Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself

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Religion in Napoleonic France

Part III: Religious Goals of the Two Emperors

By Matthew Zarzecny, FINS

Niklas Vogt (1756-1836), a Catholic professor at Mainz in Germany and an important figure of the late Enlightenment, initially backed Napoleon I.† In Vogtís political opinion, Napoleon I succeeded Gustavus Adolphus in pursuing the project of territorially consolidating a monarchical, federative, and united Germany within a broader restructuring of the European state system, while battling against the outdated despotism of the ancien rťgime.† As referenced earlier, the First Empire directly included the entire west bank of the Rhine, while much of the remainder of Germany existed as a French protectorate known as the Confederation of the Rhine.† Napoleon Iís vision of religion in a European Empire had a considerable impact on these satellite German states, in which, after destroying the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, Napoleon I sought to rebuild traditional institutions, especially in the Grand Duchy of Baden, which included portions of the bishoprics of Constance, Basel, Strasbourg, and Speyer.[39]† Vogtís eventual disenchantment with Napoleon I did not alter his conviction that Napoleon I had created the possibility of a fundamental political and territorial reorganization of Germany.[40]† Westenrieder seconded this argument by also comparing Napoleon I to Gustavus Adolphus as the leading example of a conqueror who aimed at the complete transformation of the political situation in Germany.[41]

The popeís attendance at Napoleon Iís coronation and Napoleon Iís summons of a national council of French and Italian bishops in Paris illustrate how Napoleon I ís ultimate religious objectives went beyond the aspirations of Charlemagne and Gustavus Adolphus, to a revival of the Caesaro-Papism of Constantine I the Great and Justinian I the Great.[42]† The thesis of douard Driault, presented in Napolťon et líEurope (1917-27), suggests that ďthe Roman idealĒ chiefly motivated Napoleon Iís ambition.† More than fifty years earlier, Edgar Quinet had similarly argued that Napoleon I strove for the resurrection of a type of universal Roman monarchy and that Napoleon I agreed to the Concordat with Pius VII as a necessary preparatory step in the fulfillment of this throwback to antiquity.† Nevertheless, Driault developed the analogy in much greater depth, reasoning that the analogy implied not just the conquest and assimilation of the whole of Italy under French rule, which Napoleon I actually achieved, but also the creation of a more extensive French empire in the Mediterranean basin.† Certainly, Napoleon I directly showed his dominance of Catholic Italy by first decreasing the popeís territory in 1797 with the Treaty of Tolentino and then by outright annexing Rome itself and making the Eternal City the capital of the French department of the Tiber in 1809.[43]† As Geoffrey Ellis suggests, apparently the emperor wanted each of his subjects to be able to say, ďcivis napoleonicus sum[44]† Napoleon I clearly expressed such desires by stating, ďI should have controlled the religious as well as the political world, and summoned Church Councils like Constantine.Ē[45]† Napoleon I appreciated the idea of reigning as a sacred ruler and correspondingly encouraged painters to depict him as a Christ-like figure, who granted mercy to rebels in Cairo, healed plague victims at Jaffa, and showed compassion to the soldiers butchered in the snow at Eylau.[46]† Louis-Napolťon Geoffroy-Chteau, a contemporary of the emperor, who wrote a fascinating work on how Napoleon I could have conquered Europe, speculated that Napoleon I may have thought of declaring himself Pontiff of the Catholic Church.† Such a step could have eventually led to his proclaiming himself the religious head of all of Christendom.† Under his leadership, all the various sects of Christianity would have gathered.† Still free and independent in their sects, they would have been united under the guidance of a single Pontiff.† Yet he doubted the acceptance by all the people of such a move and thought that the time was not yet ripe.[47]

The Catholic influence on Napoleon III also shaped his own foreign policy, but in slightly less grandiose ways than the manner which Catholicism affected the first Napoleon.† Napoleon IIIís military occupation of the Papal States from 1848 until the last year of his reign as emperor of the French in some sense, but once again on a smaller scale, mimics the occupation of this territory by his uncle and further like his uncle figured into the ultimate goal of creating a unified Catholic Italy.† While this goal directly led to the war against Austria in 1859 that began the actual process of unification for Italy, Napoleon IIIís occupation of the Papal States had a far more munificent motivation than Napoleon Iís occupation and annexation of that territory.† While Napoleon I overtly sought to dominate the papacy by taking control of the Papal States and kidnapping Pope Pius VII, President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the Papal States in order to restore Pope Pius IX to his holy capital.[48]† This action gained support for the Bonaparte president from the French Catholics and, after Louis Napoleon Bonaparte became Napoleon III, remained a warm memory in the minds of the intensely Catholic Spanish nobility, who would eagerly sanction Napoleon IIIís marriage proposal to a Spanish countess.† Napoleon IIIís Catholic Spanish wife, Empress Eugenie, played a profound role in influencing imperial policy from 1853, the date of their marriage, onwards, often with unfortunate results.[49]† Napoleon IIIís plan to unify Italy, which Eugenie vehemently urged Napoleon III to execute, brought resentment from members of the French clergy, who feared a united Italy might threaten the interests of the papacy.[50]† Eugenie strongly encouraged Napoleon III to follow through with his ill-conceived dream of creating a puppet empire in Catholic Mexico during the 1860s, which would have disastrous consequences for the prestige of the Napoleonic Empire.† Napoleon IIIís hope for a restored Catholic Poland, urged on by Eugenie and Polish Prince Adam Czartoryski, also failed to materialize under his reign.[51]† The emperorís vigorous wife once again and for the last time drove Napoleon III to misadventure by pushing for the war against Protestant Prussia in 1870, which resulted in final disaster for the Napoleonic Empire that saw the Second French Empire expire and the Second German Reich emerge.




[39] Herzog 6, 23; Rťmond 50.

[40] Kevin Cramer, ďThe Cult of Gustavus Adolphus: Protestant Identity and German NationalismĒ in Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in Germany, 1800-1914, edited by Helmut Walser Smith (New York: Berg), 99-100.

[41] Cramer 109-110.

[42] Felix Markham, Napoleon (New York:† Penguin Books USA Inc., 1966), 150.

[43] Rťmond 101.

[44] Ellis 226.

[45] Markham 150.

[46] Wilson-Smith 180-181.

[47] For more on the more suspect, though not entirely implausible, speculations on Napoleon I and religion, see Louis-Napolťon Geoffroy-Chteau, Napoleon and the Conquest of the World 1812-1832 (Oklahoma City: Campaign Press Publications, 1994), 134.

[48] Rťmond 103-104.

[49] Of course, depending on who you ask, Napoleon IIIís sessions with a Scottish medium in 1857 probably did not help to produce any sound foreign policy advice either.† Evidence exists that both Napoleon III and Eugenie, like some other misguided rulers throughout history, often relied on the services of spiritualists, which may explain why the emperor did not rationally consider the consequences of all of his policies, but seemingly acted unrealistically on occasion, as if fate alone could ensure success.† McLeod 161.

[50] McLeod 138.

[51] M. Kukiel, Czartoryski and European Unity 1770-1861 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 277-278, 282-283, 285-289, 293, 302, 307.†


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2003


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