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Antonia Fraser profiles a mighty battle over religious freedom

Prejudice against Catholics in Britain seems to have been centered around the idea that a society must limit its freedoms in order to protect its freedoms.

'The King and the Catholics' is by Antonia Fraser.

The deadliest and most damaging riot in British history wasn't sparked by hunger, poverty or a dispute over the throne. Instead, a dispute over religious freedom prompted looting, the desecration of chapels, and about a thousand deaths in the summer of 1780 in London.

The question at stake: Should Catholics continue being second-class citizens, excluded from basic rights that even those with no faith could enjoy?

The official answer, eventually, turned out to be no, this cannot stand. But resolution didn't come until after decades of strife that tore Great Britain apart.

Acclaimed historian Dame Antonia Fraser tells the remarkable story of this turbulent time in her fascinating new book The King and the Catholics: England, Ireland and the Fight for Religious Freedom, 1780-1829.

Dame Antonia, who's chronicled her nation's past for nearly five decades, spoke with Monitor contributor Randy Dotinga.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

I have always been fascinated by Catholic history since I became a Catholic at the age of 14, about the age I became obsessed by history. My book "Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot" was my first study of Catholic history, and in a sense this is a sequel to it.

Q: How were your own ancestors affected by the British battles over religion?

My paternal ancestors were Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy [a reference to Protestants who dominated Ireland for hundreds of years into the 20th century]. It was my father, Frank Lord Longford, who became a Catholic.

My direct ancestor, Thomas 2nd Earl of Longford, known in the family as Brunswick Tom, was heavily anti-Catholic and founded the Irish Brunswick Club, which was directly opposed to Catholic Emancipation. It gave me quite a frisson writing about Lord Longford in this connection as my father’s views were so very different.

Q: I was quite surprised to read that Great Britain remained so virulently anti-Catholic well into the 19th century. Why was this prejudice was so strong and so focused on Catholics?

The anti-Catholic prejudice has surprised a lot of people, which is one reason I am glad I wrote the book.

It began with the Reformation when Catholics, headed by the Pope, became the enemy. The Spanish Armada of 1588 was an attempt by a hostile Catholic power to take over England. England also fought another Catholic country, France, in several wars.

Folk memories of the past, including the Gunpowder Plot, persisted to join legitimate concerns about national sovereignty.

Q: The anti-Catholic sentiment seems to have been centered around the idea that a nation must limit its freedoms in order to protect its freedoms. That's a very familiar theme these days. Do you see links between the period depicted in your book and modern times?

I saw very strong connections between the struggles leading to 1829 and the problems of religious freedom today. But as I say in my Author’s Note, that is [an issue] for individual readers to decide for themselves.

Q: What surprised you as you researched this book?

The extent of Anti-Catholic laws. For example, Catholic students were not allowed  to take degrees at universities, and soldiers were not allowed to have commissions.

Worst of all perhaps were the inheritance laws. These meant that a relation could declare himself a Protestant and grab the whole inheritance from a Catholic family, including on one occasion a man who tried to take the money of his late brother’s Catholic heiress widow.

Q: What finally prompted the U.K. to turn around on the issue of Catholic Emancipation?

Since I have just written a whole book on the subject, I don’t think I can’t answer this question concisely! It's complicated, concerns many different issues, and is utterly fascinating.

Q: Whom do you admire among the players in your book?

Two figures stand out in my story, two very different men: The Duke of Wellington, a hardline Tory who nevertheless changed his mind on Catholic Emancipation in the interests of the nation’s welfare, and Daniel O’Connell, known in Ireland as the Liberator or King Dan, who fought for his country’s freedom but condemned the use of physical violence in the cause.

I was also especially interested in the ordinary Catholics, hidden from the gaze of history, who bravely maintained their faith down the generations. 

Q: What are some of the legacies of the story you tell in this book?

Great men can change history. I do not believe Catholic Emancipation would have happened at that date if these two very different heroes had not existed.

The other lesson is that toleration is a temple, as the Anglican Liberal and wit Sydney Smith said, which needs many bricklayers.

Q: What's next for you?

I am writing a book to be called "The Case of the Married Woman." It is a study of the author Caroline Norton, whose husband sued Prime Minister Lord Melbourne for adultery.  Although they were found innocent, George Norton then legally deprived her of a house, their three young children, and the earnings from her own writings.

Her sufferings and subsequent campaigning brought about a change in the laws that penalized women in the 19th century. It is a painful but in the end uplifting story.

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