The Image Bank

William Gladstone

William Gladstone

William Gladstone

In January 1845 William Gladstone, then president of the Board of Trade, resigned from Robert Peel’s Conservative government over the question of whether the British government should pay for the training of Roman Catholic priests in Ireland. The Peel government’s decision to increase the state grant to the Roman Catholic seminary at Maynooth near Dublin clashed with Gladstone’s earlier thinking on the state’s relationship with religion. Throughout the later 1830s and early 40s Gladstone had preached that it was the duty of the British government to support a national religious establishment that represented the ‘conscience’ of the united nations of Britain and Ireland: this establishment was the Church of England. Curiously, however, Gladstone would actually vote in favour of the Maynooth grant when it came before the House of Commons three months later in April 1845. Contemporary politicians could not understand his behaviour and Gladstone would later call his resignation an error brought on by ‘religious fanaticism’. But Gladstone’s actions are interesting as they raise questions about how politicians separate the realms of government and principle and seek to act with integrity; his subsequent career (Gladstone was back in government in December 1845) is also an important case study for how nineteenth-century politicians sought to reconcile their private interests and principles with the interests of ‘good government’.

Gladstone features in our Portraits of Integrity project. Further readings and discussion are introduced by Dr Joe Hardwick.

Suggested reading

  • Perry Butler 1982. Gladstone: Church, State and Tractarianism. A Study of His Religious Ideas and Attitudes, 1809-1859 (Oxford), chapter four.
  • H. C. G. Matthew 1999. Gladstone 1809-1898, chapter three.

Primary source extracts

  • John H. Newman to W. E. Gladstone, 18 April 1845, and W. E. Gladstone to Newman, 19 April 1845in Peter Erb (ed.), The Correspondence of Henry Edward Manning to William E. Gladstone, 1833-91, vol. 5 (Oxford, 2013).
  • W. E. Gladstone, Substance of a Speech for the Second Reading of the Maynooth College Bill, in the House of Commons, on Friday, April 11, 1845 (London: John Murray, 1845) [extract]
  • D. C. Lathbury, Correspondence on Church and Religion of William Ewart Gladstone, in Two Volumes, vol. I (New York, 1910), chapter two [extracts]
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