Catholic Emancipation

In times of change, it is worth looking back to see that change has been continuous and that our current journey as Catholics in England restarted only in 1850

The Catholic Relief Acts

The Catholic Relief Act were a series of Government Acts gradually repealing the Penal Laws which had hitherto kept Catholics subjugated in Britain.

The 1778 Papists Act

Released Catholics from most of the Provisions of the Popery Act 1698 on the grounds that they took an oath declaring loyalty to the reigning Hanoverian monarch and denying any right of ascension of the surviving Stuart kings in exile.

  • The practice of arrest and prosecution of Catholic clergy was ended, and the penalty of imprisonment for keeping a Catholic School removed.
  • Catholics were once more permitted to inherit and purchase land.
  • The Act led to the Gordon Riots of 1780 (pictured) which took place in the City of London - a mob numbering an estimated 40-60,000 marched on the Houses of Parliament in June 1780, members of the House of Lords were attacked, the mob then sacked and burned several embassies of Catholic countries and the property of known Catholics.

The 1791 Roman Catholic Relief Act

Again Catholics were required to swear an Oath to the Protestant succession, those who did were permitted to enjoy the full privilege of the practice of their faith.

  • It became legal for Catholic Priests to undertake their ministry in the country on the provision that they were registered with the Clerk of the Peace. They were however still forbidden from wearing clerical dress or vestments in public.
  • Catholics could once more enter the legal profession.
  • Monastic Orders remained banned, as did public processions.
  • Catholic churches could legally be built again, but could not feature a steeple, a bell or an organ, and they must be registered at the Quarter Sessions.
  • The government under William Pitt were keen to go further with Catholic Relief but King George III was adamant that he would not permit it, declaring it to be a violation of his Coronation Oath.

The 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act

  • Repealed most of the remaining Penal Laws.
  • Churches could then be built with bells, organs and steeples.
  • Catholic clergy were no longer required to be registered with the State before performing their ministry, and the ban on their wearing of clerical dress was lifted.

This act still did not allow the freedom of Catholic Religious Orders - the Jesuits especially are mentioned - and a punishment of banishment for life was imposed; nor were Catholic clergy allowed to wear clerical garb in public a fine of £50 being the due punishment.

The 1850 Restoration of the Hierarchy

  • Universalis Ecclesiae was a Papal Bull issued 29 September 1850 by Pope Pius IX creating a Catholic Diocesan Hierarchy in England.
  • A series of anti-Catholic riots took place across English cities, and a petition signed by nearly one million protestants, was issued to Queen Victoria requesting that she command her government to stop the ‘Papal Aggression’

The Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851 

The British government responded with The Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851 forbidding the English Catholic Church from assuming the titles for Dioceses and Bishops, of existing Anglican Sees or even defunct ancient Sees.

  • This Act is the reason why Catholic Dioceses have such unusual titles, the Diocese of Salford would have been the Diocese of Manchester, the Diocese of Shrewsbury would have been the Diocese of Chester, etc.

Catholic Relief Act of 1926

  • Restrictions on religious orders repealed
  • Ban on public processions by Catholics was also repealed

The first Corpus Christi procession in Westminster was led by Cardinal Bourne in 1929.

Succession to the Crown Act 2013

Amongst other changes, this act also ended the historical disqualification of a person who married a Roman Catholic from the line of succession, and removed the requirement of those outside the first six persons in line to the throne to seek the Sovereign's approval to marry. It came into force on 26 March 2015.

The Penal Laws Today

In the 21st century certain fragments of the Catholic Penal Laws still remain in place, for example:

  • It remains unconstitutional for a Catholic to be ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (Prime Minister), and major changes would have to be made to the structure of government for it to happen.
  • All weddings in a non Anglican Church have to be undertaken in the presence of a State Registrar (Civil Registration of Marriages July1837)


Parish History Group

If you would like to help research the history of the Parish or have any stories or photos then please get in touch. or speak to Paul Ashton, Stephanie McDonough or Pat Murray

We have some specific requests for information

  • Photos of our Assistant Priests/Curates
  • Photos and stories of the Charter Players
  • Photo
    • Fr J Leo McGinnell
    • James O'Garr  (1891-1979)
    • Billy Brady Sr
  • Servicemen of WWII (your parents/grandparents/great-grandparents ?)
  • Early photos of Ss Peter and Paul