Born Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, Pius IX’s election by the Papal conclave of 1846 came at a time of significant political unrest across Europe. A particular issue facing the 50 members of the College of Cardinals who attended the conclave regarded the future governance of the Papal States, which the new Pope would rule. A conservative faction wished to see the continuation of a policy of papal absolutism, while more moderate cardinals hoped for some liberal reforms.
Going against the general mood of the rulers of Europe who wished to see a conservative Pope, the moderate Cardinal Bernetti successfully persuaded other like-minded cardinals to vote for Mastai-Ferretti. The papal historian Valérie Pirie wrote that, as one of the scrutineers responsible for recording the votes of the conclave, Mastai-Ferretti therefore proclaimed his own election.
His appointment was met with enthusiasm from European liberals, and he was celebrated by English Protestants as a ‘friend of light’. Having named himself Pius after Pope Pius VII, the first years of the new Pope’s rule saw a number of liberal actions including the release of political prisoners and the beginnings of a constitution for the Papal States. However, the revolutions of 1848-49 and a number of nationalist terrorist attacks began to turn him away from this initially liberal agenda.
By the 1850s Pius IX had become more conservative, and he began to consolidate the power of the Church. The capture of the Papal States by the Italian Army in 1870, however, led to him declaring himself the ‘Prisoner of the Vatican’.