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{{Infobox NIFGS|June 2012|{{English Non-Anglicans}}|Dr. Penelope Christensen}}  
{{Infobox NIFGS|June 2012|{{English Non-Anglicans}}|Dr. Penelope Christensen}}  

Revision as of 15:45, 24 September 2013

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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 ($).



This brief survey attempts to show how the historical developments embedded in the succession of statutes affected Non-Anglicans’ ability to meet for worship and social interaction and to maintain records. This will prepare researchers for tackling the extant documentary material, enabling them to extract the most about their ancestors from it. Most of the material collected as a result of parliamentary statutes and other national surveys and documents is at the Public Record Office, now part of the National Archives at Kew, Surrey. There is no single PRO class of material related to Non-Anglicans but a multitude of sections in general classes such as Chancery, Exchequer, State Papers, Home Office or Privy Council and many others. Shorney (Protestant Nonconformity and Roman Catholicism. A Guide to Sources in the Public Record Office. PRO Publications, 1996) in his Chapter 6, provides an excellent summary of all the relevant classes with brief descriptions, and the current PRO catalogue (PROCAT) on their website can be used to investigate further. Much of the more useful material has been microfilmed, but certainly not all of the less-used documents.

Pre-Reformation (to 1534)

It is deduced that Christianity became organized in England before 314 AD since British bishops were at the Council of Arles that year. Following the withdrawal of the Romans in 410 the Christian church survived only in the west—in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, owing to successive waves of pagan immigrants from Europe. In 597 Augustine was sent by the pope to re-establish the church and from that time it has continued, but with frequent contention between Rome and the English crown each claiming leadership of the British church with Rome becoming dominant from the Norman Conquest in 1066.

England was thus a Catholic country up until the mid-16th century and its monarchs supported the Pope in Rome. Anyone ‘protesting’ or not agreeing with the system was fined, imprisoned, and/or tortured and some were burnt at the stake as heretics with the full blessing of both church and state. These Protestant martyrs included followers of John Wycliff and his Lollards, Hus, and other European Protestants including Anabaptists, a general term for various groups not believing in infant baptism. John Foxe (1516-1587) wrote his Book of Martyrs describing the history of these people and this has been subsequently revised up to 1798 and is on film 1,696,506. Protestantism’s roots are found in the Reformation with Martin Luther generally considered as its father. However the ideas promulgated by Luther were present long before he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.
He challenged the authority of the pope and the necessity for priests to be mediators between God and ordinary people.

Reformation to Civil War (1534-1642)

The English display an inherent resistance to change and this was one reason why the Reformation did not happen suddenly here. The views of the Protestant reformers in 16th century Europe, for example the German Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Frenchman John Calvin (1509-1564) were not welcomed in England by Henry VIII who reigned from 1509-1547. Although Henry quarrelled with the Pope in the early 1530s he retained his belief in Catholic doctrine so that when he pronounced himself head of the new Church of England in 1534 by theAct of Supremacy the church remained Catholic but under Henry’s control not the Pope’s; this was a return to a precedent in action long before the Conquest. He continued the Episcopalian form of church government, with bishops having authority, but made drastic changes to other parts of the church organization. His dissolution of the monasteries was done to divert their wealth from Rome to Henry’s Treasury, but had the negative effect of withdrawing a social security net from the poor and the sick which eventually had to be replaced by his daughter Elizabeth I in 1601 (The Old Poor Law—explained at length in the course English: Poor Law & Parish Chest Records). A popular uprising to protest the dissolution of the monasteries and the enforcement of the new order took place in 1536 and was called thePilgrimage of Grace. Another rising in 1569 in Yorkshire showed there was still much resistance in the north, and it wasn’t until the early 1600s that Old Catholicism died out with the demise of those who had been raised in it. Meanwhile, from the 1570s, a new, different Counter-Reformation Catholicism was fueled by English priests trained in Europe.

Henry’s son Edward VI reigned for less than six years (1547-1553) and was more sympathetic to Protestant reform; he introduced a new Prayer Book which reflected this. Henry’s daughter Mary tried to re-establish Catholicism under the Pope during her reign (1553-1558), reversing many of Henry’s reforms. This was short-lived as her half-sister, Elizabeth, who ascended the throne in 1558, instituted a more elaborate Protestant form of worship. This was a compromise position—authority vested in the monarch but with Catholic ceremonies, but it was unyielding to dissent, viewing this as subversive. David Shorney elaborates on the different dissenters and the records of them in Privy Council and State Papers. The 1559 Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity completed the English reformation, imposing the new style of religion but also denying religious freedom. Many parishioners became apathetic, and large numbers of clergy who had hoped for more reform and tolerance chose not to subscribe to the new Articles and just abandoned their livings.

A lot depended, too, on the personal preference of the local lord of the manor who held the advowson, and who could therefore appoint a minister of the high church style similar to the old Catholic way, or if he so chose, a man of more austere Puritan leanings. Thus much nonconformity could be accommodated provided the outward appearance of Anglicanism was upheld to the diocesan authority. Those Protestants who chose not to recognize the authority of this new Anglican Church (or indeed of the concept of a state church) were generally called Dissenters and Puritans prior to theAct of Uniformity in 1662, and Nonconformists afterwards. However, the termsnonconformist, sectary and attender at conventicles were sometimes used in the 16th and 17th centuries as well. The two other major religious groups were, of-course,Roman Catholics usually termedRecusants or Papists; and Jews. Sometimes the term Nonconformist is applied too loosely to include these as well as the Protestant dissenters.

  • ŸAct of Supremacy 1559

When Elizabeth came to the throne only one bishop took the oath of Supremacy recognizing her as head of the Church in England, so she ejected the rest along with 300 priests, the rest agreeing at least outwardly with the new order.

  • Ÿ Act of Uniformity 1559

The term recusants meant refusers, defined as those who did not attend the Established Church services, and they were largely, but not only, Roman Catholics. After 1660 the Act also applied to Nonconformists, but no-one has estimated what percentage these constitute. Under the Act of Uniformity 1559 they became liable to a fine of one shilling for each absence which was collected by the church wardens for relief of the poor. By 1563 the death penalty awaited anyone saying or procuring mass. In 1581 recusancy was transferred to the government Exchequer and the penalty was raised to £20 per lunar month. Later Elizabethan and Jacobean acts empowered the Crown to seize all a recusant’s goods and two-thirds of his lands and tenements instead of monetary fines. Catholics were unable to inherit or acquire land, or to enter the legal profession, the armed forces or public office. It should be remembered that many adapted in a practical manner to save their fortunes and their heads by going to the parish church and also, privately, to their own ceremonies. Thus the recusant rolls are not a complete list of English Catholics. The reasons that Catholicism survived is that the Act was not enforced consistently and the continuing infiltration from abroad provided a supply of dedicated and persistent mission priests.

  • Ÿ Recusant Rolls (1591-1691

It has to be remembered that the recusant rolls were records of what was owed, not what was indeed paid. The authorities were not terribly active in collecting the fines, as under Elizabeth I the maximum number of people actually paying in any year was 17. Figures for later years indicate no more than a few hundred people. For those that are named in each parish, many are recurring, and often the descriptions give details of buildings, farms and fields of interest to the family historian. The religious affiliation may not be given in the rolls but can be ascertained from the initial presentment of the offender at either an ecclesiastical Visitation or at the Quarter Sessions.

At first (1581-1591) the records of indebtedness were entered on the annualPipe Rolls (or Great Rolls of the Exchequer) but a separate series called theRecusant Rolls was created in 1592 and lasted a century. These survive patchily for various dates and parishes, are at the PRO in series numbers are E 376 and E377 and have been filmed. The original rolls are arranged alphabetically by county, and except during the Interregnum are in Latin, but lists of names do not present too much of a problem— although the writing might. Some early ones have been transcribed, translated and printed, for example by the Catholic Record Society with 1581-91 in volume 71, and 1592-96 in volumes 18, 57 (with an introduction worth reading), and 61. Further information on the contents of the rolls and how to use them should be sought in Williams (1972) and David Shorney, who has an illustration of one in English from the Interregnum period. The PRO leaflet D66 has details of other sources on Catholic recusants. It is useful to note who leased any forfeited lands from the crown as they were often family or friends of the original Catholic owners, ensuring that the land did not pass out of the family.

  • ŸThirty Nine Articles of Faith 1571

This developed out of Henry VIII’s original 6 Articles of Religion in 1539 and offenders against these were punished as heretics. These articles were increased to 42 in 1551 and reduced to 32 in 1563. Elizabeth’s Parliament and thus the Church of England finally adopted 39 as a statement of their doctrinal position in 1571. Interestingly, since 1865 Anglican clergy have not been required to subscribe to each one, but just affirm general assent.

All Dissenters rejected the idea of a state church with the king as its head. Some, the Presbyterians, favoured a strong independent church authority while others, particularly the Quakers, didn’t want any religious authority at all. Most Dissenters felt that the Anglican reforms were not sufficient and had not ridden the Church of England ofpopish (Catholic) faults. They wanted more purification and were thus termed Puritans; they even banished Christmas services and festivities.
It should be remembered that, with the tiny exceptions of some Baptists and the foreign Protestants in England, all this dissent was still within the Church of England from the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558 until 1642, which was after the next two monarchs, James I and Charles I. In 1620 some Puritans who felt strongly and saw no change happening chose to go to Holland. Then from 1620-1642 nearly 20,000 of them, led by the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower, left and settled in New England, USA.

The momentum of Protestantism was slowly building, with both the overall numbers of adherents and the variety of groups growing. Strong anti-Catholic sentiments were created by the arrival of Mary Queen of Scots (the presumptive heir to the English throne) in 1568, the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. TheHampton Court Conference was held between James I, the bishops and Puritan clergy in 1604 to consider the latter’s demands for reforms to the Church of England. The only significant gain was the authorization for a new translation of the Bible, which was published in 1611 as the Authorized Version and known today as the King James Bible.


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.