Who Do You Think You Are Magazine reports that a new database listing over a quarter of a million English Roman Catholics has been created by the Catholic Family History Society (CFHS).
The Margaret Higgins Database is compiled by an Australian monk, Brother Rory Higgins FSC, and named after his mother. It holds indexed records of 275,000 people living between 1607 and 1840.
The database brings together original, printed and published material for the first time, and was launched at a CFHS seminar in London on 7 October.
After Anglicanism became the official religion of Britain during the Reformation, Catholics faced surveillance and persecution.
At various times they were forbidden from voting, joining the army or standing for Parliament, and their rights to own property were severely limited. However, between 1778 and 1829 a series of Roman Catholic Relief Acts introduced greater civil rights.
This year marks the 250th anniversary of the submission of the most complete records of Catholics in England, which were created because of these religious divisions and are now published in the Margaret Higgins Database.
In 1767 the House of Lords began an enquiry because the Anglican bishops were accused of not doing enough to stop the spread of Catholicism.
On 22 May the House voted an address to the king asking that the bishops of England and Wales direct their parish clergy to “correct and complete lists as can be obtained of the papists or reputed papists, distinguishing their parishes, sexes, ages and occupations and how long they have been there resident”.
The clergy took the instructions to mean that they were also required to include the names of Catholics and suspected Catholics in the subsequent records.
Over half of the Catholics resident in England at the time are thought to be included in the Returns of Papists which were submitted to Parliament.
The returns from the dioceses of Oxford, Norfolk, Salisbury and Worcester, which were not sent to Parliament, are also included in the Margaret Higgins Database.
Previously, in 1745, the government compiled a list of Catholics and non-jurors (those who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Protestant monarchy) to identify those who might support the Jacobite Uprising.
They are also in the database, as are suspected Catholics for 1705–6, 1711, 1735 and 1780, and those who took and refused to take Oaths of Supremacy, Allegiance and Abjuration.
There are also baptism, confirmation and marriage records, which are particularly useful because they often contain names of parents, siblings, godparents, aunts and uncles, and lists of Easter communicants and the Rosary Confraternity.
As well as English Catholics, the records cover French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Welsh, Scottish and Irish Catholics who were living in England. Non-Catholics also appear on the records, for instance as witnesses to marriages or wills.
The database is searchable by surname, first name, occupation, age and other details. It will be available to purchase for £10+P&P later this year, and will eventually be published online.