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Catholic Emancipation and its role in shaping Great Britain - Part 1

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.

What ever is, is right. - Pope. !, A weighty argument in favour of the Catholic Emancipation. by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, 1789-1856

What ever is, is right. - Pope. !, A weighty argument in favour of the Catholic Emancipation. by Isaac Robert Cruikshank, 1789-1856

The Acts of Union in 1800 added the predominantly Catholic Ireland together to Great Britain and formed the United Kingdom. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 was the culmination of centuries old differences between Catholicism and Protestantism in England. However, true and actual emancipation of the Catholics has never been totally achieved even to this day. This hub will discuss the nature of religion in Great Britain and Ireland prior to 1800 and how those events clearly displayed a massive divide in the two religious belief systems. It will also explain how these divisions played out in terms of the plans for a United Kingdom and finally, the results of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 and the effects it had on the future of the British Empire.

To understand the reasoning behind the Catholic Relief Act of 1826, an understanding of the religious climate in England is necessary. The Protestant Reformation in Europe transformed Europe into a battleground between the Roman Catholic authority over kings and men and the Protestant view that man is only accountable to God. In England, Henry VIII establishment of the Church of England completed the separation of England from papist rule that had held equal (if not more) power to the king. However, upon his death and then death of his son Edward VI, his daughter Mary ascended to the throne with her position to restore Catholicism in England. This led to violent persecution of Protestants. When Mary died, her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, became Queen of England and a new wave of religious persecutions exploded, this time against the Catholics. Elizabeth’s long reign solidified the Protestant religion in England. Religion was clearly the focal point for the English monarchs in solidifying their power. There were many events that renewed the concept of the evils of Catholics, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, carried out by Catholic Guy Fawkes and the Irish Massacres of 1641 renewed the concept of the evils of Catholicism. English historian, John Foxe, further promulgated the image of the cruelty of the Catholic religion from documents of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods in English history, all of which further fueled the fire of Catholic treason. John E. Drabble argues that,

…the years before Catholic Emancipation, when political tensions led Catholic, Anglican, and Whig historians to revive the many quarrels about the past. Of these disputes, the persecutions under Mary I and the alleged treason of Elizabethan Catholics seemed most relevant to the issue of Catholic freedom.1

A variety of acts were put into place in regards to the issues between the Protestant foundations of English government and the perceived Catholic threat. The Test Act of 1673 was enacted by Parliament and through opposition, forced Charles I, who many believed to have Catholic sympathies and had originally come up with a plan that favored Catholics, to agree to the Test Act. The Test Act “required all those wishing to hold office to swear an oath to the King and the Protestant English Church and to sign a declaration denying the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.”2 The actual longer title for the Test Act was ‘An act for preventing dangers which may happen from popish recusants’ and it enforced harsh penalties on those who refused to conform. An amendment, aimed at the Catholic nobility, was added in 1678 due to allegations that there was a 'Popish Plot' to murder Charles II. The Test Act held all the way until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829.3

 "A British satire on the efforts of Charles James Fox to get the Test and Corporation Acts repealed. Joseph Priestley, preaching, speaks for the concerns of the clergy, stating their opposition to "Reynard and Associates"

"A British satire on the efforts of Charles James Fox to get the Test and Corporation Acts repealed. Joseph Priestley, preaching, speaks for the concerns of the clergy, stating their opposition to "Reynard and Associates"

The Bill of Rights in 1689 under James II left no room for doubt that Catholics would ever be able ascend to the monarchy. The Act of Settlement of 1701 confirmed this position and even legislated that, to preserve the Protestant succession if Queen Anne did not have any more children, the Crown would pass at Anne's death to a Protestant relation, which indeed turned out to be George I, son of Sophia, the electress of Hanover in Germany, the granddaughter of James I by his daughter Elizabeth. George I descendants, which include the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, continuing to this day the prohibition of Catholics on the throne.

In 1798 a rebellion broke out in Ireland that caused a vast amount of instability for Great Britain. With ongoing wars with France, the British viewed this as a wakeup call that their Western defenses would appear weak to other nations, and the concept of Ireland becoming totally independent was unthinkable. The problem at hand was how to make a union with Ireland possible and still “cover not just parliamentary union, but the immediate or eventual amalgamation of different financial, commercial and judicial systems.”4 This problem was critical since it had to address how to reconcile the idea of direct rule from England when the predominantly Catholic Ireland would request move civil rights, and if any concessions were made would they also entail those Catholics residing in Great Britain?

The question that had to be answered was, “how could such an avowedly Protestant nation admit any of its Catholic subjects to a full share in civic life without irredeemably compromising its national identity?5 Enter William Pitt, leader of the Conservatives, who promised that Catholics and Protestants would have equal rights in the Houses of Parliament as a condition of the Act of Union. King George III however, would not agree to such a stipulation and Pitt and his secretary, Viscount Castlereagh resigned their positions in the British government. Charles John Fedorak argues that the issue of granting rights to the Catholics was not the leading cause of Pitt’s resignation and that “Pitt's commitment to the Catholic cause was much weaker than he claimed… Nevertheless, he believed that, once he had committed himself to a measure that the king refused to accept, resigning would appear the proper or reasonable course of action.”6 Regardless, Ireland was now a part of the new United Kingdom with the majority of their Catholic population excluded from input in their new government.

The issue of Catholic emancipation was a constant political and social issue that continually gained momentum over the next 20 plus years. However, with Europe engulf in revolutionary conflicts, the safety and security of the British government was hinged on its Protestant constitution. The threat of introducing Catholics, whose motives were always questioned, to have a voice in the government seemed a lack of common sense and treasonous at best. Those that supported Catholics in Parliament were very few, certainly the minority, and as a minority the feared their loss of position and power in government. The hatred, threat and fear of popery coursed through Parliament, as well as the English people. This in turn continually blocked any chance of Catholic reform. Everyday Englishmen signed anti-Catholic petitions, circulated pamphlets (such as Lord Kenyon’s), and as many as 60,000 people assembled at an anti-Catholic meeting on Penenden Heath. But unlike the bloodshed of the Gordon Riots which followed the Catholic Relief Act in 1778, these protests showed that many Britons no longer feared Catholicism as much as their ancestors once did.7 But it was quite clear that the concept of emancipation would be a struggle and that those supporting it would be a direct odds with the majority of the British people.

John Bull is seen standing on an outline map of the British Isles (he stands squarely between London and the Midlands), facing a 'Tory peer'-type who is dressed in hunting clothes, ermine-trimmed robes, and a monocle, and carrying a shotgun.

John Bull is seen standing on an outline map of the British Isles (he stands squarely between London and the Midlands), facing a 'Tory peer'-type who is dressed in hunting clothes, ermine-trimmed robes, and a monocle, and carrying a shotgun.

In 1812 Lord George Kenyon published “Observations on the Roman Catholic Question” and addresses his concerns on the wisdom of populating the Protestant government with Catholics, who he believed would quite possibly have other motives rather than the welfare of the state. He argued that,

If indeed it could be certain that those in authority would be always conscientiously and zealously attached to its cause, nothing more would be necessary; but, as it would be absurd to expect such attachment from those who are not in its communion, there exists an obvious danger, that persons of this description would employ their power and influence against the establishment. The only effectual way, therefore, of affording security to an established church is, to restrict to its members the possession of that power, which, if placed in other hands, would endanger it. Therefore it is required, in this country, that not only the sovereign, but all persons appointed to offices of power and trust in the state, should be of the established religion.8

Lord Kenyon was not the only one who clearly found that the very idea of accepting Catholics into the fold of government was nothing short of treason. In 1816, Joseph Spearing Jr. argued that not only was the idea of allowing Catholics into the government wrong, but that it went directly against the British Constitution. He argued that it was not really a religious matter at all and that “any relation it had to an ecclesiastical question, ceased, on the repeal of the penal statutes. It is to be considered as a civil, and, if the Romanists please, a political question merely.9 He further argues that the connection between the church and state were inseparable and foundational to the welfare and safety of the Empire. To Spearing, and many other Britons, the Protestant faith was the British Empire, and any chance of an alteration of that was unacceptable.

This constitution also secures to us a privilege above all earthly possessions, and every other blessing a privilege from which our ancestors had been prohibited, under the Romish [sic] jurisdiction, namely, the study of, and instruction in, the sacred scriptures; which alone contain the words of, and road to, eternal life. Exclusion is threatened, in the concluding sentences of the book of Revelations, to him who shall add to, or take from, the doctrines delivered in holy writ.10

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Part 2 can be found HERE

Thomas McLean, Funeral of the Constitution (March, 1829).

Thomas McLean, Funeral of the Constitution (March, 1829).


1. John E. Drabble, "Mary's Protestant Martyrs and Elizabeth's Catholic Traitors in the Age of Catholic Emancipation." Church History 51 (June 1982): 172-185.

2. Parliament of the United Kingdom, “The Glorious Revolution.” Accessed December 02, 2014,

3. Great Britain Record Commission. "Charles II, 1672: An Act for preventing Dangers which may happen from Popish Recusants." British History Online: University of London. Accessed December 03, 2014. (accessed December 03, 2014).

4. The History of Parliament Trust. "The Union With Ireland, 1800." The History of Parliament: British Political, Social & Local History. Accessed December 03.2014.

5. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 329.

6. Charles John Fedorak, "Catholic Emancipation and the Resignation of William Pitt in 1801." Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 1992: 64.

7. Gillian M. Doherty and Tomás A. O’Riordan. “The Campaign for Catholic Emancipation, 1823–1829.” Accessed November 28 2014.

8. Lord George Kenyon, Observations on the Roman Catholic Question. (London: J.J. Stockdale, 1812), 5-6.

9. Joseph Spearing Jr., The True State of the Question: Whether Admissibility of Romanists to the Higher Offices of the State, by Themselves Termed 'Catholic Emancipation, be Compatible with the Principles of the British Constitution. (Cork: Edwards and Savage Booksellers, 1816), 4.

10 Ibid., 6-7.


Nick Burchett (author) from IL, MO & KS on December 20, 2014:

Thanks! Part 2 will be coming soon!

CJ Kelly from the PNW on December 19, 2014:

Great stuff. I learned something today. What a topic! As an Irish Catholic I never saw the connection. Thanks very much. Voted up and shared.

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