chapter  3
Historians and contemporary politics: 1780-1850
Pages 30

In the early nineteenth century, the history of the Reformation was written against the background of the debate about Roman Catholic emancipation which culminated in the passing of the· Emancipation Act in 1829. Catholics constituted a tiny minority within England and Scotland - there were perhaps 60,000 in England and half that number in Scotland in 1780. This minority was led by a number of ancient and prominent Catholic peers. According to Cobbett, in October 1821 'to be sure the Roman Catholic religion may, in England, be considered as a gentleman's religion, it being the most ancient in the country'. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, severe penal laws had restricted the lives of these Catholics, but by the reign of George III the application of these laws was much more lenient. From 1771 onwards a number of relief acts were passed to modify the penal legislation. By the Relief Act of 1778, Catholics could henceforward acquire land by inheritance or purchase and open schools without fear of life imprisonment. Freedom of worship was granted by the Relief Act of 1791. In 1793 these concessions were extended to Scottish Catholics. These were tremendous steps forward, but Catholics still suffered from considerable religious and civil disabilities . In Scotland they could not open schools.