Saturday, 19 February 2011

1778 Catholic Relief Act, 1780 Gordon Riots, 1781 Bishop Challoner dies.

(Continuation and final post on the life of Bishop Challoner)

In 1772, Challoner now aged 82 years, prepared a general report for Rome on the state of the London District.  The number of Catholics was slightly lower than had been the case 30 years earlier, but many of the small centres of Catholic life had now gone. London itself accounted for 20,000 Catholics out of a total of less than 25,000 for the whole district. There were some 120 priests in all, of which about 80 were diocesan priests. The effective use of these priests was extremely difficult with relatively few Catholics scattered throughout the counties of Hampshire, Essex, Sussex, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, yet all requiring pastoral care. Challoner’s report paid special tribute to the London clergy stating that they had been responsible for many conversions to the Faith, and he reminded the Pope of the unbroken fidelity of the laity during two centuries of persecution.

Unexpectedly, in 1778 things began to change for the English church. The war in America was going badly, and English prestige was falling so rapidly that there was real fear that France and Spain would declare war to aid the American colonial revolt.  There were also fears of armed landings in those parts of this country where Catholic loyalty had been stretched to breaking point by the harsh and unjust anti-Catholic laws, particularly in Scotland and Ireland. The government believed that new legislation granting relief to Catholics would be politically expedient, for recruits for the hard-pressed British army were desperately needed, and the Catholic Scottish highlanders, a potentially rich source of recruitment, would respond positively to the call once  the government had enacted legislation which would allow them to freely practice their religion, and thus much improve their lives 

Early in 1778, Sir John Dalrymple, a government minister and one of the Barons of the Scottish Exchequer, called on Bishop Hay in Edinburgh to discuss this proposal.  Ideally, from a Catholic viewpoint, the whole of the anti-Catholic penal code needed to be repealed, but Bishop Hay considered that such precipitate action would pose real danger from violent anti-Catholic groups. He suggested three definite measures;
1)  that the laws against saying and hearing Mass should be repealed;
2)  the repeal of  those laws which allowed a Protestant who sold an estate to a Catholic to take it back without returning the price, and those under which a Protestant heir could take an estate from its Catholic owner;
3)  the abolition of that part of the military oath which required recruits to forswear the Catholic religion whilst swearing fidelity to the king and to the law.

Bishop Hay also recommended that Dalrymple discuss matters with Bishop Challoner. A meeting was accordingly arranged  but did not go well, for Challoner,  perhaps not surprisingly, appeared to distrust Dalrymple, and expressed concerns about his proposals.  Dalrymple subsequently dismissed Challoner as ‘old and timid, and using twenty difficulties’, and decided to approach the younger generation of influential lay Catholics in the person of William Sheldon, a lawyer, a capable and decisive man with considerable influence among his peers. The government was desperate to enact the proposed Catholic Relief Bill before Parliament rose for the summer recess, and Sheldon was keen to support this.

A committee of influential Catholic laymen, the 'Catholic Committee', was formed, and the terms of the new Bill were effectively agreed between them and the government, with the Bishops deliberately excluded from the discussions,  on the basis that ‘English Roman Catholic gentlemen are quite able to judge and act for themselves in these matters’. In fact, Challoner and the other Bishops were not even consulted on the terms of the Bill, and instead of pressing boldly for an overall general relief, as Challoner and Hay had earlier suggested, the committee concentrated on the repeal of parts of one particular statute, the ‘Acts of William IV’, which:-
1)  entitled informers to a reward, 
2) made every Catholic Bishop, priest, and schoolteacher liable to imprisonment for life, and
3)  prevented Catholics from inheriting and buying land.
The wording of the oath of allegiance to the Crown, included in the new Bill, was initially questioned but subsequently approved by Bishop Challoner, facilitating the speedy enactment of the Bill through Parliament.

It seemed clear to Bishop Challoner and his fellow bishops, that the ‘Catholic Committee’ nurtured a real anti-clerical bias, and for this Lord Petre, its Chairman and chief spokesman , may well have been considered largely responsible. Lord Petre came from a distinguished Catholic family, and was connected by marriage with many other such  families, He was  extremely rich having inherited an immense fortune from his father, but due to anti-Catholic laws he could not take his seat in the House of Lords, neither could he obtain a commission in the army or navy, nor hold any honourable appointments which men of his social status were normally given. However he was proposed by a family friend, the Duke of Beaufort, the Grand Master of the English Freemasons, for membership of the Freemasons, and in March 1771 he became a member of the Lodge of Friendship. Within twelve months he had been elected as new Grand Master.

English Catholics were almost certainly well aware of the Church’s prohibition on Freemasonry, with a Papal Bull in 1738 by Pope Clement XII and a later one in 1751 by Pope Benedict XIV, both condemning Freemasonry and excommunicating Catholics who participated in Masonic meetings. Challoner would surely have advised Lord Petre of the scandal that his Masonic activities caused, but to no effect. In Lord Petre's defence it has been suggested that one reason for his acceptance was the perceived  benefit of this appointment to the Catholic cause;  another being that it showed his Protestant friends that he was not answerable to the Pope in 'non-spiritual' matters, which he considered this to be; and finally it has been suggested that  by a quirk of Canon Law, Lord Petre's apparent defiance of the Pope's ruling was merely a gesture, since as there was then no official Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, the Bulls could not be formally proclaimed and were not therefore binding.  In any event, things went from bad to worse when Lord Petre installed the Rev Alexander Geddes as  personal chaplain at his Thorndon estate. The Rev Geddes was a priest who had been deprived of his faculties by Bishop Hay due to his insistence on taking part in services in Protestant churches.  His salary  from Lord Petre  would have sufficed for ten of Challoner’s missionary priests, added to which Lord Petre guaranteed to meet  the substantial costs of a new translation of the Bible by Geddes, which the latter declared necessary to correct the ‘shameful distortions of the Catholic version’. In later years, Geddes virtually ceased to call himself a Catholic, greatly antagonistic to Papal authority, and continuing to support Lord Petre in his defiance of the Pope’s condemnation of Masonry, and viewing with apparent approval his many compromising gestures with the established Church.

Such was the leader of the ‘Catholic Committee’, who had succeeded in carrying a Bill through Parliament requiring the bishops and clergy to take an oath on religious matters, although they had not even been consulted in framing its terms. Shortly after the Catholic Relief Act was passed, the King and Queen were guests of Lord Petre at ‘Thorndon’ his palatial residence in Essex, perhaps  raising high hopes among many of the Catholic gentry, that the King’s personal influence on their behalf would soon result in wider relief from their material burdens. For some perhaps, it may have seemed that these burdens were more important than those matters of faith, for which many of their Catholic ancestors, laymen and clerics, had suffered torture and death.


                           Thorndon Hall, Essex. Home of Lord Petre

Far removed from the world of Lord Petre, Challoner and his scattered congregations, were more concerned with the rising tide of anti-Catholic agitation increasingly evident since the Catholic Relief Act became law. Particularly outspoken and hostile were the ‘field preachers’ led by John Wesley, who himself issued an inflammatory document, ‘Defence of the Protestant Association’, which revealed a Cromwellian hatred of Catholicism, ‘that soul-deceiving and all enslaving superstition which threatens to overspread this land’.
 The poor quarters of London where Challoner and his clergy had laboured for years, were suddenly exposed to the ugly threats and violence of the common mob, which included many criminal elements, and which in 1778,  attacked and sacked the house of Admiral Palliser.

Scotland had been the first to feel the full violence of the anti -Catholic brigade, when in February 1779 an Edinburgh chapel house was looted and burnt down, followed by attacks on the homes of known Catholics. Bishop Hay himself narrowly escaped capture by the mob, and peace was only restored in the city, after the provost of Edinburgh announced that the Catholic Relief Bill (Scotland) had been withdrawn.

The Scottish Protestants collaborated with the English  to set up the ‘Protestant Association’ with the avowed purpose of ‘rousing the whole country to the dangers of a Popish conspiracy’, with their objective the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act.  At the end of the year Lord George Gordon was elected President.  Not yet thirty years of age, he was the member of Parliament for a small Wiltshire borough, notorious for warning Parliament at every opportunity of the growing danger of popery. He belonged to a famous family which until recent years had been staunchly Catholic. His father, the third Duke of Gordon, had been brought up as a Catholic, and lived in a Catholic part of Scotland; and his aunt the Duchess of Perth, had been a mainstay of Scottish Catholicism.

                                     Lord George Gordon
Described as eccentric, Lord George Gordon certainly bordered on the unstable. However this very instability made him a reckless and formidable leader. In January 1780 he asked the Prime Minister, Lord North, to present to Parliament a petition from the ‘Protestant Association’, a request which was refused. Lord George  then applied directly to the King, who was obliged to receive him for to ignore him could be interpreted as  showing disloyalty to the Protestant cause. In support of the aim of the ‘Association’, arrangements were put in hand to collect a vast number of signatures to present to Parliament.  Lord Petre tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Lord George from his planned course of action, and on June 2nd a large concourse assembled at St George’s Fields to accompany Lord George to the House of Commons to deliver the Protestant petition. In his address to  supporters, Lord George promised to share himself in every danger that might lie ahead, protesting that ‘the only way is to go in a bold manner, and show that we are resolved to defend Protestantism with our lives’, and ‘to remember the Scotch carried their point by their firmness’. Blue cockades, the insignia of the Protestant Association, were worn by all, also by many thousands of onlookers who soon saw the wisdom of complying with the truculent demands of the demonstrators. The marchers converged on the Houses of Parliament, and took control of all the roads leading thereto. As members of both Houses arrived they were forced out of their carriages, ordered to wear the blue cockade and shout ‘no Popery’.  Those members known to have supported the Bill, were forced to run the ‘gauntlet’ to enter the House, at risk of their lives.

 When the Commons went into Session, with the mob rioting outside,  Lord George, from the Gallery staircase, delivered a commentary of proceedings to those in earshot. The Prime Minister, Lord North, sent for the Guards, and the crowds dispersed, but in a clearly pre-arranged manner, with part going immediately to the Bavarian chapel in Golden Square, and part to the recently rebuilt Sardinian chapel in Lincoln Inn’s Fields. Both chapels were then looted, wrecked, and set on fire.

                          The Gordon Riots - John S. Lucas

At the time, Bishop Challoner was in his bed in lodgings about one mile away. He was warned to escape whilst there was still time as the mob were on their way to capture him, and he took temporary shelter with his friend Mr Mawhood, an army clothier, who had business premises in Smithfield and a country house in Finchley, where Challoner was taken  to stay until the danger had passed. Meanwhile houses and factories belonging to Catholics were systematically attacked and set on fire, and it was apparent that detailed advance planning had been undertaken to identify Catholic targets. Newgate Prison was attacked, the prisoners were released and the building set alight. A large distillery at Holborn Hill was attacked, looted and set on fire, visible for miles around. Other buildings attacked and damaged included the Bank of England, Kings Bench Prison and Fleet Prison. From fear of the rioters, blue cockades were displayed on every house. Troops were stationed in public parks, but magistrates were afraid to call them out, until eventually at the King’s instigation, they were ordered onto the streets and relative peace was restored.

A few days later Challoner returned to London, only to find that every chapel of any size, including the Embassy chapels, had been destroyed. This was a particularly  bitter blow, for there was nowhere for the Catholic laity to hear Mass, and nowhere for Challoner to meet them and support them in their distress. He was personally penniless, nearly all his old friends, Bishops, clergy, and laity, had died, and as he approached his 90th birthday, there was  little that he could do to help his demoralised flock.

The ‘Political Magazine’ of Wednesday, 3rd June 1780, printed the following:-          
'This morning, horror was painted on the face of every peaceable citizen. Besides the fury and malignity of the original insurgents, party men and individuals taking advantage of the insurrection had begun to wreak their vengeance on all they disliked; and to all the former insurgents were now added at least 1000 felons, composed of robbers, highwaymen, housebreakers and thieves of every denomination.  Blue cockades now became universal; blue flags were hung out at the doors and windows of almost every house in and about the metropolis, and there was hardly a house to be seen that had not written in different parts of it, the watchword of the insurgents, ‘No Popery’.

The Riots resulted in  a total of 285 rioters killed, with 173 wounded, and 139 arrested.  25 were ultimately tried and hanged, with 12 imprisoned, and an estimated £180,000 worth of property was destroyed.

Outside London there had been spasmodic demonstrations, but with no serious damage except at Hull and in Bath where the Vicar Apostolic of the Western District had his residence, together with the entire archives of the Western District,  completely destroyed by fire.

After the riots, Lord George Gordon was arrested,  tried for 'High Treason', and was acquitted. He then seems to have lost his enthusiasm for the Protestant religion,  moving to France where he abjured Protestantism and adopted the Jewish religion, growing a long beard and denouncing all Jews who did not do likewise. He became involved in politic disputes,  leading him to be charged with libelling both Queen Marie Antoinette and the French ambassador in London. The libels resulted in his imprisonment for five years in Newgate, where he died in his early forties, from typhoid. It would appear that whilst in prison, he was conscientious in the practice of his new faith, was popular among the Jewish community, and was generous and charitable towards other prisoners.

                    Lord George Gordon - Convert to Judaism
It was some consolation that the government soon recognised the claim to compensation for all those whose property had suffered in the riots, but those days and nights of terror had left an indelible mark on many who endured them. Bishop Challoner still attended his weekly clergy conferences, but it was noted that ‘he dwelt much on the subject of death, intimating that his own dissolution was at hand, and lamenting with unfeigned sentiments of contrition and humility, that he had not served God better’.

On January 10th, 1781, at 25 Gloucester Street, London, Bishop Challoner suffered a stroke, and two days later he died, with his chaplains in attendance. He was buried in the family vault of a friend Mr Bryan Barrett, at Milton, Berkshire, where according to the legal requirements of the time, the parson had to read the Anglican burial service. 
The plate on the coffin was inscribed “Right Revd. Doctor Richard Challoner, Bishop of Debra”, and in the Parish Register, the presiding clergyman wrote,
 “Anno Domini 1781, January 22. Buried the Reverend Richard Challoner, a Popish Priest and Titular Bishop of London and Salisbury, a very pious and good man, of great learning and extensive abilities”.
N.B. .The reference to Salisbury indicated uncertainty on the clergyman’s part, for his own diocese was Salisbury, and he presumed that Catholics had the same Bishop for both London and Salisbury. 
In 1946, the body of Bishop Challoner was interred and removed to Westminster Cathedral.

In many ways the great revival of the English Catholic Church in the 19th century, owed much to the apostolic zeal for souls and the pastoral care of this holy Bishop. His writings particularly, kept the flame of Catholicism burning  in an England steeped in Protestantism; writings which provided  spiritual counsel, encouragement, and learning, on all matters Catholic, a constant source of sound spiritual direction for those of his own time and generations to come. He and his fellow Bishops and Priests laboured in rocky soil, but not in vain. By their labours and prayers and with the grace of God, the Catholic religion survived in England, enabling others to later reap the rich rewards of Catholic emancipation and the full re-establishment of the Church in the 19th century. The cause for the beatification of Bishop Challoner has been rumbling on for many years, and some four years ago the Dean of Birmingham Cathedral expressed an interest in reviving it.
           Tomb of Bishop Challoner in Westminster Cathedral
                 Prayer for the Beatification of Bishop Challoner

O God, who didst make thy servant Richard a true and faithful pastor of thy little flock in England, deign to place him among the blessed in thy Church, so that we who profit by his word and example, may beg his help in Heaven, for the return of this land to the ancient faith, and to the fold of the one true Shepherd, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.

(Ack to 'Bishop Challoner' by Denis Gwynn
published by Douglas Organ 1946.)

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