xxxxxThe Congress of Vienna had as its task the reorganisation of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. It took no account of the liberal ideas which had inspired the French Revolution, and it paid little attention to national self-determination, but the settlement it produced in 1815, based on a strategy of checks and balances, did give Europe a period of peace for close on 40 years. The French monarchy was restored, but France lost all the territory it had annexed since 1792. Both Prussia and Russia were enlarged, mainly at the expense of Poland (a country in name only), and the German states were formed into a federation. Austria gained land in northern Italy, and the Papal States and Piedmont-Sardinia were restored to power. The United Provinces and the Austrian Netherlands were combined into the Kingdom of The Netherlands, whilst in the north Sweden took over the sovereignty of Norway. Great Britain, gaining a number of overseas possessions from the French, Spanish and Dutch, became the world’s leading colonial power. To ensure that this settlement remained intact, a Congress System was introduced in which the Great Powers (Russia, Austria, Prussia, Britain and, later, France) met when needed to nip any trouble in the bud. To this “Concert of Europe” was added the Holy Alliance, a union of monarchies instituted by Tsar Alexander I. Based on Christian principles, this required its members to rule over their subjects like good fathers. Such institutions constituted a diplomatic breakthrough. Unfortunately, in the hands of such wily statesmen as the Austrian minister Prince von Metternich, they only served to stifle liberal reform and, as we shall see, led to political and social unrest in 1830 (W4) and the Year of Revolutions in 1848 (Va).

THE NAPOLEONIC WARS 1803 -1815  (G3c)


xxxxxAs we have seen, the Congress of Vienna opened in September 1814, five months after Napoleon’s abdication. Despite his sudden return to power in 1815, it completed its deliberations in June of that year, just a few days before the Battle of Waterloo and the final end to the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress had been convened following a preliminary agreement arrived at by the Treaty of Chaumont in March 1814. Austria was represented by Prince von Metternich, Prussia by Prince von Hardenburg, and Great Britain by its foreign minister Viscount Castlereagh (replaced later by the Duke of Wellington). The Tsar himself, Alexander I, attended on behalf of Russia, and Louis XVIII, the restored Bourbon monarch, appointed Charles Maurice de Talleyrand to negotiate on behalf of the French. Representatives were also sent from Spain, Portugal and Sweden, and some of the minor European states sent envoys to report back on the proceedings.

xxxxxThe reorganisation of Europe presented a formidable task. The French Revolutionary Wars, followed by the Napoleonic Wars, had destroyed or redefined a great deal of the continent’s political framework, leaving many areas in dispute. This was particularly so in central and eastern Europe, where there was a great deal of disagreement over the boundaries of the German states and the thorny problem created over the repartition of Poland - a country in name only. Indeed, at one point, the so-called Polish-Saxon Crisis threatened to break up the Congress and end in conflict between the allies themselves! A joint Russian and Prussian proposal whereby Russia would take over the bulk of Polish territory, and Prussia would receive the whole of Saxony by way of compensation, was strongly opposed by Austria, France and Britain. Such was the strength of their opposition that these three countries actually signed a secret treaty in January 1815 agreeing to resort to war if the plan went ahead! Fortunately for the peace settlement a compromise was agreed, substantially helped on its way by the shock return of Napoleon from Elba. This event did much to concentrate the minds of the delegates, and encourage them to find solutions where they had thought none existed!  

xxxxxIn broad outline the final settlement resulted in the following: The loss of all territory annexed by France since 1792 (agreed earlier at the Peace of Paris); the enlargement of both Prussia and Russia; the formation of a German federation of states; gains by Austria in northern Italy; the restoration of the Papal States and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia; the return of the Bourbon Ferdinand I to his possessions in southern Italy; the formation of an enlarged kingdom of the Netherlands under the House of Orange; the extension of Swedish sovereignty over Norway; and an increase in Britain’s colonial territories. These terms, considered now in greater detail, were to have a marked impact on the history of Europe for years to come. (MAP BELOW).

xxxxxFrance had to accept the return of the Bourbon monarchy (Louis XVIII), and the country lost all territories annexed from 1792 to 1810 - agreed earlier at the Peace of Paris. Overseas, Mauritius, Tobago and Santa Lucia were handed over to the British, but Guiana was regained from the Portuguese, Guadaloupe from Sweden, and Martinique and the Isle of Bourbon from Britain. In Europe, France found itself in a political straight jacket, designed so as to prevent any further ideas of expansion. An enlarged kingdom of the Netherlands had been established in the north, the Prussians had been given a foothold in the Rhineland, and Austria had acquired territory in northern Italy, - all traditional areas of French ambition. Internally, however, where the revolutionary spirit was still very much alive, the return of a Bourbon monarchy was unlikely to be tolerated. Louis XVIII watched his every step and managed to survive but, as we shall see, the accession of his reactionary brother, Charles X, was to end in rebellion and his overthrow in 1830 (W4).

Click Map to EnlargexxxxxPrussia retained the Polish territory gained in the previous partitions, together with the province of Posen and the cities of Danzig and Thorn. The Grand Duchy of Berg was acquired from Germany, together with territory from Saxony (about two fifths) and the Dutchy of Westphalia. Furthermore, Prussia was also ceded Swedish Pomerania and the Rhine Province, the latter at the insistence of Castlereagh, who was anxious to provide a bulwark against France and the new kingdom of the Netherlands. These acquisitions put Prussia firmly back on the map, but for some time she was overshadowed by Austria, her more powerful neighbour. As we shall see, however, given time and the rise of their formidable leader Otto von Bismarck, this neighbour was to be cut to size in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 (Va), and Prussia was to emerge as the undisputed leader of a united Germany.

xxxxxRussia received the greater part of the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw, and retained Finland (taken from Sweden in 1808) and Bessarabia (taken from Turkey in 1812). The area obtained from the Duchy of Warsaw was designated the ”Congress Kingdom of Poland”, but it was placed strictly under the Tsar's sovereignty and incorporated as a separate kingdom under the Russian empire. However, within this area the district of Poznan was given over to Prussia, and Cracow was declared a free city. The Congress thrust Tsar Alexander I into the very front of European politics. He posed as a man with liberal intentions, and his idea of a “Holy Alliance” seemed to confirm that, but he was a reactionary at heart, and his successor Nicholas I, was even more so. And there was, too, the imminent break-up of the Turkish Empire, and the fear of Russian ambitions in that area. As we shall see, the Russian occupation of Moldavia and Walachia (modern Romania) in July 1853 confirmed that fear, and sparked off the Crimean War in October 1853 (Va).

xxxxxThexGerman states (reduced from 300 to 39) were formed into a German Confederation and a Diet was set up under the Presidency of Austria. Each state was to be independent for internal affairs, but war could not be waged between states, and warfare against a foreign state required the sanction of the Confederacy. Hanover was made into a kingdom, and Bavaria acquired territory along the Rhine, including the city of Mainz. The Confederation took some time to gel, but some progress was made in 1834 by the establishment of a customs union, the Zollverein, under Prussian leadership. An attempt at unity failed in 1848 but, as we shall see, the Prussian victories over the Austrians in 1866 (Va) and then the French in 1870, was to lead to the formation of the German Empire, due mainly to the efforts of the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

xxxxxAustria was restored almost to its pre-war size, and, to compensate for its loss of the Austrian Netherlands, received the Italian territories of Venetia, Lombardy and Milan, as well as the Illyrian provinces (which included Trieste). In addition, eastern Galicia was retained in Poland, and the Tyrol and Salzburg were taken from Germany. Over the next thirty-three years Austria’s chancellor, the reactionary Metternich (illustrated), was to dominate European affairs. Using the Holy Alliance to his advantage, he crushed all signs of nationalism and liberalism in Austria, Germany and Italy, and at the Congress of Troppau in 1820, championed the right of the great powers to intervene in the internal affairs of any state in order to crush a rebellion against a legitimate sovereign. As we shall see, his fall came in 1848 (Va), a year of European revolutions which were largely of his own making.


xxxxxItaly remained, in the words of Metternich, “a geographical expression”. Ferdinand I was recognised as the king of Naples and Sicily; the Pope received the Legation of Bologna and the bulk of Ferrara, and Tuscany and Modena were assigned to Habsburg princes. The kingdom of Sardinia was restored and regained Savoy, Nice and Piedmont, as well as Genoa and Liguria. In addition, Parma, Piacenza and Guastella were granted to the Empress Marie Louise (consort of the deposed Napoleon) for her lifetime. But whilst Italy might well be termed a “geographical expression” in 1815, it was also a geographical entity, due to the Alps in the north and the Mediterranean in the south. Secret societies, like the Carbonari, and the open Young Italy movement, founded by the revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini in 1831, sought independence for the peninsula and, as we shall see, took up the armed struggle in earnest in 1848 (Va).

xxxxxThe Low Countries became the Kingdom of the Netherlands, made up of the former United Provinces and the Austrian Netherlands, and placed under the sovereignty of the House of Orange. At the same time the king of the Netherlands was made Grand Duke of Luxembourg and, as such, became a member of the German Confederation. The establishment of this kingdom across the North Sea was important to the British government, but, as foreseen by many, this union of Protestant Dutch and Roman Catholic Belgians had little hope of a stable future. As we shall see, in 1831 (W4) the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston (illustrated), was to play a prominent part in negotiating Belgian independence under Leopold I.

xxxxxSweden retained Norway (conceded by Denmark at the Peace of Kiel in 1814), but the Norwegians were guaranteed their “liberties and rights”. Pomerania, which had been ceded to Denmark at the Peace of Kiel, was given over to Prussia, but the Danes were compensated by acquiring the Duchy of Lauenburg in northern Germany. The Union between Sweden and Norway was never successful. Norway looked upon it as a union of equal states, whilst Sweden regarded Norway as a conquered territory. As we shall see, after many years of constitutional crises, Norway gained its full independence in 1905.

xxxxxGreat Britain retained the islands of Malta and Heligoland and, in addition received Mauritius, Tobago and Santa Lucia from France, Trinidad from Spain, and Ceylon and the Cape of Good Hope and Dutch Guiana from Holland - all strategically valuable, and adding considerably to Britain’s growing empire. When the Revolutionary Wars began in 1792 Britain possessed 26 overseas possessions; by 1816 that number had increased to 43. As the major colonial power in the world, Britain pursued a vigorous foreign policy and, for the most part, this supported liberalism and nationalism, as in the case of Greece in 1821 (G4) and Belgium in 1831 (W4). However, where policy so dictated, support could also be given towards illiberal regimes like the Turkish Empire, where the primary need was to put a curb on Russian expansion into the Mediterranean. The result was the Crimean War of 1853-56.


xxxxxSpain saw the return of Ferdinand VII, and lost Trinidad to Britain, and Portugal lost Guiana to France. Switzerland was increased in size from 19 to 22 cantons (Geneva, Wallis and Neuchatel), provided with a new constitution, and recognized as a confederation of independent cantons, its neutrality guaranteed by the Great Powers.


The Congress System

and the Barbary Pirates

xxxxxWhilst in session, the Congress of Vienna had turned its attention to the Barbary Pirates. As we have seen (1638 C1), by the reign of Murad IV these corsairs, based along the north coast of Africa, had become a considerable danger to shipping and coastal towns. The various groups had combined, and the use of sailing ships in place of galleys had meant that operations could be extended into the Atlantic. Over the years, various countries had attempted to destroy their bases. Then in 1801 to 1805 the United States of America waged a war against Tripoli (The Tripolitan War). This proved effective, but the overall danger remained. In 1815 the British, on behalf of the Congress of Vienna, attempted to reach a settlement. When this failed, in 1816 they joined with the Dutch in bombarding the city of Algiers. A tentative agreement was then reached, but a further bombardment was necessary in 1824, and it was not until 1830, when the French occupied the city, that piracy was totally suppressed. The French made Algeria a colony in 1843, and then became responsible for the protectorates of Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1911. A year later Italy gained control of Libya. By then the Barbary Pirates had long ceased to exist.

xxxxxBy the 1500s the Barbary Pirates, based along the North African coast, had become a serious menace to merchant shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. Emperor Charles V launched an attack upon them in 1535, and the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571, brought a brief respite, but, as we have seen (1638 C1), by the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV the various groups had combined forces and, by using sailing boats instead of galleys, had increased their activities and extended their operations into the Atlantic. Raids were made upon towns along the southern coasts of Ireland and England in order to capture slaves, for example, and shipping was attacked as far south as the Canary Islands and as far north as Iceland. The Barbary States became so powerful that many European states paid indemnities to their rulers to save their shipping from attack, though such agreements were not always honoured. Over the years numerous attacks were launched against the pirates’ strongholds, but none was successful in the long term, and the plundering continued throughout the 18th century.

xxxxxInxthe opening years of the 19th century the United States - having had their shipping attacked despite blackmail agreements with Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis - went on the offensive against Tripoli (now Libya). In the war that followed, the so called Tripolitan War of 1801 to 1805 (see map below), the U.S. navy met with some success, as did their attack upon Algiers in 1815. In that year, however, the Congress of Vienna took up the issue. Delegates were unanimous in wishing to bring an end to these acts of piracy, and their resolve was strengthened when pirates based in Tunisia raided the coast of Sardinia and carried off over 150 inhabitants. Great Britain was assigned the task of conducting a negotiated settlement, but when this failed in 1816, a combined Anglo-Dutch naval force severely bombarded Algiers. As a result some 3,000 prisoners were released and a fresh set of promises was made. However, a further bombardment of Algiers proved necessary in 1824, carried out by a British fleet, and it was not until the French actually conquered the pirate city in 1830, and made Algeria a colonial possession in 1847, that piracy was eventually suppressed. There followed the French protectorates of Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1911, and, a year later, the Italian take-over of Tripoli and Cyrenaica (today’s Libya). By then, the Barbary Pirates had long ceased to exist.

xxxxxThe settlement hammered out at the Congress of Vienna was the most extensive and comprehensive that Europe had ever witnessed. It was, to a very large extent, a turning back of the political clock. There was little if any regard for the civil rights and freedoms which had inspired the French Revolution and plunged Europe into turmoil. However, it achieved its primary aim - the prospect of peace after two decades of war. By a strategy of checks and balances, Europe was given forty years of respite from localised conflict, and nearly a century before the next war of continental dimensions - the First World War of 1914-18. And whilst liberalism was not on the agenda, it was not smothered in the process. And neither was the principle of national self-determination. As we shall see, there was to be a series of revolts against the “Conservative Order” in the coming years.

xxxxxFurthermore, the Congress of Vienna was something of a water-shed in the history of international relations. It evoked the idea that a “Congress” could and should be held not simply to settle the peace after a war, but to preserve the peace in order to avoid the resort to war. There followed, therefore, what came to be known as the “Congress System”, an early attempt at international co-operation when peace was threatened. The Quadruple Alliance, first formed between Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1814, now became the means of settling disputes in conference. (Made the Quintuple Alliance with the inclusion of France in 1818.) This “Concert of Europe” which functioned on and off throughout the 19th century, had the merit of enhancing diplomatic relations between nations. However, aimed principally at upholding the decisions taken at Vienna, it stifled national aspirations, and virtually ignored the demand for social and political change. This brought about the unrest of 1830 (W4) and the revolutions of 1848 (Va). In addition, it did not widen its scope to include the Eastern Question, raised by the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and this resulted in the first major breach in European peace - the Crimean War of 1853-1856.

xxxxxIncidentally, although representing the vanquished, the French delegate to the Conference, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), took a leading part in the settlement, and showed consummate skill in the negotiations. Taking advantage of the various rifts between the victors, he obtained very lenient terms for France, all things considered. And he used his diplomatic talent to advantage. By the end of his career he had successfully served the republic, the empire, and two Bourbon monarchs!


Congress: by the French painter Jean Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855), 1819. Map (Prussia): Metternich: detail, by the English portrait painter Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), 1815 – Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna. Palmerston: by the British artist Francis Cruikshank (1825-1881), c1855 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Map (Europe): licensed under Creative Commons. Author: The International Commission and Association on Nobility – https;// Talleyrand: detail, by the French painter François Gérard (1770-1837), 1808 – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Map (Barbary Coast):