Its purpose was to settle issues and redraw the continent's political map after the defeat of Napoleonic France the previous spring, which would also reflect the change in status by the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire eight years before. The discussions continued despite the ex-Emperor Napoleon I's return from exile and resumption of power in France in March 1815, and the Congress's Final Act was signed nine days before his final defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815.
An unusual feature of the "Congress of Vienna" was that it was not properly a Congress; it never met in plenary session, and most of the discussions occurred in informal sessions among the Great Powers without the greater number of delegates from the lesser states.
The Congress was concerned with determining the entire shape of Europe after the Napoleonic wars - with the exception of the terms of peace between France and the Sixth Coalition, which had already been decided by the Treaty of Paris, signed a few months earlier.
Most of the work at the Congress was performed by the five main powers:
1. The UK was represented firstly by its Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh; then by the Duke of Wellington, after Castlereagh's return to England in February 1815; and in the last weeks, by the Earl of Clancarty, after Wellington left to face Napoleon during the Hundred Days.
On some issues, these powers cooperated with smaller powers and their representatives:
Initially, the representatives of the four victorious powers hoped to exclude the French from serious participation in the negotiations, but Talleyrand managed to skillfully insert himself into "her inner councils" in the first weeks of negotiations. He allied himself to a Committee of Eight powers (Spain, France, Sweden, and Portugal) to control the negotiations. Talleyrand was able to use this to make himself a part of the inner negotiations, he then left this committee.
The major Allies' indecision on how to conduct their affairs without provoking a united protest from the lesser powers, led to the calling of a preliminary conference on protocol, to which Talleyrand and the Marquis of Labrador, Spain's representative, were invited on September 30, 1814.
Congress Secretary Friedrich von Gentz would report that "The intervention of Talleyrand and Labrador has hopelessly upset all our plans. Talleyrand protested against the procedure we have adopted and soundly [be]rated us for two hours. It was a scene I shall never forget. The embarrassed representatives of the Allies replied that the document concerning the protocol they had arranged actually meant nothing. "If it means so little, why did you sign it?" snapped Labrador.
Talleyrand’s policy, directed as much by national as personal ambitions, demanded the close but by no means amicable relationship he had with Labrador. Talleyrand regarded Labrador with "Olympian disdain. The testy Spaniard would remark of Talleyrand: "that cripple, unfortunately, is going to Vienna. Talleyrand skirted additional articles suggested by Labrador: he had no intention of handing over the 12,000 afrancesados - "frenchified" Spanish fugitives who had sworn fealty to Joseph Bonaparte - with whom he had shady business connections, nor the bulk of the documents, paintings, pieces of fine art, and works of hydrography and natural history that had been looted from the archives, palaces, churches and cathedrals of Spain.
The Final Act, embodying all the separate treaties, was signed on June 9, 1815, (a few days before the Battle of Waterloo). Its provisions included:
Though none of the three powers were ready for war, the Russians did not call the bluff, and an amicable settlement was set on 24 October 1814, by which Russia received most of the Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw as a "Kingdom of Poland" - called Congress Poland - but did not receive the district of Poznań, Grand Duchy of Poznań, which was given to Prussia, nor Kraków, which became a free city. Prussia received 40% of Saxony - later known as the Province of Saxony, with the remainder returned to King Frederick Augustus I - Kingdom of Saxony.
Representatives at the Congress agreed to numerous other territorial changes. Norway was transferred from Denmark to the king of Sweden, this sparked the nationalist movement which led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Norway on May 17, 1814. Austria gained Lombardy-Venetia in Northern Italy, while much of the rest of North-Central Italy went to Habsburg dynasties (the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Modena, and the Duchy of Parma). The Pope was restored to the Papal States. The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia was restored to its mainland possessions, and also gained control of the Republic of Genoa. In Southern Italy, Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, was originally allowed to retain his Kingdom of Naples, but following his support of Napoleon in the Hundred Days, he was deposed, and the Bourbon Ferdinand IV was restored to the throne.
A large United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created for the Prince of Orange, including both the old United Provinces and the formerly Austrian-ruled territories in the Southern Netherlands. There were other, less important territorial adjustments, including significant territorial gains for the German Kingdoms of Hanover (which gained East Frisia from Prussia and various other territories in Northwest Germany) and Bavaria (which gained the Rhenish Palatinate and territories in Franconia). The Duchy of Lauenburg was transferred from Hanover to Denmark, and Swedish Pomerania was annexed by Prussia. Switzerland was enlarged, and Swiss neutrality was guaranteed.
During the wars, Portugal had lost its province of Olivença to Spain and, at the Congress of Vienna, wanted it back. Portugal was historically a friend of Great Britain, and with its support succeeded in having their right to the re-incorporation of Olivença decreed in Article 105 of the Final Act, which stated that the Congress "understood the occupation of Olivença to be illegal and recognized Portugal's rights". Portugal ratified the Final Act in 1815 but the Spanish would not sign. Thus Spain became the most important hold-out against the Congress of Vienna. Deciding in the end that it was better to become part of Europe than stand aside alone, Spain finally accepted the Treaty on May 7, 1817, however, Olivença and its surroundings have never actually returned to portuguese control and this question is still unsolved.The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland received parts of the West Indies at the expense of the Netherlands and Spain and kept the former Dutch colonies of Ceylon and the Cape Colony, and also kept Malta and Heligoland. Under the Treaty of Paris, Britain obtained the protectorate over the United States of the Ionian Islands and the Seychelles.
In the 20th century, however, many historians have come to admire the statesmen at the Congress, whose work had prevented another European general war for nearly a hundred years (1815–1914). Among these is Henry Kissinger, whose doctoral dissertation was on the Congress of Vienna. Prior to the opening of the Paris peace conference of 1918, the British Foreign Office commissioned a history of the Congress of Vienna to serve as an example to its own delegates of how to achieve an equally successful peace. Besides, the decisions of the Congress were made by the Five Great Powers (Austria, France, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom), and not all the countries of Europe could extend their rights at the Congress. For example, Italy became a mere "geographical expression" as divided into eight parts (Parma, Modena, Tuscany, Lombardy, Venetia, Piedmont-Sardinia, the Papal States, Naples-Sicily) under the control of different powers, while Poland was under the influence of Russia after the Congress. The arrangements that made the Five Great Powers finally led to future disputes. The Congress of Vienna preserved the balance of power in Europe, but it could not check the spread of revolutionary movements on the continent.