Antonia Fraser – The King and the Catholics [Brief Review]

January 31, 2019

 

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A Brief Review of

The King and the Catholics:
England, Ireland, and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780–1829
Antonia Fraser

Hardback: Doubleday, 2018
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Reviewed by David E. Anderson
 
 
Fans of Antonia Fraser, the well-regarded surveyor of the British (The Wives of Henry VIII) and French monarchies (Marie Antoinette: The Journey) as well as a popular novelist (the “Jemima Shore” novels), will find much to enjoy in this history of Catholic emancipation in Great Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Fraser begins with the violent Gordon Riots of 1780, familiar to readers of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, which were a reaction to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Roman Catholics in Great Britain at the time had things pretty rough: they could not hold political office unless they swore an oath abjuring major tenets of their faith, they could not inherit property, priests could still be arrested and prosecuted, and Catholic religious clothing could not be worn in public, among other proscriptions.

This is not to say that highly placed Catholics did not hold office or move in high circles. George III visited one titled Catholic who had just built a chapel, which was on the proscribed list, and with a wink and a nod the king told his host that it was a quite handsome “mausoleum.” His son, the future George IV, was sympathetic to Catholic refugees from the French Revolution, as were many of his countrymen.

But future efforts at reform and Catholic emancipation were primarily frustrated by George III’s and later George IV’s position that their support would violate their coronation oath to uphold the state church established by Henry VIII. One of George III’s episodes of “madness” was supposedly brought on by his prime minister daring to broach the topic with him.

But things change. Like attitudes in legislatures towards issues such as same-sex marriage or the legalization of marijuana in the past quarter century, opinion in the House of Commons slowly shifted in the early 1800s, finally reaching the point where reform bills were being passed, but the stumbling block was the House of Lords—and the king.

Three developments finally made the difference: first, Arthur Wellesley, a.k.a. the 1st Duke of Wellington, became prime minister, and he allowed members of the Tory party to vote their conscience on the issue. (His brother Richard, the head of government in Ireland, was sacked after he married a Catholic in a Catholic ceremony in Dublin—all of which was too much for George IV.) The second development was when Wellington’s successor as Prime Minister Robert Peel finally dropped his influential and long-standing opposition to reform. And, finally, the king, George IV, grudgingly accepted the Reform Act of 1829 when Wellington threatened to resign if he didn’t, which would have thrown the government into chaos.

Ireland played an important part in these developments. The Irish politician Daniel O’Connell managed to thwart the established English landholders in Ireland and get elected to the House of Commons—but he couldn’t take his seat because he wouldn’t swear the required oath, until the reform bill was passed and the requirement was changed.

One can make only a few quibbles about Fraser’s generally excellent account. Unless you’re a real British history buff, you might not remember all the drama surrounding the Stuarts, especially James II, that created such a fear of “papistry.” A quick review would have been helpful. Also, a brief postscript might have outlined what came next in reform of the religious laws, since full Roman Catholic relief wasn’t achieved until the 1920s. There is no discussion at all of reform of the legislation surrounding the civil rights of Jewish citizens of the empire, which didn’t happen for another 50 years.

All in all, this is a fine addition to Fraser’s body of work and will be admired and enjoyed by everyone interested in Catholicism or British history—or in how long-entrenched attitudes often can and do change.