Would you be concerned to find out that your ancestor was a recusant? What does it mean? As we have seen so many times in our own century, it can be downright dangerous to be caught supporting the wrong side in politics. It is even more dangerous, and often fatal, to have the wrong religious faith. When there is a state religion, the enemy is whoever does not belong. That was also true 400 years ago. Most European Catholic countries had Inquisitions. England had its Act of Conformity from 1559 onwards. Restrictions did not officially disappear for certain faiths for the next 270 years.
A recusant was a person who did not attend the services of the parish Church in England. These people were often Roman Catholics, and as often were Protestant puritans. From their founding in the mid-1600s, Quakers, Baptist, Unitarians and others were considered recusants. From 1559, each recusant was fined a shilling per absence, this being a significant amount of money in those days. In 1581, the amount was raised to twenty pounds per lunar month, this being more than many people earned. In 1586 and 1609, additional penalties were imposed. A recusant forfeited all his or her goods, and two thirds of his or her real estate. The proceeds were used by the local churchwardens for poor relief.
One can see why families of religious dissenters were willing to abandon all they knew and settle in America and the Caribbean. But recusants were not necessarily family groups. Sir Edward Fitton of Gawsworth, Cheshire was one of the Commissioners appointed in 1559 to make sure that the clergy in north west England were all of the state faith. His son Francis, however, was a recusant, and was in fact trained and ordained as a roman Catholic priest at Douai in France. When he returned to England, he faced a fine of 200 marks (a mark was two thirds of a pound) plus a year of jail for every time he celebrated Mass, as well as the usual. Penalties for being a recusant. That is why he and his colleagues were usually hidden in secret rooms by those of their faith
The records of fines and forfeitures are known as the Recusant Rolls. They were kept by the Sheriffs of each county from 1592 to 1691, and are in sections E376 and E377 at the Public Records Office. Many of the upper classes were left alone, probably because they were powerful, or related to the collectors. The poor were also left alone, because they had nothing to forfeit. The Rolls show those members of the middle class who had the courage to insist on their own religious convictions, and the wealth to pay for the privilege.
The Rolls list the names, and the fines and forfeitures, particularly the land descriptions. What they do not show is the actual religious faith of each person.
The Civil War, from about 1683 to about 1651, resulted in similar persecution. After 1643, the Committees for the Sequestration of Delinquent’ Estates confiscated goods and land from those taking the Royalist side, and took the opportunity to do the same to papists and other recusants at the same time, even if they were not Royalists. The Committee took four fifths of everything they owned.
After 1653, now that the parliamentary forces had won, they decided to be more generous to their defeated enemies. The Committee for Compounding the Estates of Royalists and Delinquents was set up, to replace the other committees. From those who fought, only before 1647, one sixth of all their assets was taken and from those who fought the whole war, one third was taken.
The proceeds were used by Parliament, usually to help pay for its army. The records are known as the Royalist Composition Rolls, and are in section SP20 and SP23 at the PRO. They show the names and reasons for forfeiture, and descriptions of the assets forfeited. The upper and middle classes paid heavily for being on the wrong side. Again, the poor are not much mentioned, as they had little or nothing to forfeit.
If your ancestor was a recusant or a royalist, have a look at the Rolls. And while you are figuring out how rich your family would have been today, with the seized property compounded over 300 years, take some pride in your ancestor’s strength of character.