Persecution

Strict uniformity of religious worship among the people was a vital political priority during the 17th century. Those who did not support the Church were seen by monarchs and their advisers as a threat to the state and the social order.

Striving for uniformity

After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 Parliament passed a series of oppressive measures adding to the restrictions imposed on Catholics during Elizabeth I’s reign. 

Large numbers of laws aimed at enforcing membership of the established Church were passed. But the House of Commons was increasingly made up of extreme Protestants, so there were arguments about what form that Church should take. For example, in 1642, in accordance with instructions from the Speaker of the House of Commons, returns were made to Parliament of those who made the protestation ‘to maintain the true Reformed Protestant Religion’, which was in fact a veiled attack on the King’s Anglicanism. Ultimately religious conflict within Parliament led to the English Civil War.

Religion under Cromwell

During the period of republican rule between 1649 and 1660 Parliament completed the work begun during the Civil War years of dismantling the official Church. 

A Presbyterian Church was established in its place, governed by non-hierarchical assemblies - or presbyteries - of clergy and lay elders, rather than by bishops and a supreme head.

Emphasis in worship was placed on preaching from the Bible rather than the set prayer book. In the 1640s the celebration of Christmas and other holy days was restricted.

A restored Church

After the return of Charles II, the Church of England was fully restored, and in 1662 Parliament authorised a revised Prayer Book. 

Re-imposing Anglican uniformity was, however, by now hopelessly complicated by the growth of other religious sects or groups which had thrived without hindrance under Cromwellian rule. 

Penal laws

Post-restoration Parliaments  nevertheless chose firmly to defend the established Church. During the 1660s and 1670s a series of penal laws were enacted which persecuted both Catholics and members of the various nonconformist groups. 

Enforcement of these laws unleashed a period of violent religious disturbance and hatred across England, Scotland and Wales.

Under the Test and Corporation Acts, holders of public office - including peers and MPs - schoolmasters, clergy, students of Oxford and Cambridge, members of local corporations and others, all had to swear an oath upholding the position of the King as head of the Church of England.

Those who did not risked losing most of their civil rights. Attending Catholic worship or nonconformist religious meetings was declared illegal and punishable by fine or imprisonment. 

Also within Living Heritage

Biographies

You can access biographies of

Elizabeth I
Oliver Cromwell
Charles I
Charles II

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.