The revolutions of 1820

Key Facts & Summary

  • The Revolutions of 1820 were a revolutionary wave in Europe that took place in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
  • While the revolutions in Spain, Portugal and Italy were for establishing constitutional monarchies, in Greece the revolution was to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire.
  • Unlike the revolutions in 1830, the revolutions in 1820 tended to take place in the peripheries of Europe.
  • The Napoleonic wars played a key role in the independence of the Latin American colonies from Spain and Portugal.
  • Lord Byron, the famous British poet supported the liberation movement in Italy and even actively fought in the Greek War of Independence. He even spent his own fortune supporting the Greeks and ultimately gave his life for the Greek cause, a country which wasn’t even his homeland.
  • Secret societies played a great role, both in the fight against conservatism and Ottoman rule.


The revolutions of 1820 were the first challenge to the conservative order of Europe established after the fall of Napoleon I in 1815. Though most ended in failure, they demonstrated the rising strength of the liberal-nationalist movement that would eventually sweep away the conservative order. The years following 1815 were generally quiet. Most Europeans were satisfied to see peace and order restored after years of revolution and war. But the liberal-nationalist minority, deeply discontented, organized secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the existing order. The most important was the Carbonari, which played a key role in the 1820 revolutions.

The Carbonari were an informational network of secret revolutionary societies active in Italy from 1800 to 1831. The Italian Carbonari may have influenced other revolutionary groups in France, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Brazil and Uruguay.

Their goals often had patriotic and liberal basis but lacked a clear immediate political agenda. The chief purpose was to defeat tyranny and establish constitutional governments.
In the north of Italy, other groups such as the Adelfia and Filadelfia were associated organizations. Prominent members of the Carbonari include Giuseppe Mazinni, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Marquis de Lafayette, Lord Byron, Gabriele Rosseti and Louise Auguste Blanqui.

The Revolutions of 1820

Spain and Portugal

In 1807 the Portuguese royal family and court had to flee from Portugal due to Napoleon’s approaching armies. Portugal, being a long term ally of Britain, ignored the Continental System imposed by Napoleon which forbade countries to continue trade with England. The Portuguese royal family was escorted by British navy to Brazil to escape from Napoleon’s troops. In 1808, after arriving in Brazil, the Portuguese decided to open the ports of Brazil to “all friendly nations”. In 1810, the Anglo-Brazilian Treaty imposed on the Portuguese higher tariffs in Brazil then it did on the British.

The war with France concluded in 1815, but the Portuguese royal family refused to come back to Portugal. On December 1815, Brazil was raised to the rank of a kingdom by John VI, who was then crowned king of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. Since the leave of the Portuguese royal family, Portugal was ruled by a British pro-consul, by the name of Beresford. Portugal as an independent nation collapsed, it was destroyed by the previous three French invasions, its economy was dominated by the British soft imperialism and politically, it was subordinate to Brazil and Britain. The Portuguese people arrived to a dead end situation, they were poor and enslaved.

In 1817, the Masonic leader General Gomes Freire de Andrade, tried a coup against Beresford. It failed and he was executed. This execution put an end to the daily diminishing possibility of a peaceful penetration of Portugal by English constitutional methods. After the execution, unrest increased and when Beresford himself went to Brazil to get instructions and power from John VI, the revolution began in Porto, and spread all along the country.

In October a government is created by force in Lisbon, the Spanish constitution of 1812 is adopted provisionally, in order to elect a constituent assembly. By 1822 the first Portuguese constitution is proclaimed.

The political constitution of the Portuguese monarchy installed a constitutional monarchy in Portugal. It declared that sovereignty rested in the nation and established the liberal separation of powers in three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. It also provided a catalogue of individual rights, to be protected.

John VI was forced to return in 1821 to Portugal to swear the constitution. But his son, Pedro, that remained in Brazil as his representative, declared the very year of 1822 Brazil’s independence.
John VI recognized in 1825 the independence of Brazil, something he has already prepared, at least, since 1815 in agreement with Britain and the United States. Portugal, a founding member of the Atlantic World, was trapped in the conflict triggered by the Democratic Revolutions and the new European Imperialism. Through emerging global powers and new political actors, liberalism arrived to continental Portugal.


In 1820, the Spanish people successfully revolted over disputes about their Constitution, which influenced the development of a similar movement in Italy. Inspired by the Spaniards, a regiment in the army of the Two Kingdoms of Sicily, commanded by Guglielmo Pepe, who was a Carbonaro – the army mutinied and conquered the peninsular part of Two Sicily’s.

Before these actions, Pepe was interested in the carbonari, he organized them into a national militia, intending to use them for political purposes. He had hoped that Ferdinand I, the king of the Two Kingdoms of Sicily, would grant a constitution similar to that of the Spaniards. The Kingdom of Two Sicily’s was a nest of carbonari that infiltrated almost all social classes. Their name came from their trade of charcoal-burning. They were divided into Masonic type lodges and had secret titles, codes, rituals and more.

Their flag was red, white and black, a banner that remained the symbol of liberal revolution in Italy until it was replaced by the present day red, white and green in 1831. After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, they grew in strength and were the focal point of the 1820 revolution. For a time, at least, the revolution succeeded in wringing a constitution out of the autocratic Bourbon ruler, Ferdinand I. The uprising of 1820 in Naples seemed successful at first. In spite of the ruthless measures to eliminate the secret society, Ferdinand was faced with the fact that his own armed forces were infiltrated with carbonari members. As such, Ferdinand I was forced into conceding a constitution for his kingdom. In reaction to this, a new Congress was convened in Troppau in 1820.

It gave the king the authority to seek aid from Austria. He left Naples after swearing an oath to the constitution, and quickly hastened to Austria. He returned with an army of 50,000 men to put down the rebellion. This time he was sure that no carbonari were in his ranks. They were met by a Neapolitan force of 8,000 men, which they defeated at Rieti on the 7th of March, 1821. A few days later, the king returned to Naples in triumph at the head of an Austrian army. He dismissed the parliament and tore up the constitution.

The inevitable trials of “traitors” ensued, followed by the inevitable executions. It is from this date that a constant foreign presence in Naples, either the Austrian army of Swiss mercenaries, was necessary to support what had become the last bastion of absolutism in Europe. Despite this, during the 1830s, carbonarist activity spread to Piedmont, Lombardy, Parma, Modena, Romagna and the Papal States.

It even attracted foreigners who had taken up the cause of Italian unity: Lord Byron, for one, who would go on and even fight in the Greek War of Independence. It is for this identification with the cause of national unity, that the carbonari are historically seen as the forerunners of the Risorgimento, the mid-19th-century movement to unify Italy. From the revolution of 1820 to the fall of the Kingdom of Naples in 1860, the Bourbon rulers proved singularly inept at dealing with the forces of liberalism other than through outright suppression.


Though the revolution in Italy ended in failure, the Greek War of Independence from 1821 to 1830 against the Ottoman Empire was a successful endeavor.

Even after several decades before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, most of Greece had come under Ottoman rule. Countless times the Greeks attempted to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire through revolutions. In 1814, a secret organization called the Filiki Eteria was founded with the aim of liberating Greece. The Filiki Eteria planned to launch revolts in Peloponnese, the Danubian Principalities, Constantinople and its surrounding areas.

By late 1821, they’re plans had been discovered by Ottoman authorities in regards to a revolution that supposed to take place on the 25th of Marc. This prompted the revolutionary action to start earlier. The first of these revolts began on the 6th of March, in the Danubian Principalities, but the Ottoman’s quickly put down the rebellion.

These events pushed the Greeks in the Peloponnese region to take action and on the 17th of March, the Greeks declared war on the Ottomans. This declaration was the start of a spring of revolutionary actions from other controlled states against the Ottoman Empire. On the 25th of March, the revolution was officially declared and by the end of the month, the Peloponnese was in open revolt against the Turks.

By October 1821, the Greeks under Theodoros Kolokotronis had captured Tripolitsa. The Peloponnesian revolt was quickly followed by those in Crete, Macedonia and Central Greece.
They were all suppressed. However the Greek navy began to win certain battles against the Ottoman navy in the Aegean Sea, thus preventing the Ottomans to send reinforcements by sea.

Regardless of their common enemy, tensions began to rise among different Greek factions, leading to two consecutive civil wars. The Ottoman Sultan profited from this, he initiated negotiations with Mehmet Ali of Egypt for an alliance. Mehmet agreed to send his son Ibrahim Pasha to Greece with an army to suppress the revolt in return for territorial gain. Ibrahim landed in the Peloponnese region in February 1825, and had immediate success. By the end of 1825, most of the Peloponnese was under Egyptian control with the city of Missolonghi being captured in April 1826 after a year of siege by the Turks.

Ibrahim was thereafter defeated in Mani, yet he succeeded in suppressing the majority of the revolts in Peloponnese leading to the recapture of Athens. The Greeks were later assisted by the Russian Empire, Great Britain, the Kingdom of France and several other European powers. The Ottomans were aided by their vassals, the Eyalets of Egypt, Algeria, Tripolitania, and the Beylik of Tunis.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829 was sparked by the Greek War of Independence. The war broke out after the Sultan closed the Dardanalles to Russian ships and revoked the Akkerman Convention, in retaliation for the Russia participation in the Battle of Navarino.

The Treaty of Adrianople concluded the Russo-Turkish War of 1829. The final step in the acquisition of Greek independence was its recognition as a sovereign state under the London Conference, and the Treaty of Constantinople defined the final borders of the new state. It established Prince Otto of Bavaria as the first king of Greece. The Greek Revolution is celebrated by the Greek state as a national day on the 25th of March.


The Revolutions of 1820 and 1830 showed that the ideals of the Enlightenment were here to stay. The concept of independence, nationalism, and safeguard against corrupt rule were all easily assimilated by the people as it felt natural and by all means it should be natural. However, the revolutions left many issues unresolved like the issues of the working classes and the inequality of wealth. It would take even more revolutions, for some countries less, to achieve a form of equality and equilibrium. It will, sadly, take even a couple of wars the likes of which the world had never yet seen, to slowly walk towards these goals.


[1.] Rath, John (January 1964), “The Carbonari: Their Origins, Initiation Rites, and Aims”, The American Historical Review, 69 (2): 353–370
[2.] Reinerman, Alan. “Metternich and the Papal Condemnation of the” Carbonari”, 1821.” Catholic Historical Review 54#1 (1968): 55-69
[3.] Manifesto da Naçao Portuguesa aos Soberanos e Povos da Europa, Lisboa, 15 de Dezembro de 1820 (Manifesto of the Portuguese Nation to the sovereigns and peoples of Europe, Lisbon, 15th of December 1820)
[4.] Stanley G. Payne, A History of Spain and Portugal, vol.2, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

[5.] Brewer, David The Greek War of Independence The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression, London: Overlook Duckworth, 2011 page 256
[6.] Finlay, History of the Greek Revolution, I, 171–172
[7.] Barker, Philip W. (2008). “Greece”. Religious Nationalism in Modern Europe. Taylor & Francis.
[8.] Bisaha, Nancy (2006). “Byzantium and Greek Refugees”. Creating East and West. University of Pennsylvania Press
[9.] Dakin, Douglas (1973). The Greek struggle for independence, 1821–1833. University of California Press

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