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Review | The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser


In an age which has sidelined the Christian faith, the long, bitterly contested campaign to remove the serious discrimination suffered by Roman Catholics in the United Kingdom for nearly three centuries after the Reformation is seldom recalled, except by apologists for Irish nationalism. The struggle for Catholic rights lasted some fifty years, from the 1770s until 1829 when what had come to be known as Catholic emancipation was embodied in law by the Duke of Wellington in command of an obedient Tory government. Even when it was over, Catholics were often told they did not deserve their release from discriminatory laws. The 19th century Tory historian, J.A. Froude, wrote, ‘they who had never professed toleration, had no right to demand it.’

Toleration, however, gradually won the day. The first concessions in 1780 allowed Catholic priests to celebrate mass without fear of arrest and prosecution, and removed the risk of life imprisonment from those who established Catholic schools. The bar on the ownership of land, often disregarded in practice, was formally lifted. With the completion of the process of reform by Wellington, most public offices were opened to Catholics who were also given the right to vote in Britain (they already had it in Ireland), and to sit in both Houses of Parliament.

Left to their own devices, the politicians would have resolved the issue much more swiftly, but they were thwarted by two stubborn monarchs. The virtuous George III was adamant that the oath he had sworn at his coronation to uphold the Protestant faith, coupled with a blood- curdling denunciation of Roman Catholicism, made it impossible for him to permit emancipation. His dissolute successor, George IV, was no less resolute in his hostility, despite marrying a Catholic illegally and going to great lengths to charm Catholic Ireland during a wildly popular visit in 1821. Royal princes cursed emancipation in lurid terms in the House of Lords.

No one seemed particularly surprised or shocked by this display of intense Hanoverian partisanship. But though the crown’s right to determine policy was not strongly contested over these fifty years, its eventual, reluctant submission to Wellington marked an important moment in the shift of power from monarch to ministers.

In her 24th book, Antonia Fraser assembles a large cast of curious and colourful characters, much given to making outlandish remarks and fighting duels. They adorn a vivid account of a little-known historical episode, which unfolds with the verve for which the author has long been famous; at the age of 85, her vigour remains undimmed, along with her voracious appetite for research.

One of her own forebears was among the most intransigent opponents of emancipation. The 2nd Earl of Longford, head of the extreme Protestant Brunswick Club, set out on the hopeless task of trying to make his Irish Catholic tenants ‘love and venerate the Protestant religion and laws as gloriously constituted by the wisdom, and established by the blood, of our forefathers in 1688.’

It was an appeal to which many elsewhere responded enthusiastically. There was no majority for Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom as a whole, and no threat of disorder from English Catholics. Wellington imposed emancipation everywhere because of the strength of the demand for it in the land where Longford had launched his fruitless campaign on behalf of the Protestant cause.

From 1812 onwards, a restless and eloquent nationalist leader, Daniel O’Connell, made emancipation the focal point of swelling Irish discontent. The case for economic reform, so obvious to British visitors appalled by Irish poverty, was set aside in favour of an issue that stirred even stronger feelings than the most acute hardship to be found in Western Europe. O’ Connell was described as ‘a glass in which Ireland may see herself completely reflected.’ It was in reality a distorted reflection which suited O’ Connell’s purpose of bringing Catholic Ireland under his control and demanding emancipation in recognition of his power.

Britain ended up conceding under duress in 1829 what its political elite would have happily bestowed nearly thirty years earlier at the time of the political union of Great Britain and Ireland, if the conscience of the king had not been so sorely troubled. Wellington handled the retreat in masterly fashion. He secured a sharp reduction in the size of the Irish electorate by revising the franchise to exclude most of O’Connell’s followers. He compelled O’Connell to disband the political organisation that had become the basis of his power. In England, most Catholics, loyal to a fault, felt deeply uncomfortable about achieving full civil rights as a result of Irish recalcitrance.

Antonia Fraser writes benignly about the participants on both sides of the campaign, rejoicing in the bloodless victory that was finally won. Wellington is commended for wearing down the resistance of the bloated George IV. O’Connell, the hero of the story, is forgiven for killing a fellow Irishman in a duel on the way to his triumph that enabled him to become an astute MP, observing that ‘ there is more folly and nonsense in the House than anywhere out of it’. Whig grandees are chided gently for speaking rudely about the pope.

Some rejoiced unduly in the hour of victory. In the holy city, word spread that a new saint had been canonised. Men struck their breasts and intoned, Santa Emancipatione, ora pro nobis.


The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 

Essay | Peas by Alice Dunn


One of the stand-out gardens at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show appeared to replicate the pea in its structure. ‘The Seedlip Garden’ had a circular pool, round stepping stones, and a ‘Peavillion’ housing a collection of articles about peas. This garden got me thinking about, well, peas, and the little-observed role they’ve played in our culture.  

One of the most historic vegetables, the pea probably originated in Asia and was grown as far back as 7000 BC. The Greeks had ‘pisoi’ and the Romans introduced ‘pisum’ to Europe. Peas were widely used in Roman cookery: there are nine dishes which call for peas in Apicius’ fifth-century Roman cookery book.

But it is Catherine de Medici we must thank for rekindling a popular affection for peas in the sixteenth century. When she married Henri II of France in 1533, she is said to have brought her favourite foods from Italy with her to France. These included peas, or ‘piselli novelli’. Dried peas soon fell from favour and everyone began to eat petit pois. Garden peas may also have been introduced to Britain through a royal connection: Charles II would have known petit pois during his exile in France and their appearance in British kitchens post-date the Restoration. Indeed, such was the pea’s continued prevalence in France that King Louis XIV is recorded to have observed that: “The young princes want to eat nothing but peas!” And neither, it seems, did he. Petit pois were his obsession.   

The pea has also played a pivotal role in science. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, discovered the laws of genetic inheritance by crossing yellow peas with wrinkled peas in his garden in Moravia and experimented on more than 28,000 pea plants over seven years. His results were published in 1866 and laid the foundations for our understanding of genes and the way they are inherited (he coined the terms ‘recessive’ and ‘dominant’).  

Just before that, and on the other side of the world, US President Thomas Jefferson was busy with his own, non-scientific experiment with peas: he regularly competed with his neighbours to grow the first crop. He decided to stagger his planting so that he would be able to enjoy 15 different varieties of fresh peas from May until July. 

Peas scuttle through literature and art. A pea is the focus of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’; Edward Lear sent ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ to sea ‘In a beautiful pea-green boat.’ When under the spell of the love potion in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Titania dotes on Bottom (who has the head of a Donkey) and offers him nuts to eat, but he replies, ‘I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas’. In the Brothers Grimm story, Cinderella’s step-sisters ‘did their utmost to torment her – mocking her, and strewing peas and lentils among the ashes, and setting her to pick them up.’ 

Shelling peas, in contrast, is the tender subject of paintings and sketches by Whistler and Van Gogh. The Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used peas in his famous vegetable portraits of people; his work ‘Rudolf II as Vertumnus’ has peas in a curved pod serving as eyebrows. 

Less beautiful, but no less worthy of discussion, are London’s pea-souper fogs which once swallowed our city. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Herman Melville for first using the term ‘pea-soup’ to describe the weather. He wrote in November 1849 in his ‘Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent’: ‘Upon sallying out this morning encountered pea soup London fog.’ Henry James found the smoke in London particularly depressing and noted that when he looked out at ‘The pea-soup atmosphere of Piccadilly, I feel like taking to my bed.’  

Incidentally, should peas pop up in conversation, a lexicographer will probably tell you that a pea (the use of the word has been recorded from 1666) is an example of a back-formation (‘a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix.’) of the older word ‘pease’ which also meant ‘a pea’ but was understood to be the plural. When John Lyly penned the phrase ‘as lyke as one pease is to an other’ in a novel in 1580 he probably did not predict that it would still be widely used today in the form of of the favourite expression: ‘like two peas in a pod’.  

Chasing the last few peas around the plate is enough to make anyone feel pea-brained, but perhaps reflecting on their history can make the process slightly less maddening.  

By Alice Dunn.

Review | Richard III: Brother, Protector, King by Chris Skidmore


Dick the Bad: History’s Most Famous Murder Suspect
Richard III: Brother, Protector, King – by Chris Skidmore
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20

‘Edwards Four, Five, Dick the Bad/ Harrys Twain and Ned the Lad’. So runs part of the well-known rhyme through which the kings and queens of England are widely remembered. The lines cover the last medieval kings belonging to the House of York and the first rulers of the House of Tudor.

Just over ten years ago, Chris Skidmore published a life of Ned the Lad, Edward VI, king in 1547 at the age of nine and dead at fifteen. It was during the brief reign of this brilliant, precocious youth that England became a distinctively Protestant country, completing the Reformation that his father Henry VIII had begun and doing so with such thoroughness that Ned’s Catholic half-sister, Mary, was unable to reverse it. The Church of England was his lasting legacy, its glorious liturgy shaped by Cranmer during his reign. Skidmore wrote up the results of his thorough researches with skill and verve to produce a wonderfully vivid portrait of the boy king, entitled Edward VI: The Lost King of England.

Now a Tory MP in his thirties and recently a junior minister at the Cabinet Office(before being posted to Conservative headquarters in Mrs May’s ill-received January reshuffle) , he has devoted his fourth book to Ned’s partner in the rhyming couplet, Dick  the Bad, King Richard III, perhaps England’s most notorious monarch. Seizing the throne in 1483 from another boy king, he reigned for just 788 days before being hacked to death at the age of 32 at Bosworth(a scene immortalised by Shakespeare), his broken bones emerging from a Leicester car park over 520 years later.

No monarch in British history excites greater curiosity. There has always been intense interest in finding out the truth about his turbulent, bloody reign and about two young deaths in particular.

Ned and Dick had little in common. The former was a scholar and master of languages who loved theological disputes; it is hard to envisage him, had he survived to manhood, with sword and buckler. Richard III was a warrior-king, mighty in battle, his sword never sleeping in his hand. His was an age of incessant blood-letting as the Wars of the Roses made and unmade monarchs amidst piles of corpses.

Ruthlessness was the essential quality that successful men required and Richard possessed it in abundance. His feats of arms, pitilessly conducted, brought him his own statelet, a palatinate covering the north of England, under his elder brother, Edward IV. He governed from York, where he was held in high esteem, constantly raiding Scotland in the hope of adding it to his conquests.

His brother’s sudden death (from natural causes) at the age of 41 brought him to London as Protector of the young Edward V. No one was particularly surprised when he took the crown himself. Scrupulous respect for hereditary niceties was rarely a feature of the age, and the losers could not expect to keep their lives.

In a quieter era, he might well have developed a serious love of culture. Skidmore notes the happy hours he spent listening to discussions of metaphysics at Oxford. He spoke eloquently in Latin to an emissary from the Holy Roman Emperor. The latter recorded that at Richard’s court ‘ I heard the most delightful music that I heard in all my life.’ He was a stylish dresser: ‘the king went to dinner and wore a collar of gold with many pearls the size of peas, and diamonds.’

There was never the slightest chance that Richard would secure a lasting peace. As soon as one plot against him had been bloodily put down, another sprang up. He had in Henry Tudor, the first of the ‘Harrys twain’, an implacable foe who pursued him relentlessly and finally prevailed. In death he was spared no indignity ‘nought being left about him so much as would cover his privy member’, as one contemporary writer noted.

Did he or didn’t he? The fate of the princes in the Tower—Edward V and his brother—exerts a morbid fascination that will never end. It was an era drenched in blood, and yet the murder of children was regarded with horror. Skidmore explains that ‘ the very thought that Richard would have been prepared to kill his own nephews would have been an anathema in medieval society: children were to be honoured, as innocents themselves, as representatives of Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered by Herod three days after the birth of Christ.’

It is never going to be possible to deliver a final verdict for or against Richard. He is destined to remain for ever history’s most famous murder suspect. The surviving evidence, meticulously sifted by Skidmore, does not prove either the prosecution’s case, or that for the defence, conclusively. An opinion poll in 1483, however, would have brought the suspect little comfort. ‘ What cannot be doubted’, Skidmore writes, ‘ is the overwhelming degree to which it was believed that Edward V and his brother were now dead, and that the responsibility for this lay with their uncle, their Protector, the nation’s unexpected king.’

Chris Skidmore now finds himself in Mrs May’s team rather than in the university history post to which his talents might equally well have taken him. This first-rate book of some 400 pages will be read with great profit and pleasure by fellow historians, and by all those who simply enjoy learning about dramatic episodes in the past from a fine writer.

By Alistair Lexden

Richard III: Brother, Protector, King is available now


John Scott’s The London Magazine by Matthew Scott

A segment of The Elgin Marbles

Matthew Scott

John Scott’s The London Magazine

The Greek author Lucian tells of a lusty, young aristocrat who fell for a statue of Aphrodite and, willing it to be real, attempted to defile it. He had only the experience of other boys to go on and fell short when it came to the anatomy of women; congress was a hopeless failure and he hurled himself to his death. But statues in Lucian are not all silent in their allure. James Joyce has the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, fascinated by the marble buttocks of Venus and such Pygmalion-like desire has a long aesthetic history. Wanting the art object to come to life is a museum fantasy that recurs repeatedly in western literature and it is a strong theme in The London Magazine of the 1820s. Here, statues abound, leaping to life, though they are more political than sexual.

One of the magazine’s most famous essays is an account in 1822 of the Elgin Marbles by the critic William Hazlitt, which stands out as an extraordinary description of those statues and, indeed, transcends them to make a case for the humanizing potential of art more generally. Hazlitt and Benjamin Robert Haydon were leading voices in an argument that surrounded the value of the Elgin Marbles. For all the debate about the rectitude of their having been taken off the Parthenon in the first place, it seems almost incredible now when no one doubts the importance of the statues in the history of western art, that on their arrival in Britain, they were dismissed by the leading aesthetic mandarin of the time as worthless copies made in the time of Hadrian. History hasn’t dealt favourably with Richard Payne Knight, whose taste — or lack of it — now appears to be quaint if not simply bizarre. But at the time, Hazlitt saw himself writing in opposition to the reactionary conservativism of an orthodoxy rooted the poIite values of the eighteenth century that had fought keep the works outside the British Museum. He felt that he was standing up instead for a newer set of artistic values that found Romantic power in those massive, decaying forms.

Horace Smith is the author of the leading article in the issue of March 1821, which identities one of the marbles as Theseus and is accompanied by a splendid engraving of it. ‘Mutilated and disfigured as is,’ he writes, ‘I never approach this majestic statue without feeling an indescribable awe, leading me, almost unconsciously, to take off my hat, and look at it with silent reverence, as if l stood in the presence of some superior being.’ The article is self-consciously rather coy and its slightly callow veneration of the statue is much more marked than anything in Hazlitt’s tough, technical essay. But Smith’s obvious sense of wonder before the work of art is a familiar emotional theme in the magazine’s many essays on art and culture. Its readers were obviously hungry for material relating to current exhibitions and shows, as well as theatre and music, and this kind of sentimental criticism was popular. But the essay, also betrays an odd sense of anxiety or uncertainty, as though neither he nor his age is quite up to the task of appreciating just how marvellous these statues really are. There is something of an obsession with antiquity in the magazine and it exposes a wider anxiety in this period that even as Britain expanded its empires, its position as a cultural authority could never rival that of earlier eras.

Complaint about the shoddy standards of contemporary culture is of course a pretty time-honoured theme but the writers of The London weren’t conservative traditionalists invoking in fustian the spirit of the past but radical liberals, conscious of living in a culture that had changed very distinctly since the end of the eighteenth century. The decade of the 1820s is a rather forgotten moment in British cultural history. The great poets of the previous generation, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had their finest work long behind them; none of the second generation, Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, was to live long. In political terms, these are the last years of a worn out Conservative administration, one dissected forcefully by Disraeli in the opening part of his novel, Sybil. The challenges of the wars in Europe had thrown up a new role for Britain that necessitated change and there was a widespread feeling that electoral reform was needed but this, and Catholic emancipation, were to come only in the 1830s. The London Magazine, especially in the period immediately after its revival in 1820 under the dynamic editorship of John Scott, provides us with extraordinary insight into the intellectual and artistic on of the age and one has the sense of a culture that was in vibrant dialogue with both Europe and its expanding empire, but not yet entirely confident with itself as an imperial power.

A few years before writing his essay on the Elgin Marbles, Horace Smith had taken part in a competition organized by the influential writer and publisher, Leigh Hunt, in which he was asked to produce a poem in response to a new acquisition of the British Museum, an Egyptian statue of the pharaoh, Ramesses II. His rival was Shelley, whose famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ remains a potent warning to would-be imperialists of the transience of all empires. Smith’s own poem takes much the same line only he is more specific in imagining a post-imperial London, wasted away into wilds:

We wonder, — and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

This anxiety isn’t fully representative of the ‘spirit of the age’ as Hazlitt calls his series of literary portraits published in The London; there are optimistic voices too. Indeed Smith himself often sounds rather remorselessly jolly in his essays, the anxiety jarring with the wit in another piece on the same Egyptian statue, ‘Memnon’s Head,’ published a month before his essay on the Theseus. This is an extraordinary bit of writing to which I’ve returned repeatedly since discovering it on a dark winter afternoon in the Bodleian library and it takes us back to Lucian, with whom I began.

The pharaoh’s head known ever since as the ‘Younger Memnon’, a later copy of a larger original, famous in antiquity was excavated and removed from a site at Thebes bv the Anglo-Italian Giovanni Belzoni, and became the subject of a good deal of interest in London following its exhibition and the publication in 1820 of the explorer’s account of his discovery. It’s putting it rather mildly to say that Belzoni was an unusual character: an ex-circus strongman and rampant self-publicist, he had perfected techniques for the removal of ancient statuary and, with this particular sculpture, executed his master trick. John Scott reviewed his popular narrative with its description of the logistics of the project in The London in January 1821, a month before Smith’s essay. His audience was familiar with the statue and Smith wastes no time on description. Instead, he begins by telling his readers about a claim of Lucian that the original sculpture had supernatural powers and could speak in the voice of an oracle. He goes on:

Unless I have been grossly deceived by imagination, I have good grounds for maintaining, that the Head, now in the British Museum, is endued with qualities quite as inexplicable, as any that have been attributed to its more enormous namesake.— I had taken my seat before it yesterday afternoon, for the purpose of drawing a sketch, occasionally pursuing my work, and occasionally lost in reveries upon the vicissitudes of fate this mighty monument had experienced, until I became unconscious of the lapse of time, and, just as the shades of evening began to gather round the room, I discovered that every visitor had retired, and that I was left quite alone with the gigantic Head! There was something awful, if not alarming, in the first surprise excited by the discovery; and I must confess, that I felt a slight inclination to quicken my steps to the door. Shame, however, withheld me;—and as I made a point of proving to myself, that I was superior to such childish impressions, I resumed my seat, and examined my sketch, with an affectation of nonchalance. On again looking up to the Bust, it appeared to me that an air of living animation had spread over its Nubian features, which had obviously arranged themselves into a smile.

Moments later, the statue begins to speak to him in perfect pentameters and, to a reader familiar with Smith’s other work, it comes as little surprise that the resultant poem is an appeal to the British to do away with the arrogance of imperial design lest London be subjected to the same fate as the ancient empires. It’s a very strange contribution — part short story, part poem — but there is no sense of a critical opinion characterized by cold, disinterested objectivity. Smith, having settled to the task of objective imitation, finds himself withdrawn into reverie, losing any sense of time, place or self. He wakes to find himself in the world of the artist-critic’s dream — the private moment in solitary contemplation of the artefact but this in turn produces an anxious solicitude, in which his own mute wonder is displaced by the voice of the very object of his contemplation. The attitude towards the art of the past is curiously vexed, suggesting that it can be at once both supremely compelling and profoundly disturbing. And while we might be inclined to be a little patronizing towards Smith with his quirky, naive story, it does contribute to a sense that any reader will develop that The London was a publication that took aesthetic matters very seriously indeed.

This is revealed more darkly in events that were shortly to take place. John Scott, who started the publication in 1820 by reviving an obsolete title from the eighteenth century, contributed with The London to a literary scene that was already thriving with numerous periodicals that dealt with the cultural events of the day. Most prominent in this period were two reviews, the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, which were strongly marked by their respective Tory and Whig credentials. A principle on The London that Scott was determined to enforce was that the magazine shouldn’t be politically partisan and that his writers, a wonderful gathering of talents including Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, should be allowed freedom of expression. These are marvellous ideals but culture is, of course, inevitably political and in championing the young poet, John Keats, the editor found himself drawn into a larger and more costly battle. Keats was associated with the radical circles of Leigh Hunt, who had long been the butt of attacks from writers on the right for his criticism of the Regency establishment and his avowedly revolutionary sentiments. With the publication of his early poems, Keats found himself tarnished by the association and subject to the same kinds of charge that had been levelled against his mentor. Whatever one makes of the early, rather immature poems, there can be little doubt that the reviews in the Tory press were unfair and often personally insulting, most especially those in Blackwood’s Magazine, a rival of The London.

It isn’t the most glorious moment in critical history but journalism is frequently unfair and it’s probably best to rise above it. Scott, however, was unyieldingly dedicated to his principles and refused to let the matter rest. In a series of editorials beginning in May 1820 and continuing throughout the year, Scott sharply counterattacked, charging Blackwood’s with impropriety and bias. A sham apology only drove him on further with the suggestion of financial irregularity in the rival camp:

It is a common trick with the pickpockets in the streets, to profess great interest in the misfortune of the person they have just knocked down and plundered:—the very rascals who have struck him from behind, and filched his watch from his fob, will come round in his face, to pity and pat him — with their mouths full of asseverations against the roguery and cruelty of the outrage of which he has been the victim.

There is little doubt that the sequence of events that followed could have been avoided. John Gibson Lockhart, the editor of Blackwood’s, sought a retraction to no avail and after a Byzantine sequence of communications that are hard to unravel, Scott found himself forced into a duel with Lockhart’s London agent, Jonathan Christie. The pair met at nine o’clock in the evening at Chalk Farm outside London on 16 February 1821, with James Traill as a second for Christie and P G Patmore, a noted art critic and determined advocate of Keats in The London, for Scott. Christie did not fire on the first attempt in accordance with the honour code, but on the second, after a mix-up between the seconds, he shot, as he thought, in self-defence, the ball striking Scott above the right hip and passing through his guts into the left. It caused profuse bleeding and Scott was returned to his rooms at York Street in Covent Garden, where he lay weakening gradually towards his inevitable death eleven days later on 27 February 1821. He is buried nearby in the vault of St Martin’s in the Fields.

It is horrifying to think of him waiting for death to come through those awful, long days, a fate that would not face his killer for another fifty-five years. Scott, like Keats, wasn’t destined to become a Victorian sage; he remains, like his magazine, a figure from the Regency, essential to the character of the Romantic period. And although The London continued on into the second half of the decade, it never quite maintained the exceptional quality of the issues produced under Scott and in the period immediately following his death. The article about Memnon’s head with its curious, artistically driven but deeply moralising reflections had appeared only a few weeks earlier. Given the events at Chalk Farm on that grim, winter night, it’s pretty remarkable that the publication continued at all and that it did has much to do with Scott’s earlier editorial zeal. The duel forces us to read the magazine with a renewed awareness of the seriousness with which this group of writers took the matter of aesthetic judgement and, at a time when we are asked continually to advocate relativism in matters of taste and to eschew judgements of quality, this is perhaps no bad thing.

This essay first appeared in The London Magazine Dec 2008/Jan/Feb 2009. Matthew Scott is the current Reviews Editor at TLM.

Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli. 

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