1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fouquet, Nicolas
FOUQUET (or Foucquet), NICOLAS (1615–1680), viscount of Melun and of Vaux, marquis of Belle-Isle, superintendent of finance in France under Louis XIV., was born at Paris in 1615. He belonged to an influential family of the noblesse de la robe, and after some preliminary schooling with the Jesuits, at the age of thirteen was admitted as avocat at the parlement of Paris. While still in his teens he held several responsible posts, and in 1636, when just twenty, he was able to buy the post of maître des requêtes. From 1642 to 1650 he held various intendancies at first in the provinces and then with the army of Mazarin, and, coming thus in touch with the court, was permitted in 1650 to buy the important position of procureur général to the parlement of Paris. During Mazarin’s exile Fouquet shrewdly remained loyal to him, protecting his property and keeping him informed of the situation at court.
Upon the cardinal’s return, Fouquet demanded and received as reward the office of superintendent of the finances (1653), a position which, in the unsettled condition of the government, threw into his hands not merely the decision as to which funds should be applied to meet the demands of the state’s creditors, but also the negotiations with the great financiers who lent money to the king. The appointment was a popular one with the moneyed class, for Fouquet’s great wealth had been largely augmented by his marriage in 1651 with Marie de Castille, who also belonged to a wealthy family of the legal nobility. His own credit, and above all his unfailing confidence in himself, strengthened the credit of the government, while his high position at the parlement (he still remained procureur général) secured financial transactions from investigation. As minister of finance, he soon had Mazarin almost in the position of a suppliant. The long wars, and the greed of the courtiers, who followed the example of Mazarin, made it necessary at times for Fouquet to meet the demands upon him by borrowing upon his own credit, but he soon turned this confusion of the public purse with his own to good account. The disorder in the accounts became hopeless; fraudulent operations were entered into with impunity, and the financiers were kept in the position of clients by official favours and by generous aid whenever they needed it. Fouquet’s fortune now surpassed even Mazarin’s, but the latter was too deeply implicated in similar operations to interfere, and was obliged to leave the day of reckoning to his agent and successor Colbert. Upon Mazarin’s death Fouquet expected to be made head of the government; but Louis XIV. was suspicious of his poorly dissembled ambition, and it was with Fouquet in mind that he made the well-known statement, upon assuming the government, that he would be his own chief minister. Colbert fed the king’s displeasure with adverse reports upon the deficit, and made the worst of the case against Fouquet. The extravagant expenditure and personal display of the superintendent served to intensify the ill-will of the king. Fouquet had bought the port of Belle Isle and strengthened the fortifications, with a view to taking refuge there in case of disgrace. He had spent enormous sums in building a palace on his estate of Vaux, which in extent, magnificence, and splendour of decoration was a forecast of Versailles. Here he gathered the rarest manuscripts, the finest paintings, jewels and antiques in profusion, and above all surrounded himself with artists and authors. The table was open to all people of quality, and the kitchen was presided over by Vatel. Lafontaine, Corneille, Scarron, were among the multitude of his clients. In August 1661 Louis XIV., already set upon his destruction, was entertained at Vaux with a fête rivalled in magnificence by only one or two in French history, at which Molière’s Les Fâcheux was produced for the first time. The splendour of the entertainment sealed Fouquet’s fate. The king, however, was afraid to act openly against so powerful a minister. By crafty devices Fouquet was induced to sell his office of procureur général, thus losing the protection of its privileges, and he paid the price of it into the treasury.
Three weeks after his visit to Vaux the king withdrew to Nantes, taking Fouquet with him, and had him arrested when he was leaving the presence chamber, flattered with the assurance of his esteem. The trial lasted almost three years, and its violation of the forms of justice is still the subject of frequent monographs by members of the French bar. Public sympathy was strongly with Fouquet, and Lafontaine, Madame de Sévigné and many others wrote on his behalf; but when Fouquet was sentenced to banishment, the king, disappointed, “commuted” the sentence to imprisonment for life. He was sent at the beginning of 1665 to the fortress of Pignerol, where he undoubtedly died on the 23rd of March 1680. Louis acted throughout “as though he were conducting a campaign,” evidently fearing that Fouquet would play the part of a Richelieu. Fouquet bore himself with manly fortitude, and composed several mediocre translations in prison. The devotional works bearing his name are apocryphal. A report of his trial was published in Holland, in 15 volumes, in 1665–1667, in spite of the remonstrances which Colbert addressed to the States-General. A second edition under the title of Œuvres de M. Fouquet appeared in 1696.
See Chéruel, Mémoires sur la vie publique et privée de Fouquet ... d’après ses lettres et des pièces inédites (2 vols., Paris, 1864); J. Lair, Nicolas Foucquet, procureur général, surintendant des finances, ministre d’État de Louis XIV (2 vols., Paris, 1890); U. V. Châtelain, Le Surintendant Nicolas Fouquet, protecteur des lettres, des arts et des sciences (Paris, 1905); R. Pfnor et A. France, Le Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte dessiné et gravé (Paris, 1888).
- Fouquet has been identified with the “Man with the Iron Mask” (see Iron Mask), but this theory is quite impossible.