England Catholics in Early Non-Catholic Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Non-Anglican Church Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Catholics in Early Non-Catholic Records[edit | edit source]

Since Catholicism was to varying degrees illegal from 1559 to 1829 the state and state church (Anglican) monitored and tried to suppress it, resulting in a host of records at national and local levels. Gandy (Basic facts about English Nonconformity for Family Historians. Federation of Family History Societies, 1998) considers that Williams (Sources for Recusant History (1559-1791) in English Official Archives. Recusant History Vol 16 #4, 1983) is the best source for recusant history and Gandy’s two 1996 bibliographies (Catholic Family History: A Bibliography of General Sources. Self-published and Catholic Family History: A Bibliography of Local Sources. Self-published) indicate the vastness of the literature with comprehensive lists for every time period and area.

National Records[edit | edit source]

Amongst the national records which can be used to trace Catholic families are Recusant Rolls from 1591-1691. These are lists of fines and forfeits for non-attendance at the local parish church, and contain large numbers of Catholics as well as other dissenters. They mainly refer to the more prominent offenders, and some are on film, for instance roll 1 (1592-3) is on FHL film 0599711; roll 2 (1593-4) on FHL film 0599722, and rolls 3-4 (1594-6) on FHL film 0990031. In the early taxation records called the Lay Subsidy Rolls Catholics were taxed at double the regular rate and can therefore be readily identified.

The Memoranda Rolls in series E 368 contain recusant case histories. State Papers (SP series) of the 17th century have much family history detail and Shorney (Protestant Nonconformity and Roman Catholicism. A Guide to Sources in the Public Record Office. PRO Publications, 1996) should be consulted for more information on the many types and their PRO numbers. He also mentions the Privy Council (PC series), State Papers, Exchequer (E series) and Forfeited Estates Commission (FEC series) records of the 18th century which can reveal much about individual cases, particularly of the upper classes. The PRO leaflet D66 gives more sources on Catholic Recusants.

It should be noted that there was a great difference between reputed/suspected/known recusants and those actually convicted in a court such as Quarter sessions. The term superstitious is also used for Catholics, as in the Commission for Superstitious Lands, an anti-Catholic enquiry in the 1690s. The Catholic Record Society has published a number of such national records, for example English Catholics who attended mass at the Spanish Embassy on Palm Sunday 1613/14 are the subject of a paper in Miscellanea VII on FHL film 0599708; examples are below.

Chart: Proceedings against Catholics for Attending Mass at the Spanish Embassy on Palm Sunday 1613/14

22 Mar 1613 Thomas Davyes of Cheek (Chick) Lane in the Parish of St. Sepulchres, London, scrivenour, being examined confesseth himself to be a Popish Recusant and that he hath so been for many yeares past and purposeth so to continue. That coming along Barbican upon Sunday last was a sevennight he was seene to have a bough of hallowed Palm in his hands which he saith was given him by one Robert Wise of Horwell in Berkshire and being demanded whether he were not uppon Sunday last at the Spanish Ambassadours house to hear Mass, saith he will not accuse himself.
28 Mar 1614 Robert Wise of ye Parish of St. James Clerkenwell, weaver examined before the Lord Bishop of London, confesseth himself to be a popish Recusant and that he was at the Spanish Ambassadors upon Sunday last was a fortnight being their Palm Sunday and there heard Masse and had a bough of Hallowed Box delivered unto him by ye priest as likewise there was unto divers others which bough he brought away with him but gave no part thereof to Thomas Davyes or any other without ye house and that there were present at that Masse in the Chappell at the least 200 persons the one half thereof being no Spaniards.


Convicted recusants, primarily Catholics, who went through a formal procedure to conform to the Church of England are detailed in the Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer’s Memoranda Rolls which are at the PRO in series E 368. Their lands and property were returned and fines usually excused as the state was more interested in the conformity than the money. However, in some cases the conversion was temporary and the same names appear again for similar offences. Catholic Ancestor has published lists of those conforming between 1590 and 1625. Lists of Catholics called Returns of Papists were made in 1680, 1705, 1706, 1767 (the most thorough) and 1780 and what survives are in the House of Lords Record Office in Westminster. Some give only statistics, but those for the dioceses of Chester, Durham and Hereford give names, ages, relationship within household, addresses, and how long in residence Many are published, for example the important 1767 return in Vol 1 Diocese of Chester with a separate index, and Vol 2 Other Dioceses which are in the FHL book under 942 K25 but are not filmed yet. These parliamentary summaries contain only initials, and the full names are in the originals in the Quarter Sessions records which happily are available on film.

County and Local Records[edit | edit source]

The original lists from which the many national surveys etc., such as the Returns of Papists, Oaths of Allegiance, Lists of Recusants, Sacrament Certificates Land Tax, and Registration of Catholic Estates were compiled are with county Quarter Sessions or sometimes Petty or Borough Sessions and most of these are available on film. Some Anglican parishes list their papists regularly in their annual Churchwardens’ Presentments particularly in the 16th-17th centuries.

Returns of Papists[edit | edit source]

Examples of different formats showing an increasing amount of detail can be found below.


Chart:Return of Papists 1680 Kent Quarter Sessions

The Hundred of Blackheath Papists and Reputed Papists

Judeth Vandsvelder of Greenwich
Petronella Vanluo of Greenwich
Daniell Stibs of Woolwich
Edward Forshew (?) of Lew(i)sham
Mary Willson of Greenwich
Richard Hutton of Greenwich
Eliz: ye wife of Jno Gascoyne of Eltham
Eliz: ye wife of Christo: Greene of Eltham
Margarett ye wife of Francis More of Eltham
Richard Greene of Eltham
Jno Wyern gent of Lusham (sic Lewisham)
An. Wyern his wife
William Vandobeler a Dutch Painter, Greenwich

All those persons above mentioned have taken the oath of allegiance and supremacy the 16 day of Aprill 1680.

The persons undermentioned are gon away
Christopher Greene of Eltham gon to Lee (sic-Leigh), Essex.
Jane Parrott of the same gon to Newington Butts in ye County of Surr(e)y.
Christian Watters of Eltham gon away.
William Vandevelder junr is gon to live a bout St. James.
Charles Thayer of Deptford is gone to live in London as ye Constable heard.
Sir Thomas Grimes is gon from Lew(i)sham a bove a whole month ago as the Constable heard into Yorkshire.

Taken the 16th Aprill 1680 by us.
Thos Biddulph
Willm Hooke


Chart: Brentford, Middlesex return of Papists 1711 in Quarter Sessions — FHL film 2068200

Middlesex Sessions:
The Returne of the Hundred of Elthorne in Brentford Division, relating to Papists and reputed Papists

Pursuant to her Majesty’s late proclamation we have caused diligent search and inquiry to be made concerning Papists and reputed Papists, and upon the returne of the severall Constables we had notice given us, her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for this County, living in and near the said Division, of the Persons hereunder mentioned (viz):

Mary Thompson, widow living in New Brentford, one that Professes physick. She has refused to subscribe, make and repeat the Declaration of the 30th of King Charles the second, as by law required. She has promised to goe seven miles from the Citys and Libertys of London and Westminster, within two days from the date hereof.
Given under our hands and seales this fourteenth Day of Aprill in the tenth year of the Reigne of our Soverain Lady Anne of Great Britain etc Queen, Annop Dom. 1711.
[Signed] Chris: Clitherow
Thomas Cullum


Chart: Kensington, Middlesex return of Papists 1711 in Petty Sessions — FHL film 2068200

Middlesex Sessions:
An Account of the Names, Sirnames and places of abode of such Papists and reputed Papists against whom wee have granted warrants under our hands and Seales for apprehending and brining them before us at our Petty Sessions this day held at Kensington in the Parish of Fulham in the County aforesaid In order to their being severally proceeded against according to her Majties late Proclamation for Amoveing Papists etc from within Ten miles of the Cities of London and Westminster etc.
Mrs Cecilia Cornwallis reputed Mistress of a Popish Boarding School at Hamorsmith could [not be] taken as by the Constable’s oath appeareth to us.
Martha Marshall servant to the said Cecilia Cornwallis appeared before us last Tuesday and refused to make and subscribe to the Declaration mentioned in an Act of the 30th King Charles the Second.
Elizabeth Henslow an other servant at the same Boarding School
Elizabeth Clarke an other servant at the same Boarding School
Anne Mullinex another servant there
Mary Clift another servant there
Elizabeth Bond another servant there
[Last five} All absconded and could not ... as the Constable of Hamersmith ... now made oath before us.
Joseph Woodcock servant to Samuel Hudson a Weaver in Hamsmith or to a Lodger there could not be taken as the Constable hath made oath before us.
Mr. Thomas Roberts lodger at Mrs Elizabeth Racketts house in Hamersmith and could not be taken as the said Constable hath made oath before us.
Elizabeth Taylor servant to the same Mrs Rackett - abscond also and could not be taken.
Thomas Causby servant to the same Mrs Rackett could not be taken as by the said Constable’s [oath] now taken before us.
Mary Brown servant to Mrs Mary Bolney of the parish of Chelsey in the said County appeared now and refused to make and subscribe the Declaration mentioned in the Act 30th Car. Second.
George Williams butler to her Grace the Dutchess Dowager of Beaufort at Chelsey appeared and refused to make and subscribe to the Declaration aforesaid.
Jane Messenger an inmate in the Parish of Acton in the County aforesaid appeared but refused to make and subscribe the Declaration before mentioned.
This account or List is Returned this sixteenth day of Aprill 1711 by us.

(Signed and sealed) Nich. Goodwin
Jermyn Wicks
J.A. Cawley
Thomas Cullum
Peter Lavigne
Henry Fox



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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Non-Anglican Church Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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