This idealised depiction of Napoleon’s progress through the French countryside in March highlights one of the most striking themes of the Hundred Days, the bitter religious antagonisms that accompanied the Emperor’s return.
In placing a band of sinister-looking, and clearly armed, Jesuits, ‘the avant-garde of the Inquisition’, centre-stage in the image, this anonymous print plays on the fear of religious reaction that accompanied the Bourbon Restoration in 1814 and articulates the often-intense anticlericalism Napoleon’s return unleashed the following year.
The reinstatement of Catholicism as the religion of state in 1814, along with the reconstitution of the Jesuit order that August, had fuelled widespread fears that the old alliance of throne and altar was about to be restored in all its ancien régime glory and by early 1815, rumours of the tithe’s return were rife throughout the French countryside.
The clergy’s increasingly rancorous stance did little to allay these anxieties that spring and Napoleon’s return proved to be the catalyst for an explosion of popular anticlericalism in towns and cities throughout France.
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Although Napoleon later expressed surprise at the violent ‘hatred of priests and the nobility’ he encountered en route to Paris, he initially embraced it enthusiastically. Echoing the cries of ‘down with the priests’ that greeted his arrival in Lyon on 10 March, he entered Autun five days later promising ‘to save the French from the slavery and misery in which the priests and nobles wished to plunge them… I will string them up from the lampposts’ and scolded the clergy for meddling in politics in Auxerre two days later.
In reality, this rhetoric was largely posturing and it ceased as soon as Napoleon reached Paris but by then, anticlerical demonstrations, songs and prints were widespread, particularly among the radical fédéré movement that sprang up following the Emperor’s return.
Unsurprisingly, the Catholic clergy responded to this revival of neo-Jacobin sentiment in kind. While a handful of bishops, like Bausset in Vannes, anathemised Napoleon openly that March, most of their confrères responded more cautiously to the Empire’s resurrection although tellingly, few bishops attended the régime’s re-consecration on the Champ de Mai. By contrast, the parish clergy was far less reserved in its response to Napoleon’s return. From refusing to offer prayers for the Emperor or discouraging recruitment to openly leading their congregations in royalist resistance, priests were, as prefects reported from across France that spring, ‘the royalist party’s most zealous agents’.
For many Catholics, the Hundred Days had revived the spectre of religious terror and after Waterloo, they set about exacting a conspicuously sectarian revenge.