Christianity is said to have been established in England in the first or second century; of course, Christianity at that time meant, for the most part, the faith as celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church. Although there were dissenters throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church remained the official church of England until Henry VIII famously broke with Rome in 1534 to establish the Church of England. Following that, all religious properties in England became properties of the crown. Many of those properties—lots of land and grand houses—were distributed to friends and supporters of the king. Their families and heirs then inherited them throughout the ages. It is for this reason that many noble houses have names that include religious terms such as, “Abbey” in them.
Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I tried to walk the via media, the middle ground between Protestantism and Catholicism and was tolerant of Catholic worship as long as it did not become treasonous. When it did become treasonous, she acted swiftly. Highly born Catholics were mostly safe, and some retained power and influence in every age and era. However, commonly born Catholics and those in the middle social status were routinely punished.
According to One Hundred and Fifteen Years A-Growing: The Story of the Catholic Parish of Lymington, “From 1577 the authorities decided to impose more severe measures for disobeying the religious laws of the land. These included a £5 fine, equivalent to £1000 today (about US $1500) for non-attendance at a Protestant Sunday service.”
James I, who succeeded Elizabeth I, was even more staunchly Protestant than she. It was this King James who commissioned the King James Bible. In spite of a few ensuing years with a Catholic monarch, (notably, James II, 1685-1688) Britain remained strictly Protestant. “The Act of 1700 provided rewards to spies and informers against Catholics…” according to A-Growing, which also tells us that, “The New Marriage Act of 1753, compelled Catholics to marry in the Protestant Parish church to legalize the marriage. This rule continued until the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign.” Catholic couples were often married in their own faith, and then “remarried” to comply with the law.
Change was coming, but slowly. A-Growing states that the”…Catholic Relief Act of 1788 enabled Catholics to buy and inherit legally, and it was no longer an offense punished with life imprisonment to exercise the functions of a Catholic Priest, or run a Catholic school.”
The Catholic family upon which I very loosely based the Somerford family (in Bride of a Distant Isle) were the generous Welds. Mr. Thomas Weld of Lulworth Castle bought Pylewell House (Milford on Sea) in 1801 for the use of his son Joseph. He was also a founder member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. A-Growing confirms, “A year or so after the Welds first took over Pylewell House, a large ground floor room at the south end of the house was converted into a chapel where Mass and other services could be held… The chapel was available for all the local Catholics, both estate and employees, and others living nearby.” Indeed, chapels were set up in private homes all across England for just such a purpose.
It was true that some priests also served as chefs, or butlers, in order to be legally present and indistinguishable in Catholic households. A-Growing informs that, “Some other Catholic landowners in this district… often employ(ed) a man in their household who was, in reality, an ordained priest, and could minister to their spiritual needs.”
The Emancipation Act of 1829 brought more freedoms, including assuring Catholics the freedom to vote and hold office, and freedoms slowly returned to England’s Catholic subjects. Prejudice, however, remained strong throughout the 19th century. Although religious tolerance is commonplace and widely practiced in England today, as in many places around the world, England remains officially Church of England.
Photo of stained glass at Winchester Cathedral courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.