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Napoleon Seizes the Pope: July 6, 1809


Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord had until 1807 been Napoleon’s minister of foreign affairs. To Talleyrand, the emperor had entrusted negotiations with the pope and other diplomatic missions. Yet Napoleon had never trusted Talleyrand (whom he had called a “turd in a silk stocking”) and so had finally dismissed him from the ministry. Insulted and resentful — and moreover, in deep disagreement with Napoleon’s policies — Talleyrand contemplated treachery.

Reports that Talleyrand had been meeting frequently with Fouché, the head of the secret police, had brought Napoleon back to Paris. If those two were friends, thought Napoleon, trouble was brewing. Calling Talleyrand before him, Napoleon berated him. “You are a thief, a coward, a man without honor,” said the emperor. “You do not believe in God; you have all your life been a traitor to your duties . . . You deserve that I should smash you like a wineglass. I can do it, but I despise you too much to take the trouble.” But though he mistrusted Talleyrand, Napoleon kept him as one of his advisors. Talleyrand, however, did not forget the emperor’s insult.

Emperor Franz I

Meanwhile, Austria and Great Britain had been forming a new coalition. The French disasters in Spain and the continuing presence of large numbers of French troops there convinced Emperor Franz I that he could regain what he had lost in Germany. So, on April 9, Austria and Great Britain formed the Fifth Coalition, and the Austrian army prepared for an invasion of Bavaria.

In Paris on April 12, Napoleon learned that the Austrians had crossed the River Inn and entered Bavaria. As ever, he wasted no time but began gathering his widely separated armies and moving them into Germany. Only five days later, Napoleon was in his camp at Donäuwurth in Bavaria.

During April, Napoleon beat the Austrians in battle after battle — at Abensberg, Landshut, and Eckmühl. On April 23, Napoleon ordered the storming of Regensburg and took the city despite the brave resistance of the Austrian cavalry. Finally, on May 3, Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Ebelsberg and forced them to cross to the north side of the Danube. Vienna, Austria’s capital, now lay open to Napoleon. On May 13, writing from the Schönbrunn Palace in the Austrian capital, the French emperor boasted, “We are master of Vienna.”

Emperor Napoleon

Though the war was far from over, at Schönbrunn Napoleon enjoyed a brief break from fighting. He now could turn his mind to matters he had been neglecting — and one of these was the pope. On May 17, Napoleon decreed that the pope no longer deserved to rule, because he had abused his temporal authority — which, Napoleon said, the popes had received from Charlemagne, “our august predecessor.” The pope’s temporal power, said Napoleon, was forever abolished; the Papal States were to be joined to the French Empire.

On June 10, 1809, General Miollis in Rome published Napoleon’s decree abolishing the pope’s government. He then ordered the lowering of the flag displaying the papal arms over Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome and the raising of the French tricolor flag. Pope Pius VII first learned of the decree from his secretary of state, Cardinal Bartolomeo Pacca. Pacca delivered the long-expected news, and both he and the pope exclaimed, Consummatum est! –-“It is finished.”

The pope had known that Napoleon’s decree would come and, at Pacca’s urging, had already prepared a response. He would use the most powerful weapon he possessed, excommunication.

Soon after the decree abolishing the pope’s rule had been published, copies of a papal bull began to appear throughout Rome. Some with astonishment, others in fear, and still others with rejoicing read the document declaring that the Supreme Pontiff and Vicar of Christ, Pius VII, had excommunicated the emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, for violating the rights of the Church. “We pray,” the bull said, “that those men will come to see that according to the law of Christ they are subject to our throne, and are placed under our supremacy. For we also have a kingdom and a far better one, and it would be absurd to say that the spirit must obey the flesh, the heavenly obey the earthly.”

But excommunication or no excommunication, the earthly power was not about to obey the heavenly one. Upon learning of the bull on June 20, Napoleon sat down and wrote to the king of Naples, Joachim Murat. “So, the pope has aimed an excommunication against me,” wrote Napoleon. “No more half measures; he is a raving lunatic who must be confined.”

So, at 3 o’clock on the morning of July 6, 1809, French soldiers surrounded the Quirinal in Rome. The pope, knowing what would come, had ordered the Swiss guards not to resist; and so no struggle announced the coming of the enemy. After learning that the palace was surrounded, the Spanish Cardinal Despuigs y Dameto went to inform the pope. Entering the papal apartment, Despuigs found Pius already awake. Turning to the cardinal, Pius said, “It’s all over with us now.” Seeing Pius was afraid, the stouthearted Despuigs replied, “Your Holiness knows that today is the octave of the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. People expect that Your Holiness will give an example of courage.”

Pope Pius VII

“Your Eminence is right,” the pope replied.

Meanwhile, forcing his way into the palace, the French General Radet ordered his men to break down the pope’s door. Upon entering the room, he found the pope at his desk, surrounded by several cardinals. At first overcome with awe (he later said seeing the pope made him recall his first Communion), Radet recovered himself enough to demand that the pope abdicate. Pius replied that he would not and could not give up the authority he had from God. Radet then gave the pope and Cardinal Pacca two hours to prepare themselves for a journey. A carriage was to take them to General Miollis, he said.

But Radet had lied. The carriage carrying himself, the pope, and Cardinal Pacca did not go to Miollis, but passed out of the city gates and into the open country. The pope was going into exile; where, he did not know. He could not say what sufferings lay ahead, but he was at peace. He and Pacca had left Rome with very few belongings and almost no money. When they counted what was in their purses, they found it came to only 35 baiocchi -- a very small sum. Turning to Radet with a self-mocking smile, the pope showed him the handful of coins. “There, you see,” he told the general. “This is what is left to me of my kingdom.”

And While the Powers Fought…

The Austrian composer, Franz Joseph Haydn, died in May of 1809, not long after Napoleon occupied Vienna. Haydn was living at the time in Vienna, and it is said that as Napoleon attacked the city, the composer comforted his servants, saying, “My children, have no fear, for where Haydn is, no harm can fall.” This piece is a performance of Haydn's famous oratorio, The Creation, which he composed between 1796 and 1798. It is sung in English.

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