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Catholic Emancipation or Catholic Relief, was a process in Great Britainmarker and Irelandmarker in the late 18th century and early 19th century which involved reducing and removing many of the restrictions on Roman Catholics which had been introduced by the Act of Uniformity, the Test Acts and the Penal Laws. Requirements to abjure the temporal and spiritual authority of the Pope and transubstantiation placed major burdens on Roman Catholics.

From the death of James Francis Edward Stuart in January 1766, the Papacy recognised the Hanoverian dynasty as lawful rulers of England, Scotland and Ireland, after a gap of 70 years, and thereafter the Penal Laws started to be dismantled.

Initial reliefs

In Canada, British since 1763, the Quebec Act of 1774 ended some restrictions on Catholics, so much so that it was criticized in the Congress of the Thirteen Colonies. In Britain and Ireland the first Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1778; subject to an oath renouncing Stuart claims to the throne and the civil jurisdiction of the Pope, it allowed Roman Catholics to own property, inherit land, and join the army. Reaction against this led to riots in Scotland in 1779 and then the Gordon Riots in London in 1780. Further relief was given by an Act of 1782 allowing Catholic schools and bishops. The British Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791 was adopted by the Irish parliament in 1792-93. Since the electoral franchise at the time was largely determined by property, this relief gave the votes to Roman Catholics holding land with a rental value of £2 a year. They also started to gain access to many middle-class professions from which they had been excluded, such as the legal profession, grand jurors, universities and the lower ranks of the army and judiciary.

Act of Union with Ireland 1800

The issue of greater political emancipation was considered in 1800 at the time of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland: it was not included in the text of the Act because this would have led to greater Irish Protestant opposition to the Union. Non-conformists also suffered from discrimination at this time, but it was expected to be a consequence given the proportionately small number of Roman Catholics in the UKmarker as a whole.

William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister, had promised Emancipation to accompany the Act. However, no further steps were taken at that stage, in part because of the belief of King George III that it could violate his Coronation Oath. Pitt resigned when King George's opposition became known, as he was unable to fulfill his pledge. Catholic Emancipation then became a debating point rather than a major political issue.

O'Connell's campaign 1823–29

In 1823, Daniel O'Connell started a campaign for repeal of the Act of Union, and took Catholic Emancipation as his rallying call, establishing the Catholic Association. In 1828 he stood for election in County Claremarker in Irelandmarker and was elected even though he could not take his seat in the House of Commonsmarker. He repeated this in 1829.

The resulting commotion led the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, against their previous judgements, to introduce and carry the major changes of the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, removing many of the remaining substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics in the UK. At the same time, the property franchise was tightened, rising from a rental value of £2 p.a. to £10 p.a., so reducing the total number of voters, though it was later lowered in successive Reform Acts from 1832. The major beneficiaries were the Catholic middle classes who could now have new careers in the higher civil service such as the judiciary.

The year 1829 is therefore generally regarded as marking Catholic Emancipation in the UK. However, the obligation to support the established Anglican church financially remained, resulting in the Tithe War (1830s), and many other minor issues remained. A succession of further reforms were introduced over time, leaving the Act of Settlement as one of the few provisions left that still discriminates against all non-Anglicans, and then only those who are entitled by birth to be King, Queen, or Royal Consort. However, ever since the Papacy recognized the Hanoverian dynasty in January 1766, none of the royal heirs has been a Catholic and thereby disallowed by the Act of 1701.

The slowness of liberal reform between 1771 and 1829 led to much bitterness in Ireland which underpinned Irish nationalism until recent times. The dechristianization of Francemarker in 1790-1801, the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf in Germany in the 1870s and the progress of Jewish Emancipation present interesting comparisons of toleration at the European level. Protestant sentiments in Ireland, on the other hand, were greatly alarmed by the possibility of Roman Catholic political influence on future government, which brought about equally long-lasting bitter resistance by their sectarian Orange Order.

Catholic Emancipation in Newfoundland

The granting of Catholic emancipation in Newfoundland was not as straightforward as it was for Irelandmarker, and this question had a significant influence on the wider struggle for a legislature. Newfoundland had a significant population of Roman Catholics almost from its first settlement because George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, was the founding proprietor of the Province of Avalon on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsulamarker. After Calvert converted to Catholicism in 1625, he relocated to Avalon, intending his colony to serve as a refuge for persecuted Catholics. Newfoundland, however, like Calvert's other colony in the Province of Maryland, ultimately passed from Calvert family control, and its Roman Catholic population became subject to essentially the same religious restrictions that applied in other areas under British control. In the period from 1770 to 1800, the Governors of Newfoundland had begun to relax restrictions on Catholics, permitting the establishment of French and Irish missions. Prince William Henry (the future William IV of the United Kingdom), on visiting St. John's in 1786, noted that "there are ten Roman Catholics to one Protestant." and the Prince worked to counter early relaxations of ordinances against Catholics.

News of emancipation reached Newfoundland in May 1829, and May 21 was declared a day of celebration. In St. John'smarker there was a parade and a thanksgiving mass celebrated at the Chapel, attended by the Benevolent Irish Societymarker and the Catholic-dominated Mechanics' Society. Vessels in the harbour flew flags and discharged guns in salute.

Most people assumed that Roman Catholics would pass unhindered into the ranks of public office and enjoy equality with Protestants. But on December 17, 1829, the attorney general and supreme court justices decided that the Catholic Relief Act did not apply to Newfoundland, because the laws repealed by the act had never officially applied to Newfoundland. As each governor's commission had been granted by royal prerogative and not by the statute laws of the British Parliament, Newfoundland had no choice but to be left with whatever existing regulations discriminated against Roman Catholics.On December 28, 1829 the St. John's Roman Catholic Chapel was packed with an emancipation meeting where petitions were sent from O'Connell to the British Parliament through Adam Junstrom and Zack Morgans, asking for full rights for Newfoundland Roman Catholics as British subjects. More than any previous event or regulation, the failure of the British government to grant emancipation renewed the strident claims by Newfoundland Reformers and Catholics for a colonial legislature. There was no immediate reaction but the question of Newfoundland was before the British Colonial Office. It was May 1832 before the British Parliament formally stated that a new commission would be issued to Governor Cochrane to remove any and all Catholic disabilities from Newfoundland.

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See also


  1. Memorial University, Note 87: PWH to King, 21 Sept. 1786, Later Correspondence of George III, Vol. 1, 251.
  2. Prince William Henry in Newfoundland by Hans Rollman

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