His Majesty Charles Felix, Duke of Savoy, Piedmont and Aosta, King of Sardinia is often overshadowed by his dynamic nephew and successor, Charles Albert, famous for giving his kingdom and later Italy its constitution but his reign was one to cheer the heart of any ultra-royalist reactionary. He was born Prince Carlo Felice Giuseppe Maria on April 6, 1765 in Turin, the fifth son and eleventh child of King Victor Amadeus III and Queen Maria Antoinetta of Spain. As the fifth son, no one gave any thought to the idea that he might one day wear the Savoy crown himself and it was expected that he would have a military or religious career as was common for the younger sons of kings. In the case of Prince Charles Felix, most assumed it would be the priesthood for him as, fairly early in life, he seemed most suited for that type of vocation. He spent his childhood at the family castle of Moncalieri, mostly with his sister Princess Maria Carolina (who would go on to marry the Prince-Elector of Saxony) and the Count of Moriana. He was a fairly withdrawn boy, solemn, lonely and austere. As he grew older he developed an exalted view of the monarchy even for a member of the House of Savoy. He held to the monarchy as being a sacred institution, that to reign was a religious duty for the monarch and he seems to have held to the Divine Right of Kings.
It came as a great shock then when French revolutionary forces conquered Piedmont in 1796, forcing the Royal Family to leave Turin and depriving them of the Savoy crown. The Prince lost his own primary title, Duke of Genoa (as it was conquered by the French) but was given the title of Marquis of Susa to make up for it. He formed a clique of ultra-royalists with other members of the family and friends opposed to the concessions which King Charles Emmanuel IV had been obliged to make and which had nothing but contempt for any supporters of the Revolution or, indeed, any who did not oppose them as vociferously as they did. He blamed it on the godlessness of the intellectuals of the ‘chattering class’ which had turned people against their monarch as well as the Church and the nobility which were the ‘Pillars of the Throne’. Prince Charles Felix participated in the Italian campaign against the French, at least as much as he was allowed to but was constantly frustrated by the fact that his brother the King did not keep him or his other brothers very well informed of events. Charles Emmanuel IV and Charles Felix had never been close but their relationship cooled even more as a result of this. When the Royal Family was forced out of Piedmont they officially relocated to Sardinia but most preferred to stay in Rome. In 1802, after the death of his beloved wife, King Charles Emmanuel IV abdicated and his brother succeeded him as King Victor Emmanuel I. It was he who named Prince Charles Felix Viceroy of Sardinia and entrusted him with the government of the island.
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.
Family matters also came to be a priority due to a lack of sons and the deaths of two royal brothers. With King Victor Emmanuel I having only daughters, Prince Charles Felix became heir to the throne so a marriage was necessary. Although not popular in all quarters, a dynastic arrangement was made and on March 7, 1807 the Prince was married to Princess Maria Cristina of Naples and Sicily, daughter of King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies and Queen Maria Carolina of Austria (sister of the martyred Queen Marie Antoinette). They had a happy marriage but it did not solve the problem of the succession as they were unable to have children. King Victor Emmanuel I then began looking to Prince Charles Albert of the Savoy-Carignano line as the hope for the future of the Royal Family. After the final defeat of Napoleon (whom Charles Felix referred to as “the rascal”) in 1814, King Victor Emmanuel I returned in triumph to Turin and Prince Charles Felix followed, leaving his wife to act as Viceroy of Sardinia in his place, which she did until his return. He continued to oversee the government of the island until 1821 when revolution broke out in Turin and his older brother abdicated the throne.
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.
Rather out of his depth, the young Prince Charles Albert finally agreed to grant a constitution, similar to the one recently issued in Spain, and began forming a council that would take the place of the old parliament. The new King Charles Felix would have none of it. As soon as he heard, he ordered a halt to everything, remaining in Modena and refused to even accept that he was monarch as he considered his brother to have abdicated under duress and that it was thus invalid. He sent a letter voiding the new constitution and any action taken since the abdication of his brother. Prince Charles Albert carried out his instructions and even, reluctantly, addressed the Emperor of Austria on the possibility of sending troops to aid in suppressing the rebellion. King Charles Felix did not want to be known as one who owed his crown to a rebellion but, with the support of the international community, Victor Emmanuel I insisted that his abdication would stand and so, on April 25, 1821 Charles Felix had his royal status reassured. He appointed Ignazio Thaon di Revel his Lieutenant General of the Realm in his absence and ordered an immediate crack-down on all rebels and revolutionaries. With King Charles Felix it was a case of “no more Mister Nice Guy”. Eventually, simple participants were pardoned but the ringleaders were all brought to justice and executed and all talk of a constitution was silenced.
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.
Ever watchful for any hint of revolutionary sentiment, King Charles Felix liked to speculate about expansion but never took any action in that direction, ultimately preferring to focus on building up the economy and preventing any potential unrest. Preserving the Savoy monarchy was his overriding concern. His involvement in foreign affairs was rather minimal. The year he came to the throne he gained a trade treaty with the Ottoman Empire thanks to the mediation of Great Britain and Austria but he could be spurred to action when the situation warranted it. In 1825 the Bey of Tripoli imprisoned some Genoese merchants and the King dispatched two frigates, a corvette and a brig under Captain Francesco Sivori to pressure the Bey into releasing them. When this failed the Italian forces took punitive action and the Bey was at last persuaded to be more merciful. It was the one piece of “action” on the world stage for a monarch better known for building theaters and opera houses than launching military operations. King Charles Felix died on April 27, 1831 in Turin after a reign of ten years, in some ways, the last Savoy monarch of the ‘old school’. At his funeral the Bishop of Annecy reportedly said, “Gentlemen, today we bury the monarchy”. It was undoubtedly a reference to the succession of Prince Charles Albert who was known to have much more liberal tendencies than King Charles Felix. This was something that worried the King in his final days but which he was adamant that he had no power to control. As a believer in the sacred nature of monarchy and a lifelong opponent of any tinkering with the succession, if the throne was to pass to Charles Albert then it must be the will of God and that was all there was to it. King Charles Albert would go in a rather different direction, granting a constitution and, perhaps inadvertently, setting Italy on the road to unification and independence but all the while retaining a powerful monarchy with a strict protocol that King Charles Felix would have found very familiar and very proper.
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