By Antonia Fraser

Nan A. Talese, 2018

336 pages, $29.95

To order:


Perhaps no living author could be more qualified than Lady Antonia Fraser to tell the story she tells in The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780-1829. Herself a Catholic, as well as the doyenne of royal biographers, her father sat in Britain’s House of Lords as the seventh Earl of Longford. Her deceased first husband, Sir Hugh Fraser, was a member of the House of Commons for more than 30 years.

Fraser sets the stage ably.

By the time of the American Revolution, England’s penal laws against Catholicism were close to being a dead letter, with de facto toleration of Catholics generally accepted by Protestant Englishmen.

Formal repeal of the penal laws was another matter. Even some Catholics worried that such a step would do no more than give official sanction to existing practice at the price of increased anti-Catholic hostility from certain segments of the population.

Fear that Irish Catholics might rebel while the government had its hands full due to a colonial insurrection finally prompted repeal, with hatred of Catholicism immediately prompting some of the most dangerous, destructive and deadly riots in history. And that was in response to that which did no more than decriminalize the Catholic religion while requiring that its practice be kept private, while continuing to exclude its members from any political role.

English attitudes were soon to rapidly change, after the horrors of the French Revolution drove many Catholics to seek refuge in the British Isles during the final decade of the 18th century. As Fraser explains:

“The refugees fell into two main categories. There were actual Catholic priests: It has been reckoned that French emigres may have constituted as much as ten percent of the clergy in England at one point. Then there were the English Catholics, some quite young, who were being educated out of their own country, the only opportunity acceptable to them, Catholic education being forbidden at home.

This discreet slipping aboard was one way of keeping a low profile. Places like Douai and St. Omer in France flourished. Naturally some of these same children, upon reaching adulthood, decided to enter the religious life themselves.”

England “became like a paradise for those who fled,” and “the French priests who arrived in England responded with ardent prayers for the King and the Royal Family at Mass.”

Many in England provided homes not just for individual Catholics, but for convents, monasteries and schools in exile:

John Milner established Benedictine nuns who had fled from Brussels and Franciscans from Bruges. Lady Sourton hosted some canonesses from Liege at Holme Hall in Yorkshire.

In the words of the prioress, the Stourtons “expressed the greatest satisfaction to have it in their power to afford us asylum in our present distress, even if the villagers were said to be greatly alarmed to see people dressed ‘in a peculiar manner,’ just as others ‘gawped at Frenchmen dressed in [what they thought to be] women’s clothes [priests’ cassocks and monastic habits].’… The Benedictine schools for boys at Douai and Dieulouard in Lorraine were given refuge by Sir Edward Smythe at Acton Burnell Hall in Shropshire. The chaplain of Lady Anne Fairfax … arranged for Ampleforth Lodge to be given to his community of Saint Lawrence, made homeless by the Revolution.”

In addition to the sympathy that such refugees attracted, exiled French aristocrats, mixing with their English counterparts, exerted an important influence on England’s leadership. Catholics would likely have obtained something like political equality at that time had not King George III believed, in all sincerity, that sanctioning such a measure would constitute a sinful violation of his coronation oath.

Three more decades were to pass before the British government passed laws in favor of political equality for Catholics and allowing Catholicism to be practiced in public. It was a change brought about by a variety of antithetical political factions.

Catholic and Protestant defenders of Christian Europe were in some cases united in their opposition to secularism; in others, the dominant place of the Anglican Church was attacked on secularist grounds. Some supported Catholic emancipation on egalitarian grounds. Others did so to restore Catholic aristocrats to the roles traditional for members of their class.

The King and the Catholics has the qualities to become a standard introduction to its subject matter. It does not, however, aim at the type of comprehensiveness found in its author’s definitive biographies of such figures as Marie Antoinette, King Charles II, Oliver Cromwell and Mary, Queen of Scots.

James Baresel writes from Front Royal, Virginia.