FESCH, JOSEPH (1763-1839), cardinal, was born at Ajaccio on the 3rd of January 1763. His father, a Swiss officer in the service of the Genoese Republic, had married the mother of Laetitia Bonaparte, after the decease of her first husband. Fesch therefore stood almost in the relation of an uncle to the young Bonapartes, and after the death of Lucien Bonaparte, archdeacon of Ajaccio, he became for a time the protector and patron of the family. In the year 1789, when the French Revolution broke out, he was archdeacon of Ajaccio, and, like the majority of the Corsicans, he felt repugnance for many of the acts of the French government during that period; in particular he protested against the application to Corsica of the act known as the "Civil Constitution of the Clergy" (July 1790). As provost of the "chapter" in that city he directly felt the pressure of events; for on the suppression of religious orders and corporations, he was constrained to retire into private life.
Thereafter he shared the fortunes of the Bonaparte family in the intrigues and strifes which ensued. Drawn gradually by that family into espousing the French cause against Paoli and the Anglophiles, he was forced to leave Corsica and to proceed with Laetitia and her son to Toulon, in the early part of the autumn of 1793. Failing to find clerical duties at that time (the period of the Terror), he entered civil life, and served in various capacities, until on the appointment of Napoleon Bonaparte to the command of the French "Army of Italy" he became a commissary attached to that army. This part of his career is obscure and without importance. His fortunes rose rapidly on the attainment of the dignity of First Consul by his former charge, Napoleon, after the coup d'état of Brumaire (November 1799). Thereafter, when the restoration of the Roman Catholic religion was in the mind of the First Consul, Fesch resumed his clerical vocation and took an active part in the complex negotiations which led to the signing of the Concordat with the Holy See on the 15th of July 1801. His reward came in the prize of the archbishopric of Lyons, on the duties of which he entered in August 1802. Six months later he received a still more signal reward for his past services, being raised to the dignity of cardinal.
In 1804 on the retirement of Cacault from the position of French ambassador at Rome, Fesch received that important appointment. He was assisted by Châteaubriand, but soon sharply differed with him on many questions. Towards the close of the year 1804 Napoleon entrusted to Fesch the difficult task of securing the presence of Pope Pius VII. at the forthcoming coronation of the emperor at Notre Dame, Paris (Dec. 2nd, 1804). His tact in overcoming the reluctance of the pope to be present at the coronation (it was only eight months after the execution of the duc d'Enghien) received further recognition. He received the grand cordon of the Legion of Honour, became grand-almoner of the empire and had a seat in the French senate. He was to receive further honours. In 1806 one of the most influential of the German clerics, Karl von Dalberg, then prince bishop of Regensburg, chose him to be his coadjutor and designated him as his successor.
Events, however, now occurred which overclouded his prospects. In the course of the years 1806-1807 Napoleon came into sharp collision with the pope on various matters both political and religious. Fesch sought in vain to reconcile the two potentates. Napoleon was inexorable in his demands, and Pius VII. refused to give way where the discipline and vital interests of the church seemed to be threatened. The emperor on several occasions sharply rebuked Fesch for what he thought to be weakness and ingratitude. It is clear, however, that the cardinal went as far as possible in counselling the submission of the spiritual to the civil power. For a time he was not on speaking terms with the pope; and Napoleon recalled him from Rome.
Affairs came to a crisis in the year 1809, when Napoleon issued at Vienna the decree of the 17th of May, ordering the annexation of the papal states to the French empire. In that year Napoleon conferred on Fesch the archbishopric of Paris, but he refused the honour. He, however, consented to take part in an ecclesiastical commission formed by the emperor from among the dignitaries of the Gallican Church, but in 1810 the commission was dissolved. The hopes of Fesch with respect to Regensburg were also damped by an arrangement of the year 1810 whereby Regensburg was absorbed in Bavaria.
In the year 1811 the emperor convoked a national council of Gallican clerics for the discussion of church affairs, and Fesch was appointed to preside over their deliberations. Here again, however, he failed to satisfy the inflexible emperor and was dismissed to his diocese. The friction between uncle and nephew became more acute in the following year. In June 1812, Pius VII. was brought from his first place of detention, Savona, to Fontainebleau, where he was kept under surveillance in the hope that he would give way in certain matters relating to the Concordat and in other clerical affairs. Fesch ventured to write to the aged pontiff a letter which came into the hands of the emperor. His anger against Fesch was such that he stopped the sum of 150,000 florins which had been accorded to him. The disasters of the years 1812-1813 brought Napoleon to treat Pius VII. with more lenity and the position of Fesch thus became for a time less difficult. On the first abdication of Napoleon (April 11th, 1814) and the restoration of the Bourbons, he, however, retired to Rome where he received a welcome. The events of the Hundred Days (March-June, 1815) brought him back to France; he resumed his archiepiscopal duties at Lyons and was further named a member of the senate. On the second abdication of the emperor (June 22nd, 1815) Fesch retired to Rome, where he spent the rest of his days in dignified ease, surrounded by numerous masterpieces of art, many of which he bequeathed to the city of Lyons. He died at Rome on the 13th of May 1839.
See J.B. Monseigneur Lyonnet, Le Cardinal Fesch (2 vols., Lyons, 1841); Ricard, Le Cardinal Fesch (Paris, 1893); H. Welschinger, Le Pape et l'empereur (Paris, 1905); F. Masson, Napoléon et sa famille (4 vols., Paris, 1897-1900).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)