Bust of King Theodore I in Cervioni
Chosen by Cyrne, God the choice approved,
Trusting the mighty conflict to his sword,
Which Europe rose to watch, and watching stands.
By that sword's flash, even fate itself is moved;
Thankless Liguria has its stroke deplored,
While Cyrne takes her sceptre from his hands.
- English poetic translation of a Corsican paean to Theodore, c. 1749
Legally, the succession to the Corsican throne was not in doubt. The 1736 Constitution had given Theodore the power to name his successor in the absence of an heir of his body, and he had done that unequivocally in the Royal Testament of 1761. As a practical matter, however, Corsica had never before experienced a royal succession. The Prince of Capraia - now King Federico I
- was keenly aware of the delicacy and importance of this transition. Theodore was not just a king; he was a founder, a liberator, and a revered hero to the Corsican people. Properly honoring the first King of Corsica was a crucial step towards ensuring the people’s acceptance of Federico as his late cousin’s rightful successor.
Theodore had never expressed much of an interest in planning for his own death, but he had at least selected the site of his ultimate repose. His body was to be interred in the crypt of the Cathedral of Saint Erasmus in Cervioni, the king’s first capital, where his wife Eleanora was already interred. Sant'Erasmo was Corsica’s newest and most striking cathedral, designed in a modern baroque style and completed only in the 1750s.
As taking the body overland across the Corsican mountains was neither dignified nor very practical, it would be borne instead by the warship Capraia
, which at that time was fortuitously stationed in Ajaccio.
Federico was quite prepared to move Theodore's body immediately, but met with the strident opposition of the long-serving luogotenente
of Ajaccio province, Marquis Luca d’Ornano
. Evidently the marquis was unhappy with the unceremonious exit of the king from Ajaccio, arguing that it was both against Corsican custom and a slight against the people of the Dila
who, if they could not host the king’s funeral, at least ought to be able to have his wake. This was also, of course, a golden opportunity for d'Ornano to demonstrate his position and influence and associate himself one last time with the Theodoran legend. Not wanting to alienate one of the most powerful nobles in the Dila
as the first act of his reign, Federico relented and permitted Don Luca to supervise a more formal departure.
On the morning after the king’s death, the king’s body was laid in state in the front hall of the Augustinian Palace upon a tola
, or funeral table, draped with black cloth and covered in flowers.
As soon as the scene was set, the hall was opened to the public. They came in droves, all dressed in black, to see the body of the king. The English consul described the behavior of the Corsican women with incredulity, draped in black veils and crying out with “wild lamentations” while scratching their faces and tearing at their hair. Federico too was rather disturbed by the “theatrics,” particularly at the manner in which the wailing women would loudly implore Theodore’s body to awake from slumber and stand up. On the following day a general feast was provided for the mourners, paid for by d’Ornano himself. Only then did Don Luca allow the king’s body to be taken to the ship, escorted in procession by the black-coated Noble Guard.
, which had been decorated for the occasion with black cloth, stopped briefly at Calvi and Bastia before proceeding down the eastern coast to Campoloro. There were no “viewings” at these cities as there had been at Ajaccio, but residents crowded to the harbor to view (and, in the case of some of the women, wail at) the black-shrouded ship. Escorted by the two state galiots, the frigate reached Cervioni on the 23rd. The body, now in a wooden coffin, was laid atop of a catafalque in the nave of the Cathedral of Sant’Erasmo. This wooden platform was eight feet tall but without ostentation, entirely covered by black cloth and surrounded by tall candles in silver candlesticks which had been borrowed from the churches of Bastia and local parishes all over the Castagniccia.
As by now word of the king’s death had traveled across the island, the attendance was much greater at Cervioni than at Ajaccio. The Sardinian envoy compared it to a mass pilgrimage, and reported that there was not a nobleman in the kingdom who failed to show himself at Cervioni, together with their wives in voluminous black veils. Although there was certainly weeping, the crowd here was generally more sedate than at the viewing in Ajaccio. Providing for all these visitors proved to be a huge logistical challenge for the government, as the bakers, shopkeepers, and inkeeps of Cervioni - a town of fewer than a thousand people - could hardly accommodate such a host on their own. Even the navy’s warships were pressed into service to bring bread, cheese, fish, oil, and wine from Bastia.
King Federico declared a year of national mourning,
but he had no intention of waiting that long to formalize his succession. It was determined that the coronation would be held on the 6th of May, the fourth Sunday of Eastertide (as it happened, Theodore had died the day after Easter Sunday), and would closely follow the example of Theodore’s own coronation. The day began with High Mass, which lasted several hours. This was followed by the coronation feast, with vast amounts of food and wine and innumerable toasts to kings both old and new. There was music, poetry, public speaking, and plenty of celebratory gunfire.
Federico, seated upon Theodore’s throne-armchair of chestnut and velvet atop a stage in front of the Convent of Alesani decorated with flower garlands, was now presented with the Constitution. Its articles were read aloud to the crowd, and the new king swore to uphold them. He then received the pledges of loyalty from the nobility, the lead clergy, the members of the dieta
, and the whole assembled crowd. The king then went into the convent chapel for the actual coronation, with the Bishop of Aleria presiding. Like Theodore, he was crowned with a laurel wreath, although Federico added his own element to the ceremony by then crowning his wife with a wreath of her own. They emerged from the chapel to the cheering of the crowd and a peal of musketry and cannon.
Federico had tried very hard to emulate the coronation of 1736, an event which he had not personally witnessed. The differences were largely ones of degree. The attendance was probably much greater; the high estimates exceeded 10,000 participants, a massive number given the island’s population. This time, there were troops of uniformed soldiers and a battery of cannon. The king’s stage was larger and grander, although it was still merely a framework of timber covered by cloth and flowers. Unlike the purely Corsican affair of 1736, in 1770 there were foreign dignitaries present - most notably Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester
, a younger brother of King George III
In general, the preparations were more thorough and the resources expended were greater, though by the standards of continental coronations it was still a very inexpensive and remarkably informal affair.
The Convent of Alesani, coronation site of Corsican kings
Though he had only been in the grave a few weeks, the late Theodore was already passing from mortal into myth. The dignitaries toasted “il re liberatore
,” the Liberator-King, a title which on Corsica was quickly becoming interchangeable with his name. A few months later, the consulta generale
voted to award Theodore with the posthumous title of Pater Patriae
, “father of the nation,” which the Roman Senate had once granted to victorious emperors.
The apotheosis of Theodore was guaranteed by Corsica’s own national insecurity. Despite the preceding decade of relative peace, many wondered whether Corsica, as an independent state, would survive its founder. In European eyes, Theodore was
Corsica; he was certainly better known and considerably more interesting than his island, a weak and backwards country born from a peasant rebellion whose population could fit within a suburb of London. Many Corsicans believed, not without reason, that the king’s personal gifts had been essential to the realization of their liberty. Would his less distinguished relations and the new generation of Corsican leaders be able to keep what he had won, or would the powers of Europe now awaken from their Theodoran reverie and enchain Corsica once more?
It was thus in the interests of nearly all Corsicans to hold on to and magnify the Theodoran myth. For his Neuhoff successors, Theodore’s popular election and heroic deeds justified their own rule and obscured the fact that they themselves never deigned to submit to an electorate. The nobility, who owed their titles to Theodore’s grace, had every reason to praise the king and boast of their own historical association with the Pater Patriae
, even if the support they had offered him in life had been less than exemplary. Corsican intellectuals and statesmen polished his reputation to a sterling shine to erase the stain of Theodore’s rather sordid past and make the case for Corsica’s rightful place among the European family of crowns and nations. To the peasantry, Theodore was both the kindly father and the avenger of oppression, whose name might be invoked as a rallying cry against rapacious landlords just as easily as it had been deployed against callous Genoese officials.
For obvious reasons, European Jews were the first and most loyal foreign admirers of the “German Cyrus.” The occasion of his death is sometimes used to mark the beginning of the nascent Haskalah
, or “Jewish Enlightenment,” as several Jewish intellectuals and writers used the opportunity of eulogizing Theodore to explore the notion of a more secular and worldly Jewish culture, anchored in reason rather than superstition, which could leave its segregated existence and engage with Christian societies. The apparent success of the Jews of Ajaccio was a powerful argument in favor of those reformists who argued that the adoption of local dress and language, coupled with an earnest loyalty to the state, would lead to prosperity without compromising Jewish identity - as well as an argument that could be made to kings and ministers considering whether to ease age-old restrictions on Jewish communities. Wherever the cause of Jewish emancipation advanced, there were those who credited the wise and righteous King Theodore with leading the way.
Theodore’s reputation as a political symbol was slower to develop. There were a few early enthusiasts like Filippo Mazzei who saw Theodoran monarchy as a praiseworthy political development, but at the time “Enlightened Despotism” was still the darling of continental philosophes
. Corsica’s peculiar system of popular elections and raucous consulte
seemed more like a quaint leftover of rude antiquity rather than a harbinger of things to come. The hour of constitutional liberalism would come, however, and its exponents - particularly in Italy - would rediscover Theodore and deploy his legend to their own rhetorical ends. He was reinvented in the 19th century as a king with the soul of a republican, whose state demonstrated the potential for the harmonious coexistence of monarchy, constitutionalism, and popular representation. Italian nationalists, in contrast, would be less interested in the German Theodore than in his Corsican-born grand-nephew Theodore II, the very image of a "people's monarch" in his own time.
Time, distance, and archival sources have permitted modern historians to piece together a more nuanced view of Theodore the man, rather than the symbol. Certainly he was a person of unusual resourcefulness and persistence who was seemingly always able to recover from a setback. His personal charisma must have been tremendous; there is no other way to explain his extraordinary ability to charm almost everyone he met, from Amsterdam aldermen and English aristocrats to the unlettered farmer-militiamen of Corsica. That Corsica not only won its freedom but did not immediately devolve into civil war upon gaining it is, in no small part, a testament to his ability to win Corsica’s biggest and most contumacious personalities to his side. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that Theodore's victory was not his alone; without support from the British, Dutch, Sardinians, and other interested powers it is easy to imagine his improbable rise becoming a quixotic failure.
Theodore’s reputation as a military commander is more ambiguous. The king led surprisingly few actual engagements, often delegating offensives to his generals; when he was
present he frequently acted in a supervisory role, soliciting plans from his war councils and approving the consensus opinion. His leadership at San Pellegrino and Ponte Nuovo, his two famous victories against the French, was creditable. Yet it is worth considering that in each case, Theodore’s main contribution does not seem to have been devising a tactical plan or even directing battlefield maneuvers, but deciding where to fight
and convincing the fractious Corsican captains and colonels to follow him there. Theodore did produce the occasional clever stratagem, but he demonstrated more affinity for strategy than tactics, and - as at the Siege of Calvi, where he visited his troops under the shadow of the Genoese batteries - understood that he contributed more by his presence and the example of his personal courage than any attempt at tactical insight.
The part of Theodore’s legacy that has been subjected to the most criticism in modern times is not his career as a revolutionary leader, but as a king. Theodore’s political instincts were generally good, but they seem to have gradually failed him in his old age. His dispute with Rome was a self-inflicted wound; the Church posed no great threat to Theodore’s rule, and the king’s heavy-handed response to mild provocations caused the collapse of Gaffori’s government and exacerbated political and cultural tensions. His later reign, particularly after the death of his wife and his split with Rome, was characterized by a sort of political paralysis. The king’s own grandiose plans for projects and works seldom left the page, and the Frediani ministry was undermined by the king’s flagging interest in public affairs and hobbled by a lack of resources.
The poverty of the government was indicative of one of Theodore’s more glaring deficiencies: his neglect and mismanagement of the public coffers. The king failed (or feared) to use his political clout to implement necessary taxes. The provincial luogotenenti
he had created as vessels of royal power were too often self-interested and corrupt, failing to collect taxes effectively and siphoning from what revenues they did collect to build their own private fiefdoms. The deficit was covered by his personal wealth - which, by the time of his death, was all but exhausted - or by borrowing, to the extent that Federico was shocked to find the state he had inherited was already a considerable debtor with few assets or improvements to show for it. The Theodore who ruled Corsica was the same Theodore who lost all his savings (and his wife’s jewelry) to John Law’s Mississippi fiasco and spent years fleeing from country to country with creditors barking at his heels.
Historians still debate whether Theodore’s later reign, particularly the last decade, is better characterized as a golden age of tranquility or a period of stagnation and political aimlessness. Certainly Federico was inclined towards the latter opinion, and by the time of his coronation at Alesani he was already brimming with plans to reform and “rationalize” the Corsican state. Before he was a prince, Federico had been a Prussian officer, and he expected discipline and hard work from his ministers and subjects alike. He aspired to lift Corsica from its backwardness through Cameralist theories of government and political economy implemented by a hands-on monarch and a competent, professional administration. Whether the Corsicans would take to his Teutonic methods, of course, was another matter entirely.
 Theodore’s status as the “first King of Corsica'' is debatable. Pope Boniface VIII had first created the title of Rex Sardiniae et Corsicae
for Jaime II of Aragon in 1297, but although Sardinia became an Aragonese possession neither Jaime nor his successors managed to realize their claim over Corsica. Alfonso V was the only Aragonese king to actually set foot upon the island: He landed in 1420, unsuccessfully besieged Bonifacio, and departed in the following year. Thereafter the Aragonese claim was purely notional, although the Spanish monarchs continued to include “King of Corsica” in their long list of real and honorary titles. The Doges of Genoa revived the title of Rex Corsicae
in 1637 as a means to elevate themselves to royal rank, and continued to use it until they were compelled to renounce the title in the 1749 Treaty of Monaco. It was Theodore’s opinion that the Papal grant to Aragon had been legitimate, but that the kings of Aragon had never “consummated” their investiture by actual possession; while the Genoese had never
held a legitimate right to the crown, as the doge had assumed the title for himself without receiving it from either the Pope or the Corsican people. Officially, then, the Corsican position was that while the “Kingdom of Corsica” had indeed existed from 1297, the throne had remained vacant for the next 439 years until the coronation of Theodore I.
 The Cathedral of Saint Erasmus had been completely rebuilt starting in 1714, but at the time of Thedore’s arrival in 1736 it was still incomplete. Construction proceeded only intermittently during the Revolution, and it was not finished until 1753.
 Virtually all of the “black superfine cloth” used throughout the funeral proceedings was donated by the Jewish community of Ajaccio, who included a number of tailors and cloth merchants among their members. This was only the largest of a number of monetary and in-kind donations made by the community for the purpose of Theodore’s burial. This was probably inspired at least in part by the hope that such a display might make a favorable impression upon King Federico, whose position on religious tolerance was as yet untested, but the Jews of Corsica also shared an undeniable feeling of respect for the late king and a desire to honor and commemorate him.
 The English consul sardonically observed that a year of mourning would be “of no great inconvenience” to the Corsicans, as they habitually wore black already.
 Prince Henry had been traveling in Tuscany when news of Theodore’s death arrived, and he decided of his own initiative to travel to Corsica to see the coronation of the new “Laurel King.” This was not an official state visit; the prince merely attended as a private citizen, albeit a very distinguished one.