Records about Catholics
After the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England under Queen Elizabeth, severe penalties were imposed on Papists (followers of the old religion), heavy financial fines for lay people and death for the clergy and any one harbouring them. Obviously it was not a good idea to keep written records of the Catholic community. This means that records of Catholics from this time are mainly hostile records, usually generated by the Church of England authorities or the courts. Many of these records have been transcribed by various groups. One of these is the Catholic Record Society and its early volumes are now available freely on the internet at https://issuu.com/tcrs
The accession of James II in 1685 appeared to promise some relaxation of the Penal Laws and Rome appointed a new Vicar Apostolic (John Leyburn) to act as a Bishop in England. As it was about a century since there had been a Bishop in England, Bishop Leyburn undertook a grand tour of England administering the sacrament of Confirmation. A record was made of the places where confirmation was administered and of names of those he confirmed. Sadly, this was just a list of names with no further details. This list has been transcribed (1) and separately indexed (2). This is the only record of Catholics produced by the Catholic community. The country was divided into four Districts in 1688.
The relaxation was short lived as James' Catholic inclinations precipitated the Glorious Revolution and he was forced into exile in 1688. He set up court in France and many of his followers joined him. James was replaced by the Protestants, William and Mary. The existence of an 'alternative' English court in France, caused political concern in England and this was reflected in problems for Catholics. The government became concerned about a possible Jacobite rebellion and the potential for support by the Catholic community. An Act was passed in 1700 “for the further preventing the Growth of Popery”.
William ruled alone after the death of Mary his wife and on his death in 1702 he was succeeded by his sister-in-law, Anne, as the nearest Protestant heir. The concern about the size of the Catholic community continued and the House of Lords asked the bishops to determine the size of the Catholic community in 1705 and 1706. Some of these returns have survived and those for the Diocese of Chester have been transcribed (3).
On her death in 1714 she was succeeded by George I. This provided the stimulus for the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. The Jacobites were supported by some of the junior Catholic gentry. After the suppression of the Rebellion, there followed by more anti-Catholic legislation. This was mainly concerned with financial penalties and an Act of 1715 “to oblige Papists to register their Names and Estates” was passed (4, 5, 6). All adult males were required to swear an oath of allegiance to King George I. Details of those who refused to take the oath have been published (7, 8)), not all those listed were Catholics as some Non-Conformists also refused to swear. The Jacobite cause raised its head again in 1745, though the latter was not as well supported by the Papists.
Other matters concerned the government and one of these was Marriage. The laws concerning marriage were essentially the Canon Law of the Church of England and this was not obligatory. It was felt that some (many?) were manipulating the rules such was the reading of banns to avoid public scrutiny of their proposed marriage. The Act "for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage" required amongst other things that the marriage would be solemnised after the reading of banns, or after a license, in a licensed Anglican church before an Authorised Minister. This act applied throughout England and Wales, except for members of the Quakers and Jewish faiths, All Dissenters, including Catholics, had to comply. Some of these Dissenters also had a religious ceremony according to their own rites.
Suspicion of the Catholics had not gone away and in 1767 the House of Lords asked for another Return of Papists because it was concerned about the growth of the Catholic community. The Return for the Diocese of Chester is of great use to family historians because it contains a great deal of information about individuals and their family. These Chester Returns have been transcribed and published and there is an independent surname index (9, 10)
The latter part of the 1700s saw the development of the Industrial Revolution and also of discussion among the various religious communities. The Independent Chapels and Churches began to consolidate into the Unitarians (One person in God) and Trinitarians (Three persons in God) and the latter into two groups - Presbyterians, led by their minister, and Congregationalists, governed by each individual church group. In some senses, concern about the Catholic community was diminishing and in 1778 an Act was passed that removed some of the penalties for Catholics and enabled them to inherit and purchase land. This Act was the First Catholic Relief Act. It did provoke revolts by certain Protestant groups and riots occurred in places (the Gordon Riots). As a result, the House of Lords asked for another Return of Papists in 1780. This was mainly a numerical report.
In 1791 there was the Second Catholic Relief Act. This allowed Catholics to practice their religion subject to taking an oath. It also allowed priests and school-teachers to have chapels and school, provided all were registered with the Quarter Sessions. For Lancashire, these certificates are preserved in the Lancashire Archives. This Act removed much of the apprehension of Catholics towards keeping records and it is largely from this time that sacramental registers of baptism and marriage have been kept.
“Bishop Leyburn's Confirmation Register of 1687” Ed by J.A. Hilton, A.J. Mitchinson, B. Murray. and P. Wells, Pub by North West Catholic History Society, Wigan, (1997) (ISBN 0 9514615 8 3)
“Surname Index to Bishop Leyburn's Confirmation Register of 1687” Comp and pub. by J.S. & L.M.C. Ackers, Scorton, Lancs. (?1998)
“The Return of the Papists for the Diocese of Chester, 1705” Ed. by A.J. Mitchinson. Pub by North West Catholic History Society, Wigan, (1986.)
“The Registers of Estates of Lancashire Papists – Volume I 1717” Ed by R. Sharpe France. Pub by Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (1945)
“The Registers of Estates of Lancashire Papists – Volume II 1717” Ed by R. Sharpe France. Pub by Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (1960)
“The Registers of Estates of Lancashire Papists – Volume III 1717” Ed by R. Sharpe France. Pub by Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (1977)
“The English Catholic Nonjurors of 1715” Ed by E.E. Estcourt and J.O. Payne, Pub by Burns & Oates, London and New York, (1885).
“Records of the English Catholics of 1715” Ed by J.O. Payne, Pub by Burns & Oates, London and New York, (1889).
“Returns of Papists, 1767, Diocese of Chester” Trans. by E.S. Worrall, Catholic Record Society (Occasional Pub No. 1) (1980).
“Surname Index, Returns of Papists 1767 Diocese of Chester” Comp. and pub. by Mr & Mrs J.S. Ackers, Thimble Hall, Scorton, Lancashire. PR3 1AY (1991)
Some years ago, the North West Catholic History Society produced a booklet “The Catholic Family Historian's Handbook” and this is now available as a free pdf download from -