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Catholic Relief Act (1791)

Royal Proclamation for the Suppression of the Gordon Riots

Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/7/616A

In 1778, leading Catholics, wishing to improve their reputation with the rest of the population, presented an address to George III (1760-1820) assuring him of their loyalty. In the same year, the Papists Act was passed, undoing some of the harsher Penal Laws. The public mood remained largely hostile, however, and a protest movement in favour of the Act's repeal, led by Lord Gordon (1751-93), gathered popular support. Stanhope, then a relatively new Member of Parliament, gained a reputation as a supporter of Catholic emancipation by opposing repeal. During the ensuing anti-Catholic riots, known as the Gordon riots, a large crowd tried to force its way into Parliament. Stanhope, it is said, “laboured to pacify the tempest” and convinced at least one group of rioters to return home. Stanhope paid a crucial role in “an incident which looms large in the history of English Catholicism”. (Stanhope, G. and Gooch, G. P., The Life of Charles, Third Earl Stanhope, 1914, p. 78.)

What happened after the Gordon riots?

In December 1788, Stanhope sent the text of a “Protestation and Declaration” to the Catholic Committee, formed in 1782 to press for further reform of the Penal Laws.  The Protestation, signed by many Catholic clerics and nobles, was incorporated into an oath of allegiance that was then inserted into a draft Bill presented to Parliament. Under this Bill, which became the Catholic Relief Act 1791, any Catholic who took the oath exempted themselves from certain Penal Laws. Most significantly, it also granted them freedom of worship.

How did Catholics respond to the oath of allegiance?

Despite signing the Protestation, many prominent Catholics signified their intention not to take the oath, which, most controversially, denied the Pope's political authority in terms so vague as to encompass his spiritual authority, which no true Catholic could ever deny. In In the end, the oath was replaced by an oath used in a 1774 Act granting freedom of religion to Catholics in Quebec, then a British colony.

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