Catholic Peers in Georgian England

download.jpg Over the centuries, the English people saw first Catholicism in favor, which was replaced by Protestantism, to be replaced by Catholicism again, and finally a return to Protestantism. The reigns of Henry VIII and his children brought a time of unrest for Catholics, where many were forced to either accept Henry VIII’s “reforms” or to lose their heads on the block. Sir Thomas More, for example, refused to accept Henry VIII as Head of the Anglican Church and was convicted of treason and beheaded. Henry’s reign was followed first by Mary, a devout Catholic, and then by Elizabeth I, who abolished Catholicism and replaced it with Protestant teachings.

The fact that Charles II had a Catholic wife saw a lessening of the persecution against Catholics during his reign, but not an end to the practice. During the late 1700s, Catholics were permitted to worship in the embassies of Catholic nations in London, meaning those in the country and spread about London, could not worship in public. It was not until 1791 that they could have mass in a Catholic church. Before that time, many Catholics conducted secret religious services in their homes. During this time of restrictions, priests were trained in European countries, and if they were caught, the priest would be executed, as would be those who aided him. In many houses, their were secret hiding places called “priest holes,” to protect the priest and disguise his actions. I use one of these secret places in my latest Regency romantic suspense, The Earl Claims His Comfort, for Lord Remmington’s (the book’s hero) ancestors were Scottish Catholics.

Prinny and Maria 01.jpgDuring the 1700s, Catholics were not permitted to attend universities, act in governmental offices, including Parliament and being magistrates or sheriffs. Nor could they purchase military commissions. In 1785, the future George IV secretly married a Catholic, one Maria Fitzherbert. She was a commoner, six years his elder, twice widowed, and a Roman Catholic. Despite her complete unsuitability, the prince was determined to marry her. This was in spite of the Act of Settlement 1701, which barred the spouse of a Catholic from succeeding to the throne, and the Royal Marriage Act 1772, which prohibited his marriage without the King’s consent, which would never have been granted. Eventually, to become King and to settle his many debts, Prince George abandoned the idea of claiming Mrs. Fitzherbert as his wife. 

Changes came in the early 1800s. Catholics were, at length, permitted to become officers in the Royal Navy, as well as in the Army. However, they could still not hold a seat in Parliament.

51itwdjj5xl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ 51nvWRZSzpL._UY250_ A marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic had first to be held in an Anglican church before a Catholic ceremony could be conducted. In my A Touch of Honor, Lord and Lady Swenton are first married in a Catholic church, but they spoke their vows in Ireland, rather than in England. When they returned to Yorkshire, they were remarried in the Protestant church. Likewise, I had a Protestant/Catholic marriage in The Earl Claims His Comfort. In this one, the Earl and Countess of Remmington follow the rules of marriage of the time, being first married in the Protestant church and then a few days later in the Catholic one. Note that if one did not follow this procedure, he left himself open to fine and public shunning. In both of these books, the husband is Protestant and the wife is Catholic, an easier task that if the husband was Catholic and the wife Protestant. Although all children of the marriage would be expected to be brought up as Protestants, for certain, all the males would be expected to be Protestant. In both my books mentioned above, the husband is Protestant and the wife is Catholic, an easier task to write than if the husband was Catholic and the wife Protestant. Most Protestant families blocked their daughters from marrying a Catholic. [Keep in mind that Catholics were equally prejudiced in this manner when it came to mixed marriages, a fact that plays out in both of my books, for the wives of each peer are cousins.]

As to the peerage, there were several dozen Catholic peers the persecution began, but that number dwindled throughout the 1700s. Recusancy referred to those Catholics in England, Wales, and Ireland who refused to attend Anglican services. Specifically, these citizens of the United Kingdom were known as Recusants, referring to those who remained loyal to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church and who did not attend the Anglican services provided by the Church of England. [Magee, Brian (1938). The English Recusants: A Study of the Post-Reformation Catholic Survival and the Operation of the Recusancy Laws. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne.]

The Act Against Recusants 1593, read in part: “For the better discovering and avoiding of all such traitorous and most dangerous conspiracies and attempts as are daily devised and practised against our most gracious sovereign lady the queen’s majesty and the happy estate of this commonweal, by sundry wicked and seditious persons, who, terming themselves Catholics, and being indeed spies and intelligencers, not only for her majesty’s foreign enemies, but also for rebellious and traitorous subjects born within her highness’s realms and dominions, and hiding their most detestable and devilish purposes under a false pretext of religion and conscience, do secretly wander and shift from place to place within this realm, to corrupt and seduce her majesty’s subjects, and to stir them to sedition and rebellion… 

“And be it also enacted by the authority aforesaid, that every person above the age of sixteen years, born within any her majesty’s realms or dominions, not having any certain place of dwelling and abode within this realm, and being a popish recusant, not usually repairing to some church, chapel, or usual place of common prayer, but forbearing the same, contrary to the same laws and statutes in that behalf made, shall within forty days next after the end of this session of Parliament (if they be then within this realm, and not imprisoned, restrained, or stayed as aforesaid, and in such case of absence out of the realm, imprisonment, restraint, or stay, then within twenty days next after they shall return into the realm, and be enlarged of such imprisonment or restraint, and shall be able to travel) repair to the place where such person was born, or where the father or mother of such person shall then be dwelling, and shall not at any time after remove or pass above five miles from thence; upon pain that every person and persons which shall offend against the tenor and intent of this Act in anything before mentioned, shall lose and forfeit all his and their goods and chattels, and shall also forfeit to the queen’s majesty all the lands, tenements, and hereditaments, and all the rents and annuities of every such person so doing or offending, during the life of the same person…

“And if any such offender, which by the tenor and intent of this Act is to be abjured as is aforesaid, shall refuse to make such abjuration as is aforesaid, or after such abjuration made shall not go to such haven, and within such time as is before appointed, and from thence depart out of this realm, according to this present Act, or after such his departure shall return or come again into any her majesty’s realms or dominions, without her majesty’s special licence in that behalf first had and obtained; that then, in every such case, the person so offending shall be adjudged a felon, and shall suffer and lose as in case of felony without benefit of clergy.” A number of English and Welsh Catholics, who were executed in the 16th and 17th centuries were canonized by the Catholic Church as martyrs of the English Reformation. Restrictions against Roman Catholics were not set aside until full Catholic Emancipation in 1829. 

This piece on Recusancy lists prominent historical families in the United Kingdom, both Recusant families and those who converted. (Recusancy

800px-Charles_Howard,_11th_Duke_of_Norfolk_by_Thomas_Gainsborough.jpgDuring the Regency period there were less than a dozen Catholic peers. The most notable was the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke of Norfolk is the premier duke in the peerage of England, and also, as Earl of Arundel, the premier earl. The Duke of Norfolk is, moreover, the Earl Marshal and Hereditary Marshal of England.  The dukes have historically been Catholic. As Earl Marshal, the duke has the duty of organizing state occasions such as the state opening of Parliament. For the last five centuries, save some periods when it was under attainder, both the Dukedom and the Earl-Marshalship have been in the hands of the Howard family. 

The duke is the titular head of the College of Heralds and  has long had ceremonial and other positions in the country. During the times when Catholics could not take part in much that was his hereditary right because he was a practicing Catholic, Norfolk employed a Protestant Vice marshal to handle his duties.  The Duke of Norfolk, at one time, had two dozen or more livings in which he could place Protestant clergymen. He was supposed to turn these over to the Universities to handle the appointment of  clergymen, but he never did that.  He had a Protestant be his mouthpiece, but Norfolk  actually made the appointments.

Lord Petre was another Catholic. Robert Edward Petre, 9th Baron Petre was a member of the English Roman Catholic nobility, a philanthropist and responsible for employing James Paine to design a new Thorndon Hall and a house in Mayfair.  Robert also brought an energetic enthusiasm to his family life and married well. His first wife, whom he married on 19 April 1762, was Anne Howard (29 August 1742 – 15 January 1787), granddaughter to Henry Howard, 6th Duke of Norfolk. When Edward Howard, 9th Duke of Norfolk died without issue, his niece, Anne, became co-heir with his sister Winifred to various baronies. The couple had three children: Robert Edward Petre, 10th Baron Petre, George William Petre, and Anne Catherine Petre. 

“Robert and Anne evidently held themselves aloof from politics and the Court, for at the time of the War of American Independence, when France was threatening to aid the Americans by invading Ireland, Horace Walpole noted that the Roman Catholics professed much loyalty, both in Ireland and England, and Lord and Lady Petre went to Court for the first time. Horace Walpole specially remarks on the visit of George III and Queen Charlotte to Lord Petre at Thorndon Hall, after a review of the troops on Warley Common on 19 October 1779.” (Robert Petre, 9th Baron Petre)

Anne died in 1787, and Robert married again a year later, on 16 January 1788 in London. His second wife was Juliana Barbara Howard was the sister of the future Bernard Howard, 12th Duke of Norfolk. Juliana was 19 years old, 27 years younger than Robert, and, indeed, Robert’s son had himself married her older sister two years previously. Juliana and Lord Petre had three children: Julia Maria Petre, Catherine Anne Petre, and Robert Edward Petre. 


George Romney (English, 1734–1802), Robert, 9th Baron Petre, Demonstrating the Use of an Écorché Figure to His Son, Robert Edward c. 1775 – 1776, 76 x 63.2 cm, Oil on canvas, Levy Bequest Purchase, Collection of McMaster Museum of Art, McMaster University ~ public domain ~ via Wikipedia

“Robert was a leading figure in the movement for Catholic emancipation, for example Dr. Alexander Geddes, protégé of Robert, was a Catholic theologian, writer and scholar who was an honorary graduate of the University of Aberdeen and an early Roman Catholic pioneer of biblical criticism and originator of the “fragment hypothesis” of the composition of the Pentateuch. Between the accession of ElizabethI and the early years of George I, thirty separate statutes that either forbade Roman Catholics the practice of their religion or deprived them of their rights and freedoms had been enacted. It is true that, by this time, the emphasis had changed; Roman Catholics could at least adhere to their beliefs and even worship discreetly without undue risk to their life or liberty but the legislation, particularly to exclude them from any public office or profession, was still in place and Roman Catholics remained effectively second class citizens. How it was that at least some ‘treacherous’ Roman Catholics were left relatively unmolested by the draconian legislation laid against them cannot be considered in detail here but the Petre family was not unique in this respect. In fact Mark Bence-Jones, in his recent book The Catholic Families, even goes so far as to suggest that the effects of the Penal Laws were not entirely disadvantageous to Roman Catholic gentry. Barred as they were from all public office, they were at least spared the risks associated with such ambitions – the heavy cost of ‘electioneering expenses’ (or, bluntly, bribes) and the dire consequences of a fall from favour – and could concentrate their energies on the management of their estates, which accordingly prospered.

“The principal factor, however, which, over the years, helped to protect some Roman Catholic families from the worst effects of the legislation was the simple matter of the personal loyalty and support extended to them by their local community, even by those who might particularly have been expected to point an accusing finger. Indeed, in some places under the patronage of Roman Catholic gentry, there had been an increase in the number of their co-religionists; in the 27 parishes between Brentwood and Chelmsford that were under the aegis of the Petre and the Roman Catholic Wrights of Kelvedon Hall, the population of Roman Catholics rose from 106 in 1625 to 202 in 1706. Even among the common people, loyalty to Rome was not entirely extinct; a national census of 1767 identifies, out of a total population of seven to eight million, 67,916 Roman Catholics, and there is good reason to suppose that this was a considerable underestimate.

“Many did defect, of course, but, at the time of the first Relief Act (1778), there were still eight peers, nineteen baronets and 150 gentlemen of substantial property who remained Roman Catholics. In 1766, Thomas Newman, the Vicar of West Horndon, in whose parish Thorndon Hall lay, was required by the Bishop of London to respond to a questionnaire on the number of Roman Catholics in his parish. He reported:

from the best advice I can collect there are about fifty persons who are reputed to be Papists; Ld. Petre is supposed to be of that persuasion.

“The truth of the matter was that Thorndon Hall contained a private chapel consecrated by Robert’s cousin, Bishop Benjamin Petre in 1739, and the Visitation of Essex conducted by the Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Challoner in 1754 discovered a congregation of 260 there: indeed, in that year alone, 41 had received the sacrament of Confirmation.

“The most practical contribution that Robert made to the cause of Catholic Emancipation  was his chairmanship of the two successive committees of Roman Catholic laymen formed to lobby government and negotiate means by which the disabilities enshrined in the Penal Laws might be swept away. It fell to Robert to take the role as senior Roman Catholic layman in this way since, of the two Roman Catholic noblemen who outranked him, Charles Howard, 10th Duke of Norfolk was a scholarly recluse who rarely left his garden at Greystoke Castle in Cumberland and the 14th Earl of Shrewsbury also had no taste for public life – even though two of the four Apostolic Vicars, who administered the Church in England were his brothers. It would nevertheless have been a disappointment to Robert that he did not live to see more far-reaching emancipation for Roman Catholics. The trend towards it had become irreversible but it was still a long time coming. It was over a quarter of a century later that the Emancipation Act of 1829 removed the bulk of the restrictions that continued to beset Roman Catholics. Even then, some survived. It was only in 1974 that it was formally enacted that a Roman Catholic may hold the office of Lord Chancellor and, to this day, it is only Roman Catholics who are barred, on religious grounds, from ascending the Throne.” (Robert Petre, 9th Baron Petre)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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