[Disponible en español]

Underlying the changing relation of church and state during this age was a fact more momentous than the single act of emancipation — the political union with Ireland, passed in 1800-1. Elsewhere in the history of Christianity it has been observed how a state, which by conquest or inheritance or accident acquires a new and large population practising a different religion from the religion of the old population, is forced to modify its religious policy if it wishes to survive as a state. Something of this sort happened to England by the act of union with Ireland. Though England and Ireland were politically united under the crown since the middle ages, it was only with the act of union that the Parliament at Westminster became directly responsible for Irish affairs. . . . Therefore the government of Westminster acquired direct responsibility for the fate of a number of Roman Catholics equal to more than a third of the total population of England and Wales. To maintain the special disabilities of so large a number of Roman Catholic persons appears in the long view to have been impracticable and preposterous. — Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, 8-9

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 Briggs, 232.]

So how and why did the bill become law? As Briggs points out the threat of violence in Ireland changed the minds of even those who feared some of the implications of essentially putting Catholicism and the state church on a more-or-less equal footing. “To many sensible men the revolution of 1688, and the Jacobite rebellions, felt uncomfortably close. They saw the liberties and the greatness of Britain to depend upon a revolution which excluded a Catholic king and enacted a Protestant constitution.” At the same time, many defenders of Anglicanism “had no desire to revive anti-Catholic penal laws and thought persecution of Catholics intolerable. Justice meant fair treatment before the courts, not political equality.” For these reasons, “Robert Peel, most sensible and moderate of men, resisted the Catholic claims until the summer of 1828, when the crisis in Ireland helped him to change his mind” (9).


Briggs, Asa. The Making of Modern England, 1784-1867. The Age of Improvement. N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1959.

Chadwick, Owen. The Victorian Church. London: Adam & Charles Black. 1966.

Created 1989

Epigraph added 18 June 2018