In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism

  • Introduction

Victorian Literature Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism
Carol Herringer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0102


At the beginning of the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church in Britain was small, quiescent, and lacking in power: it was dominated by a few aristocratic families (Arundel, Norfolk) and the rural gentry, and it was popularly characterized as un-English and idolatrous. By the end of the 19th century, it was a confident, more prosperous church with an established hierarchy, a much higher public profile, and a grand cathedral under construction at Westminster. Although institutional power had shifted from the laity to the episcopal hierarchy, some aristocrats—most notably the Earl of Shrewsbury, a major Roman Catholic patron—continued to be influential. Reflecting demographic changes in Britain as a whole, the Catholic population became more urban over the course of the century. The middle decades of the century saw the greatest gains for Roman Catholics, beginning with Catholic Emancipation (1829). The conversion of John Henry Newman in 1845 was the first of many high-profile conversions; he was followed most notably by Frederick W. Faber in 1845, Henry Edward Manning in 1851, and several of William Wilberforce’s sons. These well-educated, well-connected converts were crucial in making Roman Catholicism more accepted in British society. Especially at the beginning of Victoria’s reign, the growing public presence of Roman Catholics led to a revival of an energetic public anti-Catholicism that drew on past episodes such as the Gunpowder Plot (1605)—the telling of which identified Roman Catholics with traitors—and the ouster of the Roman Catholic James II in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689, which seemed to confirm the popular equation between Roman Catholicism and absolutism. Although Roman Catholics remained a small percentage of the population (only about 5 percent at mid-century, even after Irish immigration), anti–Roman Catholicism was one of the most intense public emotions of the period. It was so widespread and so accepted that even Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone voiced it. Anti–Roman Catholicism could take a violent turn, as in the riots against Catholic Emancipation and in the annual Guy Fawkes Day celebrations. In 1845, the Maynooth controversy (over Prime Minister Robert Peel’s proposal to increase and make permanent the grant to the Roman Catholic seminary in Maynooth, Ireland) provided another impetus for anti-Catholic sentiment. By the end of the Victorian period, however, anti–Roman Catholicism was in decline. The publication of Newman’s spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro vita sua (1865) helped to make Roman Catholicism more sympathetic. More significantly, the growth of secularism seems to have convinced Protestants that they had more to fear from nonbelievers than from their fellow Christians.

General Overviews

Some of the leading historians of the Victorian period have worked on the institutional and cultural histories of both Roman Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism, with the result that both phenomena have been well studied.

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