Bishops and Popular Opinion in the Era of Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Bill

Today’s post is a guest blog from PhD candidate Nicholas Dixon of Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. Nicholas shares this blog on the back of his paper from the ‘Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty: Political Representation in the British world, 1640-1886’ conference. The History of Parliament organised this event in partnership with Durham University History Department and the People’s History Museum in Manchester in November 2017. He discusses to what extent Bishops agreed with and represented popular opinion relating to political reform in the first half of the nineteenth century…

At a protest in Regent’s Park in favour of the Reform Bill in October 1831, a placard was displayed which read, ‘Englishmen Remember it was the Bishops – and the Bishops only whose votes decided the fate of the Reform Bill’. This instruction has been well heeded by historians, who have generally presented the bishops’ decisive 21 votes against the second Reform Bill as emblematic of an obstructive posture towards popular opinion on the part of the episcopal bench. However, a far more complex picture of episcopal engagement with popular opinion in this period emerges from bishops’ parliamentary speeches.

In opposing Catholic Emancipation during the 1820s, the views of most of the bishops had been in accordance with those of the majority of the English public. Bishops Blomfield, Law and Carey were instrumental in bringing Anglican and dissenting opinion to bear on this question in 1825. Carey presented four petitions, three of which ‘were not from the clergy, but were signed by dissenters of every denomination.’ He stated that ‘[t]he clergy were … determined to petition … and the laity, roused by its having been said they were indifferent to the subject, were also coming forward with numerous petitions.’ In response to Whig peers’ claims like Lord Holland’s that such petitions were ‘got up by the clergy stimulating the people’, Carey argued that ‘the real cause of so many petitions being presented, was, that the people of the country were anxious that their sentiments on this question should not be misrepresented.’

The bishops thus entered the final contest on the Catholic question in 1829 as self-declared tribunes of the English public. In presenting further anti-emancipation petitions Law expressed a hope that ‘ministers would pay equal attention to the petitions of the Protestants of England, with that which they had paid to the petitions of the Catholics of Ireland’. He also told Whig peers that ‘[t]hey had been in the habit of saying a great deal for themselves, and he now begged leave to say something for the people of England.’ Law further explained, ‘I do not mean to contend that vox populi is at all times vox dei, but I do contend, that government was ever intended, not for the benefit of the governors, but of the governed.’ Blomfield asserted that ‘[t]he public voice must be heard, whatever means were used to stifle it; and the only effect of those means would be further exasperation of public sentiment.’

The petitioning campaign against Catholic Emancipation was unprecedented in scale, yet it did not prevent the passing of the measure. Having plausibly invoked public opinion on their side in 1829, the bishops expressed disbelief when the debates concerning the parliamentary reform bills of 1831-2 appeared to place most of them in opposition to popular feeling. Bishop Gray stated in Parliament, ‘Though the petitions on behalf of that measure were very numerous, he knew enough of the modes by which such petitions were got up, to induce him to believe that they did not express the sentiments of the majority of the people.’ Bishop Murray asserted that ‘his Majesty’s Government enjoyed the absolute benefit of popular clamour, while he firmly and conscientiously believed, that the majority of public opinion was on the side of the question of which he was an advocate.’

The violence directed against the bishops on account of their opposition to the second Reform Bill caused considerable alarm but was not decisive. When Archbishop Howley’s carriage was attacked at Canterbury in August 1832, Bishop Bagot told the Duke of Wellington that he was convinced that ‘[m]uch good will ensue from this disgraceful business. I never saw anything so strong as the desire of every respectable person in and about [Canterbury] (however strong their political opinions on the subject of Reform) to mark their abhorrence of what occurred, and it has produced a separation in the violent party which will injure their cause materially.’ In April 1832, 12 bishops had voted in favour of the successful third Reform Bill, which served to moderate popular anti-clericalism.

The bishops’ position in relation to public opinion in the aftermath of the Reform crisis was therefore not irretrievable. By 1834, they were once again invoking public feeling on their side in Parliament. Howley, buoyed by numerous addresses expressing attachment to the Church sent to him that year, announced in Parliament that ‘he had several petitions to present to their Lordships on the important subject of the habitual violation of the Lord’s Day by the people of this country.’ Like Law in 1829, he presented himself as a channel for popular sentiment: ‘If it could be said, that in any matter the voice of the people was the voice of God, surely it was upon this question; and he thought the numerous petitions that had been sent up to Parliament from all parts of the country, and from all classes, ought not to be overlooked and treated with utter neglect.’

Bishop Phillpotts went further in appealing to popular concerns in a dispute with Blomfield regarding a clause of the new Poor Law of 1834 which denied outdoor relief to mothers of illegitimate children. He reminded legislators that ‘every law, to be really efficient, must have the sanction of public opinion’ and declared that the clause ‘never will, never can, have the sanction of the general opinion of the British people. It is impossible.’ Every law that defied ‘the best feelings of the people’ tempted them ‘to cast off their respect for all laws; and, I must not be afraid to add, for the Legislature which shall have ventured to make it.’

Set in a longer context, therefore, the bishops’ part in the Reform crisis may be considered anomalous. Bishops did not consistently collide with popular opinion in this period. More often, they gave voice to strains of popular sentiment by appealing to it in Parliament. If they had reservations about the extension of the franchise, bishops acknowledged popular opinion as a valid component of parliamentary debate and, as such, contributed to the widening of the political sphere.


Further reading:

  • London Radicalism 1830-1843: A Selection of the Papers of Francis Place, ed. D.J. Rowe (London, 1970), 35.
  • Hansard, 2nd Series, xii. 1326-7, 1333, 1362; xiii. 583; xx. 134, 718, 1310; xxi. 678.
  • Hansard, 3rd Series, iii. 1333; xii. 401; xxiii. 357; xxv. 1077-8.  
  • Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of … Arthur Duke of Wellington, viii. 383.

On the 22nd March we will be hosting a review of the ‘Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty: Political Representation in the British world, 1640-1886’ conference in Westminster. This will comprise of three twenty-minute papers, including the keynote speaker Dr Katrina Navickas of the University of Hertfordshire. This public event is free but booking is essential. See Eventbrite listing for full details.

2 thoughts on “Bishops and Popular Opinion in the Era of Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Bill

  1. St Paul exhorted Christians to speak truth “in season and out of season”. The Bishops possibly saw themselves as doing this. They were certainly in season over Catholic Emancipation; equally certainly out of season over Reform (to the extent in some cases of risk to life and limb, as Bishop Gray of Bristol during the reform riots in the City in October 1831).

  2. I believe the 19th century working class (chartists in particular) saw the clergy, Church of England, as a bunch of hypocrits who took their money in the form of a church tax on one hand and on the other hand denied the working man the right to vote.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s