French Revolution and Empire 1798–1815


Map Code: Ax02420

Catholicism was the official religion of the French state and in 1789, at the outbreak of the French Revolution, the church was the largest landowner in the country. The wealth and privileges enjoyed by the Catholic clergy and the aristocracy were prime causes of the resentment that finally erupted amongst the French people, culminating in the storming of the Bastille in July 1789. In November 1789 France’s new National Assembly passed a decree that affectively nationalized all church property. Just three months later monasteries were closed, dioceses were redrawn to match administrative divisions, priests and bishops were to be elected by the people, the clergy’s salary scale was reformed. All clergy were required to take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution; about 50 per cent of parish clergy refused and were labelled ‘refractory’. The Reign of Terror, which followed the fall of the monarchy on 10 August 1792, openly targeted the church and religious practice was driven underground. On 21 February 1795 church and state were formally separated. When Napoleon came to power in 1799 he accommodated religious belief and practice. A concordat, signed with Rome in July 1801, recognized that Catholicism was the religion of the vast majority of French citizens and the church was once again brought under the control of the state.

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