pay the Maréchal a visit. And this the King of France did: he went in great state, accompanied by the Queen and all the Court, to offer his condolences to the Maréchal, who found comfort in Louis XV's noble and emotional words.

And thus it all ended, in melancholic glory and the final proof of brilliance of the sparkle of a once shining star.

Rise & Glory | Downfall & Injustice | 'Une Rose...'
Vaux-le-Vicomte | Virtual Tour I | Virtual Tour II | Les Amis de Vaux
The Author at Vaux
| 17th August 2001 - Fête Anniversary

Graphics © N. Kipar 1999. Scrolls and squirrel from Madame Fouquet's crest.
Painting of Nicolas Fouquet by Le Brun, exhibited in Vaux-le-Vicomte.

* Excerpt from the Guidebook to Vaux-le-Vicomte

Contents © N. Kipar 1997. All rights reserved