Friday, May 18, 2018

"The King and The Catholics"

The Catholic Herald posts an excerpt from Antonia Fraser's new book, The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson:

From beloved historian Antonia Fraser comes the dramatic story of how Catholics in Britain won back their rights after two hundred years of official discrimination.

The story of Catholic Emancipation begins with the violent Anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, fuelled by the reduction in Penal Laws against the Roman Catholics harking back to the sixteenth century. Some fifty years later, the passing of the Emancipation Bill was hailed as a 'bloodless revolution'.

Had the Irish Catholics been a 'millstone', as described by an English aristocrat, or were they the prime movers? While the English Catholic aristocracy and the Irish peasants and merchants approached the Catholic Question in very different ways, they manifestly shared the same objective.

Antonia Fraser brings colour and humour to the vivid drama with its huge cast of characters: George III, who opposed Emancipation on the basis of the Coronation Oath; his son, the indulgent Prince of Wales, who was enamoured with the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert before the voluptuous Lady Conyngham; Wellington and the 'born Tory' Peel vying for leadership; 'roaring' Lord Winchilsea; the heroic Daniel O'Connell. Expertly written and deftly argued, The King and Catholics is also a distant mirror of our times, reflecting the political issues arising from religious intolerance.

The excerpt describes those Gordon Riots:

The story begins with violence: in the summer of 1780 London was the scene of the worst riots the city had ever experienced, and which were to prove the “largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history”. The death toll was probably about 1,000 people altogether (in proportion to the population of the capital, this remains the highest percentage of deaths in a riot yet known).

The physical damage to the structure of the city would not be surpassed until the Blitz in the Second World War. Known to history as the Gordon Riots – famously commemorated by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge, when he wrote of “a moral plague” running through the city – they were initiated by the militantly anti-Catholic son of a Scottish duke, who was a Member of the British Parliament.

Riots were certainly not unknown in 18th-century London: there had been the so-called Wilkes Riots in the 1760s and the Keppel Riots after that; but in degree of violence, the Gordon Riots excelled them. Symbols of the state were attacked; 10 Downing Street, already the official residence of the prime minister, Lord North, was assaulted at two o’clock in the morning by protesters bearing lighted flambeaux and faggots: they had to be driven off by 20 dragoons on horseback. Meanwhile the prime minister’s dinner guests climbed onto the roof in order to see the fires burning as far as the horizon.

If prime ministers were obvious targets for attack, private individuals were not safe either. Lady Anne Erskine was a Scottish lady living quietly in a house attached to Spa Fields Chapel in Clerkenwell. She wrote: “Such a scene my eyes never beheld, and I pray God I never may again. The situation of the place which is high and very open gave us an awful prospect of it. We were surrounded by flames.

“Six different fires – with that of Newgate towering to the clouds … with every hour we were in expectation of this house and chapel making the seventh. The sky was like blood with the reflection of the fires.” Ten years later, the literary Ladies of Llangollen, gazing at a fierce crimson sunset, were still irresistibly reminded of the Gordon Riots.

The book won't be released until September this year in the USA, published by Penguin with a cover I don't like half as much as the UK version. Note the details in the blurb for US readers, adding context:

In the summer of 1780, mob violence swept through London. Nearly one thousand people were killed, looting was widespread, and torch-bearing protestors marched on the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. These were the Gordon Riots: the worst civil disturbance in British history, triggered by an act of Parliament designed to loosen two centuries of systemic oppression of Catholics in the British Isles. While many London Catholics saw their homes ransacked and chapels desecrated, the riots marked a crucial turning point in their fight to return to public life.

Over the next fifty years, factions battled one another to reform the laws of the land: wealthy English Catholics yearned to rejoin the political elite; the protestant aristocracy in Ireland feared an empowered Catholic populace; and the priesthood coveted old authority that royal decree had forbidden. Kings George III and George IV stubbornly refused to address the “Catholic Question” even when pressed by their prime ministers–governments fell over it–and events in America and Europe made many skeptical of disrupting the social order. But in 1829, through the dogged work of charismatic Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell and with the support of the Duke of Wellington, the Roman Catholic Relief Act finally passed. It was a watershed moment, opening the door to future social reform and the radical transformation of the Victorian age.

The King and the Catholics is a gripping, character-driven example of narrative history at its best. It is also a distant mirror of our own times, reflecting the dire consequences of state-sanctioned intolerance and showing how collective action and the political process can triumph over wrongheaded legislation.

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