How to look for records of... Catholics

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Until 1534, England was a Catholic country. Then, after years of upheaval, the 1559 Act of Supremacy made the Protestant Church of England the established church. Following this act there was a significant increase in the number of state records created documenting Catholics’ status and activities, subject as they were to new laws, taxes and a wave of persecution. The primary focus of this guide is on those records, especially from the 16th and 17th centuries, and how to find them at The National Archives. They include:

  • records of penalties and punishments
  • details of arrests
  • letters from private citizens and spies sent to the authorities
  • reports on Catholics sent by ecclesiastical and civil authorities
  • baptism, marriage and burial registers

By the 18th century Catholics were no longer persecuted, but were still effectively barred from entering the professions, holding civil or military office, or inheriting land. Formal emancipation finally came in 1829 and state records relating to Catholics exists in smaller numbers from this date onwards.

Like all churches, Catholic churches kept their own records, though very few of these, in common with most local or parish church records, have found their way into The National Archives.

2. Catholic baptism, marriage and burial registers

Very few catholic birth, marriage and death registers are kept at The National Archives. They were collected together when the Registrar General called in the non-parochial registers in 1837 and 1857, part of the process of establishing the new system of civil registration. There are 77 in total, held in record series RG 4, and they originate from the following counties:

Cumberland 1 Hampshire 1 Northumberland 10 Warwickshire 1
Dorset 1 Lancashire 1 Nottinghamshire 1 Westmoreland 1
Durham 13 Lincolnshire 2 Oxfordshire 1 Yorkshire 44

Most of these are baptism registers. Search the registers by name at BMD Registers,  one of our partner websites.

Perhaps so few catholic registers were surrendered because they contained records of illegal marriages; between 1754 and 1837, under the terms of Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, it was a legal requirement to marry in the Church of England. Most of those that were handed over came from Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland.

Find a list of all the catholic registers we hold using an advanced search of our catalogue, searching with ‘catholic’ and restricting the search to record series RG4. For more on catholic registers see section 4.

3. Catholic recusants

The 1559 Act of Uniformity imposed fines on all men who refused to attend Church of England services at their parish church and these people were known as recusants. Holders of public office and many others were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Sovereign as head of the Church and records were kept of people who did and didn’t take these Oaths of Allegiance. Catholics could not accept the monarch as head of the Church, and so could not be loyal subjects in the eyes of the law.

Subsequent laws imposed numerous penalties and fines for non-attendance at Church of England services, for which there are equally numerous records, and catholics were effectively barred from inheriting land, entering the professions or taking up civil or military office. These punishments were not always strictly enforced and there was considerable variation according to time and place but the records of their issue, collection and enforcement provide a rich source of information on catholics during this period.

3.1 Catholic recusants in state papers

Within the records originally assembled by the State Paper Office (department code SP), one of the richest sources of information on catholics during the 17th  and 18th centuries, there are numerous details of and references to catholics. These include reports sent by ecclesiastical and civil authorities, letters from private citizens and spies as well as details of arrests and prosecutions.

3.2 Catholic recusants in other records

Details of catholic recusants can also be found in records relating to the imposition of fines or seizures of land for failure to attend Church of England services. The fines laid down in the 1559 Act of Uniformity for failure to attend church were collected by churchwardens and so do not appear in the central government records. After 1581, recusancy became an indictable offence, so fines levied were accounted for at the Exchequer (department code E) by sheriffs of each county. There are records of catholics who took the Oath of Allegiance, as well as of some who didn’t.

3.3 Searching the records

Searching online indexes by the name of an individual is either impossible or very problematic with records detailing catholic recusants. State papers (searchable under department code SP) are generally indexed by subject matter in our catalogue. However, not all documents in this department have a catalogue description and therefore some are unsearchable. Details of how best to search state papers, along with the other relevant record departments and series, are found in the following table.

Principal subjects covered relating to catholic recusants Record department/ series Main dates covered How to search the index to this series online Other search resources
Surveillance and scrutiny of catholic activities and movements; reports of catholic attitudes and opinions SP c.1600–1782 Search by keyword on the State Papers Online website (£) (institutional subscription required) or by using one or more of the following terms in our catalogue: catholic; recusant; papist; popish; romish; nonjuror The Calendars of State Papers (each calendar has a subject index). See ‘Further reading’ below
Catholic recusants in Dorset PRO 30/24 c.1580–c.1680 Search using one or more of the following terms in our catalogue: recusant; popish
Catholic recusants in Lancaster KB 18 1714 This series cannot be searched online. Order the original document at The National Archives at Kew
Catholics who took the Oath of Allegiance; petitions from catholics on various matters PC 1 c.1700–c.1800 Search using one or more of the following terms in our catalogue: catholic; recusant; papist
Fines, taxes, seizures and registrations of lands and estates, and other revenues received from recusants; oaths of allegiance from catholics E 1581–c.1870 Search by county (including abbreviations of) in our catalogue or using the following terms: catholic; recusant; papist; popish; nonjuror
Seizure of recusants’ lands and estates FEC 1FEC 2 1552–1744 Search by county or town in our catalogue or using the following terms: papist; popish; recusant
Revenues received from recusants AO 1627–1655 Search using the following terms in our catalogue: popish; recusant

4. Records in other archives

Specifically catholic records are relatively few in number compared to many protestant denominations in England and the UK. The number of catholics themselves in England dwindled following the Act of Uniformity, and remained low from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Furthermore, between 1754 and 1837 it was a legal requirement to marry in the Church of England and though many Catholics were still married illegally according to catholic rites, registers for these illegal marriages were not generally kept since it might have been dangerous to do so.

The first new catholic chapels since the Reformation were built in the 18th century and more catholic registers were kept from 1791, but most do not begin until the early to mid-19th century. The earliest records were often kept in small notebooks or even loose sheets, which could easily be concealed or destroyed if necessary. Most surviving registers are for baptisms, and these often give more detail than Church of England registers, but there is considerable variation.

You can search our catalogue to find out what is held at catholic libraries, catholic archives and local records offices. Refine your results using the filters.

4.1 Catholic priests’ mission records

Until 1918, the catholic church was based on missions rather than geographical parishes; as a result some priests seem to have treated the registers as their private or personal property and many registers moved around with their keepers. Events from different places may therefore be entered in a single register. Many of these personal registers are in the custody of Archbishop’s House, Westminster. There is a list of these in ‘Sources for Roman catholic and Jewish Genealogy and Family History’ in the National Index of Parish Registers series. Others can be found at the catholic National Library which is part of Durham University Library.

4.2 Catholic parish records

The majority of catholic registers remain in the custody of parish priests, although a number have been transcribed and indexed by the Catholic Record Society. Many of these transcripts have been deposited at the Catholic National Library, and some are available at the library of the Society of Genealogists. Those that have been published are listed in the National Index of Parish Registers but a more comprehensive and up to date listing is contained in the six volumes of Michael Gandy’s Catholic Missions and Registers. Names and addresses of parish priests and diocesan archives are in the Catholic Directory, managed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The Catholic Archives Society website is also a useful source of information.

Some Catholic registers from local archives have been digitised and indexed. Search among the:

  • Registers from Southwark Archdiocese, Diocese of Plymouth, Birmingham, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Westminster at (£)

4.3 Church of England records

Although catholic registers may be relatively few in number, many Catholics appear in Church of England registers. Marriages between 1754 and 1837 had to be in the Church of England to be legally valid (even if the parties were also married according to catholic rites) and burials of Catholics might be in the Church of England parish churchyard, as there was often no other burial ground in the area. Catholic children might appear in the parish baptism registers, and they are not always identified as Catholics. Church of England clergy were required to supply lists of recusants in their parishes and as a result, the names of Catholics may appear in Church of England parish records, though not in the baptism, marriage or burial registers.

4.4 Catholic school records

Admission and discharge records for maintained schools, including many catholic schools, are held in county record offices. Many have been digitised and indexed an can be viewed online at (£) or at (£).

5. Further reading

Visit the National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications useful for tracing your ancestors by their religion.

M Gandy, ‘Catholic parishes in England, Wales and Scotland: an atlas‘ (M Gandy, 1993)

M Gandy, ‘Catholic Missions and Registers 1700–1880‘ (six volumes) (M Gandy, 1998)

M Gandy, ‘Tracing Catholics ancestors‘ (PRO, 2001)

D Shorney, ‘Protestant Non-conformity and Roman Catholicism: a guide to sources in the Public Record Office‘ (PRO, 1996)

D J Steel, ‘Sources for Roman Catholic and Jewish Genealogy and Family History‘ (Society of Genealogists by Phillimore, 1974)

See also the multiple volumes of ‘Calendar of State Papers, Domestic’ published by various publishers including PRO.