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The Catholic Relief Act (1829)

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Catholic emancipation was the subject of political debate in the United Kingdom, which intensified in the 19th Century after the Act of Union in 1801. Catholics were not allowed to sit in Parliament1 and therefore were represented by Protestants. Catholic emancipation — Catholic relief — was designed to give Catholics the right to sit in Parliament.

The Act of Union

The Act of Union unified Ireland with Great Britain and disbanded the mainly Protestant and ineffective Irish Parliament. Catholic emancipation was informally promised to the Catholics of Ireland, which would allow them to stand for election and represent their country in Parliament. Catholics had previously been barred from political office by the Oath of Supremacy, which required them to disavow the supremacy of the Pope and the act of transubstantiation2 and swear loyalty to the Anglican Church of England. William Pitt was unable to grant Catholic emancipation after the Act of Union because King George III believed that it was unconstitutional and that allowing it would violate his oath to the Church of England. Pitt and his government did not want to push him further into 'madness'3. Furthermore, Britain was engaged in the French Wars and could not afford political instability. Catholic emancipation was shelved.

Daniel O'Connell

In 1823, Daniel O'Connell, an Irish Catholic lawyer and politician, began a campaign for Catholic emancipation. He was widely successful and raised a great deal of money through 'Catholic Rent', a subscription to an association which cost only one penny a month. His popularity led to his election for the county of Clare in Ireland, even though he could not take his seat in Parliament. Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington felt that the threat of insurrection in Ireland surpassed the threat of allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament4. The Catholic Relief Act was passed on 24 March, 1829. It contained a number of securities for the Protestants, including not allowing Catholics to attain certain positions and disenfranchising the 40-shilling freeholders. This meant that people who owned or lived on property worth more than forty shillings had previously been allowed to vote in Ireland, but that the property requirement would now be ten pounds.

Opposition to Catholic Emancipation

The Duke of Wellington, famous for his successes in the Napoleonic Wars, was the Prime Minister of Britain from 1828 - 1830 and the leader of the Tory party, which generally stood for the defence of the status quo. Both Wellington and his second-in-command and future Prime Minister Robert Peel had been against Catholic emancipation in the past, and their about-turn was seen as deceitful and disloyal. Wellington and Peel were of the opinion that the potential unrest in Ireland was preventable only by allowing Catholic emancipation. Many members of their own party opposed the measure, which was only passed with Whig support. The Duke of Newcastle was a strong opponent of Catholic emancipation, and in his diary described how Wellington and Peel 'betrayed their country'. He also attributes this speech to the Duke of Cumberland:

Nothing shall induce me to abandon the principles which I have always maintained and what is more to do my utmost to defeat measures which in my conscience I believe to be destructive of the Throne, the altar and the Protestant Constitution.

The opposition to Wellington and Peel's Catholic emancipation split the Tory party and led to the Whigs taking power for the first time in more than twenty years.

Catholics in the United Kingdom

For centuries Catholics have been in a minority in Britain, and some of the laws that prevent Catholics from attaining certain positions are still in place today. The Catholic Relief Act, or what is commonly known as Catholic emancipation, was one step towards equality in Britain.

1Anti-Catholic prejudice had persisted since the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII in the 16th Century.2The belief that the communion wafer and wine were literally the 'changed substance' of the flesh and blood of Christ.3King George III had the disease porphyria, which manifested itself as a mental illness.4They were, after all, a minority in the United Kingdom as a whole, though they were the majority in Ireland.

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