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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Non-Anglican Church Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Roman Catholics

History and Beliefs

Christianity originated in a Jewish sect of people who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, or Christ, who had come to earth. At the time Judaism was not cohesive, there being many different sects at variance with each other, and also many personages to whom messianic characteristics were ascribed. Those who followed Jesus Christ believed in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The Christian world gradually developed two centres, Rome in the west and Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey) in the east. The two differed, for example in the:

  • Theological issue of whether the Holy Ghost was sent by the Father and the Son (western Catholics) implying equality of the three members of the Godhead, or just by the Father (eastern Catholics), the latter viewpoint presuming a subordination of Son and Holy Ghost to the Father.
  • Structural issue of whether the Pope had supreme jurisdiction over the church (western Catholics) or merely had a primacy of Honour (eastern Catholics).

The two major branches divided in 1204 when the knights of the fourth crusade sacked Constantinople, for which the East has never forgiven the West. For 800 years there have been two separate Catholic traditions: Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, with England falling in the latter sphere (Palmer et al.).

Roman Catholicism is distinctive in claiming the primacy of Peter directing the pope as bishop of Rome. The papal hierarchy developed excessive pomp and pageantry during the Middle Ages, which undoubtedly needed curbing by the time of the Reformation. The Council of Trent 1545-65 decided on a middle way between faith and works avoiding extremes. This was not sufficient for the Protestants, and they established alternative churches.

It behooves all Englishmen to appreciate these roots as we all have Roman Catholic ancestors prior to Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1530s. It is instructive to note that some of the irritants perceived in the 16th century have been removed from Roman Catholicism in the late 20th century; including:

Mass performed in the local language of the people instead of in Latin.

  • Development of collegial rather than hierarchical organization amongst bishops and priests.
  • Greater lay participation in church life.
  • Catholics now permitted to worship with non-Catholics.
  • Acceptance that people of other religions could receive salvation.
  • Denial of former view that the Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ.

There was little or no tolerance for the Roman Catholic religion in England between 1558 and 1829 and the really tough years of 1558-1778 are known as the penal period. During the Civil War most Catholics were Royalists and after James II abdicated in 1688 most were Jacobites, hoping that he, his son James (The Old Pretender) or grandson Charles (The Young Pretender a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie) would return.

Numbers dwindled to about 1% of the population by the mid-18th century. Subsequently they rose again, quite dramatically in the 19th century as poor Irish and Italian craftsmen and labourers immigrated into England and strengthened the church; increasing toleration also assisted conversion numbers. Shorney quotes ‘best estimates’ of approximately 80,000 Catholics in 1780. Once the Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1791 their parish life returned to normal, but full civil equality was only achieved in 1829 with the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act. Gandy (Pocket Guides to Family History: Tracing Nonconformist Ancestors. PRO Publications, 2001) estimates that since the 1840s about 5% of the population have been regular churchgoing Catholics and another 5% were nominally Catholic, sometimes referred to as careless in Catholic registers.

The Roman Catholic faith did not die out for lack of clergy, since better-off English Catholics sent their sons abroad to train as priests with the Benedictines, Jesuits or Dominicans and they returned to minister to small, illicit family-based congregations. However, the punishments for recusancy (refusal to attend Anglican worship) were severe and cruel, particularly for the priests, so all but the wealthy and influential few made outward signs of compliance during these penal years. In some families the husband went to Anglican church but his wife and children stayed at home. Other families brought up their sons as Protestants so that they could get an education, inherit land and make a career, but the girls as Catholics since the law did not affect them directly. Catholicism survived amongst small numbers of the peerage and gentry together with their dependants, servants and tenants until the mid-18th century. Catholics were an important minority in Lancashire and more remote parts of Yorkshire, with pockets in other towns such as Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Lincoln, London, Salisbury, Wolverhampton and Worcester where there were Catholic gentry and foreign Catholic craftsmen had settled.

Other, more rural enclaves depended on the estates of noblemen such as the Duke of Norfolk, who lived at Arundel Castle in Sussex, which formed the nucleus of Catholicism across his lands in West Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. In 1604 it is estimated that 4% of the population of Yorkshire were still Catholic, but 25% of the gentry (Gandy 1998). The entrance of the Irish in large numbers from well before 1800 transformed the Catholic church into a primarily working class, urban one. Another factor was the Catholic success in conversion of the non-Irish working class. In the mid-19th century Tractarianism and the Oxford Movement brought a rapprochement between many Anglicans and Catholics, and many conversions.

Before 1850 a number of Vicars Apostolic administered the English Catholic church, but seminaries were established in England and by 1850 the church was strong enough to revive its national hierarchy of dioceses similar to that in operation before the Reformation. Catholic public (i.e. private) schools for boys were inaugurated and convent schools for girls were set up in many towns. Even certain orders of monks returned to England and acquired land and buildings. Thus by the end of the 19th century the Catholic church was growing fast and was soon to become the second largest denomination in England.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Non-Anglican Church Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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