A Guide to the Laws of England Affecting Roman Catholics

A Guide to the Laws of England Affecting Roman Catholics, by Thomas Chisholme Anstey.

This 1842 compendium of the English laws affecting Roman Catholics, past and present, is extremely enlightening. It doesn’t include the laws that were also against other sorts of religious dissenters, but only the specifically anti-Catholic ones. It also includes the text of a loyalty oath that was required of Catholics wishing to be covered by the various “Relief Acts” and Catholic emancipation laws. Yup, you didn’t even get your basic civil rights without doing some groveling.

One thing that shows up is that a lot of laws which Irish people tend to think about as being against “the Irish” are really against all Catholics. For example, the infamous rule that a Catholic could not own a horse worth more than five pounds.

I’m pretty sure that we all know about all the death penalties and imprisonments for horrible things like “being a priest” or “saying Mass,” and about all the crushing fines and terrible imprisonments visited upon recusant Catholic laypeople, both men and women. But here are some laws you might not have heard about:

Catholics could not possess any arms or even gunpowder, but they had to pay people to maintain arms at their own expense, for royal use. Nice, huh?

Recusant Catholics could not go to court, and could not go within ten miles of London unless they were natives there. At one point they could not even go five miles from home without losing everything they owned and then being kicked out of England.

Under Elizabeth I, any Catholic leaving England to go to school was to be deprived of the ability to hold real estate, and all contracts made with him were voided. Sending a person out of England to school meant a 100 pound fine. Going overseas was forbidden to any woman or minor under 21, except by special government permission from the queen and her ministers. Later, even sending money overseas to a seminary or Catholic charity made you a person unable to hold offices or real estate; you lost everything you owned except your heir’s right to inherit your lands after your death.

In general, under various laws, Catholics could own real estate but could not do anything with it. Their Protestant kindred were given the legal right to “enjoy” their houses and land and to keep any profits that arose. This lasted until Catholic emancipation in 1829, under George IV.

Under William III, any Catholic keeping school or found teaching kids was to be sentenced to perpetual imprisonment.

Under Queen Anne, it was decided that if a Protestant child of a Catholic or Jewish family ever complained of “want of fitting maintenance,” they were to be given money, lest the kids reconcile with their parents and their religion. The age of the children did not matter as long as the parents were still alive, and most of the applicants seem to have been adults. At least one was a middle-aged adult.

Anglican canon law also called for the punishment of all recusants and dissenters. There were Anglican churchwardens, constables, high constables, questmen, and questmen’s assistants, all of whom could arrest you for being Catholic, basically. They would be paid 40 shillings for everybody they listed as not attending the Anglican parish church at least once a month.

All marriages had to be celebrated in Anglican parish churches by Anglican priests. Even if you were Jewish or Catholic, or a Protestant of another group. The idea of being able to register your marriage by going to a strictly secular registrar, and then celebrate it in your own religious group, was new to England in 1829. In general, the building had to be registered, or a registrar had to be present, or there had to be a special license. But this was progress.

There’s also an interesting discussion of how the Anglican seal of confession was considerably weakened by Anglican canon law in comparison to Catholic canon law. Anglican clergy were allowed to reveal confessions of anything that went against the realm or anything that was dangerous to the clergyman’s life; but any talking about secret confession contents was considered an irregularity and nothing more. (Which doesn’t mean that individual Anglican priests didn’t act differently; but you can see how corrupted the canon law was made by its government status.)

There’s also a lot of discussion of how charitable bequests to Catholic causes were frequently voided by the decisions of judges, even after 1829 made those bequests totally legal in the UK. A lot of times, this was explicitly done to benefit Protestant heirs, or the money taken over by the government.

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3 Comments

Filed under Church, History

3 responses to “A Guide to the Laws of England Affecting Roman Catholics

  1. Mary

    40 shillings was a lot of money in the day.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention! (I see it is also scanned in the Internet Archive.) The last chapter, “Colonies and Plantations”, looks interesting, but brief – I suppose there are probably analogous books with details about (particular) colonies, and, again, about laws affecting various Christians under Turkish or Russian rule, or non-Catholics in Catholic lands – but how to find them?

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