Catholics and the Stuarts
The discovery of Catholic involvement in an alleged plot in 1722 to restore the Stuarts to the British throne led to immediate legislation making Catholics pay what was known as a 'papists tax'.
Parliament also periodically received information about the numbers of Catholics holding public offices and living in certain areas of the country.
As the decades passed, however, Britain’s small but growing Catholic population ceased to be shunned by society, and most of the penalties imposed in the 16th and 17th centuries were no longer enforced.
The position of Catholics greatly improved as the threat of a Stuart restoration diminished after the mid-18th century.
Catholic Relief Acts
In 1778 Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act. Although it did not grant freedom of worship, it allowed Catholics to join the army and purchase land if they took an oath of allegiance.
The Act raised a storm of protest, however, and after a huge petition had been presented to the House of Commons, organised by Lord George Gordon, several days and nights of rioting erupted on London’s streets.
The Catholic Relief Act of 1791 was a much broader measure which gave Catholics freedom to worship. It also removed a wide range of other restrictions and allowed Catholics their own schools, to hold junior public offices, and to live in London.
The question of political rights for Catholics was driven largely by Irish politics after the Act of Union of 1800.
Although Catholics made up most of the Irish population, they were not allowed to become Members of Parliament.
In 1823 an Irish barrister, Daniel O’Connell, formed the Catholic Association which began a mass movement in Ireland demanding full public and political rights.
Great concern was felt at Westminster about the possible effects of Catholic emancipation but government fears that British rule in Ireland might otherwise break down persuaded MPs in 1829 to pass the Catholic Emancipation Act.
This landmark measure allowed Catholics to sit as MPs, vote in elections and hold most senior government offices.