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Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 18 Catholic Emancipation, 1828–29

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Speculation about the Government’s position on the Catholic Question:

On the surface the ministry appeared decidedly ‘Protestant’ in tone, for while seven of the thirteen cabinet ministers publicly favoured Emancipation, the most important positions were held by those who had consistently voted against it. (The seven who favoured concession were Melville, Ellenborough, Aberdeen, Huskisson, Palmerston, Dudley and Grant; the six who had publicly opposed it were Wellington, Peel, Lyndhurst, Bathurst, Goulburn and Herries; but this counted for little. The most relevant offices were those of Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor – all held by ‘Protestants’ – while the views of Wellington and Peel had significance beyond the offices they held simply because they dominated the government).

Nonetheless there was a widespread sense that this was not the whole picture: for example the Times assured its readers that Wellington would prove much more flexible than Liverpool on the question (The Times, 1 February 1828 quoted in Machin Catholic Question p 112). On 31 January 1828 Lord Clifden asked Wellington in the Lords whether his government had any plans to remove Catholic disabilities, and was answered in the negative; but this did not end the discussion and in April ministers were forced to deny that they were in the midst of negotiations with the Papacy for a concordat. None of this satisfied the Duke of Newcastle who wrote in his diary, ‘Still I fear that we have not been told all the truth – I suspect that something is doing & that the denial is an Evasion’. (Newcastle’s diary, 18 April 1828 Unrepentant Tory p 50; Clifden’s question is in Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 18 col 69 and is mentioned by Newcastle 31 January 1828 ibid p 44).

If the Times praised Wellington’s flexibility in 1828 it is worth remembering that only a year before it had floated the canard that he was in favour of the reconquest of Ireland (see main text p 283).

Wellington explores possible approaches to Emancipation:

The suspicions of Newcastle and the other high Tories were misdirected, but not completely groundless: the government was not stirring the issue and had made no overture to Rome, but Wellington was secretly exploring ways in which the penal laws could be removed with the least possible damage to the Anglican Church and its position in the constitution. For advice on this subject he turned to Henry Phillpotts, Dean of Chester, who had made a name for himself with several vigorous pamphlets on controversial subjects, defending the government after ‘Peterloo’ and demolishing some of the arguments put forward by advocates of the Catholic cause. This had given him the reputation of an intransigent high Tory, but in fact he had become convinced that concession was inevitable and that it would be better to grant it from a position of some strength, with proper safeguards, than to leave the new settlement in the hands of ministers who evidently cared little for the Church of England. Phillpotts proved admirably discreet and trustworthy and was able to consult many leading churchmen and high Tories on the question without letting fall any hint that Wellington would benefit from the discussions. His advice was crucial in shaping Wellington’s ideas and led to radical changes in the plan of 1825. This does not mean that Wellington took office having made up his mind to introduce Catholic Emancipation at the first opportunity, and it is more probable that he felt that whether he took the initiative or not he would soon be forced to confront the question and that he needed to be prepared. (On Phillpotts see ODNB and Davies Henry Phillpotts Bishop of Exeter, 1778-1869 (There is little or no direct evidence of Wellington’s intentions on the question).

Debate on Burdett’s motion of 8 May 1828:

The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts heightened the atmosphere, encouraging the advocates of the Catholic cause by breaching the bulwarks of the old Anglican constitutional settlement and alarming the High Tories for the same reason. It was obvious that Wellington, Peel and the government as a whole were less firmly committed to the defence of the existing order than had been assumed and might well give way if placed under sufficient pressure. On 8 May Sir Francis Burdett moved to establish a committee to enquire into the Catholic claims, making no mention of securities to protect the Anglican Church. After a long debate the motion was passed by a majority of six. This was smaller than many previous Commons’ majorities in favour of the question, but closer examination of the numbers convinced Wellington that there was now an entrenched majority in the Commons in favour of concession, and that if absent members had been present the majority would have been more than twenty and perhaps as much as thirty. (Memorandum by Wellington, 1 August 1828, WND vol 4 p 565-70 see p 569. Wellington mistakenly gives the actual majority as eight, but Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 19 col 675 shows it to have been six. It is interesting to compare this to Wellington’s belief after the 1826 election that it had given the opponents of Emancipation a small majority in the Commons – see main text p 239 citing Abbot Diary 14 December 1826 vol 3 p 452).

Peel agreed and told Wellington that he thought that the government needed to reconsider its whole policy towards Ireland when Parliament rose, but at the same time warned that he might feel compelled to resign whatever policy was adopted: it was inappropriate for the Leader of the House to be personally responsible, as Home Secretary, for a policy which the Commons had repeatedly disavowed, while he was too committed to the Protestant cause to preside over its defeat. This was not unexpected: Peel had taken the same stance in 1825 and his conscience was always going to be one of the chief difficulties Wellington would face if he was to concede ‘Emancipation’ (Peel Memoirs vol 1 p 127-8).

Entrenched majority in the Commons favour of the Catholic Claims:

The odd thing about this view is that in the previous year the Commons had voted against them by 276 to 272 (cf 272 to 266 in 1828). It is not clear why Wellington felt that the Commons was now so decidedly pro-Catholic, but presumably he had good advice from the whips to this effect. Still, it does help to explain some of the resistance on the part of the King and the High Tories: they were being bustled in a direction they did not want to go, and at least one argument Wellington was using was not immediately convincing.

There is a good statement of the view that there was an entrenched majority in Peel’s Memorandum for the King, January 1829 WND vol 5 p 436-440 especially p 437-8; and the essential point is probably that no government could be formed exclusively of those opposed to concession, or with opposition to concession its central tenet – this was the rock upon which the King’s resistance repeatedly broke in 1829. But it is not hard to see why ultras who were not closely involved in parliamentary politics, felt sceptical and would have liked at least to have tried and failed.

The Debate in the Lords on Catholic Emancipation, 10 June 1828:

The public knew nothing of the discussions between Wellington and Peel, and the departure of Huskisson and the other Canningite ministers soon after the Commons’ debate was generally perceived as a blow to the Catholic cause, even though their replacements, Murray and Fitzgerald, were both supporters of Emancipation. Public interest turned to the Lords’ debate and in particular to Wellington’s speech and the language he would use in defending the government’s position. Before the debate Peel urged him not to say anything which would make it more difficult to change course in the recess, and Wellington followed this advice with a speech which concentrated heavily on the practical difficulties of devising any settlement which would give the Catholic advocates what they wanted while protecting the position of the Established Church. Many of the arguments he employed were derived from Phillpott’s letters including a rejection on principle of a Concordat with the Pope, an idea which he had favoured in 1825. Although this gave the speech a generally negative tone close observers were not deceived: Palmerston commented that it ‘advanced [the] question immensely, because it [threw] overboard all objections on principle, and [placed] the matter simply upon the stand of comparative arrangements’; the Times welcomed ‘the conciliatory tone’ of the speech; while the Duke of Newcastle and his friends were ‘dissatisfied’ and concluded that ‘There is certainly something in the wind’. (Peel Memoirs vol 1 p 128; Wellington’s speech is in Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 19 col 1286-1292 and in Wellington Speeches vol 1 p 174-181; Palmerston to William Temple 27 June 1828 quoted in Karen A. Noyce ‘The Duke of Wellington and the Catholic Question’ in Norman Gash (ed) Wellington: Studies in the Military and Political Career of the first Duke of Wellington p 148; The Times, 11 June 1828; Newcastle Unrepentant Tory 10 June 1828 p 56-57).

However the significance of the speech was less apparent on the other side of the Irish Sea where leading Catholics not surprisingly viewed a government led by Wellington and Peel with suspicion and reserve. This prejudice had been recently reinforced by Wellington’s attendance at a Pitt Club dinner where Lord Eldon had called for ‘one cheer more’ for a toast to ‘Protestant Ascendancy’. (Machin Catholic Question p117; The Times 30 May 1828). The Catholic Association had already decided to oppose the election of any member of the government to an Irish seat, and soon had an opportunity to put this into practice, for Vesey Fitzgerald’s appointment to the Broad of Trade required that he stand again for his seat of County Clare. As a large landowner, not unpopular in the district, and with a long record of supporting Catholic Emancipation, Fitzgerald’s re-election would normally have posed few problems. Indeed the Catholic Association was thwarted in its efforts to find a Protestant willing to stand against him. (One of those who was invited but refused was the Lord William Paget, the son of Lord Anglesey which gives an indication of how far Anglesey’s sympathies were seen to incline towards the Catholics rather than the Protestants or the government to which he formally belonged). In the end, only eight days before the polls opened, the Association took the radical step of putting forwards its leader, Daniel O’Connell as its candidate: although a Catholic there appeared to be no legal impediment to his standing, but if elected he would not be able to swear the necessary oaths to take his seat in Parliament. (Machin Catholic Question p 121-22; Fisher History of Parliament 1820-32 vol 3 p 688-90).

Wellington’s speech of 10 June 1828:

Wellington said that while he disagreed with Lord Wellesley (who had just spoken) he hoped that ‘in the end’ their opinions would be found not to differ much.

‘I should be glad to see the disabilities of the Roman Catholics removed; but, before I can consent to their removal, I must see something in their stead which will effectually protect our institutions…’

His objection to Catholicism not due to its religious doctrines, but the political conduct it encouraged.

‘The question then resolves itself onto one of expediency; and I ground my opposition to it, not on the peculiar doctrinal points of the Roman Catholic faith, but because of the nature of the Roman Catholic Church government’.

Protestant rulers across Europe, even the Emperor of Russia, have found it impossible to govern Catholic subjects without a concordat, but a concordat is quite incompatible with the King’s position as head of the Church and the Oath of Supremacy. He ended by saying that ‘if the agitators of Ireland would only leave the public mind at rest – the people would become more satisfied, and I certainly think that it would then be possible to do something’ (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 19 col 1286-1292).

Reaction to Wellington’s Speech of 10 June 1828:

Greville is quite good on this, in an entry dated 18 June 1828:

The Duke of Wellington’s Speech on the Cath[olic] qu[estion] is considered by many to have been so moderate as to indicate a disposition on his part to concede emancipation, and bets have been laid that Catholics will sit in Parl[iament] next year. Many men are resolved to see it in this light who are anxious to join his Gov[ernment], and whose scruples with regard to that question are removed by such as interpretation of his speech … Frankland Lewis, who refused the Irish Sec[retar]yship, said that after that speech he regretted his refusal and would be glad to take it, and now he wants to join the Gov[ernmen]t again. Certainly at this moment the Tories are triumphant, and so far from the Duke’s Gov[ernmen]t having any difficulty in standing, there does not appear to be a disposition in any quarter to oppose it. Not only in Parliament there is no Opposition, but the Press is veering round and treating him with great civility … (Greville Memoirs 18 June 1828 vol 1 p 212).

Would Wellington have introduced Catholic Emancipation if there had been no Clare by-election?

The little evidence is inconclusive. We know that from 1825 Wellington thought that Emancipation would have to be conceded at some point, and that as soon as he took office he began investigating the ways it might be safely implemented. We also know that by May-June 1828 (before Wellington’s speech of 10 June, well before the Clare election), Peel had come to believe that the concession would have to be made. But we don’t know whether this would have been enough to make Wellington take the initiative when he faced such serious obstacles to success: the King, the Church, the High Tories, and Peel’s determination to resign. Without an immediate crisis in Ireland it isn’t clear that these obstacles could have been overcome, or that he would have been justified in stirring the issue.

Neither “Wellington was only driven to take action by O’Connell’s victory”, nor “O’Connell’s victory was superfluous; Wellington was going to take action anyway” seems entirely convincing. The truth is that we don’t know, and the question should be left open.

However it would be fair to say that it was the success of the reconstituted Catholic Association since 1825 and the support for Emancipation in the Commons that convinced Wellington and Peel that the question could not be delayed much longer and that Emancipation was the only solution, even though they did not believe that Emancipation would do much if anything to solve the real problems of Ireland.

The Clare Election:

O’Connell’s triumph at Clare in 1828 was only partly due to the long standing grievances of the Irish peasantry, for many previous attempts to harness them politically had ended in failure. It was helped by the growing sectarianism in Irish society which had been fostered by the constant discussion and agitation of the issue of Emancipation which gave life to a grievance which was irrelevant to the vast majority of the population; and inflamed by the evangelizing activity of a number of Protestant groups which inevitably antagonized the Catholic church. The advocates of the Catholic cause were far more united than previously: the long divisive controversy over the ‘veto’ was behind them, and O’Connell had accepted that he had gone too far in his concessions in London in 1825, and was working more closely with his supporters. His leadership in 1828 was invaluable: his boldness in standing and his skill in steering the narrow path between exciting a crowd and losing control of it, were essential to success, while he was rapidly coming to personify the Catholic cause in a way no previous leader had done. But this was not all: the active support of the Catholic church was essential; so was the institution of the Catholic rent and, crucially, the willingness of the new Association to take up small local grievances rather than limit its interest to an impersonal generalized cause. The potency of this mixture had been demonstrated in the 1826 election for County Waterford where the deeply entrenched anti-Catholic Beresford interest was broken in favour of a liberal, pro-Catholic Protestant, Henry Villiers Stuart. Hindsight makes the significance of that result a little too obvious, but there could be little doubt that O’Connell’s election for Clare had critically damaged the old electoral system in Ireland. (Bartlett Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation p 327-42; Jenkins Era of Emancipation p 250-1).

Wellington’s Memorandum of 1 August 1828:

Wellington summarized the position to the King:

This, then, maybe considered as the real state of the case. We have a rebellion impending over us in Ireland, excited, organised; and this organisation directed by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Association; and their directions carried into execution by the Roman Catholic priests: and we have in England a Parliament which we cannot dissolve, the majority of which is of opinion, with many wise and able men, that the remedy is to be found in Roman Catholic emancipation, and they would unwillingly enter into the contest without making such an endeavor to pacify the country. (Memorandum by Wellington 1 August 1828 WND vol 4 p 565-70 quote on p 570).

It is not hard to see whyGash (Mr Secretary Peel p 528) described it as ‘realistic to the point of brutality’.

Wellington’s proposals:

Both Mrs Arbuthnot and Peel (in his memorandum in reply to Wellington’s) say that Wellington proposed the annual suspension, rather than the removal of the prohibition on Catholics sitting in parliament and holding office. This is not obvious in Wellington’s memorandum as printed in WND vol 5 p 254-68 except for the statement in para 2 which does not necessarily refer to an on-going arrangement; however it is reasonable to assume that Mrs Arbuthnot and Peel understood Wellington’s intentions. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 29 July 1828 vol 2 p 197-200; Peel’s Memorandum, 11 August 1828, Peel Memoirs vol 1 p 189-200 – especially p 194).

Peel’s colleagues not altogether sympathetic to Peel’s scruples:

Bathurst was forthright: ‘I have always been persuaded that Peel would not come into an [sic] scheme respecting the Catholics, not, however, from his having any strong Protestant feelings. He has long been strangely ashamed of the question, and of the eager Protestants, but he dreads the charge of inconsistency, & is not insensible to the advantage of being consider’d as the head of the church party, particularly if the carrying the question should not restore tranquillity to Ireland’. (Bathurst to Charles Arbuthnot, Private, 15 August 1828 Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 105-6). That was hardly fair, but Charles Arbuthnot entirely agreed, and his wife believed that Peel looked to leave office ‘amicably & return as soon as the bill is passed’, which she thought was hard on whoever had to fill his place temporarily and generally rather ‘shabby’. ‘I supposed he is so committed he has not the courage to act otherwise. He does not, however, do it handsomely’. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 10 September 1828 vol 2 p 206-7; Charles Arbuthnot to Bathurst ‘Private’ 17 August 1828 HMC Bathurst p 655-6).

Wellington at Cheltenham:

Wellington went to Cheltenham for the second half of August: he was run down and close to exhaustion after the demands of the parliamentary session and the manifold tasks of a prime minister. One of his closest friends wrote on 12 August, ‘I am sure that he overworks. He will do everything that he thinks ought to be done, and his bodily strength is not equal to it. I hear he looks ill, but there is no persuading him to bear in mind that his bodily strength must at last give way’. (Charles Arbuthnot to Bathurst 12 August 1828 WND vol 4 p 597). At Cheltenham he took the waters and enjoyed the society of the fashionable spa town, which evidently included the presence of Lady Shelley for at least part of his time. But he also saw and dined with Lord Bathurst at his seat at Cirencester just a few miles away, while his correspondence was as extensive and wide-ranging as ever, touching on everything from international agreements over the navigation of the Rhine to the state of the judicature of Wales. This suggests that the amount of actual rest was limited, but the change of air and perhaps the waters proved beneficial. After only a few days residence Bathurst reported that, ‘we thought he look’d thin but very well, much improv’d in looks by his holidays & in very good spirits’. And Mrs Arbuthnot was delighted with the improvement when she saw him again in early September, ‘He is really wonderfully improved by Cheltenham, he has got a brown, healthy colour, and seems to have got his head and stomach right. I am sure he will get quite strong during the autumn’. This confidence was justified, for in late November Charles Arbuthnot wrote to Henry Wellesley (now Lord Cowley), ‘Thank God his health is greatly improved. He has been a long time recovering from that dreadful mismanagement of his ear, the sad effects of which are not yet wholly removed; but it is astonishing to see with what facility he gets thro’ all his labour, & so little does he spare himself that he executes everything thro’ & by himself’. (Bathurst to Charles Arbuthnot 19 August 1928 Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 106; Mrs Arbuthnot to Lady Shelley, Stratfield Saye, 6 September 1828 Diary of Lady Shelley vol 2 p 180 – the letter implies that Lady Shelley had been in Cheltenham at the same time as Wellington; Charles Arbuthnot to Lord Cowley ‘Private’, Woodford, 22 November 1828 Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 109-11).

Wellington, the King and the Duke of Clarence:

‘Between the King and his brothers the government of this country has become a most heart-breaking concern. Nobody can ever know where he stands upon any subject. I knew that the King was anxious that the Duke of Clarence should remain in office; and so was I. But I thought that he was convinced, as I was, that Sir George Cockburn could not be dismissed; that the Duke of Clarence must obey the laws and regulations for his guidance…’ (Wellington to Peel 26 August 1828 WND vol 4 p 665-666).

Clarence restrained?

A few years later, in 1834 when Clarence was on the throne as King William IV, Wellington told Lady Salisbury that, ‘he thought there was every reason to believe the King was going mad. His conduct in some respects resembled that of George 3rd before his last illness, and some years ago, when the present King left the Admiralty, he was actually so mad as to be put into a strait waistcoat. Like George 3rd who never forgave Willis, he has never forgiven the man who did it’. (Lady Salisbury’s diary 11 May 1834 Oman Gasgoyne Heiress p 114).

George Dawson’s speech:

It was an atmosphere in which small events took on undue significance. For example a speech on 12 August by George Dawson, Peel’s brother-in-law and a member of the government, who told a Protestant dinner in Londonderry that the time had come to find an amicable settlement of Catholic grievances. Peel privately disowned Dawson, telling Wellington that he thought the speech ‘unfair and impolitic in the extreme’, but the public naturally suspected that the speech gave a clue to the intentions of the cabinet and was perhaps even deliberately designed to test the water. Protestants reacted with fury while Wellington regretted the damage done and assured the Duke of Cumberland, whose hostility to any concession to the Catholics was well known, that there ‘never was made so foolish, so mischievous, or so uncalled for a speech. Mr Peel is quite distressed about it’. (Wellington to Cumberland, Stratfield Saye, 24 September 1828 WND vol 5 p 77-79; Peel to Wellington, Brighton, 24 August 1828 WND vol 4 p 662-3; the text of Dawson’s speech is in ibid p 604-10; his letter of explanation – but not apology – to Wellington is in ibid p 633-4; while Sir George Hill gives a good account of the fury and disquiet provoked by the speech in a letter of 14 August to Wellington ibid p 602-4).

Greville is good on the reaction to this: ‘I never remember any occurrence which created greater surprise …’ (Greville Memoirs 22 August 1828 vol 1 p 217). And later, 5 April 1829,

Vesey told me that Dawson’s speech at Derry very nearly overturned the whole design. The King heard of it the day of a Council at Windsor (which I well remember). The Chancellor was with him for a long time, but it was almost impossible to persuade the King that Dawson knew nothing of the intention of the Govt., and that this speech was not made in concert with Peel and the Duke. This it was which caused them such excessive annoyance, because it raised difficulties which well-nigh prevented the accomplishment if the design’. (Greville Memoirs 5 April 1829 vol 1 p 284).

Peel and Wellington lose faith in Anglesey:

By the end of August the state of Ireland was described as ‘feverish’ and ‘very alarming’, with William Gregory the veteran under secretary at Dublin Castle and stalwart Protestant fearing the likelihood of widespread violence, and Leveson Gower warning Peel that he should ‘consider Ireland on the eve of Rebellion, or civil war, or both’. (Jenkins Era of Emancipation p 271). Anglesey’s handling of the tensions in Ireland caused much frustration in London. The ministers, and especially the King, were irritated by his evident sympathy for the Catholic leaders and even more by his readiness to offend the Protestants. They complained that the Lord Lieutenant and his party paid a visit of several days to Lord Cloncurry who had not only been on active member of the United Irishmen and sent to prison for two years in the wake of the 1798 Rebellion, but had taken a leading part in defeating a Loyal Address to George IV on the occasion of his visit to Dublin in 1821, and who spoke at a meeting of the Catholic Association almost as soon as Anglesey’s carriage clattered away from his house. (Wellington to Anglesey and reply 11 and 14 November 1828 WND vol 5 p 240-1, 244-8; Complete Peerage vol 3 p 329). And despite repeated instructions from Peel and Wellington, Anglesey did not prosecute or even dismiss two Protestant magistrates Thomas Steele and O’Gorman Mahon who were prominent agitators for the Catholic Association. Even more direct threats to the peace of the realm such as the march into Ulster by John Lawless at the head of several thousand followers produced only a feeble and half-hearted response from the authorities in Dublin Castle, and serious violence was only avoided by the prudence of those on the spot. The ministers in London believed that Ireland could best be calmed, and the way cleared for the granting of Emancipation, by the Irish government asserting its authority and acting against the more impetuous and disorderly activities of the Catholic Association. But Anglesey, not knowing that Emancipation was being considered, and convinced that he had far greater insight into the problems of Ireland than either Wellington or Peel, was reluctant to sacrifice his popularity in Dublin, and in liberal circles in London, by implementing a policy which he disliked, and which he really believed would only inflame a dangerous situation. (Wellington to Peel and reply 6 and 7 August 1828 WND vol 4 p 575, 577-8; Wellington to Peel 26 August 1828 ibid p 666; Peel to Wellington and reply 18 and 19 September 1828 WND vol 5 p 61-63, 64-65; Wellington to Anglesey 28 and 29 September 1828 ibid p 92-93, 95; Peel to Wellington 29 September 1828 and 2 October 1828 ibid p 95 and 105-7 and many more letters here and in Peel Memoirs).

Peel wrote to Wellington on 18 September

I have already informed him that previously to the meeting of Parliament the King’s advisers will take the present state of Ireland into consideration, with a particular reference to the measures which it may be fitting to adopt, or the language to be held at the meeting of Parliament.

     What more can I say to him? Under any circumstances I should doubt the policy of communicating now to Lord Anglesey the resolution of the government – supposing a resolution to have been formed’. (Peel to Wellington 18 September 1829 WND vol 5 p 61-3).

This was two exasperating months before Wellington’s outburst to Lord Bathurst, ‘Lord Anglesey is gone made. He is bit by a mad Papist; or instigated by the love of popularity’. (Wellington to Bathurst 24 November 1828 WND vol 5 p 280 -1).

Anglesey One Leg p 204-5 quotes a letter from Anglesey to Lord Holland in which he complains that the King is being poisoned against him, and that the ministers don’t trust him!!

The account in One Leg has some other useful source material, but is predictably partisan.

Mrs Arbuthnot criticizes Wellington’s tactics:

On 9 October 1828 she wrote in her journal:

     I am not altogether quite satisfied with the Duke’s management of Ireland & this Catholic question. I am afraid he has seemed not to take a sufficiently Protestant view of it; that is to say, I think his best chance of settling it was to uphold & protect the Protestants, to give them confidence & by so acting as to make them feel that their interests were safe in his hands. In order to obtain that, I think he shd. have recalled Ld Anglesey when he allowed his son & others of his household to attend the Catholic Association & receive the thanks of that body, & when he singled out Mr O’Connell to be civil to him at his court when he went dressed in his Liberators’ medal, a harp without a crown. If he had done that, if he had taken earlier means of putting a stop to these Catholic meetings & had sent a Ld Lt, no matter whether Catholic or Protestant but a sensible man & not a partisan, the Protestants wd not have set up Brunswick Clubs, & that irritation & fury wd not have been excited which has tended, I think, to complicate the question. However, the Duke thinks he has done right and I hope it will turn out so’. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 9 October 1828 vol 2 p 213).

And a month later, ‘… I do not think the Duke has managed very adroitly. I think he shd. have seemed more Protestant & he wd have carried his point more easily …’ (ibid 9 November 1828 vol 2 p 219).

On the surface these criticisms seem quite plausible, but given the excited atmosphere in Ireland in the wake of the Clare election some outburst of Protestant reaction was inevitable, while the recall of Anglesey would have excited much feeling among the Catholics, who would have regarded it as a signal that the government intended uncompromising resistance. And even if it did work as Mrs Arbuthnot hoped, and helped calm the situation in Ireland in the autumn of 1828, it would only increase in early 1829: it this sense it takes exactly the reverse tack from the modern criticism of Wellington that he should have prepared the ground for Emancipation with more consultation among the High Tories.

Mood of Irish Protestants in autumn of 1828:

Lord Longford, Wellington’s brother-in-law was a prominent supporter of the Brunswick Clubs in Ireland and urged his neighbours in Westmeath to rally to support them.   Lady Chapman, wife of Sir Thomas Chapman of Killua Castle, responded to his appeal on 28 October 1828:

I think the state of our unhappy country is owing to our Government, the Duke of Wellington I consider nearly despotic and am sure if he has decided that Emancipation should be given the petition of all the Protestants in Ireland will not influence him. And if he is of the contrary opinion Martial Law must very soon be declared in which case I think the unfortunate resident Gentlemen in Ireland should be quiet and leave the English military to execute the Government orders … I have every expectation that if Emancipation is Given, it will tranquillize our Country. (Quoted in Pakenham Soldier, Sailor p 190).

Penenden Heath and the Ultra Tories:

It is interesting just how similar the tactics and rhetoric of the Ultra Tories in 1828-29 were to those of the radicals a decade earlier.

Conversely there were clear limits to the democratic sympathies of good liberals like Lord Holland when ‘the people’ dared to express opinions which differed from their own: ‘the tranquility of the Empire may really depend on the result of that manoeuvre of the Kentish clodpolls and bigots’ (quoted in Machin Catholic Question p 140 – Althorp wrote of the anti-Catholics as ‘bigoted idiots’ (ibid p 137).

Dangers of fighting a sectarian, ‘Church and King’ election:

Wellington told Phillpotts:

You are likewise mistaken respecting an appeal to the people. In these times an appeal might produce from thirty to forty votes (in Great Britain) difference in the House of Commons; but in Ireland the consequence of the appeal would be that we should lose every county, excepting possibly one and perhaps two; and every large town and scot and lot borough. The loss thus incurred would more than counterbalance the gain in Great Britain’. (He had already discussed the risk of provoking a rebellion). (Wellington to Phillpotts 25 October 1828 WND vol 5 p 173-5).

Wellington’s reflections on the Act of 1793:

The Act of 1793, the measure of the British Cabinet, gave power, that is, the right of voting, to the Irish Roman Catholics. The Irish gentlemen Protestants conceived that they could use that power for their own purposes; and in order to increase their own political influence have vastly multiplied the number of Roman Catholic voters. But the demagogues of the Roman Catholic Association have, by the influence of the priests over their flocks, taken that power out of their hands. The Irish gentlemen therefore have at present none of the influence which belongs to men of property in every well-regulated society, particularly in those countries under your Majesty’s government. The influence of the priests directs everything. (Wellington to the King, 14 October 1828, WND vol 5 p 133-6, quote on p 136).

How the Bishops voted in the end:

Ten bishops in the end voted for the bill including both Winchester and Chester: Chester, Derry, Kildare, Lichfield and Coventry, Oxford, Llandaff, Rochester, St David’s, Winchester and Norwich (proxy).

Not content:

Three Archbishop: Canterbury, York and Armagh.

And 16 bishops (including 3 proxies)

A 10 v 19 split does not seem too bad on such a question, though all three Archbishops and London against (Wellington in Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 21 col 395-7).

Wellington’s letter to Curtis:

Wellington was probably imprudent to have written to Curtis at all, but they had corresponded for years, and he had good grounds for trusting the Archbishop’s courage and discretion, while it was clearly useful to strengthen and encourage the voices of moderation in the Catholic hierarchy. By publishing the letter – and not even accurately, for there were small but significant changes in the text – Curtis sacrificed Wellington’s trust and made his task much harder for the sake of briefly inflating his own importance.            Greville Memoirs vol 1 p 228-229 30 December 1828 comments on the stir it caused and denies that the change in wording affected the sense.

Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports:

The three previous Lords Warden were Lord North, Pitt and Liverpool. Liverpool did not become Prime Minister on Pitt’s death, so Wellington was slightly incorrect, but George III had hoped he might.

When Pitt (in 1792) and Liverpool (in 1806) received it, it was a sinecure worth £3,000 p.a. and in both cases this was a significant factor in the King’s choice of recipient: and neither Pitt nor Liverpool asked for it (Ehrman The Younger Pitt vol 2 p 189-90, Gash Lord Liverpool p 67). The government gave up the salary as part of the postwar cut to sinecures c1817: Gash Lord Liverpool p 131-2.

Wellington at Walmer:

In July 1829 Mrs Arbuthnot visited it (possibly for the first time at all) and wrote ‘It certainly is the most charming marine chateau that ever was, close upon the sea, the Downs constantly full of shipping coming in and going out, and a very comfortable house with a beautiful pleasure ground & quite sheltered by plantation’. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 21 July 1829 vol 2 p 294).

Why did Wellington insist on such secrecy until the last moment?

He never fully explains but it is clear that he thought the success of the bill depended on it. He told Lord Camden,

The complaint is that nobody was informed; that all are taken by surprise; that I acted with duplicity, &c &c.

They forget that, if I had breathed a whisper to anybody, the factions of all colours would have set to work, and the plan would have been defeated. (Wellington to Camden 6 February 1829 WND vol 5 p 487-88).

Given the considerable public excitement and debate on the question this is a little hard to understand. Possibly Wellington thought that an open declaration of the government’s plans would have enabled the ultra opponents to mount a more effective campaign or to influence the King and possibly even to threaten the dismissal of the government. Or he may have feared that the resulting discussion would have inflamed tensions in Ireland; the remarks are too cryptic to bear much interpretation.

Richard Davis has argued, and others have accepted, that Wellington’s pledge to the King prevented Wellington from publicly announcing his intentions months before Parliament returned, and using the interlude to win support especially amongst Tories. However it seems clear that Wellington’s insistence on secrecy was unrelated to the pledge – see for example Arbuthnot to Bathurst 17 August 1828 HMC Bathurst p 655-6: Wellington ‘feels that all chance depends upon the very profoundest secrecy’. It is not hard to question his judgment on the point, although I doubt that it would have been wise to let the world know more than a few days before the meeting of Parliament, but there is little evidence that he wanted to spread the circle of those in the know sooner, but was constrained by his pledge to the King. Davis ‘The Tories, the Whigs and Catholic Emancipation’ p 90; Davis Wellington and the “Open Question” p 52-55; S. J. Connolly in New History of Ireland vol 5 p 104-5; Machin Catholic Question p 125 said that ‘the prolonged silence was dangerous’ but later changed his mind and said that ‘Wellington’s unhurried approach was probably fruitful’. (Machin, Canning, Wellington and the Catholic Question p 99). The example of the consultations with the Anglican bishops, where their initially conciliatory response hardened into more decided opposition when they had time to reflect and gauge the mood of the lesser clergy, show that there was no easy equivalence between discussion and support. Indeed the issue had been discussed for so long and all the arguments on both sides were so threadbare that little was to be gained by announcing the government’s intentions very far in advance; but more probably should have been done in the last few days – only Wellington was simply too busy, and delegating it would have been counter-productive, as the main purpose was to soothe the pride of Tory lords offended that they had not been consulted sooner. Wellington gave Croker another explanation in February 1829: ‘People, I hear, complain most of the surprise; but how could I tell them what I did not know myself? how could I speak to any man till I was in possession of the King’s final determination?’ (Croker diary 10 February 1829 Croker Papers vol 2 p 11). But that is just an excuse – Wellington was convinced it was to his benefit to keep it secret.

When the Whig Government introduced the Reform Bill in March 1831 it did exactly the same, keeping it closely secret and astonishing its opponents by the scale of the changes it proposed (Brock Great Reform Bill p 155-161 – he concludes that despite disadvantages the Cabinet was right to maintain secrecy).   The same is equally true of Peel’s great budget of 1842 and of the terms on which he would repeal the Corn Laws in 1846, and in the latter case many of the same criticisms – that the lack of prior consultation increased the hostility the measure provoked – can be made.   In none of these later occasions was their any issue of needing to obtain the King’s consent to discuss the subject, and the secrecy was a deliberate choice made on tactical grounds.

Why did Peel change his mind and agree to stay in office?

Norman Gash (Mr Secretary Peel p 546) says that Peel decided on 12 January ‘immediately after the discussions with the bishops’ in which they declared their opposition; and that he did so because Wellington was beginning to despair and Peel accepted that his remaining in office might be essential to success.

This seems broadly correct, but there are some quibbles: Wellington (and presumably Peel) knew that the bishops would not support him as early as 27 December (see main text and also the Bishop of Oxford to Peel 1 January 1829 Peel Memoirs vol 1 p 277-8 which reports the same thing), so the declaration was not an immediate impulse. Nor is there much evidence that Wellington ever came anywhere near despair: he grumbled that he was sick of the demands of his work (same letter) but that is very far from the same. He did, and always had, put a very high value on Peel remaining in office, and by mid January the time had finally come for Peel to stop prevaricating and make a decision, but the circumstances were not very different from those which might have been foreseen since at least the previous August.

Gash (Mr Secretary Peel p 546-7) also tells an odd story of the King challenging Peel to remain in office and this making Peel’s decision easier – some exchange like this may well have taken place, but by then Peel had already committed himself.

(Gash’s argument that Peel’s fear that Wellington was despairing is based on Peel Memoirs vol 1 p 279 and I think Peel is stretching things to justify his volte-face, although Wellington may also have emphasised the difficulties he would face in order to add to the pressure on Peel to stay).

Peel’s resignation as MP for Oxford University:

Croker, who strongly supported Catholic Emancipation, disapproved of Peel’s resignation as ‘a democratical and unconstitutional proceeding, and a precedent dangerous to the independence of the House of Commons’. (Croker diary 31 January 1829 Croker Papers vol 2 p 7).

Terms of the Government’s Plan:

The government’s final plan for Emancipation included far fewer safeguards that Wellington’s August scheme (or his original idea of 1825). This made it more likely to appeal to Catholics and liberals – more likely to succeed in the Commons and in Ireland – but also more likely to alienate anti-Catholics and embitter the split in the Tory party. It seems unlikely that such political calculations played much part in shaping the policy: ministers took differing views on the best form the settlement could take, not on what would be most politically advantageous (or rather least politically disadvantageous, for they must all have recognized that it was political poison).

But the lack of significant safeguards other than the disenfranchisement of the forty shilling freeholders, which could almost be taken for granted after O’Connell had accepted it in 1825, helps explain the strength of the Tory reaction, and undermines Wellington’s and Peel’s argument that if they did not introduce it, a less sympathetic government would do so without protecting the interests of the Anglican Establishment. Many High Tories might well have felt that they could extract at least as good if not better terms of surrender from a Whig government and sleep sound in their bed at night knowing that they had obeyed their conscience and fought for what they believed in. (Wellington stressed the importance of adequate safeguards in his speech of 10 June 1828 – see above – and Peel told the King on 12 January 1829 that an unsuccessful attempt to form a purely Protestant government would lead to wholesale concession by its successor). Ellenborough Political Diary vol 1 p 315-17 gives reasons for not having safeguards – mostly fears perpetuating grievances and making martyrs.

The King’s Approval:

Ellenborough does record a scene on 28 January 1829 which is important as it proves that he certainly did know the extent of the concessions proposed:

The King agrees to the words proposed for his speech; but he seemed very reluctant when the Duke mentioned that the Catholics were to be excluded from judicial offices connected with the Church. The King said, “What, do you mean a Catholic to hold any judicial office? To be a Judge of the King’s Bench?”

When seats in Parliament were mentioned, he said, “Damn it, you mean to let them into Parliament?” (Ellenborough Political Diary 28 January 1829 vol 1 p 325).

See also Greville Memoirs vol 1 p 235 12 January 1829 Mount Charles on the King’s violence on the subject.

Lord Francis Leveson Gower’s recipe for a good Lord Lieutenant:

      For God’s sake send some one here who can drive straight into the Castle & open his purse, & if possible let him have a pretty daughter or other relation. The Duke [of Wellington] knows this country well enough to know the difference between party popularity, & Dublin popularity. The last, which emanates from the poplin shops &c is indispensable to a Ld. Lieutt. & more so ever at this moment’. (Leveson Gower to Charles Arbuthnot 3 January 1829 Correspondence of Charles Arbuthnot p 113).

Northumberland’s appointment:

‘Everybody thinks the appointment of the D. of Northumberland a very good one, and that the Duke is in great luck to get him. It is surprising that he should have consented to go, but he probably likes to do something and display his magnificence. He is a very good sort of man, with a very narrow understanding, an eternal talker, and prodigious bore. The D[uche]ss is a more sensible woman, and amiable and good-humoured. He is supposed to be ruled in all things by her advice; he has no political opinions, and though he has hitherto voted against the Catholicks, he is one of the people who pin their faith on the Duke, and who are ready to vote in any way and upon anything as he may please to desire them.’ (Greville Memoirs 25 January 1829 vol 1 p 241-242).   In 1842 Greville described him as ‘the dullest of Bores’ (Greville Memoirs 23 March 1842 vol 5 p 20).

Norman Gash says, ‘the new Lord Lieutenant was something more than a magnificent figurehead, and despite the somewhat fortuitous circumstances of his appointment his conduct of business soon began to stamp him as perhaps the best Viceroy Ireland had seen since the Union’. (Gash Mr Secretary Peel p 603-4).

The Opening of Parliament:

Edward Littleton recorded the scene in his diary

     This day at 2 o’clock I went down to the House to see the ceremony of opening the Session, and to hear the Speech from the Throne. The known intention of the Government to recommend the Repeal if the Penal Laws affecting the Roman Catholics had drawn together a larger assemblage than usual in the House of Commons. But there was no more mob about the doors in Palace Yard than always attends on the same occasion; probably not a thousand people. The crushing of the Members following the Speaker from the House of Commons to the Bar of the House of Lords was horrible. I got a front place. Lo! There were not ten Lords present besides the Commissioners, and fewer ladies than I ever saw. The cunning Chancellor, who is well known to be anything but a bigot, affected to read that part of the Royal Speech which referred to the Catholic Question with intense feeling: he almost cried lest he should be suspected of having given way easily. The Duke of Norfolk, who had been obliged to attend officially, was cheered by the people as he re-entered his carriage, so little do the people really fear a settlement of the question. (‘Extracts from Lord Hatherton’s Diary’ edited by A. Aspinall Parliamentary Affairs vol 17 p 21-22. See also Machin Catholic Question p 162-3 and Ellenborough 5 February 1829 vol 1 p 336-7).

General Reaction to King’s Speech &c:

      ‘The general opinion seems to be that the Duke has managed the matter extremely well, which I am disposed to think too, but there is always a disposition to heap praise upon him whenever it is possible. Nobody yet knows who are converted and who not; they talk of nine Bishops, and I think he will have them all, and I expect a very great majority in the House of L[or]ds’. (Greville Memoirs 5 February 1829 vol 1 p 247).

   ‘Now, then, the Duke is all-powerful, and of course he will get all the honour of the day. Not that he does not deserve a great deal for having made up his mind to the thing; he has managed it with firmness, prudence, and dexterity; but to O’Connell and the Association, and those who have fought the battle on both sides of the water, the success of the measure is due’. (ibid 6 February 1829 p 249).

Reaction to Peel’s decision:

On 2 February Croker wrote to Lord Hertford, ‘People in the streets say that they cannot believe this as long as Peel remains in office, and those who do not love him talk very harshly of him in the supposition of his consenting to stay after, they say, the reiterated pledges he has given to the contrary: but he will stay … You can have no idea what a hubbub it has made, and it will be ten times greater when it is known, as it will be tomorrow, that P. consents … I should not like to write to you know folks talk of his supposed conversion …’ (Croker Papers vol 2 p 12).

Tory lords hurt and annoyed at lack of consultation:

On 8 February 1829 the Duke of Rutland told Mrs Arbuthnot,

I need not tell you the high admiration which I have of the Duke of Wellington’s principles and talents. There exists not a mind, the mechanism of which is more completely after my own heart’s content. But I guess that even he would not say more in favour of the intended measure relating to the Catholicks than that it is in his opinion the lesser or two great evils.

You have been aware of what was going on & intended for six months past, as you told me yourself. You have been able therefore by gradations to make up your mind to the necessity of the proposed measure. But I had no conception that such a measure was in contemplation, and that the state of affairs precluded the possibility of any other measure more consonant with a Protestant spirit until I arrived in London on Thursday night. Would you not then consider me guilty of rather too much laxity of conviction if I was at once, and without even knowing the details of the measures to be brought forward, profess my readiness to support that which I have always deprecated to the utmost extent of my power?   I am wretched at having caused the Duke the trouble & loss of time which his long & most admirable letter to me (written yesterday) must have occasioned to him … I have been writing to him by this post, and I have told him that I shall adopt no course hastily & inconsiderately – and this is a truth which I am quite ready to repeat to you.   But in common with many other zealous and solicitous Protestants, I am placed in a situation of great perplexity. I am quite certain that the greatest calamity which the country could experience would be the abandonment of his office by the Duke, for I know it would be impossible to expect any other than an exclusively Whig Government in that case, and the evils which I anticipate from Catholick concession, would be so much the greater, because the concession would be unaccompanied with those safeguards which I trust will be a feature of the measure now in contemplation. (Duke of Rutland to Mrs Arbuthnot, 8 February 1829 Correspondence of Charles Arbuthont p 114).

On the same day Greville noted that, ‘it is clear that many of the Great Tories are deeply offended that the Duke was not more communicative to them, principally, it seems, because they have continued to talk in an opposite sense and in their old strain up to the last moment, thereby committing themselves, and thus becoming ridiculous by the sudden turn they are obliged to make.’ (Greville Memoirs 8 February 1829 vol 1 p 251).

However a few weeks later Greville wrote that ‘Tierney talked of the Duke’s management of this business with great admiration, as did Lord Durham last night in the same strain; but after all what was it but the resolution of secrecy (which I think was a most wise and judicious one) for he did nothing but keep the secret. However, the thing has been well imagined and well executed.’ (Greville Memoirs 19 March 1829 vol 1 p 275).

Wellington and support for the Bill in the Lords:

On 9 February Wellington told Greville that he had no doubt they would do well in the Lords, but at that point he had only enough votes to reduce the majority against the measure the previous year to twenty. (Greville Memoirs 9 February 1829 vol 1 p 252).

Cumberland’s Return:

‘The Duke of Cumberland arrived in town last night and went to Windsor early this morning. He must have passed or have missed Knighton on the road. Peel and the Duke are now rather glad he is come. They say his arrival will frighten the Whigs, and make them quiet about the 40s freeholders’ Disenfranchisement Bill. However, I think this view of things proceeds from the Duke’s disposition to see all events on beau. I wish he had not come, or was gone’. (Ellenborough Political Diary 15 February 1829 vol 1 p 347).

The King’s change of heart:

A few days later Ellenborough records some details of what happened after the three ministers left Windsor – this coming from Wellington who had it from Knighton,

               It seems the palace was in rebellion after the three Ministers had left the King on Wednesday. Knighton, finding they were gone, went into the room and found the King lying on the sofa. The King began to tell what had passed. Knighton accompanied him to his room, and guessing the purport of the communication, thought he had better get what had passed from the Ministers than from the King. Accordingly he went to them as the Duke mentioned on Wednesday. He returned to the King. The Conynghams went to him too. They all told if he put his breaking off upon his oath, as he intended to do, he would be unable to retract, and would be ruined. He hesitated some time, but at half-past 9 wrote the letter he sent to the Duke, and which he dated 8 o’clock. The Duke’s answer he received in bed on Thursday morning, and replied to it without any communication with any one, and without keeping a copy.

               After all the excitement of the interview, and of the family insurrection which followed, he eat [sic] a good dinner, not sitting down to it till 10 o’clock, and was as gay as ever. (Ellenborough Political Diary 9 March 1829 vol 2 p 384-5).

The King’s letter read:

My dear Friend,

               As I find the country would be left without an administration, I have decided to yield my opinion to that which is considered by the Cabinet to be for the immediate interests of the country. Under the circumstances you have my consent to proceed as you propose with the measure. God knows what pain it costs me to write these words

                                                                                                                                                          G. R.

(The King to Wellington, Windsor Castle, 8 pm 4 and 9 Mach 1829 vol 2 p 376-8, 384, and Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 4 March 1829 vol 2 p 246-9. Ellenborough’s statement that the letter, although dated 8 pm, was actually written at 9:30 seems confirmed by it not reaching Wellington until after he returned home having seen the cabinet and called on the Arbuthnots).

Peel was not quite satisfied with this, and so Wellington replied at midnight asking for a more explicit statement of support which duly reached London on the morning of 5 March, and which enabled Peel to introduce the bill that evening with an unequivocal assertion that he acted in the King’s name and with his full concurrence and support. (Wellington to the King and rely 4 and 5 March 1829 WND vol 5 p 518; Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 4 March 1829 vol 2 p 248-9; Peel Memoirs vol 1 p 349-50; Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 20 col 727-780 opp 728).

Attitudes to the King:

Greville had no sympathy for any opponent of Emancipation, but even so his comment is interesting: ‘His dislike to it is the opposition of a spoilt child, founded on considerations purely personal and selfish and without any reason whatever’. (Greville Memoirs 26 March 1829 vol 1 p 281).

Yet Croker, an equally strong advocate for Catholic Emancipation wrote, ‘He is, I have no doubt, sincerely distressed: he told me in 1820 that he was as good a Brunswicker (the first time I think I ever heard the word) as his father’. (Croker diary 4 March 1829 Croker Papers vol 2 p 15).

Commons Debate of 5 March 1829:

Gash Mr Secretary Peel p 570-6 gives a full account of Peel’s speech. Among those who spoke against the measure was Sir Robert Inglis, the new member for Oxford University, who attacked Wellington:

The noble duke, unrivalled as he is, and, above all men successful in directing the energies of brute force, has never learnt to calculate the powers and the resistance of opinion. He is not aware of the rising – still rising – force of public opinion, which he had arrayed himself, when he recommended to the Crown measures hostile alike to the principles of the constitution, and to the wishes and feelings and sentiments of an immense majority of the people of England. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 20 col 792).

This was a curiously liberal line of attack and similar words would often come from Wellington’s radical critics. Sir George Murray responded with an excellent speech, strongly defending the army where differences had no place. (Parliamentary Debates n. s. vol 20 col 797). Mrs Arbuthnot said Murray spoke ‘beautifully’ and Englis [sic] ‘made so bad a [speech] as must have, I think, somewhat disconcerted his new constituents’, (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 8 March 1829 vol 2 p 249-50) See also the account of the exchange in Broughton Recollection of a Long Life vol 3 p 309 diary entry for 5 March 1829.

No Popery propaganda in the provinces:

Mr Denison told Parliament on 9 March

      After the debate of Friday, he had had occasion to go into the country, and had found that Surrey, by a country meeting, was about to set an example to others, and thus to attempt to intimidate the duke of Wellington and the Home Secretary. In the neighbourhood of the town where the meeting was to be held a number of most inflammatory hand-bills were in the course of distribution. He did not object to the convening of such an assembly; for if the matter were stated fairly, he had no doubt of the result. But, what would the House think of the placard in his possession? Would they consider it an appeal to the good sense and justice of the people? It was entitled “Queen Mary’s Days,” and it was ornamented with nine prints, exhibiting the tortures and burnings in Smithfield and elsewhere in her reign. But the most important circumstance was, the source from whence it emanated. His friends round him, and the right hon. supporters of the measure opposite, could have no notion from whence it came: perhaps the enemies of concession and the hon. baronet, the member for Oxford, might have some faint idea upon the subject, but they would doubtless exclaim, “non tali auxilio.” At the bottom of the placard were the following words: – “Price two-pence. Printed for the Religious Tract Society, in Paternoster-row.” So that this publication came from an Association whose motto ought to be, “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you.” It must, indeed, be a bad cause, that required defenders, who appealed not to the intelligence of the country, but to the worst passions of the multitude. (Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 20 col 907).

Croker and Wellington’s maiden speech in 1793:

Croker diaries 10 March 1829: ‘I called on the Duke of Wellington to show him an extract from the first speech he ever made in Parliament on seconding the address in 1793, and supporting the Catholic concession of that day. He seemed to have totally forgotten it, and Peel, to whom I showed it last night, had never seen it. As it supports the Duke’s present course, and justifies his consistency, I mean to read it if I get a fit occasion in the course of these debates, and did not like to do so without apprising the Duke’. (Croker Papers vol 2 p 11-12).

Subsequent debates in the Commons:

The Bill continued to make steady progress through the Commons. The Second Reading debate took place over two nights, 17 and 18 March and included effective speeches by two opponents of the Bill, Sir Edward Knatchbull and M. T. Sadler which led Lord Holland to conclude that for the first time the High Tories had won the debate. Not that this affected the vote where the government had a majority of 180. Several junior ministers voted against the government in the division leading to an expectation that Wellington would require their resignation. He refused to do so, having some sympathy for the difficult position in which they had been placed, and being convinced that it would be easier to reunite the Tory party after the bill was passed if he overlooked their votes now. However the Attorney–General, Sir Charles Wetherall, made such a vehement and personal attack on the ministers that it could not be disregarded, and he was dismissed. (Wellington to Wetherell 22 March 1829 WND vol 5 p 547-8; see also Wetherell to Wellington 23 February 1829 ibid p 508; Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 8 and 10 March 1829 vol 2 p 250-1 on Wellington’s reasons; Machin Catholic Question p 173-4 on other aspects of the debate including Lord Holland’s comments).

Wetherall’s speech was just one of many examples of the passion and personal feeling which ran through the controversy and all the related debates which took place in Parliament throughout February and March.

Lord Winchilsea:

George William (Finch-Hatton) born 19 May 1791, educ. Westminster and Cambridge married a daughter of the Duke of Montrose. Lord Selbourne described him as ‘a man of frank, kindly, and generous character, but not wise’ (quoted in the entry on him in the Complete Peerage). And Lady Holland, who had no sympathy for his views, described him as ‘not a very able man, but … honest, frank & truly zealous in what he thinks the duty of a true Protestant. I like him personally for his warmth & sincerity’. (Lady Holland to Her So 14 February [1829] Letters p 96-97).

Remarkably he was related, or connected through marriage, to both Wellington and to Jane Austen. His second marriage, in 1837, was to Emily Bagot (whose father was Sir Charles Bagot and whose mother was Wellington’s niece Mary daughter of William Wellesley-Pole). And his third wife, in 1849, was to Fanny Rice whose mother Elizabeth was the daughter of Edward Knight formerly Austen of Godmersham Park. (All this from Complete Peerage).

Winchilsea’s attack on Wellington in Parliament, 10 March 1829:

Mrs Arbuthnot wrote, ‘Lord Winchilsea made a furious attack upon the Duke last night, called him despotic & arbitrary, said he had deceived the people, called upon him to dissolve Parliament and ended by moving for a return of all Catholic priests & monks in the united Empire. Ld Winchilsea always speaks in the House of Lords as if he was shouting to a mob on a windy day upon Penenden Heath. I never heard such a voice in my life. I went last night & he had begun before I got there, and we actually heard him in the lobbies’. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 11 March 1829 vol 2 p 252).

Wellington and duels in the Army:

It is commonly said, including by Oman (Wellington’s Army p 201-2) and Fortescue that Wellington actively discouraged dueling in the army in the Peninsula. This is probably true, at least that he disapproved of such duels and expressed this view, but it appears to be impossible to find documentary evidence of this, at least in the General Orders and Dispatches.

In 1847 he told a friend, ‘I believe that I have done more to put an end to duelling than anybody. I very lately interfered in a case [in] which I forced all parties to apologize; to be reconciled; and I sent all to do their duty. And I have more than once interfered in a similar manner. But of course such interference must be founded on the Authority I hold by virtue of my Commission [as Commander-in-Chief]; and I must be regularly informed in a case before I can interfere.’ (Wellington to Angela Burdett-Coutts, 26 August 1847 Wellington and His Friends p 248-9).

Wellington’s challenge:

It is curious that Wellington challenged Winchilsea, when throughout his career he had been subjected to a great deal of abuse from his political opponents without resorting to dueling. Most obviously, he said that he would have liked to sue Lord Holland for libel over his remarks concerning the execution of Marshal Ney, but he does not appear to have contemplated calling him out. The one occasion where he even hinted at such action was in 1809 when he took umbrage at some remarks made by Samuel Whitbread, and wrote to a mutual friend demanding an apology in terms which might have led to a meeting if Whitbread and the friend (Ronald Ferguson) had not shown commendable restraint and good sense (see Wellington: the Path to Victory p 316-7 and associated Commentary).

Reaction to the Duel:

Lady Shelley told Wellington that her husband thought that ‘no man except yourself, whose life belongs to your country, could be justified in not calling Lord Winchilsea to account’, and that the correspondence ‘does so much honour to your temper and magnanimity on that trying occasion’ (Lady Shelley to Wellington 22 March 1829 Diary of Lady Shelley vol 2 187-88). While Creevey, writing to his step-daughter was less carefully measured: ‘Well, so the Beau has had My Lord Winchilsea out, and very nearly done him too. His ball went through my Lord’s coat, it is said. Never Puppy more richly deserved it than Ld Winchilsea …’ (Creevey to Miss Ord 22 March 1829 Creevey Life and Times p 302-303).

And the Morning Chronicle brusquely disposed of one possible line of criticism, ‘A Minister is, therefore, bound to guide himself by the rules which any other Gentleman ought to be guided’. (Morning Chronicle 23 March 1829).

Thackeray gives a rare exception to the general consensus writing in his journal of 29 March 1829 ‘Lord Winchilsea is quite a young man. He succeeded to the title lately unexpectedly – I wish he had legged “The Duke” – at the Battle of Battersea’. (Letters and Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray edited by Gordon N. Ray vol 1 p 50). But Thackeray was very young – not yet eighteeen – and had no reason to be serious.

Wellington appreciates political benefits of the duel:

A month later Wellington reflected on the duel in a letter to the Duke of Buckingham.

The truth is that the duel with Lord Winchilsea 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 so 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 or 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 …

In this state of things Lord Winchilsea 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 reporting what had been told to 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 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. (Wellington to Buckingham, London, 21 April 1829 WND vol 5 p 585-6).

This post-facto explanation of the duel is probably a little misleading: at the time Wellington was more irritated by the abuse and less cynically calculating than this suggests; but the duel did have considerable political benefits and cost the High Tories sympathy, support and momentum. Nonetheless they continued to fight the Bill every step of its way through Parliament.

Progress of the Bill through Parliament:

The Commons considered the details of the Bill in committee between 23 and 27 March, with the government resisting hostile amendments but introducing a few small changes of its own. The Bill the passed its Third Reading on 30 March by 320 votes to 142, a majority of 178. It was sent straight to the Lords, and it was here that the High Tories had their best chance of making an effective opposition. One of them, Lord Mansfield, told Mrs Arbuthnot that they hoped to run the government close and to reduce its majority to as little as five, although the ministers calculated on a margin of over fifty (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 27 March 1829 vol 2 p 258-9). The King was also growing restive again, receiving many High Tories at court and complaining about his ministers. This culminated on 28 March when he had a four hour interview with Lord Eldon and, at least according to a report which reached Wellington, said ‘that he had been forced & driven by his Minister, that he detested the measure & wd have resisted it if it had been possible’. Wellington was furious: it was too late for such talk to threaten the passage of the bill, but it would make it much harder to reunite the Tory party afterwards. ‘He said he did not believe the King meant to get rid of him, but his object is to make people believe that he is as Protestant as his father & brother were’. Fortunately Eldon had too much experience of the King’s indiscretions to take them too seriously, and told him plainly that ‘all opposition to the Bill was quite fruitless, that it must and would pass, and that they must make the best of it & the King must make up his mind to it’. (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 29 March 1829 vol 2 p 261 see also entry for 31 March p 262. Newcastle mistakenly believed that the King had commissioned Eldon to form a government and was hurt at not being included in the inner councils of the non-existent new administration Newcastle Unrepentant Tory 26 March 1829 p 84).

Expected size of Government’s Majority in the Lords:

In February Ellenborough wrote in his diary, ‘I met Rosslyn and talked to him about the numbers for and against in our House. He is much too sanguine. He expects 60 majority. Lord Grey expects 50. I shall be glad if we have 30’. (Ellenborough Political Diary 15 February 1829 vol 1 p 347).

Haydon’s comment on the mutability of constitutions:

The artist Benjamin Robert Haydon commented in his diary:

What a fuss there is about breaking in on the Constitution of 1688, as if the Constitution was the work of one period or one year. The Constitution is the result of successive convictions according to the necessity or enlightenment of each particular time.

At one time it was constitutional to enact penal laws. Now it is constitutional to abolish them. It was as much an infringement to make them as to abolish them. But one period required them, the other did not. (Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon 20 March 1829 vol 3 p 349).

Catholic Emancipation and the problems of Ireland:

For more than a generation the proponents of Catholic Emancipation had advocated it as the solution for all Ireland’s problems, but the passage of the bill did not inaugurate an era of peace and tranquility even in the short term. The Irish protestants felt betrayed, anxious and surly so that they were in no mood for conciliation, while the Catholics were emboldened by their success and took from it then lesson that threats and intimidation were more successful than either calm reasoning or outright violence. Trouble naturally flared on 12 July when many Protestants celebrated their domination of the country and particularly the defeat of James II and the Catholics in the wake of the Glorious Revolution at the Battle of the Boyne. More seriously O’Connell and other Catholic leaders unveiled a whole programme of new demands including repeal of the Action of Union with Britain, dis-establishing the Anglican Church of Ireland and plundering its assets, and made clear their affinity with British radicals who were already demanding the wholesale reform of Parliament. Nor were O’Connell’s followers satisfied with their success: indeed most of them gained no benefit whatever from the changes, and many were deprived of one of their few marketable assets: their vote in the election for which they had traditionally been well recompensed by their landlords. There was a resurgence of rural conflict and agrarian crime in Ireland beginning in the summer of 1829 and increasing steadily so that by the spring of 1830 a large part of the country was seriously disturbed. (S. J. Connolly in Moody et al The New History of Ireland vol 5 p 106-7).

Supporters of Catholic Emancipation at the time and since have explained its failure to pacify Ireland by blaming the long delay and grudging manner in which it was granted: if only it had been conceded at the time the Act of Union was passed the Irish population would have been reconciled to its place in the United Kingdom and renewed its loyalty to the House of Hanover. (See for example Bartlett Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation p 346-7 who does valuable service in highlighting the surprisingly strong current of Catholic loyalism in the second half of the Eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries). This can hardly be disproved, however it seems more likely that popular discontent arising deeply entrenched social and economic grievances married to a political culture of endemic rural violence would have provided fertile ground for agitation and exploitation by ambitious demagogues whatever policies had been pursued by the British government. The Irish economy was not stagnant in the early nineteenth century and parts of it showed remarkable growth and vitality; but overall it could not keep pace with the rapid increase in population resulting in increasing poverty and dangerous dependence on small potato plots. Absentee landlords and the extraction of capital in the form of rents repatriated to England rather than invested in productive enterprises in Ireland was only a relatively small part of the problem, despite its symbolic significance. Ireland lacked the resources, geographical advantages and commercial infrastructure that facilitated the rapid growth of the manufacturing industry in Britain at this time, but her agriculture was well placed to benefit from the demand of the new or much enlarged cities such as Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. But while English agriculture was dominated by prosperous, well-capitalized tenant farmers, Irish farming was distorted by the super-abundance of cheap labor, shortage of capital and inadequate infrastructure. Neglectful landlords were a problem, but so were enthusiastic ‘enlightened’ landlords such as Palmerston, who paid occasional well-meaning visits to their estates, and on the basis of this superficial acquaintance and a Cambridge education, embarked on expensive investments in harbours or other favorite projects which diverted capital from much more useful if less showy improvements. Meanwhile the British liberals and radicals, to whom O’Connell cheerfully allied himself, campaigned for the abolition of the Corn Laws and other tariffs on the import of food, so as to lower the cost of living for the urban poor in Britain. This exposed Irish agriculture to the full force of competition from much more efficient producers in the Baltic and North America and so, inadvertently, helped to ensure that Ireland remained poor and discontented. Wellington’s government solved the Catholic Question in 1829, but without missing a beat or skipping a line its place on stage was taken by the Irish Question. The actors and many of the arguments and speeches remained unchanged, and this new production was to enjoy an even longer run bring a recurring favourite in the repertoire of British politics for very nearly a century. (See Cormac ó Gráda ‘Poverty, Population and Agriculture 1801 – 1845’ in A New History of Ireland vol 5 Ireland Under the Union I 1801 – 1870 edited by W. E. Vaughan (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989) especially p 118-133. For Palmerston’s improvement in Ireland see Letters to the Sulivans p 218-19 (including editor’s footnote) and Bourne Palmerston p 258).

Wellington and Peel recognize that Emancipation will do little to solve Ireland’s problems:

In his Memorandum of 1 August 1829 Wellington expressed doubts whether Emancipation would quieten Ireland, but felt that it was essential to gain support in the Commons. In reply Peel said that he did not believe that the concession could be made without risk or that it would bring the promised advantage, but they were facing a choice of evils.

Catholic Emancipation and British politics:

Catholic Emancipation was not a small step: it touched the fundamentals of the British state. Protestant ideology since the middle of the sixteenth century had equated freedom – both political freedom and freedom of conscience – with protestantism, and Catholicism with oppression and lack of both political and religious freedom. This view of the world had triumphed with the Glorious Revolution, and in the contrast between Parliamentary rule under the House of Hanover and tyranny as represented by Bloody Mary, James II and Louis XIV. In the proud boast of being ‘a freeborn protestant Englishman’ the ‘protestant’ was partly political, and the freedom was religious as well as civic. This was not simply or even primarily the ideology of the governing class: popular anti-Catholicism was a vibrant force in Britain in the eighteenth century, sometimes erupting into violence, most spectacularly in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and it persisted throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. Among the ruling class however it began to lose its force as early as the middle of the eighteenth century as cosmopolitanism, the enlightenment and civility became the fashionable virtues, and religious fervor was left to the hoi polloi and the followers of John Wesley. Naturally there were numerous exceptions among individuals, but the culture of elite politics – as practiced in Parliament if not on the hustings – became increasingly secular, so that by the early nineteenth century it was unusual and almost disreputable for a politician to appeal to the Protestant feeling of his electors even when facing an opponent who favoured Catholic Emancipation. Even in the debates over Emancipation many opponents of concession felt obliged to go out of their way to explain that their opposition was not on narrowly religious grounds – that Catholics believed in transubstantiation or purgatory – but out of the political doctrines which grew out of the subordination of their conscience to the teaching of the Church. (For example Wellington 10 June 1828 Parliamentary Debates n.s. vol 19 col 1287-88).

Mary High Tories could not accept this: they viewed Emancipation not as a pragmatic question of policy, of balancing pros and cons, and devising safeguards, but as one of right and wrong, which called into question the fountainhead of authority in the state. A pamphlet, published in 1828, makes the case:

The total and unqualified repeal, therefore, of all tests of Christianity in the office-bearers of the state implies, and does effect, the separation of the church from the state, and of religious from political duty; and thereby inculcates, that kingly government is a matter of contrivance, and of human expediency, with which divine obligation has no concern. Hence, too, the false opinion is sanctioned, that the people, and not God, are the source of legitimate power; that power is delegated from the people to their rulers, and consequently may be resumed by the people, whenever the people shall deem such resumption to be for their benefit; whereas the true foundation of this, and of every Christian monarchy, rests upon the principle, that “the powers which be, are ordained by God”, and that, therefore, “whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; for the king beareth upon him that doeth evil”; that the king is Christ’s viceregent, and delegate of Him, who is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the ONLY ruler of princes, the representative of Him in His kingly office, even as the Church is the representative of Him in His priestly office. ([Henry Drummond] A Letter to the King, against the Repeal of the Test Act. By a Tory of the Old School (London, 1828) quoted in J. C. D. Clark English Society, 1688-1832 p 351. Although written in the context of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, this is equally or even more relevant to Catholic Emancipation).

Many liberals and most radicals would have agreed with much of this reasoning while coming to the opposite conclusion: for them it was axiomatic that legitimate power was indeed derived from the people not from God, and this is turn helped justify their campaign for the reform of Parliament. Most other MPs would still have balked at accepting such a view if stated explicitly, but 1829 marks a significant moment, perhaps the single most significant moment, in the long gradual shift in unspoken assumptions about the basis of the British state.






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© Rory Muir

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