The King and the Catholics by Antonia Fraser, Weidenfeld, 336pp, £25
English Catholics lay low for most of the 18th century. They might, like many High Church Tories and country squires, drink to “The King over the water”, but only a handful of the 80,000 were engaged in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745. Their security and prosperity required them to demonstrate that they were loyal subjects of King George.
The prohibitions of the Penal Laws were still in place, but the strictest were now only rarely officiously enforced. The year 1778 saw a Catholic Relief Act. The public response, the violent Gordon Riots in London in 1780, showed how virulent anti-Catholicism could still be. English Catholics were wise to keep their heads below the parapet and Catholic landowners such as Lord Petre of Thorndon Hall had to present themselves as Englishmen first, Catholics second.
It was different in Ireland. There you had a Catholic majority, most still Gaelic-speakers, subservient to a Protestant minority who dominated public life from which all Catholics were excluded. Influenced by the Revolution in France, Ireland broke out in rebellion in 1798. Leaders such as Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward FitzGerald were themselves Protestants, but most of the rebels were Catholic.
The rebellion having been suppressed, the government of the younger Pitt set to solve the Irish Question by abolishing the (Protestant) Dublin Parliament, and bringing forward an Act of Union which would create a single parliament for the United Kingdom. Pitt realised that this Union would be acceptable to the majority in Ireland only if accompanied by Catholic Emancipation. The king, George III, would have none of it, insisting it violated his Coronation Oath. George suffered from mental instability; there was a fear that, if highly stressed, he would lose his wits again. So the Union was enacted, with no relief, let alone Emancipation, for Catholics. Ireland was not appeased.
Nothing changed when the king became incapable in 1811 and the Prince of Wales became Regent. The future George IV had been a Whig, and the Whigs favoured Emancipation. He had loved and married a Catholic, Maria Fitzherbert (though the marriage was illegal under the 1772 Royal Marriages Act), but, as he aged, he grew more reactionary, more Tory, more ready to speak of his “saintly father” (who had hated him). He made a triumphant visit to Ireland and spoke of his love for the Irish, but on the Catholic question he remained adamant.
Antonia Fraser gives a beautifully balanced portrait of this extraordinary king, so talented, so silly, so selfish, who, on his royal visits to Ireland and Scotland, showing himself to his people, pointed the way to the future of the monarchy.
Meanwhile, though members of the Protestant Ascendancy were content, discontent simmered in Catholic Ireland, cheated of what the Union had promised to deliver. It was channelled by Daniel O’Connell, an eloquent lawyer and acute politician. O’Connell was a realist who understood that there was a constitutional route to Emancipation.
Gradually, even Tories came to see sense. As prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, convinced that the Irish Question was otherwise insoluble, reluctantly accepted the need for Emancipation as the lesser of two evils. Two other men remained to be convinced: the home secretary, Sir Robert Peel, and the king, now in declining health. Peel, the most pragmatic English statesman of the 19th century, was a man ready to change his mind when the facts changed. Now he accepted that the facts had indeed changed. Only Catholic Emancipation and – as it proved – state support for the Catholic Church in Ireland, could make that country governable. Faced with the determination of Wellington and Peel, the king, protesting that he would ne’er consent, consented.
This is a very fine book indeed. Fraser is an excellent historian. Her research is thorough, her use of it discriminating. She has a dramatic story to tell here, and tells it compellingly, never forgetting that events now in the past were once in the future, and that what now seems inevitable often appeared otherwise at the time. She is judicious in her judgments, admirably free from any distorting bias. Best of all, she remembers that long-dead politicians were people of flesh and blood, moved by feeling, by hopes, fears and prejudices as well as by reason. She has a keen and lively sense of their character, and is alert to the drama they were engaged in.
While she has no doubt that the cause of Catholic Emancipation was a good one with right on its side, she recognises that those who opposed it were neither idiots nor scoundrels, but had valid reason to support their position.
Some historians might not be pleased to be told that their book reads as delightfully as a good novel, but I guess that Lady Antonia will accept this as praise. There is no reason why good history should not entertain as well as enlighten. This thoroughly enjoyable book does both.