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Roman Catholic records

The Roman Catholic Church in England

It is important to remember that up until the reformation (and Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries) Roman Catholicism was the religion of England. When we speak of Roman Catholic history, it tends to be in the light of the post-reformation relationship between Catholics and the state, which has been good and bad, depending on the political climate at the time.

By the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England was firmly established as a Protestant country. In 1559 the Act of Supremacy was passed, requiring any person taking public or church office in England to swear allegiance to the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. At the same time it was decreed that all people had to attend services using the new Protestant Book of Common Prayer.

In 1593 the first statute specifically to target Roman Catholics was passed. It was called "An Act for restraining Popish Recusants" and 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".

Later acts in the reigns of James I and Charles I also targeted Roman Catholic recusants, and further laws defined certain offences as acts of recusancy.

The Gunpowder Plot heightened the antipathy generally felt towards Roman Catholics, but after initial more vigorous persecution, Roman Catholics in Britain kept a fairly low profile until the 19th century.

From the latter part of the 18th century, various acts were passed restoring some rights to Roman Catholics. Principally these were:

The Catholic Relief Act (18 George III c. 60) of 1778 allowed Catholics to join the armed forces without taking the oath of supremacy; repealed laws against Catholic priests, which included the penalty of perpetual imprisonment for keeping a school; and also enabled Catholics to inherit and purchase land. Also, a Protestant heir no longer had power to take over the estate of a Catholic kinsman. There is an example of this happening in Surrey among the Quarter Sessions papers of 1735 (Ref QS2/6/1735/Mid) which contains a letter to the Clerk about the inheritance by Mr Smith, a Protestant, of an estate once in the possession of a Catholic lady, and requesting support on his behalf in his claim to the estate.

The Catholic Relief Act (31 George III, c. 32) of 1791, took this emancipation even further and established that Catholics could no longer be prosecuted for:

  • being educated as a Catholic
  • hearing or saying Mass
  • assisting or performing any Catholic rites
  • being a priest
  • belonging to an ecclesiastical order or community of the Church of Rome.

A further Relief Act of 1793 gave some Irish Catholics the rights to vote in elections (although not to sit in Parliament), attend university and take (lower level) government office.

However, by the 1820s there was growing unrest in Ireland, the conciliation of which led to the Catholic Emancipation Act of April 1829. This lifted most remaining civil restrictions by granting:

  • The right to sit as MPs at Westminster.
  • Catholics were eligible for all public offices except those of Monarch, Lord Chancellor, Regent, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and any judicial appointment in any ecclesiastical court of the Church of England.

Incidentally, the 1701 Act of Settlement still prohibits British monarchs from being, or marrying, a Catholic. While there is, theoretically, no bar on the Prime Minister being a Catholic, a Catholic Prime Minister is considered to be 'constitutionally awkward' since that office is involved in appointing senior members of the Church of England.

The influx of Catholics to the United Kingdom following the French Revolution and the growing number of Irish immigrants during the mid 19th century, ensured that the Catholic Church in England grew rapidly, at least until about 1960. Early sacramental registers are patchy, but by the end of the 19th century begin to be kept in more organised fashion. This is partly due to the restoration of Catholic parishes (bearing in mind that a Catholic chapel could not be registered until 1791). Although Roman Catholic Dioceses were re-established in the 1850s, parishes were not organised within a diocesan administrative structure until after the First World War. Until then, Catholics worshipped at the nearest place they could – whether that was a 'mission' church, a private domestic chapel or the chapel of a local religious order.

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The Roman Catholic Church in Surrey

A wide range of information is held at Surrey History Centre. Probably the richest source for the study of Roman Catholicism in Surrey in the 16th and 17th centuries, is the Loseley manuscripts, particularly the correspondence which includes many references to recusants in Surrey (see also Victoria History of the County of Surrey (London, 1902-1912), Vol II, pages 25-30).

References to attitudes towards Catholics in Surrey often have to be gleaned from a variety of sources. Although the Compton census (which has been published) of 1676 reveals only 132 'Papists' in Surrey, it would appear from the papers of George Benbrick's Charity (Ref 6871/2/5/-) that there was still a certain amount of wariness among the population regarding Catholics. Benbrick, a Guildford feltmaker, left a will proved 12 January 1682 whereby the profits on the rental of a piece of land were to be divided among 8 needy individuals of Guildford. However, it was also stipulated in the will that no person

"...who shall bee a Papist [Roman Catholic]...shall at any time receive any p[ar]te of this Charity."

Following the Jacobite invasion of 1715 all Roman Catholics were required under 1 Geo.I, cap.55 (1715) to register their names and real estates with the Clerk of the Peace who was to record the names in a parchment book. Although this does not seem to have survived (for Surrey), there are two documents relating to this in the Quarter Sessions papers (Ref QS6/12/-), 1717-1718.

We can begin to see the gradual re-emergence of the Catholic community among further records of the Quarter Sessions. After the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 (see above), the Clerk of the Peace had to register Roman Catholic places of worship and priests. Records of these can be found at QS6/13/- and the gradual licensing of mission chapels and churches helps to pin-point the areas of Catholic settlement within the county. See also David Robinson's The 1851 Religious Census: Surrey for a snapshot of the state of Roman Catholicism in the 19th century.

Reactions to the various emancipation acts for Roman Catholics can often be gauged through comments made in correspondence (see for example the letters from George Capel Coningsby, 5th Earl of Essex (Ref 3677/3) and an interesting letter by Edward Sugden of Boyle Farm to Henry Drummond (1786-1860), MP for West Surrey, dated 24 Dec 1850, Ref 4629/1). Both supported the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill which, on 1 Aug 1851, became the Act to Prevent the Assumption of Certain Ecclesiastical Titles in Respect of Places in the United Kingdom (14 and 15 Vic, cap 60). The measure was directed against the Roman Catholic church which had re-established a territorial hierarchy in Britain. Sugden moved a resolution protesting against the alleged papal aggression at a county meeting at Epsom, on 17 Dec 1850.

The most detailed account of a specific Catholic church held in Surrey History Centre can be found in The Church of St Edward King and Confessor by Dr G C Williamson and the Rev Bernard Kelly. This gives an in-depth study of the oldest (consistent) place of Catholic worship in Surrey, St Edward's chapel at Sutton Place, and includes transcripts from the registers of the church from 1867 and a list of incumbents from the 18th century. There is also an account of one of the first Catholic schools in Surrey, The Firs, in Worplesdon.

Suspicion of popery and Romish practices continued throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. Henry Peak, borough surveyor and Mayor of Guildford in the latter half of the 19th century, was an enthusiastic 'remembrancer', and his diaries and scrapbooks constitute a remarkable source for social and political history in Surrey. His vitriolic attack on the papacy can be found in volume A of his diaries (Ref 6517/1) on pages 52-69, and seems fairly representative of public opinion at the time. Joseph Fernandez, headmaster of the Guildford College in Quarry Street, advertised his pamphlet "Popery Tottering to its Fall in 1866" in the Surrey Advertiser of 4 February 1865, a comment on the Pope's encyclical letter of that year '…shewing what Popery has been, is, and will be to its end'.

Discrimination against Roman Catholics was not restricted to the 19th century. Surrey History Centre holds a small bundle of letters and copy letters, dating from March 1951, relating to the removal of a teacher from her post in a Church of England school in England, as she had recently converted to Catholicism (Ref 6746/8/2/7).

Probably the bulk of Catholic records we hold in the 20th century relate to Catholic education, and consist mainly of managers' and governors' minutes and a few admission registers for Catholic Schools. However under the Data Protection Act (1998) these may be subject to some closures.

One fascinating collection (Ref 6990/-) that we hold serves to illustrate the tensions within the Catholic Church following the changes made by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Miss Kathleen Mary Hobbs (1904-c.1995) was a strong supporter of the Society of Saint Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in opposition to liberalising changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council , which included allowing Mass to be celebrated in local languages, instead of Latin. She ran a small college in Guildford (St Mary's Tutorial College) for about 50 students from at least 1947 to 1988, which seems to have offered tutoring to 'A' level students and for the Oxbridge entrance examinations. Miss Hobbs' intentions to set up a seminary in the area were ultimately thwarted, but the correspondence that is included within the collection does show how opinions within the Catholic church were split following the reforms by Vatican II.

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Further reading

All these books are available at Surrey History Centre:

  • Fitzgerald-Lombard, Charles. English and Welsh priests 1801-1914. Downside Abbey, 1993.
  • Victoria History of the County of Surrey 4 vols. London, 1902-1912. See British History Online.
  • Webb, Cliff and Robinson, David. The 1851 religious census : Surrey. Surrey Record Society, 1997.
  • Questier, Michael C. Catholicism and community in early modern England : politics, aristocratic patronage and religion, c.1550-1640. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Bowler, Hugh. Recusant roll No.2 (1593-1594). An abstract in English. Catholic Record Society publications, Vol 57, 1965.
  • Bowler, Hugh. Recusant roll No.3 (1594-1595) and recusant roll No.4 (1595-1596). An abstract in English. Catholic Record Society publications, Vol 61, 1970.
  • Gandy, Michael. Catholic family history: a bibliography of general sources. M Gandy, 1996.
  • Gandy, Michael. Catholic records. Pocket guides to family history. Public Record Office, 2001.

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Roman Catholic family history in Surrey

Early Roman Catholic sacramental registers are rare, but where they do exist, they will probably be held by the individual parish, although some have been collected by the appropriate diocese, and a few are held at Surrey History Centre (see below). The main Roman Catholic diocese to cover Surrey is the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, but parishes in the metropolitan area of Surrey are covered by the Diocese of Westminster. Michael Gandy has published a very useful list of surviving early Catholic registers in his book Catholic Missions and Registers 1700-1880: Volume 1 London and the Home Counties. There are also useful tips for researching other sacramental registers. This book is available in the Surrey History Centre searchroom on the open shelves.

A Roman Catholic will (typically) be baptised as soon as possible after birth, receive First Holy Communion aged 7-9 years old and be confirmed at about 13 or 14. A Roman Catholic marriage is not necessarily a civil marriage, as most Roman Catholic priests were not (and in many cases are still not) registrars. A civil marriage is not recognised in the Roman Catholic faith. Only a marriage conducted by a Catholic priest is recognised, and registers are held accordingly in parish churches. If someone takes Holy Orders and becomes either a nun, a monk or a priest, the relevant order will hold records of this. In addition, the diocese may also hold records, and ultimately the Vatican in Rome keeps records of all priests, etc.

By the 1920s (theoretically after 1917) it became practise to note on the baptism registers any subsequent sacraments received by the individual. Thus, dates of First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, etc., would be noted and cross referenced with the baptism register, even if they had not taken place at that parish. However, the resulting correspondence and references do not always survive. For example, St Joseph's Catholic Church in Aldershot only has correspondence back to 1983, although some churches do have earlier records.

Surrey History Centre holds some Roman Catholic marriage registers, which include:

  • 3835/1: Convent Chapel, Convent of the Sacred Heart (Woldingham School Chapel from 1989), 21 Jul 1984 - 29 Jul 1989.
  • 6941/1-4: Church of The Holy Family, Farnham, 20 Dec 1969 -12 Aug 2000.
  • 7101/1: Church of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady, Merton (single entry, 27 Nov 1982).
  • 7102/1: Church of St Martin de Porres, Weybridge. 16 entries are recorded, 1971-1981.
  • 7569/1/1-2: St Oswald's Roman Catholic Church, Deepcut, Frimley, 6 Jul 1935-20 Apr 1985.
  • 7569/2/1: St Anselm's Roman Catholic Church, Hindhead, 27 Sep 1965 -19 Dec 1977.
  • 7447/1: St Anselm's Roman Catholic Church, Hindhead, 27 Jul 1978 -26 Sep 1987.
  • 7093/1/1/43: Farnham Poor Law Institution (later Farnham Hospital) House Committee Chaplains' register of baptisms, services and visits, 3 Oct 1926 -21 Aug 1969. Includes some baptisms by the Roman Catholic chaplain.

Information on other relevant records can be found by searching our online Collections Catalogue.

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