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Cisalpine Club

Association of Catholic laymen

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Cisalpine Club, an association of Catholic laymen formed in England to perpetuate the movement which had found expression in the “Declaration and Protestation” signed by the Catholic body in 1789. These principles represent a remarkable reaction against the attitude hitherto traditional among Catholics, which seems to have begun about the time of the death of the Pretender in 1766. Up to then they had been stanch Jacobites, and had looked to the restoration of the Stuarts as the only chance for a revival of Catholicity. About this time, however, by what Berington calls “one of those singular revolutions for which no cause can be assigned” (State and Behavior of English Catholics in 1780, p. 134), they gave up their former political aspirations, and frankly accepted the reigning House of Hanover. Part of the reaction was a suspicion of the wisdom of their ecclesiastical rulers, who, they became convinced, had adopted in the past a needlessly strict attitude, opposed to English national aspirations, and which (they contended) had been dictated by the Court of Rome.

They reverted to the Oath of Allegiance of the reign of King James I, which they declared themselves willing to take, while some even maintained that the Oath of Supremacy could be interpreted in a sense not inconsistent with the Catholic religion.

These were the principles which animated the well-known Catholic Committee (1782-92) in their struggle for emancipation. The two chief leaders were Lord Petre and Sir John Throckmorton, both members of old Catholic families, who had suffered much in times past under the Penal Laws. They had the active assistance of Charles Butler, the distinguished lawyer, nephew of Alban Butler, who acted as secretary to the committee. The greater number (though by no means all) of the Catholic aristocracy, who in those days were the practical supporters of religion, sympathized with them, and, in a modified degree, some of the clergy, especially in London. One bishop, Charles Berington, was on their side, and the Rev. Joseph Wilkes, O.S.B., who was a member of the committee, went to great lengths in supporting them. Dr. James Talbot (Vicar Apostolic of the London District, 1781-90) also allowed his name to be added, and showed a weakness in opposing them which he regretted on his deathbed, and which made the task of his successor, Dr. Douglass (1790-1812), a difficult one.

Towards the end of the year 1788, Lord Stanhope, a member of the Established Church, desiring to help the committee, and believing that their supposed “Ultramontane” principles, and in particular their accredited belief in the “deposing power” of the pope, were the chief obstacles in their way, drew out a “Protestation” disclaiming these in unmeasured language. The committee adopted the Protestation and early in the following year called upon all Catholics to sign it. Butler admits that it was only with some difficulty that the bishops were induced to sign; but they did sign, and were followed by two hundred and forty priests (out of about two hundred and sixty), and by all the chief Catholic laymen of the country. Two of the bishops afterwards revoked their signatures, and Milner, who was one of those who had signed, took an active part in opposing the committee. The result of their labors was the Act of 1791. In the first draft there had been an “Oath of Declaration, Protestation and Allegiance”, based on the Protestation of 1789, but going to even greater lengths. This oath was definitely condemned by the bishops, led by the venerable Dr. Walmesley, in 1789 and 1791. After a sharp conflict it was removed from the bill during its passage through Parliament, and the Irish Oath of 1774 substituted. As the act in its final state failed to embody the principles of the Protestation, a new society was formed to perpetuate these, under the ominous title of “The Cisalpine Club”. Others besides the members of the Catholic Committee were invited to join the club, and the membership usually numbered between forty and fifty. They met four or five times a year, each meeting being preceded by a dinner. At first they took an active part in Catholic affairs, though consistently disclaiming any representative character. In several ways they succeeded in guarding Catholic interests, and by their influence a school was established at Oscott, directed by a governing body of laymen, though the headmaster was a priest, appointed by the bishop. After a few years, however, the Cisalpine Club ceased to perform any active work, and developed into a mere dining club. At the beginning the bishops had naturally viewed it askance, although indeed in private life the members were all devout and edifying, and often the chief supporters of Catholic charities. As time went on, their Cisalpine tendencies became less and less marked, and they got on good terms with Bishop Poynter (1803-1826), who only regretted the unfortunate name of the club. Soon after the passing of Catholic Emancipation (1829) this was remedied by the members reforming themselves into a new club, which they called the “Emancipation Club”, and which continued for seventeen more years before finally dissolving. (See Charles Butler; England. sub-title Since the Reformation.)


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