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The Ultra-Tories were an Anglican faction of British and Irish politics that appeared in the 1820s in opposition to Catholic emancipation. They were later called the "extreme right wing" of British and Irish politics. They broke away from the governing party in 1829 after the passing of the Catholic Relief Act 1829. Many of those labelled Ultra-Tory rejected the label and saw themselves as upholders of the Whig Revolution settlement of 1689. The Ultras were defending "a doctrine essentially similar to that which ministerial Whigs had held since the days of Burnet, Wake, Gibson and Potter".
A faction that was never formally organised, the Ultra-Tories were united in their antipathy towards the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel for what they saw as a betrayal of Tory political and religious principle on the issue of Catholic Emancipation. They took their opposition to Peel to the extent of running a candidate against Peel when he had to resign his Oxford University seat when taking up political office (a requirement for all MPs when taking a ministerial office then). Though Peel was able to get back to Parliament via another parliamentary seat, this battle between Tory factions further embittered internal relations in the party.
The Ultra-Tory faction was informally led in the House of Commons by Member of Parliament Sir Edward Knatchbull and Sir Richard Vyvyan. In the House of Lords they enjoyed the support of many ex-cabinet ministers and leading peers like the Duke of Cumberland, the Earl of Winchilsea and the Duke of Newcastle. Their general viewpoint could be described as extreme on the matter of defending the established Anglican ascendancy and barring Catholics from political office or influence. However on the issue of electoral reform they were split; a large group came to a view that it could strengthen the appeal of pro-Protestantism.
The inability of the Tories to reunite led to losses in the 1830 General election following the death of King George IV. Combined also with the news of the July Revolution in France and a series of bad harvests in England which saw a great increase in political agitation, some Ultras returned to the party. However there were sufficient Ultra-Tories left who were able to combine with the Whigs and the Canningite grouping (who had previously split from the main Tory party back in 1827-1828 over the issue of Catholic Emancipation which they had supported) to defeat Wellington who finally resigned in November 1830.
This led to the creation of a government with Lord Grey as Prime Minister and the leading Canningites like Lord Palmerston and Lord Melbourne. One leading Ultra-Tory, the Duke of Richmond, joined the Grey Cabinet and a few others appointed in more junior ministerial positions. However the scope of the subsequent reforms proved too much for many of the pro-government Ultras who then moved back into opposition. Eventually also Richmond left the Whig led coalition and returned to the Tory party (or the Conservative Party as it was generally now known) after 1834.
Clark (1985) depicts England before 1828 as a nation in which the vast majority of the people believed in the divine right of kings, and the legitimacy of a hereditary nobility, and in the rights and privileges of the Anglican Church. In Clark's interpretation, the system remained virtually intact until it suddenly collapsed in 1828, because Catholic emancipation undermined its central symbolic prop, Anglican supremacy. Clark argues that the consequences were enormous: "The shattering of a whole social order....What was lost at that point...was not merely a constitutional arrangement, but the intellectual ascendancy of a worldview, the cultural hegemony of the old elite." Clark's interpretation has been widely debated in the scholarly literature and almost every singly historian who has examined the issue has highlighted the substantial amount of continuity between the periods before and after 1828-32.
Evans (1996) emphasizes that the political importance of Catholic emancipation in 1829 was that it split the anti-reformers beyond repair and diminished their ability to block future reform laws, especially the great Reform Act of 1832. Paradoxically, Wellington's success in forcing through emancipation converted many Ultra-Tories to demand reform of Parliament. They saw that the votes of the rotten boroughs had given the government its majority. Therefore it was an ultra-Tory the Marquis of Blandford who in February 1830 introduced the first major reform bill, calling for the transfer of rotten borough seats to the counties and large towns, the disfranchisement of non-resident voters, preventing Crown office-holders from sitting in Parliament, the payment of a salary to MPs, and the general franchise for men who owned property. The ultras believed that a widely based the electorate could be relied upon to rally around anti-Catholicism.
Except for a few irreconcilables the vast bulk of the Ultra-Tories would eventually move over to the Conservatives, with some like Knatchbull, enjoying political office in Peel's first government in 1834. However when the party split again in 1846 over the issue of abolishing the Corn Laws - the remaining Ultra-Tories quickly rallied to the 'Protectionist' banner and helped to vote Peel out from office once again - this time for good.
- James J. Sack, ‘Ultra tories (act. 1827–1834)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 19 Sept 2011.
- J. J. Sack, From Jacobite to Conservative. Reaction and orthodoxy in Britain, c. 1760–1832 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 69.
- J. C. D. Clark, English Society, 1688-1832. Ideology, social structure and political practice during the ancien regime (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 408.
- J. C. D. Clark, pp 90, 409.
- Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England, 1783-1846 (Clarendon Press, 2006) pp. 668-671
- Professor Frank O'Gorman, review of English Society 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime, (review no. 41b) URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/41b Date accessed: 25 July, 2012
- Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870 (2nd ed. 1990) p 216
- Pearce and Stern, Government and Reform: Britain 1815-1918 (Second Edition), page 35. Hodder Murray, 2000