Napoleon and Pope Pius VII showed a willingness to compromise early in their reigns, but all warmth between the two rulers eventually faded when the French ruler’s authoritarian streak got in the way of peace. The pope’s hopes for a lasting peace with France ended when Napoleon annexed the Papal States in 1809. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History during that time.
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France and the Papal States: The Rule of the Practical Men
Napoleon Bonaparte finally overthrew the Directory in a coup d’etat on November 10, 1799. He replaced it with a Consulate and declared himself France’s supreme ruler or First Consul. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes and Roger Ducos became Napoleon’s provisional second and third consuls.
The imprisoned Pope Pius VI died more than two months before Napoleon became France’s First Consul. With the protection of the Habsburgs, the College of Cardinals held a conclave in Venice to elect a new pope. On March 14, 1800, the College elected a Benedictine cardinal named Barnaba Chiaramonti as the new pope. He took the name Pius VII in honor of his predecessor.
After his coronation, Pope Pius VII sailed for Rome aboard a barely serviceable Austrian ship. In spite of the misgivings of some of his advisers, he soon sent an emissary to France to negotiate a conciliation with Napoleon. The First Consul readily agreed to the pope’s overtures although he did not hold the Church in high esteem. His first motivation was to bring the refractory priests back into the fold and gain their support for his rule. He also wanted the Church to renounce its claims on confiscated lands, as well as assure the people who bought them that the properties would remain in their hands.
After a series of negotiations, Napoleon and Pope Pius VII finally reached a Concordat in 1801. The Roman Catholic Church was reinstated in France and was recognized by the Consulate as the religion of the majority of the French people. In exchange, however, the Church would allow the state to nominate bishops. Once approved by the pope, the bishops were then required to swear allegiance to the government and to obey the state’s laws. The pope also agreed to recognize the claims of the buyers of lands confiscated from the Church. Napoleon agreed to recognize the Papal States but refused to return the territories of Romagna, Bologna, and Ferrara.
Napoleon was an authoritarian at heart, so he amended the Concordat without the pope’s knowledge. The First Consul added the Organic Articles and implemented the amended Concordat in 1802. With these amendments, the Catholic Church in France came under the total control of the state. All letters, decrees, and representatives had to receive the Consul’s approval before they became valid. The pope was outraged, but there was nothing he could do to reverse this.
Napoleon proclaimed himself the emperor of France in 1804. Although he had the support of the Senate and the public, he still sought the legitimacy that only Pope Pius VII could give. The pope had has misgivings, but he agreed to set them aside and allowed himself to be convinced to come to Napoleon’s coronation in Paris.
A Battle of Wills: Napoleon Takes the Papal Lands
Any warmth (if ever there was any) between Napoleon and the pope gradually disappeared as the Coalition Wars raged on. In 1805, retreating French troops reoccupied Ancona. The pope immediately sent a letter to the emperor protesting the French occupation and imploring him to withdraw the troops. Napoleon replied by accusing the pope of allowing Swedish, Sardinian, Russian, and British agents to work freely in the Papal States despite the goodwill he had shown earlier to the Catholic Church. Despite their mutual hostility, both men knew that they owed a lot to each other and that they needed each other. They spent the next two years trying to browbeat each other into submission by exchanging scathing and self-aggrandizing letters.
Napoleon continued to seize lands that belonged to the pope, forcing Pius to retaliate in a passive-aggressive way. To punish the emperor, the pope refused to confirm the appointment of bishops Napoleon nominated. Napoleon responded by sending General Miollis and the French troops to Rome on February 2, 1808. He followed it up by annexing the papal lands (Urbino, Camerino, Ancona, and Macerata) into his dominion in Italy on April 2, 1808.
Not content with his accomplishment, he then decreed the annexation of Rome to his empire on May 17, 1809. With his earthly realm gone, the pope was forced to retreat to the Quirinal Palace and become nothing more than the Catholics’ spiritual leader. In a fit of impotent rage, he issued the papal bull Quum memoranda condemning and excommunicating any person who usurped the pope’s authority. Although the pope did not write his name on the document, Napoleon took the hint and retaliated. He directed his brother-in-law and king of Naples Joachim Murat to arrest the pope in case he tried to instigate a rebellion. He also wrote a letter to General Miollis suggesting that the pope should be locked up.
Despite his master not explicitly ordering the pope’s arrest, the French general Radet and his men went ahead and kidnapped the pope during the early morning hours of July 6, 1809. The Swiss Guards stationed in the Quirinal Palace were soon overpowered by the French forces. The pope was then forced to leave his chambers and surrender to General Radet. The general rued the arrest upon seeing the pope.
Napoleon was quick to distance himself from the kidnapping when news of the events in Rome broke out. This, however, did not mean that he did not capitalize on it. The pope spent the next five years in house arrest in Savona and in Fontainebleau.
Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850. New York: Norton, 1977.
Carson, H.M., Peter Toon, and C.T. McIntire. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI:
Hicks, Peter. “Napoleon and the Pope: from the Concordat to the Excommunication.” Napoleon.org. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/articles/napoleon-and-the-pope-from-the-concordat-to-the-excommunication/.
Walsh, John. The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 9: War and Peace in an Age of Upheaval, 1793-1830. Edited by C.W. Crawley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
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