The Duke of Wellington, Catholic Emancipation and Brexit

During his campaign against Napoleon, Wellington ordered his troops to remove their hats to priests and when passing Catholic churches, and to present arms when the Blessed Sacrament passed in the street.

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), “Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington”
Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), “Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington” (photo: Public Domain)

It is fair to say that just as the Duke of Wellington, then British Prime Minister, laid his own political career on the line to deliver the Roman Catholic Relief Act on April 12, 1829, so his modern day successor is doing as much to deliver a deal on Brexit.

At first blush, the 1829 Act, commonly referred to as Catholic Emancipation, does not appear to have much in common with the current British debates over Brexit. A closer look, however, reveals that although it may have involved very different subject matter, the divisions, the vitriol, and the resolve of a Prime Minister are eerily similar.

Arthur Wellesley, the later Duke of Wellington, was born in Dublin in 1769. He became a soldier and, following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, a national military hero. Perhaps inevitably, in 1818 he entered politics as part of Lord Liverpool’s then administration. Ten years later, Wellington was Prime Minister.

Catholic Emancipation came to define the new prime minister. In the 18th century there had been various attempts to obtain full political and civil liberties for Catholics across the British Isles. In Ireland, where 75 percent of the population was Catholic, the Relief Act of 1793 gave Catholics the right to vote in elections, but not to sit in Parliament. By the beginning of the 19th century, William Pitt, the leader of Tories, was convinced of the need for Catholic emancipation. Pitt promised the Irish Parliament that Catholics would have equality with Protestants when the then-Dublin parliament agreed to the Act of Union with Britain in 1801. Matters did not conclude there, however, as King George III refused to accept the idea of religious equality for Catholics, forcing Pitt to resign from office.

In 1828 the simmering crisis over Catholic emancipation was brought to a head by the by-election victory in Clare of Daniel O’Connell who, as a Catholic, was unable to take his seat at Westminster. Wellington was aware of the need to legislate some form of Catholic emancipation so that Catholics could, if elected, sit in Parliament if only to prevent any rebellion in Catholic Ireland.

At the time, the ruling Tory party was split on the issue of Catholic emancipation — just as its modern equivalent today is split over Brexit. Both the Ultra-Tories in the House of Lords and King George IV were resolutely opposed to any Catholic emancipation. Without support from these quarters there was no possibility of any relief bill being passed. While the opposition Whigs feigned support for Catholic emancipation, privately they considered it something impossible to deliver. But they had not reckoned on Wellington. He was to prove a more formidable political operator than the camps opposed to him.

As early as 1825, Wellington had begun to marshal his forces in regard to the issue of Catholic emancipation. First off, he convinced his cabinet colleagues of the need for reform, personally arguing the case for Catholic emancipation. Then, to the bigoted King George IV, it was pointed out that as the king’s ancestral homeland, Protestant Hanover, had already granted such a degree of Catholic emancipation, then a similar measure could be enacted in Britain. Following O’Connell’s election victory, Wellington gave the still wavering king three choices: the king could order – illegally – that O’Connell be killed; he could dissolve parliament and so let the Whigs take power; or he could grant Catholic emancipation. In the end, the king reluctantly agreed to the last option.

In June 1828 Wellington took his campaign to the House of Lords. By April 1829, in the teeth of fierce opposition, and having made 25 speeches, Wellington finally managed to have his Catholic Relief Bill passed with a hard-won majority of 105 votes. 

For all his troubles, Wellington got little thanks. The Irish Catholics led by O’Connell claimed it was really down to their campaign – and to this day in Ireland O’Connell is known as “The Emancipator.” The Whigs had no time for Wellington, and now hated him all the more as he had managed to succeed on an issue to which they had paid lip service but had felt no great need to do anything about. Wellington’s own Tory party continued to remain split on the issue. The Ultra-Tory wing despised their leader all the more for his recent efforts so much so that Wellington was even forced to fight a duel with one of his own party.

Although in no way a spiritual issue, let alone an exclusively Catholic one, the political parallels with Brexit and the politics of Catholic emancipation are clear: we have a governing party encumbered with an issue that is a source of division not just within the country but within parliament and also within the various political parties which make up that legislature. There is also a prime minister, in this case Theresa May, who seems as determined as Wellington was in regard to Catholic Emancipation, to complete the process of delivering her deal on Brexit regardless of the fact that some of her most strident critics are sitting on her own party benches. Time will tell whether May is as successful as the famous Prime Minister who became known as the “Iron Duke” partly as a result of the resolve he showed on getting Catholic Emancipation passed by parliament.

But why was Wellington so determined on this issue?  Perhaps, some of the answer to this lies in the fact that, paradoxically, he was a Protestant Irishman. He knew that a country like Ireland, where the vast majority of the population was Catholic and which at the time was an integral part of the British realm, could only ever be ruled with some degree of accommodation to Irish Catholics.

Another reason, however, may lie in the fact that in 1809 when Wellington was at war with Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula, it is estimated as many as 40 percent of his soldiers were Irish Catholics. During the Iberian campaign, Wellington issued orders that all his soldiers and their officers had to remove their hats to priests and when passing Catholic churches, and he also instructed troops to present arms when the Blessed Sacrament passed in the street. Failure to do so was to be punished by flogging or even hanging. Such measures did not just win Wellington favour among his Catholic soldiers but also contributed to the men’s loyalty to their commander whom, subsequently, they propelled to victory on the peninsular and then eventually on the fields of Waterloo.

It is not yet clear, however, whether Brexit will turn out to be the equivalent of Wellington’s peninsular success or, instead, Napoleon’s Waterloo for current British Prime Minister Theresa May. Time will tell.