Stuarts: Religion

Early Stuart politics was dominated by fundamentalist religion. Religious differences then proved to be a crucial factor in the slide into civil war in 1642, and it was the prospect of a return to Catholic rule that prompted the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Act of Settlement in 1701.

St Ninian’s Church, Brougham, Cumbria, rebuilt in the 17th century

St Ninian’s Church, Brougham, Cumbria, rebuilt in the 17th century
© Churches Conservation Trust


Most people in the early 17th century were convinced that their own version of Christianity – Catholic or Anglican, Presbyterian, Puritan or Independent – was the only true faith. Only later in the period did some privately admit to being ‘indifferent in religion’.

Throughout the 17th century Roman Catholics were demonised to an extent that is scarcely credible today. Remembering the Armada, and shocked by the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – the plan by a group of Catholic conspirators to blow up king and Parliament – most held that Catholics were subjects of a foreign pope and so must be traitors. The ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678, for example, a supposed Catholic plan to kill Charles II and massacre Protestants, induced widespread hysteria, despite being a complete fabrication.

Priest hole in Boscobel House

This priest hole at Boscobel House, Shropshire, probably served as a hiding place for the future Charles II when he sought refuge at the house in 1651. Priest holes were built in many Catholic houses to help priests and other Catholics escape government persecution.


Both Catholics and Puritans (who wanted a church ‘purified’ of ceremonies and bishops) initially had high expectations of James I, the son of a Catholic queen brought up in Calvinist-Puritan Scotland.

But James preferred his status as head of the established Church of England. Indeed, the translators of the much-revered King James or Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) were ordered to minimise interpretations favourable to Puritanism.

The Jacobean furnishings of Langley Chapel

Langley Chapel, Shropshire, retains its early 17th-century furniture, a rare survival. The presence of a communion table, rather than an altar, reflects the Protestant rejection of belief in transubstantiation which was central to the Catholic Mass.


His successor, Charles I, was the first monarch brought up from birth as a member of the Church of England, and he remained deeply and genuinely devoted to it.

Yet his marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France, and his failure to help beleaguered European Protestants, led many of his subjects to suspect him of popish sympathies. Suspicion was magnified by the policies of his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, whose vestments, ceremonies and conversion of plain Protestant communion tables into ‘Romish altars’ were widely resented. Many Puritans left England, to found new colonies in America.


Charles’s attempts to force Anglicanism on Scotland provoked the so-called Bishops’ Wars in 1639. When the king reluctantly recalled Parliament to finance the conflict, long-suppressed Puritan resentment boiled over.

The Puritan-inclined Long Parliament imprisoned Laud and his henchmen. Altar rails were torn down and churches ‘cleansed’ of ‘superstitious images’. After civil war broke out the Anglican Church was abolished ‘root and branch’, its bishops and Book of Common Prayer outlawed.

Yet the Parliamentarian victors could not agree on what should replace it. The moderates insisted on a Presbyterian Church along Scottish lines, tightly controlled by ministers and elders. But many in the powerful New Model Army, including Oliver Cromwell, favoured a more liberal and less structured ‘Independency’.

Freedom from central Church control during the Interregnum fostered the growth of radical sects such as the Baptists, Quakers, Ranters, the proto-Communist Diggers and the libertarian ‘Family of Love’. Their beliefs scandalised the Puritan majority, although Cromwell favoured concord between all ‘godly people’. His tolerance drew the line at Catholics and Anglicans, however, but did extend to Jews, whom he welcomed back to England in 1656, after 350 years of exclusion.

James II

This portrait of James II (r.1685–8) is part of the Suffolk Collection at Kenwood House, London. When James’s wife gave birth to a son, fears of a Catholic succession led to his replacement by his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange, and daughter Mary, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


The Restoration of Charles II (1660) reinstated the Anglican Church. Puritan ‘Dissenters’ were expelled and penalised; royal attempts at concessions were blocked by the Anglican establishment.

The same establishment was outraged, however, when the openly Catholic James II proclaimed a Declaration of Indulgence (1687) permitting freedom of worship for Catholics as well as Dissenters. This led directly to his being deposed the following year by his Protestant daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange.

William and Mary’s Toleration Act (1689) allowed Protestant Dissenters to build the first official Nonconformist chapels. But fearful that the deposed James’s Catholic heirs might again seize power, in 1701 Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, permanently debarring Catholics or anyone married to a Catholic from the throne. It remains in force to this day.

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