Napoleon's letters to Bigot de Préameneu [1800-1815]
 
Napoleon's letters to Bigot de Préameneu (1799-1815):
 

Presentation of the documents and outline of their historical context,
by Professor Jacques-Olivier Boudon, president of the Institut Napoléon

Introduction
Napoleon's letters to Bigot de Préameneu, unearthed from the vaults of the Council of State where they had languished since the early days of the Third Republic and published today, make up an extraordinary collection. Although some of these letters were known, they have never before been published in a single volume and this remarkable collection throws light on Napoleon's policies towards the Church during the priesthood and the Empire crises. It also provides an opportunity to carry out the wishes of Hippolyte Taine who suggested classifying Napoleon's letters according to subject - indeed he even proposed a chapter on "the affairs of the Church" (1). The bulk of the 148 letters do in fact relate to the years 1808-1814 during which period Bigot de Préameneu was Ministre des Cultes.(2)

 


Presentation of the documents
    Bigot de Préameneu, jurisconsult and Ministre des Cultes
   Publishing the Nougarède du Fayet collection: earlier editions
     The general Correspondence of Napoleon I published by order of Napoleon III
    Further editions: Haussonville, Lecestre, Brotonne
    A collection preserved against all odds
    Typology of the letters

Outline of the historical context
    Napoleon's policy towards the Church
    Tensions with the Pope
    The row over investitures
    The secular clergy during the Empire
    The regular clergy during the Empire


Conclusion
The religious attitudes of the Emperor come across vividly in the one hundred and forty eight letters Napoleon sent to Bigot de Préameneu.
Steeped in the Gallicanism inherited from the century of Louis XIV, it was Napoleon's intention to have the Church serve the greatness of his politics, but without being held back by the reactions of the pope.
He did not wish to see the destruction of Catholicism; he saw it rather one of the bonds of society. In fact, it was for this reason that it was not to be allowed to become a source of division within the social fabric. Any risk of this kind was therefore warded off by an extremely rigorous policy leading, if necessary, to the imprisonment or deportation of clerics suspected of acts of resistance against the regime. Indeed it was among the clergy that the strongest opposition to the Empire was to emerge.
However, it is important to avoid the temptation of looking only at the repressive side of Napoleon's policy towards the Church. His desire to rationalise and modernise ecclesiastical structures, following the model imposed in France in 1802, was constant. But although dialogue had prevailed during the Consulate, it was nevertheless force that held sway after 1808, the effect of which was ultimately to destroy the attempted adaptation. The restoration of Pontifical Rome, on the basis of intransigeancy, is revealing in this respect. The rebirth of the Papal States in 1814 was in fact considered by the Catholics as a measure for restoration of the Church itself (3).
Far from having destroyed the papacy, Napoleon had in fact contributed to it gaining a new lease of life, by turning the pope into a martyr.
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The documents
 

 Bigot de Préameneu, jurisconsult and Ministre des Cultes

On 4 January, 1808, Félix-Julien-Jean Bigot de Préameneu took over the post of Ministre des Cultes (4) from Jean-Etienne Portalis (5). The choice of Bigot to succeed Portalis was not a matter of chance. These two men had followed a parallel path and, born a year apart -Portalis in 1746, Bigot de Préameneu in 1747- they had known one another a long time. Both had been members of the Conseil d'Etat during the Consulate, Portalis entering this body as soon as it was created in 1800, Bigot the following year, after a political career marked during the Revolution by a commitment to royalist ideas. Like Portalis, Bigot de Préameneu was also a law expert by training, a Doctor of Laws, lawyer then counsel at the High Judicial Court of Rennes before 1789, whilst Portalis had practised in Aix.

Bigot had also received a religious education at the seminary in Rennes, his native city, before giving up the priesthood for a career in law. But this dual education in law and theology put him in a natural position for this post as Ministre des Cultes. Bigot also had in common with Portalis membership of the committee which, in July 1800, was given the responsibility of drawing up the initial draft of the Code of civil law. With his training in the law, Bigot distinguished himself as head of the Section de Législation of the Conseil d'Etat (from 1802), before going on to practice his talents in Liguria, following the annexation of that region to the Empire in 1805. There he was put in charge of organising the judicial system. Following Portalis' death, Napoleon hesitated briefly over the choice of his successor. He left the son of the late minister, Joseph Portalis, with the responsibility of temporarily covering the post. He then decided, in January 1808, to appoint Bigot to replace him. By making this choice, Napoleon opted for an expert in law, steeped in Gallican ideas, at a time when a crisis between the Pope and the Emperor was looming. The new minister also had a reputation as a moderate: "M. Bigot had a moderation in his character that made him suitable for the post he was to fill", notes Cambacérès in his Mémoires, before adding "I had pointed him out to Napoleon early on as a highly distinguished individual" (6).

The Emperor then had every reason to be pleased with this choice, and Bigot de Préameneu remained in the post of Ministre des Cultes until April 1814, when he accompanied the Empress to Blois. He stood down during the First Restoration, but was reinstated in his former post, with the title of Directeur Général des Cultes, during the Cent-Jours (Hundred Days). Removed from office in July 1815, he left public life, although he retained his chair at the Académie Française. He died on 31 July, 1825.

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 The Nougarède du Fayet collection: the early editions
On the death of her father, Eulalie Bigot de Préameneu (7), who had married Baron Nougarède du Fayet, found amongst her father things, some of the letters which Napoleon had written to him. We know that some went missing because the archives of the Empire kept the records of letters, and there are references to letters which are no longer extant. The criteria for the selection made by Bigot are unknown to us. But the fact remains that the letters that were kept provide a fairly accurate record of the convulsions in religious policy at the end of the Empire.

 The Correspondence générale of Napoleon I published by order of Napoleon III
Quite naturally, the Committee set up during the Second Empire to publish the correspondence of Napoleon I approached Eulalie Nougarède du Fayet. Many of the Emperor's letters to Bigot, published in the Correspondance générale, do indeed come from the collection of the Baroness du Fayet. But the committee made a selection from this collection as from others, which meant that only sixty-five letters were selected from the one hundred and forty eight that Eulalie possessed. We know that the correspondence was published on two occasions and that the second committee, presided over by Napoléon-Jérôme, was more rigorous in its selection. It began its work with volume 15, which corresponds essentially to the time when Bigot was put in charge of the Ministère des Cultes. It was the publishers' aim to glorify the deeds of Napoleon, so they could hardly be expected to show him in a negative light (8).
As a consequence, the letters in which the Emperor expresses a degree of forcefulness towards the clergy or the Pope himself were set aside. It is true that, in the 1860s, relations between the regime and the papacy were strained, as a result of the Roman question and the Pope's loss by the of a large part of his States. Whilst it is clear that the Pope's experiences during the Second Empire were of a completely different order compared to what Pius VII had suffered during the First Empire, nevertheless comparisons were inevitably made, and it was presumably these which led the publishers of the correspondence to play down the state of tension that existed between the Pope and Napoleon I.

 Further editions: Haussonville, Lecestre, Brotonne
Regardless of the tensions, at the very time when the publication of the correspondence of Napoleon I was being completed, the Comte d'Haussonville, in his history of relations between the Church and State, put before the public some of Napoleon's letters to Bigot de Préameneu (9). He does not specify their source, but he undoubtedly had access to the originals owned by the Baroness du Fayet. Thirty years were to pass before Léon Lecestre and Léonce de Brotonne, independently, published some of Napoleon's letters to his Ministre des Cultes (10). Of the letters in the collection kept by Bigot's daughter, thirty three were published by Léon Lecestre and thirteen by Léonce de Brotonne. These editions were however produced from the records kept in the Archives Nationales, hence the variants from the originals. We now know, with the benefit of an fuller inventory, that thirty four letters from Napoleon to Bigot de Préameneu have remained unpublished to the present day. These letters alone would justify publication, yet they came very close to being lost forever.

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 A collection preserved against all odds
In 1864, Baroness du Fayet left her father's archives to the Conseil d'Etat in her will, further evidence of the family's commitment to an institution to which her husband had also belonged. So, on her death in 1866, Napoleon's letters to Bigot de Préameneu returned to the Conseil d'Etat. They were still there at the time of the Commune, during which period, as we know, the Conseil d'Etat was burnt down, the flames taking with them all of the Conseil's archives and all the documents they contained. But, by a curious accident of history, the letters to Bigot escaped the fire. In fact, a few days earlier, the representative of the Commune in charge of domestic affairs, Peyrouton, had come across the letters in question and taken them to the Ministère de l'Intérieur where they were later rediscovered in a drawer. In 1872, they were given to the provisional Committee that was to replace the Conseil d'Etat. There they have remained ever since.

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 Typology of the letters
Only the first seven letters of this collection are addressed to the president of the Section de Législation at the Conseil d'Etat, which is to say that the bulk of the collection concerns the period during which Bigot de Préameneu was in charge of the Ministère des Cultes. More specifically, during this period, the years 1810-1811 stand out very clearly, because although the Bigot collection contains four letters from 1808 and fifteen from 1809, forty-nine are from 1810 and fifty-six from 1811. These two years mark the peak of the crisis with the Church, before other concerns absorbed Napoleon - two letters from 1812 have been conserved - with a slight rise in 1813, to ten letters, then one in 1814 and four in 1815. This brief outline of the chronology of the letters published tells its own story about the interest Napoleon took in religious questions, particularly in the years 1809-1811, i.e., between the annexation of the Papal States to France, followed by the imprisonment of Pius VII in Savona, and the organisation of the national synod in June 1811. Away from the battlefields, the Emperor followed church affairs very closely, and left very few reports from his minister without a response. Somewhat terse orders were followed by much more detailed letters, in which his concern to get to the root of matters shows through. Napoleon knew exactly how to use the preparatory work of his minister, traces of which can be found in the collection of the Secrétairerie d'Etat (11). And through the letters sent by the Emperor, we get a sense of the work of the minister himself and of his level-headedness. For Bigot knew how to temper Napoleon's aggressivity, using the pretext of legal or material arguments, as for example on the occasion of the abolition of the Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice, which in fact got a reprieve of two years.

Outline of the historical context
 

 Napoleon's policy towards the Church

 Tensions with the Pope
A reading of the 148 letters sent by Napoleon to Bigot de Préameneu gives a broad outline of the Emperor's policy towards the Church after 1808. Portalis had been the minister of reconstruction during the Concordat, endeavouring to put in place new structures and new men (12), whereas Bigot de Préameneu was minister during the breakdown of the Concordat, illustrated by a growing confrontation between the Pope and the Emperor. The correspondence gives an account of this rise in tensions, from the publication of the bull of excommunication which was aimed (without naming him) directly at Napoleon, to the crisis represented by the discovery of the secret correspondence between the Pope imprisoned in Savona and the clergy of several dioceses, notably Paris. But Napoleon could never rid himself of the feeling that he could sway the Pope. And so he wavered constantly between the desire to use him and the temptation to do without him. The letters also reveal the intensity of effort made, after 1809, to have the Holy See established in Paris. The Emperor's aim was indeed to reduce the power of the papacy by controlling it, but not to get rid of it altogether. Both in 1811, with the sending of delegations of bishops to Savona, before and after the synod, and in January 1813, when Napoleon managed to extract from Pius VII the signature of a new Concordat, the Emperor never ceased to manifest his desire to win the Pope over to his cause. But every effort ended in failure ended in failure. These letters eloquently chart this game of chess between a sovereign with limitless power and a pope, increasingly isolated, but remaining steadfast in his refusal to abandon his privileges. The one relying on an unparalleled secular power, the other clinging to the tradition of the Church..

 The row over investitures
The last weapon that remained to Pius VII following his exile to Savona, was the refusal to give his canonical investiture to the bishops nominated by Napoleon. He used it from 1808, unfortunately leaving more and more dioceses without a leader. The choice of bishops was a crucial matter in the reconstitution of the Church (13). These "purple prefects" did in fact contribute to the preservation of social order, by promoting obedience to the sovereign and encouraging conscription. Faced with the opposition of Pius VII, the Emperor carried on regardless and appointed bishops he knew would not be recognised by the Pope, then obliged them, in the autumn of 1810, to go to their new dioceses in order obtain from the chapter the powers of capitular administrator which would enable them to govern. In his turn, the Pope intervened by making it known, through secret letters, that these appointments were invalid in the eyes of the Church. A crisis developed in Asti, Florence and Paris. Several rebel clerics ended up in prison, including the abbot d'Astros, capitular vicar of Paris, arrested on 4 January, 1811. But in this struggle between the two powers, negotiation followed the trial of strength. Napoleon sought to have Pius VII admit the need for a change in the procedures of canonical investiture. Advised by Gallican jurists, among them Bigot de Préameneu and his collaborators in the administration of religious affairs, he tried to get the right to investiture returned to the metropolitan of the province of the new bishop, if the Pope had not recognised the elect after six months. This subject occupied all the debates that took place in the national synod that met in Paris between June and August 1811, a synod which, in spite of the precautions taken to control the speaking of the bishops, ended in partial defeat for Napoleon. Napoleon came up against the firm opposition of part of the episcopate which rejected the inevitable schism which would result from an intransigent policy regarding the Pope. The agreement reached settled nothing in the end. But Napoleon's mind was already on other matters and whilst he was engaged in preparations for the Russian campaign, he had the Pope brought to Fontainebleau. A relative silence fell on church affairs. However, no sooner was he back from Moscow, than Napoleon returned to the Pope and extracted from him the Fontainebleau Concordat which apparently resolved the problems that had been left in abeyance. But Pius VII retracted, which led to a further hardening of the measures against him..

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 The secular clergy during the Empire
Napoleon's letters to Bigot de Préameneu give an account of the various episodes of this turbulent relationship between the Empire and the Holy See. They show us an extremely diverse ecclesiastical world taking shape, from Napoleonic bishops of proven loyalty to the black cardinals, punished for having refused to attend the religious marriage of Napoleon and Marie-Louise, through a cohort of clerics placed under police supervision. This correspondence also embodies the expansion of the scope of the Ministère des Cultes in the twilight of the Empire. In the letters that have been conserved, it is only Catholicism that is referred to. There is no mention of the Protestant Churches or of Judaism, which had however been recognised by the State since 1808. Catholicism was indeed the religion of the "great majority of French people" to use the words of the Concordat. Furthermore, after 1801, the context in which the work of the Ministre des Cultes was undertaken expanded considerably (14). . In 1801 France had sixty dioceses, corresponding to metropolitan France and the Belgian and Rhineland départements. In 1812, when there were one hundred and thirty départements, it had a hundred and ten dioceses. To the bishoprics established in 1802 were added the dioceses of Piedmont, then after 1808, those Bigot had to take charge of personally, the dioceses of the annexed Italian regions (Tuscany, Piacenza and Parma). But above all, Napoleon's letters show to what extent the reorganisation of the Roman dioceses had been important after 1809. It is difficult to gauge the revolution that was represented by replacing a government of priests by the French government in the former Pontifical States (15). Napoleon imposed radical reforms on the political and religious organisation of this country: reduction in the number of dioceses, removal of the majority of chapters and monasteries, nationalisation of their possessions. These measures put a significant number of clerics on the road to Italy.

The exile and deportation of the Roman clergy was a reality which shows through clearly in Napoleon's correspondence. He was to meet an unaccustomed resistance from the clergy in the Pontifical States, except in the particular case of Spain. This resistance moreover had its emulators in France and it is easy to imagine that the situation in which the Roman clergy and its head found themselves contributed to this. The consequence of this was an increase in policing of the clergy.

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 The regular clergy during the Empire
Finally Napoleon's letters on religious matters reveal a veritable hatred towards the regular clergy; the Emperor refers to "this vermin of monks", in a letter dated March 1810. Napoleon was referring to the Italian monks, but the expression is none the less indicative of a state of mind that crops up more generally throughout his correspondence. He remained a man of the Enlightenment, highly distrustful of convents and monasteries, considered useless if not harmful, and assumed to be places of opposition to the regime. The Concordat had not made any provisions with regards to religious congregations. They remained therefore theoretically forbidden on French territory. However a system of tolerance prevailed in the early years of the Consulate and the Empire, which allowed the rebirth of a few male congregations and above all the rise of congregations of women. Napoleon had in fact understood how much they might serve society, particularly in relation to schools and hospitals (16). Moreover, the women's congregations escaped the condemnation of the Emperor. They even obtained a favourable statute in 1809, but which placed them at the same time under a system of strict control. The crisis which shook the Congrégation des Filles de la Charité therefore served as a reminder of the growing influence of the State in the management of these congregations.

The male orders for their part were done away with. While Napoleon endeavoured to get rid of the monastic presence in Italy, and indeed in Germany, the missionary congregations were abolished. But the symbol of this policy of eradicating the congregations remains the abolition of the Compagnie de Saint-Sulpice, associated from 1801 with the reorganisation of the country during the Concordat, through its superior, Emery. Already threatened in 1809, the Compagnie was dissolved in 1811, shortly after the death of its superior, and the twelve seminaries that it directed were handed over to the diocesan clergy. This abolition was symbolic because the company had defended the Pope and was therefore regarded as "ultramontane", like the majority of the congregations of men. At the time of the crisis with Pius VII, Napoleon tried to rely on the support of the secular clergy alone, composed of bishops and parish priests subject to oath and paid by the State. This clergy saw imposed on it the teaching of the four articles of 1682, the charter of Gallicanism, which was made State law in 1810. But the clergy's commitment to the defence of the freedoms of the Church of France did not prevent it from remaining loyal to the Pope. This is one of the factors that Napoleon did not take sufficiently into account. The French clergy was not ready for the schism.

Jacques-Olivier BOUDON
Président of the Institut Napoléon

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1)
Hippolyte TAINE, Les origines de la France contemporaine, Laffont, “ Bouquins, 1986, T. 2, p. 391, note 3. [Back]
 
2)
There is no standard biography on Bigot de Préameneu, so readers have to make do with the biographical note written during the July Monarchy by his grandson, Arthur NOUGAREDE DE FAYET, Notice sur la vie et les travaux de M. le comte Bigot de Préameneu par A.Nougarède de Fayet son petit-fils, Paris, Imp. De Crapelet, 1843, 71 p.; there are also some studies published in Breton journals: R. KERVILLER, "La Bretagne à l'Académie française : Bigot de Préameneu", Revue de Bretagne, 1904, 1er semestre, p. 13, 148 and 225 and J. PEPIN, "Bigot de Préameneu, jurisconsulte (1747-1825)", Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie de Bretagne, 1986, p. 169-175. [Back]
 
3)
Whilst awaiting the publication of Philippe BOUTRY's thesis on the restoration of Rome under Pius VII and Leo XII, see his, "Traditions et trahisons. Le retour de Pie VII à Rome (19 mars-24 mai 1814) ", in Yves-Marie BERCÉ (dir.), La fin de l'Europe napoléonienne, Paris, Kronos, 1990, p. 203-218. [Back]
 
4)
See Thierry LENTZ, Dictionnaire des ministres de Napoléon, Paris, Christian/Jas, 1999. [Back]
 
5)
See Claude LANGLOIS, "Philosophe sans impiété et religieux sans fanatisme. Portalis et l'idéologie du système concordataire", Ricerche di Storia Sociale e Religiosa, 15-16, 1979, p. 37-57; Marceau LONG and Jean-Claude MONIER, Portalis ou l'esprit de justice, Paris, Editions Michalon, 1997. [Back]
 
6)
Mémoires inédits. Eclaircissements publiés par Cambacérès sur les principaux événements de sa vie politique, introduction and notes by Laurence Chatel de Brancion, Paris, Perrin, 1999, 2 volumes, t. 2, p. 167. [Back]
 
7)
Bigot de Préameneu had two daughters from his marriage to Eulalie-Marie Barbier: Eulalie-Jeanne-Marie-Félicité and Eugénie. Eulalie's first marriage was to Etienne Sauret, then to André-Jean-Simon Nougarède de Fayet who was a member of the Corps Législatif and Maître de requêtes at the Conseil d'Etat, then president of the Court of Appeal of Paris. [Back]
 
8)
Correspondance de Napoléon Ier publiée par ordre de l'empereur Napoléon III, Paris, Imprimerie Impériale, 32 tomes, 1858-1869. [Back]
  9) Comte d’HAUSSONVILLE, L’Eglise romaine et le Premier Empire 1800-1814, Paris, Michel Lévy, 5 tomes, 1868-1869. [Back]
  10) Léon LECESTRE, Lettres inédites de Napoléon Ier (an VIII-1815), Paris, Plon, 1897, 2 tomes ; Léonce de BROTONNE, Lettres inédites de Napoléon Ier, Paris, Champion, 1898, 611 p. et Dernières lettres inédites, Paris, Champion, 1903, 2 tomes, 556 et 542 p. [Back]
  11) Archives Nationales, AF IV/1046 à 1048. [Back]
  12) See Simon DELACROIX, La réorganisation de l'Eglise de France après la Révolution 1801-1809, t. 1, Les nominations d'évêques et la liquidation du passé, Paris, Ed. du Vitrail, 1962, 487 p. [Back]
  13) See Jacques-Olivier BOUDON, L’épiscopat français à l’époque concordataire (1802-1905). Origines, formation, nomination, Paris, Ed. du Cerf, 1996, 589 p. [Back]
  14) See Jean-Michel LENIAUD, L'administration des cultes pendant la période concordataire, Paris, N.E.L., 1988, 428 p., p. 88 et alii. and Pierre-François PINAUD, "L'administration des cultes de 1800 à 1815", Revue de l'Institut Napoléon, n° 132, 1976, p. 31-39. [Back]
  15) See Louis MADELIN, La Rome de Napoléon. La domination française à Rome de 1809 à 1814, Paris, Plon, 1906 and Carlo NARDI, Napoleone e Roma. La Politica della Consulta romana, Rome, Ecole Française de Rome, 1989. [Back]
16)
See Claude LANGLOIS, Le catholicisme au féminin, Paris, Ed. du Cerf, 1984. [Back]