By Janet Sloss
Britain’s Last Conquest of Menorca 1798 - 1802
© 2002 Bonaventura Press
Anyone familiar with the various English administrations in Menorca in the eighteenth century will be aware of the intense hostility to the Protestant occupiers from the Catholic church, which went to extravagant lengths to hold on to its power. Charles Stuart faced this “new and ticklish subject of church management” openly. On arrival, he stated that “the support and protection of the prevailing religion will be one of the principal objects of His Majesty's government,” but, and it was a big but, with these qualifications: “all spiritual affairs will be left to the church with reference to His Holiness the Pope through the mediation of His Majesty's government; what concerns the criminal and personal affairs of the clergy will be hereafter regulated; proper application will be made to His Holiness the Pope to separate the See of Minorca from that of Valencia; and church dignitaries will be recommended by the bishop and appointed by the governor.” On all questions, Stuart pronounced himself in charge.
After putting it off as long as he could, Bishop Vila went to Mahon to take the oath of allegiance to the British king, with English officers and Menorcan magistrates present to witness this act of duty.
The conditions on which Stuart felt himself authorised to admit the bishop’s
ecclesiastical jurisdiction were:
In a formal letter, the bishop replied: “The object of my arrival
is only to have the honour of preaching the sermon of fidelity that I
owe to His Britannic Majesty in your hands, requiring me to make this
religious act with the greatest solemnity and distinction as required
by the Episcopate.” 22
Stuart confined the bishop to Ciudadela and when the bishop objected to several points, refused to give him a pass to go to London to complain, whereupon the bishop asked for permission for his named representative to go, which was also denied.
It is not surprising that the English met such intractable opposition from the Catholic church at that time. Compared to the civilised progress of the ‘Enlightenment’ (thought free from superstition or prejudice) in other European countries, Spain was the epitome of backwardness and superstition. After the beheading of Louis XV, anti-French and anti-revolutionary sentiment took over in Spain. Liberals and progressives were considered traitors, and were forced to flee the country. Adding fuel to the fire, the king tried to put some money in his empty treasury by confiscating church land and revenues. Governor Erskine advised London: “By the last intelligence I have received from Spain, I am informed that the Court has seized upon all the lands belonging to the hospitals, charitable foundations, principal colleges and religious orders. The property is to be sold, the purchase money applied to the uses of the state, and the royal treasury is to allow to the former proprietors an interest of 3 percent upon the amount of the produce. I learn also from a Menorcan lately escaped from Majorca, that the sale of the property had actually commenced in that island, that the regular orders were restricted (confined) to their convents and gardens, and that he himself had actually seen 150 houses, and 10 or 12 farms put up to auction.
“The King has also reduced the number of prebends in each chapter to four, and has assumed to himself the revenue of the remainder. I leave to you to judge how much these extraordinary changes…must affect the internal state of that kingdom, more especially when we consider the inordinate influence possessed by the clergy, and particularly by the friars of the different orders, over the minds of the people. And it cannot be doubted but that they will all very sensibly feel and resent so sudden and violent an attack upon their interests and power.”
Bishop Anthony Vila, appointed the year before, was fighting a losing battle, bringing with him to English governed Menorca all the intolerance and lust for power of the church's struggle on the mainland. He was even authorised to re-introduce the Inquisition which had been abolished in Menorca by Governor Kane in 1715. Under a Spanish government, the clergy had always been taxed but had never paid the tax on various pretexts. Stuart got around the problem by ordering the bishop, rectors and wealthy convents to contribute certain fixed sums annually for the upkeep of the Foundling Hospital, to which no one could object. The bishop consented and claimed to have told the rectors to pay the contributions, but the rectors told the people that the Catholic religion was endangered by it and that whoever asked contributions from the clergy would be excommunicated. The bishop tried to pretend that he had not been understood, but continued to tell the clergy not to pay taxes or take any orders from the civil government of the island. “Ecclesiastical authority is superior to common law.”
By ordering the rectors and wealthier convents to contribute to the orphanage instead of paying secular taxes, Stuart claimed that: “every ground for jealousy on the one part was removed while on the other hand by re-endowing the poor and needy female convents without any expense to the public and demonstrating to the clergy the advantages the church had obtained by the last establishment and provision for a Menorcan bishop and thirteen prebendaries, excluding all mainland Spaniards from the chapter in future, and allowing the succession to these posts (dignities) from henceforward to be their sole right, they had no just cause to be dissatisfied.”
The bishop continued to frustrate Stuart's orders. A small church in
Mahon, St Joseph's, was requisitioned for use by the garrison. It had
been used for that purpose before 1771. After long delays, it was given
up but when an image of the virgin was removed, it was carried in a public
procession and the bishop granted indulgences to everyone who would attend,
“particularly to those who carried lighted tapers” to condemn
this blasphemous act.
Fox, however, found it impossible to control his temper with Vila. Whereas
Sir Charles Stuart would undoubtedly have simply repeated the bishop’s
acceptance of his regulations, Fox kept the quarrel alive with a constant
correspondence, not only with the bishop but with the minister of war
in London. In February, 1801, he wrote to Lord Dundas, “I am sorry
to … trouble you with so long a detail relative to the Illustrious
Bishop of Minorca, but as he seems upon all occasions determined to oppose
the civil government of the Island, and impede the ordinary course of
law and justice, I have conceived it necessary to lay before you …
a statement of every transaction with him from the day of Sir Charles
In March, he suspended the bishop and told Orfila, the civil assessor, to enforce the bishop’s obedience to the original decree, adding that the affair would be settled in a British court, not an ecclesiastical court.
In June, when the bishop was seen cheering French and Spanish ships, Fox was at his wits’ end. He wrote to London: “…unless some steps are taken with regard to the Bishop of Minorca, it will be impossible to carry on His Majesty’s government and indeed nothing but the natural good temper, love of order and decency and general good disposition of by far the greater part of the Minorquins of all ranks have kept things together hitherto. Every act of government, both civil and military, is represented by the bishop and his adherents among the clergy … in the most odious light, either as undermining the religion of the country or adverse to the comfort of the inhabitants, the greatest part of whom by the terrors of excommunication he keeps in perpetual apprehension; and he constantly holds out to them that the island, if not re-conquered, must inevitably be ceded to Spain upon the event of a peace.” 25
In July, 1801, Fox was relieved to learn that King George had given permission for the bishop to go to England. However, Vila announced that he would go by way of Rome, “as it’s more safe” and demanded contributions from every Menorcan parishioner to pay for the expenses of his voyage. Not all rectors were happy with this. One wrote to the bishop, “In this town, the exercise of our holy religion is perfectly free, and I have not the least reason … to make me think it in any way in danger in any part of this island. On the contrary, I am informed the desire of the commander in chief has been by no means to permit the exercise of our religion… to be disturbed…On this ground, it appears to me that by publishing the exhortation and the public begging your reverend has directed me to make would not only make me alarm the people but indispose me with the governor. Please let me off.” The bishop’s reply was curt. “Execute with exactness the order I transmitted to you.” He named Doctor Bartolomeo Taltavull vicar general for the time being, ordering him to resist all civil power and to persecute any individual who acted in support of it. Nicolas Orfila immediately sequestered church funds, but the bishop left on August 2nd, with money and passes.
The bishop’s mischief making did not end with his departure from the island. At the end of 1801, and again at the beginning of 1802, he wrote from London that King George had annulled all Stuart’s and Fox’s orders. His followers immediately celebrated this false announcement in public. 26
22 WO1/296 “L’objet de mon arrivee n’est
autre que d’avoir l’honneur de preter le serment de fidelite
que je dois a Sa Majeste Britannique entre vos mains, exigeant mon caracter
de faire cet acte de religion avec la plus grande solemnite et avec tout
l’eclat qu’exige l’Episcopat.”
Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson
Emma, Lady Hamilton
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