Revolutions of 1820

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revolution in spain
revolution in italy
end of the spanish revolution
the greek revolution

The revolutions of 1820 were the first challenge to the conservative order of Europe established after the fall of Napoleon I in 1815. Though most ended in failure, they demonstrated the rising strength of the liberal-nationalist movement that would eventually sweep away the conservative order.


The years following 1815 were generally quiet. Most Europeans were satisfied to see peace and order restored after years of revolution and war. But the liberal-nationalist minority, deeply discontented, organized secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the existing order. The most important was the Carbonari, which played a key role in the 1820 revolutions.

revolution in spain

The revolutions began in Spain, where King Ferdinand VII followed a firmly reactionary policy. Moreover, his determination to restore Spanish rule over its rebellious American colonies was proving costly in lives and money and seemed increasingly hopeless. On 1 January 1820 the liberal officers of a regiment destined to sail for South America rose in revolt and marched on Madrid, demanding a constitution. Decisive action by the king might have stopped them, because they had little popular support, but his indecision and incompetence allowed the revolt to gain headway. In March the rebels entered Madrid. Ferdinand was forced to grant a constitution, but secretly appealed to the conservative powers to aid him in overthrowing it.

The powers were alarmed by the reappearance of revolution, but divided in their response. Alexander I, tsar of Russia, urged a joint intervention by the Quintuple Alliance, the union of great powers set up after the Napoleonic wars to keep the

peace. The British foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, rejected his suggestion, arguing that the alliance had no right to intervene against revolution unless it threatened other states. France was indecisive. The Austrian chancellor, Prince Clemens von Metternich, although generally hostile to revolution, opposed intervention. He did not wish to alienate Britain and perhaps drive it from the alliance, and in any case, Spain was too distant to be a threat to Austria. In the face of this opposition, the tsar temporarily dropped his proposal.

revolution in italy

Metternich's attitude quickly changed, however, when the Spanish example provoked imitation in Italy. In July 1820, liberal army officers, members of the Carbonari, revolted against Ferdinand I, the reactionary king of the Two Sicilies, demanding a constitution. This revolt too succeeded mainly because of the incompetence and cowardice of the king, who, in fear of his life, on 13 July 1820 promised a constitution. The new government won some support from moderate liberals among the landowners, but they were soon alarmed at the radical demands of the Carbonari, and quarreling between the two factions broke out. The revolutionary regime was further distracted by revolt in Sicily, which had long resented rule from Naples and demanded autonomy. The Neapolitan government decided to suppress the Sicilians, and this too weakened the revolution.

It was not these internal quarrels, however, that caused the revolution to fail, but Austrian intervention. Metternich could not ignore the revolt in Naples as he had that in Spain, for it threatened one of the pillars of Austria's international position, its predominance in Italy. A liberal Naples would surely reject Austrian tutelage; moreover, the example of its success would inspire imitation elsewhere in Italy. The Austrian army could easily suppress the revolution, but there were international complications. Castlereagh had no objections to Austrian intervention, but insisted that it must intervene unilaterally, not in the name of the alliance, whose general right of intervention he could no more accept in Italy than in Spain. France, an old rival of Austria for predominance in Italy, was inclined to support the revolutionary regime as a means of replacing Austrian influence at Naples with its own. Though the tsar agreed that the revolution must be suppressed, he was unwilling to give Austria a free hand, insisting that it could intervene only in the name of the alliance and under its supervision. He demanded a conference of the powers to work out terms on which intervention could take place. He also insisted that before the intervention could take place, mediation with Naples be undertaken that might avert the need for intervention, perhaps by an agreement that a more conservative constitution be adopted.

Because Russia, with its massive military power, could make Austrian intervention impossible if it chose, Metternich agreed to a conference at Troppau in October 1820. At the tsar's insistence, and at the risk of alienating Castlereagh, Metternich agreed to sign the Troppau Protocol, which proclaimed a general right of the alliance to intervene against revolution. Having thus won the tsar's agreement for intervention, he proceeded to deflect the tsar's other demands by a series of brilliant maneuvers at another conference at Laibach in early 1821. At Laibach, Metternich won full support for an intervention with no strings attached—there would be no mediation and no constitution. Now at last the Austrian army could move south. In March 1821 Austria defeated the Neapolitan army at Rieti, and easily suppressed the revolutionary regime.

Meanwhile, another revolution had been brewing in the Kingdom of Sardinia (or Piedmont-Sardinia) and the Austrian province of Lombardy. In these regions, a conspiracy was organized to drive out the Austrians and form a constitutional Kingdom of Northern Italy. The conspiracy in Lombardy was checked by the arrest of its leaders in October 1820, but in Piedmont liberal army officers rose in revolt on 10 March 1821 and demanded that the king lead them against Austria. The king refused, the powers at Laibach condemned the revolt, and loyal Piedmontese troops, aided by an Austrian contingent, quickly suppressed the rebels.

end of the spanish revolution

Attention now reverted to Spain. Though an unsuccessful royalist coup in 1822 left the liberals still in control of the king, a rival absolutist government was set up near the French border, which declared itself a regency for the king and appealed to the powers for intervention. Britain still opposed intervention, but the tsar strongly supported it, urging France to intervene on behalf of the alliance. Metternich, fearing that intervention would drive Britain from the alliance, but unwilling to offend the tsar, sought to arrange a compromise. The French, however, rejected both his compromise and a mandate from the powers, believing that unilateral intervention would win them greater prestige. France declared war and in April 1823 invaded Spain. They easily overcame all resistance, and restored Ferdinand to his throne.

the greek revolution

The Spanish and Italian revolts had failed because they had little popular support, and because the powers were united against them. Neither of those factors weakened the Greek Revolution. Greece, like all the Balkans, had long been under Turkish rule, but revolution was not inevitable. Greeks held a privileged position in the Ottoman Empire: they were generally allowed to manage their own affairs, many held high positions in the administration, and they enjoyed a near-monopoly of trade. Moreover, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople preached submission to the sultan.

The revolution came because the new idea of nationalism had begun to influence many educated Greeks, especially those living outside the Ottoman Empire. A small but active secret society, the Philike Hetairia (Society of Friends), had grown up since 1814, dedicated to Greek independence. The crisis began in March 1821 when Alexander Ypsilanti, leader of the Hetairia and a Russian general, proclaimed a revolt in Moldavia. Both his timing and his target were poor. He hoped for the support of the tsar, but Alexander was still at Laibach, under the counterrevolutionary influence of Metternich; he quickly condemned the revolt. Moreover, the Romanian inhabitants of Moldavia hated the Greeks, who governed them in the name of the sultan, and refused to rise.

Ypsilanti's revolt quickly collapsed, but not before it touched off a true revolution in Greece itself. There, Orthodox Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks lived in mutual hostility, deeply divided by religion, customs, and legal standing. The revolt that broke out in April spread with elemental fury, driven more by religion than by nationalism. Within a month, Turkish forces had been driven from southern Greece, and most of its Muslim population had been massacred. The Turks responded with their own atrocities, and on Easter Sunday, 1821, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople was hanged before the door of his own cathedral.

This was a direct challenge to Russia, which claimed a right to protect the Orthodox Church, and war seemed inevitable. Everything pushed Alexander toward war: popular religious sentiment in Russia demanded it, his foreign minister, the Greek Count John Capodistrias, urged it, the long Russian tradition of southward expansion would be served by it. But Alexander hesitated. His commitment to the counterrevolutionary cause was still great, as was his commitment to the alliance, which war might destroy, for Austria and Britain would surely oppose it. Both those powers wished to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian expansion and revolutionary Balkan nationalism. Metternich and Castlereagh used all their influence to persuade the tsar to keep the peace; and at last, in June 1822, the tsar dismissed Capodistrias and agreed to refrain from war. He kept his word until his death in 1825.

Metternich was hopeful that if he could restrain Russia, the revolt would eventually collapse. But the revolt went on, and the European situation began to change. A groundswell of popular opinion known as philhellenism developed throughout Europe. To a generation brought up on the classics, a Greek revolt had enormous emotional appeal, and when in 1824 the most famous writer in Europe, Lord Byron, died while fighting for Greece, popular pressure on Britain and France became irresistible. Moreover, the new tsar, Nicholas I, felt that Russia's failure to aid the Greeks had diminished its prestige. In 1827 he persuaded Britain and France to aid him in bringing pressure on the sultan by sending their fleets to Greece. In October 1827 their fleets destroyed the Turkish navy at Navarino. In April 1828 the tsar declared war on the sultan, and the peace signed in 1829 assured Greece its independence.

The Greek Revolution, the first break in the status quo of 1815, began a new era. As Metternich had feared, Greek victory encouraged liberal-nationalists everywhere, and marked the beginning of the end for the conservative order of Europe.

See alsoConcert of Europe; Greece; Italy; Metternich, Clemens von; Restoration.


Acton, Harold. The Last Bourbons of Naples. London, 1961.

Clogg, Richard, ed. The Struggle for Greek Independence. Hamden, Conn., 1973.

Dakin, Douglas. The Greek Struggle for Independence, 1821–1833. Berkeley, 1973.

Martínez, Rafael Bañón, and Thomas M. Barker, eds. Armed Forces and Society in Spain Past and Present. Boulder, Colo., 1988.

Romani, George T. The Neapolitan Revolution of 1820–1821. Evanston, Ill., 1950.

Schroeder, Paul W. Metternich's Diplomacy at Its Zenith, 1820–1823. Austin, Tex., 1962.

Alan J. Reinerman