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Why Napoleon Kidnapped One Pope After Another

August 15, 2019 in History

By Una McIlvenna

Between the hours of 2 and 3 on the morning of July 6, 1809, French troops under the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte scaled the walls of the gardens of the Quirinal Palace in Rome and penetrated into the part of the palace occupied by papal servants. After an hour of violent skirmishes with the Swiss guards, they arrested Pope Pius VII, spiriting him away in the night to Savona, near Genoa. He would not return to Rome for another five years.

Pope Pius VII, who became pope in 1800.

The kidnapping was the climax of the combative relationship between the global leader of the Catholic Church and the brash Emperor. From the beginning of Pius VII’s papacy in 1800 to the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the two men were continually at loggerheads, with the French military leader regularly infuriated by the pope’s refusal to meet his demands.

But it wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened: in 1796, during the French Revolutionary Wars, French troops under Napoleon had invaded Rome and taken the previous pontiff, Pope Pius VI, as prisoner to France, where he died in 1799. The following year, after the papal seat sat vacant for six months, cardinal Chiaramonti was elected to the papacy, taking the name Pius VII. But because the French had seized the papal tiaras when they had arrested Pius VI, the new pope was crowned on 21 March 1800 with a papier-mâché tiara.

Despite his desire to control Europe without rival, Napoleon understood that he needed to reach an accommodation with the all-powerful Catholic Church. In long negotiations eight years before his kidnapping, Pius VII eventually signed the Concordat of 1801, which recognized that the Church was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French people’, but simultaneously limited the size of the French clergy and bound its members tightly to the French state, which would henceforth pay their salaries. The agreement strictly constrained the pope’s authority in France, and approved of the Revolutionary government’s selling off of the Catholic Church’s vast landholdings in France.

The relationship between the two men had been fraying for a long time. Even with all the church’s concessions, Napoleon still looked for ways to prove his dominance—and his opulent coronation in Notre-Dame cathedral in 1804 provided a perfect stage to humiliate Pius VII. The pontiff had always traditionally crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, but …read more


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