Robert was a leading figure in the movement for Catholic emancipation, for example Dr. Alexander Geddes, (1737–1802) protégé of Robert, was a Catholic theologian, writer and scholar who was an honorary graduate of the University of Aberdeen and an early Roman Catholic pioneer of biblical criticism and originator of the “fragment hypothesis” of the composition of the Pentateuch. Between the accession of Elizabeth I and the early years of the reign of George I, thirty separate statutes that either forbade Roman Catholics the practice of their religion or deprived them of their rights and freedoms had been enacted. It is true that, by this time, the emphasis had changed; Roman Catholics could at least adhere to their beliefs and even worship discreetly without undue risk to their life or liberty but the legislation, particularly to exclude them from any public office or profession, was still in place and Roman Catholics remained effectively second class citizens. How it was that at least some ‘treacherous’ Roman Catholics were left relatively unmolested by the draconian legislation laid against them cannot be considered in detail here but the Petre family was not unique in this respect. In fact, Mark Bence-Jones, in his recent book The Catholic Families, even goes so far as to suggest that the effects of the Penal Laws were not entirely disadvantageous to Roman Catholic gentry. Barred as they were from all public office, they were at least spared the risks associated with such ambitions – the heavy cost of ‘electioneering expenses’ (or, bluntly, bribes) and the dire consequences of a fall from favour – and could concentrate their energies on the management of their estates, which accordingly prospered.
The principal factor, however, which, over the years, helped to protect some Roman Catholic families from the worst effects of the legislation was the simple matter of the personal loyalty and support extended to them by their local community, even by those who might particularly have been expected to point an accusing finger. Indeed, in some places under the patronage of Roman Catholic gentry, there had been an increase in the number of their co-religionists; in the 27 parishes between Brentwood and Chelmsford that were under the aegis of the Petre and the Roman Catholic Wrights of Kelvedon Hall, the population of Roman Catholics rose from 106 in 1625 to 202 in 1706. Even among the common people, loyalty to Rome was not entirely extinct; a national census of 1767 identifies, out of a total population of seven to eight million, 67,916 Roman Catholics, and there is good reason to suppose that this was a considerable underestimate.
Many did defect, of course, but, at the time of the first Relief Act (1778), there were still eight peers, nineteen baronets and 150 gentlemen of substantial property who remained Roman Catholics. In 1766, Thomas Newman, the Vicar of West Horndon, in whose parish Thorndon Hall lay, was required by the Bishop of London to respond to a questionnaire on the number of Roman Catholics in his parish. He reported:from the best advice I can collect there are about fifty persons who are reputed to be Papists; Ld. Petre is supposed to be of that persuasion.
The truth of the matter was that Thorndon Hall contained a private chapel consecrated by Robert’s cousin, Bishop Benjamin Petre in 1739, and the Visitation of Essex conducted by the Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Challoner in 1754 discovered a congregation of 260 there: indeed, in that year alone, 41 had received the sacrament of Confirmation.
Accordingly, restoring to Roman Catholics their rights and liberties, as citizens became Robert’s mission. There were very real obstacles to overcome. The continued existence of the Penal Laws was not just a result of bigotry and intolerance. It was years since any supposed heresy or blasphemy in Roman Catholic dogma or liturgy had been an issue but the question of the nature and extent of the allegiance that Roman Catholics owed to the Pope and his temporal ‘power over princes’ was another matter. There were a number of venerable constitutional precedents to suggest that the English throne did indeed lie within the gift of the Pope – King John had ‘ransomed’ his crown from the Holy See for one thousand marks – and, even if that were not the case, it was widely perceived that, such was the moral authority of the Pope over his flock, that, if he was to command them to dethrone a heretic ruler, they would be obliged to obey. Moreover, any promise a Roman Catholic might make to the contrary would be null and void since it was no sin to break faith with a heretic. Such a perception was perfectly justified for it was in those very terms that Pius V had issued his Bull of Excommunication against Elizabeth I, declaring that she was.‘to be deprived of her pretended title to the kingdom aforesaid, and of all dominion, dignity and privilege whatsoever; and also the nobility, subjects and people of the said kingdom, and all others which have in any sort sworn unto her to be for ever absolved from any such oath’.
The Vatican had slightly modified but never withdrawn this Bull. The task of Robert and his fellow Roman Catholics was, therefore, to find a way of persuading his sceptical compatriots that they did not recognise the authority of the Pope in temporal matters and that, whatever Rome might say, their allegiance to King George was unequivocal. As late as 1771, Bishop James Talbot appeared in the dock at the Old Bailey charged with “exercising the functions of a Popish bishop”, albeit the authorities regarded the trial with some embarrassment. Even if, in practice, the laws were no more than an inconvenience, they were a source of great distress and frustration to one with Robert’s sense of patriotic duty. It was for that reason that, in 1771, Robert became a Freemason. Not only did this give him access to many influential figures in the Protestant Establishment but it was, in itself, a snub to the authority of Rome. As recently as 1738, Pope Clement XII had issued a Bull excommunicating Catholics who took part in Freemasonry, a judgment reiterated by his successor, Benedict XIV, in 1751. By a quirk of Canon Law, Robert’s apparent defiance of these rulings was only a gesture. Since there was then no official Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, the Bulls could not be formally proclaimed and were not therefore binding. Nevertheless, it was a gesture that was evidently much appreciated; only a year after joining the brotherhood, in 1776, he was elected Grand Master, a position that he held until 1777.
The most practical contribution that Robert made to the cause of Catholic Emancipation was his chairmanship of the two successive committees of Roman Catholic laymen formed to lobby government and negotiate means by which the disabilities enshrined in the Penal Laws might be swept away. It fell to Robert to take the role as senior Roman Catholic layman in this way since, of the two Roman Catholic noblemen who outranked him, the 10th Duke of Norfolk was a scholarly recluse who rarely left his garden at Greystoke Castle in Cumberland and the 14th Earl of Shrewsbury also had no taste for public life – even though two of the four Apostolic Vicars who administered the Church in England were his brothers.
The Committee had also to overcome considerable opposition and obstruction from their own clergy. Some, like the mild and gentle Bishop Walmesley, Vicar Apostolic of the Western District, had been so horrified by the ferocity of the Gordon Riots that they wanted their fellow Catholics to give up their demands rather than risk more violent persecution. Many other senior clergy, however, were opposed to the overtures that the Committee were making simply because they would brook no compromise as far as the Pope’s authority in all matters including affairs of state. No doubt this ‘Ultramontane’ faction (so-called because they saw authority residing exclusively in Rome, ‘beyond the mountains’) accounted themselves sincere in this belief but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that it was equally their own authority to govern the lives of their flock which they saw at risk. At any rate, their quarrelsome and often inconsistent opposition came close to sabotaging the progress the Committee was making and exchanges between the two factions became increasingly acrimonious. The Bishops condemned the Committee for their “unwillingness to abandon any one of their own fond deceits”; the Committee responded that the Bishops’ statements were ‘impudent, arbitrary & unjust’.
It is not possible here to recount in detail the twists and turns of this debate. The Committee never managed to win the argument conclusively – even as recently as 1955, the Roman Catholic historian, David Mathew, condemns the Committee as ‘a closed corporation of the polite unenthusiastic Catholicism of the Thames Valley’ but they were able to reassure Parliament sufficiently to permit the process of dismantling the Penal Laws to get under way.
In promoting the abolition of the Penal Laws, Robert’s committee was in large part pushing at an open door as far as Parliament was concerned. The Whig opposition was very much in favour of Catholic Emancipation – Burke vociferously so – but the Tory administrations of Lord North and, later, Pitt were also guardedly sympathetic, albeit for entirely pragmatic reasons; they saw measures favouring the Roman Catholics both as a means of stemming massive emigration from Ireland and also as an encouragement to the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Scottish Highlanders to enlist in the Army. The Press also largely supported the Committee’s objectives and, indeed, when, eventually, legislation came before both Houses of Parliament, it was passed speedily and without opposition.
It is a convincing token of the acceptance that the State was now beginning to extend to Roman Catholics that, in 1778, George III chose to lodge at Thorndon for two days in order to carry out a review of the troops at Warley barracks. This was an event of considerable significance since it was the first occasion on which the monarch had visited a Roman Catholic household since the Reformation. Robert had a set of Gilt wood Louis XV chairs specially made for this occasion, it is said that his daughters Julia Maria and Anna Catherine embroidered the upholstery. This visit culmination of his work for emancipation.
Robert and his Committee may have had little difficulty in enlisting the sympathy and support of the Government in their cause but there were two very real obstacles to overcome. In the first place, mistrust and intolerance of Roman Catholics was still widespread among at least some sections of the populace at large. In 1778, the First Relief Act passed through both Houses of Parliament without a Division. It was a modest measure that essentially only reversed the 1700 ‘Act for Further Preventing the Growth of Popery’, but it did put an end to the prosecution of Roman Catholic clergy and removed the restrictions on Roman Catholics holding land. Some commentators have claimed that the frenzy of unrest that was fomented by Lord George Gordon in response this Act was the most serious episode of public disorder ever seen in this country. To what extent it was a manifestation of genuine opposition to Roman Catholicism rather than an expression of general dissent is open to question – as Daniel Defoe wrote: ‘There are 40,000 stout fellows ready to fight to the death popery without knowing whether popery is a man or a horse’ – but it was undoubtedly serious. The rioters burnt down Robert’s new house in Park Lane and a mob of three thousand marching on Thorndon were only diverted by the military at the last moment. The Government was understandably nervous granting concessions to the Roman Catholics that might further inflame the mob.
The Second Relief Act (1791) was more substantial; Roman Catholic chapels (as long as they had neither steeple nor bell) and schools were permitted but Roman Catholics continued to be barred from Parliament, the Bench or a Commission in the Army or Navy. In the early 1790s, with the French Wars looming, he raised and equipped the Ingatestone & Brentwood Volunteers, a militia of 250. It was his dearest wish that his son should take command of the company but the King refused to waive the ban on Roman Catholics receiving commissions and so young Robert was obliged to enlist as a private.
It would nevertheless have been a disappointment to Robert that he did not live to see more far-reaching emancipation for Roman Catholics. The trend towards it had become irreversible but it was still a long time coming. It was over a quarter of a century later that the Emancipation Act of 1829 removed the bulk of the restrictions that continued to beset Roman Catholics. Even then, some survived. It was only in 1974 that it was formally enacted that a Roman Catholic may hold the office of Lord Chancellor and, to this day, it is only Roman Catholics who are barred, on religious grounds, from ascending the Throne.
Read more about this topic: Robert Petre, 9th Baron Petre
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