Map of the historic counties of England showing the percentage of registered Catholics in the population in 1715–20.[1]

In the history of England and Wales, recusancy was the state of those who refused to attend Anglican services; these individuals were known as recusants.[2] The term, which derives ultimately from the Latin recusare (to refuse or make an objection)[3] was first used to refer to those who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and did not attend Church of England services, with a 1593 statute determining the penalties against "Popish recusants".[4]

The "Recusancy Acts" began during the reign of Elizabeth I and were repealed in 1650.[5] They imposed various types of punishment on those who did not participate in Anglican religious activity, such as fines, property confiscation, and imprisonment.[6] The repeal under Oliver Cromwell was mainly intended to give relief to nonconforming Protestants rather than to Catholics, and despite the repeal of the Recusancy Acts, restrictions against Roman Catholics were still in place until full Catholic Emancipation in 1829.[7] In some cases those adhering to Catholicism faced capital punishment,[8] and a number of English and Welsh Catholics executed in the 16th and 17th centuries have been canonised by the Catholic Church as martyrs of the English Reformation.[9]


After the English Reformation, from the 16th to the 19th century those guilty of such nonconformity, termed "recusants", were subject to civil penalties and sometimes, especially in the earlier part of that period, to criminal penalties. Roman Catholics formed a large proportion, if not a plurality, of recusants, and it was to Catholics that the term initially was applied. Non-Catholic groups composed of Reformed Christians or Protestant dissenters from the Church of England were later labelled "recusants" as well. The recusancy laws were in force from the reign of Elizabeth I to that of George III, but not always enforced with equal intensity.[10]

The first statute to address sectarian dissent from England's official religion was enacted in 1593 under Elizabeth I and specifically targeted Catholics, under the title "An Act for restraining Popish recusants". It defined "Popish recusants" as those

convicted for not repairing to some Church, Chapel, or usual place of Common Prayer to hear Divine Service there, but forbearing the same contrary to the tenor of the laws and statutes heretofore made and provided in that behalf.

Other Acts targeted Catholic recusants, including statutes passed under James I and Charles I, as well as laws defining other offences deemed to be acts of recusancy. Recusants were subject to various civil disabilities and penalties under English penal laws, most of which were repealed during the Regency and the reign of George IV (1811–30). The Nuttall Encyclopædia notes that Dissenters were largely forgiven by the Act of Toleration under William III, while Catholics "were not entirely emancipated till 1829".[11]

Early recusants included Protestant dissenters, whose confessions derived from the Calvinistic Reformers or Radical Reformers. With the growth of these latter groups after the Restoration of Charles II, they were distinguished from Catholic recusants by the terms "nonconformist" or "dissenter". The recusant period reaped an extensive harvest of saints and martyrs. Among the recusants were some high-profile Catholic aristocrats such as the Howards and, for a time, the Plantagenet-descended Beauforts. This patronage ensured that an organic and rooted English base continued to inform the country's Catholicism, in addition to later immigration from Ireland, and later from Poland and Lithuania, among other places.

In the English-speaking world, the Douay-Rheims Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate by expatriate recusants in Rheims, France, in 1582 (New Testament) and in Douai, France in 1609 (Old Testament). It was revised by Bishop Richard Challoner in the years 1749–52. The 1750 revision is still printed today. Until the prompting for "new translations from the original languages" in Pope Pius XII's 1942 Papal encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu, and by the Second Vatican Council, it was the translation used by most Catholics. After Divino afflante Spiritu, translations multiplied in the Catholic world (just as they multiplied in the Protestant world around the same time beginning with the Revised Standard Version) Various other translations were used by Catholics around the world for English-language liturgies, ranging from the New American Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, the Revised Standard Version Second Catholic Edition, and the upcoming English Standard Version Catholic lectionary. The Douay-Rheims Challoner Bible is still often preferred by more conservative or Traditionalist Catholics.

Modern usage

As far as the term is used in the present day, recusant applies to the descendants of Roman Catholic British gentry and peerage families. Catholicism was the majority religion in various pockets, notably in parts of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, and in Scotland, in parts of the Highlands and the southern Hebrides (i.e. South Uist, Benbecula, Eriskay, Barra and Vatersay).

The term recusant is also used more generally to refer to non-compliance with a perceived innovation of questionable orthodoxy, which had become the status quo. Some traditional Catholics have used the term following Vatican II, particularly in defence of the Latin mass and sacred tradition.[12]

Roman Catholic recusant families

The recusant Howard family, some of whose members are known as Fitzalan-Howard, the Dukes of Norfolk, the highest-ranking non-royal family in England and hereditary holders of the title of Earl Marshal, is the most prominent Catholic family in England. Other members of the Howard family, the Earls of Carlisle, Effingham and Sussex are Anglican including a cadet branch of the Carlisles who own Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Recusancy was historically focused in Northern England, particularly Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire. The Acton (also known as Dalberg-Acton and Lyon-Dalberg-Acton) family is another well-known recusant family.

Other recusant families, many of which are no longer extant, include(d) the following families (or branches thereof): Ainscough, Anderton (of Lockstock, Lancs), Anne (of Frickley, Yorks), Arden, Arrowsmith, Arundell, Aston (of Tixall, Staffs; since the 1620s), Aylworth (or Aylesworth), Babington (of Dethick), Babbington (of Rampton, Notts), Babthorp/Babthorpe (of Drax, Yorks), Bagshawe, Bamford, Barlow (of Barlow Hall, Chorlton-cum-Hardy), Baynes, Bedingfeld/Bedingfield (later Paston-Bedingfeld), Belson (of Stokenchurch and Kingston Blount, Oxon), Berkeley (of Spetchley, Wychavon, Worcs), Bettles (of Wollaston, Northants), Binks (of Finchingfield, Braintree, Essex), Blount (of Mamble, Sodington, Worcs), Blundell (of Crosby Hall, Little Crosby, Lancs), Browne (later Browne-Mostyn; Viscounts Montagu), Brownhill, Butler, Canning (Warwickshire), Cary, Coats/Coates (of Auchendrane, Maybole, Ayr), Chamberlin (of Shiburn and Calre, Oxfordshire), Charlton (of Hesleyside Hall, Northumberland), Chichester (of Calverleigh Court, Calverleigh, Devon), Chichester-Constable (of Burton Constable Hall), Cholmeley (of Brandsby Hall, Yorks), Clavering (of Callaly), Barons Clifford (of Chudleigh; since 1673), Clifton (of Lytham Hall, Lancs), Barons Codrington (of Dodington, Glos.), Constable-Maxwell (formerly Haggerston; later Constable Maxwell-Scott), Constable-Maxwell-Stuart (of Traquair, Scottish Borders), Curson (of Waterperry with Thomley, Oxon), Dalton (of Thurnham Hall, Thurnham, Lancs), Darell (of Calehill, Kent), Darrell (of Scotney, Kent), Davey, De Hoghton (of Hoghton Tower, Hoghton, Lancs), De Lisle (or Lisle), Viscounts De Salis/Count de Salis-Soglio, De Trafford (or de Trafford), Dixie (of Market Bosworth, Hinckley and Bosworth, Leics), Dormer (of Wyng, also spelled Wenge, Bucks), Drury, Elder, Englefield (of Whiteknights Manor, Berks), Errington, Eyre, Eyston/Blount-Eyston (of Mapledurham House, Oxon), Fairfax (of Gilling East, Yorks), Fenwick, Fermor (of Tusmore, Oxon), Ferrers (of Baddesley Clinton, Warwick, Warks), Fettiplace (of Swyncombe, Oxon), Finch (of Mawdesley, Lancs), Fitzherbert (of Swynnerton, Stafford, Staffs; Barons Stafford); Fitzherbert-Brockholes (of Claughton-on-Brock, Lancs), Forcer (of County Durham), Fortescue, Fortescue-Turville (of Bosworth Hall, Leics), Furnivall, Gage (of Hengrave Hall, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk), Garnet/Garnett, Gascoigne (of Parlington, Aberford, Yorks), Geddes (of Tynet, Moray), Gerard (of Bryn, Wigan), Gillibrand, Gillow, Ginns (of Hinckley, Lancs), Glover, Gradell/Gradwell (of Ulnes Walton, Chorley, Lancs), Greenwood (of Brize Norton, Carterton, Oxon), Harrison (of Glaisdale and Egton, North Yorkshire), Hattersley, Hawarden, Hawkins (of Nash Court, Boughton-under-Blean, Kent), Haydock (of Preston, Lancs), Heneage (of Hainton Hall, Hainton, East Lindsey, Lincs), Herbert, Hesketh, Hildesley (also spelled Hilsley or Ilsley), Hodson, Holden, Holman, Hornyold, Hough (of Leighton in Wirral, Cheshire), Huddleston, Hungate (of Yorks), Hunloke (of Wingerworth, Chesterfield, Derbys), Hyde (of Hyde End, Great Missenden, Bucks), Inchbald, Jerningham (of Costessey Hall, Cossey, Norfolk), Kitson (of Hengrave Hall, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk), Knolles/Knowles, Lawson (of Brough Hall), Layton, Leigh (of West Hall), Lenthall (of Great and Little Haseley, Oxon), Leslie (of Balquhain, Aberdeenshire), Levett-Screvener (of Sibton Abbey, Yoxford, Suffolk), Lightbound, Lomax, MacDonnell (or McDonnell; of Tulloch), MacIsaac (of South Uist), MacLean (of Cuttlebrae), Mannock, Marwood, Mattingly, Maxwell (Earls of Nithsdale/Lord Herries of Terregles), Mawhood, Middleton (of Stockeld Park, Wetherby, Yorks), Milner, Mockler-Barrett, More, Nelson (of Fairhurst Hall, Wrightington, Lancs), Neville (of Nevill Holt, Harborough, Leics), Palmes (of Naburn), Percy, Perkins (of Ufton Court, Berks), Petre, Barons Plowden (of Plowden, Shropshire), Pollen (also known as Pulleine and Pulleyn), Postlethwaite/Postlewhite, Poyntz (Leighland, Somerset), Powell (of Forest Hill and Sanford, Oxon), Radclyffe (Earls of Derwentwater; see below), Redlingfield, Riddell, Rokewode/Rookwood (of Coldham Hall, Stanningfield, Suffolk), Roper, Scarisbrick, Salvin (of Croxdale, Durham), Scrope (of Bolton), Scudamore (aka Skidmore/Skydemore; Holme Lacy, Hereford), Selby (of Biddlestone, Northumberland), Simeon (of Chilworth, Oxon), Sheldon (of Beoley, Worcs), Sherburn/Shireburn (of Stonyhurst, Lancs), Silvertop (Northumberland), Southcote/Southcott, Southwell, Stanley-Massey (of Hooton, Cheshire), Stapleton (Barons Beaumont, title is now held by the Dukes of Norfolk due to Mona, 11th Lady Beaumont's marriage to the 3rd Baron Howard of Glossop), Stonor (Barons Camoys), Storth (of Letwell, Yorks), Stourton (Barons Stourton and Barons Mowbray), Barons Strickland (of Sizergh, Cumbria),[13] Street, Stuckley/Stucley (of Affeton Castle, Devon), Stutsbury (Souldern, Oxon), Sulyard, Sutton, Swale, Swarbrick, Swindlehurst/Swinglehurst, Talbot (of Carton), Tasburgh (of Bodney, Norfolk), Tempest (of Broughton), Thimelby, Throckmorton, Thwing (of Kilton Castle, Yorks), Tichbourne, Timperley (of Hintlesham), Towneley, Trappes-Lomax (Trappes of Nidd Hall, Yorks), Tresham (of Rushton), Turner, Turville/Turville-Petre (of Bosworth Hall, Leics), Vavasour (of Hazlewood Castle, North Yorks), Wakeman (of Beckford), Walmesley, Ward, Waring (or Wareing), Waterton (of Walton), Weedon (Souldern, Oxon), Weld, Weld-Blundell, Whitgreaves (of Moseley Old Hall, Fordhouses, West Midlands), Widdrington, Wilson, Wiseman (of Wimbish), Wolfe (of Thames, Oxon), Wollascott (of Woolhampton Manor), Wolseley (of Wolseley Park, Colwich, Staffs), Yates (of Buckland Manor), and Young (of Kingerby Hall, West Lindsey, Lincs).

The will of a William Latewise who died in 1603 in Goosnargh – part of the parish of Kirkham – states he was "of Culcheth in the parish of Winwick". One of those preparing his inventory in 1608 was John Sterrope, possibly his son-in-law. Around this time the area around Goosnargh was home to several Catholic families – Beesley, Hesketh, Keighley, Marsden, and Threlfall. Records show that various members of the Latewysse (of Goosnargh) family were fined for recusancy. In Wales, the few recusant families include Mostyn (of Talacre), Herbert (of Treowen), Morgan (of Llantarnam) and, most notably, the Vaughan family (of Courtfield, near Ross-on-Wye; the family of Herbert Cardinal Vaughan).

Converts to Roman Catholicism

Since the 18th century, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, branches of some wealthy or ennobled families began to embrace Roman Catholicism, in some instances due to intermarriage, including the Abney-Hastings (Earls of Loudoun), Addington (Viscounts Sidmouth), Ashton Case/Ashton-Case (England), Asquith (Earls of Oxford and Asquith), Austin (England), Barons Backhouse (of Uplands and The Rookery, England), Barrow (England), Bellingham (of Castle Bellingham, Ireland), Belasyse/Bellasis (England), Bertie (Earls of Abingdon), Blennerhassett (Ireland), Blunt (England), Bowyer (England), Viscounts Bridgeman, Calvert (England & Maryland), Craven (Earls of Craven), Crichton-Stuart (Marquesses of Bute, Mount Stuart near Rothesay, Isle of Bute, Scotland), Dillon (Viscounts Dillon; beginning with the 20th Viscount Dillon), Douglas of Grangemuir (Catholic branch resident in County Cork, Ireland; British branch remains Protestant), Elwes (since 1872; also known as Cary Elwes and/or Cary-Elwes), Evans-Freke (Barons Carbery), Feilding (Earls of Denbigh), Forbes (Ireland), Fraser (since circa 1702), Freeman-Grenville, French (Barons de Freyne, County Roscommon, Ireland), Gilbey (Barons Vaux of Harrowden), Grey-Egerton (England), Hamilton-Dalrymple, Hemphill, Hewitt (Viscounts Lifford, Ireland), Honywood (England), Hope (Barons Rankeillour), Hungerford-Pollen, Hunter-Blair (England), Joliffe (Barons Hylton), Kerr family (Marquesses of Lothian, Scotland), Knill (England), Lane-Fox, Langdale (of Houghton Hall, Yorkshire; see Marmaduke Langdale), Leslie (Castleleslie, Glaslough, County Monaghan, Ireland), Lytton (Earls of Lytton), MacLean (of Strachur and Glensluain), Mander, March-Phillips, Marsden, McDonnell (Earls of Antrim), Meynell, Mitchell-Cotts (of Coldharbour Wood, Rogate, Sussex), Molesworth, de Moleyns (Barons Ventry), Viscounts Monckton (of Brenchley, from the 2nd Viscount onwards), Nelson (Earls Nelson), Norton (Barons Grantley), Orchard, Pakenham (Earls of Longford), Pontifex (England), Noel (Earls of Gainsborough), Northcote (Earls of Iddesleigh), Perceval (Earls of Egmont), Phillips (Viscounts St. Davids), Radcliffe (England), Rodd (Barons Rennell), Savile (Earls of Mexborough), Scott (Earls of Eldon), Shaw (Barons Craigmyle), Shirley (Earl Ferrers), Simeon (England), Sircom, Stirling (of Keir), Sutton (of Norwood Park), Sykes (England), Taylour (Marquesses of Headfort), Vesey (Viscounts de Vesci), and Wyvill (Constable Burton Hall, North Yorks) families. They helped to provide a resurgent English Roman Catholic Church with financial support. In Scotland, some notable families converted to Catholicism as supporters of the Jacobite movement; examples include the Drummonds (Earls of Perth; Dukes of Perth in Jacobite Peerage, beginning with James Drummond, 4th Earl of Perth) and Frasers (of Lovat; Lords Lovat).

Conversely, some old recusant families, such as the Earls of Shrewsbury, the viscounts Gage (of Firle Place, Sussex), Molyneux (Earls of Sefton), Swinburne (of Capeheaton), and the Giffards of Chillington, embraced Anglicanism. The Drummonds, having converted to Catholicism during the 17th century, returned to Protestanism with the conversion of George Drummond, 5th Earl of Perth but the 7th Earl converted to Catholicism to marry his Catholic wife, herself descended from prominent recusant families.

The principal growth in the numbers of Catholics in modern Britain has been via immigration. In the past, Catholic immigrants were Europeans, most notably Irish, and, later in the 20th century, from Poland, Italy, Spain, France and Lithuania. There was a steady flow of Anglican lay people and clergy into the Roman Catholic Church over the last decade of the 20th century and, to a lesser degree, since then. High-ranking clerical converts include Monsignor Graham Leonard (former Anglican Bishop of London); Alan Hopes (a present-day Roman Catholic Bishop of East Anglia) and several hundred priests who were received into the Church, mostly from the Church of England.

Katharine, Duchess of Kent; her son and grandson, Lord Nicholas Windsor and Edward Windsor, Lord Downpatrick, respectively, both of whose wives are Catholic, and her granddaughter, Lady Marina-Charlotte Windsor, as well as politicians such as Baroness Masham of Ilton and Ann Widdecombe (MP), and, most recently, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose wife and children are Roman Catholics, are prominent among laypeople who have converted. Several prominent former and or current newspaper editors and publishers became Roman Catholics as well: Charles Moore (The Daily Telegraph), John Wilkins and Clifford Longley (The Tablet) and Dr William Oddie (The Catholic Herald).


William Shakespeare came from a family background of English Catholic recusants.

William Shakespeare was born to a Catholic recusant family. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, descended from a staunch Catholic family, and his father, John Shakespeare, was listed as a Catholic recusant.[14]

Another notable English Roman Catholic, possibly a convert,[15] was composer William Byrd. Some of Byrd's most popular motets were actually written as a type of correspondence to a friend and fellow composer, Philippe de Monte. De Monte wrote his own motets in response, such as the "Super Flumina Babylonis". These correspondence motets often featured themes of oppression or the hope of deliverance.

The Jacobean poet John Donne was another notable Englishman born into a recusant Catholic family.[16] He later, however, wrote two anti-Catholic polemics and, at the behest of King James I of England, was ordained into the Church of England.

Guy Fawkes, an Englishman and a Spanish soldier, along with other recusants or converts, including, among others, Sir Robert Catesby, Christopher Wright, John Wright and Thomas Percy, was arrested and charged with attempting to blow up Parliament on 5 November 1605. The plot was uncovered and most of the plotters, who were recusants or converts, were tried and executed. The core group of plotters were killed. On the arrival... of the Sheriff of Worcester and his company of men, a gun battle broke out and Catesby, Percy, and both Wright brothers were shot. With medical attention they might have survived, but "the baser sort" among the sheriff's men hurriedly stripped them of their clothes (Christopher's boots were pulled off to reach his silk stockings), and left them to die.[17]

Recusants and martyrs are represented in the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales and among the Jacobites, such as the Earls of Derwentwater, particularly those ennobled in the Jacobite Peerage.

Other countries

The term "recusancy" is primarily applied to English, Scottish and Welsh Roman Catholics, but there were other instances in Europe. The native Irish, for example, while subject to the British crown, rejected both the Anglican and the dissenting churches, and almost all remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, suffering the same penalties as recusants in Great Britain. The situation was exacerbated by land claims, paramilitary violence and ethnic antagonisms on all sides.[18]

The recusancy in Scandinavia did not survive until freedom of religion was re-established there in the mid-19th century, with the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics in those countries, through the 20th century, being either immigrants or converts.

See also


  1. Magee, Brian (1938). The English Recusants: A Study of the Post-Reformation Catholic Survival and the Operation of the Recusancy Laws. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne. OL 14028100M via Internet Archive.
  2. New Catholic Encyclopedia section on 'recusants'
  3. Burton, E. (1911). "English Recusants", The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company; retrieved 11 September 2013 from New Advent
  4. Collins, William Edward (2008). The English Reformation and Its Consequences. BiblioLife. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-559-75417-3.
  5. Spurr, John (1998). English Puritanism, 1603–1689. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 117. ISBN 978-0-333-60189-1.
  6. See for example the text of the Act of Uniformity 1559
  7. Wood, Rev. James. The Nutall Encyclopædia, London, 1920, p. 537
  8. O'Malley, John W.; et al. (2001). Early modern Catholicism: Essays in Honour of John W. O'Malley, S.J. University of Toronto Press. p. 149. ISBN 978-0-8020-8417-0.
  9. Alban Butler; David Hugh Farmer (1996). Butler's Lives of the Saints: May. Burns & Oates. p. 22. ISBN 0-86012-254-9.
  10. Roland G. Usher, The Rise and Fall of the High Commission (Oxford, 1968 reprint ed.), pp. 17–18.
  11. Wood, Rev. James. The Nutall Encyclopædia, London, 1920, p. 537.
  12. See second paragraph from bottom of Society of St Pius X website.
  13. The Stricklands of Sizergh were Roman Catholics since at least the reign of James I and probably earlier. The Maltese title of Count della Catena was acquired in 1882 from a Maltese marriage.
  14. John Harley. "New Light on William Byrd", Music and Letters, p. 79 (1998), pp. 475–88
  15. Schama, Simon (26 May 2009). "Simon Schama's John Donne". BBC2. Retrieved 18 June 2009.
  16. John and Christopher Wright
  17. Burton, Edwin, Edward D'Alton, and Jarvis Kelley. 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, Penal Laws III: Ireland.

External links

Look up recusant or recusancy in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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