January 21 is the anniversary of the judicial murder of Louis XVI by the French Revolutionaries. All over France, and in a few other localities, Masses are being said – and shall continue to be said until next weekend – for the repose of his soul, who in the private opinion of Pope Pius VI died a martyr for the Catholic Faith (this because of his refusal to accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy). The resemblance to Charles I is obvious, of course; the more so because the night before the King faced the guillotine he read from two books: the official prayerbook of the knightly order of the Holy Ghost (of which he was Grand Master), and a biography of the Royal Stuart who preceded him to the scaffold.
The King touches upon the history of the patrimony in several ways; most notably, his intervention in the American Revolution made the rebel victory possible, and forced the new regime to accept Catholic Emancipation in the ten United States where the Faith was outlawed. While this made the Continental Congress do a 180-degree turn from the attitude they held when the Quebec Act was passed, it also caused George III to turn against Emancipation, feeling betrayed as he did by his brother Monarchs of France and Spain. Worse still, it bankrupted France; when an Icelandic volcanic eruption ruined the country’s crops and caused the Great Hunger of 1788, the King had no money to purchase emergency aid for the starving as had been the custom, and no credit to borrow any. The result was the calling of the Estates General the following year and teh beginning of the conflict that would cost him his throne, his life, and the lives of his family. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, however, he had managed to find the funds to rehabilitate and reopen Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary, becoming in essence that Anglican institution’s second founder.
But God brings good out of evil; as in the rest of Catholic Europe, the Kings of France had hosted a number of British Catholic monastic and educational institutions in exile,which had made possible the survival of the Church in England during the two centuries and more of the Penal Times. Among these were the great English College at Douai (whence had come the Douay-Rheims Bible), the English Benedictines of Douai and Paris, and the Scots and Irish Colleges in Paris. Louis’ murder affected George III even more than his perceived betrayal had, and in addition providing to refuge for French emigres, Britain welcomed back these longtime exiles. The Benedictines founded what became Downside Abbey, while the northern English faculty from Douai went to Ushaw, near Durham – their southern English founded Old Hall at Ware (from whence in time also descended Allen Hall, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster to-day). They and the other English-speaking priests religious, and academics who returned were an important catalyst for the revival of the faith in England in the 19th century.
The French Revolution also sparked one other partial reconciliation. James II had of course been driven from his English, Scots, and Irish thrones by the so-called “Glorious Revolution;” he and his son, the de jure James III, continued to be recognised as Kings by the Holy See, by both their Catholic and their Nonjuring Anglican subjects in the British Isles, and by the network of exiled foundations just mentioned. When James III died, his oldest son – the by-then severely disappointed “Bonnie Prince Charlie” of song and story – attempted to assert his rights in Rome. Pope Clement XIII, however, recognised George III instead, and fired the heads of the Roman English, Scots, and Irish Colleges who welcomed the Prince with the honours due a King (ironically, although most of Charles’ Catholic adherents gradually switched allegiance after this, the Nonjurors did not). James’ younger son, Henry Cardinal York, although he protested his brother’s derecognition, retained his ecclesiastical offices -and assumed his father’s control of episcopal and other appointments in the Anglophone world, both in exile and in Britain, Ireland, and the three colonies (Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) where the Faith was legal.
In 1788, Charles III – having lost the ’45 and refused the Crown of America when it was offered by representatives of the Continental Congress – died in Rome in his brother’s palace. Cardinal York declared himself to have succeeded as “Henry IX”; the Nonjurors – whose allegiance to Charles had allowed them to consecrate Samuel Seabury legally – refused to accept a Roman Cardinal, and at at last took the oath to King George. But just as the French Revolution murdered the Bourbons and drove the emigre French and Catholic Anglophones to Britain, it swept into Italy and Rome. Pope Pius VI was led away into exile and Cardinal York reduced to penury. At this juncture, George III, moved by his cousin’s plight, conferred a pension upon him. In return, although conscious that his own claims would pass to the House of Savoy, upon his death in 1807 Cardinal York left George those remaining royal jewels inherited from his grandfather that the revolutionaries had not taken.
The Prince Regent (later George IV) contributed to the Monument by Canova to James III, Charles III, and Henry IX in St.Peter’s basilica; their joint tomb in the basilica’s crypt was restored at the expense of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1939 (in 1993 she would be present at the rededication of the Shrine of St.Alban). On January 8, 2016, the 250th anniversary of James III’s death, Nigel Baker – British Ambassador to the Holy See at the time – laid a wreath on that same tomb with the permission of Her Majesty the Queen.
What has all of this intricate and divided history to do with us? It has made us who and what we are, religiously and politically. And ever and above that division and that bloodshed, and all that has happened since, there have been these quiet calls to reconciliation, to forgiveness, and to unity. As did Louis XVI and Charles I on their scaffolds, so too did Bl. Karl I of Austria-Hungary in exile and Tsar Nicholas II before he and his family were shot forgive their oppressors and proclaimed that their sufferings and death were for the peace of their peoples and loyalty to their God. The traditional vocation of a Christian Monarch to sacrifice all if need be for the spiritual and physical welfare of his subjects is something that is very alien to our modern mindset, used as we are to political leaders of a very different mindset. Even so, in every rite of the Church there are prayers equivalent to form II of the intercessions at Mass in our own book of Divine Worship: “We beseech thee also to lead all nations in the way of righteousness and peace; and so to direct all kings and rulers that under them thy people may be godly and quietly governed. And grant unto thy servant (N. our King/Queen) or (our President N.), and to all that are put in authority under him (her) that they may truly and impartially administer justice to the punishment of wickedness and vice and to the maintenance of thy peace and virtue.” Since we make so bold as to ask this of the Almighty, would it not be wise to honour the attempts of those – however imperfect they may have been – who strove to do so at the price of their lives? Of these, Louis XVI surely stands in the first rank. Who knows? God may one day answer our prayers.