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Penal Laws

Penal Laws, in English and Irish history, term generally applied to the body of discriminatory and oppressive legislation directed chiefly against Roman Catholics but also against Protestant nonconformists.

In England

The Penal Laws grew out of the English Reformation and specifically from those acts that established royal supremacy in the Church of England (see England, Church of) in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Under Henry VIII and Edward VI civil disabilities were imposed on those who remained in communion with Rome, thus denying the king's spiritual headship. Elizabeth I made it impossible for Catholics to hold civil offices and imposed severe penalties upon Catholics who persisted in recognizing papal authority. Fines and prison sentences were prescribed for all who did not attend Anglican services, and the celebration of the Mass was forbidden under severe penalties.

The excommunication (1570) of Elizabeth by Pope Pius V, the Catholic plots to place Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne, and the attempted Spanish invasion by the Armada roused the government and public opinion to an intensely anti-Catholic pitch, and the Penal Laws were extended. Jesuits and other priests were expelled (1585) from England under penalty of treason, and harboring or aiding priests was declared a capital offense. Although a number of Catholics (e.g., Edmund Campion) were executed for treason, these laws were never thoroughly administered except against prominent people who refused to conform.

Under James I the Gunpowder Plot resulted in added severity, but the official attitude softened after 1618, as James sought friendly relations with Spain. Charles I's wife, Henrietta Maria, was a Catholic, and her position made easy some open disregard of the restrictive laws. In the English civil war the Catholics sided with the king, and Oliver Cromwell punished them, along with royalist Anglicans, by wide confiscations, but few were executed.

After the Restoration of Charles II, Parliament passed the series of laws known as the Clarendon Code (1661–65) and the Test Act (1673), which required holders of public office to take various oaths of loyalty and to receive the sacrament of the Church of England. These laws penalized Protestant nonconformists at whom, principally, they were aimed, as well as Roman Catholics. However, the Protestant dissenters continued in their vehement anti-Catholicism and formed the backbone of the Whig party, which coalesced (1679–81) in the attempt to exclude the Catholic James, duke of York (later James II) from the succession to the throne. The anti-Catholic movement culminated in the overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution (1688), and the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) excluded the Catholic branch of the house of Stuart from the throne.

A Toleration Act (1689) relieved the Protestant nonconformists of many of their disabilities (although they remained excluded from office), but the Catholics were now subjected to new laws limiting their property and means of education. The Jacobites, in their attempts to restore the Catholic Stuarts, kept the politico-religious issue of Roman Catholicism alive until 1745. By this time the relatively small number of Catholics remaining in England and Scotland made the anti-Catholic laws there a minor issue, but Catholic Emancipation was delayed until 1829.

In Ireland

In Ireland, where the population was predominantly Roman Catholic and the Glorious Revolution had been vigorously resisted, the Penal Laws were extended and made extremely oppressive during the 18th cent. After the Treaty of Limerick (1691), the Irish Parliament, filled with Protestant landowners and controlled from England, enacted a penal code that secured and enlarged the landlords' holdings and degraded and impoverished the Irish Catholics.

As a result of these harsh laws, Catholics could neither teach their children nor send them abroad; persons of property could not enter into mixed marriages; Catholic property was inherited equally among the sons unless one was a Protestant, in which case he received all; a Catholic could not inherit property if there was any Protestant heir; a Catholic could not possess arms or a horse worth more than £5; Catholics could not hold leases for more than 31 years, and they could not make a profit greater than a third of their rent. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church was banished or suppressed, and Catholics could not hold seats in the Irish Parliament (1692), hold public office, vote (1727), or practice law. Cases against Catholics were tried without juries, and bounties were given to informers against them.

Under these restrictions many able Irishmen left the country, and regard for the law declined; even Protestants assisted their Catholic friends in evasion. In the latter half of the 18th cent., with the decline of religious fervor in England and the need for Irish aid in foreign wars, there was a general mitigation of the treatment of Catholics in Ireland, and the long process of Catholic Emancipation began.

Bibliography

See B. Magee, The English Recusants (1938); E. I. Watkin, Roman Catholicism in England from the Reformation to 1950 (1957).

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penal laws

penal laws. The general name given to the enactments against Roman catholicism made between the accession of Elizabeth I and 1700. They enforced the Elizabethan religious settlement and tried to protect political activity from the influence of the pope and catholic Europe. The overall effect was to drive catholicism underground and to create recusancy. Catholics were placed beyond the political pale and evolved an informal and illegal network of religious and social connections.

Rejection of papal authority was imposed by an oath of allegiance in 1563, stating that ‘no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual within this realm’. Refusal of the oath was treasonable. After the excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570, the purpose of legislation changed from securing royal supremacy to defeating the new recusant missionary campaign. Priests were tried and executed for treason, particularly after the Acts of 1584–5 which made it treasonable for a priest to enter England. In 1581 an Act to retain the Queen's Majesty's subjects in their due obedience was passed, declaring it treasonable to pervert people from their religious or political allegiance.

James I reinforced the legislation and further regulations limited the freedom of catholics in movement, professional activity, and inheritance of property. The laws of the Restoration period, especially the Test and Corporation Acts, kept the catholic community on the margins. Catholics suffered for the disastrous reign of the last catholic king James II under laws barring them from carrying arms, inheriting or buying property, sending children abroad for education or teaching in a school, and offering a £100 reward for the prosecution of a priest.

Had this massive penal code been enforced, it could have eradicated English catholicism, but catholics survived and even flourished in its shadow. Local imposition was sporadic and the Hanoverian mind found religious persecution distasteful. The Jacobite threat disappeared and repeal of the penal laws became possible. This happened in three main relief Acts of 1778, 1791, and 1829.

Judith Champ

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Penal Laws

Penal Laws various statutes passed in Britain and Ireland during the 16th and 17th centuries that imposed harsh restrictions on Roman Catholics. People participating in Catholic services could be fined and imprisoned, while Catholics were banned from voting, holding public office, owning land, and teaching. The laws were repealed by various Acts between 1791 and 1926.

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Penal Laws

Penal Laws

The penal laws may be described as the corpus of legislation that created and maintained the confessionalism of the early modern Irish state. As such, they include legislation against Protestant dissent as well as anti-Catholic legislation. They also include all the legislation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that formed the Anglican establishment and undermined Catholic economic and political power by land confiscation. However, late-eighteenth-century Catholic activists were anxious to assure Protestants that they sought to overthrow neither the religious establishment nor the existing distribution of property. They thus complained only of such anti-Catholic measures as were enacted in the period after the extension to Ireland of the successful Dutch invasion of Britain in 1688. This gave a more limited and still generally accepted meaning to the term penal laws.

The elements of the penal code have parallels in the contemporary bodies of law enacted against religious dissenters elsewhere in Europe. However, the rise of democratic and nationalist sentiment in the nineteenth century rendered the Irish legislation, in retrospect, particularly objectionable. Democratic thought held the nation to be constituted by its population, and because the penal laws had affected the greater part of that population, they came to be regarded as among the most notable of the Irish nation's historical grievances. Sectarian social and political divisions also ensured that the "penal era" did not lose its importance in popular historiography. Historians of the late twentieth century, in contrast, have worked hard to place the condition of eighteenth-century Catholics in a more favorable light.

Insecurity was the dominant feature of the new British regime established in the wake of the Dutch invasion. Many Anglicans feared that with the establishment of Presbyterianism in Scotland, the terrible events of mid-century were beginning to repeat themselves. Irish Presbyterians consequently found themselves excluded from much of public life and subject to irksome legal restrictions, though their situation was improved in the reign of George I. As always, however, fear of popery was much greater and was intensified by the real threat of a restoration by force of the deposed James II or, from 1701, his son—known to his foreign allies and domestic supporters as James III. For some seventy years after the usurpation of 1688, the Glorious Revolution, as its partisans named the event, was by no means irreversible. The anti-Catholic legislation of the late Stuart and early Hanoverian period may be attributed simply to the fear that this engendered. Legislation enacted in 1695 answered the immediate need to disarm potential insurgents. The assault on Catholic landownership, most notably in the Popery Act of 1704, was intended to ensure, in a society in which the right to power was often held to depend on property, that no Catholic party would ever again exist. Legislation directly aimed at the Catholic Church, such as the Bishops' Banishment Act of 1697, is similarly explained by the desire to defend an insecure regime. The perception of Catholicism as primarily a political conspiracy was deeply embedded in the British Protestant mind. Equally, however, the measures that were not ostensibly concerned with the church itself might be justly seen as having a primarily religious motivation. In an age in which religion was by no means a matter for the individual, particularly in the lower ranks of society, it was assumed that the now exclusively Protestant character of the elite would determine the religion of those outside it. This view received support from the proponents of the early Enlightenment who held naive beliefs about what might be expected of education.

In reality, there was little religious change in the population at large. The established church was incapable of a sustained campaign of proselytism, while the Catholic clergy restored a restricted but effective pastoral presence in the country within decades. The poverty of the lowest ranks of society gave them immunity against the penal code's threats and bribes, and their linguistic and cultural separation from the Protestant elites served as further protection, if one was needed. However, among those who, their Catholicism aside, had claims or aspirations to be included in the elite, a degree of religious change was affected. The stick of the imposition of a humiliating status, involving exclusion from public office or the more desirable professions, and the carrot of economic advantage were recognized by the Catholic community as sufficiently persuasive to prevent great opprobrium falling on those who chose conversion. For those who remained Catholic, there were difficulties, but by no means were all paths to increased prosperity and influence in society barred. A Catholic economic environment, with varying degrees of self-sufficiency, was constructed and extended to the European mainland. Trade was attractive because land, in the early eighteenth century, was not a particularly good investment, quite apart from the restrictions on Catholic ownership of it. Still, short leases of up to thirty-one years were perfectly legal and often economically advantageous. Moreover, restrictions on more permanent forms of possession could be circumvented.

With the British victory in the Seven Years' War the threat to the ruling dynasty was gone. The alienation of the Catholic population in the British Isles was not merely needless, but politically and militarily foolish. Thus, toward the end of the 1770s, the dismantling of the penal code began. Yet in breaking Catholic power in Ireland, it had served the later Stuarts and the Hanoverians well. Unlike Scotland, Ireland never at any time after 1691 became the base for assaults on the regime established by William III. The penal code's importance lies also in its enduring effects on Irish society. The importance of religious affiliation in the distribution of privilege in the Irish ancien régime did much to produce a very extended elite, eventually held by many to encompass the whole Protestant community—the "plebeian oligarchy," which Edmund Burke attacked. Its enduring strength as an oligarchy, together with its fears of Catholicism and the secularizing British state, played a major role in forming the sectarian politics of the nineteenth century and beyond.

SEE ALSO Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1690 to 1714—Revolution Settlement; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Government from 1690 to 1800; O'Conor, Charles, of Balenagare; Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Religion: Since 1690; Roman Catholic Church: 1690 to 1829; Primary Documents: An Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704)

Bibliography

Burns, Robert E. "The Irish Penal Code and Some of Its Historians." Review of Politics 21 (1959): 276–299.

Burns, Robert E. "The Irish Popery Laws: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Legislation and Behavior." Review of Politics 24 (1962): 485–508.

Cullen, Louis M., and Paul Butel, eds. Négoce et Industrie enFrance et en Irlande aux XVIIIe et XIXe Siècles (Trade and Industry in France and Ireland between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries). 1980.

Leighton, Cadoc D. A. Catholicism in a Protestant Kingdom: AStudy of the Irish Ancien Régime. 1994.

Power, Thomas, and Kevin Whelan, eds. Endurance and Emergence: Catholics in Eighteenth-Century Ireland. 1990.

Wall, Maureen. Catholic Ireland in the Eighteenth Century: Collected Essays of Maureen Wall. 1989.

C. D. A. Leighton

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