HC Deb 30 April 1830 vol 24 cc298-303
Sir R. Inglis

presented a Petition from certain Clergymen of the Established Church, who were formerly officers in the Army, praying that the House would take measures to prevent the compulsory attendance of Protestant soldiers at the religious ceremonies of persons of a different persuasion. The hon. Member observed that a few years ago, Roman Catholic soldiers were relieved from the necessity of attending Protestant worship, and he only asked that the same privilege should be extended to Protestant soldiers. Adverting to the case of Captains Aitchison and Dawson, who were tried by a Court Martial at Malta six years before, because they refused to take part in a religious ceremony, the hon. Baronet inquired if at present there was any disposition to review that case, in, a manner favourable to these officers. "He wished that there should be no contest between a man's duty to his God and a soldier's duty to his commander." That principle was, however, sometimes violated, and soldiers who were of the Church of England were compelled to attend on the ceremonies of Catholics. When our troops were last in Portugal, for example, an officer in a small town ordered two officers and sixty men, with the band of the regiment, to parade round the town for several hours, in honour of some patron saint. The commanding officer, he believed, had no evil intention, but he might have hurt the consciences of his men.

Sir George Murray

begged leave to remind the hon. Baronet, that a few years ago, all the soldiers of the British Army, though they might be Catholics or Presbyterians, were compelled to attend the service of the Church of England. That was no longer the case, but even so late as when he held the command of the army in Ireland, instructions were received, originating, as he understood, from the application of the Chaplain General, to prevent a Scotch regiment quartered at Belfast, from attending the service of the Presbyterian Church, of which they were members. On his arrival in Ireland, the first question of his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant was, "What is the meaning of all this, we shall have the whole North of Ireland, in a flame." That shewed that up to a later period, than the hon. Baronet supposed, it had been customary to insist on the attendance of all soldiers at the English Church. That, however, was not so much the subject before the House as the practice of the British Army, in places where the religion of the country was different from the established religion of England. To show what that was, he would, with the permission of the House, refer to some General Orders, which had been issued on the subject. The first which he would quote was issued at Cadiz, on April 1st, 1810, by Lord Lynedoch, and it directed that "the greatest respect is on all occasions to be paid to the religion of the country." The second was dated on the 80th of the same month; in that Lord Lynedoch says, "the Lieutenant-general flattered himself, that he would have only to express his satisfaction to all ranks for that attention to discipline, and that regard for the religious customs and the prejudices, even of the inhabitants, which ought never to be forgotten by his Majesty's troops. It is therefore with great regret that he has lately received various reports of disorderly conduct, and in particular of the want of respect for religious processions." He would then refer to an order issued at Alexandria, or rather from the heights to the westward of Alexandria, and consequently in a country where the Mahomedan religion prevailed, on March 18, 1807 The order was as follows, "Major-general Fraser points out to the troops, the necessity as well as the propriety of having the utmost respect paid to the customs, manners, and religious ceremonies, of this country. Officers are themselves enjoined to abstain from any act that can, in the smallest degree, tend to give offence, and they will on every occasion impress on the minds of the soldiers, that their own individual safety, the honour and success of the army, may be materially affected by their conduct in this particular." The following order was issued by the Duke of Wellington when he was in Portugal.

"Mondego Bay, July 31, 1808.

"It is also most essential to the success of the Army, that the religious prejudices and opinions of the people of the country should be respected, and with this view the General desires:—1st. No officer or soldier belonging to the Army is to go to any place of religious worship, during the performance of divine service in such place, excepting with the permission of the officer commanding his regiment, and the general officer commanding the brigade to which he belongs:—2nd. When an officer or a soldier shall visit a church or any other place of worship, from motives of curiosity at periods when divine service is not performed, he is to remain uncovered while at church:—3rd. When the Host passes in the street, officers or soldiers not on duty are to halt and front it, the officers to pull off their hats, and the soldiers to put their hands to their caps; when it shall pass a guard, the guard will turn out and present arms; when a sentry, the sentry must present arms."

In compliance with that order he had frequently taken off his hat himself, and he was quite convinced that our army would not have triumphed, though it was contending for national independence and individual liberty, had that respect not been paid to the religious feelings of the allies who were united with us in that great contest. Our soldiers were always enjoined to show the utmost respect to the religious rites of other sects, but he knew of no instance in which they had been compelled to take part in their ceremonies. At Malta all the military duties connected with religious ceremonies were performed by the Maltese Fencibles. The only exception to this practice was on the occasion of the demise of the last Pope, when some British soldiers assisted at the ceremonies, but they were exclusively Catholics. With respect to the officers alluded to, he could hold out no hope that the sentence of the Court Martial by which they had been punished, and which had received his Majesty's sanction would be reviewed or the punishment remitted. He stated that with the more confidence, because he held in his hand, at that moment a letter of his late Royal Highness the Duke of York, in reference to that very case, in which the distinction was drawn, in the strongest and clearest manner, between the attendance of a soldier, in obedience to orders, as a part of his military duty, and his attendance upon a religious service.

Sir E. Knatchbull

said, he understood that Protestant soldiers had been compelled to assist at the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion in foreign countries. If he understood the right hon. Baronet correctly, it appeared that every commander might compel his troops to take part in a religious ceremony, from which they were averse, and which was contrary to their creed. That was, indeed, the very case of the officers whose unfortunate fate had been alluded to, all of whose prospects in life had been blasted because they would not attend a religious procession, when they could not have done so without violating their own feelings of religion. His hon. friend did not expect that the sentence of the Court Martial would be revised, but he submitted the case for these officers to the consideration of his Majestys Ministers in the hope—a hope which many other Members entertained—that some favour might be shewn to them.

Mr. O'Connell

thought the prayer of the Petition a very reasonable one. Protestant soldiers ought not to have violence done to their consciences by being compelled to assist at the ceremonies of another religion. The Protestants had been called on by the law to swear that a ceremony was idolatrous, and they were compelled by the same law, to fire salutes and do homage in honour of that very ceremony. Men would not be the worse soldiers for being good Christians, and therefore he should recommend the Petition to the consideration of the Government.

Mr. Trant

also supported the prayer of the Petition. There was throughout the army he said, a strong feeling on the subject to which the Petition referred, which the explanation of the right hon. Gentleman would by no means satisfy. A clergyman of the Church of England had lately informed him, that he had seen our soldiers, in the island of Corfu, obliged to hold randies in their hands in honour of the Holy Ghost. As his hon. friend had made no impression on the right hon. Baronet, he would, he hoped, prosecute the matter in some other manner. It was proper he thought, for our troops to respect all religions, but that was very different from taking an active part in their ceremonies. At present British officers were obliged to pay respect and homage to a religion which they thought erroneous, and that was a footing on which, in his opinion, such matters ought not to be placed. He regretted, that the recommendation of the governor of Malta, in regard to having all the salutes in honour of religion fired by persons specially engaged for that purpose, had not been attended to.

Sir George Murray

said, that carrying candles was quite optional; people going along put candles into the hands of those men near them, but they might carry them or not as they pleased. The only instance of an attempt at compulsion, of which he had heard for a long time, was that of the Scotch regiment in Ireland to which he had alluded.

Petition laid on the Table.

Sir Robert Inglis

, in moving that it be printed, stated, that he did not wish the religion of any man to be treated with disrespect, but he must, on that very principle, contend that it was wrong to compel our conscientious soldiers to pay homage to religious ceremonies which they disapproved of. He saw nothing in the Orders quoted by the gallant officer to complain of, but he disapproved of our men being obliged to pay more than negative respect to the religious observances of other countries. He did not ask for the revision of the sentence of a Court Martial, but that the officers he had alluded to might, by his Majesty's bounty, be restored to the service. He did not think this too much to ask, because the orders of the Marquis of Hastings, abolishing the practice for not complying with which these officers were punished, was a condemnation of that practice and particularly because their offence was considered to be so slight, that they continued in the discharge of their ordinary duties more than six months after the offence was committed till orders went, out from England to try them by a Court Martial. All that he wished was, that the conscience of the Protestant officer and soldier should be as much protected as the conscience of the professor of a different religion; and that no man, whether he were of the Greek, the Catholic, or the Protestant Church, should be compelled to join in any worship of which his conscience disapproved. If an English regiment were ordered to go to a Roman Catholic Cathedral, and there salute the Host on its elevation, and if any of the officers or men were to be punished for not obeying, that would, in his opinion, be as much compulsion as if they were driven into the Cathedral at the point of the bayonet. The principle involved in this case, therefore, was one of the highest importance, and he could not but say that he had heard with great satisfaction the sentiments which the hon. member for Clare had expressed in supporting the Petition.

Mr. Maxwell

said, that the officers alluded to, had fallen a sacrifice to the prejudices of the Government; and that if the hon. member for Oxford would bring forward a motion for granting them compensation, he would-cordially support it. He knew that, many persons would consider the obligation of soldiers to attend any religious ceremonies but those of their own church as very wrong, and that it would debar them from sending their children into the army.

Petition to be printed.

Forward to