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The King and the Catholics: The fight for rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser

29 June 2018

Michael Wheeler reads a lively account of the Emancipation struggle

“SOME say it’s the end of the world, and be hanged if I don’t think it looks like it!” So says Mr Vincy in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published in 1871-72, but set forty years earlier. Vincy refers, not to the Great Reform Bill, but to Catholic Emancipation legislation, finally given the royal assent by a weeping George IV in 1829, the year in which Edward Irving and Thomas Carlyle published separate essays with the same doom-laden title, “Signs of the Times”, and in which the door was opened to further religious and political reforms.

In The King and the Catholics, Antonia Fraser considers the fifty-year struggle by English Roman Catholics for civil rights, from the catastrophic Gordon Riots of 1780 to the moment at which Daniel O’Connell finally took his seat in the House of Commons, and a handful of RCs could sit in the Lords, among them Bernard, 12th Duke of Norfolk.

Lady Antonia is best known as a historical biographer, whose subjects include Mary, Queen of Scots, Charles II, Oliver Cromwell, and Marie Antoinette. As in Perilous Question: The drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832, however, and her earlier The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and faith in 1605, she also writes biographical history, offering the reader a compelling narrative of the ways in which big personalities struggle for supremacy at a critical moment in English political history.

The potential longueurs in her new story, which covers decades of committee meetings, legislative planning, and political campaigning, are avoided by introducing points of human interest at every turn, and by drawing out the colourful personalities who make up her dramatis personae.

On his journey from chief opponent to emancipation to its pragmatic proponent as Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington was hampered by deafness and an absence of back teeth, making him difficult to hear in the Lords. His Home Secretary, once known as “Orange Peel” for his anti-Catholic fervour, later became “Turncoat Peel” and lost his Oxford University seat in the Commons. (One of the book’s many coloured plates is of the door at Christ Church with the words “no peel” spelled out in nail heads and retained to this day.)

Thomas PakenhamKing George IV in Dublin in 1821, making the first royal visit to Ireland since 1399. From the book

Cardinal Consalvi, who charmed the English Court in 1814, was described by Sir Thomas Lawrence as having the finest head that God had ever made. So appalled was the Duchess of Richmond by the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829 that she named the stuffed rats kept under a glass cover on her dinner table Peel and Wellington, while the Duchess of Rutland simply took to her bed, “prostrate with alarm about Bloody Mary, Guy Faux and the Duke of Norfolk”.

As George IV, whose friends included aristocratic RCs, became increasingly paranoid in the later 1820s, he was haunted by his father’s determination to stand by the Coronation Oath that he, too, had sworn, to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the united Church of England and Ireland, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established, within England and Ireland, and the countries thereunto belonging”.

Lady Antonia’s interest is in the politics of religion, to which she brings all her remarkable narrative gifts. She is less interested in the ecclesiastical, theological, and literary battle of the books that enriched the hinterland to her story. For that, the reader must look elsewhere.

Dr Wheeler is the author of The Old Enemies: Catholic and Protestant in nineteenth-century English culture (CUP).

The King and the Catholics: The fight for rights 1829
Antonia Fraser
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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