Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales after the Reformation

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Although there was strong Catholic sentiment in parts of the kingdom, and some notable figures were executed rather than accept the royal supremacy, the majority of the population acquiesced in the Reformation of the Church of England under Henry VIII and Edward VI. Catholicism began to be restored under Mary, but her persecution of the Reformers created a legacy of bitterness. Under Elizabeth I the distinction between RCs and Anglicans was made clear by the 1559 Act of Uniformity's imposition of fines on those who did not attend the services of the C of E. Many Catholics practised their faith in secret, and at first there was little persecution. Later, political events, and the excommunication of Elizabeth in 1570, hardened attitudes. The arrival in 1574 of the first missionary priests from the Continent, followed by Jesuits from 1580 onwards, strengthened the RC community, but was met by penal legislation and executions. In the later years of James I's reign the penal laws against RCs were often not enforced, and their suspension was one of the conditions of Charles I's marriage to Henrietta Maria. Charles II promised toleration and tried to secure it, but was forced to accept legislation which excluded RCs from Parliament and office. Although James II came to the throne in 1685 professing personal allegiance to the RC Church, his attempts to further the interest of his fellow-Catholics led to his replacement by William and Mary. The Bill of Rights 1688 and the Act of Settlement 1700 debarred from the throne any RC or anyone who should marry a RC, and other legislation excluded RCs from the professions.

In 1685 John Leyburn was appointed the first Vicar Apostolic. Three further Vicars were appointed in 1688 and England was divided into four districts. The need to recruit Irish and Scottish clansmen for the American War of Independence led to the first of the Catholic Relief Acts in 1778. By 1829 nearly all disabilities were removed. The sufferings of the RC Church on the Continent in the French Revolution (from 1789) created a degree of sympathy in England, and English religious communities returned from abroad. In the 19th cent. the RC population was also increased by Irish immigrants. In 1850 a hierarchy of twelve suffragan bishops under an archbishop was established; N. P. S. Wiseman became Abp. of Westminster and a cardinal. He introduced into England the Ultramontanism which was fostered by his successor, H. E. Manning. In 1908 England and Wales ceased to be missionary territory and in 1918 ‘missions’ became legally constituted parishes. Card. A. Hinsley became something of a national figure through his broadcasts in the early years of the Second World War. Nevertheless, in 1945, after a century of growth and consolidation, the RC Church was still regarded with hostility. The educational expansion following the 1944 Education Act resulted in an increase in the number of RCs in higher education and the professions. The Second Vatican Council (1962–5) drew the whole RC Church into a new relationship with other Churches and the introduction of the vernacular in the liturgy made the RC Church seem less ‘foreign’. Membership has increased to c.4 million and under Card. G. B. Hume the RC Church was drawn into the mainstream of national life.


Subjects: Christianity.

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