Wednesday, May 16, 2012

King Ferdinando II of the Two-Sicilies

HRH Prince Ferdinando Carlo of Bourbon Two-Sicilies was born in Palermo on January 12, 1810 to TM King Francesco I of the Two-Sicilies and Queen Maria Isabella of Spain. He was named after his grandfather, King Ferdinando I and came from an illustrious Spanish royal heritage. His birth on the island of Sicily was a result of the wars with Napoleonic France which forced the Bourbon Royal Family to abandon Naples after Italy was overrun by French troops. Thanks to the British Royal Navy, the Bourbons were relatively safe on Sicily but, allies or not, they tended to be less than comfortable with the absolutist rule of the Bourbons and were afraid that the Queen was colluding with the French. As a result the British representative to the royal court in Palermo, Lord William Bentinck, used his influence to try to bring a limited constitutional monarchy to Sicily. There was even some talk among the British pf placing the infant Ferdinando on the throne to bring him up in the fashion they desired. This was enacted but did not survive the downfall of Napoleon after which the Bourbons returned to Naples, enacted the full union of the south of Italy into the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies and restored their traditional form of absolute monarchy.

This was the atmosphere the young Prince Ferdinando grew up in. His father was not an especially moral man, tended to be rather paranoid and had little interest in the day-to-day political running of his kingdom. Like most royal heirs, Prince Ferdinando seemed to try to distance himself from the autocratic reputation of his father and entertained some liberal ideals. However, he also witnessed first-hand how closely the King kept to his generals and the crushing of a revolutionary uprising in 1828. Ferdinando was first titled Duke of Noto, he became Duke of Calabria when his own father came to the throne. His education was undertaken by religious and military instructors, whose influence would be seen throughout his life. Nonetheless, many liberal reformers who had clashed with Francesco I clung to the idea that Ferdinando would be their hope for the future. In 1820 the rebellious carbonari even talked about making him king in Lombardy and thought he might emerge as a leader of Italian unification. This, however, was definitely not to be. He became a firm believer in the “Divine Right of Kings” and would never willingly share his power with anyone, at least not for long.

The Prince served for a time as Captain-General of the army before succeeding to the throne as King Ferdinando II on November 8, 1830. At first, the hopes of the liberals soared when he dismissed the conservative ministers of his father, cut government spending, granted an amnesty to political prisoners, allowed exiles to return and even allowed men back in government in Naples who had served under the French-imposed regime of Marshal Murat. Even when there was an assassination attempt against him, he did not harshly punish the perpetrators. There was also great public celebrations at his marriage in 1832 to Princess Maria Cristina of Savoy, fourth daughter of King Vittorio Emanuele I of Piedmont-Sardinia. She was very pious, very religious woman who the people adored and soon came to regard as a living saint. Nor were religious issues ever very far from the mind of King Ferdinando II. He saw himself as occupying a unique position in Europe and wished to be free to lightly tip the balance in any conflict toward those he favored. For that reason he had expelled the Austrians who had been occupying parts of southern Italy since the war with France and he tried to maintain good relations with Great Britain.

King Ferdinando II was proving a successful and popular monarch, in his own country and in the other courts of Europe. However, the first drop in liberal support for his reign came as a result of his feuding royal relatives in Spain with the outbreak of the First Carlist War. France and Great Britain supported the side of Queen Isabella II (a child who was acted for by her mother Queen Maria Cristina who served as regent) whereas King Ferdinando II supported the rebel forces of her uncle Don Carlos. He opposed the liberal policies of the regency even though Queen Maria Cristina was his sister, but, the Carlists represented the more absolutist, zealously Catholic and traditionalist side of Spanish politics and this was much more to the taste of King Ferdinando II. However, many of the liberals who had cheered him when he first came to the throne were turned off by his sympathy for what was seen (in liberal circles at least) as the forces of reactionary absolutism. Perhaps more importantly, the French and the British viewed his sympathies with the Carlists as almost a betrayal as they expected him to support their own policies. Because of this, when the moment of crisis came for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Bourbon monarchy would not be able to count on support from the other powers of Western Europe and, indeed, many in Britain took the attitude that their downfall would be beneficial.

In 1836 tragedy struck when the devout Queen Maria Cristina of Savoy died giving birth to her son, the future Francesco II, last King of the Two Sicilies. She was only 23-years-old and had never felt very ‘at home’ in the court at Naples. Her shy and modest demeanor was inadvertently annoying to her very strong-willed and outgoing husband. Still, her devotion was respected by all and she was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1872 after a great deal of religious campaigning by her son. The next year King Ferdinando II married Maria Theresa of Austria, a strict and private woman who disliked royal pomp and public ceremony and who could always be counted on to advise her husband toward taking firm measures against any enemies. She certainly did her duty though, giving Ferdinando II nine children during their years together. That same year, for instance, there was a huge popular demonstration in Sicily calling for a constitutional monarchy and King Ferdinando II took swift and firm steps to see them dispersed and also set up a special police force to remain ever alert to potential revolutionary threats.

This hurt his popularity somewhat as it did not seem in keeping with the jovial, plain-speaking monarch who had endeared himself to the “man on the street”. About ten years later, despite all the efforts of his secret security forces, huge riots broke out in Calabria and on Sicily calling for a constitution. Ferdinando II sent in the army to crush the rioters but, the following year, another rebellion broke out in Palermo that soon spread across the whole of Sicily, an uprising that would be seized on by other peoples across Europe to make 1848 the year of revolutions from Paris to Budapest. When riots broke out near Naples as well the King agreed to allow a constitution, based on the French Charter of 1830, passed by the Neapolitan parliament. However, only a year later, disagreements with the new deputies brought things to a halt, riots broke out again and the King had to send in the army to restore order. Without even bothering to rescind the constitution, Ferdinando II simply dissolved parliament and returned to absolute rule on his own. The King granted a safe haven to Pope Pius IX when rebellion drove him out of Rome and when Sicily declared independence from Naples he sent a large army to re-conquer the island and restore it to his authority. The campaign was a success but, unfortunately, the brutal actions of those fighting in his name, meant that the King lost the love of a great many of his subjects.

After all this turmoil, King Ferdinando II decided he had no alternative but to be severe in suppressing all dissent. The jails were filled, many went into exile and, of course, these people did all they could to spread the blackest image possible of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Naturally, the images painted of the kingdom were not entirely true. Because of the riots and rebellions there was repression but the country was not the primitive backwater many portrayed it as. During his reign Ferdinando II had linked Naples and Sicily be telegraph, launched the first Italian steamship and built the first railroad on the Italian peninsula. However, because of his alienation of the British, they helped spread the negative image of the Bourbon monarchy and after tensions increased France and Britain each broke off diplomatic relations with the increasingly beleaguered state in 1856.

That same year there was another attempt on his life, that time by a disgruntled soldier who stabbed at the King with a bayonet. He survived but the wound he received caused an infection that caused his health to deteriorate. He finally departed this life on May 22, 1859. Throughout his reign he had met each crisis with strength and unwavering determination but it was precarious position he left for his son with the Two Sicilies politically isolated and with many enemies. During the subsequent fall of the kingdom under Francesco II many who decided to join the forces of unification, despite their sympathies being with the Bourbon monarchy, mourned the fact that it would not be necessary if someone with the strength of Ferdinando II were still in charge of things. He had been able to make the tough decisions to maintain power in spite of the many challenges that sprang up, some on their own and some because of his own commitment to his principles. However, while he had been able to cope in such an atmosphere, his son, more suited to being a saint than an autocrat, would ultimately prove unable to do so.

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