History of the Catholic Church

A brief history of the Catholic Church in England from 16th - 19th Century.

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The Reformation

Until the 1530s, the Church in this country, as in the rest of Western Europe, was under the final authority of the Pope, and its doctrine and worship were Catholic. When Henry VIII failed to persuade Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in England and closed down all the monasteries—though he continued to regard himself as a Catholic. After a brief experiment with Protestantism under his son Edward VI (1547-53) and a brief return to Catholicism under his elder daughter Mary I (1555-58), England officially became Protestant in 1559 under his younger daughter Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Except under the Catholic James II (1685-88), Catholicism remained illegal for the next 232 years.

‘Penal Times’

Catholicism survived mostly in secret congregations centred on the country houses of Catholic peers and gentry. Priests had to be trained and ordained abroad, at Douai, in Rome and elsewhere, and on returning to England they were liable to imprisonment. From about 1580 to 1680 they also risked execution, as did those who harboured them. Of those who died in this way, or earlier for refusing to swear that Henry VIII was Head of the Church, forty-two now have the title of Saint and another 242 that of Blessed. Government policy fluctuated from time to time, so that most of the executions were between 1580 and 1610, with another batch at the time of the Civil War and Commonwealth (1642-60) and a third at the time of the Oates Plot (1678-81). Catholics were also liable to fines for not attending Protestant services (‘recusancy’), but with the collusion of conforming cousins and brothers-in-law most of them managed to evade either conviction or payment.

Country-House Chapels

Catholic houses had secret chapels and rooms for the priests on the top floor and hiding-places (‘priest-holes’) where priests could be hidden during searches. The best-known builder of priest-holes was (Saint) Nicholas Owen, who died in the Tower under torture in 1606. The best surviving series of them is at Harvington Hall, near Kidderminster in Worcestershire; others can be seen at, among other houses, Ufton Court, near Reading; Scotney Old Castle in Kent; Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk; Thurnham Hall near Lancaster; Baddesley Clinton and Coughton Court in Warwickshire; and Boscobel House and Moseley Old Hall near Wolverhampton. The hides at the last two were also used by King Charles II during his escape after the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and so are unusually well documented.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

After 1610 or so the executions tailed off, and from 1623 onwards there was a Catholic Chapel Royal in London, since Charles I (1625-49) married a Catholic princess. During the Civil War and Commonwealth Catholics suffered both for religion and for royalism. But Charles II (1660-85) also had a Catholic wife; after the Oates Plot there were no more executions, and in the eighteenth century there was much social acceptance of Catholics. In London, they freely used the Embassy chapels of the Catholic powers, as well as less splendid settings for worship. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), the leading poet of his age, was entertained by peers and bishops and at the court of the Prince of Wales. George III gave permission to erect an (illegal) chapel to his friend Mr Thomas Weld of Lulworth in Dorset; in 1785 the King’s eldest son, later George IV, secretly married Weld’s widowed sister – law, Mrs Fitzherbert. In 1767 there were about 80,000 Catholics in England (about 1% of the population). Though excluded from Parliament, magistracies, military and naval commissions and the universities, they included lawyers, doctors, bankers, distillers, ironmasters, potters, cotton-spinners, promoters of canals and providers of coaching services and post-horses.

The Nineteenth Century

After Catholic worship became legal in 1791, most of the country-house chapels were closed and the missions moved to the nearest towns, following the shifts of population caused by the Industrial Revolution. So Catholic churches are now mostly in cities and towns and date from the last two hundred years. For a survey of them, see A Glimpse of Heaven by Christopher Martin & Alex Ramsey (English Heritage, 2006). At the same time, because of the French Revolution, the English colleges and monasteries on the Continent moved back to England. By the Emancipation Act of 1829 Catholics recovered most of the rights enjoyed by their fellow-citizens. In the 1840s they were much augmented by Irish immigration after the Famine and by Tractarian converts from the Church of England, who included the future Cardinals Newman and Manning.


After 1559 there were no Catholic bishops at large in England, except from 1623 to 1631, when there was one for the whole country. In 1688 four missionary bishops (‘Vicars Apostolic’) were appointed for the London, Midland, Northern and Western Districts. The most famous of them was Richard Challoner (1691-1781), who used the Sardinian Embassy Chapel in London as what amounted to his cathedral. The Vicars Apostolic were increased to eight in 1840 and replaced by a normal hierarchy of an archbishop (Westminster) and twelve bishops in 1850. This change provoked violent protests on the grounds that it was ‘Papal Aggression’, and in 1851 a short-lived Act was passed forbidding the use of English ecclesiastical titles by Catholic bishops. Since then other dioceses have been created, and there are now five archbishops (Westminster, Birmingham, Liverpool, Cardiff and Southwark), of whom the first four are the successors of the four original Vicars Apostolic.

Prayer for Christian unity

Heavenly Father,
you have called us in the Body of your Son Jesus Christ
to continue his work of reconciliation
and reveal you to the world:
forgive us the sins which tear us apart;
give us the courage to overcome our fears
and to seek that unity which is your gift and your will;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


To read

A Glimpse of Heaven by Christopher Martin & Alex Ramsey (English Heritage, 2006).

Reformation in England by Raymond Edwards published by the Catholic Truth Society

To Do

Visit some of the houses mentioned above to see the priest holes and experience what it must have been like to live with that kind of fear – something that Christians of all traditions in many parts of the world still have to do.

This was written by a member of the catechetical team at The Maryvale Institute.