The Man Who Outshone the Sun King

A Life of Gleaming Opulence and Wretched Reversal in the Reign of Louis XIV


By Charles Drazin

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Late in 1664, the musketeer D’Artagnan rode beside a carriage as it left Paris, carrying his friend Nicolas Fouquet to life imprisonment in a cell next door to the Man in the Iron Mask. From a glorious zenith as Louis XIV’s first minister and Cardinal Mazarin’s proté and eventual protector; builder of the stunningly opulent chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte; and patron of the arts and lover of beautiful women, Fouquet had suffered a wretched decline.

The story of the rise and fall of Nicolas Fouquet is both compelling and unforgettable. Charles Drazin’s beautifully written and vivid account brings to life Fouquet’s remarkable gains in fortune, influence, and power, as well as the lavish and hazardous world of the royal court in seventeenth-century France.




A Life of Gleaming Opulence and Wretched Reversal in the Reign of Louis XIV

Charles Drazin

For Dinah, who had the idea


I would like to thank the following: my partner Elena von Kassel-Siambani, for staying the course on the long journey from Vaux to Belle-lle and back; Judith Flanders, who with her common sense and practical advice helped to get the project on the road; my agent Clare Alexander, who tempered my enthusiasm with her level-headed, always constructive criticism; my extremely patient and supportive editors – Ravi Mirchandani, Caroline Knight and Alban Miles at Heinemann, and Bob Pigeon at Da Capo; Sarah Fowles, who was an encouraging supporter of the project ever since she whisked me off five years ago to see Nicolas Foucquet make his début on the London stage; Donna Poppy, for her perceptive guidance on both the art and business of writing; Xavier de France, who introduced me to Pascal, Jesuits and Jansenism; Monique and the inspirationally bavard Bernard Brosse; James Legg and Simon Heighes, the perfect hosts who were responsible for the tranquil atmosphere in which this book began.

I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of the following libraries; the Bibliothèque nationale de France; the London Library; the Institute of Historical Research; the Senate House Library, University of London; Queen Mary, University of London; and the British Library.


One evening, during a holiday in France, my friends and I were discussing what to see next. In a guidebook we read the story of a party that Louis XIV’s Finance Minister Nicolas Foucquet had held to show off his newly built chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte – an incomparable masterpiece of seventeenth-century architecture that would inspire Versailles. We read how 6,000 guests had dined off gold plates; how Molière had written a play especially for the occasion; and how the young King was so maddened with envy to see so many splendours in one night, that rather than thank his host, he vowed to destroy him. I hadn’t heard of Nicolas Foucquet before and I imagined that these were just a few juicy snippets that had been greatly exaggerated, but I was fascinated enough to want to explore further; and once I did, I found that – in the way of the best stories – Nicolas’s became only more spell-binding.

In France there are no public statues of Nicolas Foucquet for reasons that will become apparent, but he is an important, well-known figure who regularly attracts the attention of professional historians. In the English-speaking world, however, he is someone of whom few people have heard. This book, therefore, takes advantage of the outsider’s gift of being able to tell a story as if for the first time, cherishing the myths as much as the reality. Whatever it may lack in authoritative historical analysis or an insider’s knowledge of his own people, it hopes to compensate for by capturing a very human figure that we can all recognise.

One of the great attractions of seventeenth-century French history is its universal appeal. Voltaire considered the reign of Louis XIV – after Pericles’s Greece, the Caesars’ Rome and the Italian Renaissance – to be the fourth great age of civilisation, which, in the sheer scale of human achievement, provided an example for all ages. If it was as remarkable for the scale of human folly, this only aided its success as a great stage for drama, full of stirring events and memorable personages, but also of perceptive eyewitnesses to describe them. To mention but a very few names, it was the time of Madame de Sévigné, de Retz and Saint-Simon, of Molière, Corneille and La Fontaine . . .

The wealth of personal testimony, matching the period’s colour and incident, made it possible for that great nineteenth-century writer Alexandre Dumas to plunder the time for his stories, and then for Hollywood in turn to plunder him for theirs. The characters may have been drawn from life, yet they were extravagant enough to be larger than life: Richelieu, d’Artagnan and even the Man in the Iron Mask, who were once individual, breathing people, have long since taken on a separate existence as archetypes in fable. This is the appeal of Nicolas Foucquet too: a real person, complex and multifaceted, yet in what he did and suffered as proverbial as Icarus.

A Note on the Name

Since in most published works the name of the hero of this book is usually spelt ‘Fouquet’, it may seem rather odd that I have chosen to call him ‘Foucquet’ with a ‘c’. I have done so because this is how Nicolas himself used to sign his name:


It is 1644. The King of France is a five-year-old child. Ruling in his name is his mother, Queen Anne of Austria. The deaths in quick succession of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII have rocked the kingdom. The great victory over the Spanish at Rocroi that in May of the previous year blessed the first days of the new reign has failed to end a war that has dragged on now for nearly a decade. It is slowly bleeding the life out of the nation. Few entertain much hope of an early deliverance: Queen Anne’s appointment of the Italian Giulio Mazarini to be her first minister is for many only one further step down into the abyss. The death of her little mourned – and even less loved – husband gave her the chance to break the hold of her hated adversary Richelieu, the Red Eminence, who had ruled the late King from beyond the grave. But here she is turning to the very man whom Richelieu had anointed his successor – the very man whom Richelieu, as one of his last acts on earth, had even persuaded the Pope to make a cardinal.

Bowing under the weight of heavy taxes and in many places struggling to cope with famine as well, the people of France face unremitting hardship. Desperate and fractious, many of the country’s provinces have already descended into a state of near anarchy. But this new administration – still finding its way and determined to show its authority – is in no mood to make concessions. Indeed, rather than rely on local forces to quell the tax strikes and food riots, it is sending into the rebellious provinces the royal intendants, who have instructions from the Chancellor, Pierre Séguier, to act with the utmost ruthlessness.

The Dauphiné is one of the more intractable provinces. Belonging to a remote, mountainous region that was once a separate principality, its inhabitants still retain a tradition of independence, which the magistrates of its own Parlement at Grenoble only encourage. Some of the country’s fiercest disputes have taken place in this province.

The intendant who has been assigned to the Dauphiné is a young Master of Requests* called Nicolas Foucquet. He is the son of the late François Foucquet, a distinguished government official who had been a close aide to Cardinal Richelieu.

This is the new intendant’s first important mission. He is inexperienced. But the Chancellor makes very clear the policy that must be pursued. In a detailed letter of instruction, he stipulates that Monsieur Foucquet must ‘impose the collection of all taxes, tolls and duties outstanding in the province of the Dauphiné forthwith, in accordance with the assessments of the said province, and to bring prosecutions against those who spread the rumour of excessive taxes, sentencing them as insurrectionaries’.1

In case there is still any doubt, the intendant has only to think back to the Chancellor’s own notorious conduct in the field, when five years previously he was sent to Lower Normandy by the late Cardinal. His mission there was to deal with those who had rebelled against the imposition of the gabelle salt tax on the Nu-Pieds – the ‘bare-footed’ labourers who made salt by evaporating sea water. Calling in 4,000 troops, the Chancellor swiftly crushed the uprising with mass executions. Ever since then, France’s royal intendants have known that the surest path to a successful career is unmitigated brutality.

But this intendant seems to forget the orthodox methods. Disregarding the harsh measures that were drummed into him in Paris before he set out on his mission, he makes his own independent judgements on the basis of what he finds in Grenoble.

There, the winter stores of grain have rotted in heavy snows, causing the price of bread to rocket. Yet although they are now barely able to feed themselves, the local inhabitants are still being harassed by tax collectors, who – oblivious to their suffering – press as hard as ever for their commission.* Their cruelty and greed provoke angry protests; and the populace in some villages begin to pelt the soldiers with stones.

It is the kind of conduct that is sufficient pretext for an intendant to order heavy reprisals, but Nicolas Foucquet allows simple compassion to determine his response. He sends a despatch back to Paris describing the misery he has seen and queries the policy of the government. The taxes ‘have reduced most people to despair’, he writes. ‘If the King could offer some hope of future relief, it would encourage people to make an extra effort.’2

Risking his career here so recklessly, the young intendant will survive this early show of decency to achieve a position of huge importance in his later life. He will a few years later help to win a civil war. He will rise to become the indispensable figure behind some of the most splendid achievements of a time that posterity will label ‘le Grand Siècle’. An unusually eventful life – with itsoften dramatic reversals of fortune – furnishes no shortage of conventional reasons to write about him. But it is perhaps this instinct for humanity, at a time when inhumanity was much the more dominant key, that is the root of his appeal.

The Governor of the Dauphiné was the First President of the Parlement, Marshal François de Lesdiguières. Encouraged by the unprecedented support the province had received from a representative of central government, he travelled to Paris to canvass a reduction of the taxes in person. Meanwhile, Nicolas Foucquet continued to rely on persuasion rather than force to restore order. A week after his letter to the Chancellor, he wrote to the bishop of the important Dauphiné town Valence, imploring him to use his influence to calm passions in the surrounding districts, where the uproar over the taxes had been particularly fierce. But while everyone waited to hear back from Paris, there was now nothing else that could usefully be done. So he made the most of the lull to attend the investiture ceremony of his older brother François, who had just been appointed the new Bishop of Agde, in Languedoc.

If the oddly enlightened conduct of the new intendant seemed to offer some brief hope of relief, subsequent events soon exposed his dangerous naïveté. The tax collectors, who feared the drop in commission that would follow any compromise, became only more pressing in their demands. Their heavy-handed methods provoked a series of riots across the province, with protesters in several areas burning the tax lists.

The collectors began to send their own angry letters to Paris, complaining about the conduct of the intendant. He should have brought in troops to quell the riots, but he wasn’t even there. He had let the Dauphiné go up in flames while he attended Mass 150 miles away!

The Chancellor was already furious that the intendant had disobeyed his orders. The only question in his mind was what punishment could possibly do justice to the sheer scale of the misconduct. In this time of slow communications when it took a message many days to get from one corner of France to the other, he had already had considerable time to mull over the matter when he received the new reports. Even more enraged, he ordered the intendant to be relieved of his command and to return to Paris. A new intendant, de Lauzières, was appointed to replace him.

The Parlement of the Dauphiné appealed to the Chancellor on behalf of the dismissed intendant, praising the efforts he had made to establish order in the province and begging that he be reinstated, but to no avail. Nicolas Foucquet had scarcely got back to Grenoble before he had to set off again, this time on a humiliating journey back to the capital. Three members of the Dauphiné Parlement, counsellors Ducros, Coste and Chaulnes, accompanied him part of the way to show their appreciation for his efforts to help the people.

Heading westwards along the Isère river towards where it joined the Rhône, their carriage took a slow, winding path through mountains that loomed precipitously on either side. As Nicolas brooded over the cruel end to a career that had hardly begun, he can’t have been very cheerful company. He certainly had plenty of reasons to worry about his future, but at the same time, as he strove to tell his travelling companions a little about himself, at least he could draw some strength and comfort from a prosperous and reassuring past.

Foucquet. It was an old Breton word that meant ‘squirrel’. The family of the young intendant had adopted the creature as its emblem. For his travelling companions from the Dauphiné – who had been so eager to express their gratitude but would soon have to turn back and leave him to continue his ignominious journey alone – it was easy to see how the intendant lived up to the traditional qualities of the animal: swift, agile, brave, resourceful, but also, in that instinct for risk, vulnerable. The general direction of a Foucquet might be up, but every now and then a disastrous slip was bound to occur.

In the wider family history, Nicolas’s recent misadventure had been the first slip for some time. Over the last hundred years or so the Foucquets had established themselves successfully in Brittany as respected merchants and magistrates. Several of Nicolas’s relatives had held high office in the Breton Parlement. It was a detail that Nicolas’s travelling companions, seeking to understand him, might well have found significant. Like their own province, Brittany had a long, proud history of independence. The duchy may formally have become part of France over a hundred years previously, but it continued to assert a considerable degree of autonomy, which its own Parlement jealousy guarded.*

Yet the more Nicolas talked about his family, as the tiny carriage rattled along the banks of the Isère, the more it must also have become apparent how hard that family had worked to identify with the prevailing power. Nicolas’s father, François, who had been born in 1587, was orphaned as a small child and brought up by his uncle Christophe, who was President à Mortier in the Parlement at Rennes. It was one of the most important judicial offices in the province, but the Foucquets were already setting their sights on the capital. Christophe supported his nephew through his law studies and in 1609 used his influence to secure for him an office as a counsellor to the Parlement of Paris. Already in the capital was François’s other uncle, Isaac, who was a chaplain to Henry IV. A year later François contracted an extremely advantageous marriage to the twenty-year-old Marie de Maupeou, whose father, Gilles de Maupeou, was Controller-General of Finances in Henry IV’s government. The Foucquet family had taken its place in the very highest echelons of the French establishment.

François and Marie Foucquet were a favoured couple, cushioned by privilege, yet at the same time winning universal respect through conduct so clearly inspired by their devotion to Christ, even in this extremely religious age, when a sense of the divine was powerfully present in most people’s lives. Their faith could be traced in their practical charity. One of the more striking of the several seventeenth-century churches that line the rue Saint-Antoine in Paris is Sainte-Marie-des-Anges, with its massive but elegant dome that provided a model for the dome of the Invalides. Built by the architect François Mansart for the nuns of the order of the Visitation of Saint Mary, the church received much of its funding from François and Marie Foucquet, who engaged actively with the order.

The nuns of the Visitation called themselves the Visitandines, because their mission was to visit the poor and sick. Their patron was one of the great figures of the Counter-Reformation, Saint Vincent de Paul. Through an irresistible mixture of charm, energy and practical common sense this priest, who had started out as a shepherd in the Landes in south-west France, had established a network of confraternities and missions that brought aid to the destitute throughout France. Madame Foucquet became in 1634 one of his ‘Ladies of Charity’, a group of high-born women whom the priest organised to aid the sick in Paris’s most notorious hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu.

Situated on the Île de la Cité, near Notre-Dame, the Hôtel-Dieu made Bedlam seem like a place of quiet repose. Diderot gives a description of it in the Encyclopédie: ‘Imagine a long series of interconnected wards filled with every kind of patient, sometimes packed three, four, five, or six into a bed, the living alongside the dead and dying, the air polluted by this mass of sick bodies, passing the pestilential germs of their afflictions from one to the other, and the spectacle of suffering and agony on every hand. That is the Hôtel-Dieu.’3 Often those patients who were lucky enough to leave the place alive returned home with even worse diseases than when they had entered.

Working here demanded real commitment. In spite of the dangers to her own health – two Ladies of Charity died in the course of their duties – Marie made regular visits to the hospital, comforting the sick but also working hard to be of real practical assistance. She watched the patients carefully, noting the medicines that seemed to bring some genuine relief and those – by far the majority – which did not. She then went away and, on the basis of her observation, concocted her own remedies. Soon she had developed a therapeutic skill that made her far more effective than the Augustinian nuns who were the official nurses in the hospital.

Many years later, after her death, Marie’s health potions and cures would be collected together into a book, Selected Remedies, Tried and Tested against Common Ills, Both Internal and External. Reprinted many times, it was one of the bestsellers of the age. The preface to one of the later editions (1682) observed: ‘If public acclaim and the number of previous editions provide a reliable index of merit, then we can say that no modern work on medicine is better than this one.’

Marie’s endeavours seem all the more extraordinary when one learns that over a period of three decades she gave birth to fifteen children, twelve of whom survived into adulthood.

The first child – who as the eldest son was named François after his father – was born in 1611, and the last, Gilles, in 1637. Nicolas, the second son, was born in 1615. All her six daughters became nuns, most of them joining the ranks of the Visitation. Founded by Saint Vincent de Paul’s close friend and supporter the bishop and future saint François de Sales in 1610, the order shared Marie’s view that Christians should show a commitment to God not through contemplation and prayer alone but through the performance of good deeds that made a difference in the world. De Sales had wanted – in a departure from the then conventional notion that nuns should be totally cloistered – to encourage spirituality among women who remained a part of everyday society.

The path to Christian perfection was to make the world better, not to run away from it. One of the positive developments of the Catholic revival was a more benign concept of the relationship between man and God. Not everyone could endure hard beds or lengthy fasts, but their reluctance to undergo such mortification did not mean they were less capable of honouring God or less deserving of his love. Such enlightened thinking made it possible for the spirit of God to permeate through secular life. Indeed, sincerely devoted to alleviating the suffering of the poor as the convent of the Visitation was, it operated at the same time as a kind of finishing school, which the daughters of some of the most wealthy families in France attended.

As practical Christians, the Foucquets were also keen supporters of the Jesuit order, which strove to make religious faith an integral part of temporal life. Part of the appeal of the Jesuits lay in the way they seemed to know how to resolve the inherent tensions between earthly and divine obligations; they encouraged the same practical engagement with life that Marie taught her children at home.

Seventeenth-century commentators are unanimous in suggesting that Marie was one of the most admired women of her time. The great chronicler of the reign of Louis XIV, the duc de Saint-Simon, praised ‘the virtue, courage and extraordinary piety of this lady, mother of the poor’.4 And Saint Vincent de Paul himself observed: ‘If by some misfortune the Gospel had been lost, one would find its spirit and principles in the conduct and beliefs of Madame Foucquet.’5

It is perhaps scarcely surprising that Nicolas should have carried some of his mother’s principles with him into the Dauphiné. He was only thirty years old. An upbringing, in which his mother had taught her children that the struggle for Good was the chief purpose of our time on earth, remained a key formative experience. His adult self had yet to be tempered by all those compromises and deceits that are euphemistically called ‘lessons of life’. In future years Nicolas’s engagement with the world might cause him to neglect many of Marie Foucquet’s principles, but the roots of what she had imparted remained there as strong as ever, ready when needed to grow anew.

If the turbulent weeks he passed in the Dauphiné revealed a bedrock humanity, perhaps even more noteworthy was the astonishing courage and vitality with which he battled to redeem himself after his disgrace. An experience that would have demoralised most people seemed on the contrary to galvanise him, so that he was able to turn a major personal setback into a victory.

Nicolas’s travelling companions were still with him when his carriage reached Romans two days later, a town close to the end of the Isère valley. They could not possibly have known it then, but they would pay dearly for their decision to escort him. It would have been wiser if they had marked their gratitude with a warm handshake and farewell embrace back in Grenoble.

In Romans, Nicolas received a message from the Bishop of Valence, to whom he had written before setting off on his illfated trip to the Languedoc. The Bishop didn’t yet know that the intendant had been dismissed. He was writing to request urgent assistance. All his efforts to reason with the people, as Nicolas had suggested, had proved fruitless. Valence itself was now sliding into chaos. A group of angry women were inciting a rebellion against the taxes. Armed with pitchforks and pikes, they had forced some tax collectors to take refuge in the citadel and they were now rampaging through the city.

Valence was just ten miles to the south-west of Romans, at the point where the Isère joined the River Rhône. As the Governor of the province, François de Lesdiguières, was still in Paris and the new intendant had yet to arrive, Nicolas decided to act as though he were still the intendant. Sending his carriage on ahead to Tournon, a town further north on the Rhône – from where he could eventually resume his journey to Paris – he headed in the opposite direction towards Valence, riding with his companions as fast as possible on horseback.


On Sale
Oct 20, 2008
Page Count
352 pages
Da Capo Press

Charles Drazin

About the Author

Charles Drazin edited the literary journals of John Fowles. He teaches film studies at the University of London and has written numerous books about film. He lives in London.

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