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Baron de Breteuil

Louis-Auguste le Tonnelier, baron de Breteuil (1730 - 1807) A French aristocrat, statesman and politician. He was the last Prime Minister of the Bourbon Monarchy, appointed by Louis XVI only one hundred hours before the Fall of the Bastille.

He was born into a well-connected aristocratic family in 1730, one of his relations was confessor to the king's cousin and another was the famed mathematician and linguist Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet-Laumont. He received an excellent education in Paris and later joined the army, where he fought in the Seven Years War. In 1758 he left the army and joined the French Foreign Ministry. He was quickly appointed French ambassador to Cologne, where he proved to have excellent diplomatic skills.

Between 1760 and 1783, Breteuil was French ambassador to Russia, Sweden, Holland, the Naples and [[Austria]. In Sweden, he became a favourite friend of the young King Gustavus III, but Catherine the Great of Russia disliked him. Others saw Breteuil as a loud and impulsive fool, Joseph II and several high-ranking Austrian politicians sneered at the "fool" behind closed doors.

After he returned to France, Breteuil was appointed Minister of the King's Household. He was a liberal and humanitarian minister, and succeeded in moderating the censorship laws. He believed passionately that the monarchy should encourage intellectuals, not view them as enemies.

Breteuil's time as Household Minister corresponded with the infamous Affair of the Necklace, which pitted him against his enemy, the Cardinal du Rohan. Breteuil's loyalty to Queen Marie Antoinette earned him her gratitude and trust at this difficult time. Unfortunately, Breteuil underestimated the strength of public symapthy for the villains of the case and his reckless attack on Rohan left the Queen open to public humiliation.

On 24th July 1788, Breteuil resigned. He had become exhausted by the struggle for power on the King's Council. He resigned and then asked to be allowed to say farewell to the queen. Marie-Antoinette bore him no ill-will, and she promised to help him in future if she could.

As France became increasingly unstable, Breteuil retired to his chateau at Dangu. Breteuil was disgusted with French politics at the time, and he remained absolutely loyal to the Monarchy, despite his liberal views on social culture. He complained that "anybody who dares to stand up for the old ways is despised" and claimed that "we are rushing like madmen to our destruction."

Breteuil was contacted by conservative members of the queen's circle in 1789. He agreed to become Prime Minister once they had ousted Jacques Necker from the post. Necker was popular, but royalists saw him as a dangerous publicity-seeker and a radical. A carefully orchestrated plan was drawn-up by Breteuil, the duchesse de Polignac, the King's brother the Comte d'Artois and with the support of Marie-Antoinette. Unfortunately, unable to restrain his hatred for Necker, the Comte d'Artois rushed ahead with the plan too early. Necker was dismissed weeks before Breteuil believed he should be. Breteuil was appointed Prime Minister on 12th July 1789. In retaliation, the Bastille was stormed on the 14th.

In such dangerous times, many prominent royalists were forced to flee France. The duchesse de Polignac escaped to Switzerland and Louis XVI sent his brother the Comte d'Artois to save him from assassination. Breteuil went first to a spa in Germany before journeying to Switzerland.

The French Royal Family were placed under house arrest in October. Hysterical hatred and violence surrounded them on all sides and with good reason, the Queen now feared for her family's life. Her husband was suffering from acute clinical depression and could therefore not provide affirmative leadership. To Marie-Antoinete's horror and disgust, Artois (living in Italy) then appointed the Vicomte de Calonne to his council. Marie-Antoinette despised Calonne, and his appointment was the end of her friendship with her brother-in-law. She was convinced that he could no longer be trusted to preserve the monarchy's best interests. It was Marie-Antoinette's decision, therefore, that Breteuil be appointed Prime Minister-in-exile. Louis XVI supported her in this move, but it was Marie-Antoinette who took the initiative and formalised Breteuil's appointment. In effect, he was now the Royal Family's chief diplomat abroad.

It was Breteuil who helped organise the Royal Family's escape from Paris in 1791, garnering support from King Gustavus III of Sweden. The attempt almost succeeded, but was foiled at the last minute by a vigilant republican post-master. It was also Breteuil who negotiated with the monarchies of Europe to persuade them to fight the French Revolution.

His attempts were ultimately in vain. The Monarchy in France was overthrown in 1792, followed by horrific massacres of many royalists in Paris. In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed. In October, Marie-Antoinette met a similar fate. In 1795, their son, Louis XVII died in prison.

Breteuil spent the next decade in exile. His loyalty to the Monarchy had ended with the death of the little boy-king in 1795. He was hated by Louis XVI's two surviving brothers, particularly by the the Comte d'Artois.

Breteuil was allowed to return to France in the 1800s by Napoleon Bonaparte, having made his peace with the Napoleonic government. He tried to urge other royalists to join him, but he was largely unsuccessful. Most preferred to stay loyal to the exiled Bourbons, who spent their time either in Russia, England, Lithuania or Scotland.

Breteuil died in France in 1807. The Monarchy was restored in 1814, but deposed again in 1830.

Breteuil's secret correspondance with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was recently discovered in an Austrian castle by British historian Dr. Munro Price. His findings were presented in his book The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and the baron de Breteuil, (somtimes titled The Road from Versailles). To date, it is the best book on Breteuil's career and his fight to save the French Monarchy.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45