Nicolas Fouquet, from the rise to the fall

Nicolas Fouquet, from the rise to the fall

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Appointed superintendent of finance by Mazarin, Nicolas Fouquet worked from 1653 to 1661 to restore the finances of the kingdom, damaged by the episode of the Fronde. Thanks to his charge, he accumulated a considerable fortune and had a magnificent castle built on his land in Vaux. Fouquet, who wanted to become "duke of Brittany and king of the adjacent islands", invited the king to Vaux-le-Vicomte, for one of the most beautiful festivals of the time. It was the drop of water that "broke the camel's back." Louis XIV, jealous and to show clearly that he is the master, must pull off a fine political coup. Fouquet was arrested on September 5, 1661, tried, then sentenced to life imprisonment in the fortress of Pignerol.

Fouquet the finance man

Fouquet was born on January 27, 1615, to a family of modest merchants from Angers, integrated into the nobility of dress in the 16th century. After studying at the College of Clermont in Paris, he climbed the ranks (master of requests, provincial intendant ...) to become attorney general at the Parliament of Paris from February 1653 while being superintendent of finance, administering alone after the death of 'Abel Servien in 1659. Before dying on March 7, 1661, Mazarin presented three valuable men to Louis XIV: Michel Le Tellier, fifty eight years old, perfect for major political and military affairs; Hugues de Lionne fifty years old, in charge of Foreign Affairs and Nicolas Fouquet forty six years superintendent of Finances.

Times are hard, money is sorely lacking in the State coffers, the monetary system is on the verge of bankruptcy, loans are multiplied from financial groups, "savings notes" are introduced and reimbursed when the business will be better, which leads to embezzlement and forgery… and as superintendent of finances, Fouquet covers these un-Catholic practices.

Through his second wife, Marie Madeleine de Castille, Fouquet is linked to financial circles. A good lawyer, an excellent orator, an art lover, he welcomes and protects artists. His hotel in Saint Mandé, then his castle in Vaux le Vicomte became the new artistic and literary salons between 1654 and 1661 ... Wishing to achieve the post of Prime Minister, he attached himself to parliamentarians, marshals and a whole network of spies ...

Mazarin, although having praised Fouquet, mentions his too great ambition "if we can take away from his head the taste for buildings and women, he will be capable of great things". Colbert, who has just been appointed intendant under the direction of Fouquet, would be at the origin of this fact ... to better monitor the "boss" !!! Fouquet’s business doesn’t help, because these two men have hated each other for three years ...

Guessing Colbert's intentions, Fouquet asks the king for an audience, who receives him at the Louvres. He first apologizes to him on the practices made in the management of affairs, assuring him that in the future he would only act in agreement with the king…. The king reassures him with "noble words. and worthy ”. He won the first part. From then on, the king charged him with secret missions in foreign affairs. Colbert watches over the grain and points to the “scandalous figures and discounts” made by Fouquet, but is careful not to show the cardinal's practices….

The wrath of the King of France

Louis XIVi felt cheated, did not accept and decided on May 4, 1661 to dismiss Fouquet after the harvest, that is to say after the last tax harvest. Each week, Colbert presents a new fact to the king: he has heard about the fortification work on the Belle-Ile estate… he sends a spy disguised as a merchant… who brings him news: Fouquet maintains a garrison of two hundred men and one impressive armament (four hundred guns, three or four warships, etc.). In mid June 1661, Louis XIV decides that Fouquet will be arrested in Nantes during the States of Brittany in September, then tried.

Despite his network of spies, Fouquet is confident he sees nothing coming! His post of attorney general at the Parliament of Paris protects him from everything ... The king then sets a trap for him: he entrusts him with the reform of Parliament and in exchange for a service (a loan of one million) offers him the coveted post chancellor. Fouquet is ready to sell his office to serve his king ...

Meanwhile, the king and Colbert finalize the arrest, but Anne of Austria must be convinced, who receives funds from Fouquet for the Val de Grâce. Colbert sends Madame de Chevreuse, the great conspirator of the Grand Siècle. Fouquet is kept informed of these intrigues, but does not believe them ... he makes a first mistake in trying to ally Mademoiselle de La Vallière: he offers her twenty thousand pistoles! Unfortunately, she denounces him to her lover.

Fouquet, on his teeth, throws himself into the mouth of the wolf: believing he is doing the right thing, he confesses to the king that his mother asked him for a loan… on August 11, he succeeded in selling his office as prosecutor… on August 17, 1661, he invites the king to a party in Vaux le Vicomte ...

Fouquet is all over!

September 1, the king arrives at the castle of Nantes, with his musketeers; the 2nd despite a malaria crisis Fouquet attends a first meeting of the council; the same evening Louis XIV summons a feverish D'Artagnan for arrest, the king then postponing the operation until September 4. On the night of the 4th, the musketeer called his company on the grounds of preparing a hunt for the king; on September 5, at the end of the Council of Ministers at around 11 a.m., the king detains Fouquet for a little while in order to check if everything is ready in the courtyard… then lets the superintendent go… who gets into his sedan chair and leaves ! D’Artagnan did not intervene immediately, awaiting confirmation from Le Tellier who was busy! When the latter finally gives him the long-awaited order, d'Artagnan accompanied by fifteen men leaves following Fouquet, whom he finds again at Place St Pierre… Fouquet is amazed and will only have these words "I was not expecting at that, I thought I was in the king's mind better than anyone in this kingdom ”.

The trial and the end of Fouquet

Fouquet is driven to Angers in a wire-mesh coach escorted by the musketeers. The king informed of the good progress of this operation, informs the courtiers ... and everything goes very quickly: the close members of Fouquet's family are exiled, others are arrested, the Belle-Ile garrison submits, Colbert has them searched and make an inventory of the residences of Fontainebleau and Saint Mandé… and comes across a document hidden behind a mirror, a sort of “defense plan”, the measures to be taken in the event that Fouquet is arrested… many of the Great of the kingdom are mentioned (chief squadron, general officers such as Créqui or de La Rochefoucauld).

On September 12, the superintendence of finances was replaced by a Royal Council of finances, entrusted to Colbert. A chamber of justice is set up chaired by Séguier to judge Fouquet.

Meanwhile, Fouquet, ill, is transferred to Vincennes. The trial opens in March 1662, Colbert organizing the whole: choice of the chamber, the presidents and the prosecutor, installation of his uncle among the judges, intimidation, blackmail and corruption ... Fouquet tries to exonerate himself, emphasizes the embezzlement of documents, falsifications of official reports… The king urges the magistrates. Fouquet's friends are struggling. Time passes, Fouquet is in a box. On November 14, 1664, the written instruction closed. The prisoner compared to the Grand Arsenal before the judges, he is accused of lese majesty and the crime of money (embezzlement of public funds). He defends himself by proving that Mazarin was responsible for the finances and by showing that there were cases of lese majesty far more serious than his ... opinion is turning in his favor ...

On December 12, 1664, the rapporteur of the tribunal gave his verdict: the accused was not a good administrator, but was not guilty of the crime of money; the state crime is unfounded ... the rapporteur calls for banishment from the kingdom and confiscation of property. Thirteen votes out of twenty two. The discontented king, turns the banishment into life imprisonment! Fouquet's fortune passed, the king thus recovered magnificent pieces and works of art and ... the entire team made up of Le Nôtre, Le Vau and Le Brun for Versailles.

D’Artagnan leads his prisoner to Pignerol. Fouquet will remain in the care of Monsieur de Saint Mars, under draconian conditions: a three-room apartment, two valets assigned to his service, ban on meeting people, writing, going out ... until 1677 when his conditions of detentions are less severe. He can then walk on the ramparts, meet Lauzun, then in 1679 receive his wife and children! But he died of a stroke on March 23, 1680 ... the Gazette de France mentions his death in two lines.

A scapegoat

After the death of Mazarin, it was necessary to designate a culprit to endorse the faults of the precedents. The king succeeded in a major political action: Fouquet had managed to become a “center”, too many people gravitated around him, Louis XIV could no longer bear it…. To break with the past, he needed something of grandiose in order to assert his superiority and be the Master, it was the arrest of Fouquet.


- J.C. Petitfils - Fouquet. Perrin, 2008.

- Fouquet, historical biography of Daniel Dessert. Fayard, 2014.

- Fouquet or the offended Sun, by Paul Morand. Folio, 1985.

Video: Vaux le Vicomte Nicolas Fouquets exhibition english subtitles


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