Catholics and nonconformists

Between 1685 and 1688 Catholics enjoyed a brief period of religious freedom under the Catholic Stuart king, James II.

Catholics outlawed

The removal of James II by the protestant William of Orange in 1688 – the Glorious Revolution – changed matters. The resumption of war with Catholic France in the 1690s meant that British Catholics became victims of the feelings of hatred and suspicion harboured by their fellow countrymen.

In the Bill of Rights of 1689 Parliament declared that no future monarch could be a Catholic or be married to a Catholic. This provision was reaffirmed in the 1701 Act of Settlement and remains in force to this day.

From the mid-1690s the annual Land Tax Acts required Catholics to pay double the tax remitted by everyone else.  

In 1699 Parliament passed new laws with more penalties against those who refused to take the oaths of loyalty to the King and make declarations against Catholicism.  

Toleration for nonconformists

Circumstances were very different for nonconformists. The new king, William III, and his leading ministers were anxious to acknowledge nonconformist unity with the Church in its recent religious struggles with James II. 

In 1689, after much debate, Parliament passed the Toleration Act "to unite their Majesties Protestant subjects in interest and affection". It allowed most dissenters – though not all – the freedom to worship publicly, provided they took a simplified version of the oath of allegiance.

Although dissenters remained under other restrictions, the Toleration Act marked the beginning of a lengthy process towards conceding full civil rights to people outside the Anglican Church. 

Between 1691 and 1710 some 2,536 dissenting places of worship were licensed.  

In Scotland, the Presbyterian Church also received King William’s recognition as the country's official church. This vital concession - for which the Scots had long fought and struggled - was later embodied in the Act of Union which joined England and Scotland together in 1707.

Also within Living Heritage

Biographies

You can access biographies of

James II
William III

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.