On April 21, 1812, a 24-year-old baron stood up in the British House of Lords to speak in favor of Catholic emancipation. While it was only his second time rising to speak in Parliament, he made pointed claims. He called the state of Great Britain a “state of exclusion,” and the Church of England “an intolerant church.”1
Speaking directly about the exclusion and intolerance directed towards the Catholics he continued his speech by naming a great misconception about them: “The Catholics are contented, or at least ought to be, as we are told.” His sarcasm then becomes clear: “I shall, therefore, proceed to touch on a few of those circumstances which so marvelously contribute to their exceeding contentment.”
The rest of his speech specifies their persecution. Starting with injustices in the military, he claimed that Catholics are not allowed to practice their religion, but are forced to attend Protestant services. Turning to injustice in the courts, he told an anecdote about a man who was acquitted by a “Protestant jury” for killing a Catholic man. Perhaps one of his most piercing claims involved the treatment of the Catholic poor. Catholic children, the baron claimed, have been “kidnapped from their Catholic connections by their rich and powerful Protestant neighbors,” and then enrolled in Protestant schools. The schools, he continued, are where the “viper of intolerance deposits her young,” making these children grow up to “sting the Catholic.” The baron’s most incendiary message comes afterward: “Better would it be to send them . . . to those islands in the South Seas, where they might more humanely learn to become cannibals; it would be less disgusting that they would be brought up to devour the dead, than persecute the living.” Perhaps many parliamentary speeches contain such rhetorical devices in an attempt to persuade an audience. This speech, however, sounded like a “recitation of poetry,”2 which certainly fits its speaker, the English Romantic poet Lord Byron.
Byron was not the only English Romantic poet to be invested in religious liberty. While he promoted emancipation in England, Percy Bysshe Shelley, the other “radical” Romantic poet, spoke out in Dublin against the injustices the Irish Catholics suffered. Other Romantic poets, such as John Keats, also favored Catholic emancipation; Byron and Shelley, however, were most actively involved in this movement. Byron and Shelley promoted Catholic emancipation in and out of their literary works, even though they disagreed with some Catholic beliefs and practices.
As a member of the aristocracy, Byron had a rich education and opportunities for traveling abroad. Byron’s home life, though, was full of turbulence. He had gained the title of lord at the meager age of 10 when his uncle died, since his father had already passed when Byron was 3. Before receiving the title, Byron had been raised by his mother in a poor household in Scotland where he was “indoctrinated with the Calvinistic morality of Scottish Presbyterianism,”3 which reportedly caused Byron’s “‘irritation’ toward religion.”4 What a change he must have felt, leaving this home to attend Harrow and then the Trinity College at Cambridge. It was his travels, moreover, that significantly shaped Byron’s legendary persona. With a friend he made at Trinity College, Byron went on a major trip in 1809, “a tour through Portugal and Spain to Malta, and then to little-known Albania, Greece, and Asia Minor.”5 International influences then become vivid in Byron’s writing. From Greek and Persian mythologies to Turkish tales, Byron introduced much of England to foreign, captivating stories. Byron’s own introduction to the myriad of beliefs he encountered made him question the superiority of one belief system over another. He had “cultivated a skepticism about established systems of belief.”6 Very soon after this world tour, Byron stood in Parliament denouncing established religion.
It would not be fair to say that Byron solely fought for the Catholic claims. Byron calls for equal treatment and opportunity for not just Catholics, but for those of all religious affiliations. Quoting from William Paley, the late-eighteenth-century Christian apologetic, Byron suggests that those of different religious beliefs should strive to work together peacefully: Byron asks, “What says Paley?” “‘I perceive no reason why men of different religious persuasions should not sit upon the same bench, deliberate in the same council, or fight in the same ranks.’” Quoting Paley most likely surprised Byron’s audience, since he next discusses Paley’s standing in the church, noting that some do not see him as “orthodox.” Byron does not, however, qualify this line from Paley. He means to expand the current parliamentary motion to a vaster realm, and thus uses his position as a lord to lend an egalitarian voice. In his speech, then, Catholic emancipation appears to be the first religious liberty act of many he would like to see take place.
Much like his speech on the Catholic claims, Byron defends Catholics in his literary work. In particular, his poetic drama Manfred (1817) calls attention to the misconceptions of Catholic clergy. This “drama of ideas” features Manfred, a Byronic hero, who has committed an unspeakable crime, and therefore wishes to die.7 Attempting to help him, an abbot arrives at Manfred’s dwelling. Manfred greets the father warmly, creating a positive depiction of the abbot: “Thanks, holy father! welcome to these walls; / Thy presence honours them, and blesseth those / Who dwell within them.”8 When the abbot learns of Manfred’s affliction and offers his help, Manfred requests that he take his life, which causes the abbot’s response: “I come to save, and not destroy. / I would not pry into thy secret soul.”9 What is curious about this response is that Manfred never accuses the abbot of prying into his “secret soul.” It is as if these lines address Protestant readers who are suspicious of Catholic clergy, believing that they have evil intentions. The abbot, rather, comes across as a sincere helper, telling Manfred that there is still time for “penitence and pardon.” That Manfred chooses death over following the abbot’s advice is to show that Manfred represents a completely independent person rather than to critique the abbot. No entity could influence Manfred throughout the play. The abbot reveals his own noble character, which most likely challenged the reader with biases against the Catholic clergy.
Just because Byron defends the Catholic Church does not mean that his beliefs align with Catholicism. Manfred, for instance, strongly disagrees with some of the abbot’s theology. When the abbot tells Manfred that there is still time to be forgiven, it is “with the true church, and through the church to heaven.” Manfred rejects this idea, protesting that his penitence “doth rest between / Heaven and [himself].” Manfred believes that he does not need any intercessors. As sympathies commonly lie with Manfred in this tale, his belief here is elevated above the abbot’s belief. Byron shows that he can critique Catholic theology while still promoting Catholic emancipation.
However, Byron’s heroes do not necessarily represent Byron. This conflation has been long-going: “Byron’s contemporaries insisted on identifying the author with his fictional characters, reading his writing as veiled autobiography even when it dealt with supernatural themes.”10 Byron, indeed, might have desired these comparisons, as they added to his mystique. Those close to Byron knew better: “His own temperament was in many respects opposite to that of his heroes.”11 Specific comparisons between Byron and a Byronic hero therefore need affirmation outside of the literary work.
When it comes to Manfred’s objection to the abbot’s theology, Byron does seem to agree with him. Byron’s words outside of this dramatic poem assert his belief that no intercessors between man and God are needed. When a relative attempted to convert Byron to orthodox beliefs, the poet tried to convince him that it was useless, claiming, “in Morality I prefer Confucius to the Ten Commandments, and Socrates to St. Paul. . . . In Religion I favor the Catholic emancipation, but do not acknowledge the Pope.”12 Manfred’s objection to the abbot, then, does mirror Byron’s own beliefs. Ultimately Byron did not have to agree with Catholic beliefs in order to promote their liberty. His promotion of equality, in other words, was not a move toward religious pluralism.
Like Byron, Shelley’s involvement in the Catholic emancipation movement did not stem from holding common beliefs with Catholics. Also like Byron, Shelley decided early on to promote equality. Shelley had been a child “mercilessly baited by older and stronger boys,” and thus early on “dedicated his life to a war against injustice and oppression.”13 Shelley’s experience at university was markedly different than Byron’s, however. After sending out a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism to the religious authority at Oxford, Shelley was expelled. Sending out this manuscript to church authorities makes this action seem inevitable; but Shelley still felt “shock and grief” over the decision.14 His own religious persecution may have played a role in his promotion of religious liberty for others. Shelley traveled to Dublin in 1812, the same year as Byron’s Parliamentary speech, to further the cause of Catholic emancipation. He brought with him his pamphlet An Address to the Irish People. More so than Byron, Shelley critiques the Catholics while still promoting their rights. He criticized their beliefs and practices in the opening of his pamphlet, bringing up the Inquisition, the “vices of Monks and Nuns in their Convents,” and the practice of paying money to absolve crimes, no matter how “monstrous” those crimes were.15 He even dares to assert that the “Monks and the Priests of old were very bad men.” Shelley certainly chose a curious way to engage his audience.
He does, eventually, turn to religious liberty, and what keeps this liberty from materializing. Like Byron, Shelley deplores the religious intolerance in the military. He claims that the Irish Catholics “pay for war with their lives and labor,” but since their freedoms, like religious liberty, are withheld, their involvement in the military is “for nothing at all.” To Shelley, this, among other injustices, is unacceptable. His egalitarian voice rings out as Byron’s did during his speech. Shelley announces that “liberty should be possessed equally by all.” His turn from criticism to grand statements such as this one shows Shelley’s hope for the Irish Catholics’ future. Yet Shelley acknowledges that the present king, George III, has been “inimical” to the Irish. With the king obstructing the Irish’s call for religious liberty, the reality of this liberty appeared uncertain. He then reassures his Irish audience that this king who had refused their emancipation would soon be dead, claiming that “he will in a certain time be no more.” Shelley shows real bravery in condemning the king’s actions and voicing joy over his upcoming death. Making this risky move in 1812, Shelley shows his true support for the Irish Catholic movement, even with his condescension earlier in the pamphlet.
Even though the king did not die for another eight years, Shelley continued making risky moves in his literary work. King George III, while having been officially declared insane in 1811, would live until 1820. As the king clung to life, Shelley’s sentiments in his prose made their way to anguish in his poetry. In his sonnet “England in 1819,” Shelley bemoans that King George III is still alive. With the staccato-like first line, Shelley draws attention to his descriptions of the king: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King.” Shelley’s reasoning for why he despises the king may be summed up by one word in the poem: “liberticide.” This killer of liberty certainly created a host of those who grew infuriated.
Shelley must have sensed the possibility for violence early on, as he warned against all violence during his 1812 visit. When Shelley speaks of emancipation, it is not without caution. He asks how emancipation will be reached, and then answers his own question: “What are the means which I take for melioration? Violence, corruption, rapine, crime? Do I do evil, that good may come? I have recommended peace, philanthrophy, wisdom.”16 If this message were not clear enough, Shelley implores in his pamphlet, “In no case employ violence.” He repeats something similar to this phrase more than once throughout the work. Shelley’s absolute is striking and not without experienced reasoning.
Shelley’s warning derives from his regrets of the French Revolution, a disillusioning revolution for the Romantics. In his pamphlet to the Irish, Shelley alludes to the Reign of Terror: “The French Revolution, although undertaken with the best intentions, ended ill for the people; because violence was employed, the cause which they vindicated was that of truth, but they gave it the appearance of a lie.” Shelley uses the familiar horrors of the revolution to impart to the Irish the necessity of a peaceful emancipatory movement. Shelley encouraged the Irish Catholics not to join in violent mobs, but “never to cease writing and speaking” for their rights, which must have sounded easier for an outsider to say.
Yet Shelley sees his outsider status as one of his merits, adding to his pamphlet’s many rhetorical blunders. Shelley believes he can be more objective as an outsider: “I am not a Protestant, nor am I a Catholic, and therefore not being a follower of either of these religions, I am better able to judge between them.” These words would have most likely sounded condescending, if the Irish reader even read this far. The very first words of the pamphlet could have kept the Irish from reading any further. Shelley suggests to his struggling audience, “I am not an Irishman, yet I can feel for you,” a line most likely met with skepticism rather than intrigue. Apart from his “rhetorically inept” criticism of Catholic heritage,17 Shelley criticized the Irish’s consumption of alcohol. He advised them to “lay up the money with which [they] usually purchase drunkenness and ill-health.” The many issues in Shelley’s pamphlet were not without consequence. He was called back early by William Godwin, whom Shelley saw as his mentor. Shelley’s entire trip, which focused predominately on his pamphlet, seemed to fail. The early historian William St. Clair saw Shelley’s trip as a “disillusioning failure.”18 Shelley’s trip to fight injustice seemed in vain.
The outcome of Byron’s speech was not any better than Shelley’s expedition. With 174 “noncontents” to 102 “contents,” “The Earl of Donoughmore’s Motion for a Committee on the Roman Catholic Claims” failed.19 Byron’s name appears listed on the side of the minority vote. Even though the vote was not even for Catholic emancipation, but solely to form a committee, it still failed. Both Shelley’s trip and Byron’s speech have the appearance of failing.
There would, however, be another parliamentary vote 17 years after Byron’s speech that would pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. As one scholar notes for Shelley: “It turns out that Shelley was right in terms of winning Catholic emancipation, for it was secured in 1829 largely along the lines sketched out by Shelley.”20 Byron and Shelley had become like the poets outlined in Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry: “Poets,” Shelley provocatively claims, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”21 Unfortunately, both of these poets died before 1829. Shelley drowned when a storm took out his boat on the Gulf of Spezia in 1822 when he was just shy of 30 years old. Byron, as one would almost expect, found himself training to fight with the insurgent Greeks against the Ottoman Empire. He died of a fever there in Greece at the age of 36, just two years after Shelley died. Shelley’s words in his pamphlet appear nearly prophetic: “During our life-time, we cannot hope to see the work of virtue and reason finished now; we can only lay the foundation for our posterity.” Standing up for the religious liberty of others may very well initially end in failure, which could cultivate excuses for why we ought to not even try. In his speech, Byron casts away these excuses: “It is not the time, say they, or it is an improper time, or there is time enough yet.” Perhaps Byron and Shelley sensed what little time they had.
1 George Gordon Byron, Thomas Moore, and John W. Croker, The Life of Lord Byron (London: John Murray, 1851), vol. 2.
2 Ibid., pp. 678-681.
3 Jack Stillinger, Deidre Lynch, Stephen Greenblatt, and M. H. Abrams. “George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824),” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), vol. D, pp. 607-611.
4 Benita Eisler, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 474.
5 Stillinger et al., p. 609.
6 Ibid., p. 607.
7 Jack Stillinger, Deidre Lynch, Stephen Greenblatt, and M. H. Abrams, “Manfred,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), vol. D, pp. 635, 636.
8 George Gordon Byron, “Manfred,” The Norton Anthology: English Literature, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 8th ed. (New York: Norton, 2006), vol. D, pp. 636-639.
9 Ibid., p. 660.
10 Stillinger, et al,. "George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788=1824)," pp. 607-611.
12 Eisler, p. 142.
13 Jack Stillinger, Deidre Lynch, Stephen Greenblatt, and M. H. Abrams, “Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822),” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), vol. D, pp. 741-744.
15 Percy Bysshe Shelley, An Address to the Irish People.
17 Michael Scrivener, “Politics, Protest, and Social Reform: Irish Pamphlets, Notes to Queen Mab, Letter to Lord Ellenborough, A Philosophical View of Reform,” The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Tony Howe and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 165.
18 Ibid, p. 164.
19The Parliamentary Debates From the Year 1803 to the Present Time (London: T. C. Hansard, 1812), vol. 22.
20 Scrivener, p. 167.
21 Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 8th ed. (New York: Norton, 2006), vol. D, pp. 837-850.
Author: Lauren Peterson
Lauren Peterson writes from Calhoun, Georgia.