The Age We Live In

A History of the XIX Century

From the Peace of 1815 to the Present Time


James Taylor, A.M., D.D., F.S.A.

Published by William MacKenzie, 69 Ludgate Hill, E.C. in 1882

Chapter dealing with Catholic Emancipation

The Repeal Association meet

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The Tory party regarded the reconstruction of the Cabinet and the expulsion of the Canningites with unbounded delight. They had at least obtained a government after their own heart; and at the Pitt dinner, at the end of May, they manifested their joy by the heartiness with which, at the bidding of Lord Eldon, they gave ‘one cheer more’ for the Protestant ascendancy. The shrewd old chancellor, however, saw clearly that the new administration would have ‘great difficulties to struggle with.’ ‘The Whigs, the Canningites, and the Huskissonites,’ he said ‘will join and be very strong. With the exception of Lord Lonsdale, the great Tory parliamentary lords are not propitiated by the new arrangements, and many of them will be either neuter or adverse.’ Their most formidable difficulty, however, arose from another quarter.

The Roman Catholic Association had now attained to a height of power which rendered it very dangerous to any government that opposed their claims. It was founded in 1823 by Daniel O’Connell, an eminent Roman Catholic barrister, who by his great abilities and eloquence had now become the head of the party in Ireland, and it speedily became a rallying centre for all the Irish supporters of Roman Catholic emancipation. Its members held regular sessions in Dublin, engaged in debates, which were reported in the newspapers, and constituted themselves the medium between Ireland and the Parliament. They organized the entire country, ordered a census of the population to be taken, and appointed collectors in every parish for receiving the ‘Catholic Rent,’ which it expended at its own pleasure for the purposes of law, bribery or election.

A Mr. Kinnan, one of the Duke of Wellington’s correspondents, gives a striking and interesting account of the methods employed by the agents of the association in the collection of the ‘Rent.’ ‘The priests,’ he says, ‘appointed collectors in every townland, each of whom was supplied with a book containing a particular form or schedule, in which was inserted the number of the houses in the townland, and the names of every individual in each house – even of new-born infants, and of Protestants as well as Roman Catholics – with notes as to their means and circumstances, and their various dispositions towards the cause. The book, being filled up, was returned to the priest, who referred to it for the purpose of discovering the defaulters; while no one entered in the book could have his children baptized into the Roman Catholic Church until he himself, the sponsors of his child, and the child, were enrolled as members of the association. The names of defaulters were published for the detestation of their neighbours.’

The Government regarded with great alarm the proceedings of this self-constituted legislature, which wielded such immense influence in every district of Ireland. They felt themselves powerless to stop its proceedings, but they made an attempt to punish its founder and master-spirit for using words to the effect that ‘if Parliament will not attend to the Roman Catholic claims, I hope some Bolivar will arise to vindicate their rights.’ The grand jury, however, threw out the bill, and O’Connell’s victory over the Government, of course, contributed not a little to strengthen the association.

In these circumstances, the Government resolved to take measures for the suppression of this formidable association. When the Parliament met on the 3rd of February, 1825, they introduced into the king’s speech an expression of regret that ‘associations should exist in Ireland which have adopted proceedings irreconcilable with the spirit of the constitution, and calculated, by exciting alarm and exasperating animosities, to endanger the peace of society and retard the course of national improvement.’ ‘His Majesty,’ it was added, ‘relies upon your wisdom to consider without delay the means of applying a remedy to this evil.’ This reference to the Roman Catholic Association excited a good deal of keen discussion. Brougham denounced the insincerity that lurked under the plural ‘associations.’ ‘It was merely the appearance of dealing equal justice to the Orangemen and the members of the association. The Catholic Association will be strongly put down with one hand, while the Orange Association will only receive a gentle tap with the other.’ In the Upper House the Marquis of Lansdowne cautioned ministers not to be hasty in repressing open complaint, and not to beguile themselves with the idea of curing a malady merely by removing a few of the outward symptoms.

Goulbourn, the Irish secretary, moved for leave to bring in the promised bill on the 10th of February, and described the association as composed mainly of priests, men of disappointed ambition, and the friends of Tone and Emmett, who levied an unauthorized tax by the agency of the priests, and employed their influence in endangering the peace and good order of the country. After a debate which lasted four nights, Goulbourn’s motion was agreed to by 278 votes to 123, and the second and third readings of the bill (February 21st and 25th) also were carried by large majorities. Its progress through the House of Lords was still more rapid, and on the 7th of March it was read a third time and passed.

By this Act, which was to continue in force for three years, it was declared unlawful for all political associations to continue their sittings by adjournment or otherwise, or whether in full sittings, or by committee or officers, for more than fourteen days, or to levy contributions from His Majesty’s subjects, or from any descriptions of them; or for any such societies to have different branches or to correspond with other societies, or to exclude members on the ground of religious faith, or to require oaths or declarations otherwise than as required by law. But the bill had scarcely become law when it was proved to be a mere dead letter. As soon as the session had closed, a new association was formed, ‘which professed not to discuss the question of Catholic emancipation, but to be formed for the purposes of education and other charitable purposes.’ It met once a week, and each meeting was regarded as a separate association, terminating on the day on which it had assembled. The collection of the rent went on, as before, in every parish; but it was professedly made for charitable purposes. These evasions of the Act were so effectual and so difficult to reach, that the Government made no attempt to enforce its provisions.

The only effect of this abortive attempt to suppress the Roman Catholic Association was to stimulate the friends of emancipation to increased efforts to remove the disabilities of the Romanists. On the 1st of March, 1825, Sir Francis Burdett brought the Roman Catholic question once more before the House of Commons, and carried his motion by a majority of thirteen. A bill to give effect to his motion was introduced on the 23rd of March. Three of the Irish members, representing Ulster constituencies, who had hitherto resisted the Roman Catholic claims, expressed their determination to support the bill, and it passed the Commons by a majority of 268 to 241. It was accompanied by two subsidiary measures termed its ‘wings’ – a bill to disfranchise the forty-shilling freeholds and to raise the qualification of a freehold elector to £10 per annum; and another making provision of £250,000 a year from the Treasury for the support of the Roman Catholic clergy. But the outcry from opposite sides against both of these proposals rather hindered than helped the repeal of the disabilities. In the end the bill was rejected by the Lords, as we have seen, mainly in consequence of the strong declaration made against it by the heir presumptive to the Crown.

During Mr. Canning’s short administration, the Roman Catholics were quiet and hopeful. The Premier was their steady and powerful friend. He had given his cordial support to every proposal brought before Parliament for the removal of their disabilities, and had brought in a scheme of his own for the admission of Roman Catholic peers to the Upper House, which after passing the Commons had, like other measures of a similar kind, been rejected by the Peers. On the death of Canning the supporters of Roman Catholic emancipation still remained quiescent, knowing that his successor and most of his colleagues were friendly to their claims. But on the accession of the Duke of Wellington to the office of Prime Minister, and especially after the expulsion of the Canningites from the Cabinet, they became violent and aggressive. The election of 1826 had taught them their strength, and the priests and other agents of the association had successfully exerted their influence to induce the forty-shilling freeholders to vote against their landlords. The candidates whom they supported, however, were all Protestants, and therefore legally qualified to sit in Parliament; but, on the reconstruction of the Wellington Cabinet, it suddenly occurred to O’Connell and the other leaders of the association that they might show their electoral power in a still more striking way by returning a Roman Catholic candidate. The seat which they resolved to contest was that for the county of Clare.

Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald, one of the members representing that county, was appointed the successor of Mr. Charles Grant as President of the Board of Trade. He was a wealthy Irish landlord, popular among his tenantry, had gained great credit by the manner in which he had discharged at an earlier period of his political career the duty of Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland, and had always supported the Roman Catholic claims; but he had now joined the Duke of Wellington’s government, and was therefore deemed no longer worthy of the confidence of the association. The influence which he possessed in the county of Clare from property, station, and past services to his constituents, it was supposed, must insure his triumphant return. It was clearly seen if, with these signal advantages in his favour, Mr. Fitzgerald were rejected, no other Protestant candidate had any chance of success in an Irish county. Mr. O’Connell, who was started against him, was an entire stranger to Clare, and was incapacitated by law from sitting in Parliament, so that the electors were aware that in voting for him their suffrages were thrown away. But though the law would prevent him from taking his seat in the House of Commons, it did not forbid his being returned to serve, and his return in such circumstances would, it was supposed, afford the Government and the country a signal proof of the absolute way which the association exercised over the tenantry of Ireland. Mr. O’Connell accordingly took the field, and was formally proposed as a candidate for the county of Clare in opposition to Mr. Fitzgerald. Emissaries of the association were despatched to every parish and barony of the county. ‘Every altar,’ said Shiel, ‘was a tribune,’ The priests, with only one exception, supported O’Connell, and earnestly exhorted their congregations to vote for the advocate of their rights. So did many respectable Roman Catholics who never before interfered in the politics of the association. The contest, Fitzgerald said, was ‘tremendous:’ ‘the county is mad.’ O’Connell, on his way to the scene of the struggle, was met at Nenagh after mass, and escorted thence to the borders of Clare by a numerous body of horsemen and all the traders of the city of Limerick. On the day of election the forty-shilling freeholders marched into Ennis, the county town, under the leadership of their parish priests, with the watchword, ‘For God and O’Connell.’ Mr. Fitzgerald, in a letter to Peel, said, ‘I have polled all the gentry and all the fifty-pound freeholders – the gentry to a man. All the great interests broke down, and the desertion has been  universal .Such a scene as we have had! Such a tremendous prospect as it opens to us!’ After carrying on this unequal contest for five days, Mr. Fitzgerald retired from the field, and O’Connell was declared duly elected. The sheriff made a special return, calling attention to the facts that O’Connell had declared before him that he was Roman Catholic, and that a protest had been made by the electors against his return. The election, however, was quite valid, though O’Connell’s assertion that he could sit in Parliament and vote without taking the oaths was, as he must have known, quite untrue.

It was impossible for any politician, however wedded to his own convictions, to close his eyes to the lesson which the Clare election was fitted to teach. The Irish Romanists had learned their power, and there was a no reason to suppose that they would refrain from exercising it. The prospect was indeed tremendous, as Peel said, re-echoing the words of Vesey Fitzgerald. The Clare election, he added, supplied the ‘manifest proof that the sense of a common grievance and the sympathies of a common interest were beginning to loosen the ties which connect different classes of men in friendly relations to each other – to weaken the force of local and personal attachments, and to unite the scattered elements of society into a homogenous and disciplined mass, yielding willing obedience to the assumed authority of superior intelligence hostile to the law and to the Government which administered it.’ Even Lord Eldon, hostile as he was to the Roman Catholic claims, was too shrewd not to perceive the importance of this election. ‘This business,’ he wrote, ‘must bring the Roman Catholic question, which has been so often discussed, to a crisis and a conclusion;’ and he had for some time foreseen and predicted that the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts would be followed at no distant day by the abolition of the Roman Catholic disabilities.

The Act for the suppression of political or secret societies in Ireland had proved a failure; but even the slight restraint which it imposed upon the Orange and Roman Catholic Associations was now removed. The law expired in the month of July, and ‘the latter immediately reassembled in its original form, and resumed its former agitation.’ Its organization was extended to the remotest districts of Ireland, and embraced persons of all classes of society. In order to improve the victory it had gained in Clare, it passed a resolution requiring of every person who should at any time come forward as a candidate for an Irish constituency, that he must pledge himself to oppose the Duke of Wellington’s ministry on every question until emancipation was conceded – to support civil and religious liberty, and to vote for reform in Parliament. It was declared that every candidate refusing to take these pledges should be opposed by the members, the influence, and the funds of the Catholic Association. The association found the machinery required to carry out these resolutions ready made to their hand. The Irish landlords had used the Act of 1793, which gave the franchise to the forty-shilling freeholders to promote their own short-sighted and selfish purposes, and had multiplied the freeholds to the utmost of their ability, in order to increase their influence and obtain offices and other favours from the Government. The tenants of the petty farms into which these estates were subdivided had heretofore gone to the poll like a flock of sheep under the direction of their landlords; but now, under a far more powerful influence, they were driven to vote for the candidates supported by the priests.

A club was instituted in every parish, and the gentry, as well as the clergy and the farmers, were enrolled among its members. It was to hold monthly meetings, to keep a register of all electors within its bounds to be in readiness for future elections, and to promote good order, perfect obedience to the laws, political knowledge, and liberal feeling. These were no mere words, of course. Perhaps the most decisive proof of O’Connell’s influence at this critical moment, when the members of the Roman Catholic Association and the Brunswick Clubs were ready to fly at each other’s throats, was his suppression for the time of party feuds among the peasantry, and turning them from scenes of riot and bloodshed to the achievement of a great national privilege – and his suspension of the meetings of his party – thus showing that the peace of Ireland was at his bidding. Irish crime seemed suddenly and unaccountably to have disappeared. ‘What has Government to dread from our resentment or peace?’ said Shiel. ‘An answer is supplied by what we behold. Does not a tremendous organization extend over the whole island? Have not all natural bonds by which men are tied together been broken and burst asunder? Are not all the relations of society which exist elsewhere gone? Has not property lost its influence? Has not rank been stripped of the respect which should belong to it? – and has not an internal government grown up which, gradually superseding the legitimate authority, has armed itself with a complete dominator? Is it nothing that the whole body of the clergy are alienated from the state, and that the Catholic gentry and peasantry and priesthood are all combined in one vast confederacy? So much for Catholic indignation while we are at peace; and when England shall be involved in war – I pause; it is not necessary that I should discuss that branch of the question, or point to the cloud which, charged with thunder, is hanging over our heads.’

It was not foreign, but civil war, that the Government had now to dread. The Orangemen , as well as the Roman Catholics, had been freed from restrictions on the expiry of the suppression law in July; and when the leaders of the Roman Catholic party resumed their open and ostentatious agitation, new Orange Associations were immediately formed under the name of Brunswick Clubs, which collected a Protestant rent, and in various other operations imitated the Roman Catholic organization. The great body of the Irish people were thus gathered into two hostile camps, and the war-cry of religious enmity rose louder and louder. In Munster and Connaught, where the Protestants were few in number, there was little danger of collision; but in the other districts of Ireland, where Protestants and Roman Catholics were more equally balanced, and especially in Ulster, the stronghold of the Orange party, a spark might easily have kindled a flame. ‘Jack Lawless,’ as he was called, one of the leaders of the Catholic Association, a rash, headstrong, foolish Irishman, declared his intention of visiting ‘all the strongholds of the Orangemen,’ evidently for the purpose of exciting a riot. Accompanied by many thousands of the lowest order of Roman Catholics, he set out on a tour of agitation in Ulster, visiting town after town, and addressing inflammatory harangues to applauding mobs. The Orangemen, nothing loath, accepted his challenge, and assembled in arms to resist his attempt to enter Armagh. The military authorities, however, interposed, and induced Lawless to retire. O’Connell exerted all his influence to induce his followers to desist from their public demonstrations; and though, as the Lord-Lieutenant wrote, ‘the Brunswickers were rivalling the association both in violence and in rant,’ no actual outbreak took place. ‘Two associations,’ however, and ‘two rents,’ he added, ‘were rather formidable’.

The agitation which the Roman Catholic leaders had set on foot in Ireland was confined to that country. It does not appear that any anti-Catholic societies were formed in Scotland; but the great body of the people, Churchmen and Dissenters alike, were decidedly opposed to Catholic emancipation. In England the Protestants instituted Brunswick Clubs in various districts, to resist the demands of the Roman Catholics, and to support their brethren in Ireland. One of these clubs, of which Lord Eldon was a member, was formed in London, and the example was followed in Leeds, Liverpool, and other towns. Meetings were held in different parts of the country to protest against any concessions to the Romanists. A great meeting was held on Pennenden Heath, in Kent, attended by 20,000 freeholds and yeomanry. The Earl of Winchelsea, Sir Edward Knatchbull, and other influential persons belonging to the county, took part in the proceedings. It was proposed that a petition should be presented to Parliament, praying that the Protestant constitution of the United Kingdom should be preserved entire and inviolate. No direct counter-motion was made in favour of the Roman Catholic claims, but it was moved that it ought to be left to Government to propose such measures as they might think proper for the pacification of Ireland. This motion was supported by the Earl of Camden, Earl Darnley, the Earl of Radnor, and Lord Teynham, but the petition was carried by a great majority. The example thus set by the ‘men of Kent’ was followed in other parts of England; but the great body of the English opponents of the Roman Catholic claims seemed to think that agitation was unnecessary, and that the Protestant constitution was quite safe in the hands of the Duke of Wellington and Mr. Peel.

The quiescence and apparently inactivity of the administration, while the country was in this state of uneasiness, excited a good deal of surprise, and gave plausibility to the taunts of Shiel. ‘Meanwhile the Government,’ he said, ‘stands by, and the Minister folds his arms as if he were a mere indifferent observer, and the terrific contest only afforded him a spectacle for the amusement of his official leisure. He sits as if his gladiators were crossing their swords for his recreation. The Cabinet seems to be little better than a box in an amphitheatre, from whence His Majesty’s ministers may survey the business of blood.’

The Government, however, were very far indeed from being indifferent observers of the events that were taking place in Ireland. The Clare election had brought matters to a crisis which must be promptly met, otherwise civil war was imminent. ‘Such is the extraordinary power of the association,’ wrote Lord Anglesey on the 2nd of July, 1828, ‘or rather of the agitators, of whom there are many of high ability, of ardent mind, of great daring, that I am quite certain they could lead on the people to open rebellion at a moment’s notice; and their organization is such that in the hands of desperate and intelligent leaders they would be extremely formidable.’ ‘I have little doubt,’ wrote Lord F. Leveson Gower, the Chief Secretary, to Peel, on the 2nd of December, ‘that the peasantry of the south at present look forward to the period of O’Connell’s expulsion from the House of Commons as the time of rising, but any occurrence in the interval which should appear to be adverse to the interests of the Roman Catholic body might precipitate this result.’

In these critical circumstances, with Ireland almost in a state of anarchy, where ‘there was no law but that of the priests, and no rule but that of O’Connell,’ the Government were brought face to face with a problem which tasked to the utmost their ability to solve. The Premier was of opinion that only one of three alternatives remained open to him – either to reconquer Ireland, to concede Roman Catholic emancipation, or to resign. Constituted as the army then was, its ranks filled with Irish Roman Catholics, the first was impossible, and would have been rejected at any rate on higher grounds; the choice then lay between the other two. It was evident that unless the Roman Catholic Association were suppressed, there would be no security in Ireland to life and property, nor any force in law. But it seemed difficult, if not impossible, to do this without conceding its demands. The duke proposed that O’Connell, Lawless, and some of the other leaders of the association, should be prosecuted; but the Crown lawyers assured him that it was more than doubtful whether they had committed any offence which the law could reach, and even if their criminality could be proved, no Irish jury would bring in against them a verdict of guilty. It seemed equally hopeless to apply for measures of security to a House of Commons containing a majority favourable to concession. It, therefore, only remained to the Government either to do nothing, or to introduce a measure removing the Roman Catholic disabilities. It was impossible for the Ministry to sit still and do nothing, while the state of Ireland was becoming week by week, and day by day, more alarming. Nothing remained, therefore, but the concession of the Roman Catholic claims, ‘as the sole means of satisfying a people not otherwise governable, and bringing one-third of the empire into harmony with the rest.’

At the close of the session of Parliament, the Duke of Wellington promised to send Mr. Peel a full statement of his views on the state of Ireland and the Roman Catholic question. On the 9th of August his Grace forwarded the promised documents, containing a plan for the settlement of the question, along with a letter from the king, to whom the memorandum on the state of Ireland had been sent. The duke strove to impress upon the Home Secretary three conclusions – first, that emancipation was absolutely necessary for the good of the country; secondly, that it could not be carried without Peel’s assistance; and thirdly, that he might justly ascribe his change of opinion to change of circumstances. Mr. Peel returned the duke’s papers on the 11th, with a letter and memorandum, containing and full and unreserved exposition of his views. ‘I am ready,’ he said, ‘at the hazard of any sacrifice, to maintain the opinion which I now deliberately give, that there is, upon the whole, less of evil in making a decided effort to settle the Catholic question, than in leaving it, as it has been left, an open question; the Government being undecided with respect to it, and paralyzed in consequence of that indecision upon many occasions peculiarly requiring promptitude and energy of action.’ Peel, however, goes on to say, ‘I must express a very strong opinion, that it would not conduce to the satisfactory adjustment of the question, that the charge to it in the House of Commons should be committed to my hands.’ ‘My support,’ he adds, ‘will be more useful if I give it out of office.’ He also promised to resign at whatever time should be found most convenient, and to co-operate cordially with the duke’s government in supporting the measure to be introduced into Parliament. The duke communicated to Mr. Peel’s letter and memorandum to Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst, and the matter rested here for the present.

During the recess an event occurred which, at a less exciting time, might have made a great noise, and done some mischief to the Government – the dismissal of the Duke of Clarence from the office of Lord High Admiral, which he had held for a year and a half. He had conducted himself in such an eccentric manner as to give rise to grave doubts respecting his sanity. Not contented with personally inspecting every ship that went to sea before she sailed, he was in the habit of going down to Portsmouth and Plymouth to review regiments of soldiers, and to give them colours, though they wanted none. He not only lavished needlessly a great deal of public money, but subjected to a ruinous expense for entertainments the general officers whose regiments he thought fit to inspect. Sir James Lyon, at Portsmouth, was compelled to spend nearly his whole half-year’s staff pay in this way. Lord Ellenborough says the Lord High Admiral dates an order from his yacht (he being at Bushey, and the order dated three days’ hence) with the object of trying whether he cannot do acts without his council. He then posted off, sailed down the channel, and sent orders to the admiral at Cork to leave his station and come and join him in his chops of the channel. The board was astounded to hear that the Cork admiral was gone without their knowledge or concurrence. There was an understanding that his Royal Highness was to execute the office in London, and with the council, there being a counter signature to all his instruments, which the Lord Chancellor had declared to be necessary. The duke was very indignant at the opposition of the Cabinet to his claims. He sent an extremely violent letter to Sir George Cockburn, one of the lords of the Admiralty, who sent a very proper and respectful reply, which the duke chose to regard as ‘impertinent,’ and declared that if Sir George was not turned out he would resign. The other lords all made common cause with Cockburn, who was supported by the Cabinet; and the king wrote to his brother that he must either conform to the provisions of his patent or resign. ‘The king,’ said Lord Ellenborough, ‘would be glad to oust him, thus removing from a prominent situation a brother of whom he is jealous, and creating ill-blood between the heir-presumptive and his ministers – a thing all kings like to do.’ At last, after a good deal of wrangling and quarrelling, his Royal Highness sent in his resignation, which was at once accepted.[…]

Meanwhile the leaders of the Roman Catholic Association continued their agitation in every district of Ireland. Their adherents in the south assembled in military array, clothed in uniform, and were eagerly waiting the signal to rise to arms. ‘They had made peace among themselves as ordered, but surely that could only be to enable them all to join in making war on somebody else. If they were not to fight each other, whom were they to fight? Of course the Orangemen and the Government; and when were they to begin?’ They were, however, kept quiet by the influence of O’Connell, who was well aware that any outbreak of his adherents at this juncture would be most injurious to their cause. This decisive proof of the power of the great agitator tended rather to increase than to diminish the uneasiness and anxiety of the anti-Catholic party, who, according to Vesey Fitzgerald, felt a ‘universal sentiment of disgust, indignation, and alarm at the proceedings of the Government.’ These feelings were greatly strengthened by a correspondence which took place between the duke and Dr. Curtis, titular Roman Catholic primate of Ireland, whom Wellington had known long before at Salamanca when his prelate was at the Irish college there, and had rendered important services to the British army. After his return to Ireland, Curtis had occasionally corresponded on Irish subjects with the duke, who had a high opinion of his integrity and ability. On the 1st of December, 1828, he wrote a long letter to the Premier on the state of the country and the importance of settling the Catholic question. The reply of the duke was quite in the strain of his speech when the question was last before the House of Lords. He was sincerely desirous, he said, to witness the settlement of the Roman Catholic question. ‘But I confess,’ he added, ‘that I see no prospect of such a settlement. Party has been mixed up with the consideration of the question to such a degree, and such violence pervades every discussion of it, that it is impossible to expect to prevail upon men to consider it dispassionately. If we could bury it in oblivion for a short time, and employ that time diligently in the consideration of its difficulties on all sides (for they are great), I should not despair of seeing a satisfactory remedy.’

The ambiguous tone of this letter not unnaturally made both parties affect to consider it to be in their favour. Dr. Curtis himself, however, interpreted it to mean that there was no hope of the speedy settlement of the question, and he wrote to the duke assuring him that there was no prospect of burying it in oblivion. He most improperly sent a copy of this confidential communication to O’Connell, who, though he believed it to be unfavourable, chose to profess that he regarded it as indicating that the prime minister was no longer hostile to the Roman Catholic claims, and read it publicly at a meeting of the association. Not satisfied with the mischief he had done by forwarding the correspondence to O’Connell, Dr. Curtis sent a copy of it to Lord Anglesey. The lord-lieutenant was a gallant soldier, but not a wise statesman, and he wrote in reply to the prelate that he did not before know the precise sentiments of the Duke of Wellington upon the Roman Catholic question. ‘I differ,’ he added, ‘from the opinion of the duke that an attempt should be made to bury in oblivion the question for a short time. First, because the thing is utterly impossible; and next, if the thing were possible, I fear that advantage might be taken of the pause by representing it as a panic achieved by the late violent reaction, and by proclaiming that if the Government at once and peremptorily decided against concession the Catholics would cease to agitate, and then all the miseries of the past years of Ireland will have to be re-acted. What I do recommend is, that the measure should not for a moment be lost sight of – that anxiety should continue to be manifested – that all constitutional (in contradistinction to mere legal) means should be resorted to to forward the cause; but, at the same time, the most patient forbearance – the most submissive obedience to the laws should be inculcated – that no personal or offensive language should be held towards those who oppose the claims.’ This letter, also, was read at a meeting of the association with the most enthusiastic applause.

The imprudence of Lord Anglesey, in connection with this affair, was aggravated by several previous acts of insubordination to the instructions of the Premier, and indefensible indiscretions. His sons attended meetings of the Roman Catholic Association. He, himself, taking the Irish lord chancellor with him, became the guest of Lord Cloncurry, one of the leaders of that association, and instead of holding the balance even between the hostile parties, he threw the whole weight of his office into the scale of the agitators. The king was furious at the conduct of his Irish viceroy, and at length the duke was compelled to remove him from office, and the Duke of Northumberland, a moderate partisan of resistance, was appointed his successor. There were no bounds to the indignation of the Roman Catholics, who regarded the recall of the Marquis of Anglesey as an indication that the opposition of the Government to their claims was as resolute as ever. The sagacious French statesman, Talleyrand, drew from it the exactly opposite inference.

The duke, like a skilful tactician in peace as in war, kept his own counsel. The only members of his Cabinet with whom he had discussed the question were Peel and Lyndhurst. But some of his subordinates, suspecting what was in the wind, began to speak and act as if the game were drawing to a close, and that the Roman Catholics were to win it. In a letter of September 9, 1828, to the Duke of Buckingham, Mr. Grenville says, ‘The measure of Catholic emancipation is fast approaching, and that irresistibly. I know from the most unquestionable authority that very many of the Orange Protestants in Ireland are now so entirely alarmed at their own position, that they express in the most unqualified terms their earnest desire for any settlement of the question at issue on any terms, and Dawson’s recantation has been the signal for a more undisguised display of the same opinions. It must take place, as I believe, before many months shall pass.’ Mr. Leslie Foster, a steady opponent of the Roman Catholic claims, in a letter to Mr. Vesey Fitzgerald, of November 14, says: - ‘I have not a doubt that a majority even of the Brunswickers are friendly to a settlement upon proper terms.’ But the most significant indication of the coming event was the speech delivered at Londonderry on the 12th of August by Mr. George Dawson, the brother-in-law of Peel, and one of the secretaries of the Treasury. He had hitherto been one of the most uncompromising opponents  of the Roman Catholic claims; but now at a public dinner of staunch Orangemen he described in strong terms the condition of Ireland under the control of an irresponsible and self-constituted association, and plainly indicated that it was impossible to continue a policy of resistance. There was but on alternative, either to suppress the association, or to settle the question; the former was impossible, the latter inevitable. This speech, coming from such a quarter, naturally excited great alarm among the Orange and Protestant party throughout the country; and though Peel had no previous knowledge of Dawson’s intention, it was inferred with great plausibility that the home Secretary must, to some extent at least, share the sentiments of his relative. ‘The duke will be annoyed,’ wrote Ellenborough, ‘but he cannot displace Dawson. His speech hastens the crisis, will hurry the duke, will alarm the Protestants, and raise hopes, perhaps too sanguine, in the Catholics.’ Wellington was undoubtedly a good deal annoyed, and wrote to Peel, ‘Dawson should recollect he is the servant of the Government; that he is supposed, as the Secretary of the Treasury, to be in my confidence, and as your brother-in-law to be in yours. He should be a little more cautious.’ The dissatisfaction caused by Dawson’s injudicious speech was so great that he found it necessary to resign his office.

Early in January, 1829, the Duke of Wellington had an interview with the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of London and Durham, for the purpose of laying before them the condition of Ireland, with the hope of convincing them that the public interests and the interests of the church demanded the adjustment of the Catholic question. These influential prelates, however, informed his Grace that they could not lend their sanction to the proposed course of proceeding, but must offer a decided opposition to the removal of the Roman Catholic disabilities. The most serious difficulty, however, lay with the king. So far back as November, 1824, His Majesty had written to Peel that ‘the sentiments of the king upon Catholic emancipation are those of his revered and excellent father; from these sentiments the king never can and never will deviate; and he still professed his determination that he would not recede from his declared resolution to maintain inviolate the existing law. It seemed hopeless to carry a measure of relief against the united opposition of the King, the House of Lords, and the Church. But Peel was now convinced it was not merely the removal of disabilities from a religious denomination, but the pacification of Ireland that was at issue, and he drew up an elaborate memorandum showing the necessity of taking the whole state of that country into consideration with a view to the settlement of this momentous question. He accompanied the memorandum with a letter, in which he stated that, while still retaining the opinion that the charge of any measure of relief should not be committed to him, yet, being resolved that no act of his should obstruct or retard the settlement of the question, he had determined not to insist upon his retirement from office if his retirement should, in the Premier’s opinion, prove an ‘insuperable obstacle’ to the adoption of the course which he recommended. ‘I tell you fairly,’ said the duke in reply, ‘that I do not see the smallest chance of getting the better of these difficulties if you should not continue in office.’ It was accordingly arranged that the conduct of the contemplated measure through the House of Commons should be intrusted [sic] to the Home Secretary. Peel’s memorandum was submitted by the Duke of Wellington to the king, and the members of the Cabinet who had voted uniformly against the Roman Catholic claim had each a separate interview with His Majesty on the day after the receipt of the document, and supported the views there set forth. The king, after these interviews, intimated his consent that the Cabinet should consider the whole state of Ireland, and submit their views to His Majesty. The preparation of the measure was committed to Peel, who agreed with the Prime Minister ‘that there should be no compromise, insufficiency, or hesitation about the act itself. As concession was to be made, it should be made fully and freely so as to satisfy all, and leave no rankling vestiges behind.’ It was resolved, however, that the repeal of the disabilities should be preceded by measures for the suppression of the Roman Catholic Association and the regulation of the elective franchise. A memorandum on each of these questions was prepared by the Home Secretary, and carefully considered and revised by the Cabinet.

The duke had wisely kept his designs a secret till the time came for action, in order that his opponents might have no opportunity of agitating beforehand against them. Indeed, his letter to Dr. Curtis, the recall of Lord Anglesey, and the acceptance of Mr. Dawson’s resignation, had produced an impression in some quarters that the leaders of the Cabinet were still staunch to their old opinions, though there were vague rumours in circulation that their policy was to be changed. The secret was at length disclosed in a speech from the throne, which was read by commission on the 5th of February, 1829, at the opening of the session of Parliament. ‘His Majesty recommends you,’ it said, ‘that you should take into your deliberate consideration the whole condition of Ireland; and that you should review the laws which impose civil disabilities on His Majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects. You will consider whether the removal of these disabilities can be effected consistently with the full and permanent security of our establishments in Church and State, with the maintenance of the Reformed religion established by law, and of the rights and privileges of the bishops and of the clergy of this realm, and of the churches committed to their charge.’

The excitement produced by this passage in the king’s speech was quite unprecedented in parliamentary history. It was a great shock, as Lord Ellenborough said, even to those members of the Tory party who were most favourable to the Government. The Whigs were sulky, Lord Ellenborough alleged, and the Orangemen were indignant; but they refrained from pouring out the full vials of their wrath on the ministers who, as they asserted, had betrayed them, until the precise nature and extent of the promised measure was made known. The proceedings of Parliament commenced by a motion of Mr. Peel for the introduction of a bill to suppress the Roman Catholic Association, which met with no opposition, as it was quite understood to be a necessary prelude to the repeal of the disabilities; and ‘a measure of temporary coercion’ was regarded as not too high a price to pay for ‘a measure of permanent conciliation’. The bill passed the House of Commons on the 17th of February, and on the 20th Mr. Peel accepted the Chiltern Hundreds, and vacated his seat for the University of Oxford. As he owed his seat for that University to his pronounced anti-Catholic opinions, ‘he considered himself bound in honour to take this step.’ ‘The Fellows of Oxford,’ wrote Lord Ellenborough, ‘were properly punished. They had just agreed to a silly address against the Catholics when Peel’s letter was read to them. I should have liked to see the changes of countenance.’ They were no doubt all startled, as they well might be; and a great number of them were very angry at the manner in which they had been thrown over by the Government. But a large body of Peel’s supporters rallied around him in this emergency, and proposed his re-election – some because they felt as he did that the question had now become, not a religious, but a national one, and must be settled on broad principles of public expediency; others from personal attachment to the statesman who had so long represented the University; while there was no doubt among his supporters a section of ‘waiters on Providence,’ who wished that the connection with the University of an influential minister should be continued for the sake of the loaves and the fishes. Peel had made arrangements to be returned at once for another seat, and declined to express any wish for his re-election by Oxford, or to take any part, direct or indirect, in the contest; but his friends, among whom were numbered by far the most influential members of the University, fought stoutly on his behalf. ‘The violence of the parsons,’ says Lord Ellenborough, ‘was beyond belief and far beyond decency.’ The contest terminated in Peel’s defeat by a majority of 146; Sir Robert Inglis, the successful candidate, having polled 753 votes, while Peel received only 609. The latter, however, had twice as many first-class men, fourteen out of twenty professors, and twenty-four out of twenty-eight prizemen; he had also all the noblemen who voted, four deans out of five, and 333 clergymen among his supporters. In these circumstances he was well entitled to say, that he was proud of the support which he had received from so large a proportion of the eminent men of the University, under circumstances of no ordinary difficulty and of peculiar excitement.

After Mr. Peel’s rejection by the University, he became a candidate – a very unpopular one, he admits – for Westbury, a small pocket borough in Wiltshire; but the Protestant feeling was so much excited even in that little agricultural town, that notwithstanding all the support which Sir Manasseh Lopez, the patron of the borough, could render him, his return was not effected without considerable difficulty. Sir Manasseh was himself struck with one of the many missiles with which the town hall was assailed during the ceremony of the election. ‘It was fortunate for me,’ said Peel, ‘that the ceremony was not unduly protracted. Very shortly after my return had been declared by the proper officer, the arrival of a Protestant candidate in a chaise and four from London was announced. If he had entered the town a few hours earlier, it is highly probable that I would have fared no better at Westbury than I had done at Oxford.’

The excitement through the country had, indeed, by this time risen to fever-height. A storm of invective burst upon the Ministry, and especially upon the Duke of Wellington and Peel, which for violence has seldom been equalled. ‘Every Protestant newspaper in the three kingdoms covered them with abuse; every Protestant speaker, in town hall or tavern, vilified them; and the very pulpits were in many instances converted into tribunes from which to denounce them and their treason.’ Pamphlets and broadsides were circulated by tens of thousands among the common people, to inflame them against Romanism and its adherents. The ‘Book of Martyrs,’ and other records of the cruelties which the Romish Church had inflicted on Protestants at the Reformation, were ransacked for tales of horror to rouse the passions of the multitude. ‘No Popery’ mobs paraded the streets of our large towns, and threatened to revive the violence of the Lord George Gordon riots against the friends of Catholic emancipation; and petitions signed by multitudes quite  unprecedented were presented night and day to Parliament against any concession to Roman Catholic claims.

The Ministry, however, adhered resolutely to their purpose, and fixed Thursday, the 5th of March, for the introduction of the Relief Bill. But on the evening of the 3rd the Duke of Wellington, the Lord Chancellor, and Mr. Peel were summoned to attend the king at Windsor on the morrow. On the 28th of February the duke had had a very painful interview of upwards of five hours with the king, who was in a state of great agitation, and even spoke of abdicating and retiring to Hanover. The Premier was obliged to speak to His Majesty in very peremptory language; and, as always happened in such cases, the king ultimately yielded on all points, and declared himself more satisfied with the bill than with anything he had seen. He showed great unwillingness to write himself to the household, desiring their attendance in the House of Lords to support the Relief Bill; but he had no objection to the Duke of Wellington writing to them in his name. At this critical juncture, however, the Duke of Cumberland, who had shortly before come from Hanover, put pressure on the king to withdraw his consent to the Emancipation Bill, and even as a last resort to retire to Hanover; and his urgent recommendation was supported by the ultra-Tory peers, who seem to have flattered themselves that if His Majesty would only stand firm he might succeed, as his father did, in offering a successful resistance to the removal of the Roman Catholic disabilities. Accordingly, when the three heads of the Government  waited upon the king at Windsor on the 4th of March, he began by telling them that they were fully aware that it had caused him the greatest pain to give his assent to the proposition made to him by his Cabinet respecting the Catholic question, and expressed his wish to receive a more detailed explanation of the bill, which they were to lay before Parliament next day. Peel, who was most familiar with the details of the measure, mentioned that it was proposed to repeal the declaration against Transubstantiation, and to modify that part of the oath of supremacy which relates to the spiritual and ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Pope. The king professed to be much surprised, and said rapidly and earnestly, ‘What is this? You surely do not mean to alter the ancient oath of supremacy?’ Peel informed him that if this were not done the proposed measure of relief would be unavailing, and that an effectual impediment to the enjoyment of civil privileges by the Roman Catholics would remain unremoved. The king on this declared that he could not possibly consent to any alteration of the oath of supremacy, and that his assent to the Relief Bill had been given under an erroneous impression. His Majesty then asked ‘What course do you propose to take as my ministers?’ and then turning to the Home Secretary, he said, ‘Now, Mr. Peel, tell me what course you propose to take tomorrow?’ Peel replied by recapitulating the steps the Government had taken in reliance on His Majesty’s consent, and that he must now tender his resignation of his office and request permission to state on the morrow that unforeseen impediments prevented him from bringing forward the measure that had been announced, and consequently that he no longer held the seals of the Home Department. Wellington and Lyndhurst, on being appealed to by the king, returned the same answer as Peel. The interview, which had now lasted for five hours, was brought to a close by an expression of deep regret on the part of the king at the necessity which compelled them to retire from his service. He accepted their resignation of office and took leave of them with great composure, giving to each of them a salute on each cheek. The three ministers returned to London, Peel says, under the full persuasion that the Government was dissolved.

On two subsequent occasions Lord Eldon had an interview with the king, and received from him an account of what had passed between His Majesty and his three obdurate ministers, which unfortunately does not tally with the narrative of Peel. At the first meeting, which took place on the 28th of March, the king told Lord Eldon that ‘he was in the state of a person with a pistol presented to his breast, that he had nothing to fall back upon, that his ministers had twice threatened to resign if the measures were not proceeded with, and that he had said to them “Go on,” when he knew not how to relieve himself from the state in which he was placed – that the interview and talk had brought him into such a state that he hardly knew what he was about, and that he then said “Go on”’ At the second interview with Lord Eldon, on the 9th of April, the king ‘produced two papers, which he represented as copies of what he had written to them’ (his ministers), ‘in which he assents to their proceedings and going on with the bill, adding certainly in each, as he read them, very strong expressions of the pain and misery the proceedings gave him.’ Mr. Peel quotes and emphatically contradicts these statements in his Memoirs. ‘There was only one interview,’ he says, ‘and His Majesty did not give at the close of the interview permission to “go on.” On the contrary, he accepted from each of the three ministers their tender of resignation.’ It might have been said of George IV., as of Charles II., ‘His word no man relies on.’

The three ministers on their return to London joined their colleagues, who were assembled at a Cabinet dinner at Lord Bathurst’s, and informed them, much to their surprise, that they were no longer in office. Lord Ellenborough, who was present, says the duke declared he had never witnessed a more painful scene. The king ‘had taken some brandy and water before he joined them, and sent for some more, which he continued to drink during the conference. During six hours they did not speak more than fifteen minutes. The king objected to every part of the bill. He would not hear it. The duke most earnestly entreated him to avoid all reference to his coronation oath. It seems that he really does not know what his coronation oath is. He has confused it with the oath of supremacy. The duke saw Knighton after he had left the king. Knighton said the king was in a deplorable state, and declared he had not a friend left in the world.’ Well might Ellenborough add, ‘It is impossible not to feel the most perfect contempt for the king’s conduct,’ and the Duke of Wellington remark that ‘between the king and his brothers it was next to impossible to govern this country.’ The duke’s idea was that he would be sent for on Tuesday (the 10th) on the ultra-Tories finding that they could not make a government; and the thought that this was the king’s expectation, but that he wished to obtain popularity and to seem to be forced. The invitation to return, however, came that same evening. His Majesty on reflection, or consultation rather, discovered that the formation of an anti-Catholic administration was impracticable, and accordingly at a late hour in the evening he addressed a letter to the Duke of Wellington, authorizing his three ministers to withdraw their resignations and to proceed with the announced Relief Bill. Mr. Peel, however, judiciously suggested that, after what had passed in the morning, the mere permission by His Majesty to proceed with the measures in question was not sufficient authority, and that they ought to obtain a distinct written assurance that these measures were proposed with the entire consent and sanction of His Majesty, which was given without further hesitation.

The bill for the suppression of the Roman Catholic Association received the royal assent on the 5th of March, and on the same day Mr. Peel moved that the House of Commons should resolve itself into a committee on the laws which imposed disabilities on the Roman Catholics. A call of the House had been ordered for that day, and there was in consequence an unusually large attendance of the members. Greville says the House was crammed to suffocation, and so was the lobby. Peel spoke for upwards of four hours. ‘He spoke very well indeed,’ wrote Lord Ellenborough, ‘better than he ever did before. The House was with him, and cheered him enthusiastically.’ Greville corroborates this statement, and says that Peel’s speech was ‘far the best he ever made – certainly very able, plain, clear, and statesmanlike, and the peroration very eloquent. The cheering was loud and frequent, and often burst upon the impatient listener throughout.’ The first words of the Home Secretary’s speech were intended to silence all cavil as to the question of the king’s consent to the introduction of the measure. ‘I rise,’ he said, ‘as a minister of the king, and sustained by the just authority which belongs to that character, to vindicate the advice given to His Majesty by a united Cabinet.’ He had a difficult task to perform, for he had not only to show that the Roman Catholic disabilities ought to be abolished, but also to vindicate his own conduct and that of his colleagues in now conceding claims which he and they had so long resisted. He pleaded the incurable anarchy of Ireland, the interminable division of cabinets, the evils of disunited imperial councils, and the utter impossibility of maintaining such a state of affairs, as the reasons why the ministers had at length resolved to yield to the clamorous demands of the Roman Catholics.

‘According to my heart and conscience,’ he said, ‘I believe that the time is come when less danger is to be apprehended to the general interests of the empire, and to the spiritual and temporal welfare of the Protestant establishment, in attempting to adjust the Catholic question, than in allowing it to remain any longer in its present state… Looking back upon the past, surveying the present, and forejudging the prospects of the future, again I declare that the time has at length arrived when this question must be adjusted. I have for years attempted to maintain the exclusion of Roman Catholics from Parliament and the high offices of the state. I do not think it was an unnatural or unreasonable struggle. I resign it in consequence of the conviction that it can be no longer advantageously maintained, from believing that there are not adequate materials for its effectual and permanent continuance. I yield, therefore, to a moral necessity which I cannot control, unwilling to push resistance to a point which might endanger the establishments that I wish to defend. The outline of my argument is this:- We are placed in a position in which we cannot remain. We cannot continue stationary. There is an evil in divided cabinets and distracted councils which can be no longer tolerated. Supposing this established, and supposing it conceded that a united government must be formed, in the next place I say that that government must choose one of two courses – they must advance, or they must recede; they must grant further political privileges to the Roman Catholics, or they must retract those already given; they must remove the barriers that obstruct the continued flow of relaxation and indulgence, or they must roll back to its source the mighty current which has been let in upon us year after year by the gradual withdrawal of restraint. I am asked what new light has broken in upon me? Why I see a necessity for concession now, which was not evident before? I detailed on a former occasion that a dreadful commotion had distracted the public mind in Ireland; that a feverish agitation and unnatural excitement prevailed to a degree scarcely credible throughout the entire country. I attempted to show that social intercourse was poisoned there in its very springs; that family was divided against family, and man against his neighbour; that, in a word, the bonds of social life were almost disserved; that the fountains of public justice were corrupted; that the spirit of discord walked openly abroad; and that an array of physical force was marshalled in defiance of all law, and to the imminent danger of the public peace. I ask, could this state of things be suffered to exist, and what course were we to pursue? Perhaps I shall be told, as I was on a former occasion, that this is the old story; that all this has been so for the last twenty years, and that therefore there is no reason for change. Why, this is the very reason for a change. It is because the evil is not casual and temporary, but permanent and inveterate; it is because the detail of misery and outrage is nothing but the “old story” that I am contented to run the hazards of a change. We cannot determine upon remaining idle spectators of the discord and disturbance of Ireland. The universal voice of the country declares that something must be done.’

Having made up their minds that this measure was necessary to the peace and welfare of the country, the Ministry wisely resolved that the Act should be thorough and complete. The Relief Bill was therefore, unlike previous proposals, fettered by no conditions or securities. The only offices from which Roman Catholics were excluded were that of lord-lieutenant of Ireland, who exercised the delegated authority of the sovereign, and that of lord high chancellor either in Great Britain or in Ireland. They were also incapacitated from presenting to any benefice, or taking part in appointments to offices in the universities, colleges, or ecclesiastical schools. With these few exceptions the Roman Catholics were placed on an entire equality with their Protestant fellow subjects.

Sir Robert Inglis, the successful candidate for the representation of Oxford, took upon him the task of replying to Peel’s masterly speech, but performed it to such little purpose that Greville remarked that the University of Oxford should have been there in a body to hear the member whom they had rejected and him whom they had chosen in his place. The other speakers in opposition to the bill tried to enliven the dullness of their speeches by bitter sneers at their old friends who had now deserted their cause. The main argument on which they relied was the undoubted fact that the majority of the nation were opposed to concession, and ministers were repeatedly challenged to dissolve the Parliament and appeal to the sense of the country by a new election. On the other hand it was argued, that even though England and Scotland should still wish to retain the Roman Catholic disabilities, Ireland had a right to appeal from their decision; Ireland was all but unanimous on the question; Ireland was the principal party interested; Ireland had assented to the union with Great Britain on the distinct understanding that Roman Catholic emancipation was to be conceded; Ireland therefore had a right, if it was persistently withheld, to demand the repeal of a union into which it had entered on the faith that the removal of the Roman Catholic disabilities and an equality of civil rights would be among its earliest fruits. The debate was brought to a close at three o’clock on Saturday morning, March 7th, and Peel’s motion was carried by a majority of 348 votes to 160. The majority of 188 was less than was expected by ministers, but it was decisive of the question in the Commons. No important variation in the relative numbers occurred during the remaining stages of the bill, the second reading of which was carried by 353 votes to 173 – an addition of thirteen to the minority and of five to the majority. On that occasion a very powerful speech was delivered by Mr. Sadler, a new member, who was brought in for the express purpose as member for the Duke of Newcastle’s borough of Newark. It produced a great impression both on the House and on the country, and undoubtedly gave expression to a deep national feeling on the question. It was justly remarked that no man at sixty-seven had ever been known before to begin a parliamentary career successfully. Sadler had the credit of adding some votes to the minority.

The bill passed the Commons by 320 votes to 142, and was carried to the Lords and read a first time on the 31st of March.

The opponents of the Relief Bill had by no means yet relinquished their hopes of defeating the measure in the Upper House; and knowing well the weakness and vacillation of the king, they redoubled their efforts to induce him even yet to withdraw his assent. Peers and prelates, clergymen and commoners, ceased to address their petitions to Parliament, and appealed direct to the throne. The Duke of Cumberland, of course, took the lead in these intrigues; and the ex-Chancellor Eldon, and lords Winchelsea, Kenyon, Roden, and other ultra-Tory noblemen rallied round his Royal Highness ‘for a last stand in the trenches of the betrayed citadel.’ It was reported that fourteen Irish bishops were to come over in a body to petition the king against the bill, but only seven appeared when the time came. Lords Winchelsea and Bexley presented a numerously signed petition from the ‘men of Kent,’ and the former, in the exuberance of his zeal and folly, proposed to march down to Windsor at the head of 25,000 men. The Duke of Newcastle, repeating the experiment which had so signally failed when Canning was made Premier, obtained an audience of the king, and, after presenting the petitions intrusted [sic] to him by other great boroughmongers, read a long paper to His Majesty setting forth his objections to the repeal of the Roman Catholic disabilities; but was told by the king that if he had any other communications to make he must send them through the Duke of Wellington. The duke had pressed upon His Majesty the propriety of adopting this course in receiving the petitions of the hostile peers. Lord Eldon, who, after the Duke of Cumberland, had the greatest influence with the king, had two long interviews with His Majesty. The first, on the 28th of March, lasted four hours, and was chiefly taken up with the king’s unveracious account of the treatment which he said he had received from his ministers, and his own helpless, wretched condition. ‘After a great deal of time spent,’ says Lord Eldon, ‘in which His Majesty was sometimes silent – apparently uneasy, occasionally stating his distress, the hard usage he had received, his wish to extricate himself, that he had not what to look to, what to fall back upon, that he was miserable beyond what he could express – I asked him whether His Majesty, so frequently thus expressing himself, meant either to enjoin me or to forbid me considering or trying whether anything could be found or arranged upon which he could fall back. He said, “I neither enjoin you to do so, nor forbid you to do so; but, for God’s sake, take care that I am not exposed to the humiliation of being again placed in such circumstances that I must submit to pray of my present ministers that they will remain with me.”’

At the second interview, which took place on the 9th of April, the ex-Chancellor had to listen to a repetition of His Majesty’s complaints against his ministers, and to the same inaccurate account of his communications with them on this question, varied, however, by a good deal of plan speaking, on the part of the former keeper of His Majesty’s conscience, respecting the manner in which George III. treated any measure proposed to him that he did not mean would pass. ‘What can I do?’ exclaimed the poor weak monarch, ‘what can I fall back upon? I am miserable, wretched, my situation is dreadful; nobody about me to advise with. If I do give my assent, I’ll go to the baths abroad, and from thence to Hanover. I’ll return no more to England. I’ll make no Roman Catholic peers. I will not do what this bill will enable me to do. I’ll return no more; let them get a Catholic king in Clarence. The people will see that I did not wish this.’ ‘There were the strongest appearances certainly of misery,’ says Lord Eldon. ‘He more than once stopped my leaving him. When the time came that I was to go, he threw his arms around my neck, and expressed great misery.’

Meanwhile the torrents of abuse and mendacity poured out upon the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary flowed on without intermission. Accusations of premeditated dishonesty and treachery, and of a gross violation of political rectitude and consistency, were poured on their devoted heads; and the most absurd lying stories were invented and circulated as to their motives and actions. At length the publication of a letter from Lord Winchelsea, one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Catholic party, enabled the Duke of Wellington to call to account one of his most furious assailants. This young nobleman was a well-meaning, but weak, narrow-minded, and hot-headed bigot. Along with Sir Edward Knatchbull he was mainly instrumental in getting up the great meeting on Pennenden Heath; and he regarded the Relief Bill as the result of a long-meditated conspiracy against the Established Church and the Protestant religion. On the 16th of March, a letter from him to Mr. Henry Nelson Coleridge appeared in the Standard newspaper, announcing his intention of withdrawing his name from the list of subscribers to a fund for the endowment of King’s College, London. After stating the reasons which led to the erection of that college, and the object which he had in view in subscribing to its funds, he goes on to say:- ‘I was one of those who at first thought the proposed plan might be practicable and prove an antidote to the principles of the London University. I was not, however, very sanguine in my expectations, seeing many difficulties likely to arise in the execution of the suggested arrangement; and I confess that I felt rather doubtful as to the sincerity of the motives which had actuated some of the prime movers in this undertaking, when I considered that the noble duke at the head of His Majesty’s government had been induced on this occasion to assume a new character, and to step forward himself as the public advocate of religion and morality. Late political events have convinced me that the whole transaction was intended as a blind to the Protestant and High Church party; that the noble duke, who had for some time previous to that period determined upon “breaking in upon the constitution of 1688,” might the more effectually, under the cloak of some outward show of zeal for the Protestant religion, carry on his insidious designs for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of the state.’

The duke had borne with extraordinary patience the vacillation and faithlessness of the king, the intrigues of the Duke of Cumberland and other ‘friends of the king,’ the rabid abuse of Tory newspapers and magazines who had compared him to Judas Iscariot, the lectures of the bishops and worst of all, the desertion of friends. But he evidently thought that it was high time to put an end to the charges of deliberate bad faith and treachery to his party; and the absurd and scurrilous attack of Lord Winchelsea seemed to him to afford a good opportunity to take his libellers to task. Lord Winchelsea acknowledged the authorship of the letter, but refused to withdraw or to apologize for the charges it contained. The duke then demanded ‘that satisfaction which a gentleman has a right to require, and which a gentleman never refuses to give.’ The combatants met in Battersea Fields early on the morning of the 21st March; the duke was attend by Sir Henry Hardinge; Lord Falmouth acted as second to Lord Winchelsea. The duke fired first, but without effect, [1] and Lord Winchelsea fired in the air. He then produced a paper which he had prepared, withdrawing the charges he had made against the duke of premeditated treachery to the Protestant party and treason against the constitution; and thus the affair terminated.

The action of both parties was justly and generally condemned. The conduct of Lord Winchelsea was universally reprobated, and it was in no degree rendered less blameworthy by the apology made for him by his friends that, as his letter containing most improper and unfounded charges had been deliberately written and published, an ordinary apology was inadequate; and that, in consequence, he determined first to give the duke satisfaction, that his expression of regret might have more effect. As for the duke, apart altogether from the condemnation which on Christian principles must be pronounced on the system of duelling, it was the universal opinion that a person of his Grace’s character and position could have well afforded to treat with contempt the diatribes of a young, a foolish, and fanatical nobleman, and that it was every way unworthy of him to have sought such satisfaction at his hands.

The defence which the Premier made for his behaviour in this affair is more ingenious than sound. In a letter to the Duke of Buckingham, on the 21st of April, he says: ‘The truth is that the duel with Lord Winchelsea was as much part of the Roman Catholic question, and it was as necessary to undertake it and carry it to the extremity to which I did carry it, as it was to do everything else which I did do to attain the object which I had in view. I was living here for some time in an atmosphere of calumny. I could do nothing that was not misrepresented as having some base purpose in view. If my physician called upon me, it was for treasonable purposes. If I said a word, whether in Parliament or elsewhere, it was misrepresented for the purpose of fixing upon me some gross delusion of falsehood. Even my conversations with the king were repeated, misrepresented, and commented upon and all for the purpose of shaking the credit which the public were inclined to give to what I said. The courts of justice were shut, and not to open till May. I knew that the bill must pass or be lost before the 15th of April. In this state of things, Lord Winchelsea published his furious letter. I immediately perceived the advantage it gave me, and I determined to act upon it in such a tone as would certainly put me in the right. Not only was I successful in the execution of my project, but the project itself produced the effect which I looked for and intended that it should produce. The atmosphere of calumny, in which I had been for some time living, cleared away. The system of calumny was discontinued. Men were ashamed of repeating what had been told them; and I have reason to believe, moreover, that intentions not short of criminal were given up in consequence of remonstrances from some of the most prudent of the party who came forward in consequence of the duel. I am afraid that the event itself shocked many good men. But I am certain that the public interests at the moment required that I should do what I did.’

Ten days (31st March) after his duel with Lord Winchelsea, the Duke of Wellington introduced the Relief Bill into the House of Lords. The speech delivered by his Grace on this occasion contained the memorable and oft-quoted declaration which will probably be more remembered than anything else he ever uttered. ‘I am one of those,’ he said, ‘who have probably passed a longer period of my life engaged in war than most men, and principally I may say in civil war; and I must say this, that if I could avoid by any sacrifice whatever even one month of civil war in the country to which I am attached, I would sacrifice my life to do it.’ Having made up his mind that this measure was necessary for the peace and welfare of the country, he was resolved to disregard all personal considerations and to carry it through with characteristic firmness and resolution. The debate on the second reading began on the 2nd of April, and extended over three nights. Lord Ellenborough gives in his Diary a brief and rather uncomplimentary sketch of most of the speeches delivered on the occasion. ‘The duke,’ he says, ‘made a very bad speech. The archbishop of Canterbury (Howley) drivelled. The Primate of Ireland (Beresford) made a strong speech, his manner admirable – both these against. The bishop of Oxford (Lloyd) had placed himself at our disposal to be used when wanted. We put him into the debate here, wanting him very much. The first part of his speech was very indifferent, the latter excellent. Lord Lansdowne spoke better than he has done for some time, indeed for two years. The bishop of London (Blomfield) against us; but he made a speech more useful than ten votes, in admirable taste, looking to the measure as one to be certainly accomplished, &c. The Duke of Richmond spoke very shortly, but better than he had ever done, in reply. A speech from the bishop of Durham (Van Mildert), full of fallacies and extravagant, but having its effect. The Chancellor (Lyndhurst) spoke admirably, endeavouring to bring up Eldon, but the old man would not move. He wanted more time to consider his answer, by which he will not improve it. A speech from Goderich, very animated in his way and very heavy. The House did not cheer him once. He pressed himself upon it with bad taste. Lord Mansfield spoke sleepily and ill-naturedly… A long absurd speech from Lord Guildford. We had then Lord Lifford, who rested too much on his notes, but who has a good manner. Lord Tenterden was not powerful. Lord Grey spoke better than he has done since 1827. He made a speech too long, and indeed the last half hour was of no use. He beat the brains out of the coronation oath as an obstacle to Catholic concession, and read a curious letter of Lord Yester to Lord Tweeddale, dated April 1689, before William III. took the coronation oath, in which Lord Yester mentions that it was understood that the king had in council declared his understanding that it bound him in his executive capacity, not in his legislative. Lord Westmoreland made an odd, entertaining, from its manner, and really very good speech. He supported the bill. Lord Eldon, who followed Lord Grey, made a very weak, inefficient, powerless speech. He seemed beaten, and in some respects his memory had failed him. Lord Plunket drew with great power a picture of the state of society in Ireland as affected by the laws. The whole of his speech was powerful… Lord Grey’s speech, but still more Lord Plunket’s, will have a greater effect upon the public mind than any which have yet been delivered.’ Mr Greville terms Lord Grey’s speech ‘splendid,’ and Lord Plunket’s ‘a very good one;’ and he concurs in the opinion expressed by Ellenborough respecting the appearance made by the ex-Chancellor. ‘Old Eldon,’ he says, ‘was completely beat, and could make no fight at all; his speech was wretched they say, for I did not hear it.’

These references to the veteran lawyer and stubborn old Tory make it evident that he was regarded by the ministerial party as by far the most formidable opponent in the Upper House. It was expected that the Ministry would have a majority of not less than fifty. Ellenborough said he would be satisfied with thirty; but somewhat to their own surprise the majority was more than twice as large as was predicted. The second reading was carried by 217 votes to 112. Nineteen bishops voted with the minority; ten, including two of the Irish bishops, Derry and Kildare, supported the Government.

‘This tremendous defeat,’ said Greville, ‘will probably put an end to anything like serious opposition.’ ‘It will quiet Windsor,’ wrote Ellenborough, ‘must put an end to all agitation in England, and tranquillize Ireland.’ The indomitable old Chancellor, however, maintained the contest to the end, and repaid with interest the attacks made upon him by the Ministry. His successor in the chancellorship, whom he did not like or respect, repeatedly assailed him, and on one occasion with so much acrimony, that his speech was generally regarded as ‘in bad taste and offensive.’ On another occasion Lord Eldon presented a petition against the Relief Bill from the Company of Tailors in Glasgow. When he laid it on the table the Chancellor, still sitting on the woolsack, said in a stage whisper, loud enough to be heard in the galleries, ‘What! do tailors trouble themselves with such measures?’ ‘My noble and learned friend,’ replied Lord Eldon, ‘might have been have been aware that tailors cannot like turncoats.

The third reading of the bill, which took place on the 13th of April, was carried in the Lords by a majority of 213 votes to 109  - the same House which, on the 11th of June, 1828, by a majority of 11 refused even to entertain the consideration of the Roman Catholic claims. Lord Eldon on that occasion made one last speech, of two hours’ length, against a measure which he regarded as ruinous to the constitution of the country, and fraught with imminent danger to the church. ‘I do declare,’ he concluded, ‘that I would rather hear at this moment that tomorrow my existence was to cease, than to awake to the reflection that I had consented to an act which had stamped me as a violator of my oath, a traitor to the church, and a traitor to the constitution.’ He seems to have cherished a hope that the king would refuse or, at least, delay his assent to the Relief Bill; and it was with great grief, almost horror, that he learned it had already been given at once as a matter of course. In a letter to his daughter on April 14, 1829, he says, ‘The fatal bill received the royal assent yesterday afternoon. After all I had heard in my visits, not a day’s delay. God Bless us and this church.’

The bill for the disfranchisement of the Irish forty-shilling freeholders followed close in the wake of the measure for the repeal of the Roman Catholic disabilities. It was to this measure for the regulation of the elective franchise in Ireland that the Government looked, as Peel declared, for ‘real security’ against any abuse of the Emancipation Act. ‘It is in vain,’ he said, ‘to deny or to conceal the truth in respect to that franchise. It was until a late period the instrument through which the landed aristocracy – the resident and the absentee proprietors – maintained their local influence; through which property had its legitimate weight in the national representation. The landlord had been disarmed by the priest; the fear of spiritual denunciation had already severed in some cases, and will sever in others, every tie between the Protestant proprietor and the lower class of his Roman Catholic tenantry. The weapon which he has forged with so much care, and which he has heretofore wielded with such success, has broken short in his hand.’ For these reasons Peel proposed, in the name of the Government, that the forty-shilling freeholders should be disfranchised, and that the qualification of an elector should be fixed at ten pounds instead of two pounds a year.

The case of the forty-shilling freeholders was stated in the most favourable point of view by Lord Anglesey. ‘These freeholders,’ he said, ‘were first created for electioneering purposes. As long as they allowed themselves to be driven to the hustings like sheep to the shambles, without a will of their own, all was well; not a murmur was heard. But the moment these poor people found out the value of their tenure, the moment they exerted their power constitutionally, that instant they are swept out of political existence.’ The lord-lieutenant, however, failed to see that electors who were alternately the slaves of the landlord and the priest were quite unfit to possess the franchise. It suited the purposes of the Opposition to talk of the political liberties of the ‘forties’ – to declare as O’Connell did, ‘Sooner than give up the forty-shilling freeholders, I would rather go back to the penal code. They form part of the constitution, their right is as sacred as that of the king to his throne, and it would be treason against the people to attempt to disenfranchise them. I would conceive it just to resent that attempt with force, and in such resistance I would be ready to perish in the field or on the scaffold;’ or to proclaim with Shiel, ‘if the Duke of Wellington should pursue this course, I will tell him we would rather submit for ever to the pressure of the parricidal code, which crushed our fathers to the grave, than assent to the robbery of a generous peasantry.’ But when the bill disfranchising the forty-shilling freeholders came before the House of Commons, these tribunes of the people were silent, and their solemn promises were forgotten. Mr. Brougham, indeed, said he regarded it as ‘the almost extravagant price of the inestimable good’ which would arise from the repeal for the Roman Catholic disabilities; and Sir James Mackintosh declared it ‘a tough morsel, which he had found it hard to swallow.’ But they did swallow it, and wisely too; for unless this price had been paid, the Relief Bill would not have been carried – though several of the leaders of the Opposition spoke and voted against it. The bill was read a second time in the House of Lords, by 139 votes to 17, on the 6th of April, and on the 17th it was read a third time and passed.

The Premier and his colleagues had been a good deal annoyed during their struggle to carry the Relief Bill through the Parliament by the opposition of a number of the subordinate members of Government, such as Sir Charles Wetherell, the Attorney-General, Lord Lowther, Chief Commissioner of Woods and Forests, Sir John Beckett, Judge-Advocate General, Mr George Bankes, Secretary to the Board of Control, and Mr. W. Holmes, Treasurer to the Ordnance, who all voted against the bill at every stage. Wetherell aggravated his offence by his furious speeches against the measure, and by ‘a violent and vulgar’ attack upon the Lord Chancellor. ‘He had no speech to eat up,’ he said; ‘he had no apostacy to explain; he had no paltry subterfuge to resort to; he had not to say a thing was black one day and white another; he was not in one year a Protestant master of the Rolls, and in the next a Catholic lord chancellor. He would rather remain where he was, the humble member for Plympton, than be guilty of such contradiction, such unexplainable controversy, such miserable, such contemptible apostacy.’ ‘The anti-Catholic papers and men,’ says Greville, ‘lavish the most extravagant encomiums on Wetherell’s speech’ (on the second reading of the bill), ‘and call it “the finest oration ever delivered in the House of Commons;” “the best since the second Philippic.” He was drunk they say. The Speaker said “the only lucid interval he had, was that between his waistcoat and his breeches.” [2]  When he speaks he unbuttons his braces, and in his vehement action his breeches fall down and his waistcoat runs up, so there is a great interregnum. He is half mad, eccentric, ingenious, with great and varied information, and a coarse, vulgar mind, delighting in ribaldry and abuse, besides being an enthusiast. Wetherell was, however, in flexibly honest, and with all his eccentricities highly honourable. As he doggedly refused to resign his office, wishing to compel the Government to turn him out, the duke wrote to him on the 22nd of March stating that, as his recent conduct had been inconsistent with his duty as an official servant of the Crown, he had received the king’s command to inform him that His Majesty had no further occasion for his services. He was succeeded by Sir James Scarlett, who had been attorney-general in Canning’s administration, but had been dismissed from office on the formation of the Wellington Ministry.

The other subordinate members of the Government who had voted against the Relief Bill tendered their resignation of their offices, but no notice was taken of their letters, and no reply was sent to them. This proceeding caused a good deal of dissatisfaction both among the Whigs and the staunch supporters of the Ministry. Lord Ellenborough says that duke, secure of a majority, thought it better not to have any question with the king about displacing any of the men who had voted against the Government until the bill was passed. Over and above, the duke was no doubt reluctant to quarrel with the head of the Lowther family, whose nine members had gained him the title of ‘the Permier’s cat-o’-nine tails’. Greville says the real reason why the resignations of Lord Lowther and the other refractory members of the Government were not accepted was ‘that the duke has got an idea that the Whigs want to make him quarrel with his old friends in order to render him more dependent upon them, and he is therefore anxious to carry through the measure without quarrelling with any body, so that he will retain the support of the Tories and show the Whigs that he can do without them’ – ‘a notice,’ Greville adds, ‘which is unfounded, besides being both unwise and illiberal.’ Lord Ellenborough corroborates this statement, and mentions that on the third reading of the Relief Bill the duke ‘was obliged to say something civil to the Whigs, but he did it sparingly, and against the grain.’ Peel, however, was much more just and generous in his testimony which he bore to the patriotic conduct of the Opposition during the struggle. ‘I cannot advert to that conflict,’ he says in his Memoirs, ‘even after the interval of twenty years, without placing on record my grateful acknowledgement of the cordial support which we received in both Houses of Parliament, not only from all those with whom our official connection had been then recently interrupted, but from those also who had never had any political connection with us, and might be considered, so far as the interests and ties of party were concerned, our decided opponents. It was not merely that they supported our measures, but they cautiously abstained from every thing which might have thrown obstructions in our way, and in many instances forbore from pressing objections strongly felt to portions of the plan in order that their general support of that plan, as a whole, might be cordial and effective.’

One point still remained to be disposed of before the Roman Catholic question could be regarded as finally settled – the admission of Mr. O’Connell to a seat in the House of Commons as member for Clare. He had prudently refrained from claiming admission until the Relief Bill became law, and it was not until the 15th of May that he presented himself to be sworn at the table of the House of Commons. The clerk tendered him the oaths of allegiance and abjuration, but declined to take the oath of supremacy, which he alleged was no longer in force, and claimed to be allowed to take the oath set forth in the Relief Act. The Speaker ruled, that as O’Connell’s election had taken place before the repeal of the Roman Catholic disabilities, the oaths imposed by the old law must be taken. The provision that the oath recited in the Act, and no other, should be taken by a Roman Catholic, was expressly limited to the case of ‘any person professing the Catholic religion who shall, after the commencement of this Act, be returned as a member of the House of Commons.’ O’Connell was heard at the bar of the House on the 18th of May in support of his claim. It was admitted on all sides that his speech was very able, and that ‘his whole demeanour was a happy mixture of dignity, respect, and ease.’ His argument was very ingenious, but it failed to convince the House that his claim was well founded; and though it was supported, not only by the Whigs, but by the Canningites and the friends of Mr. Greville, the House decided by a majority of 190 votes to 116, that Mr. O’Connell was not entitled to take his seat without first taking the oath of supremacy. When asked whether he was ready to comply with this decision, he said, ‘I see in this oath one assertion as to a matter of fact which I know is not true; I therefore refuse to take this oath.’ In consequence of his refusal a new writ for Clare was ordered to be issued, and O’Connell was re-elected without opposition. ‘There is but one opinion,’ wrote Mr. Greville, ‘as to the wretched feeling of excluding him; but the saddle is put upon the right horse, and though the Government are now obliged to enforce the provisions of their own bill, everybody knows that the exclusion was the work of the king.’

With this episode the struggle for Catholic emancipation, which had lasted for a quarter of a century, was brought to a close. The Relief Bill removed the Roman Catholic disabilities, but it left untouched the evils that had made Ireland a scene of mingled turbulence and wretchedness. The teeming population of that unhappy country, the habits of idleness, the struggle for the soil, the absence of the landlords, all these grievances remained without remedy to be the cause of future coercive Acts, and to give an excuse to the agitation for the Repeal of the Union.

1 The duke told Lord Ellenborough that ‘he considered all the morning whether he should fire at Lord Winchesea or no. He thought if he killed him he should be tried, and confined until he was tried, which he did not like. So  he determined to fire at his legs. He did hit his coat.’

2 Lord Ellenborough ascribes this epigram to Mr. Horace Twiss.

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