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Bible Dictionaries

1910 New Catholic Dictionary

Penal Laws

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Penal legislation was enacted against Catholics in England, Ireland, Scotland, and the American colonies from 1559 to 1155.


By a series of statutes successive sovereigns and Parliaments from Elizabeth (1559) to George I (1722) sought to prevent the practise of the Catholic faith in England. Under Elizabeth the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1559) were both, in effect, penal statutes, for they punished Catholics who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy or to attend the services of the Established Church. More severe measures were not enacted until after the Bull of Excommunication (1510). From 1511 till 1603 acts were passed which made it high treason:

  • to bring in papal Bulls (1571)
  • to declare the queen to be a heretic or schismatic
  • to reconcile anyone or to be reconciled to the "Romish religion" (1581)
  • for any priest to be in England after 1585
  • for any priest to refuse the Oath of Supremacy a second time (1563)

Besides these the following were punishable by fine, imprisonment, forfeiture of property:

  • to bring in articles blessed by the pope
  • to take refuge abroad
  • to say or hear Mass
  • to be absent from Anglican services
  • to harbor or relieve priests
  • to send children abroad to schools or seminaries

Under these laws 189 persons died on the scaffold. During the reign of King James I (1603-1625) all Elizabeth's measures were confirmed with additional aggravations, and after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, new statutes prescribed a new Oath of Allegiance to be given to all persons over 18, and prohibited recusants (those who refused to attend the new services) from civiland military employment.

After the Restoration in 1660, under King Charles II the following measures were added:

  • Test Act (1673), by which all officers were required to declare against Transubstantiation
  • in 1678
  • Catholics were excluded from Parliament
  • members were obliged to declare against popery
  • married women were obliged to receive the Sacrament in the Established Church before their husband's death

In 1679, twenty-two persons suffered death after the Titus Oates Plot. A new era of persecution began with the Revolution of 1688. The "Act for further preventing the growth of Popery," passed in 1699, decreed:

  • a reward of 100 pounds for the apprehension of any priest
  • life imprisonment for clergy exercising priestly duties
  • life imprisonment for keeping Catholic schools
  • that recusants were prohibited from inheriting, purchasing, or devising property

The last penal laws were those of King George I, which ordered confiscation of the estates of popish recusants and a tax to be levied upon Papists (1722). The task of repeal was slow and long, the chief measures being three, in 1778,1791, and the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. The only disqualifications now in force against Catholics are those prohibiting the sovereign from being or marrying a Catholic, or any Catholic from holding the office of lord chancellor.


Penal laws were passed against Catholics by the Scottish Parliament from 1560 to 1707, the most important being the following:

  • for hearing or saying Mass, confiscation of goods, banishment or death (1560)
  • apprehension of persons possessing papal Bulls, etc. (1571)
  • forbidding the harboring of Catholic priests
  • parents required to withdraw children from Catholic schools
  • persecuted Catholics should be pursued (1629)
  • reward for conviction of any priest or Jesuit (1700)
  • Catholics prohibited from inheriting property or educating children

After the Act of Union (1707) these laws were still enforced, besides many other restrictions prohibiting the spread of Catholic books, preventing Catholics from becoming school-masters or guardians, etc.


The Irish Parliament, passed the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559, the former prescribing the Oath of Supremacy for all officers under penalty of dismissal, and the latter prohibiting the Mass and imposing fines for non-attendance at Protestant services. After the Rebellion of 1641, Cromwell abolished the Irish Parliament and governed by proclamation, and the acts of Elizabeth, by which it was high treason for any priest to remain in the country and by which property was forfeited for refusal to take an oath denying Catholic doctrine, were put into execution. In 1665 came the Act of Explanation which left only one-third of the land to Catholics, the rest being given to Protestants who had helped to quell the rebellion. The reign of Charles II also saw the following proclamations carried out:

  • all regular priests ordered to leave the country (1673-74-78)
  • churches and convents closed, and Catholic pllblic services banned (1679)

Under William of Orange, the English Parliament, legislating for Ireland, enacted that no one should sit in the Irish Parliament without taking the Oath of Supremacy and declaring against Catholic doctrines, especially Transubstantiation. Catholics being thus excluded, the Irish body not only refused to relax the penal laws, as King William wished, but embarked on fresh legislation until the Penal Code was complete. From 1691 to 1749, the following enactments were passed and enforced:

  • Catholics were forbidden to have schools at home or to attend Catholic schools abroad
  • excluded from civiland military employment and from professions
  • forbidden to keep a horse worth above five pounds
  • a Catholic landlord had to leave his estate to his children in equal shares
  • if the wife or oldest son became Protestant, she at once obtained separate maintenance and he received the whole estate
  • a Protestant's estate was given to the nearest Protestant heir
  • a child becoming Protestant was maintained by Chancery
  • Catholics were forbidden to intermarry with Protestants (1689)
  • no Papist could act as guardian (1689)
  • secular priests must be registered (1703)
  • no priests were admitted from abroad
  • priests must take an oath of abjuration (1709)
  • it was high treason for a priest to perform a mixed marriage, which was declared null and void (1725)
  • Catholics were forbidden to vote for Parliament (1727)

There was a slight relaxation of these measures in 1771, a date which marks the beginning of relief for Catholics. An unobjectionable Oath of Allegiance was substituted for the Oath of Supremacy, 1774. In 1778 an act was passed enabling Catholics to hold all lands under lease and repeal of inheritance laws; and in 1782, an act allowing Catholics to erect schools with permission of the Protestant bishop of the place, and permitting bishops and priests to reside in Ireland. In 1792Catholics were admitted to the Bar, and were permitted to erect schools without permission; inter-marriage between Catholics and Protestants was legalized. A Relief Bill (1793) removed all restrictions regarding tenure of land, gave Catholics Parliamentary and municipal franchise, and admitted them to civiland military office.


In Virginia the charter of 1606 established the Anglican Church, and penal legislation was directed against all dissenters. In 1628 an act imposed fines on absentees from service; in 1642 a law disenfranchised Catholics and enforced the expulsion, within five days, of a priest coming into the colony; and even in 1755 a curious act "for disarming Papists" gave evidence of the prejudice against Catholics. In Massachusetts, where Congregationalism was established, only Church members were admitted to civicfreedom, heresy was punished by banishment (1631), Catholics were not allowed to live in the colony, death was the punishment for the return of a banished Jesuit, and although in 1691 liberty of conscience was decreed to all Christians, the clause "except Papists" was inserted. Religious freedom for all, which had been the'law from the foundation of Catholic Maryland, was abolished in 1692, when the Episcopal Establishment began a persecution of Catholics. They were deprived of civiland religious rights, a law laid a tax of 20 shillings on every Irish servant imported (1704), and Catholics did not receive the franchise until the American Revolution put an end to all penal enactments. The legislation of all the other colonies, with the exception of Connecticut and Rhode Island, contained restrictions against Catholics, the franchise being generally limited to Protestants. Even in Pennsylvania (1705), despite the protest of Penn, Catholics were excluded from civilrights.

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Bibliography Information
Entry for 'Penal Laws'. 1910 New Catholic Dictionary. 1910.

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