Catholic Emancipation

To abolish the practise of the Catholic religion in Great Britain, a series of penal laws was enacted, beginning with the sanguinary measures of Queen Elizabeth which were supplemented by less stringent but more effective acts until the time of George III. Catholic priests were ipso facto guilty of high treason; it was treason to become reconciled to the Church of Rome; children were denied education in the Catholic religion and were disqualified from owning or acquiring property in any way if sent abroad to Catholic schools by their parents, who were fined for the offense; failure to attend the Established Church incurred a fine for recusancy, and a convicted recusant was outlawed; members of both houses of Parliament were obliged before taking their seats to denounce Transubstantiation, the Mass, and invocation of the saints as idolatrous. Catholics were denied not only freedom of worship but all civil rights as well, and their property and even lives were at the mercy of any informer. Finally in 1778 a Catholic committee was formed to promote the cause of relief. In England the first Act for Catholic Relief was introduced in 1778 under King George III, repealing some of the most unjust measures of the Act of William III passed in 1700, and permitting Catholics to inherit and to purchase land. It contained an oath making a declaration of loyalty to the reigning sovereign; and abjuration of the Pretender and of seditious doctrines attributed to Catholics. Promulgation of the Act caused the Gordon Riots, aimed principally at Lord Mansfield, who had thwarted several prosecutions under the recently-repealed statutes. In 1791 another more extensive act was passed, imposing an oath to support the Protestant Succession, which when taken by Catholics freed them from persecution for the practise of their religion, but full emancipation urged by Pitt and Fox was opposed by the bigotry of George III. Contention among the Catholics themselves also delayed action, and the achievement of emancipation was due to the pressure exerted on the government by the Catholic party in Ireland under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell.

In Ireland, war between Catholics and Protestants after the fall of the Stuarts had been concluded by the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. An oath of allegiance was substituted for the Oath of Supremacy, Catholics could practise their religion unmolested, sit in Parliament, vote for its members, hold any civil or military post, and own land; but the treaty was broken and a penal code enforced by the Protestant Parliament in Dublin. With the rise of national feeling among Irish Protestants; however, Catholics were favoured, and the first step toward emancipation was taken in 1771 with the passage of an act permitting Catholics to hold under lease for sixty-one years on fifty acres of bog, and in 1774 the Oath of Allegiance replaced that of supremacy. Similar minor concessions were granted until 1792 when the Catholic party, supported by the United Irishmen, sent to London delegates who were favourably received by the king upon the advice of the prime minister, Pitt. In 1793 a bill was passed granting parliamentary and municipal franchise to Catholics, and admittance to office and university, though still debarring them from Parliament and higher offices. Impartial administration of law was balked by Fitzgibbon, who had great influence in the Irish government. Under the lord lieutenancy of Earl Fitzwilliam, who went to Ireland in 1795, Catholic hopes were raised, but he was recalled and sectarian hatred revived, resulting in the rebellion of 1798.

After its suppression, Pitt’s plan for a legislative union received the support of many Catholics, but upon the opening of the United Parliament in 1801 they were betrayed by the resignation of Pitt, who in 1804 returned to the office of prime minister as their enemy. In spite of continual petition, the Catholics were unable to accomplish anything until in 1810 Daniel O’Connell was chosen to lead the fight for emancipation. In 1813, Grattan, with the support of Canning and Castlereagh, passed through the second reading a Catholic Relief Bill which was lost in Committee, upon his death in 1820, William Plunket carried a bill through the House of Commons only to have it thrown out in the Lords. In 1823 O’Connell revived discouraged Catholic spirit by establishing the Catholic Association, and in 1825 another bill passed the Commons, to be thrown out in the Lords. In the same year the Association was suppressed because of its power, but, reorganized as the New Catholic Association, continued to further Catholic interests. In 1828 the Duke of Wellington became prime minister, with Peel as leader in the House of Commons, both enemies of reform and emancipation but unable to suppress the Association. The Test and Corporation Acts were repealed in 1828 upon petition of the Catholics, and in the same year meetings were held in 1,500 parishes throughout Ireland to appeal for emancipation, a million and a half Catholic signatures being listed. But Wellington and Peel remained obdurate and effected the defeat of Sir Francis Burdett’s motion in favor of emancipation. The Catholics then passed a resolution to oppose all government candidates, whereupon O’Connell stood for Parliament against Vesey Fitzgerald seeking re-election for Clare, and won, through the support of the forty-shilling freeholders who defied their landlords. This ushered in a crisis in which Catholics and Orangemen were equally defiant, and concession or civil war were the only alternatives. At last Wellington and Peel surrendered, the former inducing the king to yield, the latter swaying the House of Commons, and the Catholic Relief Bill presented in March 1829, passed into law the following month. Catholics were admitted to Parliament and the corporations, but still excluded from the posts of lord lieutenant of Ireland, commander-in-chief of the army, and lord chancellor, both of England and Ireland. Several other concessions to bigotry were made, ostensibly to placate the king, the most injurious being the raise of the franchise to ten pounds, which dispossessed the forty-shilling freeholders, and as the bill was not retroactive the old oath was offered to O’Connell, who refused and had to seek re-election for Clare, a proceeding felt to be an insult to all Ireland. In December 1926, a new Catholic Relief Bill was passed removing minor enactments against Catholics, which though no longer enforced had remained upon the statutes. The centenary of emancipation was celebrated in England and Ireland by many solemn civic and religious functions.