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Dr Patrick Curtis (1740-1832)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949). The original biography was written by Henry Morse Stephens in 1888.

Patrick Curtis, who became the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, was born in Ireland in 1740, and was probably educated at the Irish College of Salamanca, to which he must have returned, after serving as a parish priest in Ireland, about 1778, for in a letter to the Duke of Wellington in 1819 he says that he had been absent from Ireland for forty years before his return in 1818, and in a letter in 1813 that he had been connected with the college for thirty-three years before its dissolution in 1811.

He was regius professor of astronomy and natural history at the university of Salamanca, and had held the post of rector of the Irish college there for many years, when he was arrested as a spy by the French in that city in 1811. That he gave very valuable information to Wellington in that and the following year there can be no doubt from the duke's frequent mention of his valuable services, and high recommendations of him to the Spanish authorities, but there is no document published which states them in detail. He was probably one of those informants in high places of whom Wellington speaks, through whose information the English general was able to strike such sudden and unexpected blows at the French armies, and he certainly entertained Wellington under his roof during the English occupation of Salamanca in 1812, just before the battle near that city.

[One] of Wellington's 'religious irregulars' was the 72-year old Reverend Dr Patrick Curtis ... Known to the people of Salamanca as Don Patricio Cortés, he headed his own network which extended throughout occupied Spain and north across the Pyrenees. During the course of the way, there were only four names on the college books, Burke, Shea, O'Grady and O'Kelly — all of whom were absent, working as guides and interpreters for the British army. although the French had their suspicions, it was only after the battle of Salamanca (22 July 1812), when Wellington met Curtis, that his cover was blown. When the French briefly retook Salamanca in 1813 Curtis was forced to flee, and thus a valuable set of eyes behing enemy lines was lost.

Terry Crowdy, The Enemy Within: a history of espionage (2006) p. 155.

He determined to return to Ireland in 1813, in which year Wellington gave him letters of introduction, but did not actually return until 1818, unless the date given in the letter quoted above is a misprint for 1813. He lived quietly in Dublin on a pension granted him by the government for his services in the Peninsula until 1819, when the Irish Roman Catholic bishops, probably on account of his known friendship with the Duke of Wellington, determined to recommend him to the Pope for the vacant archbishopric of Armagh and titular primacy of all Ireland. On this he wrote a curious letter to the duke, dated 4 February 1819, in which he says that he only consented to be nominated on condition that he might give notice to the ministers and obtain their approval, and the duke recommended Curtis most warmly to Lord Sidmouth as an ‘honest, loyal man, who behaved well throughout the war,’ and to Lord Castlereagh.

The great age of Curtis, and his long absence from Ireland, caused his influence to be overshadowed during his primacy by more vigorous prelates, but his attitude towards the English government, and his opposition to O'Connell and the agitation of the Catholic Association, are extremely noteworthy. Nevertheless, he was naturally in favour of Catholic Emancipation, and ardently advocated such a measure in his evidence before the committee of the House of Lords on the state of Ireland on 21 March 1825, in which he asserted that there was an essential difference between the obedience owed by Catholics to their sovereign and to the Pope, and that the two were not incompatible.

From his advanced age, Curtis was allowed a coadjutor in the person of Dr. Kelly, bishop of Dromore, in December 1828, in which month he wrote a remarkable letter to Wellington, proposing that the characters and careers of all nominees to Catholic Sees should be examined and approved by a competent official before their names should be sent to the Pope, or before they were put in possession of their Sees. The duke's answer to this letter of 11 December marked an epoch in the history of Catholic Emancipation. In it he distinctly showed himself in favour of Catholic Emancipation, but recommended the Catholics to bury their grievances in oblivion for a time. The letter had an important effect in the political world. A copy of it was sent to the Marquis of Anglesey, who was then viceroy, and he wrote an equally remarkable letter to Curtis on 23 December, in which he declared his entire opposition to the duke's opinion, and says that ‘every constitutional means should be adopted to force on the measure.’ In consequence of this letter Lord Anglesey was recalled from Ireland, but other reasons were alleged at the time.

The Duke of Wellington was extremely angry at the publication of his letter, and sent Curtis a very stiff note on the subject, to which the Archbishop wrote an elaborate defence. Curtis did not long survive the settlement of the great question of Catholic Emancipation. He died of cholera at Drogheda on 26 Aug. 1832.

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