Why does Monaco exist?

In Medieval times, the area in which Monaco now lies belonged to the city of Genoa. This was one of the leading Italian republics of the Middle Ages, under the loose suzerainty of the Holy Roman Empire.

A bit of background: in those days (c. 1215), Europe did not consist of the highly organized nation states which we know today. Italy was covered by, oh, probably thirty states or more. The whole of the south of Italy, including Sicily (for most of the time), was covered by a single kingdom, but the rest of Italy was divided amongst many small city-states. The centre of Italy was straddled by an entity known as the “Papal States”, which (theoretically) came under the authority of the Pope. In fact, the individual towns and cities in it (together with the territories surrounding them) were under their own (more or less hereditary) rulers. It was they who actually ran the affairs of their localities.

In the north of Italy were some of the wealthiest states in Europe. They had at one time all belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, and some, like Genoa, still did. In fact, however, they had all long since slipped out of the distant emperor’s control. They behaved like independent states, with their own foreign policies and fighting their own wars with each other.

(If for a moment we look beyond Italy’s borders, we see that Germany is, like Italy, also a collection of more or less independent states, even though it forms the heartland of the Holy Roman Empire: as Voltaire (I think it was) later quipped, the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, Roman or an Empire. Medieval France was more centrally ruled, but only by comparison with Germany and Italy. By modern standards it was a collection of independent states, under counts and dukes who only obeyed the king of France when it suited them. The only large modern European nation which had any semblance of unity and central rule was England. Even this kingdom behaved more like one of the French counties and duchies than an independent state in its own right – see an earlier blog post of mine; and for a quick overview of the whole of Europe at his time, follow this link.)

Anyhow, back to Italy. Some of the Italian cities were amongst the wealthiest and most powerful states in Europe. Such were Milan, Florence and Venice (which had its own Mediterranean empire) – and Genoa.

Medieval Genoa ruled a long, thin slice of coastal territory in north west Italy. Politics in Genoa was dreadfully violent. Like many cities in northern and central Italy, the ruling classes were split into two factions, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. These owed their origins to the complex politics of the Holy Roman Empire, but what is important for the story of Monaco is that the struggle between the factions was tearing Genoa apart. The fighting spilled over from the city into the territory it ruled, and the origins of Monaco are embedded in that conflict.

A small group of Ghibelline fighters chose a rocky hill on the Mediterranean coast for their base of operations, and built a castle on top of it. This was in 1215. About 80 years later (in 1297) a party of the opposite faction, the Guelfs, having been exiled from Genoa, captured the castle. They made it THEIR base. This group was led by a man belonging to the Grimladi family, one of the most prominent of the Genoese noble families.

Their Guelf allies shortly came back into power in Genoa, and the new regime confirmed the Grimaldis in possession of their castle, and the lands round about. They had to swear fealty to Genoa, of course, so that at the beginning they were no more than feudal lords of their locality, like thousands of others around Europe. Unlike them, the Grmaildis have ruled their fief ever since.

Around the castle the small town of Monaco gradually grew up.

In the 15th century Genoa – and Monaco with it – came under French rule. In the 16th century the French gave it to the Spanish. The Spanish indeed came to dominate northern Italy at this time through their control of the powerful city of Milan (Spain was the leading nation in Europe at this time, with its great military power paid for with gold and silver from its vast empire in the Americas).

Throughout these changes, the Grimaldi hung onto their small fief of Monaco (at this time they were termed “lords of Monaco”); but in 1605, when the new lord, Honore II, was only 7 years old, the Spanish installed a garrison in the castle. The troops left about ten years later, but the Spanish still controlled the small territory – much to Honore’s disgust.

When Honore had the chance, he skilfully used Monaco’s strategic location (as a highly defensible point on the border between Spanish and French territory) to wiggle his way to a more independent position. France was at that time challenging Spain for leadership of Europe, and in 1641, Honore offered to place the fief of Monaco, with its strong castle, under French “protection” in exchange for Monaco being recognized as an independent nation. France, glad to thus weaken the power of Spain in this corner of the world, and perhaps thinking that Monaco was so tiny that whether or not it was an independent nation made very little difference to the wider geopolitical scheme of things, agreed. The resulting treaty of Peronne was remarkable in treating one of the most powerful kings in Europe, and the lord of a tiny fief, as equals. Honore was now recognized as the prince of an independent state.

During the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Europe (1793-1815), Monaco was annexed by France. At the end of this period, however, its independence was restored, now under the protectorship of the kingdom of Sardinia (whose heartland was actually in north-west Italy – see this map). In 1861, as part of various agreements between a now resurgent France and a Sardinia which was preparing to challenge Austrian rule in much of the rest of Italy, Monaco was transferred back to French protection. France then annexed a majority of Monaco’s territory for itself, but left the reduced principality with its castle and town and its status as an independent state.

And so it has remains to this day. It is a fascinating relic from Medieval Europe, kept in existence by the whim of the much larger states around it because it never quite suited them enough to gobble it up.


By Peter Britton