Friday, February 3, 2012

February 20, 1798 – Pius VI Escapes the French

The Catholic Church in France had become one of the casualties of the French Revolution as Hébert and his followers sought to replace it with the Cult of Reason. In 1789, the Church lost its political power to tax and then all property, which was auctioned to the public. The next year, a constitution was written for the French clergy, and Pope Pius VI spent eight months pondering it before ultimately denouncing it. French priests became split, those signing it being dubbed “jurors” while “non-juring” priests refused. Non-juring priests and those who protected them were susceptible to forced emigration to French Guiana, fines, imprisonment, conscription, and execution. The power of the Church quickly decreased as symbols and public worship were outlawed, even to the point of replacing the calendar of saints’ days with the new Republican one. While most of the oppression ended with Robespierre’s execution, only a limited return of the Church came after the legalization of worship in 1795.

Meanwhile, the center of the Church became threatened as French troops stormed Italy under the young and ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte, creating republics in his wake. Papal forces were defeated, and Pius VI agreed to a peace that would last only a few months before riots that killed a member of the French embassy led General Louis-Alexandre Berthier to march on Rome itself. On February 10, 1798, the French demanded an end to the Papal States and the Pope’s political power, and Pius VI refused. As they made to move Pius VI to Siena under guard, the Pope managed to escape through the use of double agents. He fled to southern Italy where King Ferdinand IV still held the Kingdom of Naples. There, Pius published his papal bull denouncing French military actions and calling all Catholics to rise against France to find justice for a decade of murders of priests and nuns, along with some 30,000 priests forcibly deported. The French pursued him and conquered Naples, though they were overthrown by a peasant rebellion. Ferdinand IV returned to the throne, but Pius had escaped to Vienna, and the political damage against France was done.

The bull caused an uproar in Spain, which was currently a French ally under treaties negotiated by then-Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy. He had fallen out of favor in 1797 with the queen and much of the country and was shifted to the military as Captain-General. When the bull was announced, Godoy’s notions of war with Britain came to an end, and Spain canceled its treaties with France. Instead, they began funding popular uprisings in south central and western France, where the Church was still fairly popular. The Directory in Paris hurried to put down the protests, using French soldiers against citizens, which only spread unrest as many feared a return to the Terror.

The country became a vacuum ready for change. The Directory was unpopular, and the greatest hero of the war, Napoleon, was in Egypt, bottled up by the British Royal Navy. Upon the return of former clergyman Emmanual Joseph Sieyès from an unsuccessful bid at pulling Prussia into the war on France’s side, he was made Director in May of 1799. He called up popular general Barthélemy Catherine Joubert, who had been managing Italy as commander-in-chief before resigning in January due disputes with local civic leaders. The two led a coup d'état that overthrew the Directory and prompted a new triumvirate headed by Sieyès. Napoleon arrived unannounced from Egypt in October, months too late to participate in the new government, and was dispatched back to the Middle East, where he would be captured and humiliatingly repatriated to France aboard English ships. Gradually, war began to slow, and peace was signed in 1802 with the Treaty of Amiens. The political sweeps Sieyès performed satisfied the Church, and France welcomed the new Pope Pius VII on a tour.

Although diplomacy in Europe remained tense, particularly with English suspicion of France after their expedition to Haiti returned it as a colony (but held onto Enlightenment ideals refusing a return to slavery), no one seemed willing to start another war in Europe. France and Britain soon had another colonial war over Malta, resulting in a wider war that involved the United States of America as both France and the Americans tried to expand their colonial holdings while the British continued to occupy forts outside of treaties. Ultimately the war would affirm British naval superiority, but it would not be enough to create William Pitt’s dream of a Europe diplomatically led by Britain.

After a generation, the French Republic was considered firmly instituted in Europe and fueled the ideals of republicanism and, as the nineteenth century continued, nationalism. Under internal pressure, the Holy Roman Empire collapsed, fracturing into nation-states while old kingdoms such as Italy became unified. Spain managed to hold onto its overseas empire for decades until the Third Spanish-American War (the first two losing Florida and then Tejas) culminated with the recognition of a number of republics that had struggled to confirm independence. France, meanwhile, led its own confederation of republican colonies in Africa and around the world.


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In reality, Pius VI was escorted under French guard to Siena. He died under French arrest August 29, 1799, and his body was held until buried in a grandiose display by Napoleon in hopes of reconfirming the Church to his national rule. Pope Pius VII eventually excommunicated Napoleon in 1809, but it did little to diminish his popularity as emperor.

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