British Persecution of Catholics Leads to Searchable Ancestry Archive

by Anita Carey  •  •  October 10, 2017   

Officials attempted to stop the spread of Catholicism

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DETROIT ( - British anti-Catholic laws have resulted in the compilation of a searchable ancestry database of hundreds of thousands of Catholics.

Launched on October 7, the Catholic Family History Society provides resources and help for Roman Catholics to trace their ancestry. So far, the records of about 275,000 English, French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Catholics living in England from 1607–1840 have been transcribed into a searchable database.

Brother Rory Higgins, an Australian monk, compiled the records and named the database after his mother. The Margaret Higgins Database is the online searchable record of over 200 years of British laws requiring the personal information of Roman Catholics submitted to the government to keep tabs on them.

In an effort to stop the spread of Catholicism, the House of Lords voted a number of times to demand that the bishops of England and Wales require parish clergy to list "papists or reputed papists." Parish priests had to submit to Parliament the age and gender, occupation and how long they have been in residence of all Roman Catholics. Some of the clergy understood that they were also required to include the names of Catholics and suspected Catholics in the submissions.
It is estimated that over half of the Catholics living in England were included in the Returns of Papists. The records from 1680, 1706, 1767 and 1781 have survived in the Parliamentary Archives with the records from 1767 having been transcribed and published.
Other records from times when Catholics and others refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Protestant monarchy are included. After the Jacobite Uprising of 1715, all people were required to take the Oath of Supremacy and Allegiance, and the information for Catholics and others who refused to swear the oath were recorded and submitted to Parliament.
Catholic Family History also has published the Index of Nuns. This provides a detailed study of the nuns of English convents in exile from 1600–1800. This work was compiled over many years through the work of the volunteer members of the society and has information on about 14,000 nuns.
In 2015, these transcriptions were transferred from the Farnborough Benedictine Abbey in Hampshire to the Catholic National Library located in Durham University Library. This collection is discrete from the library at Durham University and has 70,000 volumes and over 150 runs of Catholic periodicals, covering religious history and biography, spirituality and devotion. Officials at the time said, "There is also much material on all aspects of culture inspired by the Catholic Church, as well as a widely admired collection of Catholic fiction."
The Catholic Family History website joins findmypast that hosts the Catholic Heritage Archive, containing the information for Catholics that immigrated to the United States. Staff at this site is working with the archdioceses of Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York to help Catholics trace their history across the Atlantic. This can help people of other nationalities such as the Irish, Italian, German and Polish people trace their Catholic ancestry.
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