Catholics under King Charles III

Catholics under King Charles III

Mary Kenny is an internationally renowned author, journalist and broadcaster. She has a special interest in the relationship between England and Ireland. In this article she considers the position of Catholics under the new Carlovian era.


MY LATE husband — an Anglican  — believed he had spotted an ideal bride for Prince Charles, in his bachelor days. The candidate was Archduchess Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg, about whom there had been rumours of a possible romance with Charles during the 1970s. My spouse thought that a dynastic marriage between royals would be successful, because someone with such a background would “know the ropes”, do her duty, and not embarrass anyone. The Luxembourg damsel was also intelligent, and a trained nurse.

But Marie-Astrid, just six years younger than Charles, was eventually ruled out a possible bride by the powers that be: she was a Roman Catholic and the Act of Settlement of 1701, specifically forbade a Catholic marriage partner for an heir to the British crown. So it was not to be, and when Princess Diana gave her shattering Panorama interview, my other half remarked acidly that Marie-Astrid would never have done that. (The Archduchess subsequently married Carl Christian of Austria, had five children, and apparently lived happily ever after.)

Although the regulations have since been relaxed, for a long time it was impermissable for any senior member of the British royal family to marry a Catholic: a Jewish, Hindu, Muslim or Eastern Orthodox spouse were all acceptable, but not a “Papist”. When Prince Michael of Kent – first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II – married the Catholic Marie-Christine von Reibnitz in 1978, he was obliged to renounce his succession rights to the throne (he was then 15th in line), and their wedding had to be a discreet civil ceremony. When Katharine, Duchess of Kent, wife of Michael’s brother, the Duke of Kent, converted to Catholicism in 1994 – the first member of the royals to do so since 1701 – she thereafter chose to retire to private life, concentrating on her vocation as a music teacher.

The taboo against British Catholics having any foothold within the royal family has a long pedigree: it was only in 1911, after the accession of King George V, that the draconian renounciation of all “Papist” associations was abolished within the Coronation oath.

And going back to Catholic Emancipation in 1829, for which Daniel O’Connell had fought so hard, there had been a formidable range of Establishment opposition to allowing Catholics a place in public life. As Antonia Fraser’s brilliant history The King and the Catholics elucidates, those rejecting emancipation (the legal right to vote and be elected)  included not only leading figures such as Robert Peel, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southy, but most of the Church of England, the Dukes of Newcastle and Liverpool, the Marquesses of Angelsey and Waterford, and most of the Hanoverian offspring of mad King George III (who had banned the words ‘Catholic Emancipation’), and eight of his nine sons.

Only the Duke of Sussex of the time admitted that the Catholics had a case, saying he thought it unlikely that the powers of Rome would overwhelm all of England, as cartoonists were suggesting. But as Antonia Fraser writes, it wasn’t just that Catholics scared the British Establishment; it was Ireland, that “millstone” which might have the capacity to upset so much of the social order.

And it would be hard to escape the conclusion that it was the fear of Irish rebellion – and prejudice against Irish Catholics too – which kept the social order so resolutely anti-Catholic. Queen Victoria, when she came to the throne in 1837, did become more measured: she developed a close friendship with the devoutly Catholic Empress Eugenie of France, who influenced her. Her son, Edward VII, was even more open to Catholic sensibilities, visiting Rome and making friends with the Pope. His long sojourns in Continental Europe made him feel comfortable in a Catholic ambience; and against Prime Minister Asquith’s advice he attended a requiem Mass at St James’s Church Spanish Place in 1908 after the assassination of the Portuguese king. It was predicted there would be anti-Papist riots in the streets, but there was no hostile public reaction at all.

Anglican or Protestant historians might point out that opposition to Catholics was partly based on the fear that, as with Guy Fawkes, they might be subversive to the state; or like the Jesuits under Elizabeth I, they might be intriguing with Spain. But for the monarchy itself, the seedbed of anti-Catholic barriers arguably lay with the Hanoverian succession: perhaps more than fifty legitimate Stuart claimants to the throne had been passed over to find a Protestant candidate, Sophia, Electress of Hanover.


The journey to acceptance

And so, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it has been a long journey for British Catholics from outsider status to an accepted part of the mainstream. Many British Catholics can claim Irish antecedants, but there have always been also (especially in Lancashire) Scottish and Welsh natives who retained the old faith after the Reformation. There was a proud tradition of English recusants who had yielded their privileges as gentry rather than change their religion – Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” being the fictional portrayal of that class.

Until modern times, British Catholics were not fully accepted as part of the ruling establishment. (Tony Blair thought it wise to wait until after he stepped down as PM to become a Catholic.) At the funeral of George VI, in 1952, there was no Roman Catholic presence at all. But it’s a measure of the changes that have now occurred that, at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral in September this year, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols played a prominent part in the proceedings, as did the Catholic Archbishops of Edinburgh and Cardiff; and Sir James MacMillan, the Catholic musicologist was chosen to provide settings for the musical score. Baroness Janet Scotland, a Catholic and a black woman from the Carribbean, read the lesson.

This is regarded as a harbinger of how King Charles III’s coronation will be conducted. Charles has long said he wished to be “defender of faiths”, not just the Church of England. He made a point of attending the canonisation in Rome of St John Newman in October 2019 (while the Irish Government sent a little-known Minister for Education, and only at the last minute, too.) Most British Catholics – whether they trace their heritage to Ireland, or, indeed Poland (a meaningful demographic), or are part of English or Scottish traditions – don’t now feel distanced, as once they might have done, from the monarchy.

The Succession Act – which had prohibited Catholics from marrying any presumptive heir to the throne – was amended in 2013, and fully implemented in March 2015. The ban has been lifted, although it is still impossible for a Catholic to ascend to the throne.

The present ecumenical mood among Christians in Britain owes much to social change, and more enlightened attitudes over the decades. But if we are honest, it may also owe something to the decline of Christianity, overall, in Britain: a recent poll showed that under half of the British population now regard themselves as Christian of any denomination.

At a time when the faith that came to Britain with St Augustine, and which underpinned the development of law, education, literature, art, architecture, music and society generally, is increasingly unknown among younger generations, perhaps all Christians need to work together as “defender of faiths”.