Penal law

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This article is about penal law as understood in the English law system. For a more general article, see criminal law.

In English history, penal law refers to a specific series of laws that sought to uphold the establishment of the Church of England against Protestant nonconformists and Catholicism, by imposing various forfeitures, civil penalties, and civil disabilities upon these dissenters. The penal laws in general were repealed in the 19th century during the process of Catholic Emancipation.

Clarendon Code[edit]

While some of the Penal Laws were much older, they took their most drastic shape during the reign of Charles II, especially the laws known as the Clarendon Code and the Test Act.

The four penal laws collectively known as Clarendon Code are named after Charles II's chief minister Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, though Clarendon was neither their author nor fully in favour of them.[1] These included:

  • the Corporation Act (1661) required all municipal officials to take Anglican communion, and formally reject the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643. The effect of this act was to exclude nonconformists from public office. This legislation was rescinded in 1828.
  • the Act of Uniformity (1662) made use of the Book of Common Prayer compulsory in religious service. Over two thousand clergy refused to comply and so were forced to resign their livings (the Great Ejection). The provisions of the act were modified by the Act of Uniformity Amendment Act, of 1872.
  • the Conventicle Act (1664) forbade conventicles (a meeting for unauthorized worship) of more than five people who were not members of the same household. The purpose was to prevent dissenting religious groups from meeting.
  • the Five Mile Act (1665) forbade nonconformist ministers from coming within five miles of incorporated towns or the place of their former livings. They were also forbidden to teach in schools. Most of the Act's effects were repealed by 1689, but it was not formally abolished until 1812.

Combined with the Test Act, the Corporation Act excluded all nonconformists from holding civil or military office, and prevented them from being awarded degrees by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

Further penal laws in Great Britain[edit]

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, many non-conformist Protestants successfully evaded the political disabilities imposed by the Test Act by taking communion in the Church of England as required, while otherwise attending non-conformist meetings. High churchmen and Tories, empowered late in Queen Anne's reign, sought to close this loophole with the passing of the Occasional Conformity Bill in 1711, however the Act was repealed after the Hanoverian Succession with the return to power of the Whigs, who were generally allied with non-conforming Protestants. In the wake of the Jacobite Rising of 1715, the British parliament also passed the Disarming Act of 1716.

Penal laws in Ireland[edit]

Main article: Penal Laws (Ireland)

The Penal Laws were introduced into Ireland in the year 1695, disenfranchising nonconformists in favour of the minority established Church of Ireland. Though the laws also affected adherents of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (who were concentrated in Ulster), their principal victims were members of the Catholic Church, meaning over three quarters of the population. These laws included:

The laws were eventually repealed largely due to Irish political agitation organised under Daniel O'Connell in the 1820s, but effects of the laws in terms of sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants can still be seen, particularly in Northern Ireland, today.

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