Review: The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights, 1829 by Antonia Fraser — reform’s rough ride

The heated and bitter battle for Catholic emancipation

At a gallop: Wellington escaping a Protestant mob
At a gallop: Wellington escaping a Protestant mob
In the summer of 1780 London seethed with tension. Two years earlier the government had begun relaxing the strict laws that denied Catholics the right to vote, buy land or even inherit property. But not everybody was happy about it. Amid rumours that crack Jesuit priests were lurking in tunnels beneath the Thames, waiting for orders from Rome to set off explosives and flood the city, the half-crazed Lord George Gordon urged tens of thousands of protesters to march on Westminster.

On June 2 some 60,000 people, sporting blue cockades and No Popery banners, demonstrated outside Parliament. Then, as so often happens on hot summer evenings, anger tipped into violence. The crowd burst into Palace Yard and attacked MPs; the prime minister, Lord North, lost his hat in the chaos.

A few hours later, the mob laid siege to 10 Downing Street, and were only driven off by mounted dragoons. From the roof, North’s dinner guests could see houses, embassies and churches burning in the night. “The sky was like blood,” one witness said, “with the reflection of the fires.”

No wonder Antonia Fraser kicks off her splendid account of the struggle for Catholic emancipation with the Gordon Riots, in which some 1,000 people were killed. The worst urban violence in modern British history, they provided an unforgettable example of the incendiary power of anti-Catholic feeling. For more than two centuries, British and Irish Catholics had been second-class citizens, their religion despised, their patriotism suspect.

Crisis: troops confront protesters during the Gordon Riots in London, 1780
Crisis: troops confront protesters during the Gordon Riots in London, 1780

Memories of Bloody Mary, the Gunpowder Plot, the Glorious Revolution and the Jacobite risings were still raw, while Britain’s enemies abroad, such as France and Spain, tended to be Catholic. Old aristocratic families kept the Catholic flame alive, but sectarianism died hard. “Their Church consists of vicious Popes,” explained one contemporary broadside, “the rest are whoring Nuns and bawdy bugg’ring Priests.”

Indeed, many otherwise perfectly liberal, civilised people thought emancipation would be a step back towards barbarism. Catholicism, claimed the poet Coleridge, was the religion of “friars, pardoners…and harlots”. Emancipation would be inviting “this Dragon” into the heart of government.

So what happened? One factor, suggests Fraser, is that so many Irish Catholics had served in the armies that defeated Napoleon. Just as the presence of so many black GIs in the US Army hastened the advance of civil rights after the Second World War, so freedom of worship for Irish soldiers paved the way for wider tolerance later.

The key thing, though, was pressure from Ireland itself, where the Catholic majority chafed under the weight of the penal laws. Indeed, the outstanding character in Fraser’s account is the burly figure of Daniel O’Connell —nicknamed “the Liberator” after his hero Simon Bolivar — who became the leader of the emancipation campaign. With tremendous dramatic flair, O’Connell won a Westminster by-election in County Clare in July 1828, even though, as a Catholic, he could not take his seat. “Protestants, awake to a sense of your condition,” roared one of his supporters at the victory banquet. “Look around you…Seven million of Irish people are completely arrayed and organised.”

London’s burning: a fire breaks out at Newgate prison during the Gordon Riots
London’s burning: a fire breaks out at Newgate prison during the Gordon Riots

Faced with such defiance, Britain’s politicians did what they do best: they grumbled, hesitated, fudged and, at last, found a solution. The prime minister, Wellington, was hugely deaf, had lost his back teeth and was generally extremely reactionary. Crucially, though, he had been born into an Anglo-Irish family and grasped the importance of Ireland to British security. His chief ally was the pragmatic young Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, formerly an implacable anti-Catholic, who realised that for everything to stay the same, everything had to change.

In a six-hour meeting, they told the debauched George IV, complete with 50-inch waist, that they would quit unless he agreed to an emancipation bill. The king, who drank brandy throughout, succumbed to hysterics, threatened to abdicate and at last gave in. It could hardly have been a more symbolic constitutional moment.

In almost any other hands, all this would probably make a painfully worthy, even boring story. But the 85-year-old Fraser knows better than anybody how to make political and religious history fun. And as the mob besieges the Palace of Westminster, red-faced politicians rant and rave and George IV tucks in to yet another banquet, her tale flows with such elegance and enthusiasm that you barely stop to notice just how skilfully she does it.

Weidenfeld £25 pp319

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