Was it possible for Catholics to express their faith openly (if at all) in Britain during the time of the of English persecutions (April 29, 1559)-(April 13, 1829)?

On 29 April 1559, the English House of Lords by 33 votes to 12 passed a bill abolishing papal supremacy over the Christian church in England, and establishing the supremacy of the English monarchs over it. Also in April 1559, a bill abolishing the Mass and imposing an English language Book of Common Prayer liturgy passed in the House of Lords by a majority of three and was implemented on 24 June of that year. To refuse to take an oath of belief in royal supremacy over the church became a crime punishable by removal from public office and inability to hold any office. To defend papal authority over the church became punishable in the first offense by loss of goods; the second by imprisonment for life; the third offence was considered treason punishable by death. - The Persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England

The persecution against Catholics officially ended on April 13, 1829.

The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, passed by Parliament in 1829, was the culmination of the process of Catholic Emancipation throughout the UK. In Ireland it repealed the Test Act 1672 and the remaining Penal Laws which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Irish Parliament of 1728. Its passage followed a vigorous campaign that threatened insurrection led by Irish lawyer Daniel O'Connell. The British leaders, starting with the Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington and his top aide Robert Peel, although personally opposed, gave in to avoid civil strife. Ireland was quiet after the passage.

The Act permitted members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster. O'Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O'Connell as a Roman Catholic, was forbidden to take his seat in Parliament. Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, until then was called "Orange Peel" because he always supported the Orange (anti-Catholic) position. Peel now concluded: "though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger." Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel drew up the Catholic Relief Bill and guided it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington worked tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatened to resign as Prime Minister if the King did not give Royal Assent. - Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 (Wikipedia)

  • Wouldn't the first quote rule out such possibility (without risk of being punished, of course)? What precisely motivate you to believe that was not the case?
    – luchonacho
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 13:52
  • BTW, last year new book appeared treating the subject of the Catholic Church in Britain, since the time of Henry VIII.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 14:00

2 Answers 2


They sang "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as an expression of faith and quite openly!

In 1870, the song of The Twelve Days of Christmas was first published in England, shortly after the time when it was a criminal act to practice the Catholic faith. According to the Tridentine Mass of Pope Pius V (1570), the Christmas season lasted from the Solemnity of the Birth of Our Lord until the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, on February 2 (40 days). However, the Liturgical Year counted Sundays as being in the time of the Epiphany, instead of ordinary time as we do now, thus making the “Twelve Days Of Christmas” to be taken as being from the Solemnity of the Birth of Our Lord until the Vigil of the Epiphany (January 5). The Twelve Day of Christmas carol had a totally different historical meaning for the faithful living in Britain during the persecutions against Catholics from April 29, 1559 to April 13, 1829 (Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829), when it was a criminal offence to practice the Catholic religion. Catholicism remained illegal for some 232 years. The singing of this carol was a way for persecuted Catholics to express their faith openly in England as laid out in the twelve points in the Apostles’ Creed.

Being a time of persecution, the faithful would naturally not have any written works on its' real interpretation in order to avoid linking them to the Catholic Church.

None of the numerated parts of the song could be used to distinguish Catholics from Anglicans (or Protestant for that matter), and could thus be sung quite openly as an expression by the faithful of the Catholic Church.

Other interpretations do exist for numerated parts of this carol as to the symbolism they meant to Catholics living in England during the persecutions for their faith. None other than the Apostle’s Creed interpretation makes this a uniquely Catholic carol sung at Christmastide. Here is the most popular interpretation of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

  1. The partridge in a pear tree is Jesus.
  2. The two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments.
  3. Three French hens stand for faith, hope and love.
  4. The four calling birds are the four Gospels.
  5. The five gold rings recall the Hebrew Torah (Law), or the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
  6. The six geese a-laying stand for the six days of creation.
  7. The seven swans a-swimming represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  8. The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.
  9. Nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.
  10. The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
  11. Eleven pipers piping represent the eleven faithful Apostles.
  12. Twelve drummers drumming symbolize the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed.

Here is “The Twelve Days of Christmas” sung on YouTube: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” - Hayley Westenra, Russell Watson, Aled Jones (Songs of Praise).

In 1982, Fr. Stockert put this online in 1982. Since then there has been controversy on whether or not the story of the origin is correct. Much of the story makes sense, because there are other "Catechism songs" that have similar hidden meanings, such as "Green Grow the Rushes". Could some people be disputing the origin because they refuse to acknowledge the persecution of Catholic in England during 1558 to 1829? Perhaps the objection is just to the fact that there is no paper trail to this explanation. Regardless if the origin is accurate or not, as Catholics we can use this song as a catechism, to apply religious meanings to a secular song. - Origin of the Twelve Days of Christmas


Yes, sometimes more freely than others. Laws like this will always be patchily enforced. If the local landowner was a Roman Catholic, as many were, or if the king was Roman Catholic (as James II), or if the authorities lost interest in suppressing Roman Catholicism, then Roman Catholics could be fairly open, but other times they had to be more secret.

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