Anti-Catholicism in the British Empire

In 1688, the British Parliament and powerful nobles overthrew James II in what they called the “Glorious Revolution.” They invited James’s Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William to be Britain’s new rulers. James, his second wife, and their infant son retreated to Europe. For decades the deposed king, his son, and his grandsons tried to regain the British throne, with intermittent support of France, Spain, and the papacy.

In the Act of Settlement of 1701, Parliament decided that the crown would bypass the Catholic Stuart family and instead go to a German prince called the Elector of Hanover, who had a Stuart ancestor. The new king George I arrived in England in 1714. He never learned to speak English, but he was a Protestant. Even today, no one who is Catholic or married to a Catholic can legally inherit the British throne.

In the same years, a series of laws limited ordinary Catholics’ rights in the British Empire. Under the Test Acts, no Catholics could hold office. For most of the eighteenth century, British law did not allow Catholics to own property, inherit land, or join the army; these restrictions began to be repealed in 1778, and even then people rioted against the change.

Thus, by the mid-1700s Parliament had basically defined being anti-Catholic as part of being British. Most of the king’s subjects, including most colonists in the New World, perceived anti-Catholic actions as an expression of patriotism.

Image source: Woodcut of king from Minuteman Printshop clip art collection, Walden Font Company.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.