Thursday, July 30, 2015

Monarch Profile: King Ferdinand I of the Two-Sicilies

The reign of the Spanish over southern Italy and the island of Sicily, in its last instance, can be traced back to their seizure from the Austrian Hapsburgs during the War of the Polish Succession. At that time, the son of King Philip V of Spain, Charles, was placed on the throne. He had previously been Duke of Parma before moving to Naples as part of the constant struggles and trade deals between the great powers over the states of the Italian peninsula. Eventually, he succeeded his brother as King Charles III of Spain (Carlos III) and so he passed the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily to one of his sons, Ferdinand, who had been born in Naples on January 12, 1751. He was to preside over a time of immense tumult, trepidation and transition in the history of southern Italy, ending ultimately in the creation of a new political entity called the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies. Little Ferdinand was only in his eighth year when he became King Ferdinand IV of Naples and III of Sicily when his father became King of Spain. King Charles III was forbidden by treaty from continuing to rule over all three kingdoms personally so choosing his third son to succeed him in Naples was a way of ensuring that the Spanish Bourbon dynasty would still retain the crown.

Obviously, as a small child at the time, actual power remained in the hands of the King of Spain or those officials appointed by him to administer southern Italy. At the head of the local government was a council of regency led by Bernardo Tanucci, a native of Tuscany and servant of the King of Spain who had fully embraced the “Enlightenment” ideas that were sweeping the educated elites of society in those days. Tanucci wanted to keep power centralized in his own hands, “reform” the Catholic Church and make government and society more “rational” as he saw it. His efforts to establish state supremacy over the Church earned him an excommunication from Pope Clement XIII, which he responded to by seizing a couple of Catholic monasteries. Unfortunately, his control of the government also gave him considerable power over the upbringing of his young monarch and he was certainly not a positive influence. Because he wished to hold on to power for himself as much as possible, he made sure that King Ferdinand IV learned only what he wished him to know. He encouraged the boy to be frivolous and concentrate on indulging rather than educating himself. Tanucci did, however, make sure that the King grew up with his sense of values.

Due to this, King Ferdinand IV was more adept at sports and other pleasurable pursuits than he was at administration by the time he reached his majority in 1767. As an absolute monarch, Ferdinand IV could rule as he wished but he still kept Tanucci on his council. His first action as King of Naples and Sicily was to expel the Jesuits from his domain, an act which undoubtedly pleased Tanucci greatly. His second priority was to find a suitable wife to ensure that the Bourbon reign would continue. The choice ultimately fell on Archduchess Maria Carolina, the daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary (making her, of course the sister of Emperor Joseph II and Queen Marie Antoinette). More like her brother than her mother, Queen Maria Carolina was also receptive to the new ideas of the “Enlightenment” and favored what would become known in monarchial history as “enlightened despotism”. She was like her mother in that she was strong-willed and assertive. In 1768 she and King Ferdinand were married as part of an Austro-Spanish alliance and by the terms of the treaty the Queen was given a place on the governing council where she made her wishes known. This caused a clash with Tanucci, who was used to being in charge, but the Queen emerged triumphant over the old courtier.

Many came to believe that the Queen was the real ruler of Naples, a charge not without some facts to support it. King Ferdinand had been discouraged throughout his youth from taking much interest in government and was known among some of the public as il rĂ© lazzarone which, while hard to translate exactly, could be understood as the ‘peasant king’ or someone who behaves in a very low-class way. He was not known for his great virtue but he and the Queen certainly had a productive marriage if not a happy one as they had eighteen children. Rather remarkable considering that both, at various times, said they found the other unattractive and stayed together only out of a sense of duty and obligation. Still, the King could have his fun while the Queen worked to consolidate her own position of power. Naples was effectively still being ruled by the King of Spain through Tanucci until the Queen succeeded in having him dismissed over the issue of the Freemasons (Tanucci banned them, the Queen wanted the ban lifted). The Queen took her advice from her Austrian homeland, such as strengthening the navy, and took the country much closer to Great Britain through the influence of an Englishman who was one of her favorites (and about whom there was no shortage of gossip). She also tried to patch up relations with the Catholic Church.

All of this caused a great deal of bad feelings amongst the Spanish Royal Family. The Queen had appointed an Englishman to power at around the same time King Charles III was going to war against Britain alongside France and the fledgling United States. Ties with Austria and Britain increased to the extent that one could easily wonder which country really held power over Naples. For the average Neapolitan, however, none of this might have mattered. They were used to doing things their own way and would ‘keep calm and carry on’ no matter which foreign dynasty happened to be ruling them at the moment. However, the experiments with the philosophy of the “Enlightenment” undermined traditional reverence for the monarchy. In some countries, this had no immediate effect so long as the country was well governed. Unfortunately, under King Ferdinand IV, Naples was not being well-governed. The Queen’s English favorite had actually done considerable harm to the administration of the country. So it was that a perfect storm was brewing in Naples when word came of the outbreak of the French Revolution, culminating in the horrific regicide of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette.

The effort, nominally by King Ferdinand IV, to be an “Enlightened Despot” came to a screeching halt and the King and Queen turned in a decidedly reactionary direction due to the alarming events in France. In 1793 Ferdinand IV pledged the Kingdom of Naples to the War of the First Coalition against republican France and began trying to root out any hint of republicanism or republican sympathy in southern Italy wherever it could be found. However, when he was obliged to make peace with France in 1796 revolutionary agitation at home started to increase again. Queen Maria Carolina persuaded King Ferdinand to declare war on France again in 1798 and though Neapolitan troops briefly marched north and occupied Rome, it was a complete fiasco with the army retreating at the first sign of a French advance (the Neapolitan army had a very poor reputation in this period). The revolutionary forces in Naples saw their chance and began to rise up in imitation of their radical French counterparts. The Royal Family, fearful of sharing the fate of the French King and Queen, immediately fled to Sicily with help from Britain.

Once ensconced in Palermo, King Ferdinand showed his fangs and began massacring any suspected republican he could get his hands on. However, back in Naples, the middle and upper classes that had supported him had been left to the bloodthirsty mob and so quickly called on the French for help. The result was the occupation of southern Italy by French forces and the establishment of the ridiculous contrivance known as the Parthenopaean Republic. In response to this outrage, and in an illustration of how far he had back-peddled from his “Enlightenment” days, King Ferdinand turned to one of the most dashing and fascinating characters of Italian history, the rich, religious, royalist reactionary Ruffo, that is His Eminence Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo. I must admit here to my partiality as Cardinal Ruffo and his exploits have always been a favorite of mine. The Italian cleric landed in Calabria and raised a counterrevolutionary force of irregulars he dubbed the ‘Army of the Holy Faith’ (they were commonly known as the Sanfedisti). With artillery from Britain and some additional support from Russia, Cardinal Ruffo went after the revolutionaries Old Testament style and his cohorts of religious royalists soon had the whole of southern Italy in an uproar and eventually forced the French to agree to an armistice and wash their hands of the region. It was a glorious and unexpectedly successful operation that was also a colorful adventure, with pious as well as gruesome elements to it.

By July of 1799 King Ferdinand IV had moved from executing republicans in Palermo to executing republicans in Naples, so things were moving in the right direction. However, Napoleon was not going to permit a Bourbon monarchy to remain on the continent he wished to dominate and soon French troops were on their way back led by the Emperor’s brother Joseph. Once again, in 1806, King Ferdinand and his retinue fled to Palermo and Joseph Bonaparte was appointed King of Naples by his brother. Still, the French were constantly having to deal with guerilla attacks and were issued a stinging defeat by the British in the south though the British expedition withdrew afterwards. In 1808 Ferdinand IV received a new nemesis when Joseph Bonaparte was withdrawn to become King of Spain and replaced by Marshal Joachim Murat. He did not have much sense but he was more of a threat as he was more popular than his predecessor, mostly because of his ambition which pushed him toward Italian independence rather than French domination. This naturally led to problems with Napoleon and eventually Murat was defeated by the Austrians and after he fled to France, the Austrian Imperial Army marched in to Naples and announced the restoration of King Ferdinand IV to his throne.

During this time, the Bourbon King and Queen had been having problems of their own in Sicily. The British had given them a subsidy and a garrison to guard them and naturally expected no small amount of influence to coincide with this protection. They tried to steer the country in the direction of a Burkean constitutional monarchy, to encourage popular support for the establishment by having people invested in it rather than for fear of being shot. King Ferdinand was more of the “better dead than red” persuasion and ultimately this resulted in the Queen being exiled and the King forced to issue a classical liberal constitution and make his son regent. However, once Napoleon was defeated and the British had pulled out, King Ferdinand reversed all of that, went back to absolute monarchy, enlisted the help of Austria in regaining his throne in Naples and had Murat shot when he made a bid to restore himself.

At the Congress of Vienna, King Ferdinand IV of Naples abolished the Sicilian constitution and declared himself King Ferdinand I of the Two-Sicilies. All previous agreements were annulled, all enemies or potential enemies of the regime were executed and the Austrian army remained to garrison southern Italy and enforce his rule. He also appointed an Austrian commander-in-chief of the Neapolitan army. All of this caused increasing resentment among the populace and a growth in the revolutionary secret society known as the Carbonari. In 1820 there was a mutiny among the army and an attempted military coup led by General Guglielmo Pepe which forced King Ferdinand I to issue a constitution while at the same time sending troops to stamp down a rebellion for independence in Sicily. All of this chaos drew the attention of the great powers of the Holy Alliance who feared a revolutionary outbreak could spread. King Ferdinand repudiated, again, the constitutional concessions he had made, further damaging his credibility and winning himself no friends amongst the other crowned heads of Europe for his antics. In the end, Prince Metternich sent another Austrian army to occupy southern Italy, defeating the Neapolitan rebels and securing Ferdinand I on his throne once again.

In the end, as before, King Ferdinand abolished the constitution and tried his best to have all revolutionary elements executed but he depended on the Austrian military to sustain himself and, as before, this came at a price. By the end of his life, Austria was effectively ruling southern Italy in his name through the Austrian ambassador Count Charles-Louis de Ficquelmont. King Ferdinand I of the Two-Sicilies, at the age of 73, gave up the ghost in Naples on January 4, 1825. He had started his reign with his country being ruled from Madrid and had ended it with his country being ruled from Vienna. In the intervening years there had never been any shortage of people, all outsiders, wishing to do his job for him. At first he had been content to leave matters to his wife but the horror that swept Europe after the outbreak of the French Revolution  changed all of that. Today he is often remembered as a rather crude and brutal man, constantly being propped up by foreign bayonets to maintain himself. He is the man who ate spaghetti with his fingers at the opera and had lots of people executed. However, before judging him too harshly, one should keep in mind the fact that he was intentionally raised to be disinterested in government and not really prepared for the task. Thus, it is no great surprise that he wasn’t terribly good at it. Also, after going along with the “Enlightenment” trend, his later penchant for putting people to death was a reaction to a very real fear that what had happened to his fellow Bourbon monarch in France could happen to him. What is unfortunate is that he too often broke his own word, damaging his reputation among his subjects and the other courts of Europe. It was a tendency that would be repeated with his successors and the pattern of his reign would, unfortunately, be repeated in a number of ways until the Bourbon reign over the Two-Sicilies came to an end.


  1. I am curious to know, what is wrong with enlightened absolutism?

    1. There is nothing wrong with Absolutism, but with the whole 'enlightenment'. The enlightened monarchs tried to nationalize the church property and made more laws in favor of minorities (yes the Jews and Joseph II). It was harmful for them more than positive because the laws tried to make them more acceptable to the local society and for them it felt like a 'forced conversion' by the authorities while in the past they had their own community they had prospered in. The enlightenment in general, turned into a disaster for the kings as the years passed, beacuse the local noblemen that were affected by it, wanted more rights until they ttied to throw off the kingdom (hmm French revolution). This era was affected by the Illuminati and Freemasonry as they were getting more power and finally declaring their own 'dictatorial dream' or 'democracy' (call it what ever you want) that they don't need the kings anymore as they gained enough power and support, and it repeated gain and again in 1848 and the Russian Revolution.

    2. On one hand, I do agree the so called enlightenment didn't work out very well, but I also support freedom of religion, expression etc. What I feel is that IWW should always choose evolution over revolution.


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