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The Orsini Affair and the Crisis of 1858

Terry Jenkins explains why a failed assassination attempt on Napoleon III brought down the British government in 1858.


Four of the perpetrators were quickly arrested, although some of their accomplices managed to slip out of the country. It emerged that they were Italian nationalists, struggling to liberate their homeland from Austrian domination, who had sought retribution for what they considered to be Napoleon III’s betrayal of their cause. The ringleader, Felice Orsini, and his associate, Pierri, were executed by guillotine on March 13th, while Rudio and Gomez were sent to penal colonies for life.
An episode which might have appeared to be a purely Continental matter was, in fact, to have dramatic consequences in Britain, where it sparked a political crisis that culminated in the downfall of Lord Palmerston’s government, 150 years ago this month. The chronic ministerial instability and lack of party cohesion, which were features of parliamentary politics in the 1850s, certainly help to explain how this could have happened. But the public debate surrounding the Orsini affair also raised sensitive questions about the ‘national character’ of the British people, and their relationship with the rest of the world, which continue to be relevant to an understanding of Britain’s international position at the present time.

It came as no great surprise to European governments when they learned that Orsini, and most of his fellow conspirators, had lived in Britain as refugees while they were organizing their plot against the Emperor. Even the parts for the bombs used in the assassination attempt had been manufactured, to careful specification, in Birmingham. Britain’s willingness to offer sanctuary to the enemies of foreign regimes was therefore seen to be at the heart of the problem. ‘We are a nuisance to Europe’, the embarrassed Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon, admitted to the British Ambassador in Paris: ‘we have our systems and our policy … and their external result is terror and danger to others’.

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