Antonia Fraser’s last history book was about the 'perilous question' of parliamentary reform in 1832. The King and the Catholics takes on the 'abominable question' of Catholic emancipation three years earlier. It is also, Fraser writes, 'in one sense, the sequel' to her seminal study of the gunpowder plot. It deals with religious intolerance, xenophobia, rising populism, 'a people strangely fond of royalty' (Lord Holland’s observation), and a seemingly intractable Irish problem. It was the great issue of the day, 'mixed up with everything', one bishop noted, that 'we eat or drink or see or think' ... Fraser, a convert to Catholicism, as well as a descendant of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Longfords, tells the story with erudition, sprezzatura and a tremendous sense of fun. Every page is shot through with humour and humanity.
Fraser’s fourteenth work of nonfiction opens with one of the biggest bangs in English history, the extraordinarily destructive Gordon Riots of 1780 protesting the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which legalized priests, Catholic schools, and Catholic inheritance, balanced only by amending the oath of allegiance to repudiate the pope’s 'temporal' authority ... The chief heroes of the long Catholic emancipation campaign were Kerry County Catholic Daniel O’Connell, who insisted on nonviolence, and the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, whose insistent political pragmatism finally convinced the king ... As she has accomplished with so much modern British history, Fraser makes the story of the Catholic Question’s resolution riveting.
The King and the Catholics isn’t as magisterial as Mary Queen of Scots or as flat-out exciting as Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. Instead, it’s a convincing and worthy addition to the already impressive Fraser corpus ... Fraser’s presentation of this story is free of both footnote skirmishes and extravagant claims, but she devotes too much attention to the many minor players’ biographical minutiae at the expense of commentary and analysis of the complex, even self-contradictory situations that emerge in the course of her narrative ... There’s readerly consolation, however, in the book’s many small and wonderful discoveries.