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Beginning of the end — Penenden Heath—Dinner at the London
Tavern-Lord Cloncurry—The Premier and the Catholic Primate-Recal of Lord Anglesea—What was to be done?-Sir Robert Peel's reasons for concession-A midnight visit to Strathfieldsaye--Suppression of the Association-Dinner at Mr. Sheil's—The Relief Bill carried--Disfranchisement of the forty-shilling freeholders.
As symptoms of wavering betrayed themselves in quarters hitherto inaccessible alike to the influences of persuasion or fear, * popular feeling throughout England became aroused, and at public meetings and in the public prints, language the most unqualified, and
* In the latter part of 1828, Sir Robert Heron says, "the Duke of Wellington has shown some disposition to settle the Catholic question, which, indeed, he must be mad to oppose any longer. No one knows his intentions; yet he alone amongst the intolerants gives hope."-p. 174.
frequently the most unscrupulous, was held. Clergymen and lawyers vied with one another in the vehemence and variety of their denunciations of all concession; the warnings of history were reiterated; and, by anticipation, the contents of the prophetic vials were poured forth. Persons of quality no longer disdained to mingle their voices in the general clamour ; and it can hardly be doubted that, had a dissolution of Parliament occurred in 1828, a decided majority would have been returned in Great Britain upon the “No Popery” cry. The Whigs were divided; and the energy of radicalism was still undirected to any very definite or practical purpose. The unpopularity of the King was almost forgotten in the seclusion of Windsor; and the authority of a Government presided over by the Duke of Wellington was incontestably greater than that which any previous administration had possessed for many years. In the midst of this apparent strength and security the partisans of ascendency were, nevertheless, filled with misgivings. “The ambiguity of the Duke's speech (on Lord Lansdowne's motion, 9th of June) made the world uneasy."* Rumours, officially discredited, yet still not wholly disbelieved, began to circulate regard
* Letter of Lord Eldon, July 19th, 1828. Life, vol. iii., p. 55.
ing a change of opinion in the mind of the Irish Viceroy. We now know that these reports were not without foundation, although it was not until the close of the year that circumstances occurred which no longer left any doubt of their accuracy. Other indications, meanwhile, of irresolution on the part of Ministers* contributed to fire the zeal of those who still continued true to the principles of Perceval and Eldon. Public demonstrations in different parts of the kingdom were resolved on; if the Duke and Mr. Peel were really disposed to remain firm, their hands would be thereby strengthened; if a weak unwillingness to incur the responsibility of civil strife had begun to dim the eye of their party faith, the shout of assembled multitudes, headed by the nobles and the clergy of the realm, would recal the waverers to a sense of their duty, and “the constitution might yet be saved."
A meeting of the landed proprietors, clergy, and freeholders of the county of Kent was summoned for the 24th of October, to petition against Catholic Emancipation. The meeting was appointed to take place on Penenden Heath, and from the rank and in
* Letters of Lord Eldon during 1828. Life. pp. 33, 38, 54, 58.
fluence of its chief promoters, and the independent spirit traditionally ascribed to the yeomanry of that portion of the kingdom, more than ordinary importance was attached to the assemblage. Mr. Sheil conceived the bold idea of presenting himself in the midst of its proceedings, and remonstrating on his own behalf and that of his fellow worshippers against the meditated sentence of exclusion. The resolution once formed, he determined on not allowing his intention to be known, Mr. Woulffe, Mr. W. H. Curran, and one or two other intimate friends, being alone made aware of the design. A communication was made to a person resident in London, through whom a small freehold in Kent was purchased in his name, in order that no technical objection might be interposed in the way of his taking part in the business of the meeting; and a few days previous to that which had been appointed for the meeting he set out upon his singular and, for him, memorable mission.
On arriving at the place appointed, a message was conveyed to him from Lord Darnley by Mr. Shee, * requesting that he would not attempt to speak, lest it should be looked upon as an intrusion, and injure the cause which he designed to serve. He was not, how
* The present Sergeant Shee, M.P.
ever, to be turned from his purpose by sage advice of this description; and after Lord Winchilsea and Mr. Plumtree on the one side, and Lords Camden, Darnley, and Teynham, on the other, had spoken, he presented himself, and essayed to obtain a bearing; but the interruptions with which he was incessantly assailed rendered it impossible for any, except those who happened to stand near him, to catch more than a few consecutive words of his address. Though little accustomed to such a mode of reception, he persisted in delivering, almost verbatim, what he had prepared to say; and an accurate copy having been furnished by him to one of the evening papers, the audience whom he really desired to reach throughout every part of the kingdom, became in a few hours acquainted with what the men of Kent had refused to listen to. His selection of topics was at once courageous and discreet.
If any useful effect was to be produced, the prejudices that had become intensely national must, he felt, be shaken ; yet they must be shaken without offence to the national pride, and, if possible, removed without inflicting moral pain. Remonstrance against past and present injustice would have inevitably assumed too much of the tone of accusation; and though rebuke may