Catholic Emancipation, term applied to the process by which Roman Catholics in the British Isles were relieved in the late 18th and early 19th cent. of civil disabilities. They had been under oppressive regulations placed by various statutes dating as far back as the time of Henry VIII (see Penal Laws). This process of removing the disabilities culminated in the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 (and some subsequent provisions), but it had begun a number of years before. Priest hunting, in general, ended by the mid-18th cent.
In 1778, English Catholics were relieved of the restrictions on land inheritance and purchase. A savage reaction to these concessions produced the Gordon Riots (see Gordon, Lord George) of 1780, and the whole history of Catholic Emancipation is one of struggle against great resistance. In 1791 the Roman Catholic Relief Act repealed most of the disabilities in Great Britain, provided Catholics took an oath of loyalty, and in 1793 the army, the navy, the universities, and the judiciary were opened to Catholics, although seats in Parliament and some offices were still denied. These reforms were sponsored by William Pitt the Younger, who hoped thereby to split the alliance of Irish Catholics and Protestants. But Pitt's attempt to secure a general repeal of the Penal Laws was thwarted by George III. Pope Pius VII consented to a royal veto on episcopal nominations if the Penal Laws were repealed, but the move failed. In Ireland the repeal (1782) of Poynings' Law (see under Poynings, Sir Edward) was followed by an act (1792) of the Irish Parliament relaxing the marriage and education laws and an act (1793) allowing Catholics to vote and hold most offices.
By the Act of Union (1800) the Irish Parliament ceased to exist, and Ireland was given representation in the British Parliament. Then, since the Irish were a minority group in the British legislature, many English ministers began to advocate Catholic Emancipation, influenced also by the decline of the papacy as a factor in secular politics. Irish agitation, headed by Daniel O'Connell and his Catholic Association, was successful in securing the admission of Catholics to Parliament. In 1828 the Test Act was repealed, and O'Connell, although still ineligible to sit, secured his election to Parliament from Co. Clare. Alarmed by the growing tension in Ireland, the duke of Wellington, the prime minister, allowed the Catholic Emancipation Bill, sponsored by Sir Robert Peel, to pass (1829). Catholics were now on the same footing as Protestants except for a few restrictions, most of which were later removed. The Act of Settlement is still in force, however, and Catholics are excluded from the throne (though the Commonwealth nations where the British monarch is head of state agreed in 2011 to end the ban on the monarch's marrying a Catholic).
See studies by B. Ward (1911), D. Gwynn (1929), J. A. Reynolds (1954, repr. 1970), and G. I. T. Machin (1964); S. L. Gwynn, Henry Grattan and His Times (1939, repr. 1971).