The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829, by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 336 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1474601931
At the end of the prologue to The King and the Catholics, Antonia Fraser, reflecting on the Gordon Riots of 1780, observes that “The Catholic Question” would loom large over the next fifty years of British history. Few would argue with this statement, in support of which Fraser has assembled a mass of contemporary evidence. Although, as pointed out in an author’s note, the conscience of the reigning monarchs played an important part in this story, the book covers a much wider spectrum of opinions, prejudices and political positions than the title might imply. A more instructive title might have been: “The Catholic Question 1780-1829 as reflected in a multiplicity of events, families, religious groups, aristocratic circles, political factions and sundry correspondence from across the public life of Great Britain and Ireland”. This might not have sold many books but the point is not entirely facetious. Fraser ranges (or, more unkindly perhaps, wanders) across a huge amount of material. All of it is interesting but too much of the detail is of only marginal relevance. Only in the description of events in Ireland and in the story of the years 1826-29 do significant insights appear. Nevertheless, The King and the Catholics is a highly entertaining read.
Fraser divides her story into three parts: “The Dangerous Mixture”, “The Abominable Question” and “The Duke and the Demagogues”. These, along with many of the chapter headings, are clever in their derivation and show the author at her best, making history entertaining to the general reader. They are, furthermore, based on extensive trawling of letters, speeches and memoirs both social and political.
The story begins with a prologue, “Sky like Blood”, which covers the Gordon Riots of the summer of 1780. The facts are startling even today. Over a thousand people died – a huge number relative to the size of London at the time. The physical damage was not surpassed until the Blitz. An attack on Downing Street was repelled by dragoons on horseback. The cry of “No Popery” resonated throughout the city, often from people who had no idea what popery was except that it was a very bad thing. In June 1780 a crowd of sixty thousand marched on parliament and assaulted members, including the prime minister, Lord North. Driven off by troops they proceeded to attack the Catholic chapels of foreign embassies. Those of Sardinia, Portugal, Bavaria, Venice, Spain and France were all destroyed. All of this was a reaction to the Catholic Relief Act, which had gained royal assent in June 1778. The instigator and leader of the riots was Lord George Gordon, the son of a Scottish duke. Fraser paints a highly informative portrait and explains in detail the extent and depth of popular anti-papist hysteria at the time.
What was the nature of the Catholic community in England which inspired such a reaction to a relatively modest measure of relief? Fraser describes a fairly quiescent and largely aristocratic society which appears to have generally kept its head down. Old Catholic families such as the Petres, Fitzherberts, Howards (Dukes of Norfolk) and Welds had managed to hold on to their wealth and position. They were shielded from the application of the Penal Laws by their neighbours and their class. There is a detailed account, for example, of a visit by George III and Queen Charlotte in October 1780 to Thorndon Hall, the home of the Catholic Petre family. The detail may be a bit excessive (Fraser cannot resist pomp and ceremony) but the point is well made. By contrast, we are reminded of the various historical outrages still vivid in “Protestant Memory” – the excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570, the Massacre of St Bartholomew (1572), the Gunpowder Plot, the “Popish Plot” of 1678, the various Stuart rebellions and the widespread representation of the pope as a bogeyman.
After the Gordon Riots there was more or less continual pressure for further Catholic relief. A bill in 1791 abolished the Penal Laws and made the Mass legal. A Catholic Committee dominated by aristocrats and gentry competed for influence with newly confident clerical leaders such as John Milner (a vicar apostolic as Catholic bishops were not yet legal). However, the great event of the 1790s was the expulsion from revolutionary France of large numbers of priests and nuns. These were now regularly seen in England and, as refugees from the enemy, attracted considerable sympathy. Nuns in particular had not been seen in England for 250 years. The Prince of Wales (later George IV) was extremely helpful to a community of nuns expelled from Montargis in the Loire Valley. This episode takes Fraser off on an entertaining tangent on the presumed influence of the Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert, who was rumoured to have secretly married George. (She was certainly his mistress.) There is then a further segue into the family of Maria’s previous in-laws, the Welds – a wealthy Catholic family about whom we learn much that is interesting but largely superfluous to the overall story. Another splendid visit to the Welds by George III in 1789 follows, to which the author does full justice. By contrast, the Irish rebellion of 1798 and the Act of Union in 1801 are dealt with in under a page.
The Irish situation, of course, gave rise to one of the great themes (indeed the title theme) of the book. Pitt had indicated to leading Catholic peers and to liberal Protestants that passing the Act of Union would facilitate Catholic Emancipation. The king refused to consider violating his coronation oath and Pitt felt obliged to resign. A chapter entitled “The Royal Conscience” puts Ireland for the first time at the centre of the story. The attitude of English conservatives was typified in 1812 by that of the chief secretary for Ireland, Sir Robert Peel: “You can have no idea of the moral depravation of the lower orders in that country.” On the other hand, an earlier chief secretary, Lord Castlereagh (in general viewed as a reactionary figure), had supported emancipation in 1801 and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. Grenville’s Whig government collapsed in 1807 over the oath of allegiance and the (official) admission of Catholics to the army. George III again refused to agree to reform. Significantly, the Prince of Wales at this time withdrew his previous public support for emancipation fearing, according to Fraser, that it would provoke a return of the king’s insanity.
Events in 1813 brought into focus two of the four great personages of the rest of the story – Sir Robert Peel and Daniel O’Connell. (The others are George IV and the Duke of Wellington). O’Connell defended a newspaper editor, John Magee, against a charge of libel on the viceroy of Ireland, Lord Richmond. The origin and early career of the “Liberator” are well-covered, as are his oratorical power, dress sense, opposition to violence and absolute commitment to emancipation. The twenty-five-year-old Peel, newly appointed chief secretary, is lauded for his integrity and honesty but is nevertheless quoted as describing the Irish as “… a set of human beings very little advanced from barbarism”.
The closing chapters of Part 1 introduce a diverse range of groups and individuals who would figure in the events of the ensuing years. The author clearly enjoys painting quite detailed pen pictures of the actors, sometimes choosing to emphasise those whom she finds most interesting or colourful rather than those whom conventional historians would consider more important. Into this category would fall the papal legate Cardinal Consalvi who is given a detailed biographical treatment. On the other hand, while the prince’s new mistress, the Marchioness of Hertford, gets a substantial mention, she is relevant as “… an earnest Protestant, (who) read the Bible daily and was interested in the Methodists”. The switch in George’s affections from the Catholic Mrs Fitzherbert was indicative of his changing outlook.
While the prince continued to keep Catholics in his circle, there was a clear contrast between louche old aristocrats like the Duke of Norfolk and lower-born bishops such as John Milner, the latter being much less likely to accept any restrictions on the church in return for emancipation. A bill proposed by Henry Grattan in 1813 won support from two leading Tories (and personal rivals) George Canning and Lord Castlereagh, as well as from the regent’s brother, the Duke of Sussex. The political dichotomy on the issue was also much sharper at the end of the Napoleonic wars. By and large Whigs were pro-emancipation with most Tories against.
Grattan returned with another motion on emancipation in 1817. Canning and Castlereagh spoke in favour. Peel’s speech against was bigoted, unyielding and effective. Another petition in May 1819 was again defeated, but this time by only three votes in the Commons. In narrating the course of those debates and also discourse outside parliament, Fraser cites a comprehensive range of sources illustrating the state of public opinion and the views of leading or emerging figures. On the succession of George IV in 1820 we are updated on the new occupant of the position of royal mistress, now Lady Conyngham (who would play a key role some years later), the views of the king’s brother and heir, the Duke of York – a prolix and violent anti-Catholic – and the delicate state of the putative succession to the king. This was a time when matters concerning the royal household were critical to politics and to no issue more than the Catholic Question.
Part Two, “The Abominable Question”, opens with a colourful account of the 1821 visit of George IV to Ireland, which from now on is at the centre of the story. The viceroy, Lord Talbot, was a Tory and an opponent of emancipation. However, the king was very well-received due to his affable and charming manner, his Irish mistress Lady Conyngham and his genuine affection for the country. O’Connell was conciliatory, thus earning the scorn of Tom Moore. The arrival of a new viceroy in the same year was significant. Richard Lord Wellesley was the older brother of the Duke of Wellington, who had joined Liverpool’s ministry in 1818. He soon realised that the king’s visit had been “injudicious” if he meant to oppose Catholic claims afterwards. And so it was to turn out. The older Wellesley was an interesting character, much more colourful than his more famous brother. Richard had painted lips and rouged cheeks and fathered five illegitimate children. He had been governor-general of India for seven years. However, he was known to favour emancipation and his appointment was seen as favourable to the Catholic cause.
The number of friends of emancipation in the forefront of politics was now swelling. A powerful speech by George Canning (foreign secretary from September 1822) argued the case for admitting Catholic peers into the House of Lords. Peel was equally forceful in opposition. The proposal passed the Commons by five votes but was defeated in the Lords. This pattern was to be repeated frequently over the next six years. Crucially, the issue for Canning was security in Ireland which, he felt, necessitated relief for the Catholics.
There was, of course, still considerable anti-Catholic prejudice among the ruling class, particularly in England. Leading literary figures such as Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge also opposed relief, while English Catholics were inclined to view their Irish co-religionists as an embarrassment. In the words of Lord Petre, “The Irish will ever be a millstone hung to the necks of English Catholics.” Anti-papalism remained strong and widespread. In Ireland, however, events were on the move. In 1822, with the direct encouragement of O’Connell, Henry White – a Protestant and known friend of the Catholic cause – was elected to the House of Commons for Co Dublin over a strong Tory candidate. This was the impetus which led O’Connell to form a new Catholic Association. Critically, the Catholic peasantry were directly involved via their parishes. By December 1823 the “Catholic Rent” was producing the enormous sum of £1,000 a week, with half a million associates paying a penny a month. This was a momentous development. By November 1824 Wellington was writing to Peel: “If we cannot get rid of the Catholic Association, we must look to civil war in Ireland sooner or later.”
In early 1825, a government bill was introduced making all societies in Ireland, including the Catholic Association, illegal. O’Connell led a deputation to Westminster in protest. The principal consequence was the elevation of O’Connell to public renown in London. In March 1825, Sir Francis Burdett introduced a Catholic Relief Bill which passed the Commons by 268 votes to 241 and was again rejected by the Lords. O’Connell had been involved in framing the bill and had come over to England for the second reading. His influence was growing, much to the annoyance of Peel, who denounced his involvement with contempt and anger. One very significant feature of the debate in the Lords was the contribution of the Duke of York, heir presumptive to the crown, who delivered a long anti-Catholic tirade opposing any relief. He pointed out that the king was not free to relieve himself from the obligation of the coronation oath. York was to have a strong influence on the already hardening attitude of his brother.
In autumn 1825, the sixty-five year-old Viceroy Wellesley married a thirty-five-year-old American Catholic, following up with a celebratory Mass in the vice-regal lodge. His brother the duke was appalled. The king was apoplectic: “That house is as much my palace as the one I am in and in my palace Mass is not said.” More soberly, the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, commented that “… it was a very strange and awkward event”. In the general election of 1826 the Catholic question was at the centre of the campaign. Various anti-papist scares were raised (including the suggestion that the Catholics would recover the pre-Reformation churches) but the degree of uproar and riot was no greater than usual for the times. The outcome was a modest gain of thirteen seats for anti-Catholic candidates.
Liverpool’s new government was again divided on the emancipation issue, a division personified by Canning and Peel. Meanwhile, Ireland was coming increasingly to the fore as a threat to the security of the realm. In Waterford there was a huge success for the pro-Catholic Henry Villiers Stuart against Lord George Beresford, son of the Marquis of Waterford. Fraser describes with aplomb O’Connell’s marshalling of the forty-shilling freeholders in defiance of their landlords. For six days there were processions of singing, cheering voters, decked out in the green ribbons of the Catholic Association going to vote for Villiers Stuart. O’Connell had succeeded in banning alcohol during the campaign ‑ something unheard of in Ireland at the time. Waterford was a notable and very public defeat for the Protestant Ascendancy.
At the same time, George IV’s health was becoming a concern and worries were growing about the succession. The heir to the throne, the virulent anti-Catholic Duke of York died in January 1827. The king had been close to and influenced by his brother. His outlook now bore no resemblance to that of the young Whiggish prince of the 1780s. 1827 also saw a change in the political dramatis personae. Lord Liverpool resigned after a cerebral haemorrhage in April 1827. The succession of Canning promised much to the Catholic cause but he too died in August after the shortest ever premiership (119 days). Viscount Goderich, his successor, was a worthy and moderate man but achieved little. Meanwhile, O’Connell was totally focused on emancipation. He sent a message to the new heir to the throne, William Duke of Clarence (later William IV) expressing hopes for a better future: “… the Duke can command Ireland, heart, hand and soul if he pleases”. He corresponded regularly with the Catholic Association agent in England, supporting pro-Canning and pro-Catholic MPs. The Catholic Rent continued to be collected in regular fashion, while local alliances were formed in preparation for a possible early election. In January 1828, the Duke of Wellington was invited to form a government. The king had two prime conditions: Catholic Emancipation must remain an open question with no official support for relief and the cabinet must contain both pro- and anti-Catholics.
In Part Three, “The Duke and the Demagogues”. Fraser is at her fluent and authoritative best. Wellington’s government was balanced with seven pro- and six anti-Catholics. However, the story would be dominated from now on by four men – Wellington, Peel, O’Connell and the king. In February 1828 parliament passed Lord John Russell’s bill repealing the Test and Corporation Acts of Charles II. The act banning meetings of the Catholic Association was not renewed and in May 1828 another Catholic Relief Bill was passed in the Commons by six votes but, as usual, rejected by the Lords, with Wellington voting against. Two royal dukes, Sussex and Gloucester, supported the measure. By contrast, Ernest Duke of Cumberland was emphatically against and he had a strong influence on the king. It was now becoming clear that, as expressed by Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst in June 1828 “… the King is the real difficulty.” However, nothing that happened in 1828 could match O’Connell’s victory in the Clare by-election over William Vesey Fitzgerald, who had been promoted to the cabinet (and was thus obliged to resign his seat and fight a by-election). Initially reluctant, O’Connell eventually declared himself “… ready to obey the voice of the nation”. He insisted on a strictly non-violent approach – “… ours is a moral not a physical force” and emphasised the abhorrent nature of the oath required by members of parliament in which the doctrines sacred to Catholics were described as “… impious and idolatrous”. He would never “… stain his soul” with such an oath” – “I leave that to my honourable opponent …” His oratory was deployed to its fullest effect. His control over his followers was even more impressive. Peel would later comment that supporting O’Connell were “… tens of thousands of disciplined fanatics, abstaining from every excess and concentrating every passion and feeling on one single object”. The Catholic clergy played a significant role in delivering the vote and O’Connell’s triumphant entry into Ennis on June 30th was a scene of unprecedented euphoria. On July 5th he was declared victor by 22,027 votes to 982. This was a staggering personal triumph and a political earthquake.
O’Connell was now the greatest celebrity in the United Kingdom. The story of his exultant progress from Clare to Dublin ‑ his escort was 60,000-strong, and, even the monitoring troops “threw their caps in the air” – is juxtaposed in Fraser’s account with the early signs of political reaction in England. In a private letter to Wellington, Peel hinted at his readiness to support emancipation (though from outside the cabinet). All over Britain and Ireland, reactionary Brunswick Clubs were set up, headed by figures such as Lord Eldon, the Marquis of Chandos and the Dukes of Gordon and Newcastle. None of this was surprising. The key figure, however, was the prime minister, Wellington, who now took centre stage.
Wellington was a military man. He could assess changes on the field of battle and act accordingly. By the autumn of 1828 he was showing clear signs of a change of heart. The ardent Tory Mrs Arbuthnot wrote in alarm in October 1828: “… he has seemed not to take a sufficiently Protestant view”. The king’s mind was moving in the opposite direction. In an interview with Wellington on November 14th, 1828, he demanded, inter alia, that the viceroy be sacked, the reactionary Lord Eldon restored to cabinet and parliament dissolved in order to elect more Protestants. Wellington argued back: “There is no remedy except by means of a consideration of the whole state of Ireland.” He rejected the royal proposals and ended his letter by apologising coolly: “I am aware of the pain which I give your Majesty by stating these facts.” O’Connell’s long campaign had borne fruit and the Iron Duke could see what needed to be done.
The next stage featured the two contrasting figures of the king and Sir Robert Peel. Anti-Catholic feeling remained very strong in England. A protest in Kent in October 1828 had attracted 60,000 people. In Ireland, however, the Establishment was growing increasingly alarmed at the possible consequences of further resistance to relief. The pro-Catholic viceroy, Lord Anglesey, genuinely feared rebellion and made his views known. He was peremptorily recalled by Peel in January 1829. The home secretary had, however, been convinced. On January 12th, 1829 Peel wrote a long letter to Wellington in which he reversed his lifelong opposition to emancipation. He wanted to resign from cabinet but, if this would be an “insuperable obstacle” to emancipation, he would stay. This was absolutely crucial to Wellington. He needed Peel in the cabinet, particularly since the king remained implacably (and frequently hysterically) hostile. He also needed him in the Commons where Wellington, as a peer, had no voice. In his memoirs, published posthumously, Peel asserted: “I was swayed by no fear, except public calamity.” It was a difficult time for him. The Duke of Newcastle expressed aristocratic disdain: “This cotton-spinner is a degraded wretch.” He lost a by-election at Oxford University, having resigned due to his volte-face. He subsequently took the rotten borough seat of Sir Manasseh Lopez. (Fraser is in sparkling form in her account of this tale of bribery and cajoling.)
Despite the howls of Protestant England, the Emancipation Bill was announced in the King’s Speech on February 5th, 1829. It did not go unopposed. There were extravagant contributions from leading ultra-Tories, perhaps the “best” of them being the assertion by the Earl of Longford (an ancestor of the author) that there had been nothing equal to it since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. (The subtlety of this analogy defeated this reviewer.) There was a celebrated debate in the House of Lords on February 23rd, later to be known as the “Night of the Three Princes”, which featured contributions from the king’s three brothers – the moderate dukes of Clarence (later William IV) and Sussex and the anti-Catholic Cumberland. This last was a serious irritant to Wellington due to his extreme views and his undoubted influence on George. On February 25th, Wellington saw the king at Windsor. George would not agree to emancipation and would not give the royal assent. After a series of meetings and continuing obduracy on the king’s part, on March 4th Wellington gave him an ultimatum. In a six-hour session with Wellington, Peel and Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst, George talked of abdication, drank brandy and water throughout and insisted he would not agree to the bill. The ministers made clear the consequences and left. According to Fraser, the impasse was broken by the king’s doctor, Sir William Knighton, the royal mistress Lady Conyngham and her husband, who emerged as “discreet heroes”. They persuaded a hysterical monarch that no other government than that of Wellington was possible. Eventually the king conceded and confirmed this in writing to the duke. (Wellington had insisted on this, given the monarch’s state of mind.)
The third reading of the Emancipation Bill was carried in the Commons on March 30th, 1829 by a majority of 178 votes. The first reading in the Lords passed by 105. Wellington’s speech in the Lords was more eloquent than usual (the duke was a notoriously poor speaker), but it was his personal standing which carried his peers. When the result was conveyed to Windsor, the king exclaimed “Oh, the Duke of Wellington is King of England, O’Connell is King of Ireland, and I suppose I am only considered Dean of Windsor.” The king’s volatile state of mind is contrasted with the Iron Duke’s cool, military reasoning. After more vacillation, George eventually signed the bill on April 13th, 1829.
In her final chapter Fraser attempts, with considerable success, some assessments and reflections. These merit reading in full.
O’Connell wins praise for his banning of violence and the organisational triumph of the Catholic Association. Wellington’s pragmatism served the country well as the religious scruples of the king were swept aside in the end “… in a way that only Wellington could manage”. Peel gains credit as “…. a man of honest conviction who had honestly changed his mind and had the courage to say so”.
George IV gave the royal assent only at the very end and then with “pain and regret” in what was a notable surrender by the crown to the will of the government. Nevertheless, it is the author’s view that “… the most of the population of the British mainland … probably agreed with their monarch, not their Parliament”.
Ian Doherty grew up in Derry in the 1950s and ’60s. He read history at Cambridge from 1971 to 1974 before taking up a career in the family business in Derry/Donegal. He was active in public life in Northern Ireland from 1974 to 2016. In retirement he is catching up on his reading, mostly in the fields of history and archaeology.