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In 1829, partly in response to widespread agitation throughout Ireland led by Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Association and the possibility of revolution in Ireland, the Catholic Emacipation Act, enabling Catholics to sit in the British Parliament at Westminster, was passed (symbolically, for many, on a Friday 13th!) Even though the Emancipation Act was hedged with qualifications (for example, no Catholic could be Regent, Lord Chancellor, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, or Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, no Catholic mayor could wear his civic robes at public worship, and every county now had to enumerate all new religious establishments: most important, the Irish county freehold franchise for parliamentary elections was raised from 40 shillings to 10), the Act marked a tremendous defeat for the Ultras, that is the stout defenders of the Protestant establishment. Among the opponents were some of the leading literary figures of the day, including Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. To supporters of Catholic Emancipation, it was only just that their Catholic compatriots should have the political right to sit in the British Parliament. To the opponents of the Act, however, it marked a retreat from the ancient principle (and real privileges) of an established, official, state church, and, most ominously, meant that Catholics could now, by their vote in a parliament that discussed and decided on a wide range of matters affecting the Church of England (Anglican Church) have real influence over that church! Thus the Duke of York argued in the House of Lords that

Surely their lordships could not wish to place the established church of England upon a worse footing than any other church within these realms: nor allow the Roman Catholics, who not only refused to submit to our rules, but who denied any authority of the civil power over their church, to legislate for the established church; which must be the case if they should be admitted to seats in either House of parliament".

The Duke of York then went on to voice a common concern - - that the emancipation of the Catholics was a vioation of the Crown's Coronation Oath and thus of the constitution.

He begged to read the words of that oath:--'I will, to the utmost of my power, maintain the laws of God, the true profession of the gospel, and the Protestant reformed religion established by law - - and I will preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this realm, and to the churches commited to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain to them, or any of them.' " (Speech of the Duke of York against Catholic Claims, 1825. From Hansard, XIII, 138-42 [25 April, 1825], quoted in E. R. Norman, Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968, 127).

Much to the disgust of the Ultras, the King did not veto the Catholic Emacipation Bill in the name of his Coronation Oath. Thus if for some Catholics Emacipation marked the triumph of liberalism and the beginnings of a more pluralistic society, to others it marked a violation of constitutional forms and royal commitments, and a damning blow to the strength, prestige, and security of the Established Church of England. Most ominously, for the opponents of Catholic Emancipation, it indicated a betrayal on the part of the Tory party in general and of its leader, Robert Peel, in particular. Peel was accused during a crucial bye-election:

Oh! Member for Oxford, you shuffle and wheel
You have altered your name from R. Peel to Repeal"

Birmingham Argus, January 1829, quoted in A. Briggs, The Making of Modern England, 1784-1867. The Age of Improvement N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1959, 232.


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Last modified 6 July 2002