Laws against Catholics

Two articles are included in the history blog to give context to the Catholic church in continual change and development and how history continues to effect how things are today

The Act of Supremacy 1534

Laws against Catholics and Cathlicism began in the Reformation under King Henry VIII  The Act of Supremacy 1534 declared the English crown to be "the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England" in place of the pope. Any act of allegiance to the pope was considered treasonous because the papacy claimed both spiritual and political power over its followers. It was under this act that Thomas More and John Fisher were executed and became martyrs to the Catholic faith.

The Act of Supremacy (which asserted England's independence from papal authority) was repealed in 1554 by Henry's devoutly Catholic daughter Queen Mary I when she reinstituted Catholicism as England's state religion. She executed many Protestants by burning.

Act of Supremacy 1559

Act of Uniformity

Queen Mary's actions were reversed by a new Act of Supremacy passed in 1559 under her successor, Elizabeth I, along with an Act of Uniformity which made worship in Church of England compulsory. Anyone who took office in the English church or government was required to take the Oath of Supremacy; penalties for violating it included hanging and quartering. Attendance at Anglican services became obligatory. Anyone who refused to attend Anglican services, whether Roman Catholics or Protestants (Puritans), were fined and physically punished as recusants. Anti-Catholicism among many of the English was grounded in the fear that the pope sought to reimpose power in alliance with arch-enemy France or Spain. In 1570, Pope Pius V sought to depose Queen Elizabeth with the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, which declared her a heretic and purported to dissolve the duty of all Elizabeth's subjects of their allegiance to her. This rendered Elizabeth's subjects who persisted in their allegiance to the Catholic Church politically suspect, and made the position of her Catholic subjects largely untenable if they tried to maintain both allegiances at once. The Recusancy Acts, making it a legal obligation to worship in the Anglican faith, date from Elizabeth's reign. Later, assassination plots in which Catholics were prime movers fueled anti-Catholicism in England.

Jesuits, etc. Act 1584

An act against Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons, also known as Jesuits, etc. Act 1584, as an Act of the Parliament of England during the English Reformation. The Act commanded all Roman Catholic priests to leave the country in 40 days or they would be punished for high treason, unless within the 40 days they swore an oath to obey the Queen. Those who harboured them, and all those who knew of their presence and failed to inform the authorities would be fined and imprisoned for felony, or where the authorities wished to make an example of them, they might be executed.

Anyone else who was, or was later brought up as, a Jesuit overseas had to return to England within six months, and then within two days of arriving swear to submit to the Queen and also take the oath required by the Act of Supremacy 1558. Failure to do so was treason. Any person who did take the oath was forbidden from coming within 10 miles of the Queen for 10 years, unless they had her personal written permission. Again, failure to observe this requirement was treason.

Popish Recusants Act 1605 

The Popish Recusants Act 1605 was an act of the Parliament of England which quickly followed the Gunpowder Plot of the same year, an attempt by English Roman Catholics to assassinate King James I and many of the Parliament. The Act forbade Roman Catholics from practising the professions of law and medicine and from acting as a guardian or trustee; and it allowed magistrates to search their houses for arms. The Act also provided a new oath of allegiance, which denied the power of the Pope to depose monarchs. The recusant was to be fined £60 or to forfeit two-thirds of his land if he did not receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper at least once a year in his Church of England parish church. The Act also made it high treason to obey the authority of Rome rather than the king.

Popery Act 1698

The Popery Act 1698 was an Act of Parliament of the Parliament enacted in 1700. The long title of the Act is "An Act for the further preventing the Growth of Popery." 

Section I was intended to address an alleged recent growth of Roman Catholicism by ensuring the existing anti-Catholic laws were more strongly applied. To this end, it provided that any person who apprehended a "Popish Bishop, Priest or Jesuite" who was then prosecuted for "saying Mass or exerciseing any other Part of the Office or Function of a Popish Bishop or Priest within these Realmes" was to receive £100 from the Sheriff of that county within four months of the priest's conviction. In effect, it placed a bounty on Roman Catholic priests. Section II provided for the Treasury to reimburse Sheriffs for money expended on such payments.

Section III, expanding on the existing legislation, enacted that if a Catholic priest took Mass, etc., as above; or if any Catholic clergy or layperson ran a school or "take upon themselves the Education or Government or Boarding of Youth"; then they were, on conviction, liable to "perpetuall Imprisonment" at the discretion of the King. Despite its severity, Section III was to some extent a mitigation of the provisions of the Jesuits, etc. Act 1584, which prescribed the death penalty for any priest who failed to leave England within 40 days of being so ordered.

The Glorious Revolution

The Glorious Revolution of 1689 involved the overthrow of King James II, who converted to Catholicism before he became king and favoured the Catholics, and his replacement by son-in-law William III, a Dutch Protestant. 

Hardwicke's Act 1754

Civil Registration of Marriages 1837

In the 1600s and early 1700s, marriages seemed to have been considered legally valid if performed by a clergyman. This gave rise to concern about clandestine marriages (irregular marriages etc) and Hardwicke's Act was implemented in 1754. This required all marriages to be solemnised in a licensed church of the Established Religion before an authorised minister – the only exceptions were Jews and Quakers.

By the early 1800s this law was being increasingly ignored by the non-Anglican communities and the Civil Registration of Marriages came into force in July 1837. The usage of the Anglican churches continued but the establishment of Registrars provided for those of other beliefs and none. These Registrars could solemnise marriages in their office or in a licensed non-Anglican church. This allowed Catholics (and others) to be married in their own church with their own ceremony – provided the Registrar was present for the civil registration of the marriage.

In 1898, the law was modified and non-Anglican churches were allowed to have an Authorised Person to act as Registrar. Most Catholic chapels did not avail themselves of this facility. In the 1930s there was a threatened strike of Registrars and some Catholic churches had an Authorised Person appointed. It was only after about 1970 that Catholic churches adopted the Authorised Person provision more widely.


  • Wikipedia
  • Lawrence Gregory

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