The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves
by Valérie Pirie
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... XVIIth Century
PIUS VII (CHIARAMONTI)
[p. 293] THE Transalpine tornado which had swept over Italy uprooting thrones, tearing flags from their staffs,
displacing boundaries and whirling the Sovereign Pontiff away from his capital, had also, but in more
frolicsome mood, blown half a dozen cardinals' hats clean over the steeples, while the wearers of a
couple more had only just had time to snatch them back by their tassels as they rose in flight.
What now remained of the Sacred College was scattered about Europe. Most of the French prelates had
taken refuge in England, the Austrians had returned to Vienna, and the Sicilians to Naples, where they
had been joined by the Cardinal of York. Albani, the Dean, resided in Venice as did several others of his
colleagues, and it was therefore to Venice that the suffragists travelled to confer together and select the
locality where the conclave should be held.
Venice was now an Austrian city. Bonaparte had dealt very leniently with the Habsburgs by the Treaty of
Tolentino. They had been more than compensated for the loss of their northern provinces by the
acquisition of Venetia; an exchange they would probably have been prepared to accept even had they
been victorious, as it gave them an established hold on the Adriatic and welded their empire into one
The Austrian star was decidedly in the ascendant, for as soon as Bonaparte had been recalled from Italy
fortune had deserted the armies of the Republic. The Neapolitans, well supported by England, had chased
the French out of Rome, while the Austrians routed them in Northern Italy and now occupied the
territories which had formed the ephemeral Cisalpine Republic. It was only natural, no doubt, that they
should wish to establish themselves permanently in these regions; but as most of the land had been
wrested from the Holy See, such a pretension could have no solid basis but on the Treaty of Tolentino.
Only if the surrender of these provinces made by Pius VI was accepted as definite by his successor could
Austria be entitled to [p. 294] annex them. The new pope therefore must be willing to ratify the Treaty of
Tolentino, for if he repudiated it, Austria would have either to restore the lands in question, or appear
before Christendom as the spoliator of Peter's Patrimony.
This state of things constituted a serious objection to the holding of the conclave in Venice, as the
likelihood of severe pressure being brought to bear by Austria either on the electors or the elected could
not be overlooked. On the other hand the situation in Rome was scarcely more reassuring, for the
Neapolitan Sovereigns now resided in the capital which was occupied by their troops, and in which they
seemed to be rapidly taking root.
From the painting by David in the Louvre Museum, Paris
In the late autumn all the members of the Sacred College in a position to attend the conclave had
assembled in Venice. Only one of the six secularised prelates had attempted to claim his electoral
privilege, and he, needless to say, had been contemptuously ignored. After mature deliberation, and
considering the dangers besetting it on all sides, the Sacred College decided to hold its sittings in Venice
and entered the Benedictine monastery on the island of S. Giorgio on November 31st. Only thirty-four
prelates settled into the monks' cells, and they took stock of their reduced numbers with undisguised
misgivings. At first the Zelanti group kept strictly aloof from any political faction. It stood for the
integral rights of the Holy See and its members glared impartially both at the Austrian party and at the
"moderates", who though prepared to make all-round concessions were secretly inimical to Austria.
Inevitably, however, the suffragists gravitated towards one or the other of these two factions; but they
were both subdivided and so difficult to manœuvre that several weeks elapsed before either of their
leaders—Hertzan for Austria and Albani for the moderates—dared take the risk of a serious scrutiny.
Meanwhile the Courts of Naples and Vienna were stalking one another round the still imposing ruins of
the Papal Monarchy. They each professed their willingness to surrender to the Holy See any of its
territories which they occupied, provided the other took the first step; but neither would do so without an
exchange of guarantees. Apparently nor Francis nor Ferdinand set much store by a gentleman's
agreement and no doubt they knew what they were about.
At the beginning of February, Hertzan considered the time had come for his party to produce a candidate.
His choice of Mattei, one [p. 295] of the prelates who had strongly advocated the signing of the
Tolentino treaty and was therefore bound to uphold it, though sound enough in view of Austria's policy,
was too defiant a challenge to the opposition. It spurred its various components into closer cooperation,
with the result that Albani's party showed such a firm and unbroken front that by the end of the month
Mattei's candidature had foundered hopelessly. But it was one thing to combine in defence against a
common enemy and quite another to take the offensive. Here the task was complicated not only by the
divergent aims sectioning the party, but also by the fact that it was not known which of the candidates
was to be excluded by the Austrian veto.
The situation seemed so inextricable that Albani suggested an ingenious innovation which might help to
solve the problem. Each party was to select three candidates, and whichever side polled the greatest
number of votes would have the right to nominate one of its three candidates to receive the papal crown.
This infraction of all canonical regulations was not approved by the majority, as the election would in all
probability have been contested by the defeated faction, thus entailing disastrous consequences.
The only chance of a solution now lay in selecting a neutral candidate and, as had often happened before,
the Pope's election was due to entirely fortuitous circumstances. Among the Neapolitan prelates was one
Cardinal Ruffo, belonging to a princely Sicilian house and a devoted adherent of the Braschi. He it was
who had devised their misappropriation of the Jesuits' property at Frascati and who had consistently
aided and abetted his patrons in all their schemes of enrichment. In consequence he had a great hold over
the late Cardinal-Nephew; but as his name had been associated with that of the King and Queen of
Naples and of Acton, the Prime Minister, in connection with the anti-revolutionary campaign in Rome,
the liberal faction held him in execration. As to the Zelanti, Ruffo's unedifying life at the court of Queen
Marie Caroline horrified them, and they would have nothing whatever to do with him; being a Sicilian he
was naturally mistrusted by Austria, so that for one reason or another most of his colleagues cold-shouldered him.
It happened that the occupier of the next cell to his was a French cardinal called Maury, the
representative of the exiled Louis XVIII at the conclave; a man who cared nothing about local tittle-tattle
[p. 296] and who was a great fancier of good chocolate. As luck would have it, Marie Caroline had
provided Ruffo with the most delicious brand of this delicacy, unobtainable by ordinary mortals, and the
titillating aroma emanating from his neighbour's cubicle made Maury's mouth water. It was simple
enough to make some civil overtures to Ruffo, who responded with an invitation to partake of the
exquisite beverage; and so began a pleasant, and for the Sicilian a most profitable friendship, for he
considered that he had discovered the ideal Pope and Maury was just the ally he needed to bring about a
successful election. Ruffo was well aware that his open sponsoring of any candidate would be sufficient
to ruin his chances with the majority of his colleagues, and that he himself would have to keep severely
in the background if his efforts were to be crowned with success.
The man that Ruffo was so anxious to raise to the Apostolic See was Chiaramonti, a cardinal who, in
spite of the general ostracism, had always treated Ruffo with the greatest courtesy. The two prelates often
met in the monastery gardens and strolled or sat together discoursing on a variety of topics with mutual
sympathy and understanding. Chiaramonti had always held himself carefully aloof from party politics
and, when the French and Austrian forces had been fighting near his See of Imola, had shown equal
kindness to the wounded of both armies. His ideas and tendencies were moderately liberal, while his
virtues and the rectitude of his private life were such as to satisfy even the requirements of the Zelanti. At
the time of the conclave Chiaramonti was fifty-eight years of age, the son of Count Chiaramonti of
Cesena, whose family was related to that of the Braschi. When still very young he had joined the
Benedictine Order and owed his successful career entirely to the patronage of Pius VI. Braschi's support
would therefore be assured, and through him—Albani's. Now Maury's friendship would be a link with
Consalvi, one of the most influential personalities in the conclave. Consalvi, the secretary of the
conclave, was not a cardinal, therefore not himself a suffragist, but was acknowledged to be a coming
man. He had held important offices under Pius VI, was remarkably clever and tactful, and an appeal to
his natural ambitions, together with the undeniable qualifications of the candidate, could not fail to
secure his adherence. Consalvi accepted the offer of the hat and of the secretaryship [p. 297] of state and
the matter was concluded.
To him was delegated the difficult task of capturing the necessary number of Austrian votes. He
undertook it willingly, for added to the advantages he was to reap from Chiaramonti's election, Consalvi,
on becoming better acquainted with the future Pontiff, developed a deep personal attachment for him and
joined his cause wholeheartedly. The candidate's age, which in other circumstances might have been a
barrier to his election, would at this juncture be a distinct advantage; for the political horizon appeared so
stormy that the Sacred College would welcome the probability of a long pontificate which might give
Europe time to settle down and thus save the electors from the complications and dangers another conclave held in the near future might well expose them to.
Consalvi knew that Hertzan would be absolutely intractable on the subject of the ratification of the
Tolentino treaty, so did not even attempt to parley with him, but by various means enticed away a few of
his followers. The only danger now lay in the Austrian veto, but it was extremely unlikely that
Chiaramonti had been singled out as its victim when there were so many others more likely to have
attracted the Emperor's exclusion. Anyway the risk had to be taken. Chiaramonti's interests proved to be
in capable hands; for Hertzan only realised what was happening the evening before the decisive scrutiny,
and it was then too late for him to take any measures to prevent Chiaramonti's election. The veto which
he held as leader of his party evidently did not bear this candidate's name, for on March 14th, 1800, he
was proclaimed Pope under the name of Pius VII.
The new Pontiff was a simple, gentle soul beloved by those who served him; his behaviour had always
been exemplary, his manner was invariably kindly and pleasant. His elevation to the Apostolic See was
popular with all but the Emperor Francis, who immediately marked his displeasure by forbidding the
ceremony of enthronement being solemnised in S. Marco as the Venetian municipality had planned,
ordering instead that it should take place with as little pomp as possible in the island of S. Giorgio itself.
For the first time for centuries the new Pontiff did not appear on the loggia of St. Peter's to bless the
assembled multitude; nor were his subjects likely to become acquainted with their Sovereign yet awhile
for Francis raised every conceivable objection to his going to Rome. He tried to [p. 298] induce Pius to
come to Vienna, and having failed to do so, declared that the Pope was to remain in Venice until the
question of the ratification of the Treaty of Tolentino was settled.
Bonaparte had now returned to Paris from Egypt; as First Consul he was free to act on his own judgment
and initiative and it was clear to all but to the Emperor Francis that the future fate of Italy depended on
him alone. Pius therefore refused to enter into profitless discussions and insisted on being given a pass to
return to Rome; but all his attempts to leave Venice were frustrated by the cabinet of Vienna, and it was
not until the captain of a Turkish frigate offered the marooned Pontiff a passage on board his boat that
the Emperor was shamed into sending an Austrian battleship to transport him to Ancona.
Bonaparte was already on his way to reconquer Italy, and by June 14th had shattered, on the battlefield
of Marengo, all the hopes and schemes founded by Austria on her evanescent conquests. Nowhere so
arbitrarily as in Italy did Napoleon (to borrow a metaphor from Byron) compel destiny to change horses.
After Marengo he completely transformed the map of Northern Italy. He constituted several departments
which were annexed to France and created a couple of new principalities quite irrespective of the right to
"self-determination" of the natives. Again in1806 Joseph Bonaparte was made King of Naples. In 1807
with one stroke of the pen Napoleon annihilated the Kingdom of Etruria which he had himself created,
his troops occupied Rome, and in 1808 the Pope was deported to France and the whole of the Peninsula
fell under the imperial sway.
But to return to 1800, when, after Marengo, Bonaparte was trying to reorganise France and to wrestle
with the state of chaos produced by the Revolution, the advantage to be gained by re-establishing the
Roman Catholic worship in the country could not fail to strike him. A free-thinker himself, he was
always an advocate of religious beliefs for women and for the lower classes, and fully realised what an
invaluable auxiliary a properly disciplined clergy would be to his Government. In fact he considered the
prompt settlement of this question of such paramount importance that, in his anxiety to gain time, he
agreed, by the concordat which he signed with Pius VII in [p. 299] 1801, to several clauses which he
later regretted and attempted to evade.
At first all went well between the Consulate and the Holy See, but as Bonaparte's power developed and
was consolidated, his attitude became insufferably dictatorial. After his proclamation as Emperor he
requested the Pontiff's presence in Paris to enhance the glory of his coronation. Although the invitation
was worded less in terms of a favour craved than of an imperious command, Pius thought it advisable to
comply with Napoleon's wishes. He was escorted through France by a crowd of officials and courtiers
sent from Paris to attend him, and was received in the capital with every mark of honour and respect.
The pageant of Napoleon's coronation surpassed in magnificence and brilliancy anything that Parisians
could ever remember having seen. Not the least resplendent among the beplumed, dazzling and gorgeous
personages who graced the occasion was Pius himself wearing a cope of cloth of gold profusely sewn
with sparkling gems and a triple crown ablaze with diamonds. His figure was thrown into high relief by
the scarlet robes of the cardinals who surrounded him, making a wonderful sustained note of colour
among the variegated apparel of the courtiers. But the Pope was made to feel that, like all the other
guests and officials at the ceremony, he was merely a unit in the constellation revolving round the central
luminary; for having been solemnly installed on his throne in Notre Dame, he had to sit there patiently
awaiting the Emperor's arrival, an unheard-of situation for a Sovereign Pontiff to find himself in. More
mortifying still, when he had anointed the new Emperor and was preparing to place the crown of St.
Louis on his brow, it was suddenly snatched out of his hands by this outrageously unconventional "most
Christian Majesty" who, having firmly fitted it on his head, turned and crowned the Empress himself!
This unrehearsed breach of ceremonial etiquette was no doubt intended to impress the onlookers as a
symbol of the personal achievements which had put the insignia of sovereignty within Napoleon's reach.
A less accommodating Pontiff who, having travelled all the way from Rome to perform the ceremony,
was not allowed to proceed with it, might have shown some annoyance at being placed in such a
ridiculous and embarrassing position; but Pius was too kindly and indulgent to resent Napoleon's
impetuous [p. 300] behaviour and made no subsequent allusion to the scene.
He had naturally hoped that the tokens of goodwill he had given to the Emperor would have disposed
him to grant certain concessions concerning both the spiritual and temporal powers of the Holy See
which had been submitted to him. But Napoleon dismissed these questions without even a pretence of
discussion and dashed off to Milan for yet another coronation, this time as King of Italy, while Pius, now
thoroughly perturbed about the future, started on his return journey to Rome.
The first open rift between Napoleon and the Holy See occurred in connection with the annulment of
Jerome Bonaparte's marriage to Elizabeth Patterson, which had taken place in 1803 in America, and
which the Emperor, having more ambitious matrimonial views for his brother, wished dissolved. To
Napoleon's surprise the mild and pliable Pontiff peremptorily refused his assent. Pius and his ministers
had heard many rumours during their stay in France concerning Napoleon's intention of repudiating
Josephine and were convinced that this first demand would eventually be followed by another and more
portentous one. When the Empress, succumbing to a belated but highly opportune attack of scruples, had
confessed to the Pope on the eve of the coronation that her union to Bonaparte had never been blessed by
the Church, Pius had insisted on an immediate ceremony which he himself performed. This stroke of
diplomacy on Josephine's part had caused the Emperor an irritation which he did not trouble to conceal.
Although he would not of course let it stand in his way when the time came, it was bound to cause
unnecessary complications, and the bridegroom plighted his troth with an ominous scowl on his
countenance, a fact which had not escaped the Pontiff. Nothing more was said about the matter—a
divorce was pronounced in Paris and Jerome married to a Princess of Würtemburg without further ado.
The Emperor now adopted the "Roi Soleil's" arrogant attitude towards the Holy See. The pretensions of
the Gallican Church were revived and the ensuing disputes were nominally the cause of the investing of
Ancona and Civita Vecchia by the French troops and of the annexation of Benevento and Pontecorvo to
Joseph Bonaparte's Kingdom of Naples. The real motives of this military display, however, were given
in the following communiqué to the French press: [p. 301] "Considering that the Sovereign of Rome has
constantly refused to make war on the English and to join the coalition for the defence of the Peninsula,
etc." Pius had in fact refused to do these things, arguing that his high office stood for peace, that he was
the Father of all Christians, and that strife was not his rightful field of action. He remained on excellent
terms with the English Government, so much so that the Prince Regent sent him his portrait as a token of
personal friendship. As Pius was not to be moved from his attitude of peaceable neutrality, Napoleon
ordered his generals to occupy Rome, and the Pope was removed to Savona.
When in 1810 the Emperor divorced Josephine and married Marie Louise, Pius forbade the French
cardinals to attend the wedding ceremonies, and the Emperor retaliated with a threat to depose him. As
Louis XIV had done, Napoleon called a meeting of bishops to examine the questions upon which he was
at variance with the Holy See, and was dumbfounded to discover that unlike the Bourbon King he lacked
the prestige and influence over his subjects which had made the clergy of the Gallican Church stand by
their Sovereign to a man. The majority of the bishops openly sided with Rome. The meeting was
immediately broken up, the ringleaders imprisoned and the remaining members of the conference
ordered back to their sees. In June 1812 Pius was brought from Savona to Fontainebleau, where rooms
had been prepared for him in the palace, and there he remained a closely guarded prisoner for over three
He was deprived of his own attendants and Court functionaries and only allowed to receive the visits of
those cardinals resident in Paris who had disobeyed his injunctions and been present at Napoleon's
marriage to Marie Louise. The Emperor was absent during most of the Pope's captivity but he left his
victim in good hands. Perpetually badgered and browbeaten, the isolated prisoner, whose disposition was
yielding to the point of weakness, was allowed to hold no communication whatever with his ministers
and usual advisers. All political news was kept from him and pressure never relaxed. At last he
succumbed and signed a concordat by which he bound the Holy See to clauses absolutely disastrous to its
spiritual supremacy, also renouncing temporal sovereignty, and agreeing to transfer his residence to
This ignominious capitulation was announced in Paris with a [p. 302] tremendous flourish of trumpets in
January 1813, and a public ceremony took place in the course of which the Emperor and the Pope
exchanged fraternal embraces amid the acclamations of the multitude. After this affecting scene Pius was
given his liberty, and Consalvi, the Secretary of State, and Pacca, the Camerlingo, received permission to
attend on His Holiness. The poor Pontiff had fully realised by now how disastrous his surrender had
been. He was covered with shame and confusion and quite prepared for the advice his Ministers gave
him of disowning with solemn publicity the pact by which he had signed away Peter's Patrimony. This
he did at once in an autograph letter to the Emperor, annulling the concordat of Fontainebleau.
In the meantime other and greater problems had beset Napoleon, problems far more vital to him than any
religious issues could be; and wishing to rid the country of an additional source of trouble he surliy gave
Pius leave to return to Rome. Events now crowded on one another so fast that it was difficult to keep up
with them. The Emperor's fall; Louis XVIII's accession; the Congress of Vienna; and, just as the Papal
States were being pieced together again, Napoleon's return from Elba! Pius took refuge in Genoa and
Louis XVIII in Ghent—the Congress was suspended while Europe flew to arms—Waterloo—the caging
of the eagle—the Bourbons handed up once more on to their several thrones—the Pope's return to the
In Vienna the Congress resumed its sittings, old maps of Europe were exhumed, and the Holy See
regained possession of all its former territories with the exception of Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin,
which remained French. There is a certain piquancy in the fact that it fell to Talleyrand's lot to draft the
document of restitution whereby his own principality of Benevento, bestowed on him by Napoleon, was
restored to the Holy See. Louis XVIII also returned most of the works of art which had been included in
the reparations imposed on Pius VI by the Treaty of Tolentino, in acknowledgment of which courtesy
Pius VII made a personal gift to the King of the curiosity known as the porphyry chair.
Now would have been the time to reorganise the whole system of administration in the Pontifical States;
to start afresh on more modern and more liberal lines; and that is what Consalvi attempted to do. [p. 303]
Pius VII had been so shaken by his failure to withstand the test of persecution that he had developed a
positive inferiority complex and was less inclined than ever to take any personal initiative in matters of
State. Consalvi on the contrary considered himself quite capable of piloting Peter's barque, and had he
been free to act according to his own views and judgment he would probably have given the temporal
power a new lease of life. But he was not only hampered by the restrictions imposed on the Holy See by
Metternich, upon which the restoration of the temporal power had been made conditional, but he also
encountered in the College of Cardinals the most stubborn and disheartening resistance. He was in open
conflict with Pacca; and all those officials and their sycophants, who feared to lose their lucrative
sinecures under a new régime, banded together to defeat him.
The finances of the Holy See were in an alarming state of confusion. Loans had to be raised repeatedly
from Torlonia, now a duke, or from Madame Letitia, Napoleon's mother, who had retired to Rome and
had a remarkable flair for lucrative transactions; from this stoical and business-like matron money could
be obtained at a slightly less exorbitant rate of interest than from the banker.
Although Pius stood staunchly by his Secretary of State, it was impossible for Consalvi, unsupported by
the majority of his colleagues, to stem the tide of reaction which was in full swing. The State offices
which had been in civilian hands during the French occupation were now again held by churchmen. All
the antiquated traditions came once more into their own and the obsolete legislation of bygone days
ousted the "Code Napoleon" by which Italians had been judged for fifteen years. The abolition of civil
tribunals caused the greatest discontent to the Pope's subjects, who objected strenuously to ecclesiastical
jurisdiction. The general upheaval had shaken the very foundations of the Popes' sovereignty; the new
ideas imported into Italy by the French armies could not but have a repercussion through every social
stratum. From the time of the Pope's return to Rome till the fall of the temporal power there was to be a
perpetual struggle between the ultramontanes and the liberals, with the object on the one side of
preserving established customs—which really meant the maintenance of purely honorific sinecures and
out-of-date prerogatives; on the other, of introducing urgent reforms [p. 304] and rejuvenating the entire
governmental system. It was an unequal contest of course, for there were so many who had something to
lose by the change and the ultramontanes won easily enough.
No return to better times could be complete without the reappearance of the Society of Jesus, which
under various disguises had never really ceased to exist. Pius VII therefore reinstated the Order; and no
sooner had he done so than hundreds of full-blown Jesuits appeared overnight, so well provided with
funds that both in France and in Italy they started immediately to buy properties destined for colleges and
seminaries. They found their way back to the palaces of the mighty, resumed their nursing of aristocratic
consciences, and sat once more in their baroque confessionals in readiness for out-patients.
A new and entirely satisfactory concordat was signed with France and a veil drawn over the painful
episode of Fontainebleau. But there were many among the Pontiff's entourage who were convinced that
he himself had never forgotten it, and that he brooded incessantly over what he considered a shameful
betrayal of his great trust. In the early summer of 1823 Pius had a fall which at his advanced age was
almost bound to prove fatal, and on August 20th he passed peacefully away.
Thus ended one of the longest and most troubled pontificates the Apostolic See had ever known.
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