The Penal Laws

Author: Patrick Barry


Patrick Barry

Understanding the era of the eighty-five martyrs

Eighty-five martyrs who died for the Catholic faith in England and Wales more than three centuries ago were beatified by His Holiness Pope John Paul II in St Peter's on Sunday 22 November. Their names were added to the great roll of honour of the Catholic martyrs of England and Wales: Cardinal John Fisher and Sir Thomas More who were canonized in 1935, the forty martyrs canonized in 1970, and one hundred and fifty-five blessed martyrs beatified amongst three groups in 1886, 1895 and 1929.

Of these eighty-five martyrs, eighty were Englishmen, born in various parts of the country, and three were from Wales, one from Scotland and one from Ireland. They were put to death in cities and towns throughout the land between 1584 and 1679, singly or two, three or four together: twenty in the capital, London; twenty-five in York, the chief city in the north of England; nine at Lancaster and seven at Durham, also in the north; four in the university city of Oxford, three at Derby in the midlands, three at Gloucester in the southwest, twelve in other towns around England and two in Wales. They lived and suffered during the period known to English Catholics as "the penal times", when Catholicism was a proscribed religion in England and severe penal laws were in force against its adherents.


Generally speaking the persecution of Catholics in England and Wales in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came in waves, caused by particular incidents or circumstances, with intervals of comparative respite in between. The first wave was in the time of King Henry VIII, from 1534 onwards, when by act of Parliament the king became "supreme head of the Church in England", up to the end of the reign in 1547. From these years there are seven canonized and thirty-three blessed martyrs; the best known are Sts John Fisher and Thomas More, mentioned above, both put to death in 1535. None of the present martyrs, however, suffered in this reign.


Henry VIIIwas succeeded by his son Edward VI (1547-53) and during his reign Protestantism became established as the religion of England, but there was no active repression of Catholics. Edward was followed by Mary I (1553-58), daughter of Henry VIII; she was a Catholic and under her Catholicism was restored but only temporarily. Elizabeth I, another daughter of Henry VIII and a Protestant, succeeded Mary in 1558 and Protestantism became the State religion of England once again, now to remain so permanently. By an Act of Parliament of 1559 Elizabeth was made "supreme governor" of the realm "in all spiritual and ecclesiastical things", in other words, head of the Church as well as of the State. During the early years of her reign no great pressure was put on Catholics to conform to the "Established Church" of the new regime, but the situation changed rapidly from about 1570 onwards, mainly as a result of various events in England.

First there was the Northern Rising of 1569, an unsuccessful rebellion by Catholics in the north of England seeking the restoration of Catholicism and the release of the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic cousin of Elizabeth and in Catholic eyes the rightful heir to the English throne. Then in 1570 Pope St Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and released her subjects from their allegiance to her, which naturally increased the English government's hostility towards Catholics. Shortly after, from 1574 onwards, priests from the newly founded seminaries overseas—at Douai and Rome and in Spain—began to arrive in England, and the first Jesuit missionaries came in 1580. The activities of this new generation of priests alarmed the government and the result was that severe laws against Catholics, the "penal laws", were soon enacted. An Act of Parliament of 1581 made reconciliation to the Catholic Church treason, and another Act in 1585 "against Jesuits and seminary priests", the most infamous of all these laws, proscribed as treason the very presence of a Catholic priest in England and made it felony for anyone to shelter or assist him. Treason and felony were capital crimes and thus many Catholics were to suffer death under these laws.

Finally, in 1588 there was the Spanish Armada, which carried an army intended for the invasion of England and the overthrow of the Protestant Queen and her regime. The expedition failed, but for English Protestants it was the ultimate proof that the Pope and Spain were in league with English Catholics against them and that the returning priests and those to whom they ministered were the agents of foreign powers organizing, a fifth column in their country. The repressive anti-Catholic laws were now enforced rigorously, and thus during the last thirty years or so of the sixteenth century English Catholics underwent the longest period of sustained persecution in their history. Of the present eighty-five martyrs, sixty-eight suffered in these years, between 1584 and 1601, i.e.

forty-eight priests (including one Dominican and two Jesuits) and twenty laymen, all except two condemned under the new Elizabethan laws.


Elizabeth I was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, who now became James I of England. Though James was a convinced Protestant, at the beginning of his reign the Catholics had great hopes of toleration, but these soon proved to be illusory. In 1605 came the Gunpowder Plot, a conspiracy by a number of hotheaded Catholics (the best known being Guy Fawkes) to blow up the Houses of Parliament when the King and the members of Parliament were present. The plot was discovered before it could be carried out and the conspirators were subsequently executed, but strong anti-Catholic feeling was aroused and the penal laws were strengthened and again enforced strictly. Nine of the present group of martyrs suffered in this reign, between 1604 and 1618, i.e. seven priests and two laymen. All of them were condemned under the act of 1585, merely for being priests or assisting priests.


Charles I succeeded his father in 1625 and the earlier years of his reign were a time of relative peace for English Catholics. His French Catholic Queen consort had her Catholic chaplains, the chapels of the Catholic ambassadors in London were wellattended, religious houses and schools founded on the Continent by English Catholic exiles

flourished, and even for a time papal agents resided in London. Meanwhile the penal laws were largely held in abeyance through the King's favour and only two martyrs suffered between 1625 and 1640. Things changed, however, when the Long Parliament, predominantly Puritan, assembled in 1640 and began to challenge the King's authority.

The Puritans were the extreme Protestant party in England, who sought further reform of the English Church in accordance with Calvinist theology, and they were very hostile to Catholics. Persecution now recommenced; two priests were executed in1641 and several more in the first half of 1642 and, with the outbreak of the Civil War between King and Parliament in August 1642, persecution continued under the Parliament alone after the

King had left London: thirteen priests were put to death between August 1642 and August 1646. The Parliamentarians finally had the upper hand, the King was executed in 1649, the monarchy was abolished and the period known as the Commonwealth followed (1649-60). Of our eighty-five martyrs, six priests (including four Franciscans) suffered during the years of the Civil War, all under the Act of 1585.


The restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, son of Charles I, in 1660 brought fresh hope to English Catholics. The new king was grateful to the many Catholics who had supported the royal cause in the Civil War and helped him escape to France. Moreover, during his exile on the Continent he had had much contact with English Catholics. In 1602 he married the Catholic Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the King of Portugal, and indeed he eventually became a Catholic himself on his deathbed. He was anxious to make life easier for Catholics, but the fact was that the royal power had been decisively weakened by the Civil War and the execution of his father, and again and again he had to give way to Parliament, which was largely anti-Catholic.

In the late 1660s Charles' younger brother James, Duke of York and heir presumptive to the throne, became a Catholic and then married the Catholic Mary of Modena in 1673. Protestants now became alarmed at the prospect of a Catholic king in England and consequently they readily accepted the fabricated evidence of Titus Oates in 1678 about a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles, massacre Protestants and put the Catholic James on the throne. Oates was later convicted of perjury, flogged and imprisoned, but his allegations were believed at the time and caused widespread panic, and another wave of persecution began. It was in fact short and was the last persecution in England in which Catholics were put to death, but it was very fierce while it lasted. Between 1678 and 1681 one bishop, nineteen priests, one Benedictine brother and four laymen were executed, some on false charges of involvement in the Oates Plot and others under the act of 1585. Among the latter were the last two of the eighty-five martyrs, both priests (one of them an Irish Franciscan).


Of the present eighty-five martyrs, two (William Carter and George Haydock, London 1584) were condemned on false charges under an ancient treason law of 1352, while the other eighty-three all suffered on charges of treason or felony under the Elizabethan penal laws. These laws had as their object the conformity of all subjects to the Established Church, i.e. the Church established by law at the beginning of the Queen's reign. They were directed at "recusants" in general, i.e. those who refused (recusare) to conform to this Church, and in particular at Catholics as the most numerous and best organized body. Enacted one by one as occasion demanded, they were enforced with varying degrees of strictness according to the temper of the times and the attitudes of the authorities in different parts of the country, and they cost many Catholics their estates, their liberty and their lives. As seen by Catholics, these laws simply enlarged the concepts of treason and felony to include various actions prescribed or approved by the Catholic faith, e.g. the celebration of Mass and the sheltering of priests, but to the Protestant government Catholics appeared to be in league with hostile foreigners, the Pope and Spain in particular, attempting to overthrow the Protestant State and reestablish a Catholic regime in England. This view was confirmed by the Pope's excommunication of the Queen in 1570 and the coming of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and later by the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the fabricated Oates Plot of 1678. The great majority of English Catholics were patriotic and wanted to combine two loyalties, to their monarch and country and to their faith, but in the circumstances of the time it was very difficult and often impossible to do so and a great many suffered cruelly as a result.

The two best known of all the Elizabethan penal laws, under one or other of which almost all the present martyrs suffered, were: (i) "An act to retain the Queen's Majesty's subjects in their due obedience", passed in 1581, which made it treason to reconcile or be reconciled to the Catholic Church or to induce others to be so reconciled ("persuading to popery"). Of the present martyrs, one priest and six laymen suffered under this Act between 1587 and 1596. (ii) "An act against Jesuits and seminary priests", passed in 1585, which made it treason for any Englishman ordained a Catholic priest abroad after 1559 to come into or remain in England and felony for anyone to shelter or assist such a priest. This Act was the culmination of the Elizabethan penal legislation and rendered most of the previous laws obsolete. Henceforth once it was shown that a man was a Catholic priest ordained after the specified date, he was ipso facto guilty of treason and likewise lay people who assisted such a priest were ipso facto guilty of felony. Treason and felony both incurred the death penalty, treason by the brutal process of hanging, drawing (disembowelling) and quartering, and felony by hanging only. Most of the martyrs during the rest of the English persecution were condemned under this Act; of the present eighty-five, seventy-five suffered under it, i.e. sixty-one priests and fourteen laymen


Our eighty-five martyrs included men of every age and they were drawn from all social classes. Sixty-five of them were priests and the remainder were laymen. Of the priests, fifty-five were "seminary" priests, so called because they were trained and ordained in the English seminaries established overseas in the days of persecution—today we would call them diocesan priests. The other priests were from the religious orders: five Franciscans, two Jesuits and one Dominican, all likewise trained and ordained abroad. Some of them were young men in their twenties, just returned to England after ordination and arrested almost as soon as they landed; others had laboured long on the English mission: a few were aged up to seventy and one was about eighty when executed. Many of them came from well-to-do families, but one had worked as a shoemaker and a cook before beginning his studies for the priesthood and another was the son of a carpenter. As well as their ecclesiastical studies, some also had degrees from the universities of Oxford or Cambridge before entering the seminaries, and five had been in orders in the Established Church before their conversion to Catholicism.

Amongst the lay martyrs also were young men and men well advanced in years. One was described as "a youth" and some more were in their twenties, while at the other end of the age scale one was referred to as sanctissimussenex and another, a widower, was said to be "a fatherly old man". Some of the laymen were gentlemen or prosperous landowners but many too were of more lowly status: craftsmen—a printer, a glove maker, a tailor, a carpenter, a weaver; and ordinary working men—a serving man at an inn, a stableman, a lady's manservant, a farm labourer. At least seven of the laymen were married, possibly more, and most of these had children.

The laymen suffered because they were closely involved with the priests, helping them in one way or another with their ministry; indeed without the cooperation and assistance of such laymen the priests simply could not function. Many, especially the better-off, "received' the priests, to use the official term, i.e. they sheltered them in their homes and provided a base from which they could operate and where they could gather the faithful together with relative security for the celebration of the Eucharist. These places were the "safe houses" by means of which the underground Catholic Church of the time was able to survive, and many of the owners were arrested and went to death with the priests they had sheltered. Other laymen aided the priests in various other ways: they arranged safe conduct for them, accompanied them on their journeys, visited them in prison and sometimes helped them escape. And even though there are no women martyrs among the present group, women nonetheless played an important role. The wives of some of the lay martyrs were arrested with their husbands, as were other women who sheltered priests, and a few of them were even condemned to death, but the sentences were not carried out. All, men and women, were well aware that in receiving or assisting a priest they risked their lives, but nevertheless did not hesitate because they valued the faith above life itself.


All the martyrs endured much physical suffering. They were imprisoned for longer or shorter periods—one of the present group spent sixteen years confined in various gaols. They were uncomfortably lodged, their gaolers treated them roughly, their companions were criminals; sometimes they were kept in solitary confinement, occasionally they

were put in chains. They were subjected to lengthy interrogation, even under torture, to extract from them information about fellow Catholics with a view to pursuing these also. When brought to court for trial the dice was loaded against them; they had little chance of being acquitted unless they agreed to renounce their faith and conform to the Established Church. Finally there was the terrible suffering of execution, carried out in public in the presence of a mostly hostile crowd, particularly brutal when the victim had been condemned for treason and was cut down alive and then disembowelled and quartered.

The martyrs went to their deaths bravely, often joyfully blessing God for the privilege he was about to confer on them. Many of the priests addressed the people from the scaffold, proclaiming their priesthood and asserting that they laid down their lives willingly for the Catholic faith. Their heroic perseverance to the end, their readiness to make the supreme sacrifice of life itself for their beliefs, must surely be an example and an inspiration for all Christians and indeed for all people of goodwill in our own age.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 November 1987, page 8

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