If you were a Roman Catholic (or Dissenter) during Jane Austen’s day, your social opportunities were very limited owing to the Test Acts. During the late 17th century, legislation was introduced so that only Anglicans could hold public office (military or civil), go to Oxford or Cambridge University, or study law. So Catholics (and Dissenters and Jews) were in effect banned from many professions. Catholics could not inherit land, or have their own schools. (The Book of Common Prayer still included a special service giving thanks for the nation’s deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot by rogue Catholics in 1605).
The Prince of Wales’ secret marriage to Catholic actress Maria Fitzherbert in 1785 put his succession to the throne in jeopardy – luckily for him, their union was illegal under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.
By late Georgian times, religious groups began campaigning to repeal the Test Acts. But popular sentiment was against change – people believed that the church and state would be endangered if Catholic ‘emancipation’ was
|The Gordon riots.|
An encounter between Mrs. Fitzherbert and Mrs. Schwellenberg (the Queen’s lady-in-waiting) each with a ‘second’: the Prince of Wales, his hands on his lady's waist, and William Pitt holding out a lemon to the furious German lady. C.1789. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-6452.
‘No Popery’ rioters burn down Newgate prison during the Gordon Riots of June 1780. Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Vol. VI, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1864.