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Catholic Emancipation was a process in Great Britain and Ireland in the late 18th century and early 19th century which involved reducing and removing many of the restrictions on Roman Catholics which had been introduced by the Act of Uniformity and the Test Acts. Requirements to abjure the spiritual authority of the Pope and transubstantiation placed major burdens on Roman Catholics, though they did receive papal absolution to make false oaths in order to avoid these.
The first Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1778; subject to an oath against Stuart claims to the throne and the civil jurisdiction of the Pope, it allowed Roman Catholics in Great Britain to own property, inherit land, and join the army. Reaction against this led to the Gordon riots in 1780. Further relief was given in 1791. The Irish Parliament passed similar Acts between 1778 and 1793.
Since the electoral franchise at the time was largely determined by property, this relief gave votes both implicitly and explicitly to some Roman Catholics. They also started to gain access to many professions from which they had been excluded.
The issue of greater political emancipation was considered at the time of the 1800 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland: it was not included in the text of the Act because this could have led to greater Irish Protestant opposition to the Union, but it was expected to be a consequence given the proportionately small number of Roman Catholics in the UK as a whole. William Pitt the Younger, the Prime Minister, had promised Emancipation to accompany the Act. However, no further steps were taken at that stage, in part because of the belief of King George III that it could violate his Coronation Oath. Pitt resigned when King George's opposition became known, as he was unable to fulfill his pledge and did not wish to bring a renewed bout of madness in the King. Catholic Emancipation became a debating point rather than a major political issue.
In 1823, Daniel O'Connell started a campaign for repeal of the Act of Union, and took Catholic Emancipation as his rallying call, establishing the Catholic Association. In 1828 he stood for election in County Clare, and was elected even though he could not take his seat in the House of Commons. He repeated this in 1829, and the resulting commotion led the Duke of Wellington, against his previous judgement, to introduce and carry another major Catholic Relief Act in 1829, removing many of the remaining substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics in the UK. At the same time, the property franchise in Ireland was tightened, reducing the total number of voters (and thus voting Roman Catholics), though it was later loosened in successive Reform Acts.
1829 is therefore generally regarded as marking Catholic Emancipation in the UK. In fact many minor issues remained, and a succession of further reforms were introduced over time, leaving the Act of Settlement as one of the few provisions left which still appears to discriminate against Roman Catholics, and then only those who wish to be King, Queen, or Royal Consort.
Related Topics leading up to Catholic Emancipation
- Penal Laws:
- Catholic Relief Act 1778 and 1793
- Act of Union 1800
- Test Acts Repealed 1828
- Roman Catholic Emancipation Act 1829
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