Wednesday, November 5, 2014

King Vittorio Emanuele I of Piedmont-Sardinia

HRH Prince Vittorio Emanuele, Duke of Aosta, was born at the Savoy Royal Palace in Turin on July 24, 1759, the second son of King Vittorio Amedeo III and Queen Maria Antoinetta of Spain. He had the looks of his father and the religious conservatism of his mother. Being a second son would normally make a prince destined for a military career but in the House of Savoy this went without saying as probably nowhere outside of Prussia was the army given a higher status in society than in the Piedmontese region of northern Italy. It was no surprise that he gained a life-long fascination with the military and served as an army officer as a young man. If anything, he would surpass his father in terms of being a very traditional legitimist royal. When his father, full of righteous indignation at the French Revolution, declared war on republican France, the Duke of Aosta went with the army to wage a hopeless fight against the revolutionary forces. When his father died shortly after being forced to make peace with France it was left to the Duke’s older brother, King Carlo Emanuele IV, to preside over the disastrous aftermath in December of 1798. Eventually, all the Savoy lands on the continent would be occupied and annexed by France, forcing the Royal Family to relocate to the safety of the island of Sardinia.

The new king spent most of his time in Rome, leaving Vittorio Emanuele in charge in Sardinia and when his beloved queen died in 1802, the grief-stricken monarch abdicated in favor of his younger brother to join the Society of Jesus. So, on June 4, 1802 the Duke of Aosta came to the throne as King Vittorio Emanuele I, ruling Sardinia, all that remained of the Savoy patrimony, from Cagliari. To carry on the struggle against France, he gave great attention to reinvigorating the army. This included the institution of the Military Order of Savoy, the formation of the famous Grenadiers of Sardinia as well as the Carabinieri, a special gendarme corps that is still the official military-police force of Italy today. He instituted some administrative reforms on Sardinia but remained greatly attached to the way things had been before the wave of revolution swept Europe. He rebuffed all French attempts at a compromise peace and was determined to see his kingdom restored to exactly what it had been which meant that he would spend the first twelve years of his reign ruling in Sardinia until the fortunes of war turned against Napoleon. His focus on military matters was also not confined to the army and, ruling from an island, was the monarch responsible for the formation of the Department of the Navy.

It was a time of hardship and waiting for opportunities. Vittorio Emanuele I, however, was a man who understood enduring misfortune. In 1789 he had married the Hapsburg Archduchess Maria Teresa of Austria-Este, daughter of Duke Ferdinand of Modena (who was the son of the Austrian Emperor Francis I). She was as ardently conservative and traditional as her husband was and the two were a very well-matched couple and had a very happy marriage. However, securing the succession remained a problem. While his older brother had never been able to have children, King Vittorio Emanuele I fathered seven children, all but one of whom were daughters. The eldest ultimately married her uncle, Duke Francis IV of Modena, the next did not survive childhood, the third lived an even shorter time. The next eventually married the Duke of Parma, the fifth married Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria and the sixth married King Fernando II of the Two Sicilies. There was only one boy among them, Prince Carlo Emanuele, born in 1796 and sadly he died of smallpox in 1799. Once again, the Savoy crown would have to pass from brother to brother rather than father to son (and a brother who would be childless as well). They knew personal tragedy with the loss of two children, one a potential heir, yet their shared faith and values allowed them to endure it as they later endured their exile on Sardinia. But, that was something that would change.

When Napoleonic France was finally defeated and King Vittorio Emanuele I was able to return in triumph to the Savoy citadel of Turin in 1814, it was the start of a gloriously reactionary era. This wasn’t just a restoration of the monarchy as all monarchists hope for, this was the sort of restoration that ardent, hardcore monarchists imagine in their wildest dreams. It is an oft-quoted truism that one cannot turn back the clock, but if the clocks stayed the same, King Vittorio Emanuele I managed to turn back just about everything else. It was a matter of principle and if that meant showing up to Turin wearing fashions nearly twenty years old, he would do it. The Code Napoleon was abolished and the legal system of Vittorio Amedeo II was restored. Education ceased to be secular and was handed back to the Catholic Church. All the hereditary posts at court were restored, everyone entitled to a position was given one and if that meant having “page boys” that were forty-year-old alongside teenagers, so be it! The Queen did her part as well, making sure that anyone who had anything to do with the French regime was excluded from high society. Even then there were also those who were pushing for a constitution but, needless to say, King Vittorio Emanuele I I was having none of that. He also restored the old religious laws which placed restrictions on Jews and the Protestant Waldensians. The Catholic, absolute monarchy was back in full force.

In short, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, under the restored Savoy monarchy, was as close to perfection for a reactionary monarchist as one could get. Vittorio Emanuele I also ruled over a somewhat larger kingdom than had his father and older brother as the Congress of Vienna awarded Piedmont the territory of the old Republic of Genoa with the port becoming the base of the new Piedmontese navy. As a side note, interesting to legitimist monarchists at least, when his brother died in 1819, King Vittorio Emanuele I also became heir of the Stuart claims for the diehard Jacobites. For them, he became “King Victor I of England, Scotland, Ireland and France” though, of course, he never pressed such a claim in any way. There is a well known anecdote that, when Vittorio Emanuele I died, the British Prime Minister wrote to a friend (presumably in a joking way) that there should have been public mourning in the UK since quite a few people recognized the Savoy monarch as their “true” king. He was probably wrong about the number but it is slightly humorous the way the British government continued to worry about the Jacobites so long after they ceased to be relevant. In any event, King Vittorio Emanuele I had enough to concern him with the government of Piedmont-Sardinia. His campaign of total, absolute restoration may have cheered old fashioned monarchists but the years of French rule had also left their mark and not everyone was happy about things going back to the way they had been.

This was the beginning of the rise in secret societies, plots and conspiracies in northern Italy (spreading of course throughout the whole peninsula soon enough). The Carbonari would become the most prominent but there were many conspiratorial groups with many different agendas. Some were nationalists pushing for Italian unity, others were liberals who wanted constitutional monarchy and free trade, others were radical revolutionaries who wanted what amounted to socialist republics. Some had elements of all of these but common themes included a desire for a constitution in Piedmont-Sardinia, some sort of unity amongst the Italian people and war against Austria to liberate the lands of Lombardy-Venetia that the Hapsburgs had gained through a deal with republican France. King Vittorio Emanuele I was not favorable toward any of these grand schemes and was not about to even consider granting such agitators a single concession. The problem was how popular many of these ideas were. The reach of the secret societies spread even into the army which really proved to be the crucial point as it meant that the primary instrument of force available to the Crown was not entirely reliable. King Vittorio Emanuele I responded strongly against such conspiracies in the civilian population but if the military could not be entirely relied upon, that was a more serious matter and more difficult to deal with.

It was, finally, a mutiny in the army that signaled the end of the reign of Vittorio Emanuele I. Rebel troops seized control of the citadel in Turin and demanded that the King grant a constitution with guaranteed civil rights and a war against Austria to liberate Milan and Venice. Anyone at all familiar with the character of King Vittorio Emanuele I would know intuitively that he would never agree to any such demands. The content of them really did not even matter as he would never have agreed to anything put forward by mutinous troops and riotous subjects making demands on their sovereign. The political issues he was absolutely opposed to and while he had no great love for Austria (because of their shifting policies in the war and territorial acquisitions) and would have been as pleased as anyone to restore northern Italy to Italian rule, he was certainly not going to be coerced into a specific action and would never stand for being dictated to by a riotous mob. Yet, with the mobs in the streets and the loyalty of the army being either absent or questionable; what could he do? There seemed to be no choice but to give in, yet, for the King, that was out of the question. If King Vittorio Emanuele I could not rule as he saw fit, he decided that he would not rule at all and preferred to abdicate rather than give in to pressure from disloyal elements. So, on March 21, 1821 he formally abdicated his throne in favor of his brother, who was away in Modena, with his nephew Prince Carlo Alberto on hand to oversee things in the interim. The Queen (who some even blamed for the crisis) had offered to act as regent but in the event went with her retired husband to Nice (then part of Piedmont-Sardinia). He died at Moncalieri castle a few years later on January 10, 1824.

King Vittorio Emanuele I is often portrayed in a tragic light, as a sad, gloomy man who endured kingship and whose reign has been described as one long Lenten period. Most modern historians have not been kind to him, describing his policies as harmful and out of date while at best admitting that he was well-intentioned and an upstanding gentleman in his private life. Actually, he was a man of firm principles, a dutiful monarch, a man of integrity and firm convictions. Given how his reign ended, some of his decisions may have been mistakes but that does not mean they were wrong. His determination to set everything back to the way it had been before the revolution, to do what most have always held to be impossible, was a decision based on his values and sense of right and wrong rather than political considerations. In the end, it did not work and it may be that, from a practical standpoint, he should have tempered this policy to take into account in some way what thinking had taken root during the French occupation but that is something known with certainty only in hindsight. The old system had worked well enough before so there was no reason why it absolutely could not have worked again. Vittorio Emanuele I deserves to be remembered as a dutiful monarch, a monarch who tried always to do what was right as his faith guided him. It is also just plain inaccurate to portray his reign as some sort of purgatory to be endured; his reign saw the restoration of the venerable Savoy monarchy, the end of French domination and the expansion of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in both territory and international esteem. It was, until the end, a success by any measure.


  1. Congratulations on your interesting blog ! Some hard work done here.. you might be the right person to ask.. I'm looking for the Coat of Arms of Italia the one used in Knights Hospitaller in the period 1309-1522 (in Rhodes island). Could it be the one in the middle of this post?
    Thanks in advance,
    Jimmy Kteniadis

    1. No, it's definitely not that one, the one shown here is purely speculative. The Knights Hospitaller used either a Maltese 8-point cross in white on black or white on red, as their flag was also a white cross on red (opposite of the Knights Templar who used a red cross on white). There's pictures of the arms here

  2. Thanks for your response, i am familiar with the coat of arms of the Knights Hospitaller.. I was looking for the Italian Langue coat of arms. (it was 7 ''Langues'' in the Hospitaller in Rhodes.. Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon, England, and Germany)

    1. Ah, you mean the "Tongues". Alas, I have never seen individual arms for the seven tongues.