HC Deb 05 August 1844 vol 76 cc1775-80
Sir R. Peel

had to move, that the Bill which had been sent down from the House of Lords for the repeal of the Penal Enactments against the Roman Catholics be now read a second time. He hoped that the House would throw no impediment in the way of passing the Bill, however late the period of the Session at which it was brought under their notice. Since he came into the House he perceived that a Petition had been presented by the hon. Member for Birmingham which he thought it right to notice, because it was founded on an entire misconception of the object and intention of this Bill. The Petitioners stated,— That they had heard with sorrow and alarm that a Bill had been brought into the House of Lords for the repeal of certain penal enactments affecting the Roman Catholics; that they apprehended the most serious consequences were likely to result from the repeal of those enactments; that it seemed perfectly monstrous that the Legislature should, only fifteen years after the Roman Catholic Relief Bill had been agreed to, pass an Act repealing all the protective Clauses in virtue of which that Bill had been allowed to become law; and this, too, at a time when circumstances would seem rather to demand the imposition of additional restrictions than the repeal of the few which yet remain. He (Sir R. Peel) was afraid that the same misapprehension might prevail among other parties, and therefore he wished distinctly to state that this Bill did away with no security whatever which had been taken for the Established Church by the Act passed in 1829; and he thought he could show, by an explanation of the provisions of this Bill, that the petitioners need not view it with that sorrow and alarm which they were disposed to entertain. He should be exceedingly sorry to countenance any false impressions as to the effect of the Act of 1829 for the relief of Her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects. The intention and effect of that Bill was to place Her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects, in respect to civil rights and franchises, upon precisely the same footing as the other subjects of Her Majesty. The Acts which this Bill proposed to repeal were, in fact, mere dead letters, encumbering, and he must say, from the spirit which pervaded them, discrediting, the Statute Book on which they stood. But they had no practical operation, so far as the Roman Catholic subjects of the Crown were concerned. These could be exempted, or at least were exempted, from the operation of them by the simple taking of an oath, to which Roman Catholics had no objection, and, therefore, he should be very sorry if, by repealing those Statutes, they were at all to weaken the effect of that great Statute of which he had spoken, in the securities it provided for the ecclesiastical institutions of the country. That Act recited in the preamble, that— Whereas, by various Acts of Parliament, certain incapacities and disabilities are imposed on the Roman Catholic subjects of Her Majesty which others are not liable to, and whereas it is expedient that such incapacities and disabilities should be henceforth discontinued," &c. That recital distinctly showed what was the intention and object of the Roman Catholic Relief Bill. Subjects of the Crown who professed that faith stood with respect to civil offices and franchise, provided they took the single oath required to be taken by that Act in lieu of the declaration against transubstantiation, and the other oaths of supremacy and allegiance, exactly on the same fooling as members of the Church of England, except with regard to the office of Lord Chancellor and one or two others. They might hold property and enjoy all the other privileges of subjects, without taking any additional oath. With respect to exemption from certain forfeitures and penalties, this was the state of the law. If the Roman Catholic took the oath prescribed by the Act of 1829, he was then, by the express terms of the law, free from all disabilities, incapacities, forfeitures, and penalties, excepting those which applied to the other subjects of Her Majesty, so that he was free from all those which the ancient laws applied to acts done by Roman Catholics. The House of Lords proposed, however, to do away with certain of those ancient Statutes. The effect of them was done away with by the taking of the oath, but the House of Lords proposed that they should be abrogated and effaced from the Statute Book, and his object now was to induce the House to assent to that proposition of the House of Peers. What punishments did those Statutes impose? One of them enacted that if any man maintained the spiritual authority of the Pope, he should be liable, for the first offence, to the forfeiture of all his goods and chattels—if he had none, to imprisonment for one year; for the second offence, to the penalties of præmunire; and for the third offence, to the penalties of high treason. So that if you administered to the Roman Catholic an oath which implied that he might maintain the spiritual authority of the Pope, because you called upon him to disclaim the civil and temporal authority, and yet there was a law on the Statute Book which said that if he maintained that spiritual authority, in that case, for the third offence, he should be liable to the penalties of high treason. That Statute had received a very wide interpretation in former times, for it was laid down in Hawkins's Pleas of the Crown that "he who, hearing a report of a book written abroad which upheld that opinion, or having perused the book, did afterwards, by discoursing on it, allow it to be good, was brought within the penalties of the Statute." It was also held, according to Hawkins, that if any one convicted or condemned for an offence of this nature, being afterwards demanded by the Judge whether he held the same opinion, answered that he did, he was guilty of high treason, having advisedly maintained the opinion upon a second occasion. Other Statutes provided that if a Roman Catholic did not attend the service of the Church of England once a-week, and if he did not attend Divine Service on the 5th of November, and take the Sacrament on that day, he should be liable to heavy penalties. Another Act said, if he sent his son to be educated in any of the Roman Catholic colleges abroad, and did not recall him, after proclamation made, within six months, he should be liable to the penalties of high treason; and another, that if a man not educated as a Roman Catholic from his infancy should educate his children in the Roman Catholic faith, he should be disabled from holding any office in the Church or State; and that the child so educated, unless, after arriving at years of discretion, he conformed to the Church of England, should also be disabled from holding such office. These enactments were completely at variance with the spirit and intention of the Act passed in 1829. There were other Acts passed in the reign of Willian III., which provided that if any person should suspect a person of being Roman Catholic living within ten miles of the City of London, he should be at liberty to bring him before two justices, who should administer to him the declaration against transubstantiation and call upon him to take the sacrament; if he refused, he was to be treated as a Popish recusant, and was instantly to be banished to a distance of ten miles from the City of London. Another Act provided that no person being a Popish recusant should be allowed to be absent from his home a greater distance than five miles. If any Roman Catholic should refuse to take the declaration against transubstantiation, and be in possession of a horse of greater value than 5l., two justices might call upon him to deliver up his horses for the use of Her Majesty. He had said enough to give a description of the general character and tenor of these Acts, all which were now inoperative; but he appealed to every man whether it was reasonable to allow any one, who felt so inclined, to invoke the sanguinary spirit of those laws for the purpose of inflicting the penalties. He did not think they were conferring any favour or privilege on the Roman Catholic body by the repeal of the Acts, but they were rescuing the Statute Book from ignominy and disgrace. If any reasonable objection had been stated to the repeal of any of the Acts, such Acts might have been retained; but as no such objection had been made, he conceived the whole might be taken to be of the same tenor and character with those which he had mentioned. He trusted he had shown that the feeling of sorrow and alarm which had been expressed by the petitioners was not called for by this Bill, which would not, in point of fact, repeal any one security existing. He knew it had been said that these laws, though dormant, still constituted some security for the Established Church. He entertained no such opinion. Some considered them to be a sort of outwork of the Church, which might be applicable in time of danger as bulwarks against Roman Catholic aggressions. They were erected, as Bacon had said, of other bad laws, upon the spur of the moment, under circumstances of great pressure, and were not now applicable, when a very different spirit prevailed. At the same time, they were likely to be seized upon by reason or ridicule, and might be converted into weapons for attacking the Established Church. They were of no other avail, for the Establishment must now be defended by arms of an entirely opposite description to those provided by the Acts in question; its force lay in the reasoning and affectionate attachment of the people. To that Establishment none were more deeply attached than himself, and he felt convinced that in getting rid of these obsolete Acts, they were parting with no one of its defences.

Mr. Hawes

wished to know, should other obsolete statutes of a similar kind be found on the Statute Book, applicable to the same or to other denominations of Christians, and he had reason to believe that there were such, whether Government would, during the ensuing recess, prepare a measure for their repeal?

Sir R. Peel

was in some doubt whether it would not have been better to adopt the suggestion of a noble Friend of his, and postpone the measure for the purpose of making it more extensive. He believed there were other enactments of a similar nature; but as this Bill had been sent down from the House of Lords, and as it was an indication of the spirit in which the Parliament was prepared to proceed, he hoped the measure would be passed. He very much doubted whether Dissenters were not subject to those Acts which required attendance on Divine Service according to the Church of England, and very possibly to other Acts of the same description. He would not give any pledge on the subject; but if there were any statute which now compelled a conscientious Dissenter from the Church of England, upon a heavy penalty, to attend Divine Service in that Church, he might say that he could see no object whatever in retaining it on the Statute Book.

Mr. Monckton Milnes

remarked, that if the Government had been allowed to carry their Ecclesiastical Courts Bill, the greater part of those abuses would have been remedied by this time, but the Clause repealing them had never come under the consideration of the House.

Mr. Spooner

said, the grounds on which the petitioners deprecated the Bill applied to the manner of its introduction, and the want of prudence by which it was marked. Had they heard the exceedingly clear statement of the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government, they would have come to the same conclusion as that to which he had already come, that the Bill was a good one and ought to pass. They had not, however, had the means of making themselves informed of the real state of the case, and therefore they had petitioned in ignorance. The circumstance that the Bill had not been introduced by a Member of the Government, and that they had advised the postponement of the Bill, had created suspicions which were totally groundless.

The Bill was then read a second time.

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