‘Recusant’, ‘recusance’ or ‘recusancy’ are words that will crop up in European history constantly in the period covered by the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were the people (mostly in Britain) who refused to attend Anglican services at their local church. They were almost predominantly Roman Catholics.
In both country and urban districts they would be fined for their anarchistic attitude by the local authorities, fines imposed by the acts of Uniformity (1552 and 1559). Non-conformists within the new Protestant form of the Christian religion could also be fined, but the terms ‘Catholic Recusants’ or, more rudely, ‘Church Papists’ were confined to RCs. As time went by after the Reformation (q.v.) the latter term was applied to Catholics who actually attended Anglican services in order to avoid paying the fines.
Recusancy was strongest in the West Country and the eastern parts of the North Country. How dedicated it was depended often on the wealth of the Roman Catholic family choosing to avoid the new Laws. Owners of large old houses would convert secret hiding places within the house or its walls into what were called, un-romantically enough – ‘Priest Holes’. Here a Catholic priest often had to exist for years, fed and clothed by the family, only venturing out to say Mass. There are priest holes in most if not all of the very old houses open to the public in the West Country, and visitors are encouraged to see them. The reasons for such secrecy and discomfort are many, but the main one is the safety of the priest himself, as many embracing the new Protestantism liked nothing better than a well-stoked, smoky priest-burning in the town square. It is only fair to point out that especially in the 17th century Catholic monarchs also encouraged the killing of Protestant dissenters. Protestants, or Huguenots as they were called in France, were often the subject of mass assassination, as in ‘The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve’ (1572).
Penal laws against Catholics in Britain were extended between 1571 and 1610, and their enforcement was mild or harsh according to the religious stance of the local authorities. Catholic emancipation came at last with a series of Toleration Acts in the late seventeenth century, but the Test Acts limited the holding of public office to communicant Anglicans.
The 1829 Act removed most or all civil restrictions, and the only one that survived to the present day, shamefully enough, states that no British Monarch may be a Roman Catholic, and that no Heir to the throne may marry a Roman Catholic.