Gillett on Gregory, 'Catholics during the English Revolution, 1642-1660: Politics, Sequestration and Loyalty'

Eilish Gregory. Catholics during the English Revolution, 1642-1660: Politics, Sequestration and Loyalty. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2021. 248 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-594-6.

Reviewed by Christopher P. Gillett (The University of Scranton)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2022)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer Polytechnic)

Printable Version:

Eilish Gregory’s Catholics during the English Revolution, 1642–1660 offers the first book-length analysis of how the English Catholic laity attempted to navigate the penal laws, particularly the economic penalties of sequestration and compounding, during the mid-seventeenth century. Gregory situates her volume as part of an attempt to bridge a chronological gap in research on the “mainstream” political significance of Catholicism between Michael Questier’s and Alexandra Walsham’s work on Jacobean and Elizabethan England and John Miller’s and Gabriel Glickman’s scholarship on the Restoration and early eighteenth century.[1] Gregory’s approach is distinctive in its scope and methodology, making a signal contribution to the study of English Catholicism and the religious and social politics of the English Revolution.

Other research exploring mid-seventeenth-century Catholicism—Thomas Clancy’s articles on the 1640s and 1650s, and the research of Beverley Southgate, Antony Allison, Jeffrey Collins, and Stefania Tutino on the Blackloists—relies heavily on clerical sources and emphasizes different dimensions of the challenges to, and responses of, Catholics.[2] Gregory does not emphasize political theology, but situates the comparatively “high politics” detailed by these other scholars as part of a broader tapestry of everyday negotiations between Catholics and the state. Gregory brings to bear some of the approaches of Keith Lindley and William J. Sheils, but extends their scope by recovering a body of archival evidence representative of Catholic experiences throughout the kingdom/Commonwealth between the outbreak of the first English Civil War in 1642 and the Restoration of 1660.[3]

Practically, the amount of sheer archival legwork it required to build this evidentiary basis is impressive. Analytically, it also offers an alternative argument to some prevailing justifications for the significance of the study of English Catholicism. Many scholars argue that through political maneuvering, seventeenth-century Catholics were able to present their arguments to central political decision-makers. This afforded Catholics an impact on national events that was disproportionate to the community’s small size and irrespective of its legal marginalization. While this remains true, Gregory demonstrates that Catholics were also a constant presence at the local level as the relations, friends, and neighbors of Protestants throughout England. If a Protestant was not tied to a Catholic by one of these bonds, the sequestration and compounding processes were ubiquitous enough to be a regular feature of both oral and printed news. These processes kept the religio-political issues surrounding Catholics in the forefront of Protestant minds and lent a certain significance to Catholic attempts to negotiate for improved treatment.

Gregory has an admirable ability to walk the reader through the legal and procedural complications of sequestration and compounding. Despite this, some sections of her text require dedicated attention as she delves into matters of legal complexity. Both processes were created in the Elizabethan penal laws to punish recusant Catholics—those who refused to attend state church services. Sequestration involved the state’s confiscation of Catholics’ land, personal goods, property, and rental incomes. Initially, the process of compounding required the sequestered individual to pay a fine, determined as a proportion of the entire value of the sequestered estate (the proportion varied but was sometimes as high as two-thirds of the estate), so that the sequestration indictment could be discharged. Charles I’s regime stipulated that compounding should prevent further liability from prosecution.

As Gregory outlines in her first two chapters, as Parliament became increasingly dependent on the revenue generated by these processes during the English Revolution, it dramatically transformed them. In the early 1640s, Parliament extended the punishment of sequestration to Protestant royalists. By so doing, Parliament hoped to defund the royalist war effort and repurpose this money to their own military ventures. Nevertheless, it still intended to maintain a distinction between Protestant delinquents, who were sometimes charged at lower rates, and varieties of Catholic delinquents. Partly to help maintain these distinctions, Parliament introduced an oath of abjuration, in which the swearer had to decry the papal deposing power and the Catholic doctrines of purgatory and transubstantiation.

During the war, Parliament further empowered the sequestration committees to pursue delinquents’ estates. It enjoined a robust system of communication between county committees and the Parliamentary Committee for Sequestrations. But even during the civil war, breakdowns in this relationship occurred as apparent divisions between the objectives of central and local committees emerged. These concerns increased throughout the late 1640s and into the 1650s, in spite of often unsuccessful parliamentary attempts to bring the county committees under greater control. Anti-Catholicism and anti-popery, as Gregory demonstrates, could sometimes push Protestants apart as much as it could serve as an ephemeral common ground. In the wake of Pride’s Purge in 1648, the processes of sequestration and compounding underwent further revisions as several experienced sequestrators found themselves excluded from Parliament. Whereas many commissioners prior to the purge had been drawn from the mercantile community, those brought into replace them were often drawn from legal backgrounds.

News of these procedural considerations—what the acceptable methods of petitioning were, what sort of evidence would be accepted, who was serving on the committee, et cetera—were reported in printed legislation and newsbooks. The way in which these issues informed the broader political controversies of the day was also debated in public fora. The oath of abjuration, which encapsulated some of Parliament’s theological objections to Catholicism, was a matter of particular concern for Catholics. John Austin, for example, criticized it in his three-part Christian Moderator (published between 1649 and 1653). Some of the themes implicit in these ideological battles could perhaps have been drawn out more clearly, but Gregory acknowledges the significant tussle about what the point of the penal laws was during the Commonwealth period (1649–53) and how in or out of keeping they were with the “spirit” of the new regime.

Irrespective of Catholic hopes for some degree of liberty of conscience, Catholics nevertheless found that they had to interact with the committees whose investigations sometimes extended over years. A Catholic petitioner might find that a change in the make-up of the committee, a new set of instructions from Parliament, or intensified scrutiny due to political circumstances could repeatedly transform their experience across that period. In 1651, for example, John Caryll complained to the Committee for Compounding that his fines had been raised due to improvements he had made on his estate after his earlier encounters with the Committee for Sequestration in the mid-1640s. These fluctuations could make Catholics vulnerable. To manage this, Catholics utilized their connections with Protestant relations and neighbors to circumvent potentially ruinous fines. Gregory reconstructs these networks well in her fifth chapter. Caryll, for instance, relied on legal counsel from his distant, outwardly Protestant, relation Sir Edward Ford to negotiate his encounters with the major-general William Goffe in 1655-6. But even more prominent figures in the Commonwealth and Protectorate regimes, like the politician and administrator John Rushworth, intervened to help Catholics.

It is perhaps inevitable that specialists might query certain aspects of Gregory’s argument or raise alternative evidence for consideration. In my view, for instance, Gregory’s characterization of the Brudenell-More negotiations between the New Model Army and a group of Catholic representatives as series of “practical concessions” (p. 58) somewhat minimizes their significance. It might also have been beneficial to acknowledge in chapter 2’s discussion of the Rump Parliament’s muddled policy decisions about repealing the penal laws in 1649 and 1650 that some Catholics seem to have believed that they were intended beneficiaries. In 1651, when the Jesuit Peter Wright was tried and executed for treason, he and his defenders claimed that the Elizabethan statute by which he was convicted had been repealed. But these observations should not distract from the valuable contribution this work makes to the fields of English Catholic history and the history of the English Revolution.

A colleague once suggested to me that there are two types of books: those that are the definitive word on their subject and those that seek to open up a topic for further discussion. Obviously, this sort of generalization should not be taken too far, but it has stuck in my mind while considering Catholics during the English Revolution insofar as the book seems to exhibit both tendencies. On the one hand, it now seems to be the leading work for understanding how Catholics interacted with the sequestration and compounding processes in the mid-seventeenth century. But, as the volume’s scope opens up toward analyzing how these legal processes and their social ramifications inform our understanding of some of the essential analytical themes of the mid-century crisis (the interaction of state and individual conscience, the purposes and means of state persecution, etc.), it proposes a catalogue of issues for further consideration and acknowledges the emerging work (by both junior and senior scholars) on Catholicism in this period. Among its many other fine qualities, then, the book is characterized by a spirit of intellectual generosity and collegiality that suggests that it might well serve as a jumping-off point for further research.


[1]. See for example Michael C. Questier, Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage and Religion, c. 1550–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Alexandra Walsham, Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014); John Miller, Popery and Politics in England, 1660–1688 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); and Gabriel Glickman, The English Catholic Community, 1688–1745: Politics, Culture and Ideology (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009).

[2]. Thomas H. Clancy, S. J., “The Beacon Controversy, 1652-1657,” Recusant History 9, no.. 2 (April 1967): 63–74, and “The Jesuits and the Independents: 1647,” Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu 40 (1971): 67–90; Beverley C. Southgate, “Covetous of Truth” The Life and Works of Thomas White, 1593–1676 (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1993); Antony F. Allison, “An English Gallican: Henry Holden, (1596/7–1662) Part I (To 1648),” Recusant History 22, no. 3 (May 1995): 319–49; Jeffrey R. Collins, “Thomas Hobbes and the Blackloist Conspiracy of 1649,” The Historical Journal 45, no. 2 (June 2002): 305–31, and The Allegiance of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Stefania Tutino, “The Catholic Church and the English Civil War: The Case of Thomas White,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 58, no. 2 (April 2007): 232–55, and Thomas White and the Blackloists: Between Politics and Theology during the English Civil War (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

[3]. Keith Lindley, “The Part Played by the Catholics” in Politics, Religion and the English Civil War, ed. Brian Manning (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), 127–78; William J. Sheils, “English Catholics at War and Peace,” in Religion in Revolutionary England, eds. Christopher Durston and Judith Maltby (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 13.

Citation: Christopher P. Gillett. Review of Gregory, Eilish, Catholics during the English Revolution, 1642-1660: Politics, Sequestration and Loyalty. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022.

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