Catholic emancipation (which is sometimes called Catholic relief) was both a political and religious process which took place in Britain and Ireland during the nineteenth century. Predominantly the act aimed at reducing and removing many of the restrictions placed upon Catholics. This act was an ‘undoing’ of the Act of Uniformity which came in as early as 1564, and insisted upon things such as the Common Book of Prayer. Tied up with monarchical and papal politics, the complex issues surrounding Catholicism went back to at least 1766 and the death of James II’s son when the papacy recognising the Hannoverian dynasty as lawful rulers. The laws which restricted Catholics started to dissolve from here on, ending up in the Catholic emancipation (Roman Catholic Relief Act) of 1829, and the Reform Act of 1832.

Charles Williams, Terrors of Emancipation – or – A Bugabo for Old Women and Children (published by John Chappell. 1829).

The ‘Papists Act’ was passed in 1778; subject to an oath renouncing Stuart claims to the throne and the civil jurisdiction of the Pope, it allowed Roman Catholics to own property, to inherit land, and to join the army. Reaction against this led to riots in 1779 and 1780 before a further act allowed Catholic schools and bishops. The change to land and voting rights meant that Catholics began to infiltrate many areas they had been excluded from, particularly within legal, military, and academic institutions.

Thomas McLean, Funeral of the Constitution (March, 1829).

After political progress and pressure was made in Ireland, the public opinion of Britain seemed to shift. The press and the public began to impact the State, where all but one person supported the Emancipation. The House of Lords continued to exercise belligerence, perhaps in part because of King George IV’s opposition. In 1828, the Sacramental Test Act meant that public officials did not have to be members of the Established Church (thereby able to be Catholic)> The following year Wellington and Peel changed their position and the Catholic Emancipation act was passed. The major beneficiaries were the Catholic middle classes, whose career prospects were now significantly improved.

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