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, 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.
See B. Magee, The English Recusants (1938); E. I. Watkin, Roman Catholicism in England from the Reformation to 1950 (1957).
English attempts to govern Ireland had long been marked by the passing of various acts to secure its rule: in 1367, the Statutes of Kilkenny sought to prevent the Old English from any further adoption of Gaelic culture, and Poynings Law of 1494 made the Irish parliament subservient to the English one. These were approved of by the Holy See. But the English Reformation in 1533-38 under Henry VIII brought a new religious division to the relationship between Ireland and England, though he also persecuted Protestants from 1539 to 1547. In 1541 he legislated for the new Kingdom of Ireland. His son Edward VI (1547-53) was fully Protestant but his policy was only published just before his death. Queen Mary then reimposed orthodox Catholicism in 1553-58, while settling the new 'King's' and Queen's' counties in the midlands. During her reign it was agreed under the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555 that Europeans should follow their ruler's faith (in Latin, 'Cuius regio, eius religio'). She married the future King Philip II of Spain.
A number of plots from the Ridolfi plot of 1570 to the Gunpowder plot of 1605 failed to kill Elizabeth and her successor James I. Supported to a greater or lesser extent by the Papacy, they caused an atmosphere of official paranoia about the loyalty of Catholics as a group, in England as well as Ireland.
In Ireland, new laws were put into force from the late 1500s that coincided with a determined effort to bring all of Ireland under English government and culture for the first time (see Tudor re-conquest of Ireland). The colonisation of parts of the island into the 1600s in the Plantations of Ireland included anti-Catholic legislation that had a pronounced effect over two centuries, ultimately disenfranchising in 1728 the richer part of the majority of the Irish population, who remained Roman Catholic, and most Scottish settlers, who were Presbyterian, in favour of the members of the much smaller official Church of Ireland. Though the laws affected adherents of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (who were concentrated in Ulster), their principal victims were the wealthier, landed members of the Roman Catholic Church, whose co-religionists comprised over three quarters of the people on the island. The English had, intentionally punished the faith of the overwhelming majority of the "mere Irish" (this derived from the Latin 'merus', meaning 'pure'). There was no law forbidding Catholics from converting to the state religion, but relatively few chose to do so. Little attempt was made to convert the poor.
From 1607, Catholics were barred from holding public office or serving in the army. This meant that the Irish Privy Council and the Lords Justice - who, along with the Lord Deputy of Ireland constituted the government of the country, would in future be Protestants. In 1613, the constituencies of the Irish House of Commons were altered to give Protestant settlers a majority. In addition, Roman Catholics had to pay 'recusant fines' for non-attendance at Protestant services. Roman Catholic churches were transferred to the Protestant Church of Ireland. Roman Catholic services, however, were generally tacitly tolerated as long as they were conducted in private. Roman Catholic priests were also tolerated, but bishops (who were usually trained in Roman Catholic Europe) had to conceal their presence in the country. In the 1630s the issue of the "Graces" arose; Charles I (whose Queen Henrietta Maria was Catholic), levied a vast fee off Irish Catholic landlords to reform the laws, but once the money was paid he lost interest.
Catholic resentment was a factor in starting the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and the establishment of Confederate Ireland from 1642 with Papal support, that was eventually put down in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649-53. After the Act of Settlement in 1652, Catholics were barred from membership in the Irish Parliament, the richer of them had most of their lands confiscated under the Adventurers Act, and were technically banned from living in towns for a short period. To the Cromwellians, all Catholics were, in turn, heretics. Catholic clergy were expelled from the country and were liable to instant execution when found. Many had to attend their devotions at Mass rocks in the countryside. Seventeen Catholic martyrs from this period were beatified in 1992.
However, these privileges had to be earned by swearing an oath of loyalty to William and Mary, which most Catholics found repugnant from 1693 when the Papacy started supporting the Jacobites. A small number of Catholic landlords had sworn this loyalty oath in 1691-93 and their families remained protected, but most did not. Previous Jacobite garrison surrenders, particularly the agreement at Galway earlier in 1691, specifically provided that the Catholic gentry of counties Galway and Mayo were protected from the property restrictions in the 1700s, though they would be excluded from direct involvement in politics.
Articles 2 and 9 required that:
At the European level, this war was a part of the War of the Grand Alliance, in which the Papacy supported William III's alliance against France, and on the news of the Battle of the Boyne a Te Deum was sung in thanksgiving at the Vatican. But from 1693 the Papacy changed its policy and supported James against William, and William's policy also moved from a degree of toleration for Roman Catholics to greater hostility. By then, King James was based in France at Saint Germain, and was supported politically and financially by Louis XIV, the long-standing enemy of William and Mary. Religion became an easy way to define a notable family's loyalty to the crown, and so formed the political basis for the ensuing Penal Laws in Ireland.
The main intended effect of the Penal Laws was to ease the conversion or dispossession of the landed Catholic population. In 1641 Catholics had owned 60% of land in Ireland and by 1776 Catholic land ownership in Ireland stood at only 5%. In the 1735 census some 30% of Irish declared that they were not Catholics, and it may have appeared that eventually most or all would conform, but in hindsight this was the Protestants' highest point. Conversion from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism occurred sporadically, especially among the gentry usually from material considerations converting to keep the family lands intact, the sincerity of such conversions often open to question. Many sons of the Catholic gentry left for Europe to join the Wild Geese, or were educated for the church at seminaries such as in Louvain. Others with money engaged in trade as they could not buy land to rent out. For them the problem was limited opportunity through exclusion from many professions; medicine being a rare exception. They were excluded from voting in 1728-1793.
The vast majority of the population, being poor tenant farmers or agricultural labourers, actually lost little due to the penal laws since 1695, but since 1800 the laws have been given as a plausible reason to explain their poverty. The tithing system had the biggest impact on them, as they had to pay a percentage of a crop's value to the local Protestant clergyman, as well as the cost of supporting their local priest.
For Catholic parish priests the laws from 1695 were more restrictive, but unlike the 1650s Cromwellian administration they could register with the local magistrates and preach. Religious orders and bishops were forbidden until 1778. New churches had to built with permission, generally away from main roads. The last priest to be executed was Nicholas Sheehy in 1766; not for preaching but from local animosity.
During the 1745 rebellion in Scotland the viceroy Lord Chesterfield suspended the Penal laws for several months to ensure that Irish Jacobites did not join the revolt. This was a success, and emphasized that London already saw the laws as a political, and not a religious, matter. During the American revolution (1775-83) the London government wanted Catholic support to counteract the patriots, creating the climate for Nano Nagle to set up her convent in 1777.
Some large Catholic landowners such as the Earl of Antrim were untouched by the penal laws and still own their ancestral lands today. The viscounts of Gormanston held their lands in County Meath until 1950. Others of Gaelic origin such as the lords Inchiquin (descendants of Brian Boru), or the Old English lords Dunsany and viscounts Dillon, saved their lands by converting to Protestantism.
Historians disagree over whether the Penal Laws were a tool of political as opposed to religious repression. Some argue (for instance Eamonn O Ciardha) that they were intended to make Catholics in Ireland powerless and to place landed and political power in Ireland in the hands of an English Anglican settler class, being based on ownership of land. Others (for instance Sean Connolly) argue that it was intended to convert the Irish en masse to the Protestant faith and that it should be likened to the Irish Government's efforts to revive the Irish language since Irish independence.
From 1782 reformist Irish Protestant politicians like Henry Grattan, JP Curran, William Ponsonby and Frederick Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol (a Protestant bishop), added their voices in support. In the English House of Commons Edmund Burke also helped, but was faced with anti-Catholic sentiment which exploded in the Gordon Riots of 1780. In 1792 William FitzGerald, 2nd Duke of Leinster, the eldest brother of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, founded the 'Association of the friends of liberty' whose program sought Catholic members in the Irish House of Commons. They could not persuade most Protestant MPs to effect a bigger change than the reforms of 1793, where Catholics were now allowed to buy freehold land, to become grand jurors and to vote.
Opposition to Catholic Relief ensured that when relief when granted it was often accompanied by what were seen to be unpleasant concessions to the system. Relief in 1793 was accompanied by a widely unpopular Militia Act which removed the ban on Catholics holding firearms to allow for their conscription into the milita, but not their admittance into the officer ranks. However, wealthier Catholics did not oppose this as it was further proof of their gradual inclusion into the establishment.
France declared war on Britain and Ireland in February 1793 and the war took priority over further reliefs. As the French government opposed the Holy See from 1790, and as Irish Catholic priests were often trained in France, the Prime Minister Pitt funded the establishment of St. Patrick's seminary in Maynooth in 1795. The French republican policies of "Dechristianization" in 1790-1801 were often similar to Cromwell's anti-Catholic policies in Ireland in the 1650s. In 1795 the new viceroy the earl of Fitzwilliam proposed full political emancipation as suggested by Grattan, but he was removed within weeks by the hardliners in the Irish administration.
The slow pace of reform was a factor which led to many reformers despairing of peaceful change, particularly the lack of tithe reform, and this led on in part to the failed 1798 rebellion. During the rebellion all the Irish Catholic bishops supported the government. The subsequent passing of the Act of Union of 1801 was supposed to bring Catholic Emancipation, as power was moved from the hands of the Protestant Ascendancy to the London Parliament. This was agreed by most of the British Cabinet, including William Pitt, and they resigned when it was not effected. The personal opposition of George III ensured that no change would be forthcoming during his reign.
The Act also allowed for Catholic judges and senior civil servants and state officials to be appointed. As with the election of MPs, those who benefitted were the better educated and richer Catholics. The same class took advantage of the reform of town and city corporations in the Act of 1840 and took part in local government. But for the majority of Irish Catholics living in the countryside, the cost of the tithing system had always been the main cause of complaint.
The position of Irish Catholics is a cruel one. We are enslaved by a Protestant power. The penal laws against our religion are not yet abolished in full. The injurious social and economic results of these anti-Catholic laws will not be overcome for generations. To the present day we suffer political injury inside and outside of Ireland, simply and solely because we are practicing Catholics. Sons of martyrs, we are known in every Masonic lodge and every anti-Catholic country as 'Papists', and par-excellence, the most devoted of all the children of the Holy See.