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Church History Forum: Reformation in England

by Catherine Frakas 04 Jan 2002

Reformation in England QUESTION from . M. Sponer March 29, 2001 After the England reformation, when were the Catholics in England able to worship freely again? and was any of the Catholic Church property returned back to them, churches,monasteries etc..? Thank you
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on April 5, 2001 Dear Mr. Sponer,
The degree to which Catholics enjoyed freedom of worship largely depended on who was on the throne of England. The Acts of Uniformity (1552, 1559) made the practice of Roman Catholicism liable to fines or imprisonment, and they were not strictly enforced. It was after the excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570, a northern rebellion involving Jesuits (1569), and three plots against the monarch, which included plans of invasion by Spain, that Catholics were persecuted in earnest. Before that time, a Catholic could practice the faith in secret and the population would turn a blind eye. After these plots, Catholics were not tolerated in the least for the rest of Elizabeth's reign.
Queen Elizabeth did not really care what people believed; her main concern was that all Englishmen show their alliance to England by attending Anglican services instead of Catholic ones. Some Catholics did attend Anglican services; but a number of them wouldn't receive communion. That was good enough to satisfy Elizabeth. As long as the faithful were subdued enough to act as if she was the head of the Church-- even if they really didn't believe she wasn't-- that's all that mattered to her.
Queen Elizabeth had planned for Catholicism to disappear once the faithful priests who served in her father's time would slowly die off. That did not happen, thanks to the effort of Cardinal Allen, who established the English seminary in Douai in what is today Belgium. The increasing zeal of Catholic missionaries, combined with the plots against her compelled Elizabeth to more strictly enforce the laws against practicing Catholics. It was later in her reign that Catholics were executed on a more frequent basis.
These oppressive conditions continued under James I; the difference with James is that he preferred to use Catholics as a cash cow and fine them rather than execute them. Under the Charles I, the situation for Catholics vastly improved, which provoked the ire of the Puritan party in the House of Commons. Charles' religious policy was one factor that led to the English Civil War.
Under Cromwell, Catholics were tactily tolerated, but despised; after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Charles II and James II were openly favourable to Catholics. In fact, Charles II converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, and James II was a closet Catholic until he was ousted from England; he lived openly as a Catholic in France. They both retained anti-Catholic laws, and even passed a few new ones, but they were not strictly enforced. It is somewhat ironic that the two monarchs who most openly espoused the Catholic cause were also among the people who did the most to destroy hopes for tolerance. Their behaviour, although favourable to Catholics, was reckless. They were not sufficiently strategic and tactful, and the result of their policies was to deepen the sense of mistrust the English harboured toward Catholics. The openness of English monarchs towards Catholicism in the later 17th century does not signify that Catholics ceased being executed for their faith. For instance, St. Oliver Plunkett, among others, was wrongfully condemned of the popish plot, a fictitious conspiracy fabricated to make it appear Catholics were planning to overthrow the king and replace him with the Catholic James, duke of York Charles II did not have the courage to oppose these executions without causing widespread anger among his people.
We mustn't get the impression that Catholics lived totally unbearable lives; but they did live in fear, and were constantly exposed to anti-Catholic bigotry. They laboured under heavy penalities. They could not hold office, graduate from Cambridge or Oxford or acquire land. Practicing their faith was normally punished with fines and other punishments. But their day to day lives resembled those of their fellow Protestant countrymen.
Catholics did not obtain relief from all these penalities until the Catholic Relief Bill of 1778, when Catholics were allowed to buy property. They were allowed to vote after passage of a Relief Bill in 1829. The last major penality was removed in 1871 when Catholics were permitted by law to take university degrees.
As for the restoration of the monasteries to the Catholic Church, I have not heard of anything to that effect, and doubt that anything like that will ever happen. Much of the land that was seized by Henry the VIII was sold to the gentry in order to pay for the wars he was conducting on the continent. Down through the centuries, these properties would have changed hands several times; it would be like trying to reclaim a stolen car three or four owners later. It might be the right thing to do, but it is also very impractical. The restoration of churches is also terribly impractical and unrealistic to expect. The English consider the buildings to be their buildings.
But should the Anglican Church or the United Kingdom ever repent of such an action, I don't think it's the money that really matters. Myself, I would simply be glad to have all the English return to the True Faith.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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