The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland, and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780–1829
by Antonia Fraser.
Nan A. Talese, 2018.
Hardcover, 336 pages, $30.

Reviewed by William Anthony Hay

Often the most contentious political issues of one era cease being issues at all during the next. Looking back from 1856, the editor and polymath Walter Bagehot offered Catholic Emancipation—the move to end restrictions in Britain on Roman Catholics holding public office along with other disabilities—as a case in point. Mid-Victorians looked back wondering what the controversy had been about. What they and later generations saw in terms of religious toleration, their predecessors in Britain and Ireland understood as a constitutional question of membership in the political nation. Could subjects giving only a partial loyalty—by virtue of their fealty to the Pope, a foreign prince, as head of their church—have the same claims as those whose allegiance to the British crown was undivided? Or should Catholics otherwise qualified to hold office or vote enjoy the same privileges as their Protestant countrymen? The wealth and loyalty of many English Catholics made their political exclusion seem increasingly anomalous by the late eighteenth century, but the situation in Ireland, with its overwhelming Catholic majority, threatened a crisis that eventually forced parliament to concede the demand.

Antonia Fraser vividly traces events from the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780 that threw London into convulsion to the eventual passage of Catholic Emancipation decades later. The King and the Catholics takes a broad view reaching beyond the Irish circumstances which made the dilemma so acute. Differences among Catholics themselves over the issue bring out important points that a myopic focus on the split between Catholic and Protestants misses. Indeed, Fraser brings together two stories in a deftly woven narrative. The first involves English Catholics seeking to claim their place within the elite, while the second covers the more charged struggle in Ireland that touched on the country’s relationship with the United Kingdom as a whole. Both unfolded against the backdrop of revolution and war.

Catholics in England dwindled to a minority from the close of Elizabeth I’s reign in 1603. Only a diminishing number of recusants among the nobility, gentry, and their retainers held fast to the old faith in defiance of the law. The Reformation unleashed by her father Henry VIII’s break with Rome had posed the question of whether England would be Catholic or Protestant, but once that had been resolved the issue turned to what kind of Protestant Church the English would follow. Catholicism became seen as un-English and aligned with foreign enemies like Spain and France. Englishmen from Elizabeth’s day took pride in not being Catholic, which they associated with tyranny and poverty at odds with the political liberties and spiritual freedom they enjoyed.

Hostility towards Catholics in England diminished in the eighteenth century, however, as they seemed less of a threat. Their numbers small, they posed little threat, especially when Jacobite hopes of restoring the old Stuart line faded by mid-century. Little distinguished English Catholics from their Protestant neighbors by George III’s reign other than their quiet practice of a faith tolerated in fact if not entirely by law. Indeed, penal laws against Catholics in England were repealed or fell into abeyance. Fraser writes that “their very endurance proved a factor in counterbalancing the image of Catholics as foreigners.” The Gordon Riots in London during 1780, which opens her story, thus came as a shock that aroused sympathy even among many like Edward Gibbon hostile to their faith. Sparked by a protest against the 1778 Catholic Relief Act, the riots did more damage to London than Paris would later suffer during the French Revolution. George III ordered troops to put them down by force.

Fraser deftly sketches the English Catholic elite and their world. Wealthy landowners and merchants with a few of the nobility excluded by their faith from the House of Lords, they differed little from their Protestant counterparts. A few evaded legal prohibitions on sitting in parliament or holding office by nominally conforming to the established Church of England much as Protestant Dissenters did more regularly. Several Catholic gentlemen, like Thomas Weld, earned George III’s favor. Along with concerns about military recruiting during the American War of Independence and changing attitudes among British political leaders came efforts by Catholic laymen in England to remove legal disabilities so they could take their place among the elite.

Those efforts, as Fraser points out, divided English Catholic laymen and clergy. Without a resident hierarchy to manage the church in England, laymen took a larger role as patrons, but priests like John Milner resented the consequent aristocratic power. Milner sought to raise clerical authority while protecting the Catholic Church’s larger institutional interests from an encroachment laity—elite and otherwise—might accept as the price of accommodation, especially when it did not touch on faith and morals. A concordat giving the British crown a veto over clerical appointments with state funding offered a path to legalizing the church’s status that had precedents in other European countries, both Catholic and Protestant. Clergy, especially in Ireland, bitterly resisted what they considered too great a concession. Many would later fear the Pope cutting a deal with the British government over their heads and at the expense of their independence.

Despite the Gordon Riots, trends in England favored Catholic Emancipation in the 1780s and 90s. Elite opinion favored toleration while a resurgent conservatism saw radical Protestantism and what the eighteenth century called “infidelity” as a greater danger than Rome. William Jones, a noted Anglican high churchman, had called the American Revolution a “Presbyterian war” against the English Constitution in terms evoking the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell. Atrocities during the French Revolution aroused sympathy. Fraser recounts how the people of Shoreham Beach in Sussex welcomed refugees from a convent, promising they had nothing more to fear. The future Lord Liverpool, who opposed Catholic Emancipation as prime minister from 1812, served on a committee providing relief for émigré priests. In London at least, it became hard not to encounter these refugees, whose flight from the guillotine softened attitudes.

Ireland presented a different story. There Catholics had remained a majority despite harsh penal laws against the practice of their religion and seventeenth-century dispossession of the propertied classes. A Protestant minority, of which only a minority conformed to the established Church of Ireland, owned most of the country’s land while controlling government and the professions. With Catholics utterly subordinated until the 1780s, tension between Ireland and Britain pitted the ruling Protestant Ascendancy against governments in London that excluded them from the commercial benefits of empire while using Irish revenue and patronage for their own aims. Repealing penal laws against Catholics and later granting them the vote if they met other property qualifications sparked a debate that raised sectarian tensions. With the French Revolution as an example, Ireland spent the 1790s on the brink of revolt.

British statesmen like William Pitt the Younger and his mentor Henry Dundas realized the need for change, but they also feared worsening matters by alienating Irish Protestants with further concessions. Pitt tried to solve the problem by uniting Ireland with the rest of Great Britain under a single parliament at Westminster—a step that made Catholics a minority in the larger British state while removing Irish economic grievances—and joining the measure with Catholic Emancipation for the whole realm. Unfortunately, George III had become convinced that agreeing to end Catholic disabilities would violate his coronation oath to uphold the Church of England and its constitutional place in a confessional state. Fraser places much of the blame for the king’s turn of conscience on the stridently anti-Catholic Lord Clare, Ireland’s Lord Chancellor. George III’s opposition not only brought down Pitt’s government, it also led others who followed his lead to take a position against Catholic Emancipation they might not otherwise have chosen. Subsequent political confrontations then entrenched both sides more deeply. The Catholic Question became the most difficult question in British politics.

With Catholic Emancipation, the Act of Union left Ireland feeling betrayed. The question cut across party lines. Tories led by Pitt and then Spencer Perceval and Liverpool agreed to differ with members of the same cabinet taking opposite sides. Most against, such as Liverpool and Sir Robert Peel, treated it as a constitutional point rather than one of religious principles. Bigots like Perceval were few. The Duke of Wellington privately favored a deal with the Pope to bring the Irish clergy under control once he saw emancipation could not be resisted for much longer. Whigs and radicals supported Catholic Emancipation even as they mocked Catholic beliefs and the church itself. Their commitment to toleration did not mean respect. Indeed, Henry Brougham would later warn his fellow Whigs against flippancies likely to antagonize those they intended to benefit.

Fraser brings out personalities among the protagonists in vivid pen portraits that capture their character. She also gives the English side of a story after 1800 that other accounts tend to sideline in favor of Ireland, where the main struggle continued. The failure of aristocratic spokesman for Irish Catholics to press their case effectively opened a path for Daniel O’Connell’s emergence as leader of a mass movement. O’Connell, a Catholic lawyer from a gentry family in Western Ireland, organized the Catholic Association with a penny membership collected by priests at the chapel door. His combination of oratory and organization made the movement a force the government could not stop even when parliament made the association illegal.

A gap in the laws governing elections gave O’Connell his chance in 1828. Irish Catholics had thrown their support behind sympathetic Protestants as their co-religionists could not swear the oaths required to take a seat in parliament. Nothing, however, prevented Catholics from standing for election or being elected. O’Connell stood for County Clare in a by-election forced when its MP, Vesey Fitzgerald, took office in Wellington’s cabinet and won by a sweeping majority. Afterwards, he pledged that a Catholic would contest every seat in Ireland at the next election. His audacity called the government’s bluff.

Wellington, rather than risking civil war in Ireland, put his support behind Catholic Emancipation and brought around both Peel and George IV. His measure passed with Whig support, but split the Tories and left many Irish dissatisfied. The concession came too late to reconcile Ireland. Forcing O’Connell to stand again once the bill passed before he could take his parliamentary seat made the future Duke of Norfolk the first Catholic MP since the Reformation. The small-mindedness of the act, Fraser notes, tainted the process of reconciliation after a prolonged and bitter struggle.

Catholic Emancipation amounted to a bloodless revolution. Efforts by elite insiders reinforced by a mass movement in Ireland embracing the electoral process rather than seeking its overthrow ended the exclusion of Roman Catholics from public life. Along with a measure ending a similar religious test on Dissenting Protestants, Catholic Emancipation began a series of reforms that revolutionized the British constitution as it had stood over the long eighteenth century since Charles II’s restoration. Parliamentary reform standardized voting qualification and brought representation in line with the country’s population by shifting seats to growing regions while expanding the electorate. Other steps changed the structure of local government by opening it beyond the hold of parochial elites. Political parties organized nationally to meet the demands of the new system. Jewish Emancipation and then later extensions of the vote would follow.

Fraser presents Catholic Emancipation as a struggle for religious freedom, but issues it raised at the time involved political power as much or more than toleration. Problems easily managed in England loomed much larger in Ireland where they joined with other considerations to impede a settlement. Irish concerns rebounded on English sentiment to harden positions. Had Catholic Emancipation come earlier it might have had less impact on the larger political structure while doing more to conciliate Ireland. Coming as a concession forced by O’Connell’s brinkmanship, however, rendered it too small a step taken too late for the purpose its advocates intended. Therein lies the tragedy within the story of triumph Fraser recounts so well.  

William Anthony Hay is an associate professor of history and director of the Institute for the Humanities at Mississippi State University. He is the author of Lord Liverpool: A Political Life.