Thursday, May 22, 2014
Monarch Profile: King Charles Felix of Piedmont-Sardinia
This was his first chance to rule and Viceroy Charles Felix proved to be tough but fair. Much of Sardinia had fallen prey to banditry and lawlessness and, of course, the revolutionary poison was present as well. Charles Felix eradicated it with ruthless determination and was not afraid to make extensive use of the death penalty in restoring law and order to the island. He famously wrote to his brother the King, “Kill, kill for the good of mankind”. Of course, some complained that his regime seemed more like a police state and executions were plentiful, however, he got the job done and improved conditions dramatically on the island. His reputation improved when people learned that their Viceroy was not arbitrary but ruled fairly and would show no favoritism to the Piedmontese. He was just as strict toward the feudal lords who failed in their responsibility to their people as he was toward the people who embraced rebellion simply for the sake of rebellion. He also worked to improve agriculture, mining, trade and promoted the cultivation of olive trees in an effort to invigorate the Sardinian economy.
This was the result of the secret society known as the Carbonari (charcoal-burners), some of whom were revolutionary republicans, others of whom were constitutional monarchists but all of whom opposed absolutism and wanted a united, liberal Italy. When four students were arrested on their way to the theatre on suspicion of belonging to the Carbonari there was an uproar, mostly by university professors and students. They protested, soldiers were sent in, they clashed, people were killed and events escalated to a disastrous level. Prince Charles Albert knew some of these people and they intended to use him as their go-between. They had shrewdly waited until Prince Charles Felix was away in Modena and planned to swarm the royal castle and force King Victor Emmanuel I to grant a constitution and declare war on Austria to liberate northern Italy. To his credit, Prince Charles Albert backed out of the scheme and warned his cousin the King what was up. While he tried to decide what to do the situation deteriorated further with rebel forces seizing control of the citadel in Turin. He tried to deal with the rebels, but they had turned their back on Charles Albert and no communication was possible. Not wishing to start shooting down people in the streets, King Victor Emmanuel I abdicated in favor of his brother but, as he was in Modena, named Prince Charles Albert regent in the interim.
As monarch, King Charles Felix was fairly “hands-off”. His ideas about the sacred nature of the monarchy and his insistence that royal power was absolute did not translate to the idea that the King had to do everything himself. He was happy to delegate power and did not spend much time in Turin, which he felt to be somewhat tainted by revolutionary sentiment. He could always be expected to show up in ‘theatre season’ as he loved the theatre, music and was a patron of the arts. Ordinarily though, he preferred to reside in Savoy, Nice or Genoa and many complained that the country, under Charles Felix, was dominated by a few stuffy chamberlains, old ladies and a cohort of priests and religious. They were not entirely wrong in that but it should not be stated as though it were a bad thing. King Charles Felix, despite his reputation as a reactionary, did preside over some needed legal reforms. He did away with special courts, enacted regulations that the punishment must fit the crime and, to the surprise of some, resisted papal encroachment on royal authority in his country as well as that from the political class. He also abolished the slave trade and ordered that anyone born on Piedmontese soil or on a ship flying their flag would be free. He improved the infrastructure of the country (yes, roads and bridges), restored the port at Nice and gave a boost to the steel industry and encouraged agriculture as well as manufacturing and trade.