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Wellington and the “Open Question”: The Issue of Catholic Emancipation, 1821–1829


For all the recognition of the immense importance of Catholic Emancipation, both in itself and for what it is supposed to have led to (most notably, parliamentary reform), significant questions still surround it. Why, after Daniel O'Connell's victory in County Clare in June 1828 precipitated a crisis, did that crisis drag on for more than six months of perpetual wavering and mixed signals from the British government? Why was a cabinet not summoned? Why did the prime minister so long refuse either to confide in or to remove the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland? Finally, what was the likely effect of these months of shuffling and confusion in shaping the course of politics in the years to come?

The Duke of Wellington is central to answering such questions. Before 1828, Wellington was a key player whose doubts and fears were broadly representative of those that reshaped the positions of many of emancipation's most powerful opponents and brought them around to the necessity of accepting the measure. In 1828 and 1829 as prime minister, Wellington made decisions that were critical in determining how the measure would be carried. Some of those decisions had an important bearing on how emancipation was received in the country and therefore on the political divisions that followed.

The explanation usually given for the government's failure to act is that the king refused to permit it and would not allow the cabinet to consider the matter. In January, when the king asked Wellington to form a government, he had stipulated and the duke had agreed that Catholic Emancipation should not be a government measure.

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1 British Library (B.L.), Dropmore Papers, Add. MS. 59264, 5 April 1807.

2 Durham University Library, Grey Papers, Grenville to Grey, 2 April 1807.

3 The Diary and Correspondence of Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester, 3 vols. (London, 1861), 2: 211–12.

4 Henry E. Huntington Library (H.E.H.), STG 38(33), Thomas Grenville to the first Marquess of Buckingham, 24 February 1812.

5 Parliamentary Debates, 1st ser., 33: 395; B.L., Liverpool Papers, Add. MS. 38328, Liverpool to Newcastle, 26 June 1812.

6 For the most recent contribution to the discussion, see Davis R. W., “Wellington, the Constitution, and Catholic Emancipation,” Parliamentary History, vol. 15, no. 2 (1996): 209–14.

7 Aspinall A., ed., The Letters of King George IV, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 1938), no. 90.

8 H.E.H., STG 79(13), Grenville to Buckingham, March 1821.

9 H.E.H., STG 89(53), C. W. W. Wynn to Liverpool, 11 December 1821; 89(54), Liverpool to Wynn, 12 December 1821.

10 Machin G. I. T., The Catholic Question in English Politics, 1820 to 1830 (Oxford, 1964), p. 34.

11 H.E.H., ST 95, 1823 Diary of the first Duke of Buckingham, pp. 25–42; Southampton University Library (S.U.L.), Wellington Papers 1/762/13, Liverpool to Wellington, 12 May 1823; H.E.H., STG 72(42), W. H. Fremantle to the first Duke of Buckingham, 24 April 1823. I am grateful to the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office for permission to include Crown Copyright material from the Wellington Papers.

12 Ward B.N., The Eve of Catholic Emancipation 3 vols. (London, 19111912), 2: 347–51.

13 H.E.H. STG 71(56), W. H. Fremantle to the Marquess of Buckingham, 30 March 1821; Duke of Buckingham and Chandos , ed., Memoirs of the Court of George IV, 1820–1830, 2 vols. (London, 1859), 1: 148.

14 Aspinall , The Letters of King George IV 2: 424–25.

15 Ibid., 2: 151.

16 Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of the Duke of Wellington, 1818–1832, 2nd Duke of Wellington, 8 vols. (London, 18671880), 2: 592607.

17 S.U.L., WP1/817/1, copy Wellington to Liverpool, 2 April 1825.

18 Wellington , Despatches, 2: 435.

19 Machin , The Catholic Question in English Politics, p. 65.

20 Wellington , Despatches, 2: 464.

21 Ibid., p, 564.

22 Aspinall A., ed., The Diary of Henry Hobhouse, 1820–1827 (London, 1947), p. 115.

23 Machin G. I. T., “Canning, Wellington, and the Catholic Question,” English Historical Review 99 (1984): 94.

24 Parliamentary Debates, n.s. 13: 890.

25 Wellington , Despatches, 3: 462–64.

26 Aspinall A., ed., The Formation of Canning's Ministry, February to August 1827 (London, 1937), pp. 1012.

27 Davis R. W., “The Tories, the Whigs, and Catholic Emancipation, 1827–1829,” English Historical Review 97 (1982): 9596.

28 Aspinall , Formation, p. 123.

29 Ibid., p. 145.

30 Davis , “Wellington, the Constitution, and Catholic Emancipation,” p. 210.

31 Machin , The Catholic Question in English Politics, p. 110.

32 Davis , “Wellington, the Constitution, and Catholic Emancipation,” pp. 212–13.

33 S.U.L., Broadlands MSS GMC/18, 24, 25/1–4. I acknowledge the permission of the Trustees of the Broadlands Archive Trust to consult and quote the Palmerston Papers, then in the care of the National Register of Archives.

34 Machin , “Canning, Wellington, and the Catholic Question,” p. 99; Pares Richard, King George III and the Politicians (Oxford, 1953), p. 157.

35 Wellington , Despatches, 4: 564–65, 573.

36 Machin , “Canning, Wellington, and the Catholic Question,” p. 99.

37 S.U.L., Broadlands MSS GMC/25/1–4.

38 University College, London, Brougham Papers, Brougham to Lord Grey, 29 October 1828.

39 S.U.L., WP1/994/28; 993/77, copy of Wellington to Salisbury, 30 January 1829; Hinde Wendy, Catholic Emancipation: A Shake to Men's Minds (Oxford, 1992), p. 134.

40 H.E.H., STG 79(37), Lord Grenville to the Duke of Buckingham, 7 February 1829.

41 See Machin, The Catholic Question in English Politics, ch. 7, which is an excellent account of the anti-Catholic reaction during the six-month hiatus; Hinde , “Catholic Emancipation”, p. 94; Noyce Karen, “The Duke of Wellington and the Catholic Question,” in Wellington: Studies in the Military and Political Career of the first Duke of Wellington, ed., Gash Norman (Manchester, 1990), p. 151.

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