Catholic Church in England and Wales

Catholic Church in England and Wales
Westminster Cathedral at Dusk, London, UK - Diliff.jpg
PopePope Francis
ArchbishopVincent Nichols
Apostolic NuncioEdward Joseph Adams
RegionEngland and Wales
LanguageEnglish, Welsh, Latin
HeadquartersWestminster Cathedral, City of Westminster, London
FounderAugustine of Canterbury, by tradition
Originc. 200s: Christianity in Roman Britain
c. 500s: Anglo-Saxon Christianity
SeparationsOfficial website

The Catholic Church in England and Wales (Latin: Ecclesia Catholica in Anglia et Cambria) (Welsh: Yr Eglwys Gatholig yng Nghymru a Lloegr) is part of the worldwide Catholic Church in full communion with the Pope. It traces its history to the apostles through Catholic Christendom, the Western Latin Church, particularised and recorded in Roman Britain as far back as the 1st century. Later, in the 6th century, the church was judicially bonded to the Apostolic See of Rome, when Gregory the Great through his Benedictine and Roman missionary, Augustine of Canterbury, established a direct link from the Kingdom of Kent [1] to the Holy See in 597 AD. This ancient link to Irenaeus's source of Christian guidance, the See of Rome,[2] has enriched its inter-church identity, not only across Britain and continental Europe but also and especially globally within what is sometimes referred to as the "Catholic Communion of Churches".[3]

Today the English Catholic Church regards Augustine as one of its regional founders, bonding the present head of the Catholic Church in England directly to Pope Gregory's modern day successor, Pope Francis. This unbroken line of history, going back to Augustine, is symbolised in the bestowal of the pallium, a papal liturgical vestment (a woolen cloak) on the Catholic successor to St Augustine, the Archbishop of Westminster.

To highlight this episcopal and historic continuity, the Archdiocese of Westminster uses the installation rites of pre-Reformation Catholic archbishops of Canterbury and earlier archbishops of Westminster for the installation of each new Archbishop of Westminster. Thus, just as Pope Gregory conferred the pallium or woolen cloak on St Augustine, Pope Francis (in that corresponding ancient practice) conferred the same symbol of unity on the current head of the Catholic Church in England, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, when he took office.[4][5][6]

Along with the 22 Latin Rite dioceses, there are two dioceses of the Eastern Catholic Church:[7] the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Holy Family of London and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Great Britain.

At the 2001 United Kingdom census, there were 4.2 million Catholics in England and Wales, some 8% of the population. One hundred years earlier, in 1901, they represented only 4.2% of the population. In 1981, 8.7% of the population of England and Wales were Catholic.[8] In 2009, an Ipsos Mori poll found that 9.6%, or 5.2 million persons, were Catholic in England and Wales.[9] Sizable populations include North West England, where one in five is Catholic,[10] a result of large-scale Irish migration in the nineteenth century as well as the high number of English recusants in Lancashire.[11][12]


Roman Britons and early Christianity

St. Alban is regarded as the protomartyr of the Roman Britons

Much of Great Britain was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 43 AD, after Claudius led the Roman conquest of Britain, conquering lands inhabited by Celtic Britons. The indigenous religious traditions of the Britons under their priests the Druids were suppressed; most notably Gaius Suetonius Paulinus launched an attack on Ynys Môn in 60 AD and destroyed the shrine and sacred groves there. In the years following this, Roman influence saw the importation of several religious cults into Britain, including Roman mythology, Mithraism and the imperial cult. One of these sects, then disapproved by the Roman authorities, was the Levantine-originated religion of Christianity. While it is unclear exactly how it arrived, the earliest British figures considered saints by the Christians are St. Alban followed by Ss Julius and Aaron, all in the 3rd century.[13]

Eventually, the position of the Roman authorities on Christianity moved from hostility to toleration with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, and then enforcement as state religion following the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, becoming a key component of Romano-British culture and society. Records note that Romano-British bishops, such as Restitutus, attended the Council of Arles in 314, which confirmed the theological findings of an earlier convocation held in Rome (the Council of Rome) in 313. The Roman departure from Britain in the following century and the subsequent Germanic invasions sharply decreased contact between Britain and Continental Europe. Christianity, however, continued to flourish in the Brittonic areas of Great Britain. During this period certain practices and traditions took hold in Britain and in Ireland that are collectively known as Celtic Christianity. Distinct features of Celtic Christianity include a unique monastic tonsure and calculations for the date of Easter.[14] Regardless of these differences, historians do not consider this Celtic or British Christianity a distinct church separate from general Western European Christianity.[15][16]

Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons

King Alfred the Great

In 597, Pope Gregory I sent Augustine of Canterbury and 40 missionaries from Rome to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons, a process completed by the 7th century. The Gregorian mission, as it is known, is of particular interest in the Catholic Church as it was the first official Papal mission to found a church. With the help of Christians already residing in Kent, Augustine established an archbishopric in Canterbury, the old capital of Kent, and, having received the pallium earlier (linking his new diocese to Rome), became the first in the series of Catholic Archbishops of Canterbury, four of whom (Laurence, Mellitus, Justus and Honorius) were part of the original band of Benedictine missionaries. (The last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury was Reginald Pole, who died in 1558.) During this time of mission, Rome pursued greater unity with the local church in Britain, particularly on the question of dating Easter. Columbanus, his fellow countryman and churchman, had asked for a papal judgement on the Easter question as did abbots and bishops of Ireland.[17] Later, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Bede explained the reasons for the discrepancy: "He [Columba] left successors distinguished for great charity, Divine love, and strict attention to the rules of discipline following indeed uncertain cycles in the computation of the great festival of Easter, because far away as they were out of the world, no one had supplied them with the synodal decrees relating to the Paschal observance."[18] A series of synods were held to resolve the matter, culminating with the Synod of Whitby in 644. The missionaries also introduced the Rule of Benedict, the continental rule, to Anglo-Saxon monasteries in England.[19] Wilfrid, a Benedictine consecrated Archbishop of York (in 664), was particularly skilled in promoting the Benedictine Rule.[20] Over time, the Benedictine continental rule became grafted upon the monasteries and parishes of England, drawing them closer to the Continent and Rome. As a result, the pope was often called upon to intervene in quarrels, affirm monarchs, and decide jurisdictions. In 787, for example, Pope Adrian I elevated Lichfield to an archdiocese and appointed Hygeberht its first archbishop.[21] Later, in 808, Pope Leo III helped restore King Eardwulf of Northumbria to his throne; and in 859, Pope Leo IV confirmed and anointed Alfred the Great king, according to Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Individual Benedictines seemed to play an important role throughout this period. For example, before Benedictine monk St. Dunstan was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury in 960, Pope John XII had him appointed legate, commissioning him (along with Ethelwold and Oswald) to restore discipline in the existing monasteries of England, many of which were destroyed by Danish invaders.[22]

Norman Conquest of England and Wales

Control of the English Church passed from the Anglo-Saxons to the Normans following the Norman conquest of England. The two clerics most prominently associated with this process were the continental-born Lanfranc and Anselm, both Benedictines. Anselm later became a Doctor of the Church. A century later, Pope Innocent III had to confirm the primacy of Canterbury over four Welsh churches for many reasons, but primarily to sustain the importance of the Gregorian foundation of Augustine's mission.[23][24]

During mediaeval times, England and Wales were part of western Christendom. During this period, monasteries and convents, such as those at Shaftesbury and Shrewsbury, were prominent features of society providing lodging, hospitals and education.[25] Likewise, schools like Oxford University and Cambridge University were important. Members of religious orders, notably the Dominicans and Franciscans, settled in both schools and maintained houses for students. Clerics like Archbishop Walter de Merton founded Merton College at Oxford and three different popes – Gregory IX, Nicholas IV, and John XXII – gave Cambridge the legal protection and status to compete with other European medieval universities.

Pilgrimage was a prominent feature of mediaeval Catholicism, and England and Wales were amply provided with many popular sites of pilgrimage. The village of Walsingham in Norfolk became an important shrine after a noblewoman named Richeldis de Faverches experienced a reputed vision of the Virgin Mary in 1061 asking her to build a replica of the Holy House at Nazareth. Some of the other holiest shrines were those at Holywell in Wales which commemorated St Winefride and at Westminster Abbey to Edward the Confessor. In 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his cathedral by followers of King Henry II and was quickly canonised as a martyr for the faith. This resulted in Canterbury Cathedral attracting international pilgrimage and inspired the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Pope Hadrian IV. The only Englishman to be a Pope

An Englishman, Nicholas Breakspear, became Pope Adrian IV, ruling from 1154 to 1159. Fifty-six years later, Cardinal Stephen Langton, the first of English cardinals and later Archbishop of Canterbury (1208–28), became a pivotal figure in the dispute between King John and Pope Innocent III. This critical situation led to the signing and later promulgation of the Magna Charta in 1215, which, among other things, insisted that the English church shall be free of ecclesiastical appointments fixed by the king.

Tudor period and Catholic resistance

A banner showing the Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ which was carried by partisans during the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The dynamics of the pre-Reformation bond between the Catholic Church in England and the Apostolic See remained in effect for nearly a thousand years. That is, there was no doctrinal difference between the faith of the English and the rest of Catholic Christendom, especially after calculating the date of Easter at the Council of Whitby in 667 and formalizing other customs according to the See of Rome. The designation "English Church" (Ecclesia Anglicana in Latin) was made, but always in the sense of the term as indicating that it was part of the one Catholic Church in communion with the Pope that was localised in England. Other regions of the church were localised in Scotland (Ecclesia Scotticana), France (Ecclesia Gallicana), Spain (Ecclesia Hispanica), etc. These regional cognomens or designations were commonly used in Rome by staff or officials to identify a locality of the universal church but never to imply any breach with the Holy See.[26]

In 1534, however, during the reign of King Henry VIII, the church, through a series of legislative acts between 1533 and 1536, became independent of the Holy See for a period as a national church with Henry declaring himself Supreme Head.[27] This breach was in response to the Pope's refusal to annul Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Although Henry did not himself accept Protestant innovations in doctrine or liturgy, he nevertheless extended toleration, and even promotion, to clergy with Protestant sympathies in return for support for his break with Rome. On the other hand, failure to accept this break, particularly by prominent persons in church and state, was regarded by Henry as treason, resulting in the execution of Thomas More, former Lord Chancellor, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, among others. The See of Rome Act 1536 enforced the separation from Rome, while the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 and Bigod's Rebellion of 1537, risings in the North against the religious changes, were bloodily repressed. All through 1536-41 Henry VIII engaged in a large-scale dissolution of the Monasteries, which controlled most of the wealth of the church and much of the richest land. He disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, disposed of their assets, and provided pensions for the former residents. He did not turn these properties over to his national Church of England. Instead they were sold, mostly to pay for the wars. The historian G. W. Bernard argues that the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s was one of the most revolutionary events in English history. There were nearly 900 religious houses in England, around 260 for monks, 300 for regular canons, 142 nunneries and 183 friaries; some 12,000 people in total, 4,000 monks, 3,000 canons, 3,000 friars and 2,000 nuns. One adult man in fifty was in religious orders.[28] In the Catholic narrative, Henry's action was sacrilegious, a national violation of things consecrated to God, and evil. Nevertheless, Henry maintained a strong preference for traditional Catholic practices and, during his reign, Protestant reformers were unable to make many changes to the practices of his national church, the Church of England. Indeed, this part of Henry's reign saw the trial for heresy of Protestants as well as Catholics who resisted his policies.

The 1547 to 1553 reign of the boy King Edward VI saw the Church of England become more influenced by Protestantism in its faith and worship, with the Latin Mass replaced by the (English) Book of Common Prayer, representational art and statues in church buildings destroyed, and Catholic practices which had survived during Henry's reign, for instance the public saying of prayers to the Virgin Mary such as the Salve Regina, ended. In 1549 the Western Rising in Cornwall and Devon to protest the abolition of the Mass occurred – the rebels called the 1549 Holy Communion Service "commonly called the Mass" a Christian game. The rebellion was harshly put down.

Under Queen Mary I, in 1553, the fractured and schismatic English Church was linked anew to continental Catholicism and the See of Rome through the doctrinal and liturgical initiatives of Reginald Pole and other Catholic reformers.[29][30] Mary was determined to return the whole of England to the Catholic faith. This aim was not necessarily at odds with the feeling of a large section of the populace; Edward's Protestant reformation had not been well received everywhere, and there was ambiguity in the responses of the parishes.[31] Mary also had some powerful families behind her. The Jerningham family together with other East Anglian Catholic families such as the Bedingfelds, Waldegraves, Rochesters together with the Huddlestons of Sawston Hall were "the key to Queen Mary's successful accession to the throne. Without them she would never have made it."[32] However, Mary's executions of 300 Protestants by burning at the stake proved counterproductive as this harsh measure was extremely unpopular among the populace. For example, instead of executing Archbishop Cranmer for treason for supporting Queen Jane, she had him tried for heresy and burned at a stake.[33][34] Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which glorified the Protestants killed at the time and vilified Catholics,[35] ensured her a place in popular memory as Bloody Mary. For centuries after, the idea of another reconciliation with Rome was linked in many English people's minds with a renewal of Mary's fiery stakes. Ultimately, her harshness was a success but at the cost of alienating a fairly large section of English society which had been moving away from some traditional Catholic devotional practices. These English were neither Calvinist nor Lutheran, but certainly leaning toward Protestantism (and by the late sixteenth century, were certainly Protestant).[36]

When Mary died and Elizabeth I became queen in 1558, the religious situation in England was confused. Throughout the see-sawing religious landscape of the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I, a significant proportion of the population (especially in the rural and outlying areas of the country) are likely to have continued to hold Catholic views, or were conservative. Nevertheless, Elizabeth was a Protestant and the "very rituals with which the parish had celebrated her accession would be swept away".[37] Thus Elizabeth's first act was to reverse her sister's re-establishment of Catholicism by Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. The Act of Supremacy of 1558 made it a crime to assert the authority of any foreign prince, prelate, or other authority, and was aimed at abolishing the authority of the Pope in England. A third offence was high treason, punishable by death.[38] The Oath of Supremacy, imposed by the Act of Supremacy 1558, provided for any person taking public or church office in England to swear allegiance to the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Failure to so swear was a crime, although it did not become treason until 1562, when the Supremacy of the Crown Act 1562[39] made a second offence of refusing to take the oath treason.

During the first years of her reign from 1558-1570 there was relative leniency towards Catholics who were willing to keep their religion private, especially if they were prepared to continue to attend their parish churches. The wording of the official prayer book had been carefully designed to make this possible by omitting aggressively "heretical" matter, and at first many English Catholics did in fact worship with their Protestant neighbors, at least until this was formally forbidden by Pope Pius V's 1570 bull, Regnans in Excelsis, which also declared that Elizabeth was not a rightful queen and should be deposed, formally excommunicated her and any who obeyed her and obliged all Catholics to attempt to overthrow her.[40]

In response, the "Act to retain the Queen's Majesty's subjects in their obedience", passed in 1581, made it high treason to reconcile anyone or to be reconciled to "the Romish religion", or to procure or publish any papal Bull or writing whatsoever. The celebration of Mass was prohibited under penalty of a fine of two hundred marks and imprisonment for one year for the celebrant, and a fine of one hundred marks and the same imprisonment for those who heard the Mass. This act also increased the penalty for not attending the Anglican service to the sum of twenty pounds a month, or imprisonment until the fine was paid or until the offender went to the Protestant Church. A further penalty of ten pounds a month was inflicted on anyone keeping a schoolmaster who did not attend the Protestant service. The schoolmaster himself was to be imprisoned for one year.[41]

In the setting of England's wars with Catholic powers such as France and Spain, culminating in the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Papal bull unleashed a nationalistic feeling which equated Protestantism with loyalty to a highly popular monarch, made Catholics "vulnerable to accusations of being traitors to the crown."[42] The Rising of the North, the Throckmorton plot and the Babington plot, together with other subversive activities of supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots, all reinforced the association of Catholicism with treachery in the popular mind.

The climax of Elizabeth's persecution of Catholics was reached in 1585 by the Act against Jesuits, Seminary priests and other such like disobedient persons. This statute, under which most of the English Catholic martyrs were executed, made it high treason for any Jesuit or any seminary priest to be in England at all, and a felony for any one to harbour or relieve them.

The last of Elizabeth's anti-Catholic laws was the Act for the better discovery of wicked and seditious persons terming themselves Catholics, but being rebellious and traitorous subjects. Its effect was to prohibit all recusants from going more than five miles from their place of abode, and to order all persons suspected of being Jesuits or seminary priests, and not answering satisfactorily, to be imprisoned until they did so.[43]

However, Elizabeth did not believe that her anti-Catholic policies constituted religious persecution, finding it hard, in the context of the uncompromising wording of the Papal Bull against her, to distinguish between those Catholics engaged in conflict with her from those Catholics with no such designs.[44] The number of English Catholics executed under Elizabeth was significant, including Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, and Margaret Clitherow. Elizabeth herself signed the death warrant that led to regicide, the beheading of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. In fact, as MacCulloch has noted, "England judicially murdered more Roman Catholics than any other country in Europe, which puts English pride in national tolerance in an interesting perspective."[45] So distraught was Elizabeth over Catholic opposition to her throne, she was secretly reaching out to the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, "asking for military aid against Philip of Spain and the 'idolatrous princes' supporting him."[46]

Because of the persecution in England, Catholic priests in England were trained abroad at the English College in Rome, the English College in Douai, the English College at Valladolid in Spain, and at the English College in Seville. Given that Douai was located in the Spanish Netherlands, part of the dominions of Elizabethan England's greatest enemy, and Valladolid and Seville in Spain itself, they became associated in the public eye with political as well as religious subversion. It was this combination of nationalistic public opinion, sustained persecution, and the rise of a new generation which could not remember pre-Reformation times and had no pre-established loyalty to Catholicism, that reduced the number of Catholics in England during this period – although the overshadowing memory of Queen Mary I's reign was another factor that should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, by the end of the reign probably 20% of the population were still Catholic, with another 10% dissident "Puritan" Protestants and the remainder more or less reconciled to the church as established as "parish Anglicans". By the end of her reign, most English people had largely been de-catholicised but were un-protestantised.[47] Religious "uniformity," however, "was a lost cause," given the presence of Dissenting, Nonconformist Protestants, and Catholic minorities.[48]

Stuart period

The reign of James I (1603–1625) was marked by a measure of tolerance, though less so after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy of a small group of Catholic conspirators who aimed to kill both King and Parliament and establish a Catholic monarchy. A mix of persecution and tolerance followed: Ben Jonson and his wife, for example, in 1606 were summoned before the authorities for failure to take communion in the Church of England,[49] yet the King tolerated some Catholics at court; for example George Calvert, to whom he gave the title Baron Baltimore, and the Duke of Norfolk, head of the Howard family.

The reign of Charles I (1625–49) saw a small revival of Catholicism in England, especially among the upper classes. As part of the royal marriage settlement Charles's Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, was permitted her own royal chapel and chaplain. Henrietta Maria was in fact very strict in her religious observances, and helped create a court with continental influences, where Catholicism was tolerated, even somewhat fashionable. Some anti-Catholic legislation became effectively a dead letter. The Counter-Reformation on the continent of Europe had created a more vigorous and magnificent form of Catholicism (i.e., Baroque, notably found in the architecture and music of Austria, Italy and Germany) that attracted some converts, like the poet Richard Crashaw. Ironically, the explicitly Catholic artistic movement (i.e., Baroque) ended up "providing the blueprint, after the fire of London, for the first new Protestant churches to be built in England".[50]

While Charles remained firmly Protestant, he was personally drawn towards a consciously "High Church" Anglicanism. This affected his appointments to Anglican bishoprics, in particular the appointment of William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury. How many Catholics and Puritans there were is still open to debate.[51][52]

Religious conflict between Charles and other "High" Anglicans and Calvinists – at this stage mostly still within the Church of England (the Puritans) – formed a strand of the anti-monarchical leanings of the troubled politics of the period. The religious tensions between a court with "Papist" elements and a Parliament in which the Puritans were strong was one of the major factors behind the English Civil War, in which almost all Catholics supported the King. The victory of the Parliamentarians meant a strongly Protestant and anti-Catholic (and, incidentally, anti-Anglican) regime under Oliver Cromwell.

The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (1660–85) also saw the restoration of a Catholic-influenced court like his father's. However, although Charles himself had Catholic leanings, he was first and foremost a pragmatist and realised the vast majority of public opinion in England was strongly anti-Catholic, so he agreed to laws such as the Test Act requiring any appointee to any public office or member of Parliament to deny Catholic beliefs such as transubstantiation. As far as possible, however, he maintained tacit tolerance. Like his father, he married a Catholic, Catherine of Braganza. (He would become Catholic himself on his deathbed.)

James II was the last Catholic to reign as monarch of England (and Scotland and Ireland).

Charles' brother and heir James, Duke of York (later James II), converted to Catholicism in 1668–1669. When Titus Oates in 1678 alleged a (totally imaginary) "Popish Plot" to assassinate Charles and put James in his place, he unleashed a wave of parliamentary and public hysteria which led to anti-Catholic purges, and another wave of sectarian persecution, which Charles was either unable or unwilling to prevent. Throughout the early 1680s the Whig element in Parliament attempted to remove James as successor to the throne. Their failure saw James become, in 1685, Britain's first openly Catholic monarch since Mary I (and last to date). He promised religious toleration for Catholic and Protestants on an equal footing, but it is in doubt whether he did this to gain support from Dissenters or whether he was truly committed to tolerance (contemporary Catholic regimes in Spain and Italy, for example, were hardly tolerant of Protestantism, while those in France and Poland had practiced forms of toleration).[53][54]

James' clear intent to work towards the restoration of the Church of England to the Catholic fold encouraged converts like the poet John Dryden, who wrote "The Hind and the Panther", celebrating his conversion.[55][56] Protestant fears mounted as James placed Catholics in the major commands of the existing standing army, dismissed the Protestant Bishop of London and dismissed the Protestant fellows of Magdalen College and replaced them with a wholly Catholic board. The last straw was the birth of a Catholic heir in 1688, portending a return to a pre-Reformation Catholic dynasty.

William and Mary and the Church

In what came to be known as the Glorious Revolution, Parliament deemed James to have abdicated (effectively deposing him, though Parliament refused to call it that) in favor of his Protestant daughter and son-in-law and nephew, Mary II and William III. Although this affair is celebrated as solidifying both English liberties and the Protestant nature of the kingdom, some argue that it was "fundamentally a coup spearheaded by a foreign army and navy".[57][58][59]

James fled into exile, and with him many Catholic nobility and gentry. The Act of Settlement 1701, which remains in operation today, established the royal line through Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and specifically excludes any Catholic or anyone who marries a Catholic from the throne. This Act was partially changed when the ban on the monarch marrying a Catholic was eliminated (along with the rule of male succession).[60] Still, Catholics today once again are permitted to hold Wolsey and More's office of Lord Chancellor as did Catholics before the Reformation.[61]

Henry Benedict Stuart (Cardinal-Duke of York), the last Jacobite heir to publicly assert a claim to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland, died in Rome in 1807. A monument to the Royal Stuarts exists today at Vatican City. Franz, Duke of Bavaria, head of the Wittelsbach family, is the most senior descendant of King Charles I and is considered by Jacobites to be the heir of the Stuarts.[62][63] Franz's successor to the Jacobite claim is Sophie, Princess of Bavaria, Hereditary Princess of Liechtenstein and, according to the List of royalty by net worth, a member of the richest royal house in Europe.

Recusants and moves towards Emancipation

The years from 1688 to the early 19th century were in some respects the lowest point for Catholicism in England. Deprived of their dioceses, four Apostolic Vicariates were set up throughout England until the re-establishment of the diocesan episcopacy in 1850. Although the persecution was not violent as in the past, Catholic numbers, influence and visibility in English society reached their lowest point. The percentage of the population that was Catholic may have declined from 4% to 1% in the period with absolute numbers halved. Their civil rights were severely curtailed: their right to own property or inherit land was greatly limited, they were burdened with special taxes, they could not send their children abroad for Catholic education, they could not vote, and priests were liable to imprisonment. Writing about the Catholic Church during this time, historian Antonia Fraser notes:

The harsh laws and the live-and-let-live reality were two very different things. This world was divided into the upper classes, the aristocracy and the gentry, and what were literally the working classes. Undoubtedly, the survival of Catholicism in the past [up until 1829] was due to the dogged, but hopefully inconspicuous, protection provided by the former to the latter. Country neighbors, Anglicans and Catholics, lived amicably together in keeping with this "laissez-faire" reality.[64]

There was no longer, as once in Stuart times, any notable Catholic presence at court, in public life, in the military or professions. Many of the Catholic nobles and gentry who had preserved on their lands among their tenants small pockets of Catholicism had followed James into exile, and others, at least outwardly, conformed to Anglicanism, meaning fewer such Catholic communities survived intact. For "obvious reasons", Catholic aristocracy at this time was heavily intermarried. Their great houses, however, still had chapels called "libraries", with priests attached to these places (shelved for books) who celebrated Mass, which worship was described in public as "Prayers".[65] Interestingly, one area where the sons of working class Catholics could find religious tolerance was in the army. Generals, for example, did not deny Catholic men their Mass and did not compel them to attend Anglican services, believing that "physical strength and devotion to the military struggle was demanded of them, not spiritual allegiance".[66] Fraser also notes that the role of the working class among themselves was important:

...servants of various degrees and farm workers, miners, mill workers and tradesmen, responded with loyalty, hard work and gratitude for the opportunity to practice the faith of their fathers (and even more importantly, in many cases, their mothers). Their contributions should not be ignored, even if it is for obvious reasons more difficult to uncover than that of their theoretical superiors. The unspoken survival of the Catholic community in England, despite Penal laws, depended also on these loyal families unknown to history whose existence is recorded as Catholics in Anglican parish registers. That of Walton-le-Dale parish church, near Preston in Lancashire in 1781, for example, records 178 families, with 875 individuals as 'Papists'. Where baptisms are concerned, parental occupations are stated as weaver, husbandman and labourer, with names such as Turner, Wilcock, Balwin and Charnley.[67]

A bishop at this time (roughly from 1688 to 1850) was called a Vicar apostolic. A Vicar Apostolic was a titular bishop (as opposed to a diocesan bishop) through whom the pope exercised jurisdiction over a particular church territory in England. English-speaking colonial America came under the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic of the London. As titular bishop over Catholics in British America, he was important to the government not only in regard to its English-speaking North American colonies, but made more so after the Seven Years' War when the British Empire, in 1763, acquired the French-speaking (and predominantly Catholic) territory of Canada. Only after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and in 1789 with the consecration of John Carroll, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, did the U.S. have its own diocesan bishop, free of the Vicar Apostolic of London, James Robert Talbot.[68][69][70][71][72]

Geographical distribution of English Catholic Recusancy, 1715–1720.

Most Catholics retreated to relative isolation from a popular Protestant mainstream, and Catholicism in England in this period was politically, if not socially, invisible to history. However, there were exceptions. Alexander Pope, owing to his literary popularity, was one memorable English Catholic of the 18th century. Other memorable Catholics were three remarkable members of the Catholic gentry: Baron Petre (who wined and dined George III and Queen Charlotte at Thorndon Hall), Thomas Weld of the Weld-Blundell family (who in 1794 donated buildings to the Jesuits for Stonyhurst College, along with 30 acres of land), and the Duke of Norfolk, the Premier Duke in the peerage of England and as Earl of Arundel, the Premier Earl. In virtue of his status and as head of the Howard family (which included some Church of England members as well as many Catholic members), the Duke was always at court. It seemed the values and worth of aristocracy "trumped those of the illegal religion".[73] Pope, however, seemed to benefit from the isolation. In 1713, when he was 25, he took subscriptions for a project that filled his life for the next seven years, the result being a new version of Homer's Iliad. Samuel Johnson pronounced it the greatest translation ever achieved in the English language.[74] Over time, Pope became the greatest poet of the age, the Augustan Age, especially for his mock-heroic poems, Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. Around this time, in 1720, Clement XI proclaimed Anselm of Canterbury a Doctor of the Church. In 1752, mid-century, Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Later in the century there was some liberalization of the anti-Catholic laws on the basis of Enlightenment ideals.

In 1778 a Catholic Relief Act allowed Catholics to own property, inherit land and join the army. Hardline Protestant mobs reacted in the Gordon Riots in 1780, attacking any building in London which was associated with Catholicism or owned by Catholics. Other reforms allowed the clergy to operate more openly and thus allowed permanent missions to be set up in the larger towns. Stonyhurst College, for example, was re-established in 1791 for wealthier Catholics. In 1837, James Arundell, 10th Baron Arundell of Wardour, bequeathed to Stonyhurst the Arundel Library, which contained the vast Arundel family collection, including some of the school's most important books and manuscripts such as a Shakespeare First Folio and a manuscript copy of Froissart's Chronicles, looted from the body of a dead Frenchman after the Battle of Agincourt. Yet Catholic recusants as a whole remained a small group, except where they stayed the majority religion in various pockets, notably in rural Lancashire and Cumbria, or were part of the Catholic aristocracy and squirearchy.[75] One contemporary descendant of recusants is Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and writer. Radcliffe is related to three former cardinals – Weld, Vaughan and Hume (the last because his cousin Lord Hunt is married to Hume's sister) – and his family is connected to many of the great recusant English Catholic families, the Arundels, Tichbournes, Talbots, Stourtons, Stonors, and Weld-Blundells.[76] Finally, the famous recusant Maria Fitzherbert, who during this period secretly married the Prince of Wales, Prince Regent, and future George IV in 1785. The British Constitution, however, did not accept it and George IV later moved on. Cast aside by the establishment, she was adopted by the town of Brighton, whose citizens, both Catholic and Protestant, called her "Mrs. Prince". According to journalist Richard Abbott, "Before the town had a [Catholic] church of its own, she had a priest say Mass at her own house, and invited local Catholics", suggesting the recusants of Brighton were not very undiscovered.[77][78]

In a new study of the English Catholic community, 1688–1745, Gabriel Glickman notes that Catholics, especially those whose social position gave them access to the courtly centres of power and patronage, had a significant part to play in 18th-century England. They were not as marginal as one might think today. For example, Alexander Pope was not the only Catholic whose contributions (especially, Essays on Man) help define the temper of an early English Enlightenment. In addition to Pope, Glickman notes, a Catholic architect, James Gibbs, returned baroque forms to the London skyline and a Catholic composer, Thomas Arne, composed "Rule Britannia". According to reviewer Aidan Bellenger, Glickman also suggests that "rather than being the victims of the Stuart failure, 'the unpromising setting of exile and defeat' had 'sown the seed of a frail but resilient English Catholic Enlightenment'."[79] University of Chicago historian Steven Pincus likewise argues in his book, 1688: The First Modern Revolution, that Catholics under William and Mary and their successors experienced considerable freedom.[80]

Nineteenth century and the Irish

Statue of Cardinal Newman outside the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, London

After this moribund period, the first signs of a revival occurred as thousands of French Catholics fled France during the French Revolution. The leaders of the Revolution were virulently anti-Catholic, even singling out priests and nuns for summary execution or massacre, and England was seen as a safe haven from Jacobin violence. Also around this time (1801), a new political entity was formed, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which merged the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, thus increasing the number of Catholics in the new state. Pressure for abolition of anti-Catholic laws grew, particularly with the need for Catholic recruits to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Despite the strong opposition of King George III, which delayed reform, 1829 brought the culmination of the liberalisation of the anti-Catholic laws.[81] Parliament passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, giving Catholics almost equal civil rights, including the right to vote and to hold most public offices. If Catholics were rich, however, exceptions were always made, even before the changes. For example, American ministers to the Court of St. James's were often struck by the prominence of wealthy American-born Catholics, titled ladies among the nobility, like Louisa (Caton), granddaughter of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and her two sisters, Mary Ann and Elizabeth. After Louisa's first husband (Sir Felton Bathurst-Hervey) died, Louisa later married the son of the Duke of Leeds, and had the Duke of Wellington as her European protector. Her sister Mary Ann married the Marquess of Wellesley, the brother of the Duke of Wellington; and her other sister Elizabeth (Lady Stafford) married another British nobleman.[82][83][84][85] Though British law required an Anglican marriage service, each of the sisters and their Protestant spouses had a Catholic ceremony afterwards. At Louisa's first marriage, the Duke of Wellington escorted the bride.[86]

In the 1840s and 1850s, especially during the Great Irish Famine, while much of the large outflow of migration from Ireland was headed to the United States to seek work, hundreds of thousands of Irish people also migrated across the channel to England and Scotland and established communities in cities there, including London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, but also in towns and villages up and down the country, thus giving Catholicism in England a numerical boost.