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The Roman Catholic Church

Religion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The Roman Catholic Church dates back to the time of the Roman Empire, and is so called because the Church was (and is) centred at the Vatican in Rome. The head of this Church was (and is) the Pope, who was not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church but was also a very powerful secular prince in his own right.

After the Reformation in England, which saw the establishment of the Church of England as the state Church, laws were passed which discriminated against Roman Catholics. It was believed that their first allegiance was to the Pope, and consequently they had to be traitors to the monarch of Britain. Catholics were burned at the stake and otherwise executed while Elizabeth I was queen. During the Interregnum (1649-60) they were persecuted, particularly by Cromwell, and when Charles II was king laws were passed which discriminated against Catholics.

During the reign of William and Mary a whole spate of Penal Laws were passed which were aimed at restricting the power of Roman Catholics (see Ireland). The people who were hardest hit were the Irish, but the Williamite Penal Laws had a considerable impact in England and Scotland too.

The first piece of legislation to help Roman Catholics was passed in 1778 when the Catholic Relief Act allowed them to join the armed forces without taking the oath of allegiance to the Church of England. Between 1778 and 1793 a series of Irish statutes had removed many of the penal laws: Catholics could practise their religion, establish schools, enter the legal profession, dispose of property, become magistrates and hold most civil and military appointments. Subsequently, the 1793 Relief Act allowed some Roman Catholics to vote. It was not until 1829, however, that Roman Catholics were allowed to elect Catholic MPs: prior to then, Catholics could vote only for Anglicans.

Roman Catholicism was still suspect: "Papist" was a term of abuse and the cry of "No Popery" could rouse a riot - such as during the Gordon Riots of 1780.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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