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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

Napoleon and the Catholic Church

18 June 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. This decisive battle not only ended the series of wars that had convulsed Europe since the French Revolution of 1789, it also ended the First French Empire and the political and military career of Napoleon Bonaparte, and ushered in almost half a century of peace in Europe. The Archives of the Jesuits in Britain might be the last place you would expect to find anything of significance for this occasion, but among the archives is a rather surprising treasure: a letter written by Napoleon from the Château de Saint-Cloud, 21 March 1804 to the Bishop of Orleans.

A digital copy of the letter can be viewed here. An English translation of the letter is given below.

Monsieur the Bishop of Orleans, The happiness of the French people has always been foremost in my mind, and their glory the object of my travail. Called by the divine providence and by the Constitution of the Republic to the imperial power, I can see little else in this new order of things but the advancement of national dignity and prosperity. I rest with the confidence in the hands of the most high. We shall inspire in his ministers the desire to support me by all means in their power. They enlighten the people by wise instructions by preaching love of man, obedience to the laws, and the practice of all Christian and civil virtues. They call down the blessing of Heaven on the nation and on the supreme chief of state. I write to you this letter now to tell you that you must, as soon as you receive it, have the Veni-creator and the Te Deum sung in all the churches of your diocese; you must render up the prayers of your church with the authority which is customary for this kind of a ceremony, and order that the (prone) be read in all the churches of your diocese according to the precedent set by the Senate on the 28th of last floreal (April, 1802).

In assuring myself that you will excite by your example the zeal and piety of all the citizens in your diocese, I pray God that he keep you, M. the Bishop of Orleans, in his holy keeping.

Written at St. Cloud, the 1st day of Prairiae, the eleventh year of the Republic (21 March 1804).


Prior to the rise of Napoleon and the Third Republic, the Church’s relationship with the French state had been one of turmoil and tragedy. A series of policies carried out by the various French governments had lead to the de-Christianisation France: Church property was nationalised or expropriated, monastic vows and religious orders suppressed, bishops and hundreds of priests were murdered in the September Massacres of 1792, thousands forced to abdicate and hand over their letters of ordination, the new French Republican Calendar abolished the Sabbath, saints’ days, and any reference to the Church, and in October 1793 a law was passed making all nonjuring priests (those who had not sworn an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy) and all persons who harboured them liable to death on sight.

Two years before this letter was written, Napoleon had been made First Consol for life; two months later, the Senate proclaimed him Emperor. As First Consul, Napoleon showed considerable organisational genius as he worked to restore peace, order, and unity to post-Revolution France and in the opening lines of his letter, he certainly seems confident in his Republic. Though not a religious man, Napoleon worked hard to improve relations with the Church. The language used in this letter is a far cry from the de-Christianised state France had become in the Revolution, which saw the introduction of revolutionary and civil cults such as the Cults of Reason and of the Supreme Being. He needed the French clergy, who still held a strong influence over the French people, on side. A Concordat was signed between the Church and Government 15 July, 1801. This unification of Church and State, which he seems to regard as a reciprocal relationship that the future of the French people depends on, is clearly mirrored in the letter. He takes care to state the legitimacy of his position in constitutional and theological terms: ‘Called by the divine providence and by the Constitution of the Republic to the imperial power...’ Two months after this letter was written, Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate, and on 2 December 1804, his coronation took place at Notre Dame Cathedral in the presence of Pope Pius VII.

Unfortunately, the relationship soon began to sour, initially over the French incursion on Papal territory in 1805, and with Napoleon gradually appropriating further Papal lands over the next two years. Finally, in June 1809, Napoleon was excommunicated. In retaliation, Pius was kidnapped and exiled until May 24, 1814, when Allied forces freed the Pope during a pursuit of Napoleonic forces which led to Napoleon's first exile to Elba.

Shortly after his release, with the political climate of Europe much more stable, Pope Pius VII issued an order restoring the Society of Jesus in the Catholic countries of Europe, including France.

There is no documentation how this letter came to be in the Jesuits in Britain Archives. To view the original document contact the archives to arrange an appointment. Look at past and future blog posts to discover what other treasurers are held.

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