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In English history, the penal laws were a series of laws that sought to uphold the establishment of the Church of England against Catholicism and Protestant nonconformists by imposing various forfeitures, civil penalties, and civil disabilities upon these recusants. The penal laws in general were repealed in the early 19th century during the process of Catholic Emancipation. Penal actions are civil in nature and were not English common law.

Marian persecutions

Main article: Marian persecutions

In 1553, following the death of her half-brother, Edward VI, and deposing his choice of successor, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I of England seized the throne, and soon after repealed the religious legislation of her brother and father, Henry VIII, through the First Statute of Repeal (1 Mar. Sess. 2. c. 2). Restoring England, Wales and Ireland to the Roman Catholic communion.

An English inquisition was established to identify exile, convert, or punish non-conforming Catholics, with over 300 Protestant dissenters branded heretics, and killed, and many more exiled in her five-year reign. A list of Protestant martyrs of the English Reformation published soon after her death.


Response to Regnans in Excelsis

In 1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I with the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis. In response:

Clarendon Code

While some of the Penal Laws were much older, they took their most drastic shape during the reign of Charles II, especially the laws known as the Clarendon Code and the Test Act.

The four penal laws collectively known as Clarendon Code are named after Charles II's chief minister Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, though Clarendon was neither their author nor fully in favour of them.[4] These included:

Combined with the Test Act 1673, the Corporation Act 1661 excluded all nonconformists from holding civil or military office, and prevented them from being awarded degrees by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

Further penal laws in Great Britain

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, many non-conformist Protestants successfully evaded the political disabilities imposed by the Test Act by taking communion in the Church of England as required, while otherwise attending non-conformist meetings. High churchmen and Tories, empowered late in Queen Anne's reign, sought to close this loophole with the passing of the Occasional Conformity Bill in 1711, however the Act was repealed after the Hanoverian Succession with the return to power of the Whigs, who were generally allied with non-conforming Protestants. In the wake of the Jacobite Rising of 1715, the British parliament also passed the Disarming Act of 1716.

Papists Act 1732
Act of Parliament
Citation6 Geo. 2. c. 5

The Papists Act 1732 (6 Geo. 2. c. 5) was an Act of Parliament passed by the Parliament of Great Britain during the reign of George II. Its long title was "An Act for allowing further time for the Inrolment of Deeds and Wills made by Papists, and for Relief of Protestant Purchasers and Lessees".[6]

Penal laws in Ireland

Main article: Penal laws (Ireland)

The Penal Laws were introduced into Ireland in the year 1695, disenfranchising nonconformists in favour of the minority established Church of Ireland, aligned with the Protestant Church of England. The laws' principal victims were members of the Catholic Church, numbering over three quarters of the population in the south, and adherents of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, a majority of the population in Ulster. These laws included:

The laws were eventually repealed, beginning in the 1770s by the 1774 Quebec Act and the Papists Act 1778. The British Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791 was followed in Ireland in 1793. Finally in 1829 Catholic emancipation was enacted, largely due to Irish political agitation organised under Daniel O'Connell in the 1820s. Sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants persisted through the 20th century, and its effects can still be seen, particularly in Northern Ireland, today.

See also


  1. ^ Ward, Cedric (1981). The House of Commons and the Marian Reeaction 1553-1558 (PDF). Andrews University Press. pp. 227–233.
  2. ^ a b c Burton, Edwin, Edward D'Alton, and Jarvis Kelley. "Penal Laws." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 28 August 2018
  3. ^ Medley, Dudley J. (1925). A student's manual of English constitutional history (6th ed.). New York: Macmillan. pp. 638–639. hdl:2027/uc1.$b22458. OCLC 612680148.
  4. ^ History Learning Site - The Clarendon Code
  5. ^ Harris, Tim, Politics Under the Later Stuarts: Party Conflict In a Divided Society, 1660-1715. London: Longman, 1993. p. 39.
  6. ^ Probate legislation, Durham University website, retrieved 28 April 2019.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Penal Laws". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.