In the history of England and Wales, recusancy was the state of those who refused to attend Anglican services. The individuals were known as "recusants". The term, which derives ultimately from the Latin recusare (to refuse or make an objection), was first used to refer to those who remained within the Roman Catholic Church and did not attend services of the Church of England, with a 1593 statute determining the penalties against "Popish recusants".
Distribution of English Recusant Catholics, 1715-1720
This image is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License
The "Recusancy Acts", which began during the reign of Elizabeth I and which were repealed in 1650, imposed a number of punishments on those who did not participate in Anglican religious activity, including fines, property confiscation, and imprisonment. Despite their repeal, restrictions against Roman Catholics were still in place until full Catholic Emancipation in 1829. In some cases those adhering to Catholicism faced capital punishment, and a number of English and Welsh Catholics executed in the 16th and 17th centuries have been canonised by the Catholic Church as Christian Martyrs.
Elizabeth I's government had passed a number of anti-Catholic decrees in 1571, including the following: forbidding anyone from maintaining the jurisdiction of the pope by word, deed or act; compulsory use of the Book of Common Prayer in all cathedrals, churches and chapels, as well as the forbiddance of criticism of it; forbidding the publication of any bull, writing or instrument of the Holy See (the death penalty was assigned to this); the importing of Agnus Dei images, crosses, pictures, beads or other things from the Bishop of Rome was forbidden. Later laws: to draw anyone away from the state religion was forbidden; non-attendance at a Church of England church was legally forbidden; raising children with teachers that were not licensed by an Anglican diocesan bishop was not allowed; the Catholic Mass was forbidden.
Catholic lay women such as Saint Margaret Ward helped to keep the Catholic Faith alive in England by risking their lives to assist the hunted Catholic priests or provide secret Masses and devotions. St. Margaret Ward was a young woman who planned the escape of a priest from Bridewell prison and when she was caught she was tortured for many days and eventually executed by order of Queen Elizabeth I for refusing to attend the Anglican services or deny the Catholic Faith.
Elizabethan layman St. Swithun Wells provided a secret room at the top of his house in Gray's Inn Lane, London where he organised for the illegal Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to be offered by missionary priests. He sheltered priest Martyrs such as St. Eustace White, St. Polydore Plasden and St. Edmund Gennings, the latter of whom was hanged with him outside his home by the infamous priest-hunter Richard Topcliffe.
Saint Richard Gwyn, a Welsh schoolmaster with a love for folklore, the Welsh Bards, history and his family converted to the Catholic Faith during the Elizabethan persecutions in Wales He was hunted for over a year and finally arrested and tried for Treason. His arguments, defence and his Catholic devotions are recognised as important to Catholic history especially in Great Britain.
The Martyrs of England and Wales are especially loved by British Catholics and American Catholics. An easy way to learn about the accounts of their lives, their historical settings, words, prayers and heroic witnesses is through film on DVD as well as the few writings/pamphlets available on them.
Films of recusant Catholic Martyrs such as
St. Anne Line
St. Margaret Ward
St. Richard Gwyn
St. Margaret Ward
St. Philip Howard
and other English Martyrs and Saints are available on DVD through www.marysdowryproductions.org/shop/
Among the recusants were some high profile aristocratic supporters, such as the Howards and for a time the Plantagenet descended Beauforts, amongst others.