Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca

When Napoleon III realized that France could not profit from the war it was waging with Sardinia-Piedmont against Austria, he met with Francis Joseph I, with whom he arranged an armistice that had the effect of furthering the cause of Italian unification.

Summary of Event

On April 29, 1859, Austria declared war on the Italian kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. Sardinia-Piedmont
Austria;and Sardinia-Piedmont[Sardinia-Piedmont] Four days later, France entered the war against Austria. The three combatants were under the titular command of their three sovereigns, even though neither Napoleon III nor Francis Joseph had ever commanded an army on the battlefield. The Franco-Sardinian allies soon won two signal victories at Magenta and Solferino. By the end of June, the allies held most of Lombardy Lombardy , and their fleets were concentrating in the Adriatic Sea, preparing to launch an amphibious attack on Austrian-ruled Venetia. Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01]
Francis Joseph I
[p]Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01];and Napoleon III[Napoleon 03]
France;and Austria[Austria]
Austria;and France[France]
Villafranca, Armistice of (1859)
Cavour, Count
[kw]Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca (July 11, 1859)
[kw]Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca, Napoleon III and (July 11, 1859)
[kw]Villafranca, Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at (July 11, 1859)
[kw]Meet at Villafranca, Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I (July 11, 1859)
Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01]
Francis Joseph I
[p]Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01];and Napoleon III[Napoleon 03]
France;and Austria[Austria]
Austria;and France[France]
Villafranca, Armistice of (1859)
Cavour, Count
[g]France;July 11, 1859: Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca[3310]
[g]Austria;July 11, 1859: Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca[3310]
[g]Italy;July 11, 1859: Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca[3310]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 11, 1859: Napoleon III and Francis Joseph I Meet at Villafranca[3310]
Napoleon, Prince
Victor Emmanuel II

At Plombières in July of 1858, Napoleon III had pledged that he would sustain war against Austria until Sardinia might acquire Lombardy and Venetia Venetia . Nevertheless, continuing the war posed dangers to discourage Napoleon III. At a personal level, the excessive heat and the hideous bloodshed disturbed him. He was also distressed by the fact that Sardinian troops had invaded territories belonging to the pope, and he was receiving reports from home that the deeply pious Roman Catholic French peasantry regretted sending their sons to fight in such a war. Napoleon’s greatest fear, however, concerned the behavior of the German states.

At the outbreak of the war, Prussia Prussia;and France[France]
France;and Prussia[Prussia] had convened a meeting of the German Confederation and persuaded its members to mobilize their forces as “an army of observation.” Baron Alexander von Schleinitz, Prussia’s foreign minister, had assured the French that nothing hostile was implied in the massing of one-half million men on the Rhine River. Nevertheless, it was obvious that the 150,000 French troops guarding the Rhine would be overwhelmed if the Germans were to enter the war on Austria’s side. Napoleon III had no certain information to confirm his fears, but in fact, Prussia had opened negotiations with Austria to ensure that if Prussia entered the war, Berlin would enjoy hegemony in Germany. Nevertheless, the Austrians had no desire to surrender dominance in Germany to their hated rival, Prussia, in order to save their position in Italy.

Meanwhile, Napoleon’s consort, Empress Eugénie, Eugénie
Napoleon III
[p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Eugénie[Eugénie] who was serving as regent during his absence from Paris, was horrified by the evidence that the German threat on the Rhine was becoming dangerous. In actuality, the German mobilization of 1859 was so inefficient that the Germans would not have been ready for war for at least a year. Lacking accurate intelligence reports, however, Eugénie was so distressed that she sent repeated telegrams to the emperor, imploring him to return home immediately.

Only one thing gave Napoleon confidence. On March 3, 1859, France and Russia France;and Russia[Russia]
Russia;and France[France] had signed a secret treaty in which Russia pledged to maintain a benevolent neutrality during any French war against Austria. The treaty did not commit the Russians to fight Austria, but Napoleon knew that the Russians would have been happy to join the fight if doing so would win them territorial concessions in the Black Sea Black Sea;and Russia[Russia] , the Balkans, Balkans or Poland. Poland;and Russia[Russia]
Russia;and Poland[Poland] However, Napoleon’s hopes for aid were dashed on July 4, when Czar Alexander II’s aide-de-camp, Count Shuvalov Shuvalov, Count , arrived at his field headquarters to inform him that even if the Germans attacked France, Russia would remain neutral.

For Napoleon, that was the last straw, persuading him to quit the war. Information had just reached the French foreign minister confirming that the British were considering offering a set of peace proposals as a neutral mediator. Although the British had already decided against intruding in the war, Napoleon was convinced that they might do so. On the other hand, Austria knew perfectly well that Prussia wished to serve as mediator, but on terms which Austria could not accept. Napoleon surmised that Prussia wished to play that role, though he did not know precisely what their conditions might be. He guessed correctly, however, that Austria would not accept the terms that Berlin might dictate.

Therefore, on July 5, Napoleon sent his aide-de-camp, General Fleury, under a flag of truce to deliver a cleverly worded note to Emperor Francis Joseph. It read,

They inform me from Paris that a great power is going to make an armistice proposal to the belligerents. If this proposition were accepted by Your Majesty, I would want to know it because then I would have the order given to the fleet, which is going to attack Venice Venice , to do nothing, for it is our duty to avoid shedding blood uselessly.

On the morning of July 6, a delighted General Fleury was entrusted with Francis Joseph’s note agreeing to enter armistice negotiations at the town of Villafranca.

On July 8, two French generals and one Sardinian officer met the chief of the Austrian general staff, Baron von Hess, to arrange a cease-fire. Fighting was to be suspended until August 16. Count Cavour, the Sardinian prime minister, was not told anything until after the cease-fire had been arranged. As King Victor Emmanuel II Victor Emmanuel II was fully a party to the agreement, Cavour was furious at what he regarded as betrayal. He hastened to the king’s headquarters at Monzambano, where he arrived in the evening of July 9.

By then, it was too late to reverse the decision to make peace. All that Cavour could do was to lose his temper before the king and offer his resignation from office. Before doing so, however, Cavour sent telegraphic orders to all Sardinian officials in the central Italian lands that had been occupied during the war by his troops. They were instructed to administer an oath of allegiance to Victor Emmanuel to all public officials in occupied Parma, Tuscany, Modena, the Emilia, and the Romagna. Thereby, Cavour moved to annex those central Italian states, which before the war had belonged to pro-Austrian sovereigns.

Meanwhile, Napoleon’s peace negotiations had continued. On July 8, Napoleon had sent his cousin, Prince Murat, to Francis Joseph’s headquarters with a proposal that the two emperors meet face-to-face to set forth the outlines of an armistice. The emperor of Austria replied cautiously that he would agree to such a meeting, but only if the contents of the agreement were settled in advance. On July 9, he sent Prince Alexander of Hesse to French headquarters at Valeggio to begin serious discussions.

Napoleon argued effectively that only Prussia could profit from the continuation of the war, emerging as the dominant German power, to the detriment of Austria. Napoleon emphasized that he had entered the war only to secure the independence of the Italian states and that he would be satisfied if that goal was attained. Alexander of Hesse, however, insisted that Austria would not surrender Venetia Venetia , although the transfer of Lombardy Lombardy was assured.

On July 11, the two emperors met for the first time at Villafranca. Nothing was put in writing, but the sovereigns confirmed the oral agreement that the prince of Hesse had negotiated. Immediately after returning to Valeggio, Napoleon informed Victor Emmanuel Victor Emmanuel II of everything that had been agreed. The king indicated his willingness to accede to the agreement only with regard to what concerned him directly. Having done that, the emperor summoned his cousin, Prince Napoleon, Napoleon, Prince and ordered him to visit Francis Joseph and return with a formally written and signed armistice. As Prince Napoleon was the heir to the Bonaparte throne after Napoleon III’s only son, and as he was married to Victor Emmanuel’s daughter, his service as negotiator enjoyed special significance.

On July 11, Prince Napoleon met Francis Joseph at Villafranca and set in writing the agreement reached earlier. Lombardy Lombardy would be ceded to France, which could yield it to Sardinia. The treaty made that provision because it was too painful for Austrian pride to concede anything directly to despised Sardinia. Other than that, Francis Joseph insisted that the deposed duke of Modena, the grand duke of Tuscany, and the papal authorities in the Emilia and the Romagna be restored. By omitting mention of Parma, Francis Joseph seemed to be conceding Sardinia’s freedom to digest that small duchy. Napoleon managed to include reference to his long cherished project of creating an Italian confederation with its capital at Rome, which would control diplomatic, military, and financial affairs for the entire peninsula, while allowing the disparate princes to retain their thrones. The emperor of Austria was to belong to the confederation as duke of Venetia Venetia , and the pope was to be the honorary president of the confederation.


As it turned out, the only provision of the Armistice of Villafranca that was ever put into effect was the cession of Lombardy Lombardy to Sardinia. Long before the war was formally ended by the Treaty of Zurich Zurich, Treaty of (1859) on November 10, 1859, most of the premises of Villafranca were obsolete. When Cavour returned to office on January 16, 1860, he was ready to take advantage of those opportunities which created the kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Further Reading

  • Beller, Steven. Francis Joseph. London: Longman, 1996. Chronicle of Francis Joseph’s long reign that places the significance of his reign in the history of his times.
  • Blumberg, Arnold. A Carefully Planned Accident: The Italian War of 1859. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1990. Description of the diplomacy leading up to and after the war, based on French, Austrian, British, Prussian, Italian, and other archival sources.
  • Bresler, Fenton. Napoleon III: A Life. London: HarperCollins, 1999. Popular and accessible biography of Napoleon III that provides a wealth of detail and a thorough analysis of Napoleon’s personal life and public career.
  • Case, Lynn M. French Opinion on War and Diplomacy During the Second Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954. Examines the use of regular reports from departmental officials that enabled Napoleon III to estimate the reaction of public opinion to his policies.
  • Delzell, Charles F., ed. The Unification of Italy, 1859-1861: Cavour, Mazzini, or Garibaldi? New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965. Examination of the roles of Count Cavour and other leaders of the Risorgimento in the unification of Italy.
  • Di Scala, Spencer. Italy from Revolution to Republic: 1700 to the Present. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. General history of Italy that includes a section on the Risorgimento unification movement and the war with Austria.
  • Echard, William E. Napoleon III and the Concert of Europe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. Biography that uses diplomatic archival material to discover the means whereby Napoleon avoided serious confrontations with the other major powers.
  • Palmer, Alan. Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph. New York: Grove Press, 1995. Comprehensive and three-dimensional portrait of Francis Joseph I that chronicles the emperor’s personal tragedies and public concern for his empire’s survival.
  • Price, Roger. The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Study of Napoleon III’s political career that examines his election to the presidency, his coup that established the Second Empire, and his use of the empire’s power to initiate liberal reforms and wage a disastrous war against Prussia.

Italian Revolution of 1848

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Italy Is Proclaimed a Kingdom

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

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