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Comte de Montalembert

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Born in London, 15 April, 1810; died in Paris 13 March, 1870. His father, Marc René, had fought in the army of Condé, and had afterwards served in an English cavalry regiment; he was chosen by the Prince Regent of England to announce to Louis XVIII the Restoration of the French monarchy, and he became, under the Restoration plenipotentiary minister of Stuttgart, and, later, to Stockholm. His maternal grandfather, James Forbes, belonged to a very old Scotch Protestant family and had made many important journeys to India, which he related in the four volumes of his "Oriental Memoirs", published in 1813; he also wrote in 1810 a volume entitled "Reflections on the character of the Hindus and the necessity of converting them to Christianity".

Montalembert's mother, converted by Abbé Busson and Pàre MacCarthy, made her abjuration of heresy to Cardinal de Latil in 1822. The early years of Montalembert's life were passed in England; afterwards he studied at the Lycée Bourbon and at the Collàge Sainte-Barbe at Paris, where out of twenty pupils in the sixteenth year of their age hardly one was a practical Catholic. At Sainte-Barbe young Montalembert made a friend of Léon Cornudet, who was also a Catholic, and the letters the boys exchanged in their seventeenth year have remained famous. At that early age Montalembert wrote: "Would it not be a splendid thing to show that religion is the mother of liberty!", a phrase which was to become the motto of his whole life. In 1829 he wrote to Rio: "my age, my tastes, my future call me to support the new ideal; but my religious beliefs and moral emotions cause me to lament bitterly the bygone days, the ages of faith and self-sacrifice. If Catholicism is to triumph it must have liberty as its ally and tributary subject". Soon after its establishment in 1829 by Carné, Cazalàs, and Augustin de Meaux, with the motto (borrowed from Canning): "Civil and Religious Liberty for the whole world", the review "Le Correspondant" had Montalembert as a contributor. In September and October, 1830, he travelled in Ireland, where he met O'Connell; he was thinking of assisting the cause for which O'Connell was struggling by writing a history of Ireland, when he learned that the House of Commons had passed the Irish Emancipation Act.

While he was in Ireland he received the prospectus of the new paper "L'Avenir", founded in October, 1830, by Lamennais. On 26 Oct., 1830, he wrote to Lamennais: "All that I know, and all that I am able to do I lay at your feet". On 5 November, 1830, he met Lamennais in Paris, and on 12 November at Lamennais's house he met Lacordaire. At times, Montalembert had to smooth over some of the risky things Lamennais allowed himself to be led into writing against the royalists in the paper; on the other hand he was engaged in controversy with Lacordaire, whose idea of aristocracy and the past glory of the French nobles he considered too narrow. It was Montalembert who, the day after the sack of St. Germain l'Auxerrois by the Parisian mob, published in "L'Avenir" an eloquent article on the Cross of Christ, "which has ruled over the destinies of the modern world." He especially distinguished himself in "L'Avenir" by his campaigns in favour of freedom for Ireland and Poland, and for these he received the congratulations of Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny. In 1831 he thought of going to Poland and joining the insurgents. When the "Agence générale pour la défense de la liberté religieuse" (Central committee for the safeguarding of religious liberty), founded by the editors of "L'Avenir", had solemnly declared war on the monopoly of the French University by opening a primary school (9 May, 1831), Montalembert was indicted. As at this time by his father's death on 20 June, 1831, he became a peer of France, he demanded that he be tried by the House of Peers; and the famous "Free School Case" was heard before that assembly, 19 and 20 September, 1831.

The speech delivered by Montalembert on that occasion was a gem of eloquence. The trial ended in his condemnation to a fine of one hundred francs; but his eloquence succeeded in calling public attention to the question of freedom of teaching, which was destined not to be solved until 1850. When the last number of "L'Avenir" appeared (15 November, 1831), Montalembert accompanied Lacordaire and Lamennais to Rome. While in March, 1832, Lacordaire divined the wishes of Gregory XVI, and returned to France, Montalembert persisted in remaining in Rome with Lamennais, who insisted on a public decision by the pope concerning "L'Avenir". It was not until July that they left Rome, and the Encyclical "Mirari Vos", which overtook them at Munich, was a cause of great sorrow to them. Montalembert submitted at once, and when early in 1833 Lamennais announced his intention of again taking up his editorial work, excepting the field of theology, and concerning himself only with social and political questions, Montalembert did all he could to dissuade him from so imprudent a step. When Gregory XVI by his Brief dated 5 October 1833, found fault with the "long and violent preface" Montalembert had written for Mickiewicz's "Livre des Pélerins Polonais" and when at the end of that same year Lamennais broke away from the Church, Montalembert passed through a period of much sorrow, during which the advice of Lacordaire helped him greatly. He tried in 1834 to dissuade Lamennais from publishing Les Paroles d'un Croyant", and in vain besought him to submit to the Encyclical "Singulari nos" of 7 July, 1834. He submitted to all Gregory's decisions (8 December, 1834) and his correspondence with Lamennais ceased definitely in 1836.

In 1836 he published his "Vie de Saint Elizabeth de Hongrie" which restored hagiography in France and brought back to Catholics a taste for the supernatural as shown in the lives of the saints. On 16 August, 1836, Abbé Gerbet blessed his marriage with Mlle de Mérode, daughter of the Felix de Mérode who had taken such an important part in the insurrection of the Belgian Catholics against the government of the Low Countries, and who was descended from Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. She was the sister of Xavier de Mérode, afterwards minister of Pius IX.

In the House of Peers, Montalembert took pride in presenting himself as a Catholic first of all, at a time when as he himself wrote, "to profess or defend the Catholic faith one had to face marked unpopularity". In May, 1837, he spoke in favour of the right of the Church to own property; in Dec., 1838, when ecclesiastical burial had been refused to Montlosier by Bishop Féron of Clermont, he replied in the name of liberty of the Church to those who assailed this purely ecclesiastical act. He seconded with all his influence the re-establishment of the Benedictines by Dom Guéranger, and of the Dominicans by Lacordaire, and in 1841 he obtained from Martin du Nord, Minister of Worship, permission for Lacordaire to wear his monastic dress in the pulpit of Notre Dame. "L'Univers Religieux", a daily paper founded in 1834 by Abbé Migne, owed its solvency in 1838 to pecuniary sacrifices made by Montalembert, and it soon passed into the hands of Louis Veuillot. In June, 1845 Montalembert questioned the government concerning the measures it was about to take against the Jesuits, and a few days later, when the concessions made by the Holy See to Rossi, whom Guizot had sent to Rome, had brought about the partial dispersion of the French Jesuits, he loudly expressed his surprise and sorrow. "You are our father, our support, our friend", wrote Père de Ravignan to him. In the House he, moreover, defended the interests of foreign Catholics; in 1845, at the time of the Lebanon massacres, he questioned Guizot as to what France was doing to protect Christians in the East; in 1846 he questioned him concerning the massacres committed by Austria in Galicia, and the cruelties practised against the Poles of that province; on 11 January, 1848, he enthusiastically praised the hopes Pius IX held out to the Italian people, and reproached the government of France for the lukewarm support it gave the new pope against Metternich; on 14 January, 1848 in a speech on the Sonderbund, the finest, perhaps, he ever uttered, he impeached European radicalism, and proclaimed that France, in the face of Radicalism, was "destined to uphold the flag and safeguard the rights of liberty". Never did a speech so carry men away, wrote Sainte-Beuve.

But it was especially to secure liberty of teaching (see FRANCE and FALLOUX DU COUDRAY) that Montalembert devoted his efforts. In 1839 he addressed an eloquent letter to Villemain, minister of public instruction, demanding that liberty; in 1841 under pressure from the episcopate, he compelled Villemain to withdraw a bill on education because it was not sufficiently liberal; in his pamphlet "Du Devoir des Catholiques dans la question de la liberté d'enseignement", published in 1843, he summoned the Catholics to take part in the struggle. On 16 April, 1844, in the House of Peers, he undertook the defence of the bishops who had attacked a second bill brought in by Villemain, and he replied to Dupin, who demanded the punishment of the bishops: "We are the sons of the crusaders; and we shall never yield to the sons of Voltaire"; then again he took an active part in the discussion of the bill, which owing to Villemain's mental infirmity was abandoned. Between 1845 and 1846 he solicited petitions among the laity in support of liberty of education, and he succeeded in having 140 supporters of educational liberty elected as deputies in 1846. In 1847 he renewed the attack on the bill introduced by Salvandy and declared it unacceptable. The July monarchy fell before the question was settled. The Revolution of 1848 respected the rights of the Church and Pius IX, 26 March, 1848, wrote to Montalembert: "We gladly believe that it is in part owing to your eloquence, which has endeared your name to your generous countrymen, that no harm has been done to religion or its ministers".

Under the Second Republic Montalembert, in reply to Victor Hugo, who criticized the sending of a French expedition to aid Pius IX, declared amid the applause of two-thirds of the Constituent Assembly that the Church is "a mother, the mother of Europe, the mother of modern society". Once more he took up the struggle for liberty of education; in 1849, together with Dupanloup he was the chief instigator of the negotiations between the Catholics and a number of liberals such as Thiers, which resulted in spite of the sharp attacks of Louis Veuillot in the definitive grant of liberty of education by the Falloux Law. When in October, 1850, Montalembert went to Rome, Pius IX congratulated him, and caused him to be named Civis Romanis by the municipality of Rome. After the Coup d'Etat, 2 Dec., 1851 in an open letter to the "Univers", he invited the Catholics to rally to Louis Napoleon; this manifesto, which he afterwards regretted, was the result of an idea he had that it was unwholesome for Catholics to abstain from taking part in the life of the State. But when in 1852 he had appealed in vain to Louis Napoleon to abrogate the organic articles, to grant liberty of higher education, and freedom of association, he refused to enter the Senate. He was deputy for Besançon to the legislature of 1852-1857, but failed to be re-elected in 1857 owing to the defection of many Catholic voters. He cut himself off entirely from Louis Veuillot and the "Univers", which he thought accepted with too great complacency all the acts of the new government curtailing certain political liberties.

The break began in 1852 when Montalembert's pamphlet "Les Intérêts Catholiques au XIXeme Siàcle" was attacked by Dom Guéranger and Louis Veuillot; it became more marked in 1855 when Montalembert, taking from Lenormant's hands the management of the "Correspondant", which had at the time only 672 subscribers, made that review an organ of the political opposition, and took up the side known as "liberal" in contradistinction to the views supported by the "Univers". As an organ of the opposition "Le Correspondant" was often at odds with the imperial government: in 1858 an article Montalembert wrote entitled "Un débat sur l'Inde au Parlement anglais" led to his prosecution, and in spite of the defence set up by Benyer and Dufaure he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment, which the emperor remitted. In 1859 his article on "Pie IX et la France en 1849 et 1859", in which he attacked the partiality of the empire towards Italy and all the opponents of the temporal power, caused some disquiet in court circles, and won for him the congratulations of Pius IX. His two letters to Cavour, Oct., 1860, and April 1861, in which he attacked the centralizing spirit of those who were bringing about Italian unity, and took up the defence of the Holy See, drew from Pius IX the enthusiastic exclamation of "Vivat, vivat! our dear Montalembert has surpassed himself". But the hostility between the "Correspondant" and the "Univers" was growing, and in the heat of the struggle Montalembert wished to profit by the Congress of Belgian Catholics at Mechlin (August, 1863) to pour out his whole soul concerning the future of modern society and the Church.

His first speech aimed to show the necessity of Christianizing the democracy by accepting modern liberties. His second speech dealt with liberty of conscience, and the conclusion he drew was that the Church could be in perfect harmony with religious liberty and with the modern state which is founded on that liberty, and that everyone is free to hold that the modern state is to be preferred to the one which preceded it. The future Cardinal Pie, Bishop of Poitiers, the future Cardinal Ledochowski, Nuncio at Brussels, Mr. Talbot, Chamberlain to Pius IX, Louis Veuillot, and the Jesuits who edited the "Civiltà Cattolica" were alarmed at these declarations. On the other hand Cardinal Sterckx, Archbishop of Mechlin, the future Cardinals Guibert and Lavigerie, many well-known Paris Jesuits, such as Pàres de Ponlevoy, Olivaint, Matignon, and especially Bishop Dupanloup of Orléans, supported him and took up his defence. At the end of March, 1864, he received a letter from Cardinal Antonelli finding fault with the Mechlin speeches. When, on 8 Dec., 1864, the Encyclical "Quanta Cura" and the Syllabus were issued, Montalembert resisted the advice given him by the Protestant Léon de Malleville to protest publicly against these pontifical documents as a political measure; and the commentary on the Syllabus which Dupanloup published, and Pius IX approved of, 4 Dec., 1865, met with his joyous adhesion.

When the Vatican Council drew near he feared that the council would infer from the Syllabus and define as articles of faith certain affirmative propositions concerning liberty and touching on the State. He encouraged the authors of the Coblenz manifesto who raised doubts as to the opportuneness of the infallibility question, and he drew up under the heading "Questions au futur concile" a great number of disquieting grievances which he circulated among the bishops. The three hundred pages he wished to insert in the "Correspondant" on the causes of Spanish decadence, and in which he made a lively attack on the "Civiltà Cattolica", were refused by the "Correspondant", and so Montalembert broke off his connexion with that review.

His letter to the lawyer Lallemand, published in the "Gazette do France", 7 March, 1870, was intended to reconcile his former "ultramontanism" with his present state of feeling, which had been styled Gallicanism. In that letter he spoke of "The idol which the lay theologians of absolutism had set up in the Vatican". The impression left by this letter, which Abbé Combalot in the pulpit of San Andrea della Valle styled a "satanic work, was still fresh in the mind of Pius IX, when Montalembert died, 13 March, 1870. Pius IX refused to allow a solemn service to be held for him in the Ara Coeli; but a few days later he gave orders that an office should be sung in Santa Maria Transpontina, and he attended there himself in one of the barred galleries.

The letter (published very much later) which on 28 September, 1869, he wrote to M. Hyacinthe Loyson to dissuade him from leaving the Church, is in the opinion of M. Emile Ollivier "one of the most pathetic appeals that ever came from the human heart"; and the future Cardinal Perraud, when pronouncing the panegyric of Montalembert in the Sorbonne, could say that even his latest writings, however daring they might be, were filled with "a noble passion of love for the Church".

A member of the French Academy from 9 January, 1851 Montalembert was both an orator and a historian. As early as 1835 he had planned to write a life of St. Bernard. He was led to publish in 1860, under the title "Les Moines d'Occident", two volumes on the origin of monasticism; then followed three volumes on the monks in England; he died before he reached the period of St. Bernard. But he left among his papers, on the one hand, a manuscript entitled "Influence de l'ordre monastique sur la noblesse féodale et la société laïque jusqu'à la fin du XIe siàcle", and on the other hand a work on Gregory VII and the conflict of investitures; and these two manuscripts, published in 1877 by his friend Foisset and his son-in-law the Vicomte de Meaux, made up the sixth and seventh volume of the "Moines d'Occident". His work on "L'Avenir politique de l'Angleterre", published in 1856, drew a brilliant picture of the parliamentary institutions of England, and rejoiced in the ascendant march of Catholicity in the British Empire.

Finally, Montalembert was one of the writers who did most to foster in Europe regard and taste for Gothic Art. His letter to Victor Hugo on "Vandalisme en France", published 1 March, 1833, made a strong impression everywhere, and helped to save many Gothic monuments from impending ruin. Auguste Reichensperger and the Catholics of Rhenish Prussia profited by the artistic lessons of Montalembert. In 1838 he addressed to the French clergy an eloquent appeal, in which he praised the German school of Overbeck, and lamented that French Christian art was debased by pagan infiltrations. He interested himself in the dilapidated condition of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and caused the House of Peers in 1845 to vote a sum of money to repair it. His speech on vandalism in works of art, before the same assembly, 27 June, 1847, denounced the demolitions and ignorant restorations carried on by government architects, and brought about a change for the better. It was partly due to him that in 1837 the Historical Committee of Arts and Monuments, for the preserving of works of art, was established; and on the other hand, churchmen laid such weight on his artistic opinions, that even from far-off Kentucky Mgr Flaget, Bishop of Bardstown, wrote to him asking him to draw up a plan for the cathedral he was about to build at Louisville.

Montalembert's "Speeches" have been published in three volumes; his "Polemics" in three volumes also.


Lecanuet Montalembert (3 vol., Paris, 1895-1905); DE MEAUX, Montalembert (Paris, 1900); FOLLIOLEY, Montalembert et Mgr Parisis (Paris, 1906); OLIPHANT, Memoir of Count de Montalembert (2 vols., London).

About this page

APA citation. Goyau, G. (1911). Comte de Montalembert. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Goyau, Georges. "Comte de Montalembert." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Stefan Gigacz.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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