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Catholic Emancipation and its role in shaping Great Britain - Part 2

Updated on November 18, 2019
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Lithograph of Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847)
Lithograph of Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847) | Source

Daniel O’Connell was an Irish democrat and lawyer who felt that Ireland needed a voice in Parliament and that a Catholic MP in the Commons would be their very voice for eventual Home Rule that the Irish and the Catholics held out for. He organized the Catholic Association, which was open to all Irish citizens, and after Sunday Mass, each member would pay a “Catholic rent’ to finance the organizations activities, speakers, and pamphlets. Catholic churches joined the crusade and aided in the furthering of the organizations goals, which focused on non-violent agitation as a means of pressing Catholic emancipation.1

O’Connell was a constitutional nationalist and opposed in principle the use of force to achieve political ends. He insisted from the beginning that the campaign could only succeed if it were non-violent. The growing rise to continual protests by the Catholic Association and fears that these protests could turn violent, regardless that its leader was vocally against any political violence, the government denounced the Catholic Association as a revolutionary organization and had it disbanded in 1825. But knowing quite well the idea of Catholic emancipation was growing stronger and coming out of the minority, the British government presented a Catholic Relief Bill, with O’Connell assisting negotiations along with Sir Francis Burdett. The Emancipation Bill of 1825 was passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the Lords, by 178 to 130. O’Connell again went to work rebuilding the Catholic Association and resuming protests and petitions.2

The turning point came when O’Connell decided to run for the President of the Board of Trade against Vesey Fitzgerald in the County Clare election. The problem, however, was that O’Connell had every right to run, but if he indeed won, the laws forbade him from actually taking a seat in Parliament. O’Connell won the vote by what the anti-Emancipation Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel stated as “an avalanche.”3 This victory clearly presented the Duke of Wellington with a conundrum. His options were to pass the Emancipation Act or allow O'Connell his parliamentary seat, or call the election invalid and risk the potential of all out violence in Ireland. Marjie Bloy argues that,

Wellington did want to avoid bloodshed. He knew the majority of MPs favored emancipation and that they were against the use of force in Ireland. He could not resign because that was no solution, and only a Tory ministry could get the Bill through the Lords and get George IV's consent. The crisis was provoked; the threat of violence existed and the Irish got their way.4

The Duke Of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel,1844
The Duke Of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel,1844 | Source

In 1829, the Duke of Wellington presented to the House of Lords what was in essence an explanation of the change of heart towards Catholic emancipation. This reasoning was due in part to the large majority of support in the House of Commons, but mostly because,

…the sentiments contained in the petitions presented, not only to your Lordships, but to the other House of Parliament, and in these sentiments I think it is our duty to concur, taking the chance for religious peace with the majority of the House of Commons consider as likely to arise.5

Richard W. Davis argues that Wellingtons reverse decision was based on public opinion and that “public opinion, or at least the politicians’ perception of it, that was fundamental to the transformation of the Lords’ role.6 The Irish had called their hand and Wellington really had no other choice but to fold.

In April of 1829, the Roman Catholic Relief Act passed through Parliament. This allowed Catholics the ability to sit as MPs in Parliament, they were eligible for all public offices except those of Lord Chancellor, Monarch, Regent, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and any judicial appointment in any ecclesiastical court. In regards to the Act, no one was killed. No Catholic places of worship were desecrated or burned. The Britons were become more tolerant of each other. Irish civil war had been averted, but the Catholics still had age old prejudices held against them.7

Even the passage of the Act did not ensure a smooth transition for a Catholic MP. One example is that the Scottish constituency would not return a Catholic until the 1890s. Even the notable poet, William Wordsworth, in a letter penned to the Bishop of London is clear on his anti-Catholic sentiments, but more precisely, his opposition to Protestant dissenters. Wordsworth notes that, “the abstract principles embodied in the creed of the Dissenters' catechism are without doubt full as politically dangerous as those of the Romanists.”8 A circular by the Committee for Ensuring the Election of Sir Robert Inglis, shows even the blind hatred of Catholics where it states, “However discordant we may be in religion, in manners, and in affections, we are for once united together by one common feeling - a feeling which every lover of his country and every true Christian is bound to cherish - by a hatred and detestation of the Catholics.”9 Just two examples of the mistrust and even hatred toward Catholics after the passage of the Act.

The passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 was a culmination of century old struggles between religion and the British government. The question remains as to whether this Act provided “relief” to the Catholics of the United Kingdom. The answer clearly points to the affirmative. The Act did not end all conflict, but it opened the doors to dialogue that previously would have never have been opened. It brought an end to sectarian violence in Ireland and even more importantly, proved that reform, protest and public pressure could be imposed on the Government without the need for violence. That certainly is the legacy of Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Association. However, when looking at the Act in the terms of emancipation, as it was deemed, the lines of success are not as clearly formed. It is true that Catholics could now participate in government unlike in the past, and that they now had a voice that could be heard in the legislature. But the truth is, Catholics were still prejudiced against overall.

A large John Bull being held down and force-fed by Peel and Wellington; satirizing the idea of the Catholic emancipation as a breach of the constitution. Coloured etching by W. Heath, 1829
A large John Bull being held down and force-fed by Peel and Wellington; satirizing the idea of the Catholic emancipation as a breach of the constitution. Coloured etching by W. Heath, 1829 | Source

To this day a Catholic is forbidden to sit on the throne of England. Some of the prestigious universities along with some of the higher legal offices, were closed off to Catholics. Doherty and O’Riordan point out that “If appointed to state employment, Catholics still had to swear they would not ‘disturb or weaken the Protestant religion or Protestant Government in this Kingdom’”10 as if to say that Catholics were indeed subversive, even if allowed into the fold, and shouldn’t be trusted. Quite similar to the emancipation of the American slaves by Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” the noble principle is present, but the practice comes across as purely lip service.

Was Catholic emancipation a breech of the British Constitution?

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Facsimile page from the Catholic Relief Act (1829).
Facsimile page from the Catholic Relief Act (1829). | Source


1. Marjie Bloy, "Catholic Emancipation." The Victorian Web. Accessed November 25, 2014.
2. Gillian M. Doherty and Tomás A. O’Riordan. “The Campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823–1829.
3. Marjie Bloy, "Catholic Emancipation." The Victorian Web.
4. Ibid.
5. Richard W. Davis, "Wellington and the "Open Question": The Issue of Catholic Emancipation 1821-1829." Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 1997: 23.
6. Ibid., 23.
7. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, 340.
8. William Wordsworth, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Alexander B. Grosart. (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1967)
9. William Sewell. A Circular Letter of Advice and Justification from the Committee for Ensuring the Election of Sir Robert Inglis: Addressed to the Members of the University of Oxford who Signed the Requisition Against Mr. Peel. (London: W. Baxter, 1829), 2.
10. Gillian M. Doherty and Tomás A. O’Riordan. “The Campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823–1829.


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