In the long Via Dolorosa down which Roman Catholics had to march to win the franchise before 1829, they hardly had a more resolute opponent than King George III. In my new biography of him, I try to explain how his opposition to Catholic Emancipation was based on George’s sincerely held principles and profound religious beliefs rather than mere anti-papist prejudice, although his stance also accorded with what was politically expedient at the time. I hope by the end of this article, Catholics will agree that the king, who acceded in 1760, was right to defend the politico-religious status quo throughout his reign, the longest of any king in British history.
The main purpose of the Act of Settlement of 1701 was to exclude Roman Catholics from the Throne, so George essentially owed his claim entirely to his Protestantism (the Hanoverians were Lutherans who converted to Anglicanism when George I acceded). In the half-century since the Act, the Hanoverians survived not just one but two Catholic attempts to recapture the throne, by James II’s son the Old Pretender in 1715 and his grandson the Young Pretender (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) in 1745.
The Coronation Oath that George III took in 1760 had first been devised for William and Mary in 1689, and contained an unequivocal rejection of Roman Catholicism. The King was asked a series of questions by Archbishop Secker, which included:
“Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the laws of God, the true profession of the Gospel, and the Protestant Reformed Religion established by Law? And will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the united Church of England and Ireland, and the countries thereunto belonging?”
The King stood up from his throne in the Abbey, walked to the altar, laid his right hand on the Bible, and answered, “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.” He then kissed the Bible and was anointed King. Unsurprisingly, considering the uncompromising words of the Oath and the solemnity of the occasion, he had a lifelong belief that Catholic Emancipation would contravene what he had sworn before God.
This did not mean that George did not want Roman Catholics to enjoy other civil and religious rights beyond the franchise. He approved of the Quebec Act 1774, which gave 70,000 French-speakers in Canada the right to practise their religion and for their churches to gather tithes. He described the Québécois as “the old inhabitants whose rights and usages ought by no means to be disturbed”.
Given the gathering atmosphere of mistrust in America, however, the Act was used by Protestant clergy in the 13 colonies to Canada’s south to allege, entirely untruthfully, that the British had designs not only to impose Anglican bishoprics on them but Roman Catholic ones too. The Act damaged the King in many American eyes, only one year before the cataclysmic events in Lexington and Concord.
In British politics too, the Quebec Act cost the king popularity. Going to Parliament to give it royal assent, he “was very much insulted” by a mob, with people shaking their fists at him yelling, “No Roman Catholic King: no Roman Catholic religion! America forever!”
In 1776, the propagandist Thomas Paine also insinuated that the King was a secret Roman Catholic, writing in his influential pamphlet Common Sense that “the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the King and his parasites, with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds”.
Partly in order to encourage Army recruitment in Ireland, and partly to rectify long-standing wrongs, the British Government passed the Catholic Relief Act (popularly known as the Papists Act) which the King also supported. It came into force in August 1778. This repealed the laws under which Catholic priests were prosecuted and teachers were imprisoned, as well as the inheritance and land laws. Yet even this mild and only partial relaxation of the anti-Catholic laws was violently opposed by Lord George Gordon MP, the youngest son of the 3rd Duke of Gordon, who in February 1779 set up a Protestant Association to counter them. (Gordon was a well-known libertine, and when he denounced the Archbishop of Canterbury as “the Whore of Babylon” a wit commented that Gordon had finally met a whore he didn’t like.)
By total contrast, the King was no bigot; he stayed in the houses of prominent Catholics – such as Lord Petre at Thorndon Place in Essex – something no monarch had done since the Glorious Revolution. The general tendency in government – fully supported by the King – had been towards a limited and gradual relief of Catholic grievances, as had been seen in the Irish Catholic Relief Acts in Ireland in 1772, 1774 and 1778, as well as the English version of 1778. These had undone some – but by no means all – of the harsh restrictions on Catholic property-owning rights and education, but they were anathema to the sectarian massed ranks of Gordon’s vast Protestant Association, who took an extreme anti-Catholic stance.
On Friday, June 2, 1780, a crowd of around 50,000 to 60,000 people assembled in St George’s Fields, Southwark to present the Protestant Association’s petition against the Act, and around 14,000 of them subsequently marched on Parliament. The next week of anti-Catholic disturbances saw the greatest destruction of property in London between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940-41.
Though the view of the mob should not have been pandered to, at that time large majorities of the House of Lords and House of Commons also resolutely opposed Catholic Emancipation, and although the King believed profoundly in religious liberty and toleration, he did not believe in religious equality. He admired the German system where, as he told his pro-Emancipation premier William Pitt the Younger, all religions were permitted, “yet each respective state has but one church establishment … and those holding any civil employment must be conformists. Court officials and military commissions may be held also by persons of either of the other persuasions, but the number of such is very small.”
The King told Pitt that “no country can be governed where there is more than one established religion.” It was not just over Catholicism that the King had supported the religious status quo; in the late 1780s he had also staunchly opposed the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts that banned Dissenters from Parliament.
During the French Revolution, George criticised the French expulsion of the Jesuits, saying that children educated by them “had never learned from their Jesuit perception any of the dangerous moral principles imputed to them”. He later visited Thomas Weld’s Catholic chapel in Dorset, and as Antonia Fraser’s excellent book The King and the Catholics points out, he even winked at Catholics building chapels if they were at least publicly presented as memorials.
The King and Pitt were on good terms before the latter opened a series of Cabinet discussions on Catholic Emancipation in September and October 1800, without informing the former that he was doing so.
In the discussions, several ministers pointed out the fundamental problems in Pitt’s proposals. “Opponents of emancipation saw no reason,” as one of George’s biographers has put it, “during a war and at a time when the threat of revolution was still taken seriously, to enfranchise a mass of unruly and unpropertied Irish peasants who professed obedience to a pope, a foreigner.” Other ministers opposed it because they disliked sweeping constitutional change, respected the status and privileges of the Established Church, wanted to retain basic qualifications for public offices, or feared that the passions aroused by the Gordon Riots might be re-ignited. These are not all ignoble views to have held.
In February 1801, the King was robing in the House of Lords before making a speech from the throne.
Addressing the 11th Duke of Norfolk, who supported Emancipation, in the hearing of other peers, he said, “I believe, my lord, that you have a very fine old place at Arundel?” The Architectural Duke answered that indeed he had. “I hear,” continued the King, “that you are making considerable alterations in it?” “I am,” replied Norfolk. “Take care,” added the King, “not to meddle with the foundations.”
George knew where the foundations of his dynasty lay, and he was not disposed to meddle with them.
Andrew Roberts’s new book George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch is out on October 7 and is published by Penguin
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