12 March 1829. The Catholic Question that divided a nation and divided a family
The rights of catholics to sit in parliament and take part in public life had been restricted since the Reformation, when the Church of England was established as the state Church. Laws were passed which discriminated against Roman Catholics, including the 1559 Act of Uniformity. Widespread discrimination and persecution followed.
Political opposition to suppression of catholics grew throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Grenvilles were strong supporters of emancipation but Lord Grenville’s government of All the Talents fell in March 1807 in the face of opposition by King George III to even limited catholic emancipation.
“The funeral procession of Broad-bottom” (6 April 1807). James Gillray’s satire of the fall of Lord Grenville’s government, portraying the Grenvilles as catholics. From left: George Grenville (the Marquess of Buckingham), Pope Pius VII and Richard Temple (Lord Temple).
The Catholic Question split the Grenville family too. Richard Temple, the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos was an ardent supporter of the catholic cause—his mother and his sister were catholics. But his wife and their son, Chandos, were fiercely opposed to allowing catholics further rights.
In late 1828, Brunswick Clubs were formed across England with the express purpose of stirring opposition to catholic emancipation. Chandos took the chair of the newly formed Buckinghamshire Brunswick Constitutional Club in late 1828, while his father was touring the Mediterranean. When Richard got to hear of the Club in March 1829, his response was immediate and furious. He wrote an open letter from Rome to the “Gentry, Clergy, and Freeholders of the Hundreds of Buckingham, Ashendon, and Cottesloe in the County of Buckingham” condemning the Brunswick Club for misunderstanding history, the constitution and betraying his family.
Richard’s lengthy letter defends the role of catholics in British history and argues there is no constitutional reason the King could not sign an act on catholic emancipation into law. He calls on the memory of his father, George Grenville, who Richard says was much loved by the people of Buckinghamshire who had supported him in full knowledge of his pro-catholic views. And they had several times voted for Richard himself. “Every freeholder… voted for me. Ay, every one!”, he writes somewhat hysterically. The Bucks gentry had voted for him because they:
“had not then been lashed into fury and madness by intriguing, mischievous, and discontented spirits. You had not then suffered the unbridled enthusiasm and fiery zeal of heated youth to overpower prudence and overwhelm experience.”
The heated youth and discontented spirit Richard referred to was his son, Chandos. An Ultra Tory, Chandos opposed emancipation at every stage but to no avail. On 13 April, 1829, King George IV reluctantly signed “An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects” into law.
Catholic emancipation is of course not yet complete. Nearly 200 years after catholics were allowed to sit in parliament we have yet to have a catholic prime minister and a catholic cannot ascend to the throne. But then, catholic emancipation has been a slow process all along.