The King and the Catholics

by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld, 336pp, £25

English Catholics lay low for most of the 18th century. They might, like many High Church Tories and country squires, drink to “The King over the water”, but only a handful of the 80,000 were engaged in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745. Their security and prosperity required them to demonstrate that they were loyal subjects of King George.

The prohibitions of the Penal Laws were still in place, but the strictest were now only rarely officiously enforced. The year 1778 saw a Catholic Relief Act. The public response, the violent Gordon Riots in London in 1780, showed how virulent anti-Catholicism could still be. English Catholics were wise to keep their heads below the parapet and Catholic landowners such as Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall had to present themselves as Englishmen first, Catholics second.

It was different in Ireland. There you had a Catholic majority, most still Gaelic-speakers, subservient to a Protestant minority who dominated public life from which all Catholics were excluded. Influenced by the Revolution in France, Ireland broke out in rebellion in 1798. Leaders such as Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward FitzGerald were themselves Protestants, but most of the rebels were Catholic.

The rebellion having been suppressed, the government of the younger Pitt set to solve the Irish Question by abolishing the (Protestant) Dublin Parliament, and bringing forward an Act of Union which would create a single parliament for the United Kingdom. Pitt realised that this Union would be acceptable to the majority in Ireland only if accompanied by Catholic Emancipation. The king, George III, would have none of it, insisting it violated his Coronation Oath. George suffered from mental instability; there was a fear that, if highly stressed, he would lose his wits again. So the Union was enacted, with no relief, let alone Emancipation, for Catholics. Ireland was not appeased.

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