Glory and Final Deceit in 1661
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Defence of Fouquet
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:
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:
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
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."
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...
brilliance, there remains Vaux-le-Vicomte
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
And thus it
all ended, in melancholic glory and the final proof of brilliance
of the sparkle of a once shining star.
& Glory | Downfall & Injustice | 'Une
| Virtual Tour I
| Virtual Tour II
| Les Amis de
The Author at Vaux
August 2001 - Fête Anniversary
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