catholic emancipation

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catholic emancipation was achieved by an Act of Parliament of 1829, enabling Roman catholics in Britain to participate fully in public life by abolishing the Test and Corporation Acts. It resulted from Daniel O'Connell's campaign to liberate the Irish majority from the political and economic domination of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. O'Connell's electoral success in the Co. Clare by-election convinced Wellington that, short of a standing army, there was no means of controlling Ireland, other than to accede to the demands of the majority. English catholics played little part in the campaign. Its effect in resolving the Irish question was only partial, but the impact on British constitutional and religious history was immense. By splitting the Tory Party, with the ultra Tories regarding the actions of Wellington and Peel in bringing in the measure as a gross betrayal, it prepared the way for the Whig victory of 1830 and for the decade of reform which followed.

The Act itself (10 Geo. IV c. 7), entitled An Act for the Relief of His Majesty's Roman Catholic Subjects, was carried against the strong opposition of the king and passed on 13 April 1829. It made provision for catholics to serve as members of lay corporations and (except catholic clergy) to sit in Parliament. Most crown offices were opened to catholics, save those of lord chancellor, keeper of the great seal, lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and high commissioner of the Church of Scotland. No catholic prelate was to assume a title used by the Church of England, clergy were not to wear clerical dress outside church, and an unenforced ban was placed on religious orders.

The Act overruled the assumption that Britain was de jure and de facto a protestant nation, though the Act of Settlement (1701) forbidding the monarch from being a catholic, or marrying a catholic, remained in force. But Parliament, henceforth open to both protestant and catholic dissenters, was no longer the political forum of the established church. Attempts by such a heterodox body to legislate for the Church of England were greeted with dismay by certain clerics. The unity of church and state, enshrined in the revolution settlement of 1689, had been shattered.

Judith Champ

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Catholic Emancipation

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