Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Presentation of British Officers to Pope Pius VI, 1794

James Northcote RA (22 October 1746 - 13 July 1831),
The Presentation of British Officers to Pope Pius VI, 1794 (1800)
Oil on canvas
The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The entry in The Victoria and Albert Museum catalogue about this painting which is in storage does not fully explain the significance of the event depicted:

"The ceremony depicted in this painting took place in the summer of 1794. The officers represented were Major Robert Browne, kneeling, Captain Michael Head and Lieutenant the Hon Pierce Butler. They belonged to the 12th Light Dragoons regiment and were at that time stationed in the Italian seaport town of Civita Vecchia following French military activity. News of the good conduct of the regiment reached Pope Pius VI who announced his intention of presenting, in Rome, a gold medal to each of the officers. The soldiers are show wearing the medals.

This painting, by the artist James Northcote (1746-1831), shows the moment when the Pope took Captain Brown's helmet in his hands and expressed the wish ' that Heaven would enable the cause of truth and religion to triumph over injustice and infidelity'. The painting includes another figure, dressed in civilian clothes, shown standing to the left of the Pope. This is possibly a Mr Jenkins, who was an English gentleman resident in Rome."

The background to this event is explained by Cardinal Gasquet in his book Great Britain and the Holy See (1792-1806): A chapter in the history of diplomatic relations between England and Rome. (1919):

"The French Republic was proclaimed, on September 2, 1792, and immediately the national Convention gave its sanction to the massacre of hundreds of people in Paris and elsewhere. In England the news of these horrors at once cleared up any doubts as to the character of the French Revolution, and ranged the country in opposition to the Republicans.

On February 8, 1793, the great war, which was destined to last till July 7, 1815, began.

The naval supremacy of England enabled it at once to seize the outlying French colonies, and its fleets proceeded to blockade Brest, Toulon and Rochefort. In the summer of 1794 the Brest squadron of the French navy put sea to convoy a merchant fleet, but was caught and beaten by Lord Howe on « the glorious First of June ». On the other hand the English suffered a reverse at Toulon, which the Royalist inhabitants of the town had handed over to the English. On 20 November 1793, Lord Hood, commanding the British fleet in the Mediterranean, Sir Gilbert Elliot and Lord O'Hara took over the administration, until such time as the monarchy should be re-established in France, ...

Lord O'Hara, who defended the place, was obliged to retire after a short siege, and Toulon fell back into the hands of the Republicans. Before retiring, the English were able to destroy the French fleet and arsenal.

The loss of the harbour, however, was a serious matter for the English ships in the Mediterranean, and rendered it all the more imperative for the Government to cultivate the friendship of the Pope, so as to find in the ports of the Papal States, places where the English ships might refit and obtain supplies.

In 1796, Spain declared war upon England, and joined France, the Dutch fleet having previously joined against the English. In this same year, the Directory made Napoleon Bonaparte commander of the army in Italy, and in two campaigns he overran the Austrian and Sardinian possessions in the valley of the Po, and continuing his progress over the Alps, attacked Austria from the South. This obliged the Emperor to sue for peace, which he obtained by surrendering Belgium and Lombardy to France.

The latter possession gave Napoleon the power of making further advances into Tuscany and the States of the Church. ...

Finally, in the refusal of the Pope to expel the English from his dominions and close his ports to English ships. Napoleon found the excuse for invading the papal territories."

From what Cardinal Gasquet wrote it would appear that the British gentleman who might have been present and who is depicted in the painting was Sir John Hippisley and not Mr Jenkins

The meeting was part of a rapprochement between the British government and the Holy See occasioned by the European War before Napoleon invaded the Papal States, occupied Rome and captured Pius VI.

In his book Cardinal Gasquet quotes from a memorial by British Catholic residents in Rome to Sir John Hippisley with an address of thanks for all he had done to bring about cordial relations between the Holy See and the British Government.

The memorial stated amongst other things:

"We have seen ... the great Pius VI generously give all that his States could provide in the way of provisions for the British fleet, and this at a time of great scarcity in the country; and we have equally witnessed the testimony of lively gratitude and recognition to the Court of Rome by those who commanded the forces for His Majesty.

We have seen again a regiment of English dragoons received with distinct honours in the States of His Holiness and for three months treated with the most friendly care.

You, Sir, (i. e. Hippisley) were chosen to be the channel through which His Holiness has deigned to convey to our fellow countrymen the gracious testimony of his satisfaction at their excellent conduct, and in the name of the Holy Father to present a gold medal to each of the officers. It was very pleasing to observe that by a happy chance this regiment had the name of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and that its two chief commanders.

General Stuart and Colonel Erskine, are relations of your own and of the respected Uditore of His Holiness, Mgr Erskine, your intimate friend for many years and at present your companion in the great cause in which you are concerned ...

We have heard with the greatest joy of the honourable welcome given to this Prelate in England [Mgr Erskine] by the Royal family and the Ministers, and our hearts are filled with thanksgiving as we have heard that since his arrival in England a Bill has been carried for the relief of our Catholic brethren, relieving them from the double tax imposed on them, and that another Bill to Restore to them the great privilege of voting at the elections, which is much prized by every Englishman, has been proposed and only delayed by certain circumstances ".

(The signatories included: Rev. Val. Bodkin, Doctor in Theology and Laws and agent for the Bishops and secular clergy of Ireland; the Rev. I. Weyburn, Professor of Theology and Superior of the Irish Franciscans in Rome, in the name of all the community; Rev. I. Connolly, Doct. of Theology and Superior of the Irish Dominicans in Rome in the name of the whole community; the Rev. P. Macpherson agent of the Bishops and clergy of Scotland; Rev. F. Luke Concanen, Doctor of the College of Casanate {sic) and secretary of the General of the Dominicans, and agent of the Archbishops of Ireland in Rome ; the Rev. P. Crane, Prof, of Theology and Rector of the Irish Augustinians in Rome, in the name of all the community; the Rev. R. Smelt, agent of the Bishops and clergy of England; G. Harris, student in the English College in the name of all the students; J. H. Mac-Dermont student in the Irish College in the name of all the students; J. Maclaughlan, student in the Scots' College in the name of all the students; Rev. J. Connel, Secretary of Cardinal Rinuccini and agent of the English College at Liege)

Cardinal Gasquet writes of the roles of Hippisley and of Mgr Erskine:

"It would probably astonish most people to hear that diplomatic relations between England and the Holy See existed at the close of the 18th century. The fact of the mission of Mgr Erskine to the Court of St James in 1793 is of course known, and in part it has been described by Maziere Brady in his interesting Memoirs of Cardinal Erskine, Papal Envoy to the Court of George III, but the real origin of the mission and that of a corresponding one to Rome, appears to be generally unknown ...

It would seem that, some time in the first half of the year 1792, the English Government found it necessary to open official communications with Pope Pius VI regarding the political situation which had arisen in consequence of the war with the French Republicans.

For this purpose it made choice of Mr. afterwards Sir John Hippisley, who had proved himself a valuable public servant in India and who had already, whilst residing in Italy in 1779 and 1780, been entrusted with several confidential communications in Rome and elsewhere.

The Dictionary of National Biography says : « From 1792 to 1796 he (Hippisley) resided in Italy and was there again engaged in negotiations with the Vatican, the effects of which were acknowledged in flattering terms by the English Government » ...

After having passed the greater part of the year 1792 in surveying the general situation, Hippisley, who was not himself a Catholic, came to the conclusion that the best interests of England would be served by having a Papal Envoy in London. It seemed to him a plain matter of political utility if not a necessity for his country, that relations should be established between the Pope and the English Government. It was a time when no religious prejudices should be allowed to prevent cordial cooperation between two powers with so many interests in common.

The presence of English ships of war in the Mediterranean was rendered necessary by the operations undertaken against France, and this required the free use of the ports belonging to the Papal States for refuge, refitting and revictualling.

On this important matter he sounded his chiefs in the Government and found them entirely sympathetic, but timorous of the existing Protestant bigotry in England.

Nevertheless from the general encouragement he received from men like Pitt and Windham, he decided to try and bring about the appointment of an Envoy from the Pope, and, whilst warning his friends at the Vatican of a possible popular outcry at home at the arrival of any Papal agent, he did all in his power to get them to risk the appointment.

Circumstances favoured the project. Maziere Brady states that the Pope employed a certain « Mr Jenkins, then living in Rome as British Consul or Agent » to make the first proposals for the projected mission. This is not the case and, as far as appears from the documents, Mr Jenkins had nothing to do in the matter.

In fact, it seems from the existing papers that Mr Jenkins, who was an English banker living in Rome, was a rather tiresome person at this time. He was involved in complaints made by the papal authorities of having assisted some Englishmen to evade the law against removing antiquities or works of art from Italy, also in 1793 he had tried to make some money by raising a loan for the city of Toulon, which at Mr Hippisley's demand was prohibited both by the Papal and the English Governments. ...

Nobles, Bishops and Clergy of every grade [from France and other countries fleeing the Republican forces] took refuge in England, which offered a compassionate welcome to all, including many thousands of Catholic priests. Pius VI was persuaded by Hippisley to utilize this generous feeling displayed by the Protestants of England and made choice of Mgr Erskine for the mission of expressing his personal gratitude.

This Prelate was eminently fitted for carrying out his difficult and delicate task. He was a Scotchman and a close relative of the Earl of Kellie and the Earl of Mar.

Whilst still very young he had been taken under the protection of the Cardinal Duke of York and placed by him in the Scots College at Rome, where he remained from 1748 to 1753. Erskine then took up the study of Law and his career in that profession was brilliant. He was still a layman, when in 1782 Pius VI appointed him Pro-Uditore and then Promotore della Fede. The following year he received Minor Orders in St Peter's from the hands of the Cardinal of York, and later in the same year was ordained sub-deacon.

On October 4, 1793 Monsignor Erskine set out on his mission to England. In a general way it was supposed that his journey was in part dictated by a desire to visit his Scotch relatives. But the way had been carefully prepared by Hippisley, who, although not without some fear of difficulties arising from the Protestant temperament of the English, had the best possible reasons for expecting that with moderate prudence serious objections to the Mission would not be raised."