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Catholic Emancipation

Following the Reformation in England and the establishment of the Church of England, the Test and Corporations Acts were passed which prevented all non-Anglicans from holding public office. Only Anglicans were allowed to vote and sit in parliament. These laws also applied in Ireland even though some 80% of the population were Catholics. Although a number of Catholic Emancipation Bills were passed by the House of Commons in the 1820s, they were always rejected by the House of Lords. The Anglican ascendancy in the British parliament opposed any concessions to Catholics, as Lord Liverpool said in a speech in 1819:

The main objects of the Catholics were to be allowed to sit in Parliament, in the privy council, and to be eligible to the great offices of the state... The principle of the constitution as established in 1688, was essentially Protestant; the connexion of a church and a limited monarchy was absolutely essential to the existence of civil liberty and of constitutional government; and in deciding the question that the King must be Protestant, they had also decided that the government must be Protestant likewise... The Roman Catholic not only brought a qualified allegiance, but differed from other dissenters in this, that he not only questioned the King's supremacy, but acknowledged a foreign one... It was not true ... that the church of Rome exercised no power except in matters purely ecclesiastical... There could be little doubt that if the Catholic Hierarchy possessed the power, they would use that power in pursuit of farther objects, namely, for the attainment of at least a participation of the property enjoyed by the clergy of the established church...

It was said that the grant of such power as was at present required would serve to produce tranquillity and harmony in Ireland. In his opinion, however, he could not acquiesce. For he could not comprehend how the Catholics were to be contented with merely that quantum of power which their advocates at present demanded... Instead of producing harmony and peace, the proposed concession would rather serve to give birth to a perpetual contest between the Catholic population and the priesthood on the one hand, and the Protestant proprietors and friends of the Protestant establishment on the other, especially with regard to the possessions of the church. (Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, vol.40, (1819) cols.433-438)

Until 1823 the campaign for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland was mainly the preserve of an intellectual minority and there was no informed public opinion on the subject.

In 1823 Catholic Emancipation was taken to the people by Daniel O'Connell as their concern and as a popular campaign when he established the Catholic Association. O'Connell was a democrat and a Dublin lawyer who had close contact with the social and economic problems of the Irish through his work in the minor courts. He had seen the effects of English rule on the Irish. He decided to crusade to liberate the Irish socially, economically and politically by taking one step at a time within the system. His ultimate aim was Home Rule. Catholic Emancipation was the first step because it already had support in the House of Commons. O'Connell thought that once there were Catholic MPs in the Commons they could use their influence for Home Rule.

His tactics were adopted from American and French examples of agitation and pressure from the majority towards a single objective. His organisation was so successful that later English movements used the Catholic Association as their model. The Political Unions of the early 1830s and the Anti-Corn-Law League of the late 1830s and early 1840s both asked O'Connell for advice and help.

In 1828 William Huskisson, the President of the Board of Trade, proposed a sliding scale on corn and after a disagreement with Wellington, resigned. This disagreement had nothing to do with Ireland but its results were startling. Wellington appointed Vesey Fitzgerald as his new President of the Board of Trade, but Fitzgerald had to stand for re-election because the post carried a salary. This precipitated the County Clare election. O'Connell, who was a Catholic, decided to stand against Fitzgerald: he could do so, but would not be allowed to take his seat if he won. Fitzgerald was an English Anglican who happened to be in favour of emancipation. O'Connell's aim was to present parliament with a fait accompli, to provoke a crisis and force parliament to do something. He was elected in what Peel called "an avalanche."

The opponents of Catholic Emancipation (Lord Eldon, the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of Newcastle) are on the right of the cartoon. Wellington and Peel are on the left, ridiculing the fears of their colleagues over the potential dangers of Catholic Emancipation.

Click on the image for a larger view

In 1828, the Annual Register (vol.70 1828 pp.105-106) advocated the passing of a Catholic Emancipation Act:

The removal of the disabilities was claimed as matter of right, unless some strong ground of expediency could be established against them, and the existence of any such ground of expediency was denied. They had been originally imposed when everything was to be dreaded from a Catholic prince concealed or avowed; nothing was now to be dreaded, from a royal family which, by the necessity of the Constitution, must be Protestant. They had been imposed to guard against danger from the Pope and a pretender; now a pretender no longer existed, and the Pope was impotent. There was nothing in the Roman Catholic religion, to disqualify its professors from holding power in a Catholic country; for their allegiance to the Pope regarded only their faith; to persecution they were not inclined, for the spirit of popery had changed and been mitigated; and, even if they should attempt to persecute, the attempt would be futile in a Protestant country.

Above all, it was absolutely necessary to grant the demands of the Catholics; because otherwise the Catholics would not allow Ireland to enjoy a moment's repose, and, exposing us every moment to the danger of rebellion, would render that part of the United Kingdom - what, indeed, it already was - the source of alarm, of discord, of expensive compulsory government in peace, and, in war, a source of positive weakness. It was added, that the concession was due, as being the consummation in the hope of which alone the people of Ireland had been brought to consent to the Union.

This is an anti-Catholic cartoon: Peel and Wellington are the "gravediggers" of the Constitution, Daniel O'Connell and the Pope are taking over St. Paul's Cathedral (renamed St. Patrick's) and the King is heading out of the picture (right)

Click on the image for a larger view

After the Clare election, Wellington had two choices. Either he could pass a Catholic Emancipation Act and let O'Connell take his seat or he could declare the election null and void. Here he ran the risk of violence in Ireland, and possible civil war. Wellington did want to avoid bloodshed. He knew the majority of MPs favoured 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.

In April 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was put through parliament by Wellington's ministry with a great deal of support from Lord John Russell and the Whigs. Peel put it to the House of Commons, and arguably spent the rest of his political career attempting to live down his 'ratting' on the Constitution in 1829. The Act said that

O'Connell accepted the Act although the majority of members of the Catholic Association were 40/- freeholders. It was political reality - he had achieved his aim. However, the peasants saw O'Connell as a traitor and William Cobbett identified the major flaw in the legislation:

The measure of Catholic Emancipation, as it has been ridiculously, and still is ridiculously, called, has really made the state of the county worse than it was before, and worse than it would now have been, had not that measure been adopted... Every man of sense will ask, how several millions of wretched people, several millions of creatures half-naked and half-starved, should be raised into comfort and content by a mere sharing of the lay, legislative and executive powers between Protestants and Catholics, without any change whatsoever in the principles upon which those powers are executed, or in the manner or price of the execution? (Political Register, 29 August 1829)

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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