Catholic Emancipation and the Regency Whigs

One of the longer-lasting effects of Henry VIII split from Rome, Elizabeth I’s reign, and the Jacobite Rebellion two centuries after, was that laws codifying discrimination against Catholics became seemingly set in stone. The only people who regarded this as slightly unfair was the Catholics, most Whigs (the de facto left wing by the Regency Era), and a few progressive Tories (the Tory party was a newly coalesced force in politics and many still thought of themselves as ‘independent Whigs’ rather than Tories per se). Needless to say, the radical ideas of human equality and justice puckered the butts of conservative elements of Parliament and the gentry. Nevertheless, in the end it was the Tories who drafted the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, which passed into law on 13 April of that year, giving Catholics the right to vote and sit in Parliament.

The demand for Catholics to be allowed to participate in government had gained extra traction when Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 but was prevented from taking his seat in Parliament by existing penal law.


O’Connell rightly threw a major hissy fit about this. Not only was O’Connell a popular and powerful force in the south of Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time was the Marquess Wellesley, whose official policy “was one of reconciliation that sought to have the civil rights of Catholics restored while preserving those rights and considerations important to Protestants.” Wellesley’s brother, the Duke of Wellington, was the Prime Minister and was both deeply invested in Irish peace and willing to listen to his sibling. Thus, by 1829 Catholic Emancipation had the Whigs, liberal Tories, and the Prime Minster behind it.

Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who had until then always opposed emancipation (and had, in 1815, challenged O’Connell to a duel) concluded: “though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger.” Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel drew up the Catholic Relief Bill and guided it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington worked tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatened to resign as Prime Minister if the King did not give Royal Assent.

The governmental conservatives did get a pound of flesh in compromise, though. Prior to the Act a “man renting or owning land worth at least forty shillings (two pounds sterling), had been permitted to vote” but the new law raised the price of the land rented or owned to ten pounds before a man was eligible to vote. It also set a penalty of £100 on ‘any person, not authorised by law, who should assume the title of any archbishop, bishop or dean’ and extended the provisions to the ‘assumption of ecclesiastical titles derived from any city, town, or place in England and Ireland, not being in an existing see’. The conservative Tories were betting that wealthier landowners would be more likely to vote Tory in future elections.

John_Phillips_An_Eclipse_Lately_Discovered_1829_cartoon angry at Wellington for Catholic Emancipation

The conservatives, known as the Ultra-Tories, also began to demand Parliamentary reform to end rotten boroughs and other irregularities which no longer served to give them their majority. They assumed that a larger, wealthier, “electorate could be relied upon to rally around anti-Catholicism”.

This backfired on Ultra-Tories the next year, when the Duke of Wellington resigned due to their pressure. allowing the Whigs to come back into power. With Lord Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, the new Prime Minister from 1830-1834, the progressive Whigs were able to push through several reforms that the Ultra-Tories hated with a blue passion. Although the Reform Act 1832 did get rid of rotten boroughs, it redistributed power on the basis of population and subsequently “added 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales. Only the upper and middle classes voted, so this shifted power away from the landed aristocracy to the urban middle classes”. Grey and the Whigs then sent the Ultra-Tories into hysetics by passing the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, some limited but helpful labor reform laws, and the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 that was the first baby-step towards a ‘welfare’ state. The poor laws and the labor laws would be largely destroyed in spirit by the Victorians, but they laid some important groundwork for more merciful legislation a century later. 

The heroine of Mansfield Parsonage, Mary Crawford, who was as ardently progressive as Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram were conservative, will be thrilled by Grey’s years of ascendancy.  Since I intend her to live long and prosper, I can promise that she will not only enjoy the Whig revival, but also grow old enough to see the official birth of the Liberal Party in 1868 before she passes away.


We are currently watching the unfolding of a great political shake up in Great Britain, what with the travesty of Brexit, and Remainers fleeing to the Lib-Dems because the Labour Party (which has become more centrist than centre-left in nature) is failing as an “opposition” party to anything but really liberal policies. (Almost identically to the Democratic powers-that-be in Washing DC right now.) If Scotland, bastion of the left within the Labour Party, divorces (for lack of a better term) the United Kingdom, God only knows how the parties will evolve afterwards. We live in very interesting times.

There is a reason why telling someone you hope they will live in interesting times is an ancient Chinese curse.

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