How do I find my Roman Catholic ancestors?


22 January 2019
default-49204.jpg How to find your Roman Catholic ancestors
Do you have Roman Catholic ancestors in your family tree? If so, you can find records in the most surprising of places, as Stuart A Raymond explains in his guide to Roman Catholic family history resources.

Do you have Roman Catholic ancestors in your family tree? If so, you can find records in the most surprising of places, as Stuart A Raymond explains in his guide to Roman Catholic family history resources.

Did you realise that you have Roman Catholic ancestors? Until the mid-sixteenth century, it was assumed that all subjects of the Crown were of that faith. So if your family were in England before then, they were, at least officially, Roman Catholics.

After the Reformation, of course, England turned protestant, and the numbers who adhered to the old faith declined rapidly over the next couple of centuries; indeed, Catholicism almost died out in many parts of the country. The troubles of Ireland, however, saved the day. The Irish were Catholics, and when they began to migrate to England in large numbers (especially during the Famine years of the 1840s) the numbers of Catholics soared dramatically. Today, the Roman Catholic Church is one of the largest Christian denominations in England.

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Persecuted ancestors

The rapid decline after the Reformation was, of course, largely the result of persecution. Most of the surviving evidence for Elizabethan and Stuart ‘Papists’ is found amongst the paperwork which the government created to keep track of these ‘heretics’. If your ancestors were persecuted, you may be able to find much detail amongst that paperwork. Heavy fines for failure to attend church were imposed at Quarter Sessions, and recorded in its minutes and order books. These fines were then reported to central government, and recorded again in its ‘recusant rolls’ [recusant = one who refuses to attend church].

These annual rolls (1581-1691), now in the National Archives, provide extensive details of the estates of recusants, sometimes mentioning their relatives. A few have been published by the Catholic Record Society. Other records from the penal period include various surveys of recusants, the registers of papists’ estate compiled after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, tax lists which record the double taxation of recusants, and a variety of other records.

On the Catholic side, most surviving evidence from the penal period comes from the continent. Catholic education was banned in England, with the consequence that many sought their education overseas. Continental seminaries and colleges, such as those in Douai, Rome, Seville, and Valladolid, provided the education that sustained English Catholics, and provided their priests, for two centuries. Many registers of students in these institutions have been published by the Catholic Record Society.

Post eighteenth-century records

At the end of the eighteenth century, as persecution eased in England, the French Revolution meant the expulsion of these institutions and their pupils from the continent. Many returned to England; their successors can still be found at places such as Downside Abbey and Ampleforth Abbey. Half a century after their return, in 1850, the denomination’s heirarchy was restored, and a diocesan structure recreated. 

The lessening of persecution during the late eighteenth century meant that Roman Catholics began to be able to safely keep their own records. Many registers of their baptisms, marriages and burials survive, especially after c.1800. Sometimes these record much more than just vital events. Nevertheless, Anglican registers should still be consulted.

Between 1753 and 1837 marriages conducted by Catholic priests were illegal. In this period, Catholics were forced to undergo an Anglican marriage if they wanted to ensure that their offspring were accepted as legitimate. Catholic chapels before the mid-nineteenth century rarely had their own burial grounds, so Catholic burials frequently had to be made in Anglican parish churchyards.

Catholic registers

A variety of registers have been published by the Catholic Record Society. Far more can be found in Catholic archives. These are listed in Michael Gandy’s Catholic Missions and Registers (6 vols + atlas vol. 1993). Diocesan archives also include a variety of other sources, especially where they include parish archives. The latter might include lists of communicants, conversions, and confirmations, together with records of pew rents, and obits (lists of the dead to be prayed for).

Early status animarum (priests’ reports to their bishops on the state of congregations), may include useful personal details. There may also be reports on the state of dioceses, diocesan censuses, bishops papers, and a whole range of other documentation.

Most Catholic dioceses now have their own archive centres, many of which (although not all) hold original registers. Some of these centres, together with the archives of some monastic orders, are listed in the Archives Directory of the Catholic Archives Society. Catholic Archives, the journal of this society, includes numerous descriptions of these archives. Most issues can be read online here.

The range of documentation held by some of these institutions is astonishing, although they are not well known to the general public. Many are run by volunteers, and opening may therefore be restrictive. But it is well worth while finding out what material they held. Before I started to research Catholic genealogical sources, I thought I was reasonably familiar with most institutions likely to hold such material. But how wrong I was! On visiting the library at Downside Abbey (only 15 miles from home), I was astonished to find an institution whose printed holdings are on a par with many small university libraries, and whose manuscripts included a fairly extensive file on the Mission at Stourton which I was then researching. I shall be returning, not just for Roman Catholic material, but also to use their extensive collection on English history in general. Downside is not unique; there are many other Catholic monasteries, some of which probably have equally extensive libraries. 

There are also many other sources of information on sources for Roman Catholic genealogy. If you have an interest in this topic, much helpful guidance and advice is available by joining the Catholic Family History Society. A much more detailed description of sources is provided by my Tracing your Roman Catholic Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2018). This is the first time that these sources have been comprehensively surveyed, and I hope that ***

Tracing your Roman Catholic Ancestors

Stuart A Raymond is the author of Tracing Your Roman Catholic Ancestors, published by Pen & Sword at £14.99.

This handbook opens up the history of the Roman Catholic Church for researchers who want to gain an understanding of the religious lives of their ancestors and for those who have a wider interest in the history of religion.

Image copyright Wellcome Collection


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