Roman Catholic Emancipation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1828, the British parliament repealed two seventeenth century laws that had disenfranchised Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters in Great Britain. In 1829, Parliament passed the Emancipation Act, making it possible for British and Irish Roman Catholics to vote, to enter the universities, and to hold public, political, and military offices.

Summary of Event

Roman Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland suffered serious political, social, economic, and religious restrictions from the time of the Reformation into the early nineteenth century. Many restrictions on them remained in effect in 1825. Catholics were, for example, forbidden by law to hold political office, either elective or appointive, or any high military post; they could not enter the universities, and they were forced to pay tithes to the Church of England. Dissenters—Protestants who objected to the doctrine of the Church of England—were technically in a similar position because of the Test and Corporation Acts. These acts, however, were a mere formality, since Parliament annually passed an amnesty for Dissenters who violated them. Roman Catholic emancipation Great Britain;Roman Catholic emancipation O’Connell, Daniel Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] Peel, Sir Robert [p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] Voting rights;of Roman Catholics[Roman Catholics] Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] Corporation Act of 1661 Test Act of 1671 [kw]Roman Catholic Emancipation (May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829) [kw]Catholic Emancipation, Roman (May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829) [kw]Emancipation, Roman Catholic (May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829) Roman Catholic emancipation Great Britain;Roman Catholic emancipation O’Connell, Daniel Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] Peel, Sir Robert [p]Peel, Sir Robert[Peel, Robert];and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] Voting rights;of Roman Catholics[Roman Catholics] Voting rights;in Great Britain[Great Britain] Corporation Act of 1661 Test Act of 1671 [g]Great Britain;May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829: Roman Catholic Emancipation[1420] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829: Roman Catholic Emancipation[1420] [c]Government and politics;May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829: Roman Catholic Emancipation[1420] [c]Religion and theology;May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829: Roman Catholic Emancipation[1420] [c]Social issues and reform;May 9,1828-Apr. 13, 1829: Roman Catholic Emancipation[1420] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 9, 1828-Apr. 13, 1829: Roman Catholic Emancipation[1420] Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] GeorgeIV [p]George IV[George 04];and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] Burdett, Sir Francis Eldon, first earl of Paget, Sir Henry William Norfolk, twelfth duke of

In England and Scotland, Catholics had no right to vote, though in Ireland they had been able to vote but not hold office since 1793. The English and Scottish Catholics were a small minority but included some influential nobility, including the twelfth duke of Norfolk Norfolk, twelfth duke of , traditional leader of the English nobility. On the other hand, the Irish Catholics were an overwhelming majority except in Ulster (modern Northern Ireland), but they were largely oppressed tenants of Protestant English landlords who owned most of the Irish land. The problem of Catholic rights was inseparably bound up with Ireland, and both the strong opposition to and the eventual success of Catholic emancipation was a result of its link with the so-called Irish Question. There was enough anti-Roman Catholic prejudice in England, however, to block several attempts to separate the issues by giving votes only to English Catholics.

The agitation for Catholic rights in Ireland had been going on since the late eighteenth century. The Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland was passed in 1801 with the understanding that Catholic emancipation would follow, but the British government had backed down in the face of opposition from King George III George III . Catholic relief bills proposed by Liberal Irish Protestants such as Henry Grattan and William Conyngham Plunket were introduced a number of times and came close to passage. In 1821, for example, one such bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. Since these bills included a government veto over appointments to Catholic bishoprics, however, they remained unacceptable to the Irish Catholic bishops. There was considerable support for Catholic emancipation among many prominent English statesmen, such as George Canning, Henry Brougham, John Russell Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] , and Sir Francis Burdett. Burdett, Sir Francis

Daniel O’Connell.

(Library of Congress)

A new and decisive element was added by the appearance of the Catholic Association in 1823. It was led by Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic lawyer and skillful political leader. By 1825, the Catholic Association was a well-established mass organization with chapters in almost every parish. It commanded the loyalty of most Irish Catholics and the support of the Catholic Church. The association was funded through the collection of “Catholic rent,” a call for each Catholic in Ireland to contribute a small amount to finance the Catholic campaign for emancipation. In a little more than a year, the Catholic Association amassed a fund of some sixteen thousand pounds to be used for securing favorable press coverage, lobbying, and legal aid.

O’Connell carefully avoided violence, but the British parliament still suppressed the association. It was immediately reformed, however, as an “educational and charitable” association to evade the law. In 1825, Sir Francis Burdett’s Emancipation Bill passed the House of Commons, but the bill was rejected by the House of Lords through the influence of King George IV. George IV [p]George IV[George 04];and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation]

In 1826, the Catholic Association showed its power by electing a man of their choice, Henry Villiers Stuart, in place of George Beresford Beresford, George , the powerful Protestant landlord. The elections of 1826 in Great Britain, however, aroused anti-Catholic prejudices and returned some strongly anti-Catholic members, so that Burdett’s bill failed to pass the Commons by four votes in 1827. Another apparent setback for the Catholic cause was the formation, in August of 1827, of the ministry of Sir Robert Peel and the duke of Wellington, which included the chief leaders of the anti-Catholic party, especially Sir Robert Peel himself.

Backed by several Protestant Dissenter organizations, John Russell introduced a bill to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. Over strong opposition led by the first earl of Eldon Eldon, first earl of , the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts Corporation Act of 1661 Test Act of 1671 was passed on May 9, 1828, and Dissenters were allowed to hold public and political offices without fear of penalty. Although this repeal only removed an irritating formality, it made the Catholic ban seem even more inconsistent, as Russell Russell, John [p]Russell, John;and Roman Catholic emancipation[Roman Catholic emancipation] intended. Later that month, Burdett’s Burdett, Sir Francis Emancipation Bill passed the Commons by a majority of six votes, but it was again defeated in the House of Lords, although by a smaller margin than in 1825 and only by Wellington’s plea to postpone the question.

The final impetus for passage of the Emancipation Act was provided by a by-election in County Clare, Ireland, in June, 1828. O’Connell stood for election against William Vesey Fitzgerald, a popular Protestant landlord and a supporter of Catholic emancipation. O’Connell was overwhelmingly elected to a parliamentary seat that he could not legally take. It was now obvious to the British government that the Catholic Association could control elections in Ireland. The situation became more tense as Ulster Protestants formed Brunswick Clubs on the model of the Catholic Association. These groups let it be known that they were prepared to use force, if necessary, thus introducing the threat of civil war.

Catholic Ireland now stood organized and united behind O’Connell, who urged avoidance of violence. It was obvious, however, that his revolutionary organization would be hard to restrain if he were rejected from Parliament and if nothing were done about Catholic emancipation. Sir Henry William Paget Paget, Sir Henry William , the lord lieutenant of Ireland, urged concessions and doubted that violence could be prevented for long. Even George Dawson, an anti-Catholic Ulsterman and brother-in-law of Peel, urged the need for emancipation.

By autumn of 1828, Wellington and Peel were convinced of the necessity of a Catholic emancipation bill, but the king’s strong opposition prevented action until February 5, 1829, when the King’s Address from the Throne proposed Catholic emancipation. Peel introduced the Catholic Relief Bill into the House of Commons on March 5. The bill proposed to grant to Catholics the right to hold most public offices, except those of commander in chief, lord chancellor, regent, lord lieutenant of Ireland, and a few others. On the other hand, the bill restricted the Catholic Church in several ways: The Jesuits were to be expelled, religious orders could not receive property by bequest, and clerical robes could not be worn on public streets. Two other restrictive bills were introduced at the same time. One suppressed the Catholic Association again, and the other raised the property qualifications for voting in Ireland to reduce the number of Catholic voters. These two bills passed easily, since the Liberal supporters of Catholic emancipation believed they were the necessary price for securing passage of the main Catholic Relief Bill.

The debate on the Catholic Relief Bill was bitter, as was the opposition to the Tory party leadership by many rank-and-file Tories who believed that they had been betrayed. Peel lost his seat in a by-election and had to be returned from a pocket borough, while Wellington had to fight a duel to protect his good name after being publicly accused of having insidious plans to introduce “popery” in Britain. Nevertheless, Wellington and Peel pushed the Catholic Relief Bill through rapidly. It passed the House of Commons on March 30 by a vote of 320 to 142 and the House of Lords on April 11 by 111 to 109. The bill was signed into law by the king on April 13. The defeated anti-Catholic group obtained a manner of revenge shortly after by excluding O’Connell on the ground that he was elected before the bill had been passed, although several English Catholic peers had already been admitted to the House of Lords and one Catholic had been elected and seated in the House of Commons. O’Connell might have been admitted, for he made a convincing and well-received speech on his own behalf, but he staunchly refused to take the oath of supremacy; the final vote was 190 to 116 against him.

Significance

The Catholic Relief Act gave Catholics of the British Isles most political rights and gave the Irish a role in British politics. Irish gratitude, however, was largely nullified by the accompanying restrictions on the Catholic Church, the Catholic Association, and the Irish franchise, as well as by the exclusion of O’Connell from Parliament. O’Connell’s successful methods, however, set an example for future Anglo-Irish political agitation. Combined with the 1828 Repeal of the Corporation Act of 1661 Test Act of 1671 Test and Corporation Acts, the Catholic Relief Act removed almost all legal religious discrimination against Christians who did not subscribe to the doctrines of the Church of England.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartlett, Thomas. The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation: The Catholic Question, 1690-1830. Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992. Explores two centuries of response by the British and Irish governments to the call for Catholic emancipation, and the struggle as a uniting force for the Catholic community. The Emancipation Acts themselves appear in the epilogue of this thorough history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gwynn, Denis. The Struggle for Catholic Emancipation. London: Longmans, Green, 1928. Focuses mainly on emancipation in Ireland, but also useful for its coverage of England. Gwynn praises O’Connell for his ability, his character, and his self-sacrifice, while conceding that some of the ideas often ascribed to O’Connell were really suggested by his subordinates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hinde, Wendy. Catholic Emancipation: A Shake to Men’s Minds. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1992. Covers January, 1828, through April, 1829, when the Catholic Question seemed most likely to result in civil war, and examines how the British government averted that crisis. Includes contemporary political cartoons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Nicholas, ed. The Catholic Question in Ireland, 1762-1829. 8 vols. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 2000. Set of twelve major primary sources on the Catholic Question collected in eight volumes; an invaluable research aid for anyone working on the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Machin, G. I. T. The Catholic Question in English Politics, 1820 to 1830. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1964. Focuses more on the British than on the Irish aspects of the controversy, emphasizing the crises the Catholic question caused for the British government. There is also a good analysis of the various bases of anti-Catholic feeling in British society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mansergh, Danny. Grattan’s Failure: Parliamentary Opposition and the People of Ireland, 1779-1800. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005. Provides the late eighteenth century background to the fight for Catholic emancipation in the first three decades of the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Ferrall, Fergus. Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy, 1820-1830. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1985. An exploration of O’Connell’s background and his role in liberating Irish Catholics. O’Ferrall has previously published an extensive biography of O’Connell.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, James A. The Catholic Emancipation Crisis in Ireland, 1823-1829. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. An excellent study of the Irish aspects of Catholic emancipation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, William Cooke. Reminiscences of Daniel O’Connell: During the Agitations of the Veto Emancipation and Repeal. Edited by Patrick Maume. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005. This biography, originally published shortly after O’Connell’s death, is based on eyewitnesses’ accounts and O’Connell’s memoirs and articles. Although Taylor sympathized with O’Connell’s struggle for Catholic liberation, he argues that O’Connell’s abusive oratory hindered emancipation.

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