Catholicism and State in the British Isles

By John Patouhas



The political rights of Roman Catholics in the British Isles from the beginning of Henry VIII’s reformation up to the modern day is a complex issue that has warranted a significant degree of scholarly research. The legal standing of Catholics in the British Isles varied not only from one era to another, the laws that were passed and their justification behind them varied within the constituent nations of the political entity that eventually became  United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. England and Wales(who had the same parliament), Scotland and Ireland each had different laws in place to regulate the position of Catholics within society. Specifically this research guide presents works that look at the state of Catholicism in the British Isles as represented through 3 main stages. First, is the period of gradual repression that catholics faced beginning with the period of Henry’s break with Rome to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Second, is the period of Catholic existence in the British Isles, stretching from 1688 to the first Catholic Relief act of 1829. Third and Lastly is the period from the Relief act of 1829 to the present day. In addition to the legal standing of Catholics, the research guide will present sources that look at the popular opinions of Catholicism from the perspective of the average Briton at different times in history, and why particular opinions changed. For example an Englishmen’s view of what Catholicism was and what it meant was different in 1535, 1735 and 1935 .

The Primary sources in this research guide can be broken down in to 3 main parts. First, are the Acts of Parliament that were passed regarding the position of Catholics in British society. Second,are the legislative acts passed by other political entities regarding the position of Catholics in British society. Third are the miscellaneous sources that reflect the feelings from Britons not in a position of political power about Catholicism. The secondary sources serve as a historical analysis to why Catholics were repressed and what changed in British society that contributed to their emancipation, and what vestiges of discrimination remained prevalent in British society into the modern era.

The Ultimate purpose of this research guide is to analyze why Catholicism specifically was seen as being a threat to the British state in the years after the Reformation, and how legal and popular opinion shifted to allowing Catholics to achieve legal and political equality under the law by 1829.Furthermore what residual effects of institutionalized anti-catholic sentiment remained in Britain after the 1829 emancipation act.

Primary Sources:

Locke, John. Letter Concerning Toleration (London: Awnsham Churchill, 1689)

Locke’s famous piece serves to illustrate how many in the educated classes of British society viewed the Roman Catholic Church as a tyrannical foreign power. Locke argues that Catholicism should not be tolerated in English society because of the Catholic allegiance to the pope above the sovereign. For Locke it would be impossible for a Catholic magistrate to divorce his duties from that of his faith but that any of the Protestant magistrates would not have that problem.

Pickering, Danby. Statues at Large from the Magna Charta to the end of the Eleventh Parliament of Great Britain (Cambridge: John Burges, 1761)

This Primary source was far and away my favorite source, and the source which is most important to my research. The Statues at Large are a recording of every act of parliament from the time to the Magna Carta up to 1761. The statues have every major law regarding the status of Catholics in Britain from the reformation onward. From the 16th century onward the status of parliament in Britain grew in power, while the authority of the sovereign was reduced thus making parliament the primary vehicle for legislation in the British Isles. Major laws regarding Catholics such as the Acts of Supremacy of 1534 and 1559, The Test incorporation acts, the Papist act of 1698 and the various Catholic relief acts. The Statues gives an exact wording of the laws, which is why it is so invaluable to my research.

Elton, G.R. The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960)

Although this text is a book, it contains direct primary source passages regarding the transition of the English church from being Roman Catholic to the establishment of the Church of England. The books overall purpose is to highlight the relationship between parliament and sovereign during the Tudor era. However, within that context the book does analyze and present documents regarding how the reformation of Henry VIII and the reformation of Elizabeth I were entirely different. It presents many documents that support the idea that the English church under Elizabeth was pushed farther away from Catholic tradition by the more Calvinist elements within parliament and not by the initiative of the sovereign as was the case with Henry VIII. Another key point that is highlighted is the Tudor conquest and subjugation of Catholic Ireland.

Ghislieri, Antonio. (Pope Pius V) Regnans in Excelsis, 1570.

This document is a papal bull that declares that Elizabeth I, is not the rightful Queen of England and that Catholics living within the realm of England no longer owe any allegiance to her. This bull was instrumental in accelerating the repression of Catholicism in England as it was seen to many Englishmen as the Pope casting his lot with Spain against England. The bull also contributed to the change in the viewing of the pope by the English people from a “religious figure” to a “foreign prince”, that could not be trusted.

Clifton, Robin. “The Popular Fear of Catholics during the English Revolution.” Past & Present, no. 52 (1971): 23-55.

This Journal article was especially helpful in viewing how the average Protestant Briton interacted with his/her Catholic counterparts during the years preceding the English Revolution and immediately after it. As with The Tudor Constitution this article was primarily a secondary source yet it also had direct primary source documents within it. It was far and away the best primary source I found regarding the day to day existence regarding the lives of Catholics during the era of the Stuarts. It also has sections dedicated to Catholic (mostly high church Tory) appeals to parliament that their Catholicism did not preclude them from being loyal to the state.

Presbytery of Glasgow to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, The Menace of the Irish Race, 1923

This Church of Scotland report accused the recent Irish immigrants into Scotland of subverting Scottish Presbyterian values. The Irish were accused of bringing alcoholism, violence and finical impropriety to Scotland. What is interesting to note is the racialization of the Irish Catholics as a lesser race that needed to be cleansed from Scotland. The Ulster Irish are mentioned as being of the same stock as the native Scots.

Penal Laws in Ireland,

This website is extremely helpful in analyzing the impact of the Penal laws on the Irish population from 1558-1725. The Irish experience with the Penal laws is far different from the English or the Scottish, primarily because the overwhelming majority of the native Irish were Roman Catholics. The various penal laws implemented in Ireland were done to make it attractive for the Irish to convert, not just to Protestantism but to specifically the Anglican form of Ireland. Although the Presbyterians were the largest Protestant denomination, they were still oppressed by the Anglo Irish elite.

Bullivant, Steven: Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales.

This report by a catholic agency highlights how Catholics have been affected by the post WWII decline in religiosity to the nearly the same degree as Protestants. The report highlights the little to no institutional discrimination that Catholics in modern day England face. Catholics as a whole today have very little identity as Catholics, unless they are non British immigrants in which their identity is more ethnic or racially based rather than based on religion. The only institutional discrimination that Catholics face in modern day British society is that the monarch cannot be a Catholic.

Secondary Sources:

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1765-1769)

Blackstones’ commentaries are particularly helpful in understanding the rational of the laws of England, and why the common law developed the way it did. Book IV  is about Public wrongs and within book IV there a chapter that deal with offenses against God and religion and offenses that are treasonous. Blackstone does comment on why the laws that were passed by Parliament against Catholics were just and necessary, because as opposed to other denominations Catholics were subversive to the state.

Leys, M.D.R. Catholics in England 1559-1829: A Social History (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961) 

Leys book examines the relationship between English Catholics and their neighbors during the years from the Elizabethian Act of Supremacy to the Catholic Emancipation of 1829. Leys book gives a macro analysis of how political events at home and abroad dictated public policy towards Catholics, and he also gives a micro analysis of how Catholics interacted with their non Catholic neighbors. In his chapters about how toleration came to be towards Catholics, he makes notes that Anti-Catholic sentiment flared up particularly when Britain went to war with a rival Catholic power (France, Spain) or when the Catholic stuarts tried to usurp the throne in the aftermath of the glorious revolution (Jacobite rebellions.) This theme of foreign policy being the prime substructure in British Anti-Catholicism is a reoccuring theme in many of the books on the topic.

Bossy, John. The English Catholic Community 1570-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) 

Bossy’s book is unique in that it focuses primarily on how Catholics in England during this time period saw their own identity within the context of the Catholic community. Although this paper is on Catholics and State In Britain, it also does focus on Popular opinions of Catholicism and those popular opinions include the English Catholics themselves, which is why I believe this book is pertinent. Bossy analyzes how the English Catholics went from believing in the 1500s that eventually Catholicism would return to the 1600s where there was a belief that a missionary movement to re-Catholic Britain was needed to the 1800s where the influx of Irish Immigrants and the rise of the Bishop Newman led Oxford movement created an intellectual re-discovery of Britain’s Catholic identity.

Norman, Edward. The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) 

Normans book highlights how English Catholics saw themselves in relation to the British state in the times leading up to and after the emancipation. While he notes that their existence in this more tolerant Britain was far easier than their predecessors, there was still many issues that English Catholics had to deal with. What would be the nature of the Pope’s control over the English Catholic Church? What was the role of the Jesuits in Nineteenth Century England? How did the ideas of the French Revolution change the opinions of the British government and the British public at large towards Catholics? The first half of the book deals more with the relationship between catholic church and the British state, the second half focuses more on Social movements within English Catholicism and the re-establishment of Catholic hierarchy in Britain.

William, Thomas HeyckThe Peoples of the British Isles: A New History from 1688-1870. (Chicago: Lyceum Books, 2002) 

One of the central tenets of Heyck’s book is that the British identity was able to form out of the common Protestantism in Scotland and England. Scotland and England were very different societies at the time of the act of union of 1707, one of the ways for the Scots particularly to mitigate the effects of their loss of identity is to be a co-equal partner in the creation of a Protestant power, that defined itself against the Catholic “Other” embodied by France and Spain.

Devine, Tom: Spot the Catholic. Times Higher Education. 1999

Devine’s article talks about the lasting imprint Sectarianism has left on Scottish society, especially amongst the urban poor in Glasgow. The rivalry between the historically Organist, Protestant, F.C Rangers, and the Irish, Catholic, F.C Celtic. However this impact has been throughly mitigated by deindustrialization and the decline of religion as a whole. While there is some institutional sectarianism in schools and sports overall Scots have shed their anti catholic bias and accepted Catholics into the mainstream.

Prebble, John. Culloden (London: Pimlico, 1961)

In the book Culloden,  Prebble writes that in the aftermath of the failure of the Jacobite rebellion and its decisive battle at Culloden, the lowland scots wiped out the Catholic Highland Scot culture in order to consolidate the Scottish national identity behind the Protestant Hanoverians. Laws were passed banning the kilt, and the Celtic-Catholic identity of the Highland was cleared out.