By Author Nick Schofield
Victorian Crusaders might seem to cover a rather obscure subject – British and Irish volunteers in the Papal Army during the 1860s – but it was big news at the time. Italian Unification was a highly popular cause in Great Britain. The Italian or Roman Question consumed much space in the newspapers. Garibaldi, who was something of a popular hero, even received the support of a significant number of British volunteers.
What is less well known is the British and Irish opposition to Italian Unification, especially among the growing Catholic community. The Pope, after all, was still a temporal ruler, his kingdom spanning not just the Vatican but much of Central Italy. Any attack on his territory was seen as an attack on his office and his person. Throughout the 1860s Catholics from Europe and beyond not only organised collections and petitions to support him but travelled to Rome to join his army. In addition to the usual motives for military service – adventure, opportunity, earning a living – they were largely motivated by religious faith. Many saw themselves as participating in a wider ‘crusade’ that could be traced back to the changes unleashed by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution: a defence of faith, tradition and legitimacy in the face of rationalism, liberalism and revolution.
The book focuses on two units within the Pontifical Army: the exclusively Irish Battalion of St Patrick, which operated during the Piedmontese campaign in Umbria and the Marche in 1860, and the glamourous Zouaves, which attracted many foreign volunteers between its foundation in 1861 and the fall of Rome in September 1870.
Why did I write the book?
Well, I first became interested in the Pontifical Zouaves when I was a student at the Venerable English College in Rome during the late 1990s. Every day I walked past a monument to one of two English soldiers killed during the campaign of 1867: Julian Watts-Russell, who at the time was regarded as a Catholic hero and martyr. At first, my interest was somewhat superficial – the exotic uniforms (with Arabesque baggy trousers) and the bizarre name, ‘Zouave,’ which always seems to raise a smile and is, incidentally, good to have up your sleeve while playing Scrabble. It also seemed incongruous that as late as the 1860s the pope still had an army – and one which didn’t merely mount guard at the Vatican but actually fought battles. I always intended to find out more.
My interest remained for years and was fanned by the few books written in English on the subject: Charles Coulombe’s panegyric The Pope’s Legion (2009), David Alvarez’s comprehensive The Pope’s Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican (2011), Mary Jane Cryan’s interesting study of The Irish and English in Italy’s Risorgimento (2011) and Gabrielle Esposito’s useful Osprey volume on Armies of the Italian Wars of Unification, 1848-70 (2018). Nevertheless, I felt more could be said – especially on the British Zouaves. I began gathering material for the book in 2019 and then made it my lockdown project (at the same time as running a busy London parish!). It is great to see it finally complete and I thank Helion for their excellent production standards!
The subject raises some interesting themes. It reminds us that, in the last decade of the Pope’s Temporal Power, the Papal Army was the focus of much reform and modernisation, thanks to the work of Generals Lamoricière and Kanzler, and Monsignor Mérode. If the Pope was to remain a ruler in the nineteenth century he needed an up-to-date army. And it was involved in some significant actions, including the 1867 battle of Mentana – best known for the debut of the Chassepot rifle by the French, although this has overshadowed the involvement of the Pope’s troops. The book also tries to shed light on the phenomenon of ideological volunteering. Although, especially in the British context, this is often associated with liberal causes, the cause of Papal Rome shows that it existed on all sides of the political and religious spectrum.
Many papal volunteers saw themselves as fighting for their ‘nation’ – to be a Catholic was to be a spiritual citizen of Rome and of Christendom, which was then facing so many threats. The Irish, meanwhile, saw the defence of the Pope not only as a matter of faith but as a way of indirectly fighting the British, who were strongly in favour of the Risorgimento. The contradiction, of course, was that they were fighting Italians who shared their same aspiration of independence from a foreign power.
In the end, of course, this is a narrative of heroic failure. Despite its best efforts, the Pontifical Army was unable to stand alone in its fight for independence and survival. Rome became the capital of a united Italy after it walls were breached in 1870; the Pope withdrew to the Apostolic Palace and regarded himself as a ‘prisoner’ until the Lateran Treaty of 1929, which established the Vatican City State. The book is, I hope, a monument to the volunteers and to a forgotten bit of our history. I hope it inspires more interest and research into the subject – and perhaps even the odd wargame!
Victorian Crusaders- Now Available!