‘The King and the Catholics’ review: Timely study of anti-Catholic Britain

Antonia Fraser’s thought-provoking study takes on great meaning in the age of Brexit

Daniel O’Connell, centre, arrives to take his seat in Parliament after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in April 1829. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Daniel O’Connell, centre, arrives to take his seat in Parliament after the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in April 1829. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sat, Jun 9, 2018, 06:00


Book Title:
The King and the Catholics: the Fight for Rights, 1829


Antonia Fraser

Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Guideline Price:

When the British home secretary, Robert Peel, came out in favour of Catholic Emancipation at the start of 1829 it horrified many people, who saw him as the champion of their hard-line interests. As a result, he felt obliged to resign his seat representing University of Oxford, and run again for re-election, where he suffered an embarrassing defeat. Among those who voted against him was John Henry Newman, who did not believe it was dignified “to have a rat as a member”. Even the egg-cook at Christ Church, Oxford, believed that it was “a great shame that Mr Peel had so let the country down, as he had been such a kind gentleman when an undergraduate”.

Peel was soon given a safe seat in the House of Commons, where he explained the reasons for his sudden change of mind in March 1829: he had yielded “to a moral necessity I cannot control”. The threat to the British empire, the instability caused by the failure of successive attempts to resolve the Catholic question, prompted a change of heart and a change of conscience. Quoting John Dryden, he admitted that changing one’s mind in such a public way was a blow to “agonising pride”, but it was the only way of calming “the moral storm”. It was considered by some to be his finest speech. Afterwards, Peel’s father was notably proud. While playing a game of whist he boasted that “Robin’s the lad after all. No administration can stand in this country without him.”

Antonia Fraser’s new book deals with this “moral storm” that raged over the subject of emancipation for half a century before civil rights for Catholics were finally secured. As the Bishop of Oxford warned Peel in 1827, the “abominable Catholic Question” had become “mixed up with everything we eat or drink or see or think”. The book begins with the Gordon Riots in 1780, when an estimated 1,000 people were killed in the largest urban riot in British history. Buildings were set aflame across the city, and one woman described the sky as looking “like blood with the reflection of the fires”. A silk merchant called Malo had his factory destroyed and his canaries thrown into a bonfire because they were “Popish birds”. A gang of protesters attacked 10 Downing Street and were repulsed by 20 dragoons. As Charles Dickens later recounted in Barnaby Rudge, “a moral plague ran through the city”.

The man blamed for the protests was the leader of the Protestant Association and a member of parliament, Lord George Gordon, who vehemently opposed some minor measures to relieve the restrictions on Catholics. Dismissed by some as “Lord George Macbeth”, he was a voice for toleration on many other issues, including support for the rights of slaves, Jews, and the colonists in America. The subject of the rights of Catholics, however, was enough to throw him into paroxysms of rage. The great success of Fraser’s book is that it helps explain how anti-Catholic fears paralysed British policy for 50 years, the various attempts to reverse this position, and the extraordinary cast of characters who were involved in the fight for rights.

The Liberator

From an Irish perspective, the central character is Daniel O’Connell, and his exploits are rightly described as “heroic” in this book. O’Connell knew first-hand what it was like to be a victim of prejudice in Ireland, and he also experienced it in Britain. When he stayed at the house of the writer and politician Edward Bulwer, he was treated with suspicion by Bulwer’s wife, who insisted the house be fumigated the next day, “in order to get rid of the brogue”. Bulwer, perhaps now best remembered for the much-parodied opening sentence “It was a dark and stormy night”, immortalised O’Connell in verse as “the bold natural man” whose will was able to “scare a monarch” and subdue a mob. Writing with a historian’s skill and a novelist’s heart, Fraser shows how O’Connell was able to bring the British government to the point where it felt it had no alternative but to concede emancipation, and persuade King George IV to relent on what was a profound issue of conscience for him.

What was even more extraordinary in world history, O’Connell succeeded in doing this without resorting to force. In 1824 the Duke of Wellington believed that unless something was done to curb O’Connell’s mobilisation of the masses through his Catholic Association, there would “be civil war in Ireland sooner rather than later”. That prediction seemed to be drawing closer in the years ahead, especially after “No popery” was used as a rallying cry in Britain during the general election in 1826, and riots accompanied attempts to vote.

By utilising the power of “moral force”, O’Connell was able to take the fight for rights outside of the normal political arenas where it had been lost in the previous decades. In the Clare by-election in 1828 the blessing “May O’Connell be with you” could be heard across the county, and there was no violence or drinking of hard alcohol during the three-week campaign as everyone followed O’Connell’s orders. It was no wonder that Peel lamented afterwards that “British power in Ireland had been shivered to atoms”. Wellington and Peel persuaded the king of the necessity of emancipation, with Peel forced to accept that it was the only way of averting “political calamity”.

In many ways this is a book for our Brexit times, a cautionary tale of how a spirit of courage and compromise is necessary when dealing with the political challenge of a generation. As Fraser concludes in her elegant, timely, and thought-provoking study, “all honour is due to those who, for a variety of motives and in many different ways” helped build “the ever-fragile structure of that temple to toleration”. Perhaps a lesson can be learned from the example of Robert Peel. He sought the storm, had the courage to change his mind, and, in doing so, helped change the course of British and Irish history.

  • Patrick Geoghegan is a professor in history at Trinity College Dublin and is the author of a two-volume study of Daniel O’Connell