The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom on 24 March 1829, and received Royal Assent on 13 April. It was the culmination of the process of Catholic Emancipation throughout the nation. In Ireland it repealed the Test Act 1673 and the remaining Penal Laws which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Irish Parliament of 1728. Its passage followed a vigorous campaign on the issue by Irish lawyer Daniel O'Connell. O'Connell had firm support from the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, as well as from the Whigs and liberal Tories.
The Act permitted members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster. O'Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against the newly appointed President of the Board of Trade, Vesey Fitzgerald, an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O'Connell as a Roman Catholic, was forbidden to take his seat in Westminster. Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, who had for all of his career opposed emancipation (and had, in 1815, challenged O'Connell to a duel) concluded: "though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger." Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel drew up the Catholic Relief Bill and guided it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and George IV, the Duke of Wellington worked tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatened to resign as Prime Minister if the King did not give Royal Assent.
The Act was a compromise, as it effectively disenfranchised the minor landholders of Ireland, the so-called Forty Shilling Freeholders. The Act raised fivefold the economic qualifications for voting. Starting in the initial relief granting the vote by the Irish Parliament in 1793, any man renting or owning land worth at least forty shillings (the equivalent of two Pounds Sterling), had been permitted to vote. Under the Act, this was raised to ten pounds
J. D. C. Clark (1985) depicts England before 1828 as a nation in which the vast majority of the people believed in the divine right of kings, and the legitimacy of a hereditary nobility, and in the rights and privileges of the Anglican Church. In Clark's interpretation, the system remained virtually intact until it suddenly collapsed in 1828, because Catholic emancipation undermines its central symbolic prop, the Anglican supremacy. Clark argues that the consequences were enormous: "The shattering of a whole social order....What was lost at that point... was not merely a constitutional arrangement, but the intellectual ascendancy of a worldview, the cultural hegemony of the old elite." Clark's interpretation has been widely debated in the scholarly literature.
Eric J. Evans (1996) emphasizes that the political importance of emancipation was that it split the anti-reformers beyond repair and diminished their ability to block future reform laws, especially the great Reform Act of 1832. Paradoxically, Wellington's success in forcing through emancipation converted many Ultra-Tories to demand reform of Parliament. They saw that the votes of the rotten boroughs had given the government its majority. Therefore it was an ultra-Tory, the Marquis of Blandford, who in February 1830 introduced the first major reform bill, calling for the transfer of rotten borough seats to the counties and large towns, the disfranchisement of non-resident voters, preventing Crown office-holders from sitting in Parliament, the payment of a salary to MPs, and the general franchise for men who owned property. The ultras believed that a widely based electorate could be relied upon to rally around anti-Catholicism .
- Davis, Richard W. "Wellington and the 'Open Question': The Issue of Catholic Emancipation, 1821-1829," Albion, 1997, Vol. 29 Issue 1, pp 39-55.
- Davis, Richard W. "The House of Lords, the Whigs and Catholic Emancipation 1806-1829," Parliamentary History, March 1999, Vol. 18 Issue 1, pp 23-43.
- Machin, G. I. T. "Resistance to Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, 1828," Historical Journal, March 1979, Vol. 22 Issue 1, pp 115-139.
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