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Past Times in Catholic England

with particular reference to finding and understanding the records

  • Before The Reformation
  • Penal times
  • Hardwick's Marriage Act 1754-1837
  • After the repeal of Hardwick, 1837+

Before the Reformation
Abbeys and Monasteries - the origins of local government - the parish

It is sometimes necessary to look back to the organisation of church property and parishes in mediaeval times in order to understand the organisation of local government. The system developed from the time of the Norman Conquest when the Barons under William the Conqueror received gifts of land as a reward for their loyalty. Many of them built castles to provide secure fortresses from which they could govern the surrounding lands without fear of reprisals. As times became more settled, the Anglo-Saxons learning quickly that their position was that of serfs and peasants under the new regime, the properties of the church also began to grow as wealthy patrons made gifts of land and money. The established religion had not changed - it was still that of the Catholic Church owing allegiance to the Pope in Rome.

The common language (lingua franca) was Latin, rather as English has partly become in the modern world, though with one big difference, that spoken Latin had already evolved into Italian and that church Latin was becoming 'fixed' rather than a dynamic language. It was the language of law, of education, of all religious services, of commerce. The Anglo-Saxon language, Germanic in origin, underwent a great change, adding enormous numbers of words from Latin and from French, the language of the occupying forces, and evolving over several centuries into English recognisable as such to us today, but it was still not used for official documents or in church services or church records.

Many churches were built in earlier times, sometimes only simple wooden structures, but many stone buildings survive in part from before the Conquest. The history of the parish structure of those times has been obscured by later developments. One example is that of St Michael's on Wyre in north Lancashire. Originally a monastic foundation it was the only church in a very large area, and had received gifts of huge tracts of the country. Southwards it even extended as far as the outskirts of Preston. 'Of the parish' refers to local boundaries, historically the Anglican parish, and the administrative district.

The monks would have tilled the area around their church but would rent or lease the rest of the land and receive the profits from it. In good times they provided schools - designed to educate boys for the priesthood, but those who did not proceed that far could for example become lawyers.

The Oath of Supremacy - Penal times

The causes and struggles of reformation times are not relevant here. There was intolerance and persecution, now regretted on both sides. finally, during the reign of Elizabeth the penalties became particularly severe. They were required to take an oath, not just pledging allegiance to Queen and Country but denying the authority of the Pope. The confusion between religious and political allegiance was deliberate. It enabled the Elizabethans to claim that those who refused the oath were guilty of treason. The fact that the Pope was very powerful politically as well as in the religious sphere was another factor which led to these draconian laws. Catholic priests would no longer be called martyrs but traitors. It was the wording of the oath that was the problem. The English catholics wanted to swear allegiance to the Queen but were unable to accept the denial of the Pope's spiritual authority and the substitution of the monarch in his place. The consequences of being labelled 'traitors; led to priests and all those who harboured them being automatically subject to the death penalty which usually meant hanging, drawing and quartering. Heavy fines and long imprisonments were also imposed for not attending the parish church and the new services in English. There was frequent use of torture to extract confessions and proofs of 'conspiracy', especially during the time of Tius Oates who regarded himself as a master of this.

Under these conditions the Catholics who remained loyal to their faith were largely deprived of their priests, but the gentry continued to sponsor boys from their estates, rich or poor, for the priesthood. Catholics were unable to open schools or seminaries in England so established them abroad and sent a constant stream of boys to study in Douai in France, Spain and Italy to return as priests, sometimes after a spell of teaching in their colleges, often in the early days to die on the scaffold. They usually travelled in disguise, visiting the great houses, often coming and going at night, saying Mass secretly, and moving on before their presence was noticed. This was the period for the building of priests' holes in farmhouses as well as in grander houses. The hiding places were usually cunningly concealed in walls and chimneys where the priest could if necessary stay for days. People spoke of 'going to prayers' because Mass was forbidden. The message would be carried by word of mouth that a priest was about to say Mass and the people would come in ones and twos with look-outs posted in case informants or puirsuivants found out what was going on.

Domestic chapels

Many baptisms and marriages of Catholics took place in the parish church till the end of the 18th century because of the laws against the practice of their religion and the difficulties encountered by priests. Most services took place in 'domestic' chapels - in large private houses or in remote farmhouses - where they could operate as discreetly as possible to avoid discovery.

By the 18th century although it was possible to go more openly to 'prayers', the draconian penal laws now being ignored rather than repealed, there was inevitably a shortage of priests. At first they had to cover huge areas on horseback, perhaps keeping small notebooks in their pockets to record events but not regarding it as a positive 'duty', so for example, there are no Catholic records earlier than about 1776 for Lea, 1783 for Cottam, 1764 for Westby or 1774 for Newhouse .

By the end of the century it became possible to open chapels in barns or in buildings that resembled barns - they must not have spires or towers or look like churches - though the buildings often ran the risk of being burnt down by furious 'anti-popery' mobs as at Cottam during the Gordon riots in the 1780s. Sometimes, especially during periods of unrest or when there was the faintest suspicion of imminent foreign invasion there were demands in Parliament and elsewhere to be told how many Papists - still regarded as potential traitors and troublemakers - there were in the country. From the point of view of researching the families the lists made at the request of Parliament are very useful. A Return of Papists was made in 1767 and gives some valuable details not found elsewhere. It sometimes lists occupations, ages, how long the person has been in the parish and also the names and ages of the children. In the earlier returns of papists though, the head of the household is often conspicuous by his absence! The wife and children could afford to rebel, but the husband needed to appear to conform or else be fined!

Hardwick's Marriage Act of 1754 was designed to prevent clandestine marriages which had in numbers alone become a huge problem. There was a great deal of abuse with marriages conducted by persons posing as ministers and suspicions that bigamy was common. According to the law everyone - the only exceptions being Quakers and Jews - had to marry in the parish church (Church of England), Otherwise the marriage was not recognised and the children were considered illegitimate and could not inherit property. Two marriage records can often therefore be found for Catholics, on the same or subsequent days and there would be many more instances had more Catholic records survived or been kept. It was a duty incumbent on the Rector of a parish to see that proper records were kept and that transcripts were submitted to the bishop at regular intervals. Sometimes only the transcripts have survived, with the kind of mistakes due to copying, though many have been lost. The records themselves were sometimes damaged by fire, flood or were not kept properly at all (as in the case of a few parsons too drunk to write anything). Most Rectors eventually appointed a parish clerk to look after the registers and the names of these men appear frequently also standing in on accasion as godparents at a baptism or as witnesses to a marriage.

Catholics had marriages in their own chapels, generally referred to as a 'blessing'. This was allowed - but only after the 'official' ceremony in the parish church. There were penalties for reversing the order, complicated for a time by a Vicar General trying to insist that the Catholics in his district were married in their own chapel first. Quite a number of poorer people did not bother with the official ceremony but if there was property involved this was risky as their children would be declared illegitimate and barred from any inheritance.

In the late 18th century the children of Squire Thomas Clifton at Lytham Hall were baptised in the Anglican church, St Cuthbert's and were recorded in the Catholic records as being baptised as Catholics as well. (They were not baptised in St Peter's, Lytham as that did not exist until nearly a cnetury later, but probably in the domestic chapel of Lytham Hall itself. Squire Clifton was perhaps playing sage - this doesn't seem to have been a regular practice in other families. Or perhaps the second was not an actual baptism but the rest of the ceremonies, blessings and prayers which normally accompany a baptism. (See Baptisms and use your back arrow to return here.) This frequently happens when a baby has been baptised by a relative as 'in danger of death', the rest of the ceremonies being added later if and when the child has recovered. A conditional baptism is also given if it is feared the first was not carried out properly.

It is interesting to note, from the evidence of the Cottam records, that children were usually baptised the day they were born, or the next day (presumably if born during the night). The priests at Cottam were among the few who regularly gave both dates and it is always worth recording accurately if that information is given.


Although Catholic Emancipation came in 1829 with the repeal of the Penal laws and official permission to hold services, some restriction were not removed until the second half of the 20th century and some are still in place.

Until emancipation Catholics were not allowed to vote, to become members of Parliament, to receive commissions in the army, to go to university or to enter professions like the law. many of them went abroad to be educated and qualified, especialy to place like Paris until the French Revolution in 1789. They were often fluent speakers in other languages, especially French, as a result. A few schools were opened in England from the late 18th century onwards, notably at Stonyhurst, an unoccupied house at Hurst ~Green belonging to the Weld family of Dorset. It was given to the Jesuits for a school when a handful of boys with a few of their teachers arrived there in 1793 after escaping at night from the Jesuit school in Liege, Belgium, then under attack by French revolutionaries.

The office of Prime Minister is still barred to Catholics (in theory - it has not been tested) and no Catholic can become King or Queen.

Catholic priests and nonconformist ministers were all still barred from conducting 'official' marriages, so until the last quarter of the 20th century these churches had to have a registrar present for that purpose, the alternative usually being for the couple to attend at the registry office the day before, though there could be a larger gap between the two dates. Some people only recorded the religious ceremony themselves, e.g. in a family Bible, or gave only that date if asked, which can cause some confusion when compared with the date on the marriage certificate.

Once church building began in earnest in the 19th century the design of the churches soon changed, imitating the Middle ages or importing Baroque ideas, with huge pieces of marble and continental styles of building with considerable ornamentation, mostly inside. There was still considerable movement of the population into the towns so town churches were usually the first to be needed, though the church at Westby, near Kirkham, was built in 1860. The mission there had begun in the domestic chapels of properties belonging to the Clifton family of Lytham, but it was particularly urgent as the Cliftons had turned protestant in 1845.

The Catholic population of Preston was said to number less than 500 in 1775, many people 'hiding away' for fear of the authorities, but it was growing rapidly, the numbers of Catholics increasing with the arrival, especially during the 'hungry forties', of Irish fleeing the famine in Ireland. The church of St Walburge's in Preston, opened in 1854, was built to seat 2000. The tower, added in 1866, also has the highest steeple in the north of England. St Wilfred's was opened as a chapel in 1793 but its appearance must have been quite simple until it was enlarged in 1843. It was then rebuilt in 1856 to seat 1000. St Augustine's was built as a new church, begun in 1836 and opened in 1840. St Ignatius', also opened in 1836, was considerably enlarged in 1858.