Anti-Catholicism in the United Kingdom

The Protestant Tutor, by Benjamin Harris

Institutional Anti-Catholicism in the United Kingdom has its origins in the English and Irish Reformations under King Henry VIII and the Scottish Reformation led by John Knox. The Act of Supremacy 1534 declared the English crown to be 'the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England' in place of the pope. Any act of allegiance to the latter was considered treasonous because the papacy claimed both spiritual and political power over its followers. The Scottish Reformation in 1560 abolished Catholic ecclesiastical structures and rendered Catholic practice illegal in Scotland. Today, anti-Catholicism is common in peripheral areas of the United Kingdom, mainly Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Anti-Catholicism among many of the English was grounded in the fear that the pope sought to reimpose not just religio-spiritual authority over England but also secular power in alliance with arch-enemy France or Spain. In 1570, Pope Pius V sought to depose Queen Elizabeth with the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, which declared her a heretic and purported to dissolve the duty of all Elizabeth's subjects of their allegiance to her. This rendered Elizabeth's subjects who persisted in their allegiance to the Catholic Church politically suspect, and made the position of her Catholic subjects largely untenable if they tried to maintain both allegiances at once. The Recusancy Acts, making it a legal obligation to worship in the Anglican faith, date from Elizabeth's reign. Later, assassination plots in which Catholics were prime movers fueled anti-Catholicism in England.

The Glorious Revolution of 1689 involved the overthrow of King James II, who favoured the Catholics, and his replacement by William III, a Dutch Protestant. The Act of Settlement 1701, which was passed by the Parliament of England, stated the heir to throne must not be a "Papist" and that an heir who is a Catholic or who marries one will be excluded from the succession to the throne. This law was extended to Scotland through the Act of Union which formed the Kingdom of Great Britain. The Act remains in force in the present-day United Kingdom, despite the ecumenical movement, which has largely contributed to reducing sectarian tensions in the country.


English Reformation

St Thomas More, the Catholic government official executed in 1535 by King Henry VIII

The Act of Supremacy issued by King Henry VIII in 1534 declared the king to be 'the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England' in place of the pope. Any act of allegiance to the latter was considered treasonous because the papacy claimed both spiritual and political power over its followers. It was under this act that Thomas More and John Fisher were executed and became martyrs to the Catholic faith.

The Act of Supremacy (which asserted England's independence from papal authority) was repealed in 1554 by Henry's devoutly Catholic daughter Queen Mary I when she reinstituted Catholicism as England's state religion. She burned many Protestants. But Mary was reversed by a new Act of Supremacy passed in 1559 under Elizabeth I, along with an Act of Uniformity which made worship in Church of England compulsory. Anyone who took office in the English church or government was required to take the Oath of Supremacy; penalties for violating it included hanging and quartering. Attendance at Anglican services became obligatory—those who refused to attend Anglican services, whether Roman Catholics or Protestants (Puritans), were fined and physically punished as recusants.

Elizabethan regime

Foxe's Book of Martyrs helped shape lasting popular notions of Catholicism in Britain.

In the time of Elizabeth I, the persecution of the adherents of the Reformed religion, both Anglicans and Protestants alike, which had occurred during the reign of her elder half-sister Queen Mary I was used to fuel strong anti-Catholic propaganda in the hugely influential Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Those who had died in Mary's reign, under the Marian Persecutions, were effectively canonised by this work of hagiography. In 1571 the Convocation of the Church of England ordered that copies of the Book of Martyrs should be kept for public inspection in all cathedrals and in the houses of church dignitaries. The book was also displayed in many Anglican parish churches alongside the Holy Bible. The passionate intensity of its style and its vivid and picturesque dialogues made the book very popular among Puritan and Low Church families, Anglican and Protestant nonconformist, down to the nineteenth century. In a period of extreme partisanship on all sides of the religious debate, the exaggeratedly partisan church history of the earlier portion of the book, with its grotesque stories of popes and monks, contributed to fuel anti-Catholic prejudices in England, as did the story of the sufferings of several hundred Reformers (both Anglican and Protestant) who had been burnt at the stake under Mary and Bishop Bonner.

Anti-Catholicism among many of the English was grounded in the fear that the pope sought to reimpose not just religio-spiritual authority over England but also secular power of the country; this was seemingly confirmed by various actions by the Vatican. In 1570, Pope Pius V sought to depose Elizabeth with the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, which declared her a heretic and purported to dissolve the duty of all Elizabeth's subjects of their allegiance to her. This rendered Elizabeth's subjects who persisted in their allegiance to the Catholic Church politically suspect, and made the position of her Catholic subjects largely untenable if they tried to maintain both allegiances at once.

In 1588 one Elizabethian loyalist cited the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada as an attempt by Philip II of Spain to put into effect the Pope's decree. In truth, King Philip II was attempting to claim the throne of England he felt he had as a result of being the widower of Mary I of England.

Elizabeth's resultant persecution of Catholic Jesuit missionaries led to many executions at Tyburn. Those priests like Edmund Campion who suffered there are considered martyrs by the Catholic Church, and a number of them were canonized by the Catholic Church as the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, though at the time, they were considered traitors to England. In recent decades, a Catholic convent has been established near the site of the Tyburn gallows to pray for the souls of all those executed there for their faith.

17th and 18th century polemics

Later several accusations fueled strong anti-Catholicism in England including the Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and other Catholic conspirators were found guilty of planning to blow up the English Parliament on the day the King was to open it. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was blamed on the Catholics and an inscription ascribing it to 'Popish frenzy' was engraved on the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which marked the location where the fire started (this inscription was only removed in 1831). The "Popish Plot" involving Titus Oates further exacerbated Anglican-Catholic relations.

The beliefs that underlie the sort of strong anti-Catholicism once seen in the United Kingdom were summarized by William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England:

As to papists, what has been said of the Protestant dissenters would hold equally strong for a general toleration of them; provided their separation was founded only upon difference of opinion in religion, and their principles did not also extend to a subversion of the civil government. If once they could be brought to renounce the supremacy of the pope, they might quietly enjoy their seven sacraments, their purgatory, and auricular confession; their worship of relics and images; nay even their transubstantiation. But while they acknowledge a foreign power, superior to the sovereignty of the kingdom, they cannot complain if the laws of that kingdom will not treat them upon the footing of good subjects..
— Bl. Comm. IV, c.4 ss. iii.2, p. *54

The gravamen of this charge, then, is that Catholics constitute an imperium in imperio, a sort of fifth column of persons who owe a greater allegiance to the Pope than they do to the civil government, a charge very similar to that repeatedly leveled against Jews. Accordingly, a large body of British laws, such as the Popery Act 1698, collectively known as the Penal Laws, imposed various civil disabilities and legal penalties on recusant Catholics.

A change of attitude was eventually signalled by the Papists Act 1778 in the reign of King George III. Under this Act, an oath was imposed, which besides being a declaration of loyalty to the reigning sovereign, contained an abjuration of Charles Edward Stuart, the Pretender to the British throne, and of certain doctrines attributed to Roman Catholics (doctrines such as those stating that excommunicated princes may lawfully be murdered, that no faith should be kept with heretics, and that the Pope has temporal as well as spiritual jurisdiction in the realm). Those taking this oath were exempted from some of the provisions of the Popery Act. The section as to taking and prosecuting priests were repealed, as also the penalty of perpetual imprisonment for keeping a school. Catholics were also enabled to inherit and purchase land, nor was a Protestant heir any longer empowered to enter and enjoy the estate of his Catholic kinsman. However, the passing of this act was the occasion of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots (1780) in which the violence of the mob was especially directed against Lord Mansfield who had balked at various prosecutions under the statutes now repealed.[1] The anti-clerical excesses of the French Revolution and the consequent emigration to England of Catholic priests from France led to a softening of opinion towards Catholics on the part of the English Anglican establishment, resulting in the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791 which allowed Catholics to enter the legal profession, relieved them from taking the Oath of Supremacy and granted toleration for their schools and places of worship[2] The repeal of the Penal Laws culminated in the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829.

19th century and early 20th century

Despite the Emancipation Act, however, anti-Catholic attitudes persisted throughout the 19th century, particularly following increased Irish migration to England during the Great Famine.

The re-establishment of the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy in England in 1850 by Pope Pius IX, was followed by a frenzy of anti-Catholic feeling, often stoked by newspapers. Examples include an effigy of Cardinal Wiseman, the new head of the restored hierarchy, being paraded through the streets and burned on Bethnal Green, and graffiti proclaiming 'No popery!' being chalked on walls.[3] Charles Kingsley wrote a vigorously anti-Catholic book Hypatia (1853).[4] The novel was mainly aimed at the embattled Catholic minority in England, who had recently emerged from a half-illegal status.

New Catholic episcopates, which ran parallel to the established Anglican episcopates, and a Catholic conversion drive awakened fears of 'papal aggression' and relations between the Catholic Church and the establishment remained frosty.[5] At the end of the nineteenth century one contemporary wrote that "the prevailing opinion of the religious people I knew and loved was that Roman Catholic worship is idolatry, and that it was better to be an Atheist than a Papist".[6] When former Prime Minister Gladstone wrote a polemic against the infallibility declaration of the Catholic Church, it sold 150,000 copies in 1874.[7] He urged Catholics to obey the crown and disobey the pope when there was disagreement.

Anti-Irish prejudice rose when the Irish migrated to the mostly-Protestant Great Britain during the 19th century famine. The predominant factor triggering this anti-Irish sentiment was that the migrants were predominantly Catholic.

Post-war period and ecumenism

Since World War II anti-Catholic feeling in England has much abated. Ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics culminated in the first meeting of an Archbishop of Canterbury with a Pope since the Reformation when Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher visited Rome in 1960.[8] Since then, dialogue has continued through envoys and standing conferences.

Residual anti-Catholicism in England is represented by the burning of an effigy of the Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes at local celebrations on Guy Fawkes Night every 5 November.[9] This celebration has, however, largely lost any sectarian connotation and the allied tradition of burning an effigy of the Pope on this day has been discontinued - except in the town of Lewes, Sussex.[10]

As a result of the 1701 Act of Settlement, any member of the British royal family who joins the Catholic Church must renounce the throne.[11] The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 allows members to marry a Roman Catholic without incurring this ban.

Ireland under British control

Ireland's Catholic majority has been subject to persecution from the time of the English Reformation under Henry VIII. This persecution intensified when the Gaelic clan system was completely destroyed by the governments of Elizabeth I and her successor, James I. Land was appropriated either by the conversion of native Anglo-Irish aristocrats or by forcible seizure. Many Catholics were dispossessed and their lands given to Anglican and Protestant settlers from Britain, (however it should be noted that the first plantation in Ireland was a Catholic plantation under Queen Mary I, for more see Plantations of Ireland).

In order to cement the power of the Anglican Ascendancy, political and land-owning rights were denied to Ireland's Catholics by law, following the Glorious Revolution in England and consequent turbulence in Ireland. The Penal Laws, established first in the 1690s, assured Church of Ireland control of political, economic and religious life. The Mass, ordination, and the presence in Ireland of Catholic Bishops were all banned, although some did carry on secretly. Catholic schools were also banned, as were all voting franchises. Violent persecution also resulted, leading to the torture and execution of many Catholics, both clergy and laity. Since then, many have been canonised and beatified by the Vatican, such as Saint Oliver Plunkett, Blessed Dermot O'Hurley, and Blessed Margaret Ball.

Although some of the Penal Laws restricting Catholic access to landed property were repealed between 1778 and 1782 this did not end anti-Catholic agitation and violence. Catholic competition with Protestants in County Armagh for leases intensified, driving up prices and provoking resentment of Anglicans and Protestants alike. Then in 1793, the Roman Catholic Relief Act enfranchised forty shilling freeholders in the counties, thus increasing the political value of Catholic tenants to landlords. In addition, Catholics began to enter the linen weaving trade, thus depressing Protestant wage rates. From the 1780s the Protestant Peep O'Day Boys grouping began attacking Catholic homes and smashing their looms. In addition, the Peep O'Day Boys disarmed Catholics of any weapons they were holding.[12] A Catholic group called the Defenders was formed in response to these attacks. This climaxed in the Battle of the Diamond on 21 September 1795 outside the small village of Loughgall between Peep O' Day boys and the Defenders.[13] Roughly 30 Catholic Defenders, but none of the better armed Peep O'Day Boys were killed in the fight. Hundreds of Catholic homes and at least one Church were burnt out in the aftermath of the skirmish.[14] After the battle Daniel Winter, James Wilson and James Sloan changed the name of the Peep O' Day Boys to the Orange Order devoted to maintaining the Protestant ascendency.

Though more of the Penal Laws were repealed and Catholic Emancipation in 1829 ensured political representation at Westminster significant anti-Catholic hostility remained, especially in Belfast where the Catholic population was in the minority. In the same year, the Presbyterians, reaffirmed at the Synod of Ulster that the Pope was the anti-Christ and joined the Orange Order in large numbers when the latter organisation opened its doors to all non-Catholics in 1834. As the Orange order grew, violence against Catholics became a regular feature of Belfast life.[15] Towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century when Irish Home Rule became imminent, Protestant fears and opposition towards it were articulated under the slogan "Home Rule means Rome Rule".



In the 16th century, the Scottish Reformation resulted in Scotland's conversion to Presbyterianism through the Church of Scotland. The revolution resulted in a powerful hatred of the Roman Church. High Anglicanism also came under intense persecution after Charles I attempted to reform the Church of Scotland. The attempted reforms caused chaos, however, because they were seen as being overly Catholic in form in being based heavily on sacraments and ritual.

Over the course of later mediæval and early modern history violence against Catholics has broken out, often resulting in deaths, such as the torture and execution of Saint John Ogilvie and the execution of a Jesuit priest.

In the last 150 years, Irish migration to Scotland increased dramatically. As time has gone on Scotland has become much more open to other religions and Catholics have seen the nationalisation of their schools and the restoration of the Church hierarchy. Even in the area of politics, there are changes. The Orange Order has also grown in numbers in recent times. This growth is, however, attributed by some to the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic football clubs as opposed to actual hatred of Catholics.[16]

Historian Tom Devine, who grew up in a family with Irish Catholic roots in the west of Scotland, described his youth as follows:[17]

Among my own family in a Lanarkshire town in the 1950s it was accepted that discriminatory employment practices against Catholics were endemic in the local steel industry, the police, banking and even some high-street shops. And until the 1960s in some of the Clyde shipyards, the power of the foremen with Orange and Masonic loyalties to hire and fire often made it difficult for Catholics to start apprenticeships.

However, although Devine accepts that anti-Catholic attitudes do exist in some areas of Scotland, especially in West Central Scotland, he has argued that discrimination against Catholics in Scotland's economic, social and political life is no longer systematic in the way it once was. Devine cited survey and research data collected in the 1990s which indicated that there was little difference in the social class of Catholics and non-Catholics in contemporary Scotland, and highlighted increased Catholic representation in politics and the professions, describing the change as a "silent revolution". Devine has suggested that a number of factors are responsible for this change: radical structural changes in the Scottish economy, with the decline of manufacturing industries where sectarian prejudices were ingrained, the increase of foreign investment in high-tech industry in Silicon Glen and the post-war expansion of the public sector, the construction of the welfare state and growth of educational opportunities, which provided avenues for social mobility, and increased interfaith marriages among Catholics.[17]

Although there is a popular perception in Scotland that Anti-Catholicism is football related (specifically directed against fans of Celtic F.C.), statistics released in 2004 by the Scottish Executive showed that 85% of sectarian attacks were not football related.[18] Sixty-three percent of the victims of sectarian attacks are Catholics, but when adjusted for population size this makes Catholics between five and eight times more likely to be a victim of a sectarian attack than a Protestant.[18][19]

Due to the fact that many Catholics in Scotland today have Irish ancestry, there is considerable overlap between anti-Irish attitudes and anti-Catholicism.[18] For example the word "Fenian" is regarded by authorities as a sectarian related word in reference to Catholics.[19]

In 2003 the Scottish Parliament passed the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 which included provisions to make an assault motivated by the perceived religion of the victim an aggravating factor.[20]

Northern Ireland

The Troubles in Northern Ireland were characterised by bitter sectarian antagonism and bloodshed between Irish Republicans a majority of whom are Catholic, and Loyalists who are overwhelmingly Protestant. In some areas Church buildings were frequently attacked and mass-goers harassed and sometimes prevented from attending mass by Loyalist paramilitaries.[21]

Some of the most savage attacks were perpetrated by a Protestant gang dubbed the Shankill Butchers, led by Lenny Murphy, who was described as a psychopath and a sadist.[22] The gang gained notoriety by torturing and murdering an estimated thirty Catholics, between 1972 and 1982. Most of their victims had no connection to the Provisional Irish Republican Army or any other republican groups but were killed for no other reason than their religious affiliation.[23] Murphy's killing spree is the theme of a British film called Resurrection Man (1998).

Since the ceasefire, sectarian killings have largely ceased, though occasional sectarian murders are still reported and bad feelings between Catholics and Protestants linger.[24][25]

See also


  1. "The Gordon Riots". 1 September 1909. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  2. J. R. H. Moorman, A History of the Church in England (London: A. & C. Black, 1973), pp. 312-313
  3. Felix Barker and Peter Jackson (1974) London: 2000 Years of a City and its People: 308. Macmillan: London
  4. Uffelman, Larry K. (Jun., 1986), "Kingsley's Hypatia: Revisions in Context". Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 87-96, University of California Press.
  5. J.R.H. Moorman (1973) A History of the Church in England. London, A.&C. Black: 391-392
  6. Moorman, op. cit., p. 392
  7. Philip Magnus, Gladstone: A Biography (London: John Murray, 1963), pp. 235–6.
  8. Moorman, op. cit., p. 457
  9. Steven Roud (2006) The English Year. London, Penguin: 455-63
  10. Lewes Bonfire Council, More Information on Bonfire. Retrieved 3 December 2007. Archived 15 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  11. Fiancée of British royal abandons Catholicism to preserve succession at
  13. From The formation of the Orange Order in The Orange Order from the Evangelical Truth website
  14. "THE RISE OF THE DEFENDERS 1793-5". Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  15. Liz Curtis (1994) The Cause of Ireland: From United Irishmen to Partition: 37
  16. Scotland On Sunday: November 2006: "Football rivalry boosts religious orders"
  17. 1 2 Devine, Tom (10 September 1999). "Spot the Catholic". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  18. 1 2 3 Kelbie, Paul (28 September 2006). "The Big Question: In 2006, are Catholics really being discriminated against in Scotland?". The Independent. Retrieved 15 September 2008.
  19. 1 2 Barnes, Eddie; David Leask; Marc Horne (14 September 2008). "The Shame Game". Scotland on Sunday. Johnston Press Digital Publishing. Retrieved 15 September 2008.
  20. "Chapter Three: Findings". Use of Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 - Religiously Aggravated Reported Crime: An 18 Month Review. HMSO. November 2006. Retrieved 15 September 2008.
  21. "CAIN: Photograph: Parochial House, Harryville Church (3), Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland". 3 September 2005. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  22. "UVFs catalogue of atrocities"., 3 May 2007. Retrieved 8 November 2007.
  23. Martin Dillon (1999 - second edition) The Shankill Butchers
  24. NI Lynch Mobs
  25. "BBC - BBC Radio 4 Programmes - Foes Reunited". Archived from the original on 24 May 2009. Retrieved 26 May 2009.

Further reading

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