As we celebrate Bonfire Night, it is worth reflecting on the anti-Catholicism still faced by Catholic MPs in the Victorian Commons, over two centuries years after Guy Fawkes’s failed attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605.
It may seem surprising to some that popular anti-Catholic sentiment continued to flourish in the decades after Catholic emancipation (1829). But although this major reform ended 151 years of Catholics being formally excluded from the Commons, it was not conceived out of a mood of religious toleration. Instead, it was primarily a tactical response to events in Ireland, where Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association had created an army of Catholic voters willing to do his bidding. By allowing Irish Catholics to sit as MPs, but at the same time severely restricting the number of Irish voters, the Tory government aimed to avert civil unrest in Ireland, whilst also dismantling O’Connell’s electoral powerbase.
For many staunch Anglicans the influx of a new breed of Irish Catholic MPs was a high price to pay for silencing O’Connell, who in any case soon began a new campaign for Ireland to leave the Union. For Irish Protestants, in particular, the presence of Irish Catholics was complete anathema, threatening both the position of the Irish Established Church and the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ of the Irish landed ruling elite. Furious clashes between these two groups, over virtually every aspect of Irish policy, helped infuse the Victorian Commons with an almost daily dose of sectarian conflict.
The curious position of English Catholics is often lost sight of in all of this, not least because of the way Irish affairs tended to dominate Victorian attitudes to Catholicism. But in many respects the prospect of English Catholic MPs sitting for English constituencies, at the heart of the Protestant nation, was even more of a threat to the Protestant constitution than Irish Catholic MPs representing predominantly Catholic constituencies. Where would the loyalties of such English Catholics lie, with their constituents or their creed?
These kinds of questions were never far away when Catholics stood for election in England, as some of our recently completed biographies have shown.
In 1832 Thomas Stonor of Stonor Park, whose ancestors were some of Oxfordshire’s most prominent recusants, became one of just five Catholic MPs to be returned for an English constituency at the general election. His election for Oxford was, as one commentator suggested, ‘extraordinary’ given the city’s well-known antipathy to Catholic emancipation. Speaking at his victory dinner, Stonor went out of his way to allay fears that he would ‘confederate with the Irish demagogues in their diabolical endeavours to revolutionize the kingdom’. He also looked forward to proving ‘that a Catholic was not necessarily an enemy to the establishment’. Stonor barely had time to take his seat, however, before he was unseated on petition for corrupt practices that were endemic in the city.
Stonor’s short-lived triumph in 1832 was unusual. The kind of reception more commonly encountered by Catholic candidates was amply demonstrated when he decided to stand for the county in 1837. Placards with ‘Will Oxfordshire add another joint to O’Connell’s tail?’, and ‘No farmers’ friend can vote for Stonor, the Papist’, set the tone for what became a highly charged campaign. After he was defeated at the bottom of the poll, the local Tory paper rejoiced that ‘Protestant feelings are triumphant in this county’.
The additional difficulties faced by English Catholic MPs (as opposed to their Irish counterparts) were perhaps nowhere better illustrated than when a sitting Anglican chose to convert. When John Simeon, Liberal MP for the Isle of Wight, adopted the Roman Catholic faith in 1851, he resigned his seat, believing that he had forfeited the electoral mandate given to him ‘whilst he was a member of the Anglican church’. When Edward Hutchins, Liberal MP for Lymington, refused to do the same after ‘embracing Rome’ five years later, he caused a political scandal. ‘Such conduct is an abuse of the representative principle’ since he ‘is no longer the same man’, protested one local paper. ‘That Mr Hutchins was returned to Parliament by Protestants, will scarcely be denied’, remarked another observer. ‘As a Romanist, then, he is in a false position and it behoves the constituency to call upon the recusant to resign’.
Given these kinds of sentiments in the English constituencies, one of the more surprising features to emerge from our ongoing work on the Victorian Commons is the intellectual attraction that Roman Catholicism was still able to exert over an entire generation of English MPs, many of whom, even if they didn’t convert, clearly came pretty close. The reasons for this will be explored in a follow up blog.
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