10-Minute Talks: Napoleon and God

by Professor William Doyle FBA

5 May 2021

To mark the bicentenary of Napoleon's death, Professor William Doyle FBA discusses Napoleon's quarrel with the Catholic Church.


I'm William Doyle. I'm Professor Emeritus of History at The University of Bristol and the Senior Research Fellow of the British Academy.

Everybody knows something about Napoleon, if only what he looked like. And ever since 1999 there have been regular commemorations of the events of his extraordinary life two hundred years ago. The last comes this month, marking his death in exile on St. Helena on 5 May 1821. It had been clear for weeks beforehand that the end was near. Two days before it happened a priest gave Napoleon the last rites. Yet six weeks earlier he declared to one of his loyal fellow exiles that "I am very glad to have no religion. It is a great consolation. I have no fearful illusions. I fear nothing that lies ahead". He recalled on another occasion that he had lost his faith in his early teens, when priests had told him that the great heroes of antiquity were damned for having lived before Christ. He felt sure that God had created the universe, but he did not believe that he interfered in human affairs. Napoleon simply accepted that most people thought otherwise – and he thought that a good thing too.

Napoleon is chiefly famous as a soldier and lawgiver. But throughout his time in power he had to grapple with religion. He said that the religious peace which he signed with the Pope, the concordat of 1801, was the most difficult thing he had ever accomplished. It was hugely unpopular among the supporters who had helped him to power, and even more so among the army on which he relied. None of the clergy really liked all the compromises which it contained either. So pushing it through was very much Napoleon’s personal achievement against great odds. But he firmly believed that what most French people wanted was freedom to worship as they liked. The real mystery of religion, he said, was the mystery of the social order, and his aim was to govern as people wanted to be governed.

Why was the concordat necessary? It was because the French Revolution, that gigantic upheaval which had proved Napoleon’s ladder to power, had fallen out with the Catholic church. The early revolutionaries had tried to nationalise a church whose reach was international, and whose doctrinal capital was Rome, a foreign territory. They did it quite deliberately without consulting the Pope. And this produced a crisis of conscience for every French Catholic, tearing the nation apart. The clergy we required under oath to accept the so-called Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Pope Pius VI ordered them not to, and just over half obeyed him rather than the new revolutionary authorities. The laity were thus forced to choose which priests to follow. Even King Louis XVI was traumatised. His abortive attempt in 1791 to avoid the dilemma by escaping triggered a republican movement which led in just over a year to the overthrow of monarchy itself. When he was guillotined, with a priest by his side, it was seen as a martyrdom. Rebellions broke out in the joint name of church and king. The reaction of the new republic was increasingly to view any religious commitment as counter-revolutionary, and in 1793-4 it attempted to stamp out religious practice entirely. Failing in that, the next year the republic explicitly renounced all religious affiliations. This was the origin of laïcité, that untranslatable ideal which is still so contentious in French republicanism. But the Pope remained an enemy, throwing continuing suspicion on all those who recognised his authority, and in 1798 he was taken prisoner by the republic’s armies. He died the next year, a captive in France. The papal throne was empty when Napoleon took power.

At that moment, royalist rebels were rampant in several parts of France. Napoleon saw at once that the domestic strength of these counter-revolutionaries was rooted in popular religious belief. So the way to divorce the church from the royalist cause was to strike a deal with the new Pope elected in 1800. As a young general in Italy three years previously he had learnt that only the pontiff had the authority to speak for the church as a whole and commit the faithful. Unlike Stalin, who scornfully asked how many divisions the Pope had, Napoleon ordered that Pius VII should be treated as if he had 200,000 men. And so, after a year of tense negotiations, and agonising concessions from the church, a deal was struck. Under the concordat, public worship in France was officially restored, and the state agreed to pay for it. It was a bare, bitter deal; but it lasted, with ups and downs, until 1905. More than anything else, it tranquillised French life after the upheavals of the French Revolution.

Good relations between Napoleon and Pius VII did not last. The Pope tepidly endorsed the religious trappings of the Empire, but Napoleon crowned himself. Attempts to extend the concordat to Italy, where public worship had no need of restoration, met with vast popular resistance. Eventually the Pope responded to Napoleon’s bullying by excommunicating him. By 1812, like his predecessor, Pius VII found himself a prisoner in France. Only the downturn in Napoleon’s fortunes after his invasion of Russia freed the Pope to return to Rome. But meanwhile everyday worship in France continued unmolested, and the restored Bourbons maintained the concordat even after Napoleon’s downfall. Pius VII survived him by two years. And despite all the humiliations he had suffered, he never disguised his gratitude to the fallen unbeliever for returning the French faithful to the fold.

This talk originally took place on 5 May 2021, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

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