Britain and the Papacy in the Age of Revolution, 1846-1851

By Saho Matsumoto-Best | Go to book overview

Conclusion

During the years of Italian unification between 1859 and 1861 Britain was the state outside the Italian peninsula that did the most to undermine and bring to an end the temporal power of the papacy. Indeed, as McIntire has noted, Britain's assistance in the destruction of the Papal States was one of the most important of its contributions to the process of unification. 1 In the light of this it is remarkable to find that only a few years earlier the British reaction to the early years of the papacy of Pius IX was enthusiastic, and that there was a surprising degree of British interest in and governmental support for the pope. For a period of two years between 1846 and 1848 the pope was a central figure who influenced not only the course of Britain's foreign policy but also generated a great deal of interest and support within its domestic politics.

There are a number of ways in which to explain this unexpected entente between Britain and the pope. It is tempting at first glance to assume that British enthusiasm for the pope during these years was due solely to the relief that at last a 'good' pope had taken charge in Rome and the hope that his subsequent reforms would transform the government and administration of this stronghold of autocracy. This is true to an extent; there was indeed a genuine welcome in 1846 and 1847 for the concept of a liberal pope. Moreover, it was genuinely believed that Pius could set a positive example to the monarchs of Italy and demonstrate that reform rather than reaction was the best means to avoid revolution, which was, of course, in line with the prevailing Whig orthodoxy that existed in Britain.

The positive response to the pope was also, however, due to the recognition on the part of the British government that Pius' liberalism could be useful in terms of the balance of power within the Italian peninsula. The abiding British fear in this period, and particularly of Palmerston, was that the next general European war would break out as the result of a Franco- Austrian confrontation over an Italian issue. In this context support for the pope was a means of opposing Austrian domination and of encouraging an indigenous nationalist movement that did not rely on France. The holding of this view meant that the British government in essence espoused a neo-Guelf perspective on Italy that had something in common with the ideas of Gioberti and Farini.

The appearance of an enlightened pope was not welcome only to the British government, it also appealed to a significant element of the British

____________________
1
McIntire, England against the papacy.

-172-

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