Napoleon and the Pope: from the Concordat to the Excommunication

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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It should have been a marriage made in heaven. One of Napoleon’s first acts as consul was to bring religion back to France after the atheistic years of the Revolution. Pius VII, the somewhat progressive pope, saw the concordat of July 1801 as the presage of the great return. But the Organic articles (not part of the Concordat negotiations and added to the agreement without Pius’ knowledge) left the Curia with the feeling that they had been duped.1 The coronation in 1804 was attempt by Pius to win back the lost ground and also to re-initialise the relationship. But in the end, Pius found himself negotiating in the void. He returned to Rome empty-handed. From then on, Franco-Vatican relations slowly deteriorated. And for both men, it was the other’s fault.

Napoleon and the Pope: from the Concordat to the Excommunication
Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon crowning himself in the presence of the seated pope
(study for the "Sacre"), RMN-Grand Palais musée du Louvre Thierry Le Mage

In 1805, Pius was deeply exasperated by French incursion on Papal territory. Troops under Gouvion St-Cyr retreating from Calabria had been sent to occupy Ancona (a strategic port on the east coast of Italy) with the aim of preventing a British landing there during the Austerlitz campaign. On 13 November 1805, Pius (certainly aware of the result at Ulm but also possibly au fait of Trafalgar)2 was moved to write a letter of remonstrance to Napoleon. His strongly worded complaint railed at the occupation of Ancona, demanding evacuation of French troops and bemoaned Napoleon’s unwillingness to offer a quid pro quo for all the papal goodwill shown up to that date (notably Pius’s agreement to come to Paris for the coronation and consecration). Napoleon did not reply immediately. He was after all in the thick of things at Austerlitz. He finally wrote to Pius from Munich on 7 January 1806, strong after the treaty of Pressburg.3 He was angry with what he saw as the Vatican consorting with Britain and Russia, allowing agents of those two countries to operate freely in the Papal States. He called the Pope’s letter a stab in the back. Pius, he said, had given the impression that he thought Napoleon and the Empire were lost (the Emperor possibly suspected that the Pontiff knew about the naval defeat). Napoleon went on to berate the Pope for his unaccommodating attitude to France and claimed the moral and religious high ground as the ‘Church’s eldest son’.4 The French Emperor also wrote to Cardinal Fesch on the same day calling the P’ope’s letter ‘ridiculous and senseless’ and encouraging his uncle and French ambassador to the Holy See to communicate his letter to the Vatican. This upping of the diplomatic ante brought about a conciliatory reply from the Pope (dated 29 January), but the latter did not renounce his aim of ensuring French evacuation of Ancona; and he even went so far as to demand that France hand over Venice to the Vatican.5 This polite intransigence led Napoleon to an even stronger reply, dated 13 February.6 He told the Pontiff in no uncertain terms that though the Holy Father may be spiritual head of the Church, political matters and notably Italian matters were under Napoleon’s control. In a remark censored by the editors of Napoleon’s correspondence during the Second Empire, Napoleon made clear his vision of the political/spiritual relationship between France and the Papacy: “Your Holiness is sovereign in Rome, his relations with me are the same as those your predecessors with Charlemagne. You are sovereign in Rome, but I am its Emperor.” He exhorted the Holy Father to put aside dealings with “heretical” Britain and “extra-ecclesial” Russia, which could not protect the Holy See nor harm it. The French Emperor furthermore demanded that the Pope expel any Sardinian, British, Russian or Swedish agents living in the Papal States. As he had done a month earlier, Napoleon then wrote a parallel letter to his ambassador, Fesch, dated the following day.7 In this he dictated the famous threat to the Vatican, namely: “Tell them that I have my eyes open. That I am only fooled inasmuch as I let myself be fooled. That I am Charlemagne, the sword of the Church and their Emperor. And that I should be treated as such. […] I have briefly laid out my intentions. If he does not reply, I shall reduce him to the condition of his predecessors before Charlemagne.”8 Pius’s answer (dated 21 March 1806) was serene: “I reply with apostolic frankness that the Holy Father […] does not recognise and has never recognised, in his states, any power superior to his own, and that no emperor has any rights over Rome”. The institution of the Imperial catechism in the same month did nothing to defuse the conflict. Franco-Vatican relations had reached stalemate. And yet Napoleon could not do without the Catholic church. Indeed he was all too aware of what she brought him in terms of internal politics. As he noted in 1806: “Catholic priests are a great help; they were the reason why conscription this year worked much better than in previous years… No other state body speaks as well as they do regarding the government.”9

The conflict was to escalate seriously over the following two years with Napoleon gradually appropriating Papal lands. The pressure on Pius was increased to such an extent that at the beginning of 1808, he was forced to react. But since he had no other weapons at his command, Pius fell back upon a policy of inertia; in other words he began refusing to invest certain bishops nominated by Napoleon. Irritated by this administrative blocking tactics, Napoleon for his part decided on force. On 2 February,1808, Rome was occupied by French troops and on 2 April 1808, Napoleon decreed that the papal territories of Urbino, Ancona, Macerata and Camerino were ‘irrevocably’ part of ‘my kingdom in Italy’. And finally in the following year (May 1809), Napoleon published the decree annexing Rome to the Grand Empire. With the Pontiff’s lands now seized, all that was left for the Holy Father was his spiritual domain and his palaces, initially the Quirinal and then Pontifical palaces, into the latter of which the pope finally retreated. And for a protest, the Pope took the drastic step of excommunication. But it was a timid excommunication. Whilst the bull Quum memoranda (in the night of 10-11 June 1809) excommunicated all those who “usurp, encourage, advise or perform” violation of the temporal sovereignty of the Holy See, Napoleon, the usurper, encourager and advisor, was not explicitly named. He did however understand. On hearing of the bull of excommunication Napoleon wrote an angry letter first to Murat (19 June 1809): “If the Pope preaches revolt, then you must arrest him”.10 He then wrote to Miollis and once again to Murat. In the first letter, the Emperor ordered the military governor of the city to lock up all those who infringed public law and order, even those in the Pope’s household, and in the second he wrote that Pope was mad and that he ought to be locked away. It is true that these letters are aggressive, but they do not amount to ordering the kidnapping of the Holy Father. But that was indeed the result. On the night of 5-6 July 1809, General Radet with a small force entered the Vatican with a mission to arrest Cardinal Pacca and kidnap the Pope.

Radet’s men took with them ropes, ladders, axes and some locksmiths, and they had bribed an ex-papal servant (he had been sacked for stealing) to guide them through the labyrinthine passageways of the Vatican palace. Once the Pope had turned out the light in his chamber (at about 2am), the papal guard stood down and French forces went into action. But it was not to go smoothly. Some of the ladders used by Radet’s men broke noisily, waking the guard and spoiling the element of surprise. What followed was complete confusion: a papal servant rang an alarm bell; a group of soldiers who had entered through a window let the main body of French troops into the palace; the Pope’s Swiss Guard abandoned the papal chambers; and soldiers began ransacking the palace. After a long while the Pope rose from his bed and went to his public audience chamber, accompanied by Cardinals Pacca and Despuig. Radet was then let into that room with his men and, after a brief conversation with the Pontiff, he led the Pope into captivity. When later asked how he felt arresting the Pope, Radet remarked that it had all been business as usual until he set eyes on the Holy Father. “At that moment,” he remarked, “my first communion flashed before my eyes!”11

When he heard about it, Napoleon was furious. In a letter to Fouché he expressed his frustration, stating that the arrest of the Pope was absolute madness. But the deed was done. And Napoleon was not to be so unhappy as to wish to release the Pontiff, for he was to keep him under house arrest for the next five years, first in Savona (1809-1812) and then in Fontainebleau (1812-1814). However in the long battle of wills between Napoleon and Pius VII – in which the excommunication and abduction were in the end only the mid-point – it was the Pontiff who would triumph in the end.


1. Two major sticking points in the Organic Articles were the fact that they put other denominations and religions on the same level as Catholicism with regard to the State, and that they permitted divorce.
2. See D'Haussonville, L'Eglise Romaine et le Premier Empire, Paris: Lévy, tom. 2, p. 64-66. News of this had reached Paris in the first week of November, and the results were known in Italy possibly even before Paris – an engraving was published in Tuscany and sent to Paris in December 1805, see Peter Hicks, The Trafalgar Chronicle, 2007, "A harsh but necessary apprenticeship. New French accounts and a previously unknown sketch of the Battle of Trafalgar", p.42-52.
3. Correspondance générale de Napoléon, Paris: Fayard, 2009, no. 11,268.
4. Reference to the France's traditional title as the 'Church's eldest daughter'.
5. D'Haussonville, L'Eglise Romaine et le Premier Empire, Paris: Lévy, tom. 2, p. 81-85
6. Correspondance générale de Napoléon, Paris: Fayard, 2009, no. 11,445. 
7. For questions regarding the dating of this letter, see ibid. note 1.
8. Correspondance générale de Napoléon, Paris: Fayard, 2009, no. 11,450.
9. « Les prêtres catholiques sont d'un grand secours ; ils ont été cause que la conscription de cette année a été beaucoup mieux que celle des années précedentes… Aucun corps de l'Etat ne parle aussi bien qu'eux du gouvernement. » Quoted in Bernardine Melchior-Bonnet, Napoléon et le Pape, Paris: Amiot Dumont, 1958, p. 87.
10. « Si le Pape […] prêche la révolte […] on doit l'arrêter. » Quoted in Bernardine Melchior-Bonnet, Napoléon et le Pape, Paris: Amiot Dumont, 1958, p. 122.
11. « Dès ce moment là, he remarked, ma première communion m'est apparue! » Quoted in Bernardine Melchior-Bonnet, Napoléon et le Pape, Paris: Amiot Dumont, 1958, p. 126.

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