|Today Britain's rich mix of ethnic groups with
its numerous religious minorities can worship in relative freedom.
Such tolerance has not always existed. The Jews were temporarily
expelled from this country in 1273, and in the late 14th and
early 15th centuries the English Crown took a harsh line with
the Lollards, who questioned the
practices and beliefs of the Catholic church.
The Act of Supremacy,1534
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|Throughout the Middle Ages England, Scotland,
Wales and Ireland had owed allegiance to the Pope as head of
the Catholic church; then during the Reformation
Henry VIII broke with Rome, becoming head of the Church of England.
The Act of Supremacy (1534) and Elizabeth I's Act of Uniformity
(1559) meant that the remaining Catholics in England and Wales
(now in a minority) came to be persecuted and lost significant
rights. In Scotland, the Reformation led to the establishment
of a Protestant church run on Presbyterian lines.
The rise of nonconformity
The 17th century witnessed the emergence of a number of 'nonconformist'
congregations, consisting of Protestants who did not conform
to the practices and discipline of the established Church
of England. By 1700 the four main nonconformist denominations
- Presbyterians, Independents (Congregationalists), Baptists
and Quakers (the Society of Friends) - were attracting large
numbers. For the next three centuries, they were to play an
important part in the life of the country, adding enormously
to its cultural and social activities.
Rooting out nonconformist sects
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|Meanwhile, plots against James I - including the
Plot in 1605 - resulted in further discrimination against
Catholics. In 1609 a statute required candidates for British
citizenship to take the sacrament according the Anglican rite.
This was designed to prevent the admission of foreign Catholics,
but also deterred many Jews from becoming British subjects.
The Declaration of Breda and after
During the Civil War, most Catholics avoided taking sides,
though many rich Catholic gentry did follow the king. Cromwell's
period of republican rule provided a more favourable climate
for religious toleration, and in 1657 Jews were allowed to
resettle. Charles II's Restoration in 1660 resulted in the
Declaration of Breda, which promised freedom of conscience
for differences of opinion in matters of religion so long
as they did not disrupt the kingdom. It was, however, followed
by a series of measures known as the Clarendon Code
which severely limited the rights of Catholics and nonconformists,
effectively excluding them from national and local politics.
By 1662 thousands of nonconformists were in prison. In Scotland,
the whole Presbyterian system, in spite of English opposition,
Quaker persecution, 1664
|In 1673 Parliament repudiated the Declaration
of Breda and passed the 1672 and 1678 Test Acts requiring holders
of public office to receive the sacrament, to take the oath
of supremacy (recognising the sovereign as supreme governor
of the Church of England), and to make a declaration against
transubstantiation (a belief held by Catholics concerning the
sacrament). The part of the Acts discriminating against nonconformists
who failed to take the sacrament was not repealed until 1828,
and it was only in the following year that Catholics were again
permitted to enter Parliament and hold municipal, judicial and
|The so-called Toleration
Act of 1689 mitigated the religious (but none of the political)
disabilities of some of the nonconformists, while ignoring Catholics,
Jews, Unitarians and atheists. Nonconformists still could not
attend Oxford and Cambridge universities - a restriction not
lifted until the 19th century.
Papist returns, 1767
The Gordon Riots, 1780
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No longer a crime
The involvement of Catholics in the 1715 Jacobite
risings resulted in Catholics having to register their names
and estates. There was also some sporadic violence against
Catholics after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion; and the passing
of the first Catholic Relief Act in 1778 led to the Gordon
Riots (1780), in which a number
of Catholic chapels were destroyed. Nevertheless, by 1780
there were 80,000 Catholics in England, and the 1778 and 1791
Catholic Relief Acts resulted in many of the disabilities
against Catholics being removed.
|The number of nonconformists had meanwhile continued
to grow, and their legal position was now much more secure.
Eventually, in 1767, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice,
decided that nonconformity was no longer a crime. The 18th century
also saw the emergence of Methodism - a new movement within
the Anglican church that was to become a popular denomination
in its own right - and in 1753 the Naturalisation Act permitted
Jewish immigrants to be naturalised.
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