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The History of Europe and the Church
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The History of Europe and the Church

Part Seven

Napoleon And The Pope

   THE HABSBURG dream of a unified Empire embracing the entire Christian world has been thwarted by the forces of nationalism and religious enmity.
   The Schmalkaldic Wars between the Lutheran princes of the Holy Roman Empire and Catholic princes led by Emperor Charles V have ended in 1555 with the Peace of Augsburg. Now, both Roman Catholics and Lutherans are officially recognized within the Empire.
   But this compromise peace has many short comings and satisfies no one completely. And it does not recognize Calvanism, a faith that spreads rapidly in the latter half of the 16th century.
   Political rivalries among the numerous petty princes are sharpened by religious differences among them. In 1618 the uncertain peace collapses and the most terrible of all religious conflicts breaks out — the Thirty Years' War.

The Thirty Years' War

   It begins as a conflagration between Catholic and Protestant, but quickly grows into a life-and-death national struggle between the French Bourbons and Austrian-Spanish Habsburgs for the mastery of Europe!
   Not since Attila the Hun has Europe seen such butchery and destruction. In this war, all are losers.
   In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia ends the war and restores a precarious peace to the Continent. But the German countryside is ruined. It will take a century to recover.
   The war has dealt a heavy blow to the Holy Roman Empire. From now on, the Empire has no history of its own. It has become a loose collection of separate rival states.
   By the year 1700, Germany is a patchwork of more than 1,700 independent and semi-independent princes and nobles. They are vassals of the Habsburg Emperor in name only.
   Without a united and subservient Empire, the Emperor's position in Europe is weak. Prospects for realizing the ideal of a single European Empire — a unified Christendom — appear exceedingly dim.
   The "Holy Roman Empire" has become but a hollow name. The French philosopher Voltaire will shortly describe it as "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." Yet the outward forms and titles of the Empire are continued.

The Sun King

   Further threatening the existence of the Holy Roman Empire is the rising power of France.
   In 1661 young King Louis XIV assumes active personal control of. the state affairs of France. Louis has a strong sense of royal mission. He wants to become the foremost prince of Europe. He envisions himself as the heir of Charlemagne and seeks to resurrect the Frankish Empire under his comings and satisfies leadership.
   Ruling from his grand palace at Versaies, Louis' royal control is absolute. "L'ιtat c'est moi," he declares — "I am the state!" He is popularly known as "The Grand Monarch," and as Ie Roi Soleil — "the Sun King."
   Under Louis, France's influence in Europe expands. The French army becomes the strongest in Europe. The French monarchy reaches its zenith.
   Louis embarks on a long series of wars aimed at maintaining France's domination of the Continent. This policy ultimately leads to disaster. The greatest of these is the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14), in which Louis loses the fight to secure the crown of Spain for his grandson. It is the culmination of the rivalry between Bourbon and Habsburg. An impoverished France. is reduced to a second-rate European power — for a time.

The Rise of Prussia

   Meanwhile, another European power is on the rise — the Protestant state of Brandenburg, soon to be known as Brandenburg-Prussia, or, simply Prussia.
   Prussia is ruled by the Hohenzollerns, a family of German counts. In May 1740 Frederick II comes to the throne as king in Prussia. History will know him as Frederick the Great.
   Frederick believes that a third strong political power must be established in Europe to offset the strength of France and Austria. That power, he declares, must be Prussia.
   Under Frederick, Prussia becomes a rival to Austria for control of the German states. A non-Catholic,
   Frederick holds the Catholic Habsburgs in low esteem and subjects them to public ridicule. Frederick builds a strong government and an efficient army. In short order, Prussia's military reputation becomes unsurpassed in Europe.
   The great war of his reign comes in 1756. It is the Seven Years' War, pitting Frederick against the combined armies of Austria, France, Russia, Sweden and Saxony. Frederick is vigorously attacked, and his forces face annihilation. The very existence of Prussia is at stake!
   In the end, the death of Elizabeth of Russia and the exhaustion of France saves him. Alone, Austria and her allies are unable to overcome Frederick. Austria has to accept the fact that Prussia is a strong rival for leadership in Germany.
   After another century passes, the Prussian king will actually become emperor of a united Germany!

The Deluge

   Back in France, the situation is dire.
   Louis XIV is dead. His weak great-grandson, Louis XV, devotes himself to the pursuit of women. "Apres moi le deluge," he declares — "After me, the flood." And it is so.
   The reign of his grandson, Louis XVI, begins in 1774. It is the prelude to revolution.
   The profligacy of the French monarchy has nearly ruined the country. The lavish spending of the court — epitomized by Louis XVI's unpopular and extravagant queen, Marie Antoinette — earns it the contempt of the French people. The outmoded feudal privileges of the nobility are widely resented.
   Discontent is widespread. Taxation is heavy. The misery of the common man reaches the breaking point.
   Events now move swiftly.
   On July 14, 1789, the population of Paris takes matters into its own hands. A mob storms the Bastille prison, the hated symbol of absolute monarchy and despotism. This event triggers the mighty explosion that history will call the French Revolution.
   The insurrection spreads rapidly throughout France. The crown and nobility come under siege. Peasants burn chateaus and terrorize their noble landlords. A revolutionary government seizes control of the state.
   Louis XVI and his queen are imprisoned. They are later tried and guillotined. A bloody Reign of Terror grips the country, as nobles and persons with real or suspected counterrevolutionary sympathies are condemned to the blade.

Canossa in Reverse

   Religion also comes under attack. The Church in France is put under state control. Church lands and wealth are confiscated, religious orders suppressed, and the clergy required to take oaths of fidelity to the constitution.
   The picture is little better elsewhere in Europe.
   For decades, the Papacy has been virtually excluded from the political affairs of Europe. Under Pius VI, Pope from 1775 to 1799, the Papacy reaches its nadir. It is all but stripped of power and influence. In the Habsburg dominions, the Catholic Church is still influential, but even there it is subordinate to the state.
   French armies march on Rome and occupy the city early in 1798. A republic is declared. Pius refuses to renounce his temporal sovereignty, and is taken prisoner by the
   French in March 1799. He is taken to France, where he dies at Valence in August.
   It is a "Canossa in reverse." Church influence has deteriorated considerably since the time when Pope Gregory VII, "master of Emperors," forced the capitulation of Henry IV at Canossa, Italy, in 1077.

New Era

   In Paris, radical political leaders vie with one another for power. Corruption, incompetence, bloodshed and hysteria are the order of the day.
   Amid this domestic turmoil, a new star is on the rise in the French firmament: Napoleon Bonaparte. In desperation, the country turns to him for relief.
   A new era is about to begin in France.
   Napoleon's ascent to power has been meteoric. At age 26 the Corsican — born military genius of Byzantine stock had become commander of the French army in Italy.
   In 1799 the young hero returns from an expedition against the English in Egypt. He seizes power in a bold move, setting up a new government of three members. Borrowing a title from ancient Rome, he calls them consuls. He himself is First Consul — a virtual dictator at age 30!
   Like a Roman imperator, Napoleon concentrates all powers of state in his own hands. He dreams of being another Caesar. Classical imagery fills his mind. A bust of Julius Caesar adorns his study.
   "I am of the race of the Caesars, and of the best, of those who laid the foundations," Napoleon will observe.
   The Corsican patriot Pasquale di Paoli had been the first to recognize the Roman in Napoleon. "There is nothing modern about you, Napoleone," he had once observed. "You come from the age of [the classical biographer] Plutarch!"
   Napoleon dreams of a resurrected Roman-European civilization dominated by France. He had grown up amid dreams of the classical world. Now he means to make them reality!

Breach Healed

   One of Napoleon's first concerns is the Papacy.
   "The influence of Rome is incalculable," he declares. "It was a serious error to break with this power."
   Napoleon realizes that the Papacy cannot be conquered by the sword. He must come to terms with it in order to make use of it.
   In 1801 a concordat (an agreement for the regulation of ecclesiastical matters) is concluded between France and the Papacy. The Catholic Church again becomes the official church of France. The breach is healed.
   The next year, Napoleon is appointed "First Consul for Life." France puts herself fully in his hands. He is moving relentlessly toward his ultimate goal. No hand can stay him.

Imperial Coronation

   In 1804 all veils are cast aside. It is the year of destiny.
   In May the French Tribunate votes in favor of declaring Napoleon Emperor. The Senate passes the measure soon thereafter. A plebiscite is held throughout France. The vote is 3,572,329 in favor, 2,569 against. Napoleon has become Emperor of the French, his realm an Empire.
   The very Frenchmen who did away with monarchy 12 years earlier now reestablish it!
   Napoleon summons Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) to Paris "to give the highest religious connotation to the anointing and crowning of the first Emperor of the French." The Pope crosses the Alps late in November.
   The spectacular coronation ceremony is held at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on December 2, 1804, a millennium after Charlemagne was crowned by Leo III in Rome.
   Napoleon walks to the high altar leading his wife, Josephine, by the hand. She is a beautiful Creole, born in Martinique in the West Indies.
   The Pope is waiting, surrounded by cardinals. Napoleon approaches. All expect him to kneel before the Pontiff. But, to the amazement of the congregation, Napoleon seizes the crown from the Pope's hands, turns his back on the Pope and the altar and crowns himself! He then crowns his kneeling wife as Empress.
   Napoleon is officially Emperor of the French at age 34! He has made it clear that religion must be in the hands of the state.
   The Pope had been informed of Napoleon's intentions shortly before the ceremony, but had chosen to proceed anyway. He now anoints and blesses the imperial couple.
   In 1806 Napoleon crowns himself again, this time with the celebrated "iron crown" of Lombardy. One of the great historic symbols of Europe, this crown had previously been worn by Charlemagne, Otto the Great and other European sovereigns.

Heir of Charlemagne

   For years, Napoleon has seen himself as a new Alexander the Great and a modern Roman Caesar. Now he begins to consider himself more as the heir of Charlemagne. He goes to Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) for a ceremonial visit to the tomb of the great Frankish Emperor.
   "There will be no peace in Europe," he says to his companions as he stands before the tomb, "until the whole Continent is under one suzerain, an Emperor whose chief officers are kings, whose generals have become monarchs."
   Napoleon has visions of conquest on a grand scale. It will be he who will carry out the projects of Charlemagne, Otto the Great and Charles V in the modern world.
   "I did not succeed Louis XVI, but Charlemagne," Napoleon declares.
   In 1805 Napoleon makes himself king of Italy. "When I see an empty throne," he confides, "I feel the urge to sit on it."

"Miracle" at Austerlitz

   On December 2, 1805, Napoleon engages the combined armies of Russia and Austria at Austerlitz. Dawn begins with thick fog and mist. The Russians and Austrians could wish for nothing better. Under its cover, they hope, the Austro-Russian armies will be able to complete their maneuvers without the French seeing what they are doing.
   "But suddenly," as one historian will describe it, "the sun with uncommon brightness came through the mist, the sun of Austerlitz. It was in this blazing sun that Napoleon at once sent a huge cavalry force under Marshal Soult into the gap left between the center and the left of the Austro-Russian battlefield." This is the break Napoleon needs. His victory is sealed. Many see it as the result of divine intervention.
   France is now indisputably the leading power on the Continent.
   Austerlitz gives Napoleon increased confidence. "Tell the Pope," he writes to Rome, "I am Charlemagne, the Sword of the Church, his Emperor, and as such I expect to be treated!"
   With renewed vigor, Napoleon pushes ahead with his plans for a United States of Europe — a league of European states under French hegemony. "I shall fuse all the nations into one," he declares.

Holy Roman Empire Dissolved

   In July 1806 Napoleon organizes the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund). It is a union of all the states of Germany (except, of course, Austria and Prussia) under his protection.
   With the advent of this French-controlled federation, it becomes clear to all that the Austrian — led Holy Roman Empire is dead. Napoleon has rearranged the map of Europe. He is supreme in Western Europe, and is virtual dictator in the German states. He has usurped the Holy Roman Emperor's primacy among Europe's monarchs.
   In view of these facts, it is preposterous for an Austrian archduke to bear the grandiose title of "Holy Roman Emperor," pretending to be supreme over Christendom.
   On August 6, 1806, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II formally resigns his titles and divests himself of the imperial crown. He is now simply "Emperor of Austria." Technically, Napoleon has swept away the moribund Holy Roman Empire, the sacrum Romanum imperium. But he perpetuates it, under a different name, for another eight years.
   In October 1806 Napoleon defeats Prussia in the battles of Jena and AuersHidt. No power can stand before him. He is the unchallenged Emperor of the West!


   Meanwhile, relations between Napoleon and the Papacy deteriorate rapidly.
   Pius VII refuses to join Napoleon's Continental System, the emperor's plan for shutting Great Britain out from all connection with the continent of Europe. On February 2, 1808, French forces occupy Rome. The Pope is arrested and detained. "The present Pope has too much power," Napoleon writes his brother. "Priests are not made to rule."
   In 1809 Napoleon decrees the Papal States annexed as a part of the French Empire. Pius replies with a bull of excommunication on June 10. Napoleon's reply? "In these enlightened days none but children and nursemaids are afraid of curses," he laughs.
   The Pope becomes Napoleon's prisoner, and is eventually transferred to Fontainebleau, near Paris. He does not return to the Vatican until May 1814.

Decline and Fall

   In April 1810 Napoleon marries Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, having dissolved his childless marriage with the empress Josephine. Marie-Louise is a Habsburg princess, the eldest daughter of the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II. In March 1811 she bears Napoleon a long-desired son, who is given the title " King of Rome."
   Though elated at the birth of an heir, Napoleon is growing restless. Western Europe is already beginning to seem too small for him. He now plans what is to be the capstone of his career — the incorporation of Russia into his Empire.
   In June 1812 Napoleon and his 600,000 — man Grand Army cross the Niemen River and invade Russia. Following the Battle of Borodino on September 7, the Russians retreat. The French reach Moscow on September 14 only to find it burned by the Russians at the encouragement of the British.
   But Napoleon has overreached himself. In trying to grasp too much, he loses all. The freezing Russian winter devours his men by the thousands. A disastrous retreat from Russia begins.
   It is the beginning of the end. Napoleon returns to France having lost more than 400,000 men! The handwriting is on the wall.
   In October 1813 Napoleon meets the allied armies of Prussia, Russia and Austria at Leipzig in the "Battle of the Nations." His army is torn to shreds.
   The Allies close in on Paris. In March 1814 the Treaty of Chaumont is signed by Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain. It restores the Bourbon dynasty.
   With everything crashing around him, Napoleon finally abdicates in favor of his young son on April 6, 1814. The Allies reject this solution. The Senate, too, does not recognize the child's title, and calls the Bourbon Louis XVIII to the throne instead. Napoleon then abdicates unconditionally and is sent into exile on the island of Elba.

Into the Abyss

   With the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the time-honored system of Roman-inspired government first resurrected by Justinian in A.D. 554 comes to an end after 1,260 years.
   A year later, Napoleon escapes from his island home. Recruiting an army, he marches on Paris. His brief return to power is to last but 100 days.
   On June 18, 1815, Napoleon meets a combined British-Prussian army at the Belgian town of Waterloo. After a bitter battle he is delivered a crushing defeat. As the French author Victor Hugo will write: "It was time for this vast man to fall."
   On July 15 Napoleon surrenders and, as a prisoner, is sent to Saint Helena, a 'volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean. The little Corsican who had conquered Europe becomes a caged eagle. "What can I do on a little rock at the world's end?" he laments.
   From the abyss of Saint Helena, Napoleon reminisces: "I wanted to found a European system, a European code of laws, a European judiciary. There would have been but one people throughout Europe."
   Napoleon dies on May 5, 1821, on Saint Helena, having been slowly poisoned by one of his disenchanted countrymen. His dream of a unified Europe will have to be left to others.
   Even as Napoleon's body is being interred in the island's rocky soil (later to be entombed in Paris), the Continent is beginning to reform and reshape itself. The nations of Europe are moving toward a new configuration — an unexpected destiny.

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Publication Date: 1984
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