Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Catholic Emancipation via Antonia Fraser
From the publisher:
In the eighteenth century, the Catholics of England lacked many basic freedoms under the law: they could not serve in political office, buy or inherit land, or be married by the rites of their own religion. So virulent was the sentiment against Catholics that, in 1780, violent riots erupted in London—incited by the anti-Papist Lord George Gordon—in response to the Act for Relief that had been passed to loosen some of these restrictions.
The Gordon Riots marked a crucial turning point in the fight for Catholic emancipation. Over the next fifty years, factions battled to reform the laws of the land. Kings George III and George IV refused to address the “Catholic Question,” even when pressed by their prime ministers. But in 1829, through the dogged work of charismatic Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell and the support of the great Duke of Wellington, the watershed Roman Catholic Relief Act finally passed, opening the door to the radical transformation of the Victorian age. Gripping, spirited, and incisive, The King and the Catholics is character-driven narrative history at its best, reflecting the dire consequences of state-sanctioned oppression—and showing how sustained political action can triumph over injustice.
I certainly agree that Fraser writes "character-driven narrative history": her profiles of historical figures from Lord George Gordon to Cardinal Consalvi, Bishop Milner to Daniel O'Connell, Maria Fitzherbert to Father John Lingard describe their contributions to the ongoing social, political, and Royal struggle to allow Catholics to practice their faith freely. Each chapter describes the proponents and opponents of Catholic Emancipation and the slow progress of Parliamentary efforts toward it. She begins with the Gordon Riots, continues with the situation of the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Fitzherbert (the heir to the throne married to a Catholic widow through a wedding not recognized by the State), King George III's breakdown, English sympathy for Catholic refugees from the French Revolution, Daniel O'Connell's efforts, etc.
Along the way I learned that Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington's older brother, married Marianne Canton Patterson, the grand-daughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (her mother was Carroll's daughter Mary). I was surprised that Fraser did not highlight this revolutionary connection, since Carroll was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the only surviving signer at that time.
Fraser dedicates two-thirds of the book to the events and personages dealing with the cause of Catholic Emancipation in Ireland and in England. The last section details the final, reluctant assent of Sir Robert Peel, the Duke of Wellington, and King George IV to Catholic Emancipation after Daniel O'Connell had won a landslide election in County Clare. The remarkably horrid fear of Catholics--King George IV's brother, Ernest Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland (future King of Hanover) actually thought that Catholic Emancipation would mean that England would become a Catholic country with a Catholic government--when Catholics were such a minority in England (but not in Ireland!).
The irony that none of George III's sons were able to marry and successfully beget legitimate male heirs was also remarkable! George IV left Maria Fitzherbert for his consort wife Caroline of Brunswick in 1795 but separated from her in 1796; his only legitimate child, the Princess Charlotte, died in 1817. Of all his brothers, only Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, had a surviving child, the Princess Alexandrina Victoria, who would succeed her uncle William IV, the former Duke of Clarence (whose two legitimate daughters died in childbirth or infancy).
George IV's Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, used this dangerous line of succession against the monarch: an unstable Ireland--provoked by the injustice of an elected representative not being able to take his seat because he's Catholic representing a Catholic constituency in a land 85% Catholic--and an unstable succession of old men without sons to succeed them, should not be an obstacle to the will of his elected government (the future William IV was 64 in 1829; Victoria's father was 62; Ernest Augustus was 58, etc). Two of George IV's brothers, the Duke of Kent and Prince Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex, were in favor of Catholic Emancipation, besides.
So finally Catholic Emancipation was achieved, except that important supporters of O'Connell in Ireland were stripped of the vote when the property value limits were increased for freeholds from forty shilling to ten pounds, reducing the number of Catholic men who could vote. O'Connell regretted that part of the deal. He also had to stand for election again because the law didn't grandfather him in: under his original election, he still had to take an oath denying the Real Presence, etc.
Fraser rightly pays tribute to O'Connell's rhetoric eloquence and strategic brilliance: while not allowing any violence, especially after he had won election, Wellington's government knew there was a threat and the possibility of insurrection. He was one of the heroes of this effort. She also acknowledges Wellington's commitment and even Peel's change of mind. This is a great work of historical storytelling with important consequences. Rather whets my appetite for her Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution: England on the Brink, 1832.