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Saint Napoleon? How Napoleon used religion to bolster his power

Though not a believer himself, Napoleon was well aware that religion was a vital tool for any ruler, especially when many of his subjects were believers. As he said to his secretary, Emanuel Las Cases, on St Helena at the end of his life: “from the moment that I had power, I hastened to re-establish religion. I used it as foundation and root. It became the support of good morals, of true principles, of good manners.” The Catholic religion had been suppressed in France during the French Revolution and was still anathema to Republicans but, during his time as First Consul three years before becoming emperor, Napoleon reinstated it. He signed a Concordat with Pope Pius VII on 15 June 1801 which allowed Sunday worship again and permitted clergy who had gone into exile to return to France. However, the church was to be subordinate to the state, confiscated church property was not returned, feast days and processions were cut to a minimum, only a handful of teaching and nursing orders were allowed to exist, and Judaism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism were to have equal status with Catholicism. Napoleon also retained the right to appoint bishops and oversee church finances. On the first Easter Sunday after the signing of the Concordat, 18 April 1802, he processed to Notre-Dame to mass with trumpets blaring, accompanied by the Papal Nuncio Cardinal Caprara.

Although he had been elected emperor in a plebiscite in 1804, Napoleon organised a coronation ceremony in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris to demonstrate that he was not just the people’s choice but God’s. He brought the pope to Paris to preside over it and to anoint him and his consort. In 1806 he issued the Imperial Catechism as the basis for religious instruction in French schools. Lesson VII of this document states of Napoleon that God “has established him as our Sovereign and has made him the minister of His power and image on earth. To honour and serve our emperor is then to honour and to serve God Himself.” A divine mandate could not be expressed more clearly.

Napoleon wanted a patron saint to enable him to celebrate his name day, so the Cardinal Caprara produced Neopolis, a third-century Roman martyr who had resisted Emperor Maximianus (ca. 250-310 CE). This saint, whose very existence is doubtful, was then declared to be St Napoleon. He was very suitable for the emperor’s purposes, for he could be presented as the patron saint of warriors and as someone who was prepared to die for his people. Napoleon then created the feast of St Napoleon as a public holiday in 1806, decreeing that it should be celebrated on 15 August, thereby piggybacking on the popular Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. This date happened also to be Napoleon’s birthday, so he was able to link homage to God with homage to himself.

Pope Pius VII was not just the head of the church, he was also a temporal ruler who stood in the way of Napoleon’s conquest of Italy. In January 1808, French forces occupied Rome and took the pope prisoner, bringing him to Savona on the French Riviera, and later to Fontainebleau where he remained Napoleon’s prisoner for five years. Though the Pope excommunicated Napoleon in September 1809 and annulled the Concordat, Napoleon carried on using the church to legitimize his rule and to celebrate important occasions such as military victories.

Because he wanted a son, Napoleon divorced his first wife Joséphine in 1810 and chose the Habsburg princess Marie Louise as his second wife. He ordered all twenty-seven French cardinals to attend his wedding in the Louvre but thirteen of them staged a revolt and did not attend. Napoleon was still married to Joséphine in their eyes and they were not prepared to endorse a ceremony which was against the laws of the church nor to lend credence to the man who had imprisoned the pope. Napoleon punished them by removing them from their bishoprics, forbidding them to appear as cardinals, and depriving them of their pensions. Ultimately, however, Napoleon failed in his attempt to bend the church to his will. In 1814 the pope returned to Rome from his French exile, his journey resembling a triumphal procession. In the same year Napoleon abdicated and died in exile on St Helena in 1821, while Pius VII continued to hold office until his death in 1823.

Featured image by Jacques-Louis David via Wikimedia Commons

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