Roman Catholic

In 1559 Elizabeth I, completing the process begun by Henry VII, removed all influence from the Roman Catholic Church.  This was because she wanted to secure her own position and it was therefore made illegal to celebrate Catholic Mass in England and Wales.  

This continued to be the case until the Catholic Relief Act, also known as the Papists Act, came into force in 1778. Following the establishment of these Acts, a Catholic chapel could then be registered as a place of worship and registers then kept.

If you wish to trace your Catholic ancestors, you may find it difficult as records from this period are fragmentary and incomplete.  Your ancestors may have worshipped in Anglican Churches, but many did not want to worship in an Anglican Church, or were not allowed to. 

Few registers from ceremonies were kept because of the concern about them being discovered. It was also not uncommon for private homes to become unofficial chapels.  Men trained as priests on the continent before returning to England in an attempt to reconvert England back to Catholicism.

The number of Catholics increased substantially in Britain in the late 18th century because of people fleeing the French Revolution.

Because some Catholics may have been baptised, married and buried in Anglican Churches, they will appear in Parish Registers.  The priest entered the word papist or recusant by the entry in the register.  Catholics were often buried in the parish churchyard.

Secret ceremonies and lost registers

Many Catholic priests conducted baptism or marriage ceremonies in secret.  Although registers of Catholic baptisms and marriages had to be kept from 1563, by orders from the Catholic Church, very few of these registers have survived.  Priests were concerned that had they kept registers, they may have fallen into the wrong hands. 

Another reason some registers have been lost is because priests kept them with their personal papers, which could also have been lost over the years.

Catholicism's surge in poularity during the 19th century

During the 19th Century, there was a surge in popularity for Catholicism because the Anti-Catholic legislation had been repealed and also because of the mass Irish migration in the 1840's, partly because of the Irish Potato Famine that began in 1845 and lasted for the next six years.

In the meantime, the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 enabled Catholics to become Members of Parliament. Catholic cemeteries were established in the 19th century.

The population of Liverpool temporarily doubled in 1847 to 592,000 due to Irish migration.  There were around 80,000 Irish living in Liverpool as shown by the 1841 Census, but by the time of the 1851 Census, that figure had grown to 84,000.


A Catholic was often prosecuted for not attending the local Parish Church, so you should look for any possible Catholic ancestors you may have in quarter sessions. Any such prosecution may have been mentioned in a newspaper, so it is worth checking newspapers in your local library or Record Office.

Catholicism was almost completely rooted out in some parts of England and Wales, but maintained deep roots in Lancashire, and also in parts of Durham, North Yorkshire, Northumberland, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Monmouth.

Roman Catholics' emigration

Some Catholics decided to move abroad to escape persecution, and young women sometimes became Nuns in France and the Netherlands.

English, Welsh and Irish Catholics were still able to be educated in their faith as Schools were established by these orders.

Many of these institutions returned to England in the 1790's and still survive today.

Catholic Marriage Index

A Catholic Marriage Index containing records of marriages from 1837-1880 is available at the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS).