Monday, November 6, 2017

Being Catholic in Regency England

By Virginia Kohl

Required television viewing for many people in the UK recently has been the BBC series Gunpowder, which tells the story of Robert Catesby and the Gunpowder Plot of of 1605. Most people know the story, which usually centres around Guy Fawkes, and they assume that it was he who spear-headed the attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament.

Even those who know about Robert Catesby may not be aware of the reasons which pushed him towards such drastic actions, that of the persecution of Roman Catholics in England during this period of frequent change and change-about of the official religion in England, from the early days of the Reformation, through the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer during the reign of Edward VI, onwards through the reversal of laws by Catholic Mary I, and then another change during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I - Public Domain Image

Perhaps some might know of the plight of recusants during the English Civil Wars, and even the story of Charles II's escape after the Battle of Worcester, where he was helped in his endeavours not only by a Catholic family, the Penderels, but also by a Catholic priest by the name of Father Huddleston, who was brought to Charles' bedside as he lay dying, years later, more than twenty years after the event. But was that the end of religious persecution in England? With Charles II as king and the monarchy restored in 1660, a new age was about to begin, and tolerance was promised. But how did that translate to fact? What of the Catholics in England in later centuries?

Anti-Catholicism began in 16th century England with the creation of the Anglican Church. This strong sentiment continued well into the regency era. Research for my debut novel taught me the many hardships Catholics faced during that time.

Since the reformation, many believed that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church threatened their freedom. Members were seen as a political and social threat that had to be suppressed. Since the establishment of the Church of England in 1534 Catholics were unable to freely practice their religion without persecution. In addition, they were not allowed to purchase land, inherit property, and hold seats in the government or any civil or military offices without receiving hefty penalties. These restrictions were gradually lifted through a set of laws. The first, known the Papists Act was passed in 1778. This allowed Roman Catholics to purchase and inherit land. Priests were also no longer taken and prosecuted for spreading the faith. The Papists Act also required Catholics to swear an oath of loyalty to the king. Over a decade later the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791 was passed. This allowed them to practice their religion and be admitted to professions they were previously barred from. Young Catholic men were allowed to enter the army, however, it would be another twenty years before freedom of religion was granted to members of the military. This was particularly interesting to me, since my hero is an army Colonel. The heroine learns that “catholic soldiers had only been allowed to freely practice their faith since 1811—eleven years after his conversion.”

Lulworth Castle - image attribution

Even though Catholics were granted rights, these came with restrictions. Priests had to be registered, and were not allowed to wear their cassocks in public. Worship services were not allowed to be held outside. Mass was often celebrated in private residences or chapels constructed on a Catholic landowners’ grounds, although steeples and bells were forbidden. The first post-reformation outdoor chapel for public worship was built on the grounds of Lulworth Castle in 1786.

St Mary's Chapel, Lulworth Castle - image supplied by author

St. Mary’s was constructed to resemble a standard garden abode at the owner’s request. Thomas Weld was an influential promoter of emancipation and also assisted fellow Catholics fleeing from the French revolution. Roman Catholic couples wishing to marry had to do so in the in the Church of England for it to be legally binding. If this order was not followed, it would result in costly repercussions including the children being seen as illegitimate under the law. Regardless of their legitimacy, children could attend public schools or universities. Unless the family could afford the expense of enrolling them in a Catholic education on the continent, children were often taught at home. The final Act was passed in 1829 thanks to the work of an Irish barrister named Daniel O’Connell. This finally gave Catholic men the right to vote and have a seat in parliament.

Daniel O' Connell - Public Domain image

The social discrimination that originated under King Henry VIII continued for decades after the emancipation laws had been passed. If Catholics were not entirely excluded from gatherings and prominent functions, they were disregarded or even harassed. Ideally a young Catholic woman would meet and make a match with a gentleman of her own faith. If this was not possible, she could marry outside of the church to avoid the socially unacceptable existence of spinsterhood. An interfaith marriage, previously forbidden by law, would only be accepted if the couple was married by an Anglican officiant. These unions could also be celebrated in two ceremonies to validate both religious beliefs. Regardless of an individual’s personal faith, taxes were paid by all citizens to maintain the many parishes throughout the nation.


Virginia Kohl found that this valuable information helped her to write strong characters who “knew first hand how cruel and heartless society could be”. You can learn more about their journey in True Love Comes to Delaford.

Virginia has been fascinated with the regency era since discovering Jane Austen’s works at the age of eleven. While others dreamt of Willoughby, it was Colonel Brandon who stole Virginia’s heart from the very beginning. Originally from Germany, she shares her Texas home with her illustrator mother and faithful rescue dog. When not passing her love of learning on to her students, this college math professor enjoys reading, writing, and being an active member of her local writer’s guild.

Virginia Kohl can be reached at Facebook
Her debut novel can be found at Amazon


  1. I was really looking forward to the Gunpowder series on tv and had the first one taped. Then I heard a lot of complaints about how savage and blood thirsty it was and I'm afraid I was done. I can't stand anything with too much gore in it so I deleted it and didn't watch any of it. Pity. I think it would have been interesting.

  2. What an interesting post. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. A very interesting, but also very unbalanced article.


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